While taking the night train home after a late shift, I sat across from a large, tough and weathered, middle aged black man, and for about 20 minutes, I watched him fighting off tears. For 20 minutes, I struggled with what I should do, and then I quietly slipped off at my station.
I’ve tried to write this blog post about 5 times over the past two months to no avail. I originally wanted this post to be a progress report and a celebration. I wanted to write it when I became financially independent. This finally came to pass 10 days ago. I received paycheques from my two jobs that just barely covered my living expenses for the month. It was the first time I didn’t have to resort to the line of credit to pay my bills. It doesn’t feel very impressive, I was hoping it would. I’ve taken up a serving job for a catering company in addition to my job as a waitress and errand girl at a small hotel. When I arrived in Berlin, one thing was clear, I didn’t want to work in a call centre. Anything but that. Waitressing was social, it would help me with my German and it would be an adventure. It has proven to be all those things. Every catering gig takes me into a new venue, with a new team and new instructions, and it certainly keeps me on my toes. It’s also proven to be physically exhausting. Within the first month of getting work from the catering firm, I fell sick 3 times, and I don’t mean with the sniffles. Yesterday, I came off 4 consecutive work days and required 24 hours of bed rest. Though I’m not as financially stressed as I was about a month ago, I’m experiencing the negative impacts of exhaustion. I have no energy left over for creativity, exercise, new discoveries or making friends. My life is divided between work and recovering from work. The socializing I do happens in the work place. When I work at the hotel, I often stick around for a beer after my shift and chat with the bartender. That is my social life. When I get home, I switch on Netflix and I go numb.
I’m not proud of this situation. I wish I could tell you this expat experience resembled the one you imagined for me, or the one I probably imagined for myself. I wish I could borrow from some other person’s stories. Stories of moving here and immediately falling in love with the place, of having new opportunities pop up out of nowhere. I’m not on holiday, I’m not on a Eurotour and I’m not on trust fund money. I am putting myself through a trial by fire, trying to survive in a foreign country, in a foreign language. I am forcing a transformation and a coming of age. I am trying to grow up, I am trying to learn to be happy, and the process itself is often painful. But if I get down to it and ask myself: is it working? Am I, in effect, a wiser person than I was a year ago? I think I am. And it’s finally dawning on me that knowledge and experience come from literally being alive and out in the world over time. My elders will surely smirk at such an obvious realization, but I see it now when I look at younger people. They can be hyper intelligent, intuitive and sophisticated, but nothing teaches you about life like living it.
I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think service work is what I’m destined for. I think performing, coaching and managing are better suited to me and I’m privileged enough to aspire to those types of occupation. But hard and menial work teach you not to take yourself too seriously. My colleagues are all immigrants, students, or both. I’m the only one there who is “slumming it”, so to speak. What I mean is, I’m the only one who actually comes from a country with a higher living standard. My coworkers are mostly from Eastern Europe, Syria and South America, and the rest are German. I’m older than most of them, but they can’t tell. They are smart, hard working, and incredibly determined. Some are working through their Phd’s, and, of the non Germans, most came for their education when they were quite young, and they came alone. They must have struggled with the language, but they didn’t let it defeat them. They are tough as nails, all of them, you can tell. The other day, I was working with Ala, a Syrian refugee with passable German and universal good humour. He is a math major. He misses his home and his wife, and he is extremely funny. While packing up dirty dishes in the back, a bunch of us were talking about the increasing influence of Russia on the Eastern states. He added in broken German “Oh yeah, Syria’s part of Russia now. They didn’t even have to buy it, it was just sort of there and they took it.” It’s not a funny situation, but he made it funny. We all laughed. With the right group, we really laugh a lot. And we learn as much about each other and the world as you would at a UN summit. On that day, Ala took a call during his smoking break. It was his lawyer, telling him he’d been granted 3 more years in Germany. He was so happy, he was dancing. This meant his wife could finally join him. I was happy for him too. It was a great day.
I’ve always had respect for immigrants, but now I could cry thinking about it. I think of how isolated, how exhausted, how confused I felt coming here, and I came here by choice. I cannot imagine leaving your country, maybe with your family, maybe without, maybe against your will. I can’t imagine not knowing the language, dealing with every stigma, dealing with exhaustion, wanting to give up but having to fight for your survival and your new life every single day. Some of my friends call me brave for taking a year abroad for my own self discovery. But the brave ones are the ones cleaning hotel rooms, working all the worst and harshest night shifts, taking the jobs no one wants. The ones supporting others, near and far, with their meagre pay. The ones who show up, hoping they’ll understand instructions in a language they’re grappling with, hoping they won’t get yelled at for not understanding.
My period of struggle will soon be over. I’ll soon be over the rough 6 month mark and I’ll have the opportunity to greet the spring and summer with a little pocket money, maybe even some traveling. I am proving to myself I can survive in a country that is not terribly different from my own, though I humbly admit it is harder than I thought. I came here to learn and to grow and to shake off my old self. Turns out the old self is pretty clingy, try as I may. But I am learning about life, though not the way I thought. I’m learning through Ala’s good news from the immigration lawyer, Milan’s stories about leaving Hungary to teach acrobatics in favelas, Irena’s dancing in the kitchen to the party music blaring outside while scraping food off dishes, Isa showing me all his secret smoking spots. As German rap pours out of his cell phone, we watch the sunset from one of the delivery entrances of the great concrete city that is the congress centre. This is not the Berlin I expected, but it’s the one I got.