We hadn’t even made it out of the airport, before I realized my Level 17 badge on Duolingo was about as useful as a trap door in a canoe.
I was resolutely in over my head. My mind knew we were PCSing to a foreign country, it wasn’t as if I popped out of an airplane, wholly surprised as to where the flight had landed. But the first wave of realization that I was truly in a foreign country, (Germany to be specific) slammed over me like a rogue wave. I couldn’t understand, or read, any of the language that swirled around me.
The smattering of German I thought I had memorized, suddenly vanished. In a strange and surreal moment, instead – the first foreign language I’d ever studied, high school Spanish, planted itself firmly front and center, refusing to budge. As I shuffled along with the crowd toward the Customs officers, I frantically tried to remember any of my practiced conversations with that bright green owl from the Duolingo app.
Time ran out, and there I was – sending my passport through a tiny, Plexi-glass mousehole to a very stern-faced gal, as I tried to piece together what to say.
(My brain screeched: “Girl – you’re Southern! Use your manners! Politely say hello, and please do you speak English, you ingrate!”)
What actually came out, was a Texas-twangy butchery of the spoken word, in a hot mess of Spanish, German, and English. “Um…donde? Err, hallo! Spracken zee English?”
To this day, I would swear in open court that somewhere I heard a record scratch as the agent simply stared at me.
Out of any useful words, I used the only linguistic currency I had left. Body language. I waved and grinned at the officer like the town’s newest village idiot.
One of the first things I realized about moving overseas, was that every conversation, every errand, would become an adventure.
How Y’all Doin’?
After stumbling through the airport, and into a base cultural orientation class, I quickly learned that most Europeans, Germans especially, find it utterly odd to encounter a smiling stranger, who then asks them how they’re doing.
I didn’t realize just how engrained this habit was to my small-town roots. In my corner of Texas, we smile and greet everyone, strangers included. And if you can’t speak to someone directly – say you’re passing them on a two-lane, farm road – you at least wave to each other as you go by.
It’s simple. Meet a stranger. Smile. Ask how they’re doing. End of transaction.
I learned very quickly what happens if you smile at strangers overseas, then ask how they are doing.
- Smile at a stranger in Germany and you’ll see them flinch a little. They may even ask, “Do I know you?” Greetings with strangers are supposed to be short, maybe a ‘hello’, ‘morning’ or ‘evening’. That’s it. As to, “How they are doing?” Well, this is a literal question – and Germans will give you an earful of how they are doing, be it good or bad news! After all, you did ask.
- Do this to an Italian man, however, and heaven help you! Italian men tended to turn into an instant Joey-meme from Friends, as they spread their arms wide as if ready to bear hug you – and repeat back, “Eh! How my doing? Mami, mami – how we doing?!”, and proceed to catcall and wolf-whistle as you run away. Or maybe that’s just me!
But, I have learned to be a bit more cautious throwing around that Southern charm when I travel.
All Burgers Are Not Created Equal
My first attempt at going to a restaurant was a disaster.
I had pulled up Google maps and was pleasantly surprised to find a burger haus within walking distance, just fifteen minutes down the road from us. I had re-worked my language approach, and now carried a few handwritten notecards with some key phrases and words. At the very least – I could show someone my notecard, and they could read what I was trying to say. Surely, I could figure out how to order some food.
Hamburgers – I thought, here I come.
Oh no. No, no, no.
I approached our small, downtown village and found the building signage for Haus des Burgers, ‘House of Burgers’. Maybe not Whataburger or Krystals, but a burger nonetheless.
The building smelled nothing like hamburgers when I came in. Quite the opposite, it smelled like floor polish and pencils. Like a principal’s office. I found an info desk, and this time better prepared, politely ordered (in German), “I would like a hamburger, please.”
The poor lady looked confused, then smirked and asked, “Was?” ‘What?’
My Texas accent must’ve betrayed me again. I asked again, only slower. ‘A ham-burrr-ger, please.’
At that point she gave up all pretense, and confirmed I spoke English. I was elated! She was going to let me order in English!
She said, “You do know what Burger means in German, don’t you?”
I learned that day, burger is not a universal term. In German, Burger means citizen. First, I had tried to order a citizen. Second, I wasn’t in a restaurant at all. Haus des Burgers was the ‘house of the citizens’ otherwise known as City Hall.
Ordinary Events Became an Excursion
I scraped together what was left of my pride and went to the grocery store, where I also realized I didn’t have enough German written on my notecards to translate much. Not a problem, at least I could see pictures – and shop by sight.
Easier said than done. I found the pre-made sandwiches in the deli section, some cereal, and was surprised to find the milk – not in a refrigerated case, but right there on the shelves. Next to the eggs. I ended up buying something called Landmilch (Land milk), as I reasoned cows grazed on land, surely this milk would do for cereal.
I greeted the cashier with a short Hallo, spontaneously grabbed what looked to be a refreshing afternoon drink that translated to ‘cherry water’, and she rocketed my few groceries down the conveyer belt. As I had not brought my own reusable bags, I realized the paper bag I just grabbed to start stuffing my groceries in, had been tacked onto the bill. I hadn’t realized the bag would cost anything – an assumption that proved to be incorrect many times over, as I tried to settle into a new culture.
Exhausted by the day, I started my walk back home – and twisted the cap off my cherry water, and took a nice gulp.
And nearly choked! It burned all the way down, and I later learned that my so-called ‘cherry water’ was actually cherry-flavored schnapps.
And we still aren’t sure what animal that ‘land milk’ was from. After pouring it on our cereal the next morning, our best guess was either a goat, or coyote.
Crank Up that Air Conditioning! Wait … What?
In Texas, I seem to distinctly remember one of the first words we kids learned was AC. As summer approached, Germany and Europe weren’t hot by Texas standards, but we scoured the house and couldn’t find the thermostat to turn on the air conditioning. There was the radiant floor heat for the tiles – as everything, everywhere was tile, but we searched the house over with no luck.
And learned, most European homes simply do not have air conditioning. And neither do your charming bed and breakfasts, AirBNB’s, or smaller one-off hotels. Larger chain hotels will boast AC as an amenity, but it’s rare for private homes. Homes are simply designed differently, many tend to be stucco or thick, cinder-block builds, with heavy shutters, or blinds to draw over the windows to keep out heat. To cool off, you are simply expected to open the windows – which swing wide open, and use a fan.
I questioned this logic, night after night as I leaned out our open windows, sweating like a wildebeest.
Will This Ever Feel Like Home?
I had read – and dang it, I’ll admit, initially snickered – at folks on the spouses pages who had moved onto their closest military base, sinking into the comfortable bubble of American life. Many seemed content to live out their entire OCONUS experience that way, leaving occasionally for a well-coordinated trip put together by base facilities.
But day after day, as I muddled through foreign village life, I finally understood. Back in the states, I’d had “easy” one-stop-shopping all around me, yet took it for granted. I could breeze into any store I wanted, confidently. Now, I simply got excited when I found a bookstore with more than one shelf of English books.
I slowly learned enough German to stumble through stores and restaurants, read road signs, and could now laugh at myself that I had once tried to order hamburgers in city hall. Festivals and markets – especially the Christmas ones, had always been fun, but now even more so, as we could navigate crowds, and read menus without the constant cloud of simply feeling overwhelmed from all sides.
We’d finally learned to slow down enough, and enjoy the fact that a dinner out in a restaurant was a two-hour affair. I now used a knife and fork for everything – even French fries. I no longer thought it inconvenient that shops and stores closed on Sundays as reserved quiet, family days. More holidays dotted our calendars now.
A Season for Everything
In my early walks throughout our small village, I had been delighted to round a corner and find a huge field of tulips. You could wander through the rows of color, surrounded by beauty and the best part, was that you could also cut your own flowers – and pay at a cash box near the end of the field. I couldn’t help but smile as a grandmotherly woman shuffled past me, her arms brimming with flowers. She’d said something in German, but I didn’t understand her, and just gave her a small smile as we went on our way.
As the months slipped by, I watched the fields transform from tulips and daffodils, to sunflowers and tall, gladiola stems as late summer approached. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many miles I walked that first summer overseas.
My heart soared as fall approached and bright orange globes appeared in the fields.
It had been years since I had been in an actual pumpkin patch. Pumpkins are notoriously hard to grow in Texas, but my grandmother had always managed to coax a few small ones from her gardens. I’m convinced we had some of the smallest jack-o’-lanterns, but it was something we always looked forward to with her.
And standing there in Germany, underneath a sapphire September sky, I finally felt a wave of calm. Of comfort. I had made it through one full growing season.
The same lady I had once seen with an armful of tulips stood a few rows over from me – oblivious to my presence, with her gaze glued to the ground. I watched as she stopped every so often to prod one of the pumpkins, before finally selecting one.
She beamed as she passed, proudly holding up her prize. “This will make a good pie,” she said, smiling.
“That is a good pumpkin,” I said, in German, returning her smile. The bit of language had escaped my mouth before I knew it. I had actually understood what she’d said.
“Deutsch!” she screeched, her face completely lit. I quickly explained I could only speak a little German, but to her – a little had been plenty.
And as the first leaves of fall blew through the air, that’s when this small-town girl knew I was going to be ok. Little by little. Season by season.