Friday, June 17, 2011

Überraschungen und Kulturschock

Surprises and culture shock.  These have been the themes of meine erste zwei Wochen in Deutschland (my first two weeks in Germany). 

To begin at the beginning (although I'm starting to realize that there is no such thing as a true beginning or end; things just flow into one another), I should explain a little bit more about the Goethe Institut.  There are twelve Wash U students students studying here, but we are still very much in the minority.  People come from all over the world to study German intensively at the Goethe Institut.  For example, the class in which I began, B22, had fourteen students and eight different nationalities represented (US, Russia, Holland, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, France, and Costa Rica).  The class to which I was, rather mysteriously, moved after two days, the more advanced B23, has twelve students of nine different nationalities (US, Sweden, Guatemala, Argentina, Libya, Syria, Cyprus, Japan, and Taiwan).  Studying German in such an international environment is a very unique experience, and very much forces you not to rely on English under any circumstances (English can be a bad-habit short-cut to explaining a difficult concept or bypassing a forgotten vocabulary word, and goes relatively unnoticed in a classroom full of native English speakers).  However, in the beginning this international group with very little in common culturally did little to assuage my sense of culture shock and isolation.

The turning point came the first night I went out in Göttingen.  A few of the Americans left the Institut to check out a few bars in the area, with no especial success.  However, on the way back we ran into a group of Erasmus (European exchange) students in a park, and began talking to them.  As it happened, two of them were from Italy (Sicilia and outside of Roma, respectively), on a semester exchange from l'Università di Perugia.  I spent quite a bit of time speaking with Giulio and Emanuale in Italian, which assuaged a sort of homesickness I didn't even know I had.  It was then that I truly realized how attached to Italy I had become, because, as my parents can attest to, I had never previously experienced any sort of prolonged homesickness.  At the end of the evening, Giulio asked if I would be willing to meet up regularly and practice my Italian and his English together.  I hope it works out, because that would be a perfect way to keep up my Italian while intensively studying German in Germany. 

After meeting the Italians and realizing that my Italian language abilities had not been rendered entirely useless and/or obsolete when I left Italy, I was ready for my next German adventure: der Supermarkt (the grocery store).  Here's a small taste of what we faced:

Yes, that is velveteen wrapping the Wild Africa Cream.

That would be the jarred hot dog section.  A whole three shelves.

Joe was excited about the Boogie Party.

So was Spencer.

Other culinary wonders included the complete-cheeseburger-in-a-box, the corndog-in-a-wrapper-like-a-slim-jim, and an entire five-shelf section containing only ketchup.  Every time I go grocery shopping, I discover new wonders.  Boogie Party, in case you were wondering, is basically fizzy apple juice.  Robby Bubble is another such fizzy juice drink, and comes in three flavours: grape, cherry, and Jungle Party.  What is Jungle Party, you might ask?  I would love if I could answer that.  Unfortunately, Robby Bubble Jungle Party remains, for now at least, a mystery.  Fashion in Germany is another source of mystery for me, especially having come straight from Italy (albeit the supposedly "least fashionable city in Italy").  Here's one of our favourites:

We had a game we would sometimes play in Bologna, in which we would count the number of American flags we saw in a day in Bologna.  It was really quite shocking.  I've seen more American flags this past semester in Europe than I had seen in at least a year before that.  Gotta love those stars and stripes, I guess. 

Anyway, having successfully navigated a German grocery store (an even more impressive feat, considering my vegetarian status and the current E. coli scare and the subsequent lack of fresh vegetables), I decided that I might as well go all out and try to have a real German friend (especially considering how awkward most of the cross-cultural, linguistically-stunted conversations at the Goethe Institut new Wash U friend Anna and I went out one night with a Polish guy and a man from Moldova, neither of whom had a firm grasp of German or English.  We spent a lot of time staring across the table at each other).  So, I called Immo and asked if Anna and I could come visit him in Kassel that weekend.  Fortunately, Immo was still excited about the idea of meeting up again, so we agreed that we would come the Monday afternoon of our long weekend (long in honour of Pfingsten, a.k.a. Pentecost).

That Monday, Anna and I made it to the train station on time and managed to board our train without too much difficulty or stress (this was rather remarkable, considering both of our incredibly poor senses of direction and our utter lack of map).  Unfortunately, we didn't realize that we were on the wrong half of our train, and consequently ended up in Eschwege, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, rather than Kassel.  Oops.

After sitting in the abandoned train car (for we had reached the end of the line) for approximately twenty minutes, we decided to ask someone where we were. 

"Entschuldigung, wo sind wir?"  "Eschwege."  "Oh, ok, danke schön!"

Fortunately, someone overheard that little encounter, watched us sit right back down, and took pity on the poor, confused foreigners.  This man led us out of the train, gave us a train schedule, led us over to talk to the conductor about the fastest way to get to Kassel, and proceeded to sit with us for the entirety of the ride and lecture us about how to use the Deutsche Bahn (German train system).  So, it only ended up taking three hours for us to make what should have been an hour-long journey.  Immo bore with us, however, and met us at the train station with his dog, Lana.  He also laughed at us quite a bit.  I suppose what we did would seem like a very amateur mistake to someone used to the Bahn. 

In Kassel, we explored a park with a view overlooking the city with Immo as our tour guide, and happened to be just in time to see the weekly running of the water down the stone steps of the hill.  Then we enjoyed some crepes, a few beers, and music on one of the main streets in Kassel, which was celebrating that day with a Stadtfest (city festival).  One of my favourite moments was when Anna and I were trying to figure out how to say hedgehog in German (we had seen a hedgehog a few days earlier in Göttingen, and were trying to tell Immo about the experience).  Once he realized we were talking about der Igel, Immo asked us what it was called in English.  When we told him, he looked slightly confused.  Then he made a fin motion over his head.  "Shark?"  We nodded.  Sharks have fins.  Then he made a tipping motion by his forehead.  "Hat?"  We nodded.  Hats go on heads.  Then, "Hat-shark?"  No, not a hat-shark.  A hedgehog.  As in bush-pig. 

I always feel better about all of my linguistic failures when I realize that I'm not alone.

Anyway, after several hours of beer and chatting, we went our separate ways, Immo to a barbecue and Anna and I back to Göttingen.  However, before we went, Immo invited Anna and I to his birthday camping trip the first weekend in July, and he said that if he can he might come visit us in Göttingen.  This also made me feel like I am starting to find a place in Germany, and reassured me that it is possible to make friends almost anywhere.

The only other notable instances over the past week (since our schedule at the Goethe Institut is the same every day) have been the surprise fireworks and the crazy man outside our door.  As for the fireworks, we still have no explanation.  Joe, Anna, and I were sitting in Anna's room when we started hearing popping sounds outside the window.  Sure enough, there were fireworks, so we ran up onto the tower balcony to see them.  We still have no idea why they were set off.  As for the crazy man outside our door, it is exactly as it sounds.  Anna, Joe, and I were coming back from town when we encountered a stranger sitting on the steps of the Goethe Institut.  He told us, among other things, in a strange mix of German and English, that he was a Paraguayan kick-boxer ("the fastest in the world.  All the other ones want to be fast like me") who had written a story called Schwip-Schwap (which is, by the way, the name of a German soda) that J.K. Rowling stole to write Harry Potter.  Apparently she is more famous now ("richer than the queen!"), but he writes with more soul.  He also recited a little poem for us, that transitioned seamlessly back into his rather dubious life story:

"If you have the time,
I have a little rhyme.
I am cheese,
I am onion.
I am life,
I am death.
I am funny,
I am hopeless..."

At which point he forgot his recitation entirely and told us his age instead ("I am 44 years old...").

We stayed outside int he rain and listened to him for a long while (mostly because he was between us and the door and we didn't want to let him inside), but eventually one of the men who works at the Goethe Institut came outside and asked him who he was here to see and the three of us ran around and let ourselves in through the back door.  Normally, however, life in Göttingen tends a bit more toward the mundane (albeit a very unusual sort of mundanity).

The routine will be broken this weekend, however, as Anna and Bart and I are off to Leipzig with a group from the Institut.  Viel Spaß (a lot of fun)...we hope!

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