Two years ago, in February of 2018, I went to a family wedding in Naples, Florida. My family is large and friendly, and any time a lot of us are in one place, we talk up a storm. At one point during the festivities, I was having a conversation with… well, I don’t remember who. I think it was my aunt, and she put a fairly innocuous question to me. Two years later, I don’t even remember what the question was. What I remember is that my answer started with some version of, “I lived in Germany for three years, and…” Ten seconds later, I was just cringing.
Even now, two years later, I am still wincing at what a pompous, self-important blowhard I can be. That sentence, “I lived in Germany,” comes out of my mouth way too often.
OK, yes, I did live in Germany for three years. I’ve been back in the US now for six years, though- twice as long as I was away. The urge to bring up my time abroad in almost every conversation is a giant lurking, looming thing. It’s like a pressure valve that I can’t properly close, and it threatens to spew garbage all over nearly every interaction I have with another human being. It’s infuriating to me. I replay conversations in my head afterward, over and over, beating myself up about things that I said when I would have been better served saying nothing at all.
My good and dear friend Charlotte wrote a post back in January of 2018 pondering whether being an expatriate was still part of her identity even after being back in her home country for more than three years. One particular section from her post got me thinking: “Now I’ve settled down in my life back here. I still feel years behind people my own age, and feel like this is the “this is what you could have won” section of a gameshow.”
When Charlotte wrote her post, I had also been back home for about three years, and I was already feeling many of the same feelings and doubts. Repatriation can be kind of weird and stressful. I’ve said many times before that living abroad can be like pressing a giant pause button on your life, and it’s easy to feel like the rest of the world went on without you while you were away. I commented on Charlotte’s blog that I had a similar post in mind and that I would write it soon. That post is this one- I’ve been writing it in fits and starts again and again over the last two years, without ever finishing it to my own satisfaction.* I’ve kept a browser tab open to Charlotte’s post ever since, and I’ve re-read it many, many times, noting different parts of it on each subsequent re-reading.
The plain truth is that my time as an expatriate changed me. How could it not have? Packing everything I owned into eleven large boxes and moving five thousand miles to another country where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t have an apartment waiting was a huge adventure. My brief German life is a major part of the fabric of my current identity, and it’s never far from my mind. My time there allowed me to grow and become a better person in ways that I didn’t understand fully until I was back home. I am absolutely not the same person I was before I left, and in some ways, I think that expressing that is a big part of why I keep harking back to my time in Germany. That doesn’t make it sound any less pretentious when I hear myself saying those four words- I lived in Germany– for the millionth time, though.
I saw one of those artsy motivational images recently with text that said, “You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading the last one.” It hit home because this particular worry and frustration has been living rent-free in my head since I came back to the US in late 2014.
I worry that my constant need to tie my current life back to my experiences in Germany is a personal failing. I spiral through feelings of doubt: Have I become boring? Am I living in the past? Is there some deeper psychological failing that keeps me talking about that time? Why do I talk about the past so much- is my present life that uninteresting? I suspect that I won’t know the answer to any of these questions in the very near future, so I turn my attention toward managing the symptoms instead of fixing the root cause.
In recent months, I’ve been trying to find ways to make the same points during conversations without tying it back to my time in Germany. While talking about living in a place that is colder in winter than Florida, for example, I’ll just say that “I’ve lived in a place with real seasons,” or “I’ve lived further north than this.” Sometimes the conversation rolls around to beer and the various types thereof. I like to say that I became an accidental beer snob because of my time over there, but now I mostly try to just talk about the suds themselves without bringing my personal experiences into it. This is absolutely impossible if I’m with friends in a German restaurant, though. When I have a nice order of Sauerbraten and a cold Dunkel in front of me, my stein- and my urge to talk about Deutschland- runneth over.
It would be better if I had no need to interject my experience into the conversation at all, though. That’s the dream. Keeping my stupid mouth shut and letting other people do the talking is what I aspire to do. Now if only I could remember the question from two years ago that started this whole thing…
Do you have any topics that you can’t leave alone in casual conversation?
* – This post is still not completed entirely to my satisfaction, but finally publishing SOMETHING about this after two years will be a great relief to my Checklist Brain. And, as a bonus, I can finally close the tab that’s been open to Charlotte’s post for the past two years.