First Week in Hamburg, Germany

This post has been waiting a while to be written, (and it’s therefore been more than a week) and I’ve got drafts scattered all in my different notebooks, but it’s a late post since it’s a pretty hefty post and covers some intense experiences I’ve had, not all good.

Hamburg lay out before me on the morning of my arrival in the half-light of early morning, green plains, some darker green forests, a lot of curving and straight lines symbolizing streets and sidewalks, and lots and lots of lights left over from a night of normalcy for the city.

This is a beautiful city with a famous comforting orange glow

I touched down with feelings of numbness that had started before I even left the airport waiting room in Miami, and tried to feel happy about being here. It didn’t help that I desperately needed caffeine after a nine hour flight into the wee hours of my Florida body-clock.

Let’s start with the practical things since arriving in this foreign country.

I got to take care of a few things right away after meeting a very nice lady from the Women’s Club of American-German Exchange in Hamburg. The first things was the check-in into my new room at one of Hamburg’s many student dorms (dorms here are scattered throughout the city, rather than on a campus…which doesn’t completely exist here either). The check-in process was relatively quick. Too quick almost. I was allowed to pay my first rent and a collateral for the state of the room, drop my two suitcases off into my room, grab my laptop and some important documents, and then was herded quickly out the door again. I wasn’t to see the dorm again until later that evening.

After check-in, I was herded (a lot of herding going on, since I was kind of brain-dead) to the bank to open my bank account and forced to deal with serious questions that made the difference of paying 2 Euro 50 or 3 euro 50 each month. I went with the 3 euro 50 because I figured whatever the extra Euro was for would be worth it.

Then, I got to visit a university-affiliated insurance agency to find out if my US international insurance would qualify me for German university studies (I’m in a country where insurance is Pflicht, required). Turns out, I didn’t have all the documents and would have to come back. [I eventually got it all cleared up, but it involved some stressful e-mailing and worrying]

So, insurance was a “on-hold” matter, but I then had to go to the train station and book my ticket for Dresden, which was an organized seminar arranged for other VDAC students like me. My guide didn’t know which train I needed to book, and assumed that because seats were reserved, the assistant at the desk for the Deutsche Bahn would be able to look up a name and voila. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case (as I could have told my guide without even knowing how these things work) and so buying the ticket was another thing that needed to wait. At least I was able to buy my student discout BahnCard50 that basically takes 50% of all train tickets.

It wasn’t long into this whole business when I realized that my guide was new at introducing students through this program to Hamburg, and that she was working off a list that had been given to her by someone else. I think she and I were both glad when everything was taken care of.

We both went out to lunch  near the campus (to which she invited me) and I tried to relax and grasp the fact that I was in Hamburg. Instead, I was unhappy that I was about to be left alone on campus without a proper bag for all my stuff (remember, I only took what I needed since my backpack was still full of other stuff), encouraged to sit through a few orientating seminars put on by the campus (one was on how to access wifi [called WLAN here]), and had not even been able to wash my face since arriving from my overnight flight.

Needless to say, I only made it through two seminars and half of the campus tour before I decided to head home. On the way home, I stopped by a MediaMart to pick up a hot water kettle (sub-consciosly, I knew I wouldn’t want to have to go to the communal kitchen every morning for coffee or every evening for tea) and the internet router that no one told me to bring with me (my dorm didn’t get wifi until a few days after I arrived). Of course, as to be expected when being left to find ones way back home alone, I got lost and had to ask a few people for directions. Thankfully, I met a nice Hamburger (I could hear it in her accent) and made it home safely. There wasn’t much time left but to unpack stuff and send a few e-mails before I crashed in my freshly made bed.

So that was my first day. The second day I woke up with more things to take care of. I started by going to IKEA {there’s a really nice, new one not far from where I live!) to buy some things to organize my new “home” with and rounded up the day by going to seminars… a lot of them. There was a tour of the pub-quarter at 9 PM, but I wasn’t in the mood for alcohol and went home to go to bed early for the second night in a row. I did, however, manage to take care of getting to know my area a bit, getting my insurance clearance, registering for the online portal and school wifi, and other stuff. I was busy and able to handle a lot.

The question is, whether I was able to handle it all emotionally.

Emotionally, things were not as productive or positive.

This is a kind of friendly/non-threatening way to depict the way I was feeling for many mornings since being here.

No one told me how spoiled I’ve been in my life. Never before have I had to face such feelings of desolation or displacement, despite traveling often between countries and having spent three and a half years at a college away from home.

I spent my first week in Hamburg feeling displaced even though I knew I wasn’t “displaced.” I was right where I was supposed to be and yet I still felt strange to others around me and to myself. It was as if my ability to handle emotions had shut everything down and I was only working with the right half of my brain. I know Germany, I’ve been here before, but never have I been here a a pure individual. I was a daughter, a sister, or a friend. Now, it was just me.

At first, I thought it was just initial shock. I knew I was pushing my psychological limits by taking an exam the day before my international flight, so I figured the numbness was just me working off my shock. It wasn’t until I was in Dresden the first weekend (though, I rationalized how I was feeling there too, because I knew I hadn’t had enough time to settle in Hamburg and already I was in another German city) that I started to worry. I knew Dresden even more than I knew Hamburg. It was a place I had been three or four times. Yet I looked at beautiful buildings with the same distance I would look at them on google images on the internet.

I was doing things that I usually never did, like going out in the evenings to have drinks with the other Americans, or making ridiculously witty comments to relieve some of the frantic thoughts I was having about myself the entire time. I was completely free, but I wasn’t caring about where I was, who I was seeing or what I was doing.

When I got back from Dresden after a train ride during which I was able to be witty, conversational, polite and generally a pleasure to travel with, I broke-down from the pressure of keeping up a front. I called my parents for the first time since arriving (I hadn’t been able to do so, before then) and explained how I was feeling, and how lost I was.

At some point, my mother was able to calm me down my telling me that I was normal. This, how I was feeling, was normal given the circumstances and while it’s uncomfortable, painful, and scary, it’s not something to be scared of. Given my circumstances of extreme stress (exam), stress release (I passed), travel, and a huge life-change (alone in a “foreign country” with a lot of stuff to deal with at once), my body (mind) was protecting me.

So that was Sunday. It’s been a few days since then during which I’ve attended some orientation programs designed specially for MA students of German literature (the university orientation system is nice! One of the few things in which the university provides a hand to hold for the students during their application process and studies), found some sort of running mojo, cooked a few times in the communal kitchen, slowly met more and more students and built some sort of “relationship” with them. I went out for drinks for the third time in my life and actually enjoyed it, and got together a few times with a distant cousin who played a large role in making me feel valued and welcomed, and like myself, in this city . I’ve had several phone conversations with my family, done a lot of e-mailing, reached out to everyone and anyone who I thought could help me (including a counselor through my university), and generally am holding on until all these “first times” of first time eating in the dining hall (Mensa), first time going to the library, first time visiting a professor’s office, become routine.

Some of my best moments this past week were discovering a running route I can stick to that takes me along the Elbe river, finding out what sort of person I am, learning new things about the capabilities of people and communities, getting excited about the courses I’m taking and finding out that I am in fact in a city that is perfect for my focus of study, finding my way to the university by bike, exploring Hamburg and discovering what a wonderful city, it in fact, is, and sticking to my personal covenant of no-sugar for a year.

This is truly a great city and I can’t wait to feel “normal” again so that I can appreciate it for all it is. Right now, I’m trying to keep busy and slowly I have more and more spaces of time where I feel like my old self. I know I’ve been here for 9 days now, but I also know it takes a while to “arrive” after the physical touch down on “foreign” soil. I know I’ll look back on this first week and see how much I’ve grown because of it, but right now I can’t help but be annoyed at my brain. I think I’m ready to handle things now, brain. You can relax again.

So ja. That’s that. I’m sure I missed a lot to talk about, and there’s a lot left to cover, but I’m here for year, so we’ll get to that. For this go around, I just wanted to give readers a verbalization of what it really means to be abroad, and that a fair warning is indeed in order.


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