Once, after waiting two months for the shipment of our personal belongings to Teheran, my mother remarked that she was tired of “living out of a suitcase.” This image of adventure and mobility which captivated me at the age of eight has held a certain fascination ever since. Living out of a suitcase means being out of town, away from home, a novel but usually short-term situation. Over half a century later, however, thanks to a Fulbright Grant at the age of 66, I find myself living out of a suitcase for a year in Wolfenbüttel, Germany.
A year means you can’t save your laundry until when you get home. You have to overcome intimidating bureaucracies to apply for a residence permit, open a bank account, pay rent. You begin to feel more comfortable, but always a little off-balance. Negotiating a foreign language and an unfamiliar environment are built into taking a bus, shopping for groceries, buying socks, running out of toothpaste. You stare at shelves full of unfamiliar condiments. You can’t think of the right word; you make mistakes, buy the wrong size, look everywhere for hangers and dishtowels rather than ask where they are. It’s a humbling experience.
Life gets complicated when your stay abroad is a long one. Sooner or later you may need to see a dentist or register for a class or do your taxes. A necessity can turn into an adventure. The need for periodic hair maintenance has given me a chance to chat casually, answer questions, and read German women’s magazines like Bild der Frau, immersing myself in a sort-of-familiar and sort-of-different world of recipes, diets, decorating, fashions, and child care. How to lose 2 kilos in a week or serve five variations of Frikadellenfor dinner.
But the really important things to find out involve wi-fi access, cell phones, public transportation, food and laundry. After a week, you know what your problem areas are. Then it’s time to take a more experienced acquaintance out for coffee and ask every question you can think of. I asked about buying a bus ticket, returning plastic bottles in the store, tipping in restaurants, and taking the train. She added in information on things I hadn’t thought to ask, about market days, take-out food, holidays when everything’s closed, like Pentecost and Unification Day, and which local theater shows foreign films on Monday nights.
Suitcase living is liberating in its simplicity. You pack a few things, more or less color coordinated, and just wear them one after the other. More in cold weather, less in hot. You can’t buy much, because when you leave it all has to go into the suitcase again. Scarves are the best accessory. A trip out of town? Just throw half your clothes and two scarves in your carry-on bag, print your on-line train ticket, and leave. When I was home at Christmas, I was so overwhelmed with all the stuff in my closet that it was easier to pull clothes out of my suitcase for two weeks than cope with multiple outfit decisions. But as of June 26 I will have been in Europe a full year. Time to face the closet. I am ready to go home. Until next time.