Today I learned the German word “Wolle.” This is a word I should have learned months ago — it’s simple enough, and useful — but despite the fact that we now live in Vienna, I have
avoided learning German a very small vocabulary.
The word came up today as I did laundry, which I have done
nearly every single day a few times a week since we moved here (because apparently I have become a housewife). In New York, I sent my dirties off to the ladies on the corner when I was flat out of underwear once a week, but for various reasons — the lack of a dryer, a husband, a very small machine — I seem to constantly be hanging our wet socks and pants all over the apartment.
Anyway, socks and T-shirts in hand, today I faced the washing machine and took in this daunting image:
Okay, the words might be too small here for you to read, but let me reassure you that there are a lot of them. A plethora of cycles! One of them washes for 90 minutes (!), another for 8 (this must be to wash your
thongs dish towels). All through the fall, I picked a setting at random because I don’t really know how to do laundry couldn’t be bothered to actually look up any of the words. But since I am about to enter linguistic hell take a five-day-a-week German course, I decided to turn over a new leaf, so I picked up my husband’s our Deutsch/English dictionary and discovered what any moron mildly curious person could have guessed eons ago: Wolle means wool. I’m practically trilingual already.
We just returned to Austria from a whirlwind winter in sunny California, Nevada, Montreal and New York. In all those places we were visiting family and friends and were surrounded by people
who speak English we love and know well. In New York, especially, once I no longer wanted to hurl where I lived for 12 years, I relished my ability to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations fend for myself. I also loved having dozens of friends right at my fingertips (literally, since for the first time in 5 months I had a phone that actually worked).
This story of moving across the world and starting a new life is an old one — so many people have done it, with incredible success and aplomb. My parents lived in Paris when my sister was a toddler, and although
my mother hated it it wasn’t all Pinot Noir and warm baguettes, their eyes still get a little twinkly when they talk about wandering in and out of galleries on Saturday afternoons and consuming vast amounts of unpasteurized cheese. I thought I’d be one of those people who took to Europe without a hitch. But I am continually startled by my resistance: to adapting to life here, to admitting that we actually live here, to the reality that learning German is not a fun hobby but a necessity.
Or perhaps there is a larger, beautiful shock to it all: As a friend pointed out to me in New York last week, “If someone had told you two years ago that you’d be pregnant and living in Vienna with your husband, would you ever have believed her?” Despite the fact that I often have to pinch myself when I think of my great good fortune in the husband and pregnancy department, and even though I am over the moon about the idea of living a European life, maybe sometimes it takes us a while to align our realities with the unexamined fantasies — or presumed life — we had built for ourselves. (Mine basically involved all the things I am now so lucky to have, but in a Brooklyn brownstone. Forgive me, it was a fantasy.)
And yet, it is never that simple. When my husband and I spent last summer in
a sauna, AKA: the hottest apartment in Brooklyn New York, I thought my fantasy had come true: I had my love and my friends and my job and my city all in one place. And yet. It felt a little like fitting a square peg into a round hole. Like trying to jam two separate lives into one old one. This isn’t to say we didn’t have a blast, but it wasn’t the perfect merging of worlds I had imagined.
This is all to say, perhaps this is a moment when my fantasies have to bend to my reality — or maybe my reality has to become more of the fantasy my friends imagine it to be. Or maybe I should just throw out the idea of fantasy altogether and just live the life that is before me: exciting, unexpected, foreign, challenging, lucky.