unsolicited advice: long-distance relationship edition

And now, the last of my “advice” posts for now. When I wrote it, I was in Spain with Daniel, so I got to run it past him and get his take on what I should write, as well, which I thought was necessary considering that a relationship includes two people, even if one of those people is clearly more opinionated and outspoken than the other! Anyway, as always, I invite my readers to share their wisdom in the comments!

I was initially anxious about dating Daniel long distance after being together for aboooouttt eight months of seeing each other every day, having several classes together, and living a six minute walk apart. (College spoils you, for real.)  From June till September we were “long-distance” aka he was in Beaumont and I was in Houston and we saw each other every two to four weeks, and then I moved to Germany and our definition of “long” was changed for.e.ver. I know that 5.25 months of trans-Atlantic dating doesn’t exactly qualify us for the long-distance champions award, but the more I think about it, the more impressive it seems (and the more respect I have for people in the military, who have to do this kind of thing all the time). I’m writing this post as someone who was apprehensive about the whole thing and has now learned to at least appreciate the merits of long-distance!

Mostly we are happier than this, and that is a victory.

Mostly we are happier than this, and that is a victory.

(You will notice that I will NOT be including the ever lovely tidbit that every single long distance relationship advice article tells you, aka “Have an end goal in mind.” Obviously it is important to have an idea that one day you will see each other again and maybe even live in the same city, but for a lot of the time that we were on separate continents, we didn’t have a firm reunion date set, and at some point it seemed like the nebulous reunion would be pushed back as much as 2 months! 2. Months. But the point is, we survived and the following things were helpful!)

Keep communication lines open. Let’s just take a minute to be glad that this is 2014 and even the Atlantic Ocean and a 7 hour time difference can’t get in the way of the Facebook Messenger App. Amen. It would obviously not be healthy to talk 24/7 and therefore have no life outside of your LDR, but at least a little bit of chat/e-mail time per day is helpful. We love Pusheen for helping us to express emotions we never knew we had.

Our goal was Skype once a week/once every 10 days… international phone calls aren’t a super economical option, so for our future stateside LDR, I guess we’ll probably talk more often…. if we even have that much to say to each other by then! 😉

I guess another thing to add is that it’s important to strike a balance between everyday (trivial) conversation and important, weighty discussions. I think we did a good job of that, although we maybe pushed some of the big discussions till the last minute when one of us was at the end of our rope for one reason or another! It would get tiring to always talk about serious topics like the future, the distance, how everyone is feeling about the future and the distance, etc., but you can’t survive on everyday chitchat alone.

Be flexible. At the beginning (in the summer/wimpy distance time), I would get really anxious and mad if Daniel were late calling me one night, but being REALLY far apart makes it impossible to have a successful relationship without being forgiving and flexible. We would try to Skype on Sundays, but if one of us was traveling, that would often not work so we figured out a Plan B. At first, we tried sending gifts/cards/flowers for anniversaries/birthdays/med school interviews, but then that got expensive/difficult to time so by Christmas we agreed not to do long distance gifts and save our money for a nice dinner when we saw each other. Life’s too short and the distance is too long to get hung up on little stuff like that (says the Queen of Getting Hung Up On Little Things). This could obviously vary depending on the couple… maybe you love sending surprise packages and gifts! I don’t know. The point is, it won’t always be perfect, but that’s actually fine.

Be thoughtful in little, doable, everyday ways. Obviously, sending cards and gifts a long way is expensive and talking every day is time-intensive, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be nice and surprise each other from a long way away. When I was having a really hard time with the distance, Daniel sent me an incredibly sweet card and mix CD (we can’t help it, we’re early millenials) that he somehow fit all in the same envelope! It was such a wonderful gesture that made me feel so loved! And I am really bad at giving/sending gifts, but I made a habit of sending 2 postcards from anywhere I visited, even just day trips: one to my parents, and one to Daniel. Thoughtful romance doesn’t have to be unattainable!

Daniel adds that it’s important to always remind your long-distance significant other that you miss them and that you’re thinking about them, even if you assume they already know those things! We made it an everyday habit, after a few rough weeks, to each make sure to send a little encouraging Facebook message that the other one would receive upon waking up.

Enjoy the freedom (within reason, of course). At the 4 month mark, I started to realize something awesome. In a way, our long-distance relationship let me “have it all,” if you will. This year, I’ve been able to live in a foreign country, call a new city home, practice my German, make new friends, visit 10ish countries, bulk up my CV (ha!), and generally experience the best of the “independent” 20-something life. These are things that people assume they can only experience while “unattached,” and that a relationship would “hold them back” from having an exciting life! Please. I was able to do all these things and to share my experiences with Daniel, who is always excited for me and supportive of everything I do.

Along these lines, Daniel adds that it was helpful for him to not dwell on the distance or missing me, choosing instead to concentrate more on productive things like work and school.  He also says that instead of focusing on the negative (aka the fact that we were/are far apart), he would choose in difficult moments to think of the positive: the anticipation of when we would be together, and how happy we would feel in that moment.

When all else fails, remind yourself over and over that, once you see each other again, it will feel like no time has passed. I mentioned above that, thanks to evil medical school acceptance timelines, at some point we were unsure whether we’d be able to see each other in February, as planned, and we thought we’d have to push our reunion back to late April. This was obviously not what we wanted to happen, but there was very little we could do to control the outcome. Inspired by my Christmas trip with my family (I hadn’t seen them for months and was worried about how the reunion would go, only to realize that it was like no time had passed once we were all together!), I made this my mantra: “Once we’re together, it won’t matter. Once we’re together, an extra two months will seem like nothing!” It seems simple, but it really did help. And it was true! We were able to see each other in February after all, but it was like those 5 months of separation had never existed.

I don’t regret transitioning to long-distance dating one bit. We don’t know when the transition will reverse itself, but for now, I am enjoying the fruits that have come out of this so far: clearer communication between me and Daniel, stronger trust in our relationship, greater respect for how awesome, thoughtful, and supportive my boyfriend is, more appreciation for animated cat emojis, and a brighter outlook for a shorter-distance future! 🙂DSC04313

Did we miss anything? Let us know! This list was not meant to be comprehensive, and we still need advice, ourselves!! 

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unsolicited advice: relocating after college

Part two in my gratuitous “advice” series, in which I discuss what it’s like to “start over” in a new city as a young adult, and evaluate different ways to approach the transition! I hope you’ll share your thoughts, too, especially since many of you are more knowledgeable than I!

I am a young twenty-something (are we tired of this term? Not yet? Okay, then.) who graduated from college last year, and I am in the midst of a few post-graduation changes. One of the biggest anxiety-inducing adjustment post-college for many grads, including myself, is the challenge of moving to a new city! In my experience, it’s not so much the new city that’s the challenge, but rather the interesting phenomenon of going from having lots of friends, and a familiar social situation, to potentially having none.

For most people, going to college is the first taste of this kind of complete social upheaval. But I went to school at the “obvious” (yet still competitive and prestigious, mind you) choice, an in-state public university where 30 of my high school classmates also enrolled. I was also lucky enough to live with a high school friend for all four years! So moving away after college is an even bigger adjustment, especially given that many of my best college friends are still living near where we went to school, and I find myself living quite far away and quite on my own.

I had a relocation “trial run” when I studied abroad during college, so I was able to learn a few of the hardest lessons of young adulthood while I still had the safety net of my familiar Forty Acres to fall back on. Now that I’ve relocated to Dresden, and am anticipating a move to Madison later this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about what in particular I’ve found challenging, as well as what has been the most rewarding, about striking out on my own in a new place!

So without further ado, here is some unsolicited advice from my own trial and error! 

Challenge 1: Maintaining a sense of self in a new place. 

It can be tempting to throw “the old you” out the window as soon as you land in a new city. But as far as I’m concerned, dealing with an identity crisis on top of all the changes that are about to happen just sounds like a recipe for disaster. Your life story–your family, personality, preferences, strengths, weaknesses–have a place in your new home, too! For me, it has been really important that I continue to place the same emphasis on my faith as I did at home.  Going to Mass every week has been a huge anchor for me… no matter what other crazy changes are going on in my life, the Church is a constant, week in and week out. I can imagine that, if I were a runner or a soccer player, continuing to participate in that aspect of my life in a new place would also be an important stabilizer in a time of instability.

Challenge 2: Structuring your life is harder when your surroundings are unfamiliar.

But it might be the most important thing you can do. Without structure, your free time quickly becomes a black hole of watching Netflix and eating chocolate. (That’s a universal phenomenon, right? No?) For me, this problem is multi-faceted.

A new location can mess up your day-to-day life simply because you don’t know where things are. For instance, it was not a big deal in college if I was out for the day and hadn’t packed a lunch or cooked anything at home, because I knew all the best places to get a cheap/healthy/on-the-go meal. I don’t necessarily know that yet for any given place in my new city. Even after several months here, I find myself running back and forth and wasting a lot of time because I don’t know the best or most convenient place to eat, make copies, get internet access, etc.

The beginning of your time in a new city actually provides a solution to this exact problem, though, because you have a tourist agenda for the first few weeks or months. Make it your job to see all the sights your city has to offer, even if you’re doing some of it alone. It will give you something to do, and at the same time you’ll become more familiar with your new city. Make it your assignment to learn as much as you can about the neighborhoods where you spend most of your time. Find out whether the café near the university has free wifi, and scope out the scene: would it be weird if you camped out there with your laptop for a few hours to get some work done? Try out the take-out restaurants… are they worth a repeat visit?

Once you have some idea about the landscape of your daily existence, establish a routine for yourself. What day should you go for a morning run? There’s a sushi special down the street on Wednesday evenings, so maybe that could be a ritual. The café has longer hours on week nights, so that could be a potential productivity area after work. Creating a routine is also helpful when it comes to scheduling social events, and that’s important because…

Challenge 3: It takes a long time to build a support group of friends.

This is really the hardest part, in my experience. I have had the added burden of a language/cultural barrier both times I’ve “moved away,” but based on the experiences of friends within the U.S., making friends is the hardest part of post-college life in general, especially after moving somewhere new. I learned from my mistake in Freiburg and decided not to live alone in Dresden, which has been a huge blessing. But even with a fantastic roommate whose friends have also kind of adopted me, it has been difficult to establish friendships. I’m not a full-time student with a cohort of classmates, and it’s hard to break into pre-established social circles. Not everyone is always going to be as invested as you are in making friends, and it’s rough sometimes when you’re open to being buddies with someone and they clearly aren’t interested (no matter what language you happen to be speaking).

In my understanding, there are two groups of people you want to be looking for: like-minded people, and people in a similar situation to you. Like-minded people will have similar interests to you, and as I mentioned in Challenge 1, you have to know what your interests are before you can find them! I’ve had success finding like-minded people at church groups, and have also heard that sports classes are great for this (I’m finally taking my own advice next semester and taking a sports class!). Establishing that you and your new acquaintances have something in common is not only a gateway to meeting them in the first place, but also provides conversation topics and possible activities to do together once you become friends!

Finding people who have a similar situation to you, whatever that may mean, is important because you will have a mutual understanding right away. For instance, find an alumni association from your University, or a bar that shows your hometown’s football team’s games, or reach out to the other new coworker who recently moved to town. This time around, it’s been much easier for me to befriend other international students and young people living in Dresden: they’re away from home, I’m away from home, we’re all trying to get by with our sorry German skills… instant connection! Felicitas and I got close really quickly because we are both dealing with the limbo state of DAAD-scholarship life. I’ve also found that the Germans who are most willing to make the extra effort with new people from abroad are those who have studied abroad themselves. They know what it’s like!

One important thing is to be open and to put yourself in situations where you will be able to meet people. This is the hardest thing for an introvert like me (and it’s especially hard when I’m not speaking my native language), but if you are confident enough to brave a new situation, you might be lucky enough to meet kind, generous people who are willing to befriend you!

Of course, sometimes it’s not so easy, and like I mentioned above, sometimes other people just aren’t willing to put forth the effort to become friends. That sucks; it does. But part of being an adult is realizing that maybe not everyone wants to be your friend, and you shouldn’t waste your time on those people anymore. Concentrate your dazzling conversational skills on somebody who seems friendly! (Obviously, I am not the master of any of this advice yet, but we’re in this together! Let’s encourage each other, young adults of the internet!)

Of course, the last key element is time (and patience!). You probably didn’t become best friends with your best friends the first time you met them; building relationships is a long process! Be patient with it. (Again, hard advice! I’m sorry!)

Challenge 4: Incorporating your old life into your new one. 

I suppose this goes along with #1. Just because you’re living in a new city and/or country doesn’t mean that you leave the rest of your life behind or forget everyone who’s ever been important to you. However, the challenge is that you can’t just live a carbon copy of your “old life” in a new city by constantly talking to your college friends or trying to re-live the glory days.

I haven’t fully figured out how to balance the two, and living abroad has its own challenges, but it helps when your friends and family are invested in you, and you are invested in them. I love hearing from my friends and finding out what exciting things the’ve been up to! I am a fan of sporadic Skype dates with my friends, every month or 2, to catch up. I’ve also loved sending postcards when I travel. I would also love to add a pen pal or two.

Sending mail doesn’t have the instant gratification of online communication, which also means it isn’t as all-consuming. Taking the time to write a nice letter to a friend or family member, and then waiting for their reply, is a communication mode that is very forgiving of the fact that you are busy living your new life!

I haven’t fully figured out how to do this, because it’s a total work in progress. Really, isn’t the integration of relationships, places, and experience the work of an entire lifetime? We have lots of time to practice and hopefully eventually get it right.

Any more advice that I missed? I don’t know what it’s like to enter the workforce after college, so I don’t quite have that perspective… an

unsolicited advice: studying in Germany

A few months ago, a friend from college sent me a message on Facebook asking if I would have any advice for a classmate of hers who wanted to study abroad in Germany.  As a fairly opinionated person who feels strongly about study abroad experiences, especially in Germany, I was able to come up with a good number of things that I wish I had known before I first came to Germany, as well as things I’ve learned since I’ve been here that I think would be helpful for someone in the planning stages.

So I’m making my foray into the scary world of online advice blogging! (I do have a few similar posts in the queue, so keep an eye out for those!) I know no one asked, but that’s why it’s called “unsolicited”! Here is a list of things that you should know if you want to live in Germany.

I wrote this list for a student wanting to study abroad, but many items on this list could apply to young adults wanting to get a degree at a German university or work in Germany for a short or long duration, as well!

1. Learn German. Do you already know German? Good. In the time between now and when you set foot on German soil, do everything you can to get more exposure to the language. Read an article or two from Der Spiegel every week. Take or audit a German class at school. Watch a German TV show! (I’ve never seen it, but Türkisch für Anfänger always gets good reviews!)

Wait, what’s that? You don’t know German? Well, there’s no better time to start than right now. I know that plenty of people study abroad with no knowledge of the local language, but I really wouldn’t recommend it. Yes, you can get by with English in Germany, but do you really want to just get by during your time abroad? It’s much easier to establish friendships with Germans if you make an effort to learn some German… not to mention being able to orient yourself in your host city and as you travel around. If you learn as much as you can before you leave and keep an open mind during your time there, your language abilities will improve drastically… I know several people who went to Germany with a very limited grasp of the language, and after a year or so of living and working there, were able to converse quite easily! It is possible!

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Here, I’ll help you get started

2. Go for a year or longer! My biggest regret about my semester in Germany during the summer of 2011 was that it was only one semester! I know that a year abroad sounds like a really long time, especially if the norm at your school is to go abroad for 6 weeks, if that (like it was at mine). But a year goes by quicker than you’d expect (especially if you plan to travel), and one semester is barely any time at all to get adjusted to a new country, language, school, city, and culture, not to mention to make friends!

If a year would not be possible for whatever reason, go for as long as possible. Plan to arrive as soon as possible before the semester begins, and stay as long as possible after it ends. Many programs offer a language course before the semester begins (which would help with #1!), which also provides time to get acclimated to the city and maybe meet some people!

liebe dich

3. Location, location, location. Spend some time deciding where exactly in Germany you want to go, because the city you live in will obviously influence your experience greatly. The different cities and regions in Germany are quite distinct. As you consider, pay particular attention to the size of the city in question, and also whether it is in (former) East Germany or West Germany.

Even 20+ years after Germany’s reunification, there are still some lingering differences between east and west, particularly where language is concerned. In the west, it is much more likely that any given person on the street or in a shop (especially of the older generation) will be able to speak English. If you aren’t yet fluent in German, that could be helpful. However, if you’re trying to BECOME fluent, the atmosphere in the east might be helpful… people may be less likely to automatically switch to English once they hear your accent!

If you will be staying for a year or longer, as I advised you above, choose a larger city as opposed to a small one (or a small city with easy access to a large city). That way, there will be more to explore during your time there. Also, larger cities generally have easy access to smaller outlying towns and attractions and good public transit to get you there.

Basically, do your research to find out whether the city you’re interested in has everything you’re looking for. A few odd tips: living near a border gives you easy access to international travel; living in Berlin will give you an exciting and eclectic, though debatably “un-German” experience; it is really hard to find an apartment in most cities with universities, and Munich is notoriously expensive.

4. Go as an exchange student. (Or directly enroll in a graduate program. Or get a job working with Germans.) Integrate yourself into society!!! I know for some students studying abroad, a university-affiliate or professor-led program is necessary to both study abroad and graduate on time, but if at all possible, do a direct exchange! It will require some proactivity on your part, because all your classes/travel won’t be planned for you, you won’t have a ready-made community of fellow American students, and you’ll probably have to deal with some university bureaucracy, but you will have a more authentic and rewarding experience (and for pretentious folk like me, that’s what it’s all about 😉 ).

5. Be proactive about your living situation. I lived in a terrible student dorm in Freiburg because that’s what I was assigned. However, I have a feeling that if I’d searched around a little more before committing to student housing, I could have found a better option. So before I moved to Dresden, I looked on all the WG websites to find an apartment and roommate. Wohngemeinschafte/living communities are like shared apartments among young people in Germany, and there are plenty of websites to locate people who need to sublet their room. I used wggesucht.de. My roommate, Agnes, is awesome, and living with a German peer has really helped me practice my language skills on a daily basis, make a few friends, and have a nice atmosphere at home rather than the gross, utilitarian dorm of days past 😉

6. Buy a bike. Having a bike gives you flexibility of transportation and allows you to get places quicker so you can do more, plus it’s very scenic and beautiful to ride around during the summer and experience your new city from that vantage point! Hypocrite alert because I don’t have a bike in Dresden (but I might still buy one). This was the most important thing I ever did in Freiburg, though, because I lived far from school and the center of town, and all of my friends had bikes, so if I ever wanted to do something with them, I could just tag along instead of having to meet them somewhere using public transit. Here, the city is big enough that public transit is necessary to get to certain parts of town, and I live within walking distance of most places I go on a daily basis, so I haven’t NEEDED one, but I’m still on the look-out for an affordable used bike, because I love biking!

7. Make German friends. This will help with #1, for sure! It will also help to integrate you into life in Germany. Making friends familiar with your city/region (and fluent in German) is also incredibly helpful as you figure everything out for yourself. It is, in my experience, more difficult to make friends with Germans than to stick in a group with the other Americans/international students (and there is merit to making friends with those people, as well). Two ways I’ve found it helpful to meet people: getting involved at church and taking part in extracurriculars. I’m Catholic, and I’ve been able to meet nice, generous, friendly people at the Katholische Hochschulgemeinde (KHG) in Freiburg and the Katholische Studentengemeinde (KSG) in Dresden. The Protestant groups are called EHG/ESG. And this semester I am finally taking my own advice about the sports/extracurricular activities tactic by taking a dance class! I love dancing and thoroughly enjoyed my classes at UT, so I figured I’d keep it up and meet some people along the way.

8. Travel! Self explanatory. Obviously the requisite trips to London/Paris/Milan/whatever are awesome, and you should go for it, but I also recommend day trips in your area and really getting to know your particular region in Germany, as well, because they’re all very distinct and it will cultivate a real feeling of regional identity, which I quite enjoy 🙂

9. Don’t compare your experience to anyone else’s. Every person’s time abroad will be unique, so don’t get sucked into the trap of thinking that your experience is “worse” because you can see on Facebook that your high school friend has visited more cities than you have. Make the most of YOUR experience… explore the areas around where you’re living, go to social outings, do something new every week, take pictures. Focus on making your memories, not glancing at someone else’s to compare.

10. Find a “life abroad” confidant. For those times when it feels like living abroad is the hardest thing you’ve ever done and no one will ever understand you. Obviously parents are wonderful and significant others are great, but if they’ve never studied or lived abroad, they won’t totally understand what you’re gong through. If you keep in touch with a buddy who has had a similar experience, they will be able to affirm that the loneliness, anxiety, or whatever it is you might be feeling is totally normal, and hopefully they will encourage you to power through the tough parts so you can experience the wonder of living abroad! I know this sounds like the ultimate First World Problem but the truth is that it’s tough to live in another language in a new city with new experiences without an outlet for your frustrations or a sounding board to figure your stuff out. (This person should also be able to give you a good reality check and/or swift kick in the behind if you are being unreasonable 😉 ) Overall, living/studying abroad is a POSITIVE, life-affirming, amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience, and you should share those moments with your buddy as well, and meet up once you get back to cook foods you miss from abroad, go on bike rides together, and commiserate about reverse culture shock 🙂

Finally, an outlet for my many opinions 😉 If you are itching to study in Germany, or elsewhere in Europe/the world, I hope I’ve encouraged you at least a little bit!

To my fellow study abroad alumni: is there anything I missed?? Anything you disagree with?