Decisions is a series dedicated to the choices we make in our lives and the factors that led us to our given resolutions. We welcome guest posts to this series to hear about how you’ve tackled a life decision. Email your story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today, Natasha Rivett-Carnac discusses her experience of moving to Germany with two kids and a limited German vocabulary.
The Chrysalis: How One Family Decided to Move from NYC to Germany
By Natasha Rivett-Carnac
One morning on a hot summer day in New York City, the phone rings. It is the climate change office of the United Nations. The man on the phone says, “We want someone for the job of strategic adviser to the Executive Secretary of the United Nations.”
“But I have no idea how to do that,” my husband says.
“Perfect. That’s what we want.”
My husband hangs up the phone. He looks at me with a now-familiar mixture of anticipation and apprehension.
“How do you feel about Germany?” he says.
The United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is based in Bonn, Germany. In 2015, it had one job: Reach a global agreement on climate change at an international conference in 2016. The Paris Agreement, as it came to be known, is one of the greatest political agreements on the planet. It marks a historical moment in which all the countries of the world came together, overcoming profound differences, for the mutual benefit of all.
On the level of “mission,” it was a no-brainer. We felt deeply committed to the cause. Both my husband and I had devoted precious professional years to mitigating and raising awareness about climate change. But as a family, we faced a lot of new questions: How would my daughter, then just three years old, explore her new social-self in a foreign language? With two kids under three at my feet, and my husband committed to an intense work project, how would I find my own life abroad? Would our experience as expats change us as a family forever and take us in an entirely new, unplanned direction?
While my life in Bonn did not involve international negotiations, it certainly had its own negotiations with which to contend. Because I knew no German, simple errands were no longer simple. When there is a gap in language, you have a gap between “selfhood” and other; the language of your inner monologue doesn’t match the dialogue you can have with strangers. Typical small talk vanishes. It’s strange to live without the daily texture of chats about weather or the kids’ goofy behavior.
In my past life, I picked up milk and bread from the bodega on the corner in Brooklyn. The simplest interaction, about a shopping bag or the traffic, precipitated a chain of communication. In Bonn, those nodes of connection in my pragmatic neighborhood life became problematic. But slowly, I did assemble a linguistic geography of the town. I found a grocery store staffed with mostly English speakers. I went there when I felt overwhelmed. I knew the pizza place with a staffer who spoke no English but was kind about my terrible German. I went there when I needed a boost.
The first interactions, though, were the hardest. For example, on one particular trip to the butcher’s to pick up some bacon for my daughter’s much-loved bacon sandwiches, a habit she picked up on vacations in England, I searched my half-formed inner-dictionary for the word pig. “Schwein bitte,” I said finally, meaning “Pig please.” It was the best I could do.
To me, beneath the word “decisions” is a myriad of subtler words that have come to more closely describe my experience of decision-making: opportunity, risk, and problem-solving. Perhaps the word that rules over all these subtler words is uncertainty. You feel vulnerable. It may seem counter-intuitive to take uncertainty and its uncomfortable sibling vulnerability as a “go” signal. The vulnerable feelings, though, I have come to associate with transformation. Imagine a caterpillar in a chrysalis. Inside it’s dark. What comes after the chrysalis is a mystery to the caterpillar. The commitment to uncertainty feels like that: You commit to crawling into the chrysalis with total faith.
In the early days of our re-location my daughter, once the social butterfly of the playground, at a loss without her precocious vocabulary, pulled at kids’ clothes or pushed them to the ground. For myself, I often thought of women’s so-called “glass ceiling” in the work place. But instead of an a position or office that I couldn’t attain, it was as though I myself was encased in glass in those initial monthss. The permeability between me and my social environment was no longer fluid. I could see out and others could see me as I passed them, but I could not reach out and communicate.
In time, I made friends who touched me in unique ways, because of the unusual circumstances. Many people took time to translate bills for me, to make phone calls, to find activities for my kids. My daughter’s experience of being unable to communicate made her a more empathetic person. In the end, we were all changed by the experience. That’s always true. You can’t go back in life. Many of our experiences were painful (as most growth experiences are).
But the old adage about joy and pain being linked is true. The friendships we made were more beautiful for the vulnerable position we found ourselves in. I reached out to people in ways I wouldn’t have on my home turf. My children could no longer go back to their mono-linguistic and cultural selves. That can smart at times. Innocence has a strong hold on our imagination. But I see so much beauty in the way they’ve grown as people, in the depth of understanding they show about the world around them.
Back to that early, awkward interaction at the butcher’s: The woman behind the counter looked at me kindly and asked (I guessed) what kind of pig, exactly, I meant. We had reached the edge of my limited German. I did what most foreigners do in such situations: I shamelessly moved my hands back and forth to imitate the motion of frying meat on a stove. “Ah, fur die pfanne,” she said, meaning “for the pan.”
We all laughed, and I took my kids home to make bacon sandwiches.
Natasha Rivett-Carnac is a writer and mother of two. She is originally from Minneapolis and has raised her family in an English village, New York City, and Bonn, Germany. Natasha blogs at www.natasharivettcarnac.com. In the photos above, she and her children are pictured at a public square in Germany, at a St. Martin’s Day celebration (where children parade through the streets with handmade lanterns), with the executive secretary of the UNFCC, and in a German woodland.