I am far behind in my correspondence to friends in Germany. I have numerous excuses. It’s difficult to write in German after being away from the language so long, I’m so busy I have even been late with birthday cards to family members, and Germany is so far away. Yet back in the days of snail mail I was much better; letters crossed the Atlantic and it seemed I kept in contact with my European friends. Because, the truth of the matter is that my closest friendships were forged in Germany between 1991 and 1992.
Making friends does not seem especially easy. It’s not that there aren’t a lot of good people around me, or that I don’t want to spend time to get to know people well. It’s just that time seems lacking. With kids aged 5 and 2, a busy work schedule, and others with their own commitments and interests, time to really build a friendship is rare. Instead I have numerous acquaintances, few real friendships. And that gets me to think about my year in Germany.
I spent one year living in Berlin and mostly Bonn, from September 1991 to August 1992, working my dissertation with the help of a DAAD (Germany Academic Exchange Service) scholarship which paid me 1400 DM a month. That was easily enough to live on, and much of the time I was in a dormitory in Bonn, on a “guest floor” on Endernicher Allee 17. The guest floor was for scholars or students in town for a short while, not full time students of the University of Bonn. Most were Germans doing practicums — Dorthe for the SPD, Ulli for the CDU, Volker in the press section of the Bundestag, and Claudia for law. Some people came for a short time and would become full time students there, like Eric, who studied meterology. We’d also get a few foreigners — no other Americans, but there was Helene from France, and Neil (a strange one) from Great Britain.
When I first moved in, most people were eating in their rooms (we had a kitchen for the entire floor, sharing cupboard space, a fridge, and cookware), and not interacting. Each room had a bed, desk, and sink, and the floors shared two toilets and two showers. I was in Germany not just to finish my dissertation, but to truly become fluent in the language. I decided I had to change things up. In early December I put up a sign in the kitchen: “December 9, 1991 – Pizza Party, all invited! Scott will provide pizza and beer!” Having worked in a pizzeria much of my student life, I know how to make a mean pizza from scratch, the only difficult part was lugging a case of beer (a case of 30 half liter bottles) from the local store. Not only did everyone show up, but that party changed the atmosphere of the floor. Every night a group of us — different people every night, but I was always there — would meet and talk for hours over beers. That was the way I became fluent in German, talking every night, day after day for hours. When someone left or joined the floor we’d have a goodbye (or welcome) party, and the new person would be welcomed into the very social culture of our floor. I found out later that after I left all that died, the head resident said the best times on that floor were when I was there because I constantly worked to bring the people together.
It was selfish, at first. I needed to practice German! But not since living in the college dorms had I spent so much time talking to people and getting to know them well. We’d go to the movies, take walks, and as people moved out, I visited them. Volker and Sonja in Muenster, Ulli moved on Dresden for government work (when I first visited him he was staying short term in a converted East German military baracks), Claudia In Goettingen, Eric in Saarbruecken, and Doerthe in Bremerhaven and later Sweden. I also made friends with Tina from Passau (who I met on the plane flying over there – September 5, 1991) and had old friends, pen pals from my time in Bologna in 1982-83 – Gabi from Ingolstadt, Annemarie from Munich.
So I got close with a lot of people, and realize that even now as I count my friends here at UMF, I’ve not had near the conversations and shared experiences with them that I had in that year with my German friends, followed by extensive travels across Germany to visit people in the summers of 95 and 96.
Why is it that I can’t find time to cultivate friendships here like I did that year in Germany? Part of it is that I now have family responsibilities — there I was alone in a dorm, with other people living right next door. That’s a very different context! But still, it seemed that during that year nothing was more important to me than the friendships I was building, the people I was getting to know. It bled over to building friendships with Tina after meeting on the plane (I long lost track of her), and Gabi (we still exchange rare e-mails), who I first got to know as a pen pal back when I was 19. That year was about friendships and thinking about life. I wrote an unpublished novellette, and even got dissertation work done. It was a special year, one of the most sacred times of my life.
Yet now, life is busy and interactions are brief and usually focused on a task. Perhaps two of my closer friends at UMF show how this works. I now co-teach with Steve, but until we worked together on a travel course to Italy, and were able to spend time in Italy eating and walking/talking with each other as well as students and other faculty, we had only brief conversations. Even now, I daresay we talked more about life and things outside teaching during the Italy trip than in a year afterwards. I also co-teach with Mellisa, who I got to know from Faculty Senate. We worked closely together there, and when Natasha and I had our first child, Mellisa was a natural confidante. Her oldest is four years older than ours, and she teaches Early Childhood; then she and Robert were having their second. We exchanged a lot of e-mails, and actually found time to build a friendship. But after that we each got busy doing other things, and though we still co-teach, we find it hard to find time to really talk.
And so it goes. I don’t think it’s just me. I think a lot of us in the US are caught up in that spiral of being so busy that we “don’t have time right now” to actually get together and just relax, talk, and get to know each other. It seems all time must be productive, and there’s an elusive point in the future ‘when things aren’t so hectic’ which we believe is just around the corner, but never seems to arrive.
And so I think back on that time in Germany. First, I have to catch up on my correspondence, with lengthy, personal letters that try to re-connect what we had. That year was important, and those friendships special. I know there is still something there, even after we’ve all moved on and in different directions. I also need to make this a priority with the people in my life now. Perhaps we’ll invite people over more often for just drinks or snacks, not having to have it be a full blown dinner or party. The artists are investing in an espresso machine, I’m going to buy a share and then walk across campus to their building next semester and try to socialize more there.
That year in Germany stands out as something special. Not just because it was an amazing year of travel, becoming fluent in a foreign language, and having a series of adventures. But that year was devoted primarily to getting to know others and making friends. The years since then have been a blurr. Family has been important, and family experiences are strong in my mind, but relationships with others, even my very satisfying job seem to have been passing pay at light speed, one year after the other.
I have to focus on making time friends. I need to make it a priority like I make taking time to write my blog a priority (and I probably blog because I need an outlet to communicate my thoughts beyond the daily work and family routine). I need to slow down. I need to really consider the people around me, take time to enjoy where I am, and connect with the people in my life now.
But first, I have some letters to write, auf Deutsch.