“It’s a place you’ll fall in love with at second glance – not first,” I overheard a friend of mine telling someone recently at a dinner party. “It takes some time to get used to Frankfurt. But once you do, it’s hard to leave.”
Whenever I tell people (and by people, I mostly mean just Germans) that I live in Frankfurt, I’m almost always met with a look of skepticism, disappointment, and even a bit of confusion. “You came all the way from America,” they say, usually emphasizing the last word, “And you chose to live in Frankfurt? Why in the world would you ever do that?”
I tell them about my job and how, as a non-EU citizen, my options for employment were limited. To which they often respond, “Okay, so if you could choose any city in Germany to live in, which one would it be?”
I’m never really sure how to answer that question. I don’t have a favorite city in Germany, and I feel really comfortable in Frankfurt. So I tell them that I like it a lot here and hope to stay for a while.
At this point in the conversation, my counterpart – assuming they haven’t been to Frankfurt before – cringes or takes a short, sharp breath while clenching their teeth. You know, like the sound you make when you hear fingernails on a chalkboard or stub your big toe on a staircase.
I understand. Frankfurt has a certain reputation among Germans.
It’s full of bankers. It doesn’t have nearly as much nightlife as Berlin or Cologne. And it apparently had a minor drug and gang problem in the 80s and 90s (although I should point out that this was never remotely close to anything in the United States). So yeah, I get why Frankfurt doesn’t always conjure up the best image.
But it’s a pity, really. Because I didn’t need a second chance to fall for Frankfurt. From the moment I first saw the Commerzbank Tower (which, by the way, totally looks like something out of a Batman comic when it’s all lit up at night) or walked across the “Eiserner Steg,” I felt comfortable, at ease, and welcomed here (well, unless we’re talking about the foreigner’s office or any other “Behörde” for that matter, because German “Bürokratie” is pretty much zee worst).
Like a lot of places far away from my childhood home in small-town Ohio, my first memory of Frankfurt is one that involves suitcases, travel documents, and a fair amount of jet lag (okay, so “fair” is definitely an understatement, considering I’ve never slept longer than an hour on a plane).
But you know what? Despite staying up for the entire flight and hardly sleeping the previous two nights, I was wide awake when I landed in Frankfurt on that sunny morning in early September 2007. It was the beginning of my year as a high school exchange student in Germany, and I couldn’t have been more excited.
In fact, just the hour or two of waiting at the airport for my connecting train got my adrenaline pumping (which, admittedly, wasn’t hard to do at the time, probably because the most exciting thing about my hometown was when Wendy’s started selling root beer floats… oh, and maybe also the hot air balloon glow every summer).
After all, it was in Frankfurt that I first held Euro banknotes in my hands and tried to sort through the golden ten-cent and twenty-cent coins (confession: ten years later, I still mix them up).
It was in Frankfurt that I first had an “Apfelschorle” – that fizzy, apple juice-like beverage that might just be as popular as beer (scandalous, I know).
It was in Frankfurt that I first encountered a German trashcan and tried to figure out whether my gum wrapper was “Verpackung,” “Restmüll,” “Papier,” or “Glas” (okay, so I was smart enough to know it wasn’t that last one).
And it was in Frankfurt that I first rode on an ICE, or a high-speed bullet train.
In other words: Frankfurt was my introduction to Germany. And from the beginning, it represented change, adventure, and a little something the Germans would call “Weltoffenheit” (which literally translates to world openness).
Three years later, in August 2011, I flew via Frankfurt’s airport again, this time on my way back to the US after studying abroad in the Middle East. I had just wrapped up my junior year of college, and much like in 2007, my life was going through somewhat of a transition.
To put it simply: My initial plans to spend a semester at the American University in Cairo didn’t exactly go as planned (hint: a little thing called the Arab Spring happened while I was there), and after eight months in the region, I realized that the Middle East just wasn’t for me (as a long-term place of residence, that is. I’d still love to go back as a tourist).
I’d like to think I don’t make major life decisions on a whim, but as I sat in Frankfurt’s airport on my layover from the Middle East, I was reminded of all the things I loved about Germany and what my year as a high school exchange student taught me. And if I’m really honest, I feel like those few hours in Frankfurt’s transit area gave me the nudge I needed to follow my gut and move back to Germany after college.
So Frankfurt has always had a way of marking major transitions in my life. And it’s because of this that I often equate it with transformation, reflection, openness, and, more recently, home.
Home. Let’s talk about that for a second.
Over the years, I’ve realized that being an expat can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, I’ve learned that home can be anywhere (which, if you think about it, is an incredibly freeing and liberating thought). On the other hand, though, no one place will ever truly be home.
I can’t have the best of both worlds – and I probably never will. I can’t take my favorite things from Germany and my favorite things from America and create the perfect mix. I’ll always be torn between two or more places.
But even under these circumstances, Frankfurt has grown into as much of a home as I could’ve ever imagined. I’d like to think this has a lot to do with my international group of friends, my ability to travel so easily (I’m in the geographic heart of Europe, after all), the city’s multicultural vibe, and the fact that – brace yourselves – this is the longest I’ve ever lived in any place since high school.
And guess what? That last point is beginning to show.
For instance, I now know where to go on Fridays when the wine stand at the Börsenplatz closes (*cough* Friedberger Platz *cough*).
I can spout off my favorite places for Sunday brunch, Schnitzel, pho, and falafel in a heartbeat.
I love a cold glass of Äppelwoi on a hot summer day (“süß gespritzt,” that is, because the pure stuff is still way too sour for me).
I go to the Chinese Garden in Bornheim or the Lohrberg in Seckbach when I need a break from the hustle and bustle of the downtown.
And I head to the upper deck of Oosten or climb to the top of the Goetheturm whenever I want a free view of the skyline.
Sometimes, I daydream about moving to another place, to a city like Berlin, Hamburg, or Munich, just for a change of scenery. But you know what? For now, it’s nothing more than that – a daydream. Besides, Berlin is too hip, Hamburg is too cold, and Munich is just too… hmm, how should I put this? Bavarian?
But even more, the thought of leaving Frankfurt, of saying goodbye to summer street festivals and day trips to the Rheingau and sunset picnics along the Main, makes my heart grow heavy. And that’s how I know that Frankfurt has truly become home.
Sure, my wanderlust is still as rampant as ever. And yes, I sometimes wish I could fit my life into a suitcase and just get up and travel in the blink of an eye. I doubt that will ever change.
But in spite of that, I’m glad to be able to call Frankfurt home, to revel in the comfort of saying the words, “Ich bin ein Frankfurter.”