Crazy Friend, iii :: Dry as the Gobi
Those first few weeks as an exchange student in Germany were a slurry of emotions rattling my brain, my tongue and my heart. It was a jarring experience that was at once unnerving and invigorating.
I was raised in a small town in Wisconsin, where many folks thought driving 50 miles away from home was the trip of a lifetime. I was the first in my family to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. The first to “master” a foreign language. The first to willingly pursue a life untethered to the place where I was raised. The first to live amongst those who hadn’t known me my whole life.
My brain was on high alert, trying to decipher foreign words spilling onto the countertop of the local Bäckerei as I ordered einen Kaffee und ein Brötchen. At university, in geography class, my eyes glazed over the Germanized names of countries as my Bavarian professor, with paunchy blue eyes and erratic silver hair thicker than Beethoven’s, screeched chalk across a dull green blackboard. On the bus, I’d listen to the florid chatter of those around me, reading wrinkle and laugh lines to decipher the emotional heft of their conversations.
My tongue was a red twist-tie on the Wonderbread bag, crinkled and gnarly, with no looseness in its purpose. I tend to think faster than I speak anyway (one might say I even speak as if I’m tipsy, slurring or dropping words at times of great excitement or agitation), so the disturbing longevity of stringing seven words into a sentence of coherency was like wearing cement shoes while crossing the Gobi desert.
My heart, on the other hand, was an awkward muscle that hadn’t yet reconciled living in a land that sent over 6 million Jewish Europeans to their death, and countless others who didn’t fit into Adolf Hitler’s perfect Aryan society — Romas and Sintis, homosexuals, socialist intellectuals, mentally and physically disabled and a few Catholics who refused to look the other way as the dictator of the Vatican had done unceremoniously.
In other words, I was a mess — intellectually gagged and emotionally raw.
It’s not as though there wasn’t pleasantness.
Every day spread new, delicious experiences at my feet. There would be a new preposition or an adverb that nestled calmly and assuredly into my vocabulary list. I saw row houses and government buildings older than my own nation’s birth, their gray marble facades as pale as the sky above. I took in the tangy currywurst grilling at the Imbissstände dotting the market square and yeast from the neighborhood brewery, which smelled like freshly baked bread, and diesel exhaust, pungent and sweet, that moved buses and cars through the narrow, winding streets of Ingolstadt, my new home. To this day, whenever a diesel-powered vehicle crosses my path I am thrown back to being twenty, walking the streets of Germany.
I did enjoy. But I also felt isolated — as if I had been set inside a crater of the moon and could only observe the world from its jagged top edges.
No better place for the creation of an addiction. In my case, a nicotine addiction.
And it was so easy.
I described my experiences with my first and second cigarettes as a repulsive exercise in jet lag and peer pressure. But after a few days, I found a calming blanket of Wisconsin warmth enwrap me in its hospitality. All my grandparents were smokers.
The cigarette was my direct, if ephemeral, way back home.
And how easy it was to buy a pack of smokes, regardless of where you lived. In 1990s Germany, there were automated cigarette machines attached to every wall and fence in every neighborhood. The cigarette machines at pubs had muscles larger than the bouncers standing guard at the front entrance — every type and brand saying, “Hello, friend,” as you entered.
And they were cheap. At the time, a pack cost 2 Deutsch Marks — roughly $1.55.
I might not have been able to afford lunches and dinners (hovering around the $13 range), but I could afford cigarettes, which lasted all day and kept my hunger at bay.
Smoking became an enjoyable release of tensions that loomed over the leaden skies and frozen river — the light of the cherry and the heat of the burn bringing me spring long before it opened its sleepy eyes. A deep and slow inhalation, and the world seemed manageable again. If only for seven minutes.
It is this crazy friend of mine — a killing stick — that has wooed me and seduced me into its charms since my first stay in Germany. When I returned ten years later to take up residence yet again, I slid into its calm embrace as if I hadn’t been hugged in years.
Thus is the addiction that I and countless others struggle with every day.
Its Janus head nodding toward health (and quitting) and toward security (and addiction).
If only I had been introduced to green tea upon my arrival …
I might not even be writing this blog.