Wednesday, January 21, 2009

How did a Kraut end up in the Taiga?

Why "Borealkraut"? And exactly how did the Kraut end up in the Taiga (Northern or Boreal Forest)? Here is my story, told amidst the landscapes that shaped me:

I was born in Germany, to German parents. My dad finished his PhD when I was a year old, and started to look for a job. Long story, but he ended up with a teaching job in Chile. By the time I was three, my mom, baby brother and I boarded a big Oceanliner and sailed across the Atlantic, joining my father and settling in South America.

We absolutely loved Chile -- it was a great place to grow up! The climate is very mediterranean, similar to California: coast, mountains, semi-arid deserts. My little sister was born in Chile. We spend tons of time in the outdoors, and I remember the people and surroundings as a wonderful and friendly world. Little did I understand about the political maelstrom that was brewing there in the 1960's, as I was just a kid! I remember vaguely that my dad's university was occupied by radical students and he didn't teach or work for months -- all I know is we just got to play more with him! In 1970, Salvador Allende was elected (to be overthrown after 3 years by Augusto Pinochet) -- well, my family still had German citizenship and enough ties to Germany to make a beeline back. Our departure felt very sudden: one day I came home from school and somebody had just bought our couch and was carting it out the door. It was a difficult goodbye to a beloved landscape that felt like home.

My father found a job in Saarbruecken, and we started over -- a little bit like refugees: I literally slept on the floor until we gradually furnished a new house. I was 10 years old, and it was a tough adjustment for me. Although I spoke German fluently, I did not fit in well, and perceived Germans as harsh and unfriendly. It didn't help that I did not know how to use the formal "Sie", and said "Du" to my first German teacher! Plus I wrote left-handed, and it was way too late to force me to switch to using the right hand, marring this teacher's record of not having a single "leftie" in her career until I showed up! Not a good start! This teacher did not think I would ever amount to anything, but when I finished 4th grade, my parents enrolled me in the Ludwigsgymnasium (a college preparatory school) over my teacher's strong objections.

Gymnasium was definitely better, and I did well in school. But 5 years after our family's return to Germany, my father was looking for teaching jobs abroad again (we wanted to go "home" to Chile), but we ended up in the Philippines instead.

Vietnam was falling in 1975, and our Lufthansa flight was making a big detour around Indochina. Our family arrived in the Philippines to a completely new life and culture. First I had to cram and learn English. Tagalog, the official Filipino language, was not used for school instruction other than the one subject. So even though at first I could not tell any of the languages apart around me (the people of our region spoke Ilocano, not Tagalog) -- but after a while I caught on. We were first enrolled in a local Filipino school, but after we kids came home with heads full of lice, my parents decided to consider the American-International School where most of the foreigners sent their kids (at first they'd been warned against it because of, you know, those Americans and DRUGS!) But actually, I managed to graduate from High School without ever smoking (or even smelling) a marihuana joint -- the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos were under a strict Martial Law! I witnessed some schoolmates getting caught with marihuana, carted off to jail and thrown out of the country -- that'll teach you never to touch the stuff!

So I managed to graduate with Honors etc., applied to US Colleges and managed to get a scholarship to Duke University in Durham, NC. That was my ticket to avoiding having to go back to German Gymnasium with its competitive Abitur system, so as a result I never returned to Germany!

I became a Southern Gal instead: I spent the next 5 years at Duke, earning my BS and Masters in Forestry. But it was still a ways before I found my way to Taiga...

My first job fresh out of Forestry School was based in Appomattox, Virginia (where the "War of Northern Agression" ended, as the locals are fond of pointing out). This was during the 80's with a bit of a recession going on, and I only had a temporary job and work visa. What to do with myself? I did not want to return to Germany, and had an interest in working in a Third World Country in a natural resources project, but without work experience, I could not find anything. Peace Corps would have been perfect for me, but alas, I wasn't an American citizen!

Around that time I somehow managed to hook back up with my old boyfriend, David, from Duke, who was headed to graduate school in New Mexico, and I thought that maybe I should try going back to school. So, I ended up at UNM in Albuquerque, but that lasted only for a year. The PhD advisor for both David and I had left, and we both decided to leave UNM. I realized that I did not really belong in a PhD program then and wanted to work, while David was accepted at a PhD program at our Alma Mater, Duke University. I thought it was all working out beautfully: we got married in Albuquerque by a Justice of the Peace -- for love I thought, but an added factor was that my student visa would run out... David told me years later that he had not felt ready to become a husband and later a father, but felt "rushed" into it, afraid that I would leave the US if we hadn't married...

So back across the US in a U-haul to settle in North Carolina, but first we flew to Germany for the wedding ceremony at my parents' home in Saarbruecken. That was a bit of a disaster too. Not immediately obvious, but my husband experienced enough culture shock (he'd never been outside the US) that he never really warmed up to my family or my German side -- he got to where he hated my accent, and thought I should work harder at getting rid of it.

Back at Duke University, meanwhile, life was good. I worked as a Research Associate for the same professor who was David's PhD advisor. We both got to fly to Interior Alaska for a research project in the summer of 1986. For his PhD thesis, David chose Alaska, and he returned for 2 more summers. But I was back at Duke with a brandnew baby. I was not to return to Alaska for another decade!

David's advisor, who was also my boss, accepted a job at Colorado State University, so we followed him across the country to the Rocky Mountains. The next few years were difficult ones: David left me; I was a single mom. I eventually decided to go back to school for my PhD, met my husband Peter, who was finishing his PhD in Atmospheric Science. We had a baby boy (Wolf), never did finish my PhD, and in 1996 ended up in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amazingly enough my ex, David, got a job in Fairbanks in the same year, and Eldest daughter was able to continue to grow up with both parents living in the same town.

Our youngest (Liesl) was born in Fairbanks, and then Peter accepted a job at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. We moved to Eagle River, a bedroom community North of Anchorage, where I found a wonderful job at a Nature Center. This is our 10th year of living here, and Alaska truly feels like home.

I've lived in the US for 30 years now, and it is my home. My family used to wonder why I never returned to Germany -- and I have to point out to them that I really have not spent much of my life in Germany (really only 5 years outside of infancy). As much as I was shaped by Germany culturally, I was also very much shaped by the people and landscapes of the other countries I have lived in.


honeypiehorse said...

What an interesting life story! And spectacular pictures, as always. Boos to David, who only coincidentally ended up near Firstborn. And I have to say that Liesl is one of my absolute favorite names.

Kitchen Sister said...

Not only am I your eldest daughter, I'm a fan. You're such a cool lady! BTW, it's mariJuana, not mariHuana (hence nicknames like MJ and Mary Jane), thought it is pronounced that way. But hey, you get the benefit of the doubt, after all, you didn't know why people would keep potted plants way out in the middle of the forest!