People of the World is a chance for you to share your stories of traveling, the people you meet and the lessons you learn. It is published every Wednesday. To submit your story, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Catrina, USA
I moved to Heidelberg in 2013 with a college boyfriend, and at the time I knew enough German to sing the famous refrain “Ich hab’ mein Herz in Heidelberg verloren” (I lost my heart in Heidelberg) and not a whole lot more. Still, galvanized by a few German courses I’d taken in college, upon my arrival at the Frankfurt airport I approached an employee with characteristic American overconfidence and a bold, “Entschuldigung? (pardon?)” He responded, to my horror, in a completely undecipherable language I could only assume was German. Deeply humiliated, I was forced to respond with what was actually a sudden realization: “Sorry, I uh, don’t actually speak German.”
No matter, things would improve. Minor setback. Always dramatic at heart, I’d made a solid break from the United States and my hometown of San Diego, perhaps never to return – I’d already been kicked out of my house, a child hurtling headfirst down the wrong path, told by my parents not to ask them for a dime unless it was for a plane ticket home. I was determined to escape my past, to “become German” like my boyfriend, who had already been in the country for some time, and seemed to know the ins and outs of the local scene like a native. But cold, cold Germany, I would soon discover, was not as willing to welcome me.
But I had arrived! Heidelberg, schöne Stadt (beautiful city), everything they said about you was true. Quaint cobblestone streets, smoldering sunsets over the Neckar – and it was easy to avoid the pesky hoards of tourists, to which of course I did not belong. But the beauty of this city could not mask that something that, even before my arrival, was deeply wrong. How had I not seen it before? Why was I here?
After only a few weeks in our Altstadt (old town) apartment, he sat back in an armchair and, while smoking a cigarette in an absurdly affected manner, told me with a long, empty stare that it was over. My excitement about being in a new country quickly liquefied to confusion and denial. The quaint German Heimat (home) of my fantasies was gone, and in its place was a dizzying, psychotic, and impossibly dark work of Weimar Expressionism. Rejection and paranoia set in, and I wandered the absurdly looping medieval streets with glazed over, shining eyes, trying to put together the pieces of my shattered plan. The beautiful surfaces around me were just that: superficial.
Friendless and nearly penniless, I considered the unthinkable: calling my parents for help, as I had many times in the past – then, maybe I still had a chance at forgetting this impulsive decision I made, to pick up and leave everything for a guy who didn’t love me. But I couldn’t. Maybe something had snapped inside me as I watched him smoke that cigarette and forget me with a caustic smirk. Heartbroken, I wanted nothing more than to be taken seriously, to start anew, to overcome my humiliation… to earn respect. Desperate to turn my fortune around, I spent the last of my savings on German classes at the Volkshochschule and got a job as an English tutor at a language school, which I used as a basis for my visa application. I wanted Heidelberg to be part of my story.
After spending a year in that dream of a city, I moved on to teach a high school class for another year in Madrid, and later, spent a summer polishing up my Spanish in Buenos Aires. Over two years exploring the world and 26 countries later, I could not forget that it all started in Germany with Heidelberg: I am now a PhD student in Harvard’s German department. I really did lose my heart in Heidelberg, but I discovered something better, something that I had not yet learned to rely on – my brain.