Pre-Departure Letter: Why Germany, How Fulbright

Welcome to my Letters from Europe project, an experiment both in personal travel journaling/writing and in modern publishing. I decided to kick off this project before we actually touch ground in Berlin on Tuesday. Here’s a bit of a recap on how Tamara and I got here in the first place…

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T and I met, actually, over German art. Baselitz, Beuys, Penck, Polke. It was in the second half of 2002 when we were introduced at the Saint Louis Art Museum. T worked there as a curatorial research assistant, and I was trying to figure out how to be a grant writer. SLAM was planning a major exhibit called “German Art Now,” and T — with her knowledge of German (she and her parents lived in Munich from 1993 to 1997; German language and literature was one of her two majors) — was helping the curator put on the show and the publications director coordinate for the accompanying book. I was a floor below helping secure sponsorship funds for the show. T provided me the details I needed; the show opened (with sponsorship); we began (secretly) dating…

Fast-forward a few years (some of which were spent living in Madison, where T did her master’s and doctoral coursework in art history), and we’re living in St. Louis, with me editing St. Louis Magazine and T moving forward on her doctoral dissertation. Her focus: Kriegzeit and Der Bildermann, the only two art magazines published in Berlin during the First World War that were specifically devoted to that war’s experience. T had first learned about these journals — launched by the esteemed Berlin art dealer named Paul Cassirer — on a research trip to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The magazines were published weekly between 1914 and 1916 and featured original lithographs by more than 70 artists, including Max Liebermann, Ernst Barlach, Käthe Kollwitz, and Oskar Kokoschka. To date, they’ve not been studied much.

The Fulbright application was due last fall. As part of the prep, T was allowed to attend a workshop at Washington University in St. Louis’ campus and look through a few previous applications. Among the points stressed: The Personal Statement — one part of a large application — should indeed be personal. 

T wrote of being born in a country — Yugoslavia — that no longer exists. Of her parents’ mixed religious backgrounds. Of their move to Munich: new country, new language. Of her entrance into the Rupprecht-Gymnasium. Of a guest lecturer there who showed up one day and spoke about Picasso’s Guernica, born out of outrage over the bombing of civilians in his homeland. “I discovered the power of a visual image to transcend its own geography, culture, and time period,” T wrote. “Thus, a teenage Bosnian refugee in Germany was affected by ideas and events that shaped Spain a half-century earlier.” Her narration continued onto her family’s move to the States, her entrance to UM-St. Louis, the Saint Louis Art Museum, UW-Madison, and… into the present day. 

So the app was off and many fingers crossed, but let’s face it, the Fulbright odds are small. In January, some initial good news: The U.S. Fulbright crew was recommending T to the German Fulbright crew for a grant. The way it seems to work: The U.S. sends about twice as many nominees to the host country as the host country will ultimately accept. So she had a 50-50 chance. We pictured the Germans in serious thought. 

Three or four months passed. One afternoon as T was retrieving the mail, she opened an envelope sent from New York. She fished out some documents and the first thing she saw was a page called “Guidelines for the Examining Physician." 

Confusion. She shuffled through the pages, reassembled them and started from the beginning: "On behalf of the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board (FSB), I am pleased to congratulate you on your selection for a Fulbright award to Germany." 

My cell phone rang at work. 

S: Hey.
T: Oh, my God. 
S: What.
T: I got the Fulbright.

The previous fall, the Fulbright application had a section that asked something like: Are you seeking spousal support during your grant? We checked the box, thinking: Who knows? By the time this all happened in 2010, we knew: Of course we’ll go together. And spousal support? A tremendous idea. 

Everything moved quickly. Rather miraculously, our house sold in about 5 weeks. (We still feel lucky and worry that if we talk too much about it we’ll somehow jinx it and have to retrieve the keys and restart our mortgage.) My transition awayfrom the St. Louis Magazine job was underway. We told friends and family about the news: We’d be leaving in September. 

One evening at our under-contract home, we opened a bottle of especially good Napa Cab I received the previous Christmas. Delicious. We realized also that its name was appropriate for its action: Slingshot.