On Disasters and Disconnections

The past two weeks have been difficult in both predictable and unexpected ways. We knew that the first month of school would be quite difficult for the kids, as the language barrier would be at its highest, and the novelty of newness would have given way to the realization that going to school would be how they’d spend much of their time in Germany. Not surprisingly, all three kids have struggled variously with age-appropriate feelings of confusion, isolation and loneliness – I think they miss their specific friends less than they miss having established friendships in familiar social situations, instead of having to treat every relationship as a potential new friendship to build on uncharted terrains. And also not surprisingly, our amazingly resilient kids have pushed through most of these anxieties and started acclimating to Göttingen as “real life,” not vacation, by building such relationships and connections to our new home.

Surprisingly for me, I’ve felt similarly displaced but found that I’m less resilient. We’d prepped ourselves for the kids feeling overwhelmed and out-of-place, but I’d never really prepared myself for feeling that way too – it’s fairly typical for parents to outsource worries and anxieties onto their children, but that doesn’t make the adult versions of such emotions disappear. Even though I spend much of my days & nights here identically to my daily routines in Vermont – alone in my office writing & reading, hanging out with family at home, consuming media on various screens – I’ve found myself missing the little things like seeing familiar faces (and hearing a familiar language) around town, being able to strike up a casual conversation with friends and acquaintances, and just feeling comfortable in my everyday life. The people here have been wonderfully welcoming to us all, and we’re striking up new friendships and connections, but there’s no way to replace the comfort of already established social networks and routines – we just need to wait it out until the new connections and routines start feeling established, a process that’s definitely easier for a kid than an adult (or at least easier for my kids than me).

I do wonder how our technologies of connectivity help or hurt the process of working through these adjustments. It’s so easy to Skype with friends and family, to engage in the ongoing conversation streams on Twitter, to share news and pictures via Facebook or email – all of these technologies make it feel like I’m still tied into my comfortable social networks. But that feeling of normalcy is disrupted when I take my eyes of the screen and look around my new neighborhood. Does having that contrast make it more or less difficult to adjust? Does the illusion of being fully connected to “normal life” make it harder to connect to a “new normal”? And does being able to blog about it help?

These questions came to a head during two unpredicted calamities of late-August. On August 30, Anya fell off a see-saw at one of our many area playgrounds and broke her elbow. Ruth will write a post about her adventures in the German medical system, but the good news is that aside from wearing a big cast, it’s not been a huge deal – like everything, we just need to wait it out for healing and adjustments, and she should be back to playing violin and swimming in a month or so. But in the short-term, having a child with a medical emergency highlights how much we are all outside of our comfort zone – all the Twitter followers and blog readers in the world won’t help you juggle transportation, translation and childcare in the physical world, nor provide a hug from a grandmother or good friend. (Thankfully, the local family we’ve become closest with was amazing in helping navigate and get to the hospital twice – we now have unpayable social debts accumulated in Göttingen!)

The other calamity was less personal but much more damaging – Hurricane Irene underwhelmed a hyped-up New York City, but overwhelmed our home state of Vermont through massive, destructive floods. I’ve spent many hours following reports from the #VTIrene Twitter stream, gazing at pictures of washed out bridges and underwater streets, monitoring the press slowly realizing that just because the damage wasn’t in the big city, it still mattered, and checking on friends in Vermont – and responding to inquiries from friends and family about how we weathered the storm. We were fortunate that our hometown – and rented-out house – went relatively unscathed aside from some wet basements and power outages, but numerous towns nearby Middlebury were hit hard. We’ve spent many hours in towns like Brandon, Rutland and Brattleboro that saw major damage to roads and buildings, and the story of Rochester – a beloved nearby town where we spend a week every summer with our kids in music camp – being cut-off from the rest of the state due to destroyed roads and power lines felt particularly sad, as I recognized many of the people and places featured in the stories I read or videos like this:

Following this story from abroad made me feel detached and powerless in a different sort of way. I felt moved by the stories and images, but far removed from the familiar geography of mountain roads and raging rivers. From six time zones away, I struggled to find a way to help my neighbors back home – all I came up with was a donation to the Vermont Food Bank, which I’d encourage others to do as well. What would be different if we were home in Middlebury? Maybe not much – the start of the school year would make it hard to volunteer much time, and it’s not like I have vital skills or resources to help cope with such disasters. (I doubt anybody needs critical readings of television in the hurricane’s aftermath!) But it felt like not being present for this defining moment in Vermont history made me less of a Vermonter, less of a part of the interwoven small communities that make our home state such a vibrant place to live. Even though our house in Vermont was untouched by the storm, I felt like my sense of home was diminished by not being there to share in the trauma and recovery.

These feelings are certainly resonating with another set of images I’ve been consuming, as we’ve been watching the second season of Treme. Certainly the level of devastation in Vermont does not rival the effect of Katrina on New Orleans,  as the sparse population of the entire state is less than half of NOLA’s metropolitan area, and the amount of damage and loss of lives is far less severe. But one of the great strengths of Treme is that it connects the macro-events of Katrina to the micro-lives of individuals, mapping the city’s larger politics and institutions onto the bodies of the people who live there. And even though there were (and still are) many more people from New Orleans devastated by Katrina than Vermonters impacted by Irene, at the individual level, each person and family who lost their home or job share a similar scope and pain. And when those individuals are your neighbors, and the businesses are places you’ve shopped and eaten, the devastation feels more real, even from across an ocean.

So I’m having a tough time dealing with a predictable level of homesickness and culture shock, layered with the unpredictable sense of loss from my home state. I don’t want to ignore what’s happening back in Vermont, but it hurts to try to feel connected from so far away, as we cannot really relate or lend a helping hand. But even as we all try to adjust to living in a foreign culture, I’m finding myself surprisingly pulled back home in my thoughts and attention, unable to feel fully present in either Vermont or Germany. I know this will change as we adjust and settle – but just as our family will return to Vermont next summer changed by our foreign experiences, new friendships, broadened horizons, and inevitable scars from bumpy landings (with hopefully no more breakages!), it’s hard to process the knowledge that Vermont will be changed in unexpected ways as well, hopefully with strengthened bones and healed scars. By the time we’re done with our journey, I hope I’ll have found ways to feel better connected with my old and new homes as they trade places – perhaps using this comfortable screen-based venue of the blog to help find a new sense of place.

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