What Chronic Stress Really Does To Your Body

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English: Jump! Deutsch: Spring!

Photo credit: Wikipedia

I have read thousands of articles about how bad stress, especially chronic stress, is for your body. However, what I never realised is what a sneaky bastard chronic stress is. You don’t wake up one day with a multitude of stress-related problems, but instead it’s like you are the frog in a pot of water that is slowly being brought to boil – well at least I was. The symptoms started so slowly and were so random that I never chalked them up to stress until I quit my job and now 6 weeks later these problems are all going away. Sure, I knew I was constantly stressed and frustrated and all the other negative things that comes from working in a toxic environment for years, but I totally underestimated the impact it had on my health.

I’ve had IBS for over 20 years. I know how this thing goes, therefore when I noticed it getting worse I thought it was something I was doing wrong. I cleaned up my diet, got rid of the foods I knew triggered my IBS but nothing really changed. My symptoms were still off the scale. I was getting through each day by taking the maximum dose of Immodium allowed. Still I didn’t put two to two together until just recently when I noticed I didn’t need a single Immodium tablet to make it through the day or even the week. My stomach was calm, except when I did something stupid like not sleep or eat something I knew I shouldn’t. I was actually shocked. Shocked that stress could make me that sick and shocked that I never even once thought my symptoms were caused by stress.

Another thing I have noticed since quitting my job is that my skin is looking better than it has in years. I’m one of these rare people whose skin is still trapped in puberty as I’m about to turn 40. I’m using both Clearasil and anti-wrinkle cream. Whilst I still have some spots, this is me we are talking about, my skin now looks healthy instead of all congested and clogged. Again nothing has changed in my diet or skin care regime, all that has changed is that I quit my job. The chronic stress has disappeared. Even my hair is looking better. I was queen of the persistent bad hair day. Nothing I did made my hair look good for more than a minute. Now, it’s good hair day almost every day.

You would think that being unemployed and, until I improve my German, pretty much unemployable would be overloading my system with stress, but it isn’t. Well, at least, nowhere near the stress levels I had whilst working in my previous work. I’m not going to lie and say that having no income is a walk in the park. But being finally free of chronic stress has lifted my mood out of the gutter that even being worried about money isn’t bringing me down to the level I used to be at.

If you have recent health problems or just not looking or feeling as good as you used to, please take note of your stress levels or the environment you work or live in. Then do something to change it. I was only in an ultra stressful and toxic environment for 2 years, but the impact it had on my health was major. I can’t imagine the state of my health if I had stayed in that job for 5 or 10 or even 20 years. I probably would have never blamed stressed for my health problems either. Remember stress is sneaky, it’s like a ninja. You don’t know that it’s stress’ fault until you are boiling alive and can’t get out of the pot.

Back To School

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So as advertised, I started my intensive German course last week and already my brain is absolutely exhausted. The course itself is not overwhelming nor too challenging, but it’s just the fact that I’m in class for 4.5 hours every day. I’m just not used to doing full-time study nor full-time study of a subject that ties my brain into knots. One day I may come to grips with German grammar but it feels like that day is a long way off. Fortunately, the folks in my class are making class enjoyable and I love that once again I’m getting to know people from such a wide spectrum of nationalities – French, Swiss, Italian, Polish, Danish, Russian and Chinese.

Also as well as German classes, the Goethe Institut run what they call cultural activities and I have been to two of them this week. The great part about the cultural activities is not only that I’m seeing new places and new things, but they are all conducted in German which is a great way to get in some German study without it feeling like study.

On Friday I went to the Haus der Photographie to see an exhibition on the Leica camera. At this exhibition they had the original photo that launched a million Che Guevara t-shirts worldwide.

Plus the iconic VJ Day kiss photo

On Saturday we headed to the next state over, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, to the city Schwerin to see its palace.

Unfortunately, we picked the worst day possible to go sightseeing when Hurricane Felix was lashing North Germany. I don’t recommend walking around outside in hurricane strength winds and torrential rain. Still the palace was fascinating and now I know it’s there and it’s only a 90 min train ride away, I plan to go back when the weather is much nicer and take my camera gear so I can get some much better and more picturesque photos.

So, how am I going with the strict rules I set myself last week?  Well I accomplished all of them but going to Kung Fu. You can blame a bad headache and a mountain of homework on that failure.  Hopefully this week I’ll do much better.

 

Registration Day Plus Some Rules For The Next Two Months

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Technically my Intensive German course at the Goethe Institute started today, but instead of class today, we had what one might call a Registration Day, even though we’ve all technically registered and paid. It was a day where we got our new student IDs, the all important Wi-Fi password, our GI folders containing the cultural program and, oh yeah, we all had to undertake a one-on-one interview in German that together with our entrance test, that we have already done, will determine what class we will end up in.

The Einzelgespräche, as it was officially called, wasn’t too bad. It was basically a get-to-know-you conversation which is pretty much the only conversation I can have quite comfortably in German. My entrance exam mark was not so great, it seemed all that grammar knowledge has vanished from my brain, but I will probably end up in B2, which is where I want to be and even if I have to do B1 again for a month, well, I probably need the refresh. I’m not going to stress out about what class I end up in. I’m going to trust that it will be the class I need to be in.

My official Goethe Institut Folder

What I’m most excited about is the cultural program. There is something on every day that fits in to whether you have a morning or afternoon class and on the weekends there are excursions to places like Schwerin and Kiel for ridiculously low prices like €10. I’m already marking off the ones I want to go on.

Of course these next two months aren’t going to be spent just touring around Hamburg & Northern Germany. I need to work hard on my German and to help facilitate that I have come up with some rules to keep myself disciplined. They are:

1. No English language TV/movies (including CNN), except for 1 evening per week. Going to the cinema is excluded from this rule.

2. Listen to 1-2 German podcasts a day.

3. Keep on reading my German language novels daily.

4. Go to Kung Fu at least twice a week – Kung Fu is held in German (a plus!) & I need to get my butt moving whilst doing all this studying.

5. ALL homework must be completed daily. No slacking off allowed.

6. Go to at least two events held in German a month. One of these must include a Stammtisch or similar. Looking at the cultural program this will not be a problem.

7. Work on improving my vocab daily.

8. Do at least 30 mins further study daily.

Hopefully these will keep me on track and immersed in my German so I can get the most out of these next two months.

Classes officially start tomorrow but because the school will not work out the class lists until this evening, everyone needs to be there by 8:30am, which is technically before sunrise. If my class is not until the afternoon, which is likely, then I have a Hamburg city tour to look forward to in the morning. I’m not happy about having to be at school so early. I am not a morning person and these last 3 weeks of holidays has meant that my usual waking time is more around 10am than 7am. Tomorrow morning is going to be tough.

 

 

Farewell to 2014

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One of my friends described 2014 as a heavy year and I think that is an accurate assessment. 2014 is a year I would rather forget. That is not to say some great things didn’t happen like getting my permanent residency but so did a lot of crappy things like one of my best friends leaving Hamburg to go back to the US and my now former employer screwing me over when I dared to quit.

So I move into 2015 with no job and no plans. It is both exciting and terrifying to have your life wide open. Normally at this time of year, I make plans or goals like travel more or come up with a word that I want to see more of in my life, but I am not going to do that this year. I am leaving 2015 wide open with no expectations.

Farewell 2014, you were a pretty disappointing year.  Welcome 2015, hopefully you will be much better.

 

The Christmas Fire Hazard

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This Christmastime has produced some firsts in my life – namely the first time I have decorated a real (ie not artificial) Christmas tree and the first time I have been invited to a traditional German Christmas Eve celebration.

My first time decorating a real actual Christmas tree was in early December when my fellow expat friend E invited me around for tree decorating and hot chocolate.

Isn’t it cute? And yes, that is a toy fish on the top.

The second, obviously, occurred on Christmas Eve when I was invited to join my friend L’s eclectic mix of friends to celebrate Christmas. There was a mixture of people I knew and people I didn’t know and the people I didn’t know were a lovely, if not slightly weird, bunch which matched the lovely weirdness of the people I did know. When I arrived the living room door was shut and strict instructions were given that we were not allowed to enter. I soon forgot about the secret in the living room as we were treated to an amazing four course meal and I started wishing that I wore bigger pants. At around 11:30pm, a bell was rang and we were told that we could enter the living room. This is the sight that greeted us.

A beautifully decorated 6 foot Christmas tree featuring real candles. I was simultaneously swept away by how magical it looked and really worried that the place would burn down. Thankfully L had the mandatory bucket of water next to the tree in case of unexpected combustion, but also as a veteran of real candles on real trees, she had positioned the candles perfectly so that there was no risk of the flame coming anywhere near one of the branches. As the night wore on I became less worried about the fire danger and more in love with how magical it was. I now understand why Germans risk burning down their house at Christmas time. Fake candles and fairy lights are no match for the real thing.

After we all oohhhed and ahhhed over the tree L further spoiled us, by giving us Christmas presents. Just look how gorgeous the gift tag was on my present!

I almost felt bad for opening it. Everyone’s present was chosen with care and with expert knowledge of the recipient. But the presents did not stop there. We had all brought a Schrottgeschenk or Secret Santa gift which all went into the middle of room and using a dice and a set of increasingly difficult rules the gifts went from person to person until we all ended up with a gift that wasn’t ours.

Around 1am I headed home on the bus along with a older woman I had just meet that evening, J. We had a conversation I felt the need to record for prosperity just because how totally out of left field it was. The conversation started talking about long haul flights and which airline I use to fly to Sydney

Me: The last couple of times I have flown to Sydney, I have flown Emirates.

J: Aren’t you worried about the terrorists?

Me: (puzzled) Ummm…. no.

J: Well, I expect they wouldn’t shoot one of their own down.

Seriously WTF??  I am starting to wonder if the Germans have their own version of Fox News that I am completely unaware of as this is just crazy talk. She also told me that she would never fly into Heathrow as it was a terrorist hot spot.  Righty-oh then.

I also got lost on the way home as I don’t get buses all that much and where I thought I had gotten off wasn’t where I actually had gotten off and it all went a little pear-shaped. Thank god for Google maps. Obviously I need to get the bus more often and stop relying solely on the U-Bahn.

Still Christmas Eve was just wonderful and by far my favourite one since I have moved to Germany.  If L will have me over next year, I will totally be there.

 

Hamburg’s Christmas Lights

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Warning: This post is photo heavy!

One of the things I love about Christmas here in Hamburg is all the gorgeous Christmas lights. They make the cold and the dark at this time of year seem worthwhile. Therefore last Sunday evening armed with my fancy new camera I headed into the city to try and capture them. What I learnt is that I still have much to learn about photography. Still I got some pretty decent shots.

Looking across the Alster at Sunset

 

Going for the art-house look

 

Rowers out on the Alster

I don’t think I could ever get sick of this view

Merry Christmas in multiple languages

My beloved Rathaus

 

A Christmas Tree of Light

Another art-house shot

Fairy lights strung across the street

Football German-Style

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I can now tick off another thing on my German Integration Checklist: Attend a local football match.

Fellow expat Scott (@papascott) invited me to join him at the HSV vs Stuttgart match last night and of course I jumped at the chance. I loved watching the World Cup and had, subsequently, wanted to attend a Bundesliga match.

It was a chilly and damp winter’s night but that didn’t stop 48,223 fans from turning up to a game in the middle of the week. But even with that many people it didn’t feel overcrowded. We arrived an hour before game time which gave us time to leisurely grab a drink & in my case a pretzel before heading to our seats. It also gave Scott time to warn me about what was about to happen – namely a local celebrity King Karl being hoisted up in the air on a cherry picker to sing HSV’s pre-game song ‘Hamburg, Meine Perle’ (Hamburg, My Pearl) during which all dedicated HSV fans stood up and waved their HSV scarfs in the air. It was, let’s say, an experience.

Despite being up in the top section, we had a great view of the game.

The camera makes it seem so far away but we had no problems seeing the players and the ball and regrettably the HSV players forgetting that the main aim of the game is to take the ball with them and not leave it behind.

Scott also pointed out to me the pen in which the opposing team’s fans are kept.

That’s them there in red with the line of police in fluro. Sorry about the somewhat blurry photo. The sad fact of German football is that to help prevent violence the opposing team’s fans need to be kept separated from the rest of the stadium. There were only about 500 Stuttgart fans in attendance, but what they lacked in numbers, they made up for in noise. They spent the entire game banging on drums, singing and chanting. I guess you need to be a pretty hard core fan to come all the way from Stuttgart for a mid-week game.

The game itself was pretty exciting. The teams were fairly evenly matched, both of them being at the bottom of the Bundeslinga table. Whilst the HSV team could get the ball to the goal, they just couldn’t get it into the goal, much to the disappointment of the fans. When they left the field at half-time after Stuttgart scored a late goal, the HSV fans actually booed their own team. I have to admit I have never seen a team’s fans actually boo their own team, but the HSV fans were not happy – and I can’t blame them.

During the second half, tempers were frayed on the field with a Stuttgart player getting a red card for what looked like a minor scuffle and a HSV player got a yellow card for trying to start a fight with a Stuttgart player. However, up in the stands the fans were kept happy by the mobile beer sellers.

Unfortunately the score line remained at 0:1 so I never got to see how HSV fans react to their own team scoring. However, it was nice to note that language is irrelevant at a football match ‘Yeahhhh!!!’ and ‘Awwww! are universal. As are hurling whatever abuse you feel like at the ref that missed an obvious foul.

Getting back to the train station was almost as exciting as the game itself whilst the arena tried to deal with over 48,000 people trying to leave all at once. Waiting for and then trying to get on the shuttle bus involved a fair dose of humour as we were basically herded like cattle. Fortunately, despite the loss, the cold weather and the large amount of people, everyone was laughing and I saw no aggression or even yelling, just good humoured comments about all of the above.

Thanks Scott for a wonderful night out! You might make a HSV fan of me yet.

The Only Constant

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The quote ‘Change is the only constant in life’ is once again ringing true for me. Today is/was my final day at the job I have have for 7 years and the job that moved my life from Australia to Germany. It’s a big change, a massive one even. From my second day in Germany I have gone to the same office every weekday, seen the same faces regularly on the U-Bahn, gotten my mandatory Coke at the same supermarket and basically had a very comforting daily routine amidst all the upheaval of learning to adapt to life in a new country. Now that is all changing.

Alas, I don’t have news of an awesome new job which prompted all this change. I left my job in part because I felt undervalued and unappreciated. Regretfully my now former company chose to show me just how little they valued me. I have learnt some really tough life lessons, especially this past week, and now move on into the world a little wiser and a lot less trusting than before.

I do, however, have a plan, such that it is. For the first two months of the upcoming year I will be a full-time German language student at the Goethe Institute in an attempt to drag my German from barely conversational to business level. It is going to be a very tough 2 months, but one I’m looking forward to. Unfortunately, evening classes were never going to be enough to get my German to the level I need it to be to find an awesome new job here. Therefore if I wanted my job situation to change, I needed to make that happen for me. It kinda feels like burning everything to the ground in order to rebuild it.

So lots of changes are happening and all without the safety net of having a steady reliable income. I’m excited and, if I’m honest, also scared about what 2015 will have in store for me.

Nikolaustag

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It’s not just Advent Calenders that supply Germans with a steady stream of chocolate in December, but St Nicholas (Nikolaus) also gets in on the act.

On the night of the 5th December, German children clean their shoes (the bigger the better) and put them outside their door. If they have been good, then on the morning of the 6th, they wake up to find their shoes have been stuffed full of chocolate, lollies and other goodies.

Unfortunately, as an adult if I put my shoes outside my front door all that would happen is the strong possibility that someone would steal them. However, the business centre in which my company has an office plays St Nicholas for us grown-up children and every December 6th we arrive at work to find chocolate on our desks. This year was no different, but since the 6th falls on a Saturday this year, we got our presents a day early.

Along with a note explaining why. Apparently Nikolaus is a busy man this year.

Rough translation:

Tomorrow on Saturday 6th Saturday…no, comes not Santa but naturally Nicholas.

And because he also has so much to do this year, we allowed him to show up a day earlier at the office to leave a little something to sweeten the pre-christmas time.

So, story time is over:  Unpack and enjoy… and continue working.

I just love this tradition! And that the staff at the Business Centre get really into it.

If you also work in Germany, does your office do something similar? Or are you forced to buy your own chocolate to celebrate Nikolaustag?

Chocolate: It’s What’s For Breakfast In December

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Growing up in Australia I didn’t know that Advent Calenders were a thing.  Sure, I knew about Advent as I was dragged taken to church every Sunday, but having a calender associated with it was not something that Australians did in the 80s. However, here in Germany Advent is a huge deal, especially the Advent Calender – and it is a tradition I have embraced wholeheartedly as who can’t get behind having chocolate for breakfast for the first 24 days in December.

The first Advent Calender I got was one designed especially for children so the chocolate came in all kinds of festive shapes

and ones that were supposed to be festive but looked strangely suspicious

Then the following year, I discovered that After Eights did an Advent Calender and due to my addiction to mint flavoured chocolate there was no going back after that.

So now every December I start my mornings with a piece of mint chocolate and life couldn’t be better for those 2 minutes it takes me to eat it. Actually I would be in favour of extending Advent to cover the whole year. I think the world would be a happier place if everyone started their day with a delicious piece of chocolate.

 

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