At the end of our two-week tour of Germany, my fiancé dropped me off at my German penfriend’s house and drove back to the UK. It was lovely to see B and her family again – I felt like part of the clan, as I had spent time with them every couple of years since that first tentative visit when I was 15.
Something was different, though. B and I got on well on the surface, but I felt an underlying tension. I knew she had wanted to go to university, but hadn’t been able to, so I wondered whether my turning up as a degree student reminded her of what she was missing.
Another possibility was that, having invited me to a school reunion party, she disapproved of me rekindling a friendship with K – a boy from her class, who I’d had a crush on since I was 15 – now that I was engaged.
K phoned me at her family’s house, on one occasion, and we had a long chat. It was so nice to be able to actually talk to him after all this time – previously we had both been very shy, and my German hadn’t been good enough to string more than a few sentences together. This time the conversation flowed, and it felt wonderful.
I don’t think I imagined our friendship developing into anything more serious – K had a girlfriend, and he knew I was engaged – I was just enjoying getting to know him better. He said he would try to drop by and visit me in Essen, on his way to university in the south – but unfortunately we missed each other.
A few weeks later, K sent me a small photograph with a letter, saying he had always liked me. I think I panicked a bit when I read his letter – misinterpreting what he wrote, or perhaps feeling guilty about having a clandestine friendship.
I decided I had to tell my fiancé about the letter, during one of our regular phone calls. He said I should write to K, send back his photograph, and say that I didn’t want to continue the friendship. I complied.
I’ve often wondered why I terminated my friendship with K. Was there really any harm in being friends with another man? It was a new concept – my fiancé had pretty much kept me all to himself, ever since we started going out together.
Looking back, something must not have felt right. Perhaps I knew my friendship with K wasn’t going to amount to anything – that we would eventually drift apart anyway, so why not now? My deepest regret is that my letter was rather abrupt and cut off any possibility of remaining friends.
* * *
In October I arrived in Essen by train. As the station was about a mile from the Halls of Residence, I was glad not to be burdened with luggage. In addition to my suitcases, my fiancé had insisted that I bring along a large box filled with tins of mackerel, so that I wouldn’t go hungry. I’m pretty sure I still have some of those tins even now.
As I started unpacking some pots and pans into my kitchen locker, I met Elizabeth. She was quiet, but friendly, and straight away showed an interest in me – as did other new acquaintances when our paths crossed in the corridor or the kitchen. There was an ease to the whole “getting to know you” process that I had also experienced when I was in Stuttgart. I instantly felt at home.
Whereas in the UK each floor of the Halls of Residence was either all female or all male, in Essen the floors were mixed – so it was easy to bump into both boys and girls as you made your way from one end of the corridor to the other, and to strike up a conversation. Perhaps one of the things I learned there was how to feel more at ease when meeting new people.
* * *
The first time I went to the university, to enrol and choose some courses to attend, I travelled into central Essen by train, even though the route was more out of my way than by tram. It takes me a while to orient myself in a new location, and I find it more difficult travelling on buses or trams, which often snake around instead of having a direct route, making it less obvious where to alight. Finding and remembering landmarks had always been – and continues to be – a challenge.
Enrolling at the university was achieved in a trice – but the campus was so large, that I soon got lost. I had free rein to choose whatever classes I liked – naturally, I was drawn to the language courses on offer, in particular, learning Greek or Finnish. I thought Greek might be useful for holidays – and I had studied ancient Greek for a year at school, so I already knew the alphabet. But I had made a Finnish friend in Stuttgart, so I plumped for Finnish, one of the most complicated languages to learn, as it turned out. Sadly I never mastered it.
For the most part, my chosen curriculum was conversations with my fellow students at the Halls of Residence to increase my fluency in German. Students came from all over Germany and beyond, and it was good to practice attuning my ear to different accents – which is what true fluency is all about.
One of my friends, H, was from near the border with the Netherlands, where people spoke a dialect similar to Dutch. He was surprised that, as I had learned some Dutch the year before, I was able to understand what he said in his local dialect – although I could only respond in standard German. He and another student, from Stuttgart, had difficulty understanding each other – rather like someone from Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Cornwall might – but I felt equally at home listening to either accent.
During one evening spent chatting with friends, towards the end of my stay in Essen, I was overcome by the sense that speaking German felt totally natural, and I couldn’t imagine speaking English any more, because I hadn’t spoken it for months. It was only then that I knew I had achieved my goal of becoming fluent in German.
* * *
Unlike in Wolverhampton, most of the students in Essen had a car – and it was common for them to drive home for the weekend. Three of my friends, M, R and H, invited me to spend a weekend with their families – a wonderful opportunity for me to see more of the German coastline, countryside and cities, as well as meeting their families and friends, and getting involved in local activities and customs.
During my stay with H’s family, I discovered that East Frisians are even more obsessed with tea than we British, always insisting on drinking 3 cups, sweetened with “Kluntje” or rock sugar. H’s mother brought me a cup of tea in bed on the Sunday morning and gave me strict instructions not to get out of bed until I’d drunk my third cup.
A more well-known German tradition they introduced me to was drinking “Brüderschaft” – in turn, H’s parents linked one arm with me and we each took a sip from a glass of beer, so that afterwards we could use the familiar “du” when talking to each other, instead of the more formal “Sie.” It felt like quite an honour after knowing them for such a short time.
* * *
I developed strong friendships with M and R which continue today. My friendship with H developed along different lines, though, and once again I felt guilty about being interested in someone other than my fiancé – even if my relationship with H was destined not to develop, as I was due to move on to France very soon.
Eventually, I decided to tell my fiancé about H – but this time, I knew I also wanted to end our engagement.
During my time in Essen I had noticed that people liked me for myself – not just because I was ‘the girlfriend’ – and I was enjoying the freedom to make new friends. Looking back over my photographs from that time, I’m surprised that the vast majority are of friends rather than places.
I’ve only recently realised just how important human connection is for me – even temporary connections, like having a short conversation with someone at the bus stop. And I feel, now, that my fiancé had – perhaps unwittingly – prevented me from having those connections.
He had been my first boyfriend – and although there were several things about our relationship I wasn’t happy with, I had assumed it would be the same with anyone. Previously, when I had made decisions about my life, I was the only one affected – but in this case I felt a responsibility towards my fiancé, which is no doubt why I had delayed making a decision.
There was no easy way to break the news to him, especially long distance. He insisted that I fly back to the UK over Christmas, so that he could try to influence my decision. I did fly back, but my mind was made up. When he made the announcement to both sets of parents, I don’t think anyone was particularly surprised, which made it a bit easier for me – but not for him.
We parted ways, and I spent some time with my family before returning to Germany. During that time, perhaps to distract myself, I picked up a classical guitar my Dad had made from a kit and started trying to play along to folk songs I could hear in my head. A couple of my friends in Essen played guitar, so with Dad’s blessing and some basic chord shapes, I took the guitar back to Essen with me – with the body stuffed into an old backpack, and the neck sticking out of the top.
I soon settled back to life in Essen – this time as a free spirit. I was due to move on to my placement in France at the end of January, but I was reluctant to leave my friends behind, so I delayed by a couple of weeks.
R used to visit the Berlin Film Festival every year, and I was tempted to take up his offer to travel with him to Berlin in mid-February, driving through the former Soviet controlled East Germany. It would have been a wonderful opportunity for me, but I knew I had to move on. Just before he set off for Berlin, R drove me and my luggage to the station and said “until we meet again” – as I caught a train to Poitiers for the second half of my year abroad.
We’ve met several times since – R has even met and become friends with my husband – and the two of us, R and I, eventually visited Berlin together.