The Neckarweg in winter looks like steam-rolled Breyer's vanilla bean ice cream, the Germans having freckled it with tiny black pebbles the same way we Michiganders would with pink and orange salt. The wind is cold but not biting like in Chicago, when mighty Michigan whips it off her back and through the steel and glass-lined corridors we humans with our skyscrapers have constructed.
Men and women with ruddy faces and wearing parkas walk by me and I smile. Snow doesn't come often in feet here, and it's a wonder to behold. Its creamy whiteness mutes everything, making an already-quiet town almost silent, and my feet crunch deafeningly on the pebbles and snow. It's January, and we've tucked into winter for good. I'm back on my path, back to running, and happier to be here than anywhere else.
Living in Esslingen in winter is particular. Esslingen is home to one of Germany's most well-renowned Christmas markets. Besides the fact that the Christmas Market runs almost the entire month of December (a feat in itself), Esslingen features a Middle-Ages Christmas Market; where kids can make wax candles and wooden swords, adults can buy Gluhwine and special liquors, and people dress up! The stands blend perfectly with the medieval architecture in our pedestrian downtown -- you'd think you'd gone back in time if it wasn't for people around you chatting on cell phones and carrying H&M bags, disrupting the magic of it all. In H&M's defense, I did feel like the magic of my pre-holiday mall shopping experience was a little disrupted when I noticed Gimley the Dwarf (you know, the one from Lord of the Rings with the beard?) in line behind me at the check-out -- until I realized it was just another one of those medieval basket-weavers who wanted to get his shopping done just like the rest of us.Which is just a reminder that life in Europe is a lesson in paradoxes and heterogeneity - life as it was blending with life as it has been and life as it is. Yes, living in Esslingen in winter means complaining about the Christmas Market all December long -- how it makes it impossible to walk through town, how there are no parking spots, how expensive it is and how Gluhwine-happy tourists are always loudly trapzing about -- and simultaneously, like any good homebody, fiercely and proudly defending Esslingen's Christmas Market as the best in Germany, if not Europe as a whole.
It occurs to me at this point that I write primarily on this blog about beautiful things, when Europe sounds more like a fairy tale than a reality. I wonder if this is motivated by a desire to prove to my readers that I really am doing something good here; or maybe just to make you jealous; or maybe to live up to so many of your recommendations that I should become a travel journalist.
Or maybe I do it to convince myself of something. When I lived in Africa, this blog was to record my observations of what was going on in a grossly different culture and context than the one I was used to. And it was to show you, and myself, that I was getting along just fine.
But now, having lived in Europe over a year of my life, now that my parents call it home, too, now that I have a job and a rhythm here, my travel-journalist observations are more a reminder to me that I am, indeed, still a visitor.
Sure, there are small things that remind me of that every day -- like when I mess up in German grammar or turn the key the wrong way in the lock because they're the opposite from how they are in the States. But I was surprised at how relieved I was to return here after I went to the States for Christmas break. There is something refreshing about living in a place where most things are accessible by foot and shops close down on Sundays. Where you aren't deafened by the clamor of breaks and horns 24/7 and there is more to coffee than sugar.
Yesterday, when I was explaining to someone for the um-teenth time that I went to college in Chicago, my parents live in the Netherlands, my brother in Michigan, but I now in Germany, he asked me, as people tend to do, "Where's home?" And I had to say, as I do more and more often: "Your guess is as good as mine."