Why Are You Here?

Living in Germany is very different, obviously, from living in America. The first problem, which I alluded to last week, was the lack of stuff: we arrived with suitcases full of clothes, a handful of toys for each kid, and…that was it. When I say that we had no furniture, I need to spell this out to make sure you understand the implications: German homes, unless you’re renting a furnished apartment (which is rare) have almost nothing in them. They have walls and floors and ceilings, and the doorways have doors in them, and the windows have glass and exterior blinds (kind of like a blast shield you can raise or lower, almost like a blackout curtain) and…that’s pretty much it. The bathrooms had fixtures in them, I can’t forget that. We were very lucky in that our kitchen also had fixtures in it, including counters and cupboards. Most German kitchens don’t–even if you’re renting, you have to bring and install your own kitchen. Our electrical system was wired for lights, but there are no light fixtures, just wires hanging out of the ceiling with bulbs attached to the end, dangling bare like in a mobster movie. Some of the wiring doesn’t even have that, like the wires in the stairways that I assume are intended for wall sconces. And, of course, there are neither of our great American luxuries: carpets and air conditioning. Sleeping on the floor because we didn’t have beds yet would have been a relatively comfortable option in America, but here that would have meant sleeping on tile or hardwood or plain old cement. We borrowed a couple of air mattresses from some friends (that’s the really awesome thing–thanks to my wife, and to our church, we already had friends in town when we landed. They were enormously helpful and wonderful), but even then my 5yo and I ended up on the floor the first night. In a way, being jet-lagged came in pretty handy, because we were too tired to care.

And the air conditioning–most of the stores and office buildings have it, but homes don’t. I guess it makes sense, since by all accounts we’re not going to need it for long. We landed on July 26, the start of Stuttgart’s “hot” season, and even then we’ve been coasting along in the mid 80s while my friends back in Utah have been sweltering in the high 90s and low 100s. The last couple of days have been the hottest yet, finally getting up into the mid 90s, and this house has gotten pretty dang hot. We pretty much live with our windows and doors flung wide open (though we close the blast shields on whichever side of the house is getting direct sunlight), and we have a fan, but it still takes some getting used to. Add in the fact that the water doesn’t run as cold as it does in Utah–I don’t know if they bury the pipes deeper there, or what, but you can run the faucet for a minute or two and get some downright icy water if you want it, even in the middle of summer. Not so here. Staying cool isn’t impossible, it just requires a different set of skills, and we’re slowing acquiring them.

After the first week or so we finally managed to rustle up all the furniture we needed; we left the non-essentials for the second week, like tables and chairs, but in that first week we found beds and mattresses for everybody, including a crib for the baby, and a couch and a rug for the living room. I’ve never appreciated soft surfaces so much until I lived for a week without any. We also had to find, and this is another thing I forgot to mention we didn’t have, closets. German houses don’t have closets, and the reasoning I was given is that tax law counts each closet as a separate room, so including one in your home raises the tax. Weird, but there you go. You have to get free-standing wardrobes. So we now have some wardrobes to hang our stuff in, and beds to sleep in, and even a table to eat at. Getting all of this where it was supposed to go was an adventure in and of itself, because German houses are incredibly vertical–no ranch style homes, no sprawling American floorplans, just towers of small spaces stacked up on top of each other. We have a steep spiral staircase connecting them all, and let me tell you how not fun it was to haul 7 people’s worth of dressers and nightstands and bed frames and closets up that thing. Our house here is actually much bigger than our place in Utah, once you add it all up: we have a ground floor that’s mostly just a giant room with a bathroom and an unfurnished kitchen at the back (read: empty tiled cell with sink and dishwasher hookups), which we can sublet if we want but which we’re keeping as a guest room for people who come to visit us. This floor also has the laundry room, which is awesome; not every place here has one. The second floor (which is actually the first floor, because Europeans count them differently) has another small bathroom, our furnished kitchen, and a big dining room/living room that lets out onto a neat backyard garden–we’re on the side of a hill, so there’s a ground level entrance on this floor as well. The garden/terrace is awesome, kind of a big green courtyard in the middle of several buildings all owned by the same landlord, and there are a lot of other kids in the area so my kids have already made some friends. Some of them even speak English. The third/second floor has the main bathroom, two bedrooms, and the master bedroom, though I’m using one of the bedrooms as an office; it exits out onto a rear balcony shared with the master bedroom, so I can open the door and see the garden, and it’s awesome. The top floor is a sloped-roof attic kind of place, but very nicely finished and completely open, and we stuck three of the kids up there. It gets ferociously hot up there during the day, but can be pleasantly cool at night, and it has cool skylight windows that open wide and give a good view of the town. So anyway, yeah. Four stories, all connected by steep, narrow staircases. Taking the kids’ dressers up all three flights was an adventure. Some of the big stuff, like our couch and our kitchen table, wouldn’t even go through the stairs and we had to go around through the garden, which doesn’t actually connect to the street so we had to go through another guy’s yard and over a wall. We made a lot of friends that way :)

And that guest room? If you know me well enough to have ever been invited to my house in Utah, you’re welcome to come stay in this one as well. Consider it an open invitation. Just, you know, schedule it with me first.

And all through this process, as we’ve met our neighbors and worked out our permits and bought our used furniture from a dozen or more people, they all keep asking the same question: why are you here? The short answer is “because we can live anywhere, so why not have an adventure?” The longer answer is…more complicated. Constantly asking myself why I’m here has got me thinking about why I’m anywhere–why am I in Germany? Why was I in America? Part of it is because I was born there, and grew up there, and my family was there. Part of it is that I just never bothered going anywhere else. I lived in Mexico for a few years, right in the middle of college, and it was amazing and I loved it, but then I went home again. I’m not saying Utah is bad or anything–I know a lot of people who don’t like it, as it’s a very conservative community in the middle of a desert, but I love it. What I’m saying is that we have a tendency to accept the reality we’re given. I read a study once that said people tend to end up living within 200 miles of where they were born. Not everyone, obviously, but a significant majority. And there’s nothing WRONG with that, it just makes me think. If our best answer to “why am I here?” is just “because this is where I am,” then are we really getting everything we can out of life? I like to think that lives have purpose, and it seems awfully convenient to me–maybe even a little depressing–if that purpose is so vague or unimportant that it can be fulfilled just by hanging around the same old place, doing the same old stuff we always do. Some people have dreams, and they follow them to far off places–becoming an editor in New York, or an opera singer in San Francisco, or a scientist at whatever prestigious university specializes in that one field of study you absolutely love. What about the rest of us? Maybe your dream job and you life’s purpose is right there next to you already–I’m not saying we should move for the sake of moving–I’m just saying that wherever you live, and whatever you do, make sure you’re doing it on purpose, because you want to, because it’s the best possible thing for you and your family, and not just because it’s the path of least resistance. Have the ambition to demand good reasons for everything you do.

Why am I here? Because this is where I want to be. I can live anywhere, and I looked at cities all over America and Europe and even some other countries, and I talked to my wife and I talked to my kids and I thought about what I wanted out of life and I studied and I prayed and I picked here. This is where I need to be, and this is what I need to be doing.

What about you?

18 Responses to “Why Are You Here?”

  1. Jonathon Side says:

    It’s definitely an adventure going somewhere completely new, isn’t it? Germany sounds awesome. I’m not sure what I would have expected, because a lot of the impression one gets kind of boils down to ‘efficient’, which tends to make them sound rather stodgy and boring. Sounds like that’s completely wrong!

    The house sounds lovely, too. Odd in some ways, but lovely.

    As for why I’m here… I guess I don’t know where else to be. Or how. Oh well.

  2. Loved this post, because I lived in Germany for a couple of years (as a child, so I don’t really remember it) and have lived in Wales for 17 years and England for all the rest. It’s fascinating seeing what Americans take for granted! German houses sound very much like British houses. Homes here don’t have air conditioning either because you only need it for three days a year. We don’t have closets not because of any kind of tax, but because they’re a fairly new idea and most of our houses are old. Some newbuilds have them, but not in all rooms – we’re used to wardrobes. Neither do we have the big sprawling ranch-style homes. Britain is a small, very overcrowded island and there just isn’t the land available. An eighth of an acre of building land here costs ¬£250,000 (about $400,000) so if you want a big house, you build UP.

    Enjoy Germany! I salute your cosmopolitan spirit! As for me, even though I now live in the village where I grew up, I know I am where the Lord wants me because He sent me here. Long story.

  3. Andrew Jack says:

    Great post, and honestly not something I’ve thought about. My family travelled a lot when I was younger and it’s been a huge foundation to my personality and my outlook on life…I did some more traveling in my twenties and then I moved back again. I;m now within 200 miles of where I was born (just, by a mile) but I like to think it’s a conscious decision I’ve made rather than the habit of a lifetime.

    Thanks for sharing this, it was awesome.

  4. Robin Weeks says:

    Ah-ha! I’m over 260 miles away from the place I was born and 230 miles from where I grew up! :) My father was born and raised in England, though, so he totally wins.

    Ironically, quite a lot of the time I want to move back to where I grew up–but only because there are so many awesome authors (such as yourself) there now. (Well, not NOW-now, I guess.)

    Thanks so much for sharing your adventures! It would take an act of God to get hubby to move away from Idaho (we’re within 200 miles of where he was born and still too far away), so it’s fun living vicariously.

    Also, I’m reading HOLLOW CITY and questioning my own reality. So thanks for the head trip, too. :P

  5. Mindie says:

    That is a much better answer then “why not”. You and Yours will always look back to the year(s) in Germany with a fondness. It’s so re-reassuring to know that there are networks of instant friends through religion where ever you go.

    Why am I here? (Idaho) Well, because this land called to me. I came to visit for a weekend and the thought of living here haunted me for a full six months until I packed up and moved. I believe that everyone has their promised land. Mine is in the sand dunes of Idaho, yours may be in Germany. There is a whole world of promised lands.

    Good luck to you!

  6. Jaclyn Weist says:

    Be careful how you offer that guest room or you’ll have Steve on your doorstep in a heartbeat. :) Glad you’re settling in! We got that same question many times as well. And isn’t the church just awesome for making friends and getting help?? Lucky we had fixtures to work with but otherwise that house sounds very familiar!

  7. t.j. schutt says:

    my sister made an internet friend in germany. his neighbor has peacocks. i never thought i’d meet or hear about someone who didn’t like peacocks. the world is a crazy place

  8. It’s an awful lot of fun to read your travelogues (the addition of some pictures would be nice!).

    Introspection is good, but can start to drive you mad after a while if there really are things you can’t change. That’s where finding the balance between living in the present and looking to the future becomes ever more important.

    I salute your courage to try something adventurous, for making the opportunity, not just looking for it.

  9. R O C says:

    Since I left for college, I have never lived within 200 miles of my hometown (save for a couple months my first summer break). I’ve always moved mainly for purposes of school and work (which is also school); but my last move was very intentional. I knew where I wished to work and live, and finally got my dream job in Hawaii. It’s very far from everywhere else, but it’s wonderful. You should come visit us sometime!

  10. SeekingPlumb says:

    Thank you for sharing this!! I love hearing about living in new places to the person living it! Keep the stories coming!

    I may have missed this, but with everything that was missing, did you have a fridge & stove in your kitchen? (I know you said there was a dishwasher hook-up.)

    I left where I grew up & haven’t been back since. In fact, I’m now a dual citizen between the US (Where I was born.) & Canada (Where I live now.). I love your message. Live on purpose. :)

  11. SeekingPlumb says:

    Literally just ran across a perfect quote for your entry:

    “I always wonder why birds stay in the same place when they can fly anywhere on the earth. Then I ask myself the same question.”

    ~Harun Yahya

  12. Megan says:

    This post really made me think. I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it quite that way- I’ll have to start. Thanks for the interesting thoughts :)

  13. Anda says:

    Welcome to Germany!

    As you’ve already noticed, there’s a lot of stuff here that’s different from the US (down to and including the attitude to a variety of subjects, e.g. like universal healthcare), but I hope you’ll enjoy life here ^_^

  14. Andrea says:

    I will from now on call my Rolll√§den “blast shields” *g*

    Btw: If you open all the windows in the morning, when it’s still cold, and then close them and pull all the blast shields about half way down for the rest of the day, the house might stay a little cooler.

  15. Germany would be a really cool place to live. If I could live anywhere I wanted, I think I’d move around a lot.

  16. Sarah says:

    Well, it was kinda funny to read your impressions of my country, since I just left the US after an AuPair year with a lot own impressions. I guess every country is different and when you come to a new one you experience everything as weird.
    I wish you and your family a great time in Germany!

  17. Raphael says:

    Haha, it’s true: besides the stuff you buy from your predecessors (which often include the kitchen, because you tailor these into the room anyway) German flats come empty. But then, you move there with stuff — if you are moving inside Germany.
    Carpets are a pain the ass (allergic speaking), and you really don’t need air conditioning (most of the time; I can’t say I have never wished for it). Some houses are crappy, but most are built from stone and/or concrete which works well to keep a house cool (if you air during the night and shut everything tight in the morning). What you say about the water is weird; ours is pretty cool. Might depend on the city.

    About the staircases, I hear you. We will be moving from fourth to third floor soon — I am certainly not looking forward to that. Real estate is expensive here, so you have to work with the area you can afford and build high, I guess.

    About English skills, as far as I know all German kids have English lessons at school. Not all will think they can actually speak English, but I guess you can coax a basic conversation out of most (reasonable educated) people here. It’s certainly not Scandinavia, though.

    I am glad things are working out for you here in Germany. I hope you have a great time! The country is quite nice (if you have some patience for bureaucracy). I would expect the countryside to be stunning for you desert-dwellers. Enjoy the last days of summer!

  18. Rachel Whitaker says:

    I loved this post! I’m so happy for you guys, and your place and the adventures you are already having in Germany sound awesome. I’m proud of you for picking up and moving–for barreling through the many obstacles that keep most people grounded where they are.

    Your insights into the “Why am I here?” question are my favorite part of this post; they are thought-provoking and mirror some of my own experiences. Ryan and I have been working out an answer to that question for awhile now. It was the reason we sold everything and went to Europe for 5 months on a whim, it was the reason we moved to Park City this summer, and it’s the reason we will most likely pick up and move to the East Coast in a few weeks. We figure: there are so many places in this world to live. How can we possibly know what place is fitting for us if we don’t go out and try it for awhile? So that is what we are doing: trying new places for the sake of new experiences and perspectives. (I think the problem in the long run will be that I am not picky enough. Nearly all of the places we have lived thus far I have come to love–and miss when we decide to leave.)

    I can’t wait to read more! Reading your posts may very well pull me back to Europe again–maybe to stay for awhile.

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