Getting settled in was very expensive. I not only had to buy basic necessities, but I had to pay in euros. One dollar is worth about 75 cents of a euro. So, I lose about 25% of my money. My first few days I spent between €300-€400, so between $410-$550. Ouch. I decided to check my balance online before going grocery shopping. I had about $6 left. Crap. I was going to have to wait about a week before my monthly stipend arrived.
I had €20 in cash to shop with. I had been eating alot of bread products, so I was craving vegetables. The produce is fairly cheap and very fresh here. The apples look like apples that actually came off a tree; they vary in sizes and some are slightly misshapen. Comparatively, the apples in America look like they came out of a factory, all the same size and shape, all unnaturally glossy. I will say, however, that American apples are more crisp.
The grocery store didn't have any white button mushrooms--which is fine with me because I prefer more flavorful fungi. And the tomatoes--oh the tomatoes-- beautiful. The had so many types of bright red vine-ripened tomatoes, and they actually had flavor!
I didn't oggle too much over the food though. I had a mission: get enough food to nourish me for a week using only €20. I was hungry, ravenously so, which made a strange sense of desperation color my experience there. I kept a tally in my head of how much the total for my basket was.
To many people that is a regular visit to the grocery store, but I have to admit that I have never had to worry about getting enough to eat. Sure, some weeks I have a budget to stick to, but I always had staples in my kitchen to fall back on. I have always shopped focusing on the quality and flavor of the food in my cart, but this time it was all about the budget and how much energy I would get from the food. Every calorie and every cent mattered.
As I shopped I wondered if this is what most college students feel like when they go grocery shopping. I've always been very fortunate with financial aid, as well as being very frugal. So, I don't really have a normal student's budget for food. I get specialty cheeses, prosciutto (not overly often), and organic milk. Instead of spending all my money shopping for clothes I spend it on food.
I bought brown rice and salad ingredients, but I could not afford soy sauce, salad dressing, vinegar, salt, or pepper. Salt had never been a luxury before. The only reason I got olive oil was to cook the two chicken thighs I found for €1.32 and to pour on my salads. Your body can't absorb the nutrients in salads without some sort of fat.
While I shopped I ate all the free samples I could at the booths without looking like a homeless person. I was hungry, but I needed to make it until the ERASMUS meeting that evening; they were feeding us free pizza. I had never been so excited for free food in my life.
I kept thinking of a story Toyoda Sensei, the president of the Aikido Association of America, had told me about when he studied at Hombu Dojo in Japan, which is the world headquarters of aikido. He said that he worked in a cafeteria and lived in the dojo while he was there. He wasn't getting enough to eat, so when he took the trays into the back-room of the cafeteria to clean them he would eat the left-over food when no one was looking. Had he been caught, he would have been fired. He's now internationally renowned for his aikido skills and travels all over the world teaching seminars. The story was a nice reminder that while I might be hungry, tired, and overwhelmed now, I would be okay.
That evening I finally got to meet the other ERASMUS students. They come from all over Europe, although the majority of them are from France and Turkey. I'm not actually an ERASMUS student because I'm not from Europe, but I'm grouped with them anyway. There are two other people like me: Australian-Asian Ken (who I didn't really meet until later--but don't worry Ken you are definitely going to be in later posts), and Ward from Israel (who is a party animal).
Not everyone in the group speaks German, so most of them prefer English. The tutors, Hannah and Samuel, said everything in German first and then in English. Almost all of the conversations were held in English. In some ways that makes my life much easier, but it also hinders my ability to learn German. I haven't been speaking German enough, so I really need to start forcing myself to use it in conversations.
I am a little shy when I am surrounded by new people, but thankfully the girls sitting next to me weren't. They introduced themselves as Perrine and Melissa, and within ten minutes they had already invited me to come visit them in Belgium. I was told I would have to try Belgian waffles and french fries--I mean Belgian fries. They were incredibly sweet and very easy to talk to. They're the cute girls next door...only they speak French!
Because there are two campuses, the people from Duisburg mostly stayed on one side of the room and the people from Essen stayed on the other side. Then there were two tables of just French students. The pizza came and although I was famished I tried not to pig out on it. I didn't want everyone's first impression of me to be the American stuffing her face.
After we ate we went to a bar nearby (I didn't buy anything to drink). It was interesting to say the least. The only cohesion in the decorations was the fact that nothing matched. There were chairs made of crates with old bottles in them, lawn tables, oddly shaped tables, a weird mannequin--it was total chaos. Most of the people there were dressed in goth or punk clothing. I have to say that there is something about a goth speaking German that makes them scarier than an American goth.
While I was there I also met Yann and Victor, who are from France. Yann is studying fluid mechanical engineering and Victor is studying mechanical engineering. That means they are both from the Duisburg campus. I was a little intimidated to talk Yann at first. Why?