One year ago today, I boarded a plane in Munich, Germany for a nine-hour flight bound for Chattanooga. Home.
Ten months we lived in Southern Bavaria, a beautiful land dotted in ancient castles and green pastures rolling. We lived in a Mayberryesque town you’ve never heard of, where within two weeks I was running into people I knew (as in just met) at the local grocery store. There, I couldn’t read a thing. Shopping was a guessing game, an everyday adventure, wild sport. In those early days, it took me hours to buck up and brave up just to pick up something for dinner.
It’s easy to romanticize, of course, and I understand why anyone would. Living in Germany on the company dime? Traipsing across Europe at a fraction of what it would cost if originating travel from the States? It does sound good, and it was–we lived a lifetime of magical moments during those ten months. I said it then and I stand by it now, this was an unexpected, mid-life God-gift.
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
Vacationing abroad doesn’t touch what it means to live abroad. It’s Mars and gardenias. Apples and orangutans. Night and shining armor. Not the same thing at all.
The things I thought would be hardest – at times living apart from my children, at times living apart from my husband, loneliness, food tasting totally different (everything), the language barrier, loss of familiarity, assimilating to a new culture, separation from friends, family and creature comforts – weren’t the hardest things–isn’t that unbelievable?! Writing it out is even a surprise to me. There was something even more challenging, likely because I hadn’t seen it coming:
Living with our lives on hold.
Treading water for a year.
Until you lived in a state of flux, it probably doesn’t seem like a big deal.
But the longer I live, the more I realize: Until you’ve walked in another’s shoes, don’t judge.
All those things I was so sure about in my 30s? Out the door.
* * *
So, a year ago today, I stepped off a plane in Chattanooga and went home.
But what happens when you’re busy making other plans?
Life. Twisty and turny and so unpredictable.
Instead of stepping off that plane and settling into routine again, we found ourselves in the middle of extended uncertainty because of hard choices we found ourselves having to make.
We had gone to Germany for my husband to train 12-16 months while his local plant was under construction….
I remember the day the bomb dropped, via Twitter of all things–
A friend tweeted a link to me of an article in the Chattanooga paper that said the company announced an 18-month delay in construction; she wanted to know if/how it would impact us.
I thought the newspaper didn’t know what it was talking about, that the entire article was a big, fat, pathetic excuse for journalism.
Bless my heart.
I sent my husband a text telling him about the article, asking him about it, and when I didn’t hear back, I called him. No answer.
Five minutes later he walked in the door of our little German apartment – two hours early from work – and I asked if he had received my earlier text; I knew he wouldn’t have heard my call while he was bicycling home.
“Let’s go for a walk,” he said with an odd sort of smile. I knew that meant we needed to talk out of earshot of our youngest; he was attending school in Germany at the time. Our apartment was too small to hold secrets.
As soon as the door closed behind us, he confirmed the newspaper article. We would learn soon enough what the implications would be to us:
- remain in Germany an additional two years – or –
- walk away from a great job with no others in sight
Given the ages of our children and stage of life, living abroad for three years was an impossibility. Though we had figured out a way to make it work for 12-18 months, we knew our limits. It was simple to order our priorities – marriage and family. But living out the reality of our decision was agonizing at times. Adding to the material, psychological and emotional impact of unemployment, over a 12 month period the stresses mounted:
- my baby turned 16 and started driving
- my middle child would graduate high school
- my oldest child would turn 21, and prior to that, leave for a five-month internship (too far from home to visit)
- I injured my knee requiring surgery
- In a HOW CAN THAT BE POSSIBLE revelation from my doctor, I learned I was post-menopausal. (More on that soon.)
- My husband and I celebrated our 50th birthdays, four weeks apart. I have never had a hard time with my age or milestone birthdays, but 50? She got in my head….
- and I was mourning our German life–the friends and culture we learned to love so quickly and had to leave before I was ready. Those people have no idea how deeply affecting they still are in my life (I’m looking at you Ellie, Vanessa, Suzanne, Barb, Gordon, LeAna, Uta, Tracey F., Margarite, Amanda, Daria, Deede, Iris, Tracey R. and our Breakfast Stammtisch).
We lived a very small life those first few months home; unless you were family or close friends, it was just too complicated and exhausting to explain our circumstances.
Despite leaving his job, we did receive a severance package and had money in savings (thanks to my disciplined, budget-savvy husband); and we weren’t dealing with life or death or devastating issues with our children. We understood it could be a lot worse.
But making those kind of comparisons isn’t wise. Of course you can always find others worse off (or better off) than you!
Another person’s “more dire” circumstance does not diminish the struggle or pain or frustration of what you’re going through.
And that kind of thinking heaps a load of false guilt on top of an already battered and bruised heart.
The mom of one of my husband’s ex-pat co-workers said something that began haunting me the day I saw her comment on Facebook. Sheri told her daughter she’d be chasing her memories (of living in Germany) the rest of her life. I knew it was true even before we left.
By the end of his job search, my husband would end up with several good offers. Praise God.
Just like the opportunity to live abroad for a short-term assignment, five months of unemployment was an unexpected, mid-life God gift. It’s not a stretch to suggest I preferred the former to the latter, but nonetheless, both were gifts.
Soon, I’ll elaborate. I’ll let go of what I’ve been holding close.
But, today I’ll raise a glass in remembrance. I’ll look you in the eye (as we were instructed to do), clink the bottom of my glass to yours and say, “Prost.”
Because a year ago today I stepped off a plane from Germany, and not long after I realized I left something behind…