Being “Foreign” for the First Time

I’ve lived in the U.S. my whole life. The culture, the language, the customs, the laws, etc. just come naturally to me, as it does to most of us. Being an American is as easy as breathing for me. Now, studying in Germany for a semester, I’m a foreigner for the first time. Suddenly, the culture, language, customs and laws are alien and unfamiliar, and it can be weird or confusing at times.

One example is the Midwestern friendliness. This isn’t even universal in the United States, but here in Germany it’s unheard of to greet complete strangers with a smile or make small talk at the check-out counter. I was riding a street car one day when I accidentally let my “Midwestern” shine through and smiled at the man sitting across from me when we made eye contact.

“Why are you smiling?” he asked me, to which I replied, “Because it’s a good day!”, which earned me a high-five and fist bump from him and his buddies.

Another time I had decided to go swimming here in Germany. First, I headed to a nearby lake. I had already heard of the German “Freikörperkultur”, so I wasn’t too shocked to see naked bathers. What really got me, though, was when I went to a swimming pool later and was asked to leave because it was “nude only”, and I had worn a swim suit! (There had been no signs to indicate that this was the case, so I’m not really sure how I was expected to know, either!) Nudity while swimming is entirely accepted here- it’s common to see nude children on the city streets playing in the baechle, as well!

One of the “baechle” that run through the streets of Freiburg. The name means “little brook”. These are considered one of Freiburg’s unique quirks, and have been part of the city since medieval times.

Sometimes the language is hard, too. Once, I was at a going-away party for a student from Sweden, and he was teaching us Swedish folk dancing. After a few wild whirls, I would get dizzy and stumble- but since neither of us were German, neither of us knew the word for “dizzy”! Another time, I was trying to explain the concept of French Toast to a German, but I couldn’t recall the word for “to dip”… so instead I said that you “baptize the slices of bread in a mixture of egg and milk”, since that was the only word I could think of that involved any sort of immersion into liquid.

Little interactions here feel like victories when I succeed, such as when I did my first phone call in German, when I bought a SIM-Card for my cell phone, or when I managed to negotiate a price adjustment on my transport ticket. Unfortunately, the more nervous I get, the worse my German gets. If I’m put on the spot in front of a group, I still struggle to come up with the German, whereas one-on-one or in low-pressure situations, I speak with fluency. I think I can understand a lot better what it must be like for non-native speakers in the U.S. to deal with me and other native speakers.

I also empathize a lot more with the hearing-impaired now, as well. Where in English, I can usually put together bits and pieces of sentences if I miss something, here I usually can’t. If someone has an accent, speaks too quickly or unclearly, or the room is noisy, it suddenly becomes much harder for me to participate in conversations, because I can’t understand people! This can be somewhat isolating- if I’m not sure what’s happening in a conversation, I don’t feel comfortable participating in it, because I might be saying something irrelevant. It’s also frustrating for Germans if they have to repeat themselves over and over to me, and subconsciously these minor negative impressions can lead to people not including me in a conversation.

Sometimes, though, Germans can be just as inexplicable and weird as Americans. Once while I was out shopping, a friendly old man came up to me and said in Dialekt (one of the many regional dialects in Germany, which can be so far from High German that it’s technically another language) that if I wasn’t careful, someone might drop a cigarette down my boot! I was so taken aback by this bizarre joke that I made him repeat himself to make sure I understood him, then just said “well, uh, that wouldn’t be very nice of someone!” When I later asked several Germans if this was some sort of expression, they were all just as confused by it. Sometimes it’s not me; it’s not German culture; it’s just folks being weird, like they are everywhere!

On the other hand, I’ve gotten used to living here in a lot of ways. Once when my parents visited, I was translating back-and-forth between them and a waitress. She said some things, and I just looked at my parents expecting them to reply, because I had understood her with no problem, so for a moment I forgot that my parents couldn’t understand her at all!

There’s still some parts of German life that I don’t think I’ll ever quite understand or appreciate, like nude beaches/pools, no window screens, having men sit while peeing, and housing college students of the opposite sex who don’t know each other together, but others I appreciate a lot, like the fantastic bread, the public transportation, and superior plumbing.

German culture is really rather similar to American culture. We eat similar foods, have similar educations, enjoy the same media, and wear the same clothes. It takes a while to discover all the little differences that aren’t so obvious on the surface, but it’s at least not hard for an American to feel at home here in Freiburg.

Freiburg’s main street at sunset. At the end of the day, we’re all just people!

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