Some people quit their jobs because they find the work too stressful or because they just don’t like what they do any more. The favorite reason for given for the disgraced politician or out-of-favor aide-de-camp is that they want to “spend more time with family.” Any of these excuses would have been perfectly acceptable had I used one of them to justify my quitting German school a few weeks into the new semester. Instead, announcing my decision at a get-together hosted by my former German teacher and attended by group of my closest friends and classmates, I just told the truth. “I want to have the time to read more novels and take more bike rides in the country.” Well, that didn’t come across as very creditable.
My teacher was “very disappointed,” and thought I was missing a “rare opportunity" to master German. My classmates were horrified. They were sure that I was making rash decision that would have disastrous consequences for my university and professional careers. I explained that, actually, I’d already completed my university education and that, believe it or not, a passing grade on the German fluency exam was not going to be much of an asset in my career in North America. “Well, you just never know what the future may bring,” they said. I understand their reasoning. In the unstable political and economic climates from which they hail – Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia – the future can bring all sorts of unpleasant surprises, making fluency in another language and quick access to a foreign job market a real asset. But I’m an American, and in America we suffer from quite another problem.
I suppose you could call it the “oppression of stability.” America is so prosperous and stable that almost everyone can be employed, continuously, throughout their entire lives. So a gap in one’s resume can flash at prospective employers like a neon sign saying, “spent six months in a mental institution” or “spent a year doing nothing and living in her parents’ basement.” Even new mothers feel unable to leave the job market for just a year or two for fear that such a break will make them irrelevant or unemployable. And they would be right.
Well, for better or worse, I’m stuck with just such a blank on my resume: the entire 2007 calendar year. I’ve tried to fill it as best I could with a little freelancing back in the States and the plausible deniability that I’ve been studying German at the University of Würzburg for the past nine months. It would have been nice if I could have rounded it out as a solid year of study and capped it off with a 3 (the best score) on the DSH exam. But as my time in Germany winds to a close, my priorities have begun to shift. My bookshelf sags with books as yet unread and the golden days of an Indian summer keep extending their offer of endless country bike rides. And suddenly the raised eyebrow of a prospective employer matters so much less to me than it once did.
Instead of worrying about how I can fill this unusual absence from the workforce with meaningful activity, I’ve begun worrying about how I’m ever going to fit in all the things I want to do in the three months of freedom I have left. When I return to North America, I’ll immediately begin looking for a new job, and then I’ll likely be working non-stop for the rest of my professional life. And once I began looking at it that way, I felt more and more strongly that sitting in German class for four hours a day and staring glassy-eyed over my grammar book for another two hours each night, was just not how I could best be using this “rare opportunity.”
At the tea party that day, I tried explaining this as best I could in my broken German, each grammatical mistake yet another sign that I was making a poor decision. My classmates were unconvinced. But I think it’s because they are young – much younger than me – and don’t yet have a sense of the endless stretch of work that lies ahead of them, unbroken by summer vacations. But I think my teacher understood. After all, she once lived in the United States for several years and has some sense of our uninterrupted grind of employment, so unlike the patchy work history of most Europeans, who routinely take three years off to care for a child or go on government assistance while they pursue dreams of being a poet or photographer. Also, she’s a rather adventurous lady, who plans to relocate to China for a few years. Of course, she is still enduring four hours a day of grueling Chinese lessons, but to each her own.
In the weeks since I quit German school, I’ve not cracked a German book once – not even that German novel I started reading back in August. But I still practice my German conversation at the Wednesday soirée I host at a local Biergarten and at other weekly get-togethers with friends and classmates. Already I’ve noticed my German is slipping, or at least it’s falling behind that of my friends, who are still going to class every day. It is a painful reminder of where my German would be if I’d stuck with it. But on a sunny Monday morning, when the open road stretches in front of me and there’s a unread novel stuffed in my knapsack, I don’t mind being a “quitter” at all.
Looking back over this blog, I realize that I haven't written much about Germans school or my classmates, although they have played such an important role in my life here in Germany. So, here's a little slideshow I put together of some of our adventures this past spring a summer. Hopefully they will not be the last.