Germany: Notes from abroad
When you study abroad, you learn a few things. Wrenched from your comfortable, womb-like habitat, you find that the points in symbolic capital you’ve racked up at Wash U no longer count. You begin to tolerate things that confound your sense of what is right in the world, like doors that open in the wrong direction and cars that drive on the opposite side of the road.
Despite your remedial language ability, you become more vociferous in your political opinions, taking every opportunity to remind the good people around you that, no, you did not vote for George W. Bush. And, when you discover that the local dialect sounds nothing like the language you have studied for the last four years, you learn how to ask life’s most important questions: like, which of the five trash cans to put empty yogurt containers.
Six months later, having memorized every subway stop and the number of steps to your apartment, feeling comfortable enough in class to share your thoughts on Derrida or Dante, and knowing a few good places to chat over a drink, you feel disconnected from the bumbling quasi-tourist you were half a year ago.
Just remember one thing: the seasoned international traveler knows better than to become complacent in her sense of her own cosmopolitanism. Take me, for instance. After traveling regularly over the last eight years, I’ve paid some dues.
Three weeks after breaking a finger on a three-dog walk (a chore I performed daily as a high school exchange student), I broke my collarbone while snowboarding down an Austrian mountain slope. Last summer in Berlin, I lost 600 pages of photocopied thesis research when I accidentally left the ream of paper in my bike basket overnight. Apparently, paper is a hot commodity for some thieves.
Besides (literal and figurative) near-death experiences, there are also the nuances of getting used to a new place. For instance, exploring a city’s entire subway system in your failed attempts to get onto the S-U-22/54 light green-blue line toward NeuschwansteinfahrvergnÂgen.
Eventually the travails diminish. And when you wait in the snow for 45 minutes before gathering that your bus is the only one in the southern German town of TÂbingen that has mysteriously stopped running, which, by the way, is what happened to me last night, you don’t curse the city’s transportation system. You just laugh and enjoy the walk home with your 30 pounds of groceries.
Side-stitching story number umpteen: I blow out the power supply of my computer when I plug it into a German outlet, three weeks before the final draft of my thesis is due. The next day I learn that mine is the only Macintosh on the planet that does not step down Europe’s 220 volts to the American standard 110. Beware, owners of iMac G5s purchased in the US or Japan: expect to hear a frightful popping noise upon plugging your computer into a European wall.
If you happen to live with a bunch of tinkerers and smokers, as I do, a few of them might attempt unscrewing your computer and diagnosing the problem while another offers you a cigarette to calm your nerves. And as you introduce yourself to your neighbors, you’ll recall that international trauma doesn’t just make good stories; it’s also a great way to make friends.
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