Four years in ten minutes: How do you know who you are? And what matters most to you in your life?

Four years is a long time, but also one that is easily taken stock of. Or is it? How do you summarize what happened in four years in, say, ten minutes – aside from the fact that ten minutes of reading will also depend on how fast you personally read and how dense the subject matter is? What if you were to sketch out what is different now to what was before? How have you changed? How has your life changed, and the world and people around you? Do you count the life events? Or the times you moved house? Do you take stock of the people and places you have gotten to know? Account for your spiritual growth or your material wealth? Number the gadgets, the scars or the memories both good and bad? Do you reflect on what has stayed part of your identity, and what has not? Can you glean an insight into what matters in life and why you are here? How? Against what foil, metric or narrative?

Sitting in my favourite spot in the world – a wooden veranda in my garden, looking out onto a low-slung mountain of the Bavarian Alps – I have spent most of today reflecting on these questions. Because four years ago, we upped sticks and moved from down under to Europe. With no job prospects and three little kids in tow. We quit our careers – not knowing if and how we would even make a living, sold all our stuff, and jumped on a plane.

And now? Never have my wife and I lived as long in the same place as we have for the last 48 months. We have settled. Indeed, the family has gone native. Even if we are and always will be Australians, too – we have put down roots in the Bavarian soil. Over the course of the last four years, our fourth child was born. The other children (all born and – thus far – bred Aussies), also grew and flourished, thank God. Two completed primary school and moved on to high schools, one started primary, one started kindergarten. We took our savings and put down a deposit on a house. We lived with less than a third of the income we had in Australia for a long time. We took our time furnishing our place (we still are), but also rather quickly built an extension to our house to make room for the growing family. We inherited some noisy and loyal Appenzeller dogs from an uncle who passed away. We kept cute rabbits for a while, one of which died, – and we adopted an obstreperous little cat, who almost died when she swallowed a metal clasp from a sausage end she greedily stole from the rubbish bin one night.

When we left Australia, my wife, a career scientist and outstanding cancer researcher, quit her job at the University of Sydney. Being able to look after the family more made her into a better person. Now, on top of running this (by some standards) large and (by any standard) very busy family, she is a successful science writer and journalist. Her balding husband (i.e. yours truly) is onto his third job: the first reacquainted me with European, or rather, German journalism and working culture; in particular the local media practices (many of which are on the long list of things to blog about). The second job was, amongst many other things, an anthropological expedition: an 18-month-long adventure that drew me deeply into the inner workings of the Catholic Church; a rich, rewarding and above all incredibly challenging experience from which I brought back many stories, personalities and narratives to write about at some later stage. And the third and current job, which I have held for just about two years now, is in some ways a dream job: editor-in-chief of a small but not unimportant and proudly historic weekly newspaper; one that I hope to continue exploring for a good while yet.

When we arrived, we were confident and hopeful. And, like concentric circles, we were welcomed and given a fair go: Bavarian institutions, regional services, the healthy economic climate of the Munich metropolitan region – and above all the local shire and village. Within a few months, I was able to find a job, and establish a real home for my family and myself. This is not just because I am a native Bavarian with local knowledge, a local name and the requisite lingo, although all of this helps, of course. As I am sitting here in this small village, a dozen or so refugees from the Middle East and Africa are playing noisily on a nearby street in the autumnal sun. They are a sample of the many thousands that have all come to Germany because of its high acceptance rate of asylum seekers; not to mention the many migrants from dozens of nations that are calling this country now home. Many of them I work with on a daily basis. They are better looked after here than in Australia or any other European country, except perhaps Scandinavia. Not to mention other regions. If you apply yourself and are willing to take some risks, Germany, in particular Bavaria, is arguably one of the best places to be on this planet right now. And not just in terms of its economic indicators, natural beauty and strong democratic institutions.

Right – but what about the interior life, and the life of ideas and personal growth? During these four years I must have read a few hundred books (my Goodreads account is a very incomplete but growing record of my literary appetite) and watched many, many films. I completely stopped watching regular TV. I started and published my first short story, “The Scorcher”. I gave several talks and took time to write prose whenever I reasonably could after a day of writing journalism. Travelled to Spain, Croatia, France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, the Vatican and the Czech Republic. Took up ocean swimming and swam my first open water race. Spent a week in hospital with a mysterious disease – possibly Chikungunya fever – but recovered quickly and – so far – completely. And during all of this time I met an incredibly diverse number of individuals and families, some of them enriching, inspiring, challenging in the best sense of the word – and many of them I am grateful to now call my friends. Above all, however, I grew in my spiritual life, and through this, as a husband to my adored wife and as a father to my beloved children. I was able to give my roles and vocations in life a go. And it was here that I really found meaning and a purpose. Everything else was – and is, and will be – secondary.

Regrets? I’ve had a few

Of course, there are regrets. Most of these are personal: I regret not making more fully use of the time, talents and abilities given to me. I regret not living up to expectations of myself in many ways, and at another level, regret regretting this, since it means I am sometimes not humble enough to realize and make peace with my own – or others’ – limitations. I was not always the best husband, father, co-worker, friend, boss, writer, journalist, that I could have been. Sometimes, by a long shot. But I am grateful to say that I was allowed to start again every day. And – since I am a practicing Catholic – with a completely clean slate whenever I needed to avail myself of the sacrament of reconciliation, aka confession.

So how have you grown in the last four years? What are your regrets and how do you think we take stock, or rather: how we should?  What would you write down for a ten minute read?

I started writing this as “four years in four minutes”. Then I corrected it to five, and, finally, ten minutes…I had to stop myself from making it more than that. Try it, and you may find the same thing happen to you. Either way, let me know – I’d be curious to find out!

Why is it so hard to swim in German pools?

If only some crazy miracle would happen and continental Europe could start introducing these signs! (CC-Image: Susan Sharpless Smith)

[Update in April 2015: Sadly, all of what I have written about here is still very true. Found a hilarious and accurate cartoon by one Thierry Gregorius which I will share below. In the meantime, if you are blissfully unaware what to do at a pool, please read this excellent post right now and if you can, also this here. It will teach you some basic pool and lane etiquette. Thanks!] 

As anyone who has driven on the Autobahn can attest – or anyone who has dared to stand as a humble pedestrian on a German bike path: People here like their traffic in neatly ordered, divided lanes.

However, when it comes to pools, there is only one rule: absolute anarchy.

Why is it that – of all people! – the ever so well-organised Germans can’t seem to get this right? For anyone who loves doing laps in the pool, the experience of going swimming in Germany is bound to be one riddled with painful, embarrassing and/or annoying encounters. Ok, I am generalising, but just a bit.

Consider a few days ago: I was doing some laps in an indoor pool in Munich. Not a bad pool as such, this. A decent 25m-affair, with about 8 lanes to choose from. Not many people in it – I would say less than ten. And not a single lane rope between them, except one to separate out the jumping basin to the side. As usual when finding myself in these situations, I stuck to the lane next to the wall, to avoid nice old ladies, cantankerous pensioners or unhinged kids just swimming into my way or being bothered by me splashing water.

After about 10 minutes or so, two elderly ladies entered the water right in that lane and proceded to swim there. There was plenty of room to go elsewhere, but they simply swam up and down my lane. I politely took a wide berth around them, as I passed them, passed them again, and passed them again. This went on for another ten minutes or so, but since it did not bother me too much, I almost forgot about it. Presently, an embarrassed lifeguard stopped me and politely asked me to move into a different lane: the ladies were complaining about “you swimming”. I asked the reason, and they both glowered at me and confirmed: yes, they were complaining about me swimming. In the swimming pool. It was too absurd to even get angry about. I smiled politely and said: Sorry about that – and moved over to the other side of the pool, where I only was bothered by a bunch of young girls sitting on the lane ropes and jumping straight into my way once or twice.

Fast forward to a few days later: I was doing laps in a really big 50-meter outdoor pool in the countryside to the South of Munich. A trio of middle-aged breast strokers had decided to take over the one lane divided off for “Sportschwimmer”. Never mind. Since the rest of the pool was almost empty, I just jumped into the big blue and started doing my laps, following the path furthest away from everyone else. As I was doing backstroke, a middle-aged couple, who previously had spent about twenty minutes watching me doing laps, promptly entered the pool and swam right into me from the side. I suddenly came up with someone hitting my side, so I stopped, apologised, saying I was sorry but I did not have eyes in the back of my head. The man was friendly enough and apologised too. But his wife was quite indignant, and crossly said: But surely you can see under water with those goggles?! No, she was not making a joke. I was so flabbergasted by the sheer stupidity and the rude deliverance, I did the only thing that made sense: put on my goggles and swam away. Which is my preferred way of dealing with rude compatriots.

Look, I could go on, But getting back to the point of my post, the question is: What the hell is wrong here? Why is it so hard to swim in German swimming pools?

I have a number of theories on the subject, some of them funny, some serious ones, but I think the following – or rather, a combination of the following – answers is the most likely:

1. The vast majority of people here can’t really swim properly; and they don’t see a swimming pool as a place to swim. After all, they don’t go swimming, they go to the baths Sie gehen baden.Most Germans never learn more than the above-water breast stroke, the kind preferred by old ladies the world over because it is easy – and keeps the hairdo dry. Not swimming applies to the kids too; they love to splash in the water like everywhere, but they don’t swim, they “bathe” – in essence, just like the grown-ups. There is nothing wrong with this as such, of course. But it leads to all sorts of problems. In fact, less and less Germans even learn how to swim nowadays. That is bad enough. Every child should at the very least learn to swim back to the edge of the pool in case she falls in / is pushed.

2. Being a logical people, and since point 1. applies, Germans think swimming pools are not for swimming. Yes, that is absurd. But it is also true. For your average German family, pools are places exclusively reserved to splash about on hot days, or do some criss-crossing of breast stroke between sunbathing (another type of bathing that is still popular here). And above all, the swimming pool is a place to park your kids, relax, enjoy some “wellness”, in other words: hit the sauna/aromatherapy/massage/cosmetics section. Not to mention throwing a towel on a deck chair (lots and lots and lots of those around). In fact, I have seen a number of pools from Heidelberg to Munich that closed off swimming sections to cater better to the “wellness enthusiasts”. Just to remain financially viable. Contrast that with a pool in Australia: it is a turquoise box, subdivided by lane ropes, where people choose the lane best suited to their speed, and then they procede to just swim. Sigh.

3. With devastating efficiency, consequently, many Germans don’t like others actually swimming. That’s right: Germans treat pools like clueless flaneurs might treat a golfing green or an athletics oval. They would walk here and there, enjoying the green grass to lie around and sit and loung about…and complain about those pesky golfers with their dangerous flying balls – or about runners running around and causing a fuss. Point is though: Germans aren’t clueless. So why do they still behave as though they are?

Well that is where my reasoning hits the wall. I could offer a few reasons for point 3. but frankly none them are convincing.

Anyway, time to end this rant. It has been building in me for three years but I feel better now.

Hilarious but true: And make that "English speaking nations" versus Continental Europe....(CC Image by Thierry Gregorius via Flickr)
Hilarious but true: And make that “English speaking nations” versus Continental Europe….(CC Image by Thierry Gregorius via Flickr)