Writers Magazine: German Life
Paying for the bus
was a challenge, without getting a sharp unintelligible comment from the
bus driver for not having the right change. Getting on the right bus going
in the right direction was an even greater challenge (being a non-bus-rider).
There wasn't much I could do, since I didn't even know what street I wanted
to go to. Landmarks and familiar buildings were my map. And dodging the
bicycles wasn't easy either. They would come wizzing toward you and either
you quickly jumped out of the way or if you didn't you would hear bells.
bling! bling! With Germans, that sound immediately incurs
the correct response. To an American, however, who has just arrived in
the foreign country and has no clue that the bicycle bell sound is supposed
to subconsciously make you step onto the pedestrian side of the sidewalk,
it makes the American stand in your tracks, wondering what the hell that
bling, bling is. This, in turn, produces the sound of squeaking breaks
and of loud or sometimes muttered German, most assuredly non-cordial.
Then the American finally realizes where she is, turns and with an expression
of sudden fear and a little embarrassment, jumps in the wrong direction.
Directly in front of the bike. More loud German and the American finally
finds the right place to stand and the ruffled German pedals on, glaring,
probably wondering which planet the alien delinquent is from.
Shock Bells, Burgers and Grannys
I have been going
through culture shock since I got here over and over again.
I am still in culture shock. It has been everything from fulfilling
to exhausting and always challenging. It was in the summer of '99
that some German friends dumped me on the corner of a middle-sized
German college town with my two suitcases and my quivering excitement
and said Bis bald! I was looking for the adventure of
being culturally shocked, although I didn't know what that would
actually entail. But I was finally tasting the unknown and that
is what was so enticing and irresistible. I was living my dream,
I was being what Ernest Hemingway called the expatriate.
Then it is the food. Culture is food. And food is culture. Thus, getting
edible nourishment in a foreign country is a challenge, to say the least.
So, if food is culture and culture is food, then food is serious and seriously
Being culturally challenged in a challengingly cultural environment is
culturally challenging, which is a challenge, culturally.
No eggplant and mushroom quiche for me, thank you. That makes me talk
like the above challenged. Aren't those French inventions, anyway?
And forget the sausages I like to know what I'm eating. I
will stick to my diet of hard German farmer's bread and mustard
the two things on the shelves I could actually recognize and that didn't
seem to be overpriced. I lived on that for at least a month until I went
to some body's garden party and was aghast at what I didn't have on my
shelf in the co-op fridge.
After discovering that Germans actually do have white bread (yessss!!)
and tortilla chips (oh yeahhhh), and ice tea and chocolate chips cookies
(ooowoowooo), even potato salad (ahhhhhhhhhh), my pants started to fit
again and things began to look brighter (in the cultural sense of things
the weather was still cloudy). And thank goodness fresh fruit and
vegetables are visually universal. The weekly market was like being in
heaven. A vegetable, fruit and grain kind of heaven. But not just because
I recognized the produce, it was like walking in a postcard of Europe
complete with the sounds and smells. And the feelings: occasionally bumping
into people and saying 'skewz-me! to their backs as they continued
without noticing anything. (But that's just a European and big city thing.)
Back to produce heaven: Just like you see in the tour guide books: pristine
lettuce heads, juicy carrots, cabbage, apples, you name it, being sold
by a round, jolly lady with rosy cheeks, strong, dirty hands and an apron.
The smell of the smoked sausage being sold on the corner wafted into my
nostrils, while the cheese lady's creations made my mouth water. The fruit
stand offered free samples and the man smiled so knowingly and nodded
as I smiled and raised my eyebrows in appreciation of his strawberries.
Further down the square, under the stately observance of the big, beautiful
and comforting Lueneburg town hall with clock, I stood in the sun my eyes
closed breathing in the smell of carnations, roses and lilies at the flower
stand that was bursting with a vivid rainbow of color. I had arrived.
All the angst, doubt, homesickness and sadness melted away. I
no longer felt challenged or culturally shocked. There was something homey
and comforting about the bustle of the the market. Time stood still. It
was like the smell of fresh rain on warm pavement or the sound of the
wind in a grove of pine trees it was my oasis. And still is
the market on the town square.
first, just to do something that seemed familiar, I smiled at people
on the street when our eyes connected. Usually I got a puzzled but
pleasant smile back. Sometimes I was just ignored. I wondered why
people didn't smile as often where they all in a bad mood?
Was it the nasty weather? Did I forget my deodorant? Did they have
a thorn in their britches? No, to all the above.
The other thing was that people, especially men, I found, seemed to unabashedly
and calmly stare at me or at least take long looks. This unnerved me greatly
at first scary freaking Germans! Then I found it to be a nice compliment
they didn't say anything or whistle, it was just looking
nice gentlemanly Germans! Then I noticed women doing it
everyone did this to everyone else.
Ok, I thought, they are all way too psycho: first, they screw up their
face when you smile at them, then they stare at you without blinking.
Where AM I?! I was quite confused: should I strike up a conversation with
the lady in the grocery line or should I try small talk with the guy waiting
for the bus? None of this was even possible, since I was not in command
of the language anyway. Or should I just do as they do ignore and
be ignored? I can't it's not me, I thought. And I noted that most
people didn't talk to each other there was no friendly chatting
between strangers or short sentences exchanged none of the daily
How's it going? - Good, thanks, and you? - Fine, thank you.
- This was disconcerting and uncomfortable for me.
The short social interaction was minimal and strictly formal and functional.
I was almost thinking of either calling it quits or chatting up the cashier
at the grocery store in English when I witnessed something that began
to change my outlook: our bus came to a lurching halt, the old lady with
her walker and her basket of groceries almost toppled over, even us students
had to hang on while standing. The doors opened and people began to push
their way to the exit. I waited to see what the old lady would do. She
shakely shuffled her walker toward the open doors, head down, her ankles
wobbling. All of a sudden, two men in street worker clothes, slipped passed
her, jumped out turned around and silently offered their strong arms for
Granny to take hold of, taking walker and all down and over the curb to
a safe, solid landing on the sidewalk. She murmured a weak Danke
and smiled shyly, while the men, nodded quickly and hopped back onto the
bus, reassuming their standing positions near the window. No one except
me had watched so intently, I think. No one else seemed to have noticed
at all. I was amazed all this time I thought everyone one was just
out for themselves and not paying attention to what was going on, oblivious
to the humans around them. Not so.
That little example and the normality with which everyone treated it made
a few things clear to me: It wasn't that the Germans were hard, cold and
mean. They were a little more reclusive maybe in their behavior on the
street, but when it came down to it, they would jump up to help without
hesitation. A few days later, I experienced a similar situation when I
had to take my heavy bike on the bus. And things started happening that
I hadn't realized before: people started to smile back when I flashed
my teeth in passing. It wasn't that big, fake, How are you? Leave
me the hell alone. smile that I was used to flashing. It was a Are
you having the same struggle today as I am? It's OK, it'll get better.
I can't explain it, but I distinctly remember feeling exactly that silent
exchange of good will while looking into the eyes of a stranger one day
while hurrying through the streets of Lueneburg.
It must have been the sincerity they saw in my face that made them smile
back the sincerity of wanting to connect, of feeling comfortable
enough with myself to let it show, of taking that first step.
Tietzel June 2008
Lois Tietzel lives in Northern Germany, writing and painting many of her
experiences as a volutarily displaced American.
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