13 August 2007

And So It Ends

I look through the scope and focus in on the target in order to examine my shot, direct hit. Smoke leaves the barrel as I lower the rifle and reload. One target down, infinite remaining. I find a suitable successor and carefully take aim. My breathing slows as I concentrate on the new goal. Once again, my finger eagerly rests on the trigger.

My study abroad experience has finally reached its conclusion, and with it this blog arrives at its final post. It pains me to say it, but tomorrow I leave Eichstätt and this country behind.

I always found it interesting how the Americans and the Europeans perceived Eichstätt differently. To many of the Germans and other Europeans with whom I discussed this topic, Eichstätt is a small, rustic town about as exciting as early morning network television. However, to the Americans, well, most of the Americans, Eichstätt represents one of the best things to have ever happened to them. When I tell a German that I would like to come back someday he or she usually gives me a look of disbelief and says something to the effect of, “But it’s Eichstätt.” Many of the Germans may have positive views of the town, but when the weekend comes they head home.

To me, this difference in perception is simple to explain. For the Germans, and many of the other Europeans, Eichstätt is not so unique or different from other European towns and cities. It has a beautiful centuries-old city center. The town observes fun traditions and festivals throughout the year. And its sense of community is tangible.

I believe, and in some degree through my travels have learned, that these qualities exist in cities all over Europe. For one thing, Europe is older than America and naturally possesses more historical buildings and traditions. With this longer history also comes a stronger connection to one’s home and as such a stronger sense of community.

I also could not fail to mention that most European towns are designed and exist in such a physical manner that they better foster a sense of community. For example, when one walks or rides a bike to go somewhere instead of driving with a car (something easier to do in Europe), he has physical contact with his neighbors and the other town residents, and the opportunity to stop and talk with them. He begins to recognize faces, not cars. The random encounters with neighbors or shop keepers help to provide a connection and feeling of belonging, and therefore a sense of community. I can now testify to that from my own experience.

For the Europeans, the size difference between their hometowns and Eichstätt, and therefore Eichstätt’s smaller offer of activities, is the only major difference. For the Americans, Eichstätt provides them with a new, and probably sometimes radically new lifestyle and method to experience life.

I arrived in Germany on September 28, 2006 and will leave on August 14, 2007. This Tuesday, when I board the plane to fly home, will mark the 321st day that I have not set foot on American soil since my original departure. It will not quite reach the 365 day barrier to consist of a true year, but for me it will be close enough. In the end, such an accurate account of the time I have been here means nothing to me; I feel like I have lived for a lifetime in Eichstätt.

In this past year I have observed this town and its people as they shifted through the seasons. Autumn brought damp weather and heavy fog that easily nestled into place in the valley. Winter followed with colder temperatures, but only threats of heavy snow or icy conditions. The holidays accompanied and showed up with delectable treats like Glühwein, Stollen, and Lebkuchen, and with enjoyable traditions like the Christmas markets. The town residents seemed to enter a more lethargic state of living that persisted until Spring bloomed. Then they hung their coats; although, not too deep in the closet because the odd German weather ensured a few more cold spells well into the Summer. Spring ushered in a new season of generations-old festivals such as May Day and Fronleichnam, not to mention the expected new flowers and greenery that enveloped Eichstätt along the valley ridges. Summer brought fine weather, outdoor fun, and Bavarian-style beer fests. With each passing day I remained well aware that my return crept closer and closer.

Likewise, with each passing day I fell more in love with Eichstätt , Bavaria, and Germany, and came to lament my imminent flight home. I will board that airplane with remorse and regret. I will not simply leave behind many friends, but also a culture and a lifestyle which I have come to accept as my own and with which I feel connected. Last September 27th I flew away from my home; on August 14th that event will occur again.

During my time here I have learned many valid lessons which I can apply throughout life, perhaps this return is simply the last teaching my time in Germany will offer me. I have never before been forced to say good bye to something to which I have felt so attached. Yes, I said good bye to my family and friends a year ago, but I knew I would surely be returning. Although, I must say that a couple of times did arise when I questioned the certainty of that return.

I contemplated with myself an important question: at what point does one make a decision to change his life in a revolutionary or drastic way? And furthermore, when does one set aside a safer and more certain future in exchange for perhaps a riskier but more enjoyable one? While on vacation most people dream about quitting their job back in the city and finding a new life there at the beach, but when the week ends they obediently pack their bags and return home. They understand that the job back home supplied them with the pay check that made the vacation possible, and that drastically changing one’s life is difficult to say the least. Simply put, once most people reach an established life they will rarely deviate too far from it until retirement. Here is where I arrived at my personal answers to the questions from above.

I am young; I have no established life. On the contrary, my life remains wide open for change. This is my advantage. I decided I would choose the intelligent path and return home to finish the degrees I began. Then, if I so desire, I could change my life in a revolutionary way. I will say good bye to Germany very soon, but I have a sneaky suspicion that it will not be my final farewell.

However, I realize that when or if I journey back to Germany I will not find a life identical to this year’s experience. I shared this year with an amazing group of people who became new friends. In my time here I have met at least one person from each of the inhabited continents, and I could not begin to count the number of nationalities. This diverse collection of opinions, cultures, traditions, and styles provided me with new discoveries about the world. My German improved from an intermediate level to one which I feel confidant in calling “socially fluent”(Keep in mind that Mark Twain referred to German as “awful” because of its difficulty). While I had an idea of what to expect, the culture and lifestyle were still new to me. I aimed to involve myself in and assimilate with German and Bavarian life as best as I could. Somewhat unfortunately, I feel like I performed very well in that regard, and the culture will never again be as foreign to me as in the beginning. This exploration into the world, culture, the German language, and myself were the main reasons for the exuberant feelings I have from this year. That feeling of uncertainty and not knowing exactly what to expect caused this year of discovery to thrill me as much as it has.

Most of the stories, memories, and details from this year will never leave me, but some may fade. In order to aid my recollection, numerous mementos and souvenirs will join me on the flight to Memphis. Two cook books will help to keep the tastes of German and Bavarian cuisine on my tongue. Other books will entertain or torture my mind when I need to practice my German. Music CDs and songs stored on my computer will allow me to remember many of the parties I attended and some of the interesting songs to which Germans listen. Not to deprive my eyes from recalling this year, I will also return with many photographs. Actually, that’s quite an understatement. The pictures you have seen on this blog are only the tip of the iceberg. I will land in Memphis with approximately 3,500 photographs burned onto CDs or saved on my computer, as well as a handful of short videos.

For me, and I hope for you, the reader, this year reconfirmed the importance of my personal credo and the principal message of this blog: to always fire at will. As said, this year will never again happen. I can return to Germany or even Eichstätt and try to replicate it, but it will never quite match the past eleven odd months. In this moment, with these conditions, and under these circumstances I will never stand again. I cannot honestly say that I lived each of the past 320 days as if they were my last, but I feel like I tried my best to at least live most of them to the fullest and take advantage of the opportunities they offered.

I know this blog has accomplished one of its two purposes, to act as a method to stay in touch with family and friends, but I hope it has also achieved the second, to inspire the readers to avoid passively living their lives and to explore their world. I have shared with the reader my travels from small German towns to Mediterranean capitals, and from wealthy global metropolises to cities of the developing world. I wrote about Bavarian culture and traditions. I told of my own new experiences and first-time attempts. I tried to demonstrate the advantages and need for living in the moment. I have done all of this to carry out that second purpose. I hope blind eyes have not read my typed words. I hope that the reader has learned something from this year as well.

I regret that I must leave, but of course I also look forward to seeing my family, my friends, and my beloved hometown of Memphis. This is one homecoming about which I have had plenty of time to ponder. I return during the heart of Elvis Week, the time of the year that thousands of fans come from around the world to pay tribute to the singer on the anniversary of his death. I also return in the midst of triple digit temperatures, the likes of which I never came close to feeling here. When I return I want to run on the trails of the pine forest in Shelby Farms Park and smell the evergreen scent heavy in the damp morning air. I desire to coast under the shadows of the bald cypress trees along the Wolf River and to glide across the smooth and tranquil waters of Herb Parson’s Lake with my kayak. I long to sit on the river bluff and watch as the sun sets over the flat Arkansas Delta, and the day’s last rays of light race across the Mississippi’s turbulent waters and glitter on the downtown high-rises. I need to taste that heavenly food created when succulent pork lands on a hot charcoal grill and receives the name barbeque. These activities will keep me busy once I return, but I will likely continue to miss Germany for quite some time.

I have come to take many of the facts of life here for granted and will only better realize that once I am away. I will miss the centuries-old Baroque architecture of the city center and Willibald’s Castle faithfully overlooking the town from its perch on the valley ridge. My mouth will not thirst for so much water without the consumption of so many fresh salted pretzels from the bakeries. However, whenever thirst does arise Hofmühl beer will not be there to quench it. From now on, whenever I drive I will remember how my own two feet brought me nearly anywhere in Eichstätt, although most of the time with the aid of two wheels to speed things along. I will wonder how certain businessmen and women, whose faces I now recognize, are doing. I will picture myself back in the Theke talking with friends and enjoying life. Last for this list here, but still nearly the first for the entire list in my head, I will dearly miss this town’s, Bavaria’s, and Germany’s seemingly constant ways of celebrating life with festivals, parties, and traditions. I know that my loss of these things will force me back sooner or later.

The year before I came to Eichstätt I spoke with a German student during the final days of her study abroad year in Memphis. One of her comments left a great impression on me. She said simply, "This has been the best year of my life." Hearing this I vowed to find the success and happiness in Germany that would allow me to say the same at the end of my year abroad. I need no time to consideration it; this year has been, without a doubt or even a minor exception, the best of my life.

In the immortal words of Steve Miller, “Big old jet airliner, don’t carry me too far away, because it’s here that I got to stay.”

In conclusion, I would like to issue thanks to a number of parties and individuals. First and foremost, I owe a thank you to my parents. They have helped to make this year possible and easier with financial support and their ever-so-wise advice. Next, thank you to the readers of this blog, whether I knew you or not. As said, I hope you have enjoyed reading my tales. I extend extra thanks to those who posted comments and questions, and furthermore to those who did so regularly. Those small messages reassured me that my hours of typing and documenting my experience were not all for nothing. Of course I must thank my home university and the Catholic University of Eichstätt for creating this study abroad opportunity in the first place, as well as the professors and staff from both universities who supported me in my endeavor. Thank you, or shall I say Danke schön, to Charlotte, my ever so helpful and obliging guide in Eichstätt, and the others with AK International, the group which organized events for the foreign students and helped them with any problems. Another Danke to all the Germans who patiently listened to me and helped me in those first weeks when my German was less than stellar. I have reserved the last thank you the most generous group of all the parties involved, Eichstätt, Bavaria, and Germany themselves.

I address this thank you to those three. When I came to you I was nervous and anxious as what to expect. I was excited as ever, but how this experience would turn out remained blurred. I left my home to come to you, but found a new one once I arrived. You welcomed me when I was new, accommodated me as I adjusted, and embraced me once I poised to accept you. I believe that I have experienced nearly all of the human emotions possible while I have been with you. I have seen you at your best, and I have seen you at your worst. You are not perfect, but you come close. You have shown me your history, and a possible glimpse of my future. You have taught me many lessons, and now, ever so cruelly, you will teach me one more: to say good bye when I must. From now on, whenever I raise a glass with my family and friends we will say cheers, but I will always think, “Prost!” I will miss you, but rest assured that you have not seen the last of me. Vielen, vielen Dank für alles.

My travels and explorations will never end; the world offers too much for that possibility to exist. I may find my next possible great adventure right at home. In my travels around Europe I have grown to feel that I should explore America better before more lengthy foreign expeditions. My own country offers a wide array of cultures and distinct regions for discovering. To simplify things, the people in them all speak English. If this adventure ever materializes I may create another blog for it, or revamp this one. Grand American adventure or not, I will continue to explore the world and fire at will.


I will age and eventually arrive at an established life, but I will always allow the words of Lord Tennyson in his poem, “Ulysses,” to inspire and kindle that explorer's fire inside of me: “One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Now, if you excuse me, I have a home to return to.

7 comments:

DaddyO said...

Nicholas,
Since you where an infant, I would whisper in your ear when lying you down for bed "Du hast vas ganz tolles in dir drin"! Even as a young man, I still convey the same. Clearly evident, that indeed it's true! Your mother and I are so proud of accomplishments, and look forward to more prolific adventures!!

Andrew said...

i'm doing all of my packing the 14th so the 15th is completely free.

natalie said...

Nick, I hope you're not too sad! You're going to be in quite a daze for a while, I know it. I hate that we're skipping off so soon after your arrival. Good luck with the readjustment and don't even kid yourself - you KNOW you'll be back in Germany soon!
I think it's a great idea to keep this blog. You're a good writer. Now get to work on that novel!

Have a safe trip :) On Wednesday we're going to the river!!

Whitney said...

Nick-

I know you'll probably be tired of traveling, but my invite to come stay a week in the nation's capital is always open!!

Renee H. said...

Nick,
I still can't believe that you are the same person as the 8 yr. old young man I first met while working with your dad! I have enjoyed your blogs so much and feel like I too got to go on some of your adventures! I hope you follow your friends and family's advice and write a novel of your experiences. Thanks for sharing!!

Nick O. said...

Renee: Thank you for the kind words and taking the time to read my blog. I'm glad you enjoyed following along. If I find the time to do so, maybe I will try to write a book.

quererysipoder said...

Ich fast weine wenn ich deine Wörter gelesen habe.........Ich fühlte die gleiche, als ich EI gelassen habe....
traurigkeit! Wir waren zu jung........