Stronger? That's a Nice Thought.
I don’t know how it is where you live, but the Kelly Clarkson song “Stronger” is on continuous airplay in the Bay Area radio market, broken up only by “Someone I Used to Know” by Gotye – two perfectly serviceable songs ruined by ubiquity.
The Clarkson song bothers me more right now simply because I believe that “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” isn’t technically always true. I believe that sometimes, what doesn’t kill you makes you debilitated and vulnerable to the next blow, and to pretend that we always rise like the phoenix is just a shade too Hallmarkian.
My first job was in a foreign country where I knew not a soul. Only a 22 year old armed with a freshly printed college degree and a strong theoretical knowledge of the country’s official language (that had virtually nothing in common with the dialect spoken in the region to which I moved) would think it was a wise move. Off I went.
The profile of my time in Munich was textbook human psychology. For the first four weeks, I was ecstatic, smug, excited – check me out ordering my Kaffee and Brötchen! Check me out riding the subway and understanding 50% of the announcements over the P.A.! Check me out working long hours and getting actual paychecks, taxed at 62% or something but still! When I happened to run into a jaded trust fund kid from my college who said, in a tone both world-weary and patronizing, “So, are you also ‘doing’ Europe this summer?” I couldn’t suppress the glee when I answered, “No. I live here now,” then turned on my heel and marched back to my co-workers at the Biergarten table.
Then came the inevitable crash. I do not understand anything my landlady has said thus far, although I think she’s talked a lot about paint. I have no friends. My family is 6,000 miles away. I work insane hours. I am barely earning enough to cover my rent and Brötchen, let alone the more expensive professional wardrobe that everyone else in the office buys on shopping trips to Italy. I am lonely, tired, and sad.
It was in that frame of mind that I decided one day to take a walk and worry away at my troubles in the open air, like a puppy with a new chew toy. I embarked on a Sunday afternoon from my apartment, heading in a vaguely northern direction. I moped along in the warm fall sunshine, feeling sorry for myself, trying to figure out what I could do to rectify what was obviously a horrific mistake in coming to Munich, calculating whether I had enough funds to make a long distance call to my parents to let them make me feel better or whether that would just invite “Come home’s”, and so forth.
I looked up suddenly and realized: I was lost. Not just a little lost. Miles from my apartment, without any money in my pockets, no cell phones since they haven’t been invented yet, no map anywhere lost. And I was wearing little sandals and my feet hurt and blisters had formed.
The realization happened to hit me as I stood directly across from the headquarters of the Bayerische Motoren Werke, better known as BMW. The building, which resembles a giant menacing silver car part glinting in the sun, loomed over me in cold Teutonic superiority, glaring down at this stupid American girl in her stupid stupidity. I’d never felt so insignificant and out of my element.
So I sat down, right on the sidewalk of an extremely busy German street with cars flying by, and I cried my eyes out, legs akimbo and fists pounding the pavement. In public, within 2 feet of speeding cars, on a gorgeous fall afternoon. I cried until there was no more sodium in my body, until there was nowhere to go but up, and then I lumbered to my feet, started walking in a vaguely southern direction home.An hour or two later, limping, I saw something that looked somewhat familiar and eventually found my apartment.
The resting state of mind I achieved a few weeks later was neither the ecstatic high of the first month nor the dark scary low of my spectacle outside BMW. It was a manageable place in between. Kelly Clarkson might say that the fact that I stayed on two more years in Bavaria, found friends and a slightly better work/life balance made me stronger.
You know what I say? It made me a whole lot more careful. I never go anywhere without Bandaids and a map now.
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