Thursday, February 23, 2012

Today I smelled cow dung and it made me think of you.

This winter has been strange in western Germany. With hardly any snow fall until February, no one is sure what to expect, but today is sunny and the car told me it was 50 degrees Fahrenheit on the way home - toasty! Being a native Floridian, it's strange to imagine walking outside in nothing but a long sleeved shirt and jeans and rejoicing in the warmth of 50 degrees, but it's happened. If it's more than 35 degrees I often don't even bother with a jacket if I'm just walking down to the car; less if it's sunny. But temperature isn't the point, it's just responsible for the change outside that has stirred something in me today. Perhaps Spring is on her way.

As I ascended the steps to my house this afternoon, the distinct aroma of fresh cow dung accompanied me all the way to the front door. They must be readying the fields for the new growing season, breaking up the dirt and covering it with Mother Nature's best fertilizer - and it's local! Behind the reflexive grimace was a smile, though, because as odd as it sounds, this smell makes me think of a good friend of mine whom I miss very much in this place. Her name is Diane.

Diane is the kind of friend who disarms you with her charm, then shocks you with her humor. We hit it off immediately.

We met by coincidence on a Tuesday while looking at houses to rent. It was a coincidence that we'd both come across an attractive listing online the night before, and that we'd both called the realtor attached to it to set up an appointment for the following day. We saw three places that day, Chris, me, Diane, and her two daughters. Everyone was quiet and polite when we arrived at the first house, and we followed Frank the realtor up the stairs and around the house Chris and I had decided to call 'Sunshine' for all its windows. I remember watching the two little girls explore the belongings of the children who still lived there, and thinking how well behaved they were with so many toys around. Chris and I loved the place and hoped we wouldn't have to battle the nice-looking lady with the big smile for it later. The second place we viewed was an apartment with an elevator inside - INSIDE! - but it was too small, and the third place was a house with lots of space and in a neighborhood where it was rumored several American families already lived. This was really where we first met, in the empty living room that would soon be filled with Diane's life.

Polite introductions all around, where are you from, aren't these houses interesting? Which one are you leaning toward? Once it was established she wanted the third and we wanted the first, and there would be no need to take anyone down for the sake of the perfect new abode, we were instant friends. We swapped numbers at our cars and made plans to get together soon. It was a coincidence that Diane and her family were staying at the hotel across the street from ours, and that two weeks later some hotel and room swapping required by the hotels made us neighbors in the same building, just two floors apart. This is how our families came to be friends.

When Chris and I first moved in Germany a little over three years ago, we did so in the dead of winter, and 2009 was an especially frosty one. I walked Heidi in fields thick with snow behind the hotel we called home for our first two and a half months, and we layered on the clothes like never before. Living in Tuscany for the past five years did little to prepare us for German winters, and so the relief that Spring brought was exceptionally glorious.

When Spring started to thaw the world outside, the sun shone a little brighter to me because I'd found a friend in this new place. Moving is scary, and moving to a(nother) foreign country is a little scarier because the task of making new connections is complicated by language and cultural differences. That is unless you wind up living practically next door to someone from the same place as you, who also ends up being one of the most amazing people you've ever been lucky enough to call a friend.
The more time we spent together, whether at breakfast downstairs at the hotel or hanging out in one of our rooms with the kids and dog, the quicker we laughed and the longer we talked. Diane is a burst of sunshine with a smile that's even brighter, and her outgoing nature and friendliness only rival her crazy positive outlook on life. It's decidedly impossible not to love her, which would be annoying if she weren't so genuine and charming. One of the things I love most about her is her ability to come out from behind her good Catholic girl modesty with a comment so cheeky and suggestive, you'd swear you'd misheard her. An outrageous flirt, but one you'd trust without hesitation with your significant other, she's a friend who will smack your ass, and then turn bright red at the word penis. (Somewhere in Florida my friend is blushing and she doesn't know why.) My point? My friend Diane is one of a kind and I'm so glad she came into my life. She very quickly became a source of security and comfort for me, a safe place to turn when I felt unsure, and the one to gently yank me into a conversation when I felt awkward and shy. I easily fell in love with her children, and to top it all off, her husband was really cool, too - what luck! Chris and I both felt fortunate to have found such great friends so quickly, friends around whom we could be our normal, crazy selves without fear of running them off, because they were kind of crazy, too.

It was a coincidence that Chris and I moved into Sunshine and Diane and her family moved into their house on the same day, April 1st. Did I mention we had the same house number? If I hadn't been listening before, this was a smack that made me wonder if some things are meant to be. Hokey, I know, but some friendships really do feel intended, like something in you recognizes something in them, and another piece of the puzzle has found its way home.

For the next two and a half years, these people were family to us, and I will always be grateful for that. There are some people who come in and out of your life without causing much of a stir, but Diane was not one of those people. She changed something in me, she helped me grow in a way only she could, and for that she will always be an important part of my life. She showed me that confidence does not have to be vain, and that really loving yourself doesn't mean loving anyone else less. I haven't met many people who have touched my life like she has, and it's a lovely feeling when you know you've mattered to someone you admire so much, too.

When the time came for Diane's family to leave, as is the cycle around here, I was a little terrified of how I'd handle it. But life threw a curveball our way and our friends left in the wake of Heidi's death, while I was stuck in a strange place of emotional numbness. I didn't cry when we waved as the train carried my friend away, and I still haven't written her that long and sappy letter about what she meant to me while we lived in this place together. I now wonder if it was too much, if she meant too much to deal with then, so I just didn't deal with it at all. Whatever the reason, I felt like I'd failed to show her how important she'd become to me and how deeply I cherished our friendship by not allowing my true sadness at her leaving to manifest. I know she knows, but I'm all about showing.

So why the cow dung? When Chris and I had just moved to Europe from the States, we spent a couple of weeks in Vilseck, Germany for a class Chris had to take for work that first summer. We stayed in a family-run hotel in the very small township where the food was fantastic and the walking paths plentiful, but our windows opened to cow pastures all around. That very thick and pungent odor of cow dung filled the room that was otherwise uncomfortably hot with the windows closed, and was quite an assault at first. But as we got used to the smell (and the sounds of the cows not far from our room), that kind of gross detail became part of my first memory of this country. And just as catching a whiff of Old Spice will forever make me think of my Papa whom I loved dearly and miss just as much, the smell of cow manure in the air will always make me think of Germany when it was still new and overly foreign to me. And thinking of Germany when it was so fresh and new will always remind me of the first friends we had in this place who were there when new became familiar, and friends became family.

Thanks, Diane, for bringing the Force of Love that is you into my life. Love you always.

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