The odd feeling of having two homes

Sometimes it’s as if I live in two parallel universes. The two worlds are extremely real, complex, mine, but very different.

One keeps my family, my oldest friends, my past, my memories, my base. The other one is my present, my daily life, my routine, my novelties, my most recent friends (not that recent anymore), my ‘right now’.

I have an address, a bank account and a phone number in each of my worlds. Material things that give us the impression that we’re anchored in a certain place.

When the two worlds happen to mix (not so often in my case), my brain short circuits. It’s as if characters from two separate clusters of a movie suddenly meet. It’s like watching the Jetsons in the Flintstones’ setting. What is my dad doing here in the Berlin subway? How come my childhood friend, who belongs to the ‘over there’ world, is on my same visual field as my friend from the Master’s, who belongs to the ‘over here’ world? It feels a bit like that movie, ‘Inception’.

Usually I’m the one who moves between the two worlds, but even then it’s confusing. When I go to Brazil, am I going home, or to my parents’ home? And when it’s time to leave, am I leaving home, or going home? I feel like the answer is: both.

For every departure, there is an arrival. It depends on the point of view.

When my flight or train arrives in Germany, back from a trip, I automatically get that feeling of ‘I’ve arrived home’. And when I’m traveling in another country where the language is not German, but I suddenly hear a group of tourists speaking German on the street, that sounds familiar… To me, it sounds like home. Weird, right?

I’ve lived in Brazil until I was 22 and now it’s been 5 years since I came to live in Europe. Considering as an adult someone who is over 18 years of age, I get to the surprising conclusion that I’ve already spent most of my adult life in Germany, and not in Brazil.

Moving to Europe was a big landmark in my life, a true turning point, for the reasons listed here. It was when the portal to a whole new dimension was opened. And now the sixth year of this era has begun.

I feel at home in Rio and in Berlin. I’m a proud inhabitant of two worlds, in a multidimensional life. I have homes in two cities, each one a world of its own.

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Fun facts about Germany (part 1)

There are so many facts and habits in Germany that are funny/odd for a foreigner that this will have to be a series of posts, rather than just one! lol

For those who have lived here for a while, like me, these things have already become completely normal and nowadays go unnoticed. But those who are not so familiar with the German culture usually find these facts quite confusing or weird.

Let’s start with 5 of them:

1) At the cinema, you’ll find sweet popcorn

They do have salty popcorn here, but the ‘standard’ popcorn, the one you can usually buy in stalls, is usually sweet. Going to the movies and not even having the option of eating some salty popcorn? How come?

popcorn

2) Academic scores are from 1 to 6 (1 being the highest)

In Germany, the grading system doesn’t range from zero to 10, or from zero to 100. They don’t use the A-B-C-D system either. It works like this:

1 = very good
2 = good
3 = satisfactory
4 = sufficient
5 = insufficient
6 = very insufficient / zero

You need to get at least a 4 to pass an exam or course. Universities often don’t even mention grade 6, as any number higher than 4 already means ‘failed’. The grades also have one decimal place, usually with odd numbers. For example: 1.3 – 1.5 – 1.7 (1.3 being a higher score than 1.7). For Germans, a grade ‘2’ is better than a grade ‘3’. Totally counter-intuitive.

The first time I received a grade in my Master’s, the email said ‘1.0’. I almost had a mini heart attack. 😀

3) The second floor is the first one

In Brazil, the ground floor is usually considered the first floor, the floor above is the second, and so on. But in Germany, the ground floor is ‘floor zero’. And the first floor (number 1) is the one that comes above the ground floor. This causes newcomers a lot of confusion. ‘Meet me on the first floor’ – in the beginning my brain was trained to automatically think of the ground floor, which is the first floor on which you step. In many elevators or in the large department stores here, you can see the digit ‘zero’ on the screen referring to the ground floor (and sometimes -1 and -2 for underground floors).

4) When entering a German house/apartment, you must take off your shoes

This is perhaps the most typically German habit of all. Each and every German person takes off their shoes as soon as they step inside the house, still by the door, and puts on a pair of ‘house shoes’, or walks around in socks. They do the same when they go visit someone, and expect it from you when you visit them. Since I’m not a huge fan of walking barefoot, I have to remember to check that my socks don’t have any holes before I go visit a friend around here! lol

The goal of this habit is to preserve hygiene and to avoid bringing dirt from the outside into the house – which is quite understandable. But this habit is so embedded in the DNA of Germans that they follow it strictly even when it doesn’t make any sense. Like in the case of house parties, for example. Parties always cause a bit of a mess, and the apartment will have to be cleaned later anyway. What difference will it make if the guests take off their shoes? 😛

schuhe-aus
“Shoes off” = how to get a German house party started (note: there were a lot more shoes that didn’t fit in the picture)

5) Germans love fizzy drinks

Did I say ‘love’? I meant CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT. In Germany there are not two, but three options of mineral water: Still, Medium e Classic. Imagine a tourist or newcomer in the country who just wants to quench his/her thirst and finds 3 types of bottled water for sale. Which of them should be the one without gas? The one that says ‘Classic’, right? WRONG. Classic in Germany is fizzy water. Go figure… Still is without gas, and Medium with a bit of gas (as you can see, they take this very seriously).

Tap water is safe to drink around here – and still, some Germans prefer to buy sparkling water in the supermarket (even having to carry all that weight home). You can even get a ‘sparkling water maker’ appliance for your home to transform normal water into fizzy water yourself! The addiction is real.

Four years in Europe… But how long are 4 years?

airplane

I like symbolisms. The other day I was looking at my eraser (yes, the one I use to erase stuff when I write with a pencil), and I thought: ‘wow, my eraser is really old and tiny!’. I can barely hold it anymore when erasing something. And then I remembered that I purchased this same eraser right before I moved to Europe. I must have thought ‘I’m going to do a Master’s abroad, I need a decent eraser’. Four years later, it remains my loyal rubbery companion.

If you’ve always wondered what an eraser looks like after 4 years of use, it’s something like this:

borracha
My eraser: before (for illustration purposes only) and after (real)

Besides symbolisms, I also like looking back and making comparisons. This helps me observe and analyze the trajectory of events from a wider perspective. Moving to Europe was a big ‘before and after’ landmark in my life. And the eraser purchased in this exact landmark enabled me (completely unintentionally) to observe how an object has changed since I came here.

Four years ago, I:
a) left my parents’ house
b) started living alone (and paying all my bills)
c) moved to Europe
d) got my Bachelor’s degree and started the Master’s

All at the same time. Sometimes people start paying their own bills but keep living with their parents; or leave home but stay in the same city; or even move to another country but to live with another person. I, apparently, went and ticked all theses boxes at once.

Today the blog has its 1st year anniversary. I decided to start it when I realized that soon it would be 3 years since I had moved to Europe and I had a lot to tell. And now, one more year has passed, making it my 4th Euro-versary.

But how long are four years?

Well, four years is the amount of time that it takes to wear out a brand-new eraser almost completely.

It’s the duration of a Bachelor’s program, or a PhD (at least in Brazil). It’s the amount of time between two Olympics, World Cups, presidential elections, leap years. When I arrived in Europe, the Olympic Games of London 2012 were finishing, and now the same is happening to the ones of Rio 2016. From now on, I won’t watch anymore any of the major regular world events for the first time since I came to Europe – they will now all be repeated. That’s how you realize that four years is quite a lot.

But at the same time, four years is nothing. They go by very fast.

I don’t know what the future holds, don’t know how many more anniversaries I will still have in Europe… All I know is that I’ve learned A LOT during these last 4 years, and I’m extremely grateful for everything I’ve lived here so far.

And as to my eraser, it is still working and being used on a daily basis.

“How do you manage to travel so much?”

pinnedworldmap

First of all, I must say I don’t think I travel so much. I surely don’t travel as much as I would like to. I’m not a full-time traveler – I’m just a free-time traveler (after all, I’m a PhD student). But still, I get this question often. I guess one could say I’ve managed to travel quite a bit in these last years, in parallel to my Master and PhD programs. (For a summary of my trips in 2015, click here).

So I decided to try to answer this question: how is it that I manage to travel as much as I do? After all, traveling requires two basic things: time and money. And students don’t have either of those. So how does this work?

My first answer to this is: PRIORITY.

In my leisure, work-free time, it is my priority to travel. It’s what I like to do the most whenever I have some extra time. Sure, I have other hobbies, like dancing, writing and learning foreign languages. But these I can do anytime, during regular weekdays after work. So when I have that extra free time, like weekends and bank holidays, I make sure to spend it the way I like best: visiting new places.

Some people prefer to spend their free time resting at home, or going hiking, or catching up on some reading, for example. And that’s completely fine – each person should do what makes them happy. Me? I like to use all of my free time traveling – if possible somewhere I haven’t been to before.

So one of the biggest reasons why I manage to travel so much is because I actually see it as a priority for my leisure time.

That being said, we are still left with two problems: little time and money.

Problem #1: TIME

“It’s easy for YOU to travel, because you live in Europe.”

Sure, living in Europe, like I do, makes it a lot easier to travel frequently. It is very practical to get around different countries here, for their proximity and the affordable options of flights, trains and buses. BUT… there is a catch. If you’re a foreigner living in Europe like me, you probably spend most of your vacation days going to your home country. Yes, that is great, and necessary for my inner sanity (again, priorities!), and I wouldn’t change it. But going home doesn’t really count as real traveling for me, because I grew up there, and it’s not exactly new.

I can take 30 days off from work per year, not counting weekends and bank holidays. I usually go to Brazil once a year, and spend about 20 of my vacation days there. This means that ⅔ of my holidays are used up just by going home. And when I eventually fly there twice a year (as I’ll be doing this year to attend a wedding), even less vacation time is left for me to visit new places – around 5 days a year only!

Bottomline: don’t be fooled – it may look easier for me to travel to new places because I live in Europe, but in reality I don’t really have so much time available for it.

So how do I deal with the problem of having such little time? I basically try to make the most of the little time that I do have.

“I can’t do [insert anything here] because I don’t have time”.

This is NOT TRUE. Everyone has time, even if a little. What varies from one person to the other is what they actually decide to do with that time. It’s not lack of time that stops you from doing something – it’s that you are not willing to spend the time you have doing that. (Maybe because it’s not your priority.)

Like I said, I usually have around only 5 to 10 workdays per year to use for my travel purposes, depending on whether I go to Brazil once or twice a year. However… the good news is that these are only workdays – there are still weekends and bank holidays that are not included in the count. So I really, REALLY, try to make the most of the bank holidays and long weekends that Germany provides me with. And, trust me, they are not frequent at all – at least not compared to Brazil.

What I do is: I plan in advance and accommodate different trips in the holidays that I know I will have throughout the year. The calendar is fixed and you can get that information way in advance, so use it to your advantage. You will most probably not find me in Berlin during a long weekend (unless there is something exceptional happening in town). For me, this would feel a bit like a waste of time. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE Berlin and there is still so much I want to do and see here, but my logic is: I can spend time in the city where I live on any normal weekend. Long weekends? These are rare and precious, and should be spent wisely.

If you live in Brazil or North America or Australia, for example, it’s not that easy to go visit a different country for a long weekend. The distance is huge, and prices are not very welcoming. Living in Europe, I usually go on several short trips throughout the year. But if you don’t, maybe you can go on fewer trips a year, but for longer periods of time. Or instead of trips abroad, you can explore your own country. These are just different styles of traveling, but possible and enjoyable either way. Plus, in Brazil there are so many long weekends – sometimes 11 per year! – so make use of them.

Problem #2: MONEY

This problem is not so much of a problem as long as you’re OK with traveling on a low-budget. Low-cost airlines, low-cost hotels, buses, hostels, etc. At this moment of my life, I really don’t mind staying in a shared dormitory with a shared bathroom for a few nights. I don’t mind eating fast-food eventually, or using a kitchen to cook something easy. I also don’t mind flying on less comfortable airplanes inside Europe and taking hand-luggage only. Probably, in the future, I will want to set higher standards, according to my age and salary, but not for now. Because I know all that means saving A LOT.

Like a good Brazilian, I like to make sure that I pay the best prices. It’s not that I’m cheap when I’m traveling – I will gladly spend my money on a nice meal or an experience that I believe is worth it. But I don’t like to spend extra on things that can be avoided.

“Spend money on experiences, not things.”

The ultimate answer to everything: PLANNING

I ❤ planning. I am a strong believer that by planning in advance you can get the best cost/benefit ratio. And I think I know why I love to plan so much. I’m a very anxious person, and planning gives me some sort of feeling that I’m in control of my life and the future. Sure, this is not always true, and you can only plan certain things. But, fortunately, a trip is one of the things that you can actually plan to a good extent.

By planning in advance, you are able to fit one or more trips into the little free time you have per year, plus you save money. There you go: a solution to both our problems.

To summarize:

  • Find out what your priorities for your free time are. Figure out what you love to do the most. (Also, try new things. That’s the only way to really find out what you love to do.)
  • You do have some free time – use it wisely (on your priorities).
  • If traveling is a priority for your leisure time, plan in advance to optimize time and money.

“OK, planning a trip sounds very advantageous and easy in theory, but how do you actually do it?”

Check out the answer on my next post here:
How I plan my trips (with little time and money)

What it is like to live in Berlin

berlin
Photo by Mari Cerdeira

Berlin is a big, cosmopolitan, young, alternative, lively, laid-back, cool city.

It has people from all tribes. On the subway you will see a blue-haired girl sitting next to a white blond child, next to a rastafari guy, next to a Turkish family, next to Spanish tourists. Berlin is diversity!

Berlin has even been elected the most fun city in the world.

Living in Berlin means always having something to do. Every weekend you can find out a new nice place that you didn’t know before.

It means living in an inexpensive city! – With a law that limits rent prices.

Germany is an affordable country, by Western European standards. And, within Germany, the cost of living in Berlin is way lower than those of other cities, such as Munich or Hamburg, for example.

“Berlin is not Germany.”

Berlin is very different from Southern Germany. It is not conservative, and not as flawless. And not as wealthy either.

It’s a city that is booming and transforming itself at this very moment. It’s very different from what it used to be 20 years ago, and will be very different 20 years from now.

It has a very strong urban and artistic culture. And restaurants from all countries. And very well-known nightclubs – especially famous for their electronic music.

It’s living in a multifaceted city. Some neighborhoods are very residencial, others very touristic, others very hipster, others super fancy. Berlin is the result of an amazing mixture of several elements.

“Berlin is the New York of Europe.”

It’s a city with a very efficient public transportation system that covers all places. And that has no turnstiles for control.

Living in Berlin is being able to go back home from the bar or club by subway. That’s because public transportation runs 24 hours the whole weekend. (!!!!) And on week days? The subway closes at around 1 am, but there are still buses running all night long. You don’t really need to take taxis.

It’s a flat city, great to move around on a bike too.

In general it’s very safe but, being a big city, it DOES have pickpockets, and one should keep an eye on their belongings.

It’s a very green city, with many parks and lakes (40% of the total city area!).

The outskirts of Berlin, not too far, already feel like a different world. One can live very close to the excitement of the city and still have a house with a backyard like in the movies.

It’s a city that exhales history.

Many people speak English here, but not everyone.

It’s a city where temperatures range from -7 to 37 degrees Celsius.

A city with many train stations, a gigantic central station, and 2 airports (because the airport that is going to replace the 2 existing ones is taking forever to open).

It’s living in a city that changes when spring and summer arrive. The sunshine and heat modify the city’s vibe completely. Everyone goes outside, the sun sets a lot later, there are festivals and open-air events everywhere…


Is it too obvious that I like living in Berlin? =)

7 thoughts to help dealing with homesickness

saudade

“So you love to live there and you’re already quite used to your life abroad, but… Don’t you feel really homesick?”

This is one of the most frequently asked questions to people who live abroad. And with me it’s not different.

The answer I always give is: of course I miss my family, my friends, the weather, the food, and my home country itself. Some days the feeling is stronger than the others. But in general it is a bearable homesickness, and not an undermining one.

With time, one ends up developing “techniques” to deal with homesickness. And I’m going to tell you mine. These are points which I try to remind myself of when homesickness tries to strike.

  1. Life if full of choices

“Either this, or that”, as Brazilian writer Cecília Meireles would say. “It’s a pity we can’t be in two places at the same time”.

One of the things that activates homesickness the most is to keep thinking about all the enjoyable things that you are “missing” in your hometown. Indeed, there are many nice things happening there in your absence, but it’s a trade-off: you are not living several things there in order to live several others here. It’s important to focus on all the things you are profiting from being where you are, instead of the things you are missing in your home country. Be happy in the here and now.

“It is shocking and liberating – nobody needs you to keep living their lives”
(quote from the blog Antônia no Divã)

  1. My life abroad pleases me

In order for method #1 to work, it’s crucial that you are happy with your new home. Sure, no place is perfect, and everybody has their problems, but it’s important to clearly know your goals and reasons for living where you live. For those who live in a foreign country out of obligation and not personal choice, or hate their job, or left a partner back home, homesickness tends to feel a thousand times stronger. It’s essential to enjoy (if possible, love) living in your new city and to build a life (including housing, work, friends, social life and hobbies) that gives you pleasure.

  1. Leaving the comfort zone is part of the experience

As said in point #1, thinking about all the things that are better back home causes homesickness. The same way, thinking about everything that is worse in your new home place also leads to comparisons and, consequently, homesickness.

They say you need to have an ‘open mind’ to live in a foreign country, and boy that is true! Is winter in Europe freezing cold? OH YES. Do I hate cold? Very much! But I’m willing to try to put up with it, for some months a year. Are some Germans rude? Sure. But this actually makes me develop ways of communicating with different types of people, as I was previously used to dealing only with smiley folks. Everything depends on the point of view.

Some people don’t like changes and simply do not want to change. And that’s OK! Each person has their personality. But whoever wants to be happy while living abroad must be willing to live differently. Do I really suffer for not eating typical food from my country every day? Not really.

  1. Gotta love the Internet!

In this wonderful age of technology and globalization, it gets very easy and practical to keep in touch across countries. I always try to stay updated about my friends’ lives, even from afar. I try to catch up on how they are, what they have been up to and what their future plans are. And every time I see something that reminds me of someone back home, or when I have something to tell them, I immediately send them an audio message, a link, or a photo.

“Yeah, but it’s not the same when you talk to a friend over Skype, Whatsapp or Facebook…
In person is a lot better.”

FOR SURE in person is way better, and there is no social media that can replace a hug, or your presence in the flesh at your cousin’s wedding, or at father’s day lunch. That is unquestionable. But… it’s already a BIG help. I talk to my parents on Skype at least some 3 times a week. My mom in fact says that I talk to her more when I’m abroad than when I’m in Brazil visiting, when I have to share the attention amongst so many relatives and friends (lol). Which brings me to the fifth point…

  1. Soon it’s time to visit home

And what a happy time that is!!!

I try to go to my home country at least once a year. And, having many friends and relatives and only a few weeks to visit, I try to optimize my time there. I schedule each hour of each day to visit someone and/or some place and/or to eat some typical food. If possible, all these options together.

I also prefer to go for Christmas and New Year’s because it’s precisely during this time that most people get together for the season’s celebrations. This way it gets a lot easier to meet with different groups of friends and catch up with many of your loved ones at the same time. Making the most of each visit is essential (and sufficient) to be able to reset homesickness back to zero – at least for a while.

  1. It’s not just because I live far away that I don’t see all my friends all the time

When I’m in Brazil catching up with a group of friends, it’s very common for me to hear:

“You know, we meet only once a year, but when I think about it… I see these other friends here maybe twice, 3 times a year tops. And they actually live in the same city as I do.”

This is a fact which, although pitiful, comforts me. I try to remember this when I think that back home everybody gets together all the time and I’m the only one far away, excluded. Truth is everyone has their life, their work, their everyday obligations, and can’t always see friends, even those who live close by (which is a shame). And when I’m in Brazil visiting, my friends make an extra effort to be with me, because they know I’m not there all the time. Such a privilege!

Besides, my friends from Brazil very often communicate with each other through… that’s right, Whatsapp and Facebook! The same way I do with them.

This is my “in case it makes you feel better” reminder.

  1. What is true, remains

We all change with time – whether you live abroad or in your hometown. People change, circumstances change, but friendships not necessarily. Every time I go to Brazil, I’m able to look up close and feel lucky to see that my relationship with friends and dear relatives hasn’t changed. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed: when I am with them, it feels like I had been there all along.

And then I think: PHEW! =)

“True friendship is not about being inseparable,
it’s being separated and nothing changing”

And that certainty is greater than any homesickness.