It was my most difficult goodbye. We spent a month leaving jobs and schools; friends and people who had became family; favorite places and foods. I ate more currywurst und pommes and drank more espresso doppio and Hefeweizen than I should have. I cried nearly every day, none more than the day my family and I boarded a plane in Nürnberg and headed back to America. I watched Europe fade away from thousands of feet above the ground, tears still on my face.
There are many assignments and locations, but Europe, you have my heart.
Europe is a continent with 50 sovereign states and over 700 million citizens. It is the second smallest continent with Russia accounting for 40% of its land mass. There are more than 250 languages spoken. Empires and kingdoms have reigned and failed on these lands. Some of the greatest arts and cultures in the world were born there. There are mountains and plains; beaches and fields; rivers, lakes, and seas. It is a diverse and multicultural land of people, religions, races, and beliefs.
We spent five and a half years in Europe. And even though I didn’t love every second of it, I miss it daily.
However, I spent our first nine months there not loving Europe.
We started in Northern Italy for two and a half years. We lived in a small village at the base of the pre-Dolomites. Our house was tiny. It was blistering hot that first summer, and our house boasted a tiny window AC unit. I could not find work, and my husband was extremely busy at his squadron. Then he deployed for six months and left me alone in Italy with three young girls. While he was gone, our cars needed work. My youngest daughter started occupational and speech therapy for sensory processing. Our water heater broke – twice. And then another thing and another thing …you know how deployments go.
I was alone and overwhelmed. I had a great friend and plenty of support, but I had never felt so far away from home. I thought I would never fully appreciate my time in Italy or in Europe.
But I was wrong. So terribly wrong.
Somewhere in that deployment, I began to appreciate Italy and what was around me.
I tried to learn more Italian and tried new foods. I took advantage of unemployment and found day trips and adventures for us. We made routines of visiting local grocery stores and markets. I saw this time as fleeting and tried to appreciate the opportunity instead of seeing the negative aspects of living abroad.
I even planned travel. We were an hour from Venice and within driving or flying distance to everything else in Europe. I dreamed of all the places I wanted to see and things I wanted to do, realizing that these things were attainable for the first time in my life. So what was stopping us? My husband arrived home safe the following summer, and by the time he arrived, I was hooked on travel.
After our time in Italy, we were assigned to a squadron in Germany.
I was apprehensive about another European assignment. I missed my family and being close to them geographically. I worried about adapting again to a different culture and language.
And once again, I was terribly wrong.
Germany was amazing! We lived in Vilseck, a tiny village in Bavaria. We loved the area and the people. We appreciated German food and customs with gusto. We went to fests or events constantly, since there is something going on every weekend. We took advantage of local markets and stores, quickly picking up more beloved foods and items. My husband was still busy with work, but we settled in nicely and found a community there.
We still traveled, too. We managed day trips around the area, road trips to other cities and countries, and even a flight or two when necessary. All our extra income went into exploring. This is something I am not ashamed of. In our entire time in Europe, we took our family to 10 countries and countless cities. And we didn’t even scratch the surface of what we could have seen!
But as much as I loved the traveling and exploring, the cultures and the people of Europe are what have my heart.
I grew to love Italian coffee bars. My Italian co-workers taught me so much about the area and about food, wine, and Italian living. Dinners started late and lasted two to four hours, giving us more time to enjoy the food and those with us. Sundays are for rest and family. Shops and restaurants are often closed. I learned to conserve gas and use the rations wisely (European gas prices are so high. We don’t realize how good we have it in the U.S.). I learned to elbow my way through markets and how to find the best produce from local vendors. My love for Italian food only grew and turned me into a pasta snob.
I found that German timeliness and order suited me quite well. I appreciated the blunt and upfront manner of the people, especially my German OBGYN. I learned that beer was as cheap, if not more so than water here. Children are beloved at restaurants. Especially if you are a regular to the establishment. Recycling is not optional. Christmas is more than a holiday here, and became one of my favorite times of the year.
All over Europe – in each town and area – there was something to try and to do. Take an hour in the car or train, and history was all around you. Castles, ancient ruins, art, mountains, lakes, concentration camps, museums … the list could go on. Europe has a larger history than America, and I loved learning about it as often as possible.
So, as much as I love America, I left my heart in Europe.
I left it in my favorite, tiny restaurant in Polcenigo, Italy, where I can still taste the pasta. It is in the streets of Florence, one of our favorite cities. My heart is with the people of Vilseck, Germany and the community we fell in love with. It can be found in the tulips gardens of the Netherlands, the castles of Bavaria, the sangria of Barcelona, in the halls of the Louvre, and on the Underground in London.
European living is not for everyone. It is challenging and far from home. But as difficult as military life can be and as challenging as living in Europe might feel at times, the rewards of the experience far outweighed these difficulties. It is a unique opportunity and one that I greatly appreciate and miss.