Wednesday Wonders on Friday: Hamburg and the Historic American Election

Topics: BlogmistakeswordsWriting

In the early 1990s, I traveled to Germany and became desperately homesick. I had decided I wanted to really learn German and went on a work visa to Hamburg, far away from the American military bases. I lived with a German friend in her apartment and found a job serving banquets in a nearby hotel. My German improved quickly because I had dropped myself into the deep end of the language swimming pool.

I was miserable. 

I was the kind of homesick where I would go to McDonald’s (which I do not like) and sip cups of coffee because McDonald’s felt a little like home.

I was the kind of homesick where I went for long walks and searched for the American Cultural Center or a German class on the seedy immigrant side of the city or anything to distract me from my loneliness. Eventually, I got a job teaching English, so I had two part time jobs, but they didn’t keep me occupied enough.

I slept 12 hours a day and cried whenever I called my mother or wrote long letters home.

(This was before the Internet world. Going abroad created a distance that I struggle to imagine now.)

I was the kind of homesick that bordered on depression.

One day, as I walked around the Binnenalster, a small lake in the older part of Hamburg, I came across Benetton. Wandering inside the clothing store, I overheard an American speaking to a customer. This woman, I thought, was even better than McDonald’s! I felt crazy introducing myself to Jamie, the American Benneton saleswoman. But I did it, and we became friends.

Sometimes, I learned, when you live overseas, you make friends out of this kind of desperation and you put up with each other because you have no one else to connect with from your homeland. Hanging out gives you a shadow of what you need in companionship. Both of you know if you were at home you would never make friends with one another. It’s a relationship born of limited options.

Jamie was not this kind of friend. Jamie and I spent hours talking, walking, and rowing on the canals that weave in and around the northern German city. We talked of what it was like to live so far from home, of her Italian boss who refused to speak German, of the negative comments she overheard Germans say about Jews and how that felt to her as a Jewish woman. We drank coffee American style–by the potful instead of in small teacups. I told her of my crushing loneliness, and she understood.

For a few hours, I felt the homesickness slip away and the dark fog around my mind lift. I loved every minute of that time with her.

Then she had to go to work, or I had to go back home.

After my time with a good friend, my isolation intensified to a level I could no longer bear. It was as if I got a glimpse through a curtain into a happier life. That glimpse made it impossible to return to my sad existence.

At times, I even regretted meeting Jamie.

I had planned to stay in Germany for at least a year. I left after three months.

I write now about Germany and Jamie because I have struggled this week to name my feeling about coming so close to having a woman for president–to have her win the popular vote but not the electoral vote that matters. Many of the people I work with are happy about this outcome, and it is often all I can do not to cry. (That would be weak and womanly, I know. So, at the risk of becoming wooden, I don’t.)

When I was young, people told me that a woman could be president. That things had changed. I believed them. Geraldine Ferraro become a vice presidential nominee, after all. (I began to suspect something was up when everyone made a big deal out of that.)

Over the years, I gradually saw how impossible it would be for a woman to reach that level of leadership in this country. I saw how women struggled to lead even locally. I put the idea of presidency out of my mind and went on with my life, like you do.

For a few months this year, I let myself believe that things could change. That a woman could lead our nation. I researched and soul-searched to be sure I felt she was qualified and a person of integrity before I moved to her side. I know others disagree with me on this. Some of those others are people I respect, but I believed in her abilities.

Last Tuesday night, I knew the woman candidate would not step into the oval office. I knew that a man who repeatedly and without apology disrespects women will instead have that honor.

It is as though I just came back to the empty apartment after two hours of talking to Jamie. It’s worse than never hoping at all. Infinitely worse.

In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton told the young girls not to give up hope, and I don’t want them to, either.

But right now, I wish I could call my mother and have her wire me the money for a plane ticket, so I could spend the summer hiking with my dad around Mt. Rainier.

May you find your own home again-


About the author: Karrie Zylstra Myton is a blogger, essayist, and aspiring author who writes for the wild joy it brings on the best days and the hard lessons she learns about life on the worst. After crafting stories in the ridiculously early morning hours, she chases her two sons, cuddles with cats, and laughs with her husband about how crazy life can get in middle age.

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  • Martha Grover November 11, 2016, 7:11 PM

    So beautifully said. I feel your despair, although through the cover of numbness. Still, I have hope for the future, that the new generation, that has for the most part, rejects racism and sexism will keep opposing these evils. I hope they will march and organize. I know we all must do our share, but I’m counting on their energy and ideals to do my share because I don’t have the energy to do my share. I do encourage them, my children and grandchildren and their friends, to help all the vulnerable people in this land who don’t have the resources to do it for themselves. And in the long run, although I might not see it, people will be scandalized that we ever elected the government of 2017.

    • Karrie Zylstra November 12, 2016, 3:29 AM

      Women like you and those in your family give me great hope, Martha. Although I long to escape now, I have always regretted leaving Europe so soon. I plan to stick this one out, work for truth and justice and all of that. Much love to you and yours!

  • Stuart Davey November 12, 2016, 1:37 AM

    I empathize with your grief, disappointment, and depression, Karrie. I regret that you feel such a deep gender bias exists, and feel it so painfully. It probably won’t help, but from my perspective the equality between genders is orders of magnitude better than what I remember it was in the ’70s. I feel the same way about the huge change in racial profiling. I am not so naive as to think it doesn’t happen, but I see so much less of it. It mattered not a whit to me that one of the candidates was female, any more than I cared that Obama was black. It is the character, integrity, and capabilities of the candidate that matter to me. May your next chosen heroine be such a strong role model in others’ eyes, as well. Hugs.

    • Karrie Zylstra November 12, 2016, 3:31 AM

      Thank you, Stuart, for your empathy, for your kind wishes, and most of all the hugs.

  • Phil Venditti November 14, 2016, 3:11 PM

    Beautiful, meaningful comments, Karrie. It was so close!

    • Karrie Zylstra November 15, 2016, 1:45 AM

      Yes. Yes, it was close. Tonight, I am reading all the other reasons she lost and the rational part of me sees them even through the shouting about classism. The deep inside part of me is just sad about it still. I guess I’ll give myself that and move on to the next task in this wild political world–whatever that turns out to be.

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