I am the type of person who loves routine. I like knowing exactly what I’m doing, when I’m doing it, where to do it and how to get it done. For me, that sense of certainty and security is what makes me feel at home. So when I got to Europe, I was really thrown off. Everything here is so different for me! No normalcy whatsoever, no chance of fading into a comfortable routine.
There were a few specific times that really made me stop in my tracks, turn to my imaginary dog and say, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Arkansas anymore.” Here’s some of things to expect when you study abroad in Germany:
Your accent will stick out like a sore thumb
One of my first interactions in Germany went a little something like this:
Him: “Die Name?” (Your name?)
Me: “Meine Name ist Marie.” (My name is Marie)
Him: “Are you American?”
I was so startled! I had said one sentence! How did he know? Then, I realized it was my accent. Never in my life had my voice made me American. It was just my voice! Now though, every word I spoke would be like a giant signal saying “I AM NOT FROM HERE.”
You’ll notice the toilets flush differently
I had been told that in the southern hemisphere toilets flush in the opposite direction than those in the northern hemisphere, but I always just assumed differences between toilets stopped there. Nope. In America, the toilets are filled with water prior to use, then upon flushing, a little more water comes in and all the water empties. In Germany, there is hardly any water in the toilet until the flushing process begins. So basically, I constantly feel like I’m using an empty toilet. It may not sound like much, but it makes a mundane, regular activity a constant reminder than I’m not home.
You’ll watch everyone say goodbye to eachother when getting off the elevator
In the U.S., the most socially acceptable way to ride in an elevator is by pretending no one else on said elevator exists. We do not speak to each other. We do not look at each other. So when someone said “bye” to me before getting off the elevator, I was very surprised. “What a cordial person!” I thought to myself. Later though, it happened again! And again! Everyone did it. I suddenly realized that saying goodbye before exiting the elevator was simply a common courtesy here, and that there were likely many other common courtesies of which I was unaware. I could seem rude without even knowing!
You’ll sleep through class for the first time in your life
Like I said before, I am a very organized person who loves routine, so when I am home, my sleeping schedule is very structured. Even if my alarm fails to go off, my body wakes itself up. Well, jet lag tore my schedule to pieces. Jumping ahead seven hours really does a number on the body. Unfortunately for me, I did not use my outlet converter properly on my first night here, and my phone did not charge while I was sleeping, meaning my alarm did not go off in the morning. My body was so confused by the time switch that I just slept straight through class without a hitch, something I had never managed to do before.
You’ll start paying close attention to how you speak English
I was very surprised upon arriving in Germany by how many people from non-English speaking countries can speak English. It was definitely very convenient for me. That said, speaking with these people has made me realize how sloppy my English is. I have to be very careful to speak clearly and not use any slang, otherwise no one will understand me. For example, I was sitting with a group of native German speakers and I jokingly said something along the lines of “Woodjya wanna hop a freighter t’get down there?” Nobody laughed because nobody had any idea what I had just said. It turns out “hop a freighter” is very much a colloquial phrase. Additionally, blurring my words together and swallowing endings is not an option if I want to have a real conversation. Instead, I must say “Would you want to jump on a cargo train for free in order to get to the south?” Never before have I had to be aware of how I’m speaking English. Much like the toilets, it makes something as common as speaking my own language a reminder that I am not at home.
When I was at my home institution planning my trip abroad, I was told about homesickness. It’s not that I thought I wouldn’t feel homesick; I very much expected to feel homesick. I knew I’d miss my parents, my boyfriend, my house. What I didn’t know is that there would be nothing familiar around me. The air would smell different. The food would be packaged differently. The windows would open in a way I’ve never seen before. The stop lights would work differently and suddenly the commercials on YouTube would be playing in a different language. There is no way to prepare yourself for being thrown 4,842 miles out of your comfort zone, with little to no control over what is happening around you, but I’m learning there are ways to make the most of it. I hang out with friends. I appreciate that I’m learning from the differences around me. I appreciate that people here are learning from the differences they see in me. And I accept that I’m going to feel sad sometimes, and that it’s okay to miss home. It’s all part of this wonderful experience that I have chosen for myself.
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