My Adopted Culture

April 29, 2010
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The plane hits the runway in a series of awkward thumps, and out the little plastic window, I see a flash of the steel-and-glass terminal, but not much else. When we finally taxi to the gate and the door is opened, I stumble blearily out through the jetway, rubbing my red eyes- the overnight flight is aptly named- and survey the brightly lit, shop-lined hallway for any characteristic that would distinguish this from an airport closer to home. It’s in the signs pointing the way to customs and the baggage claim, in the advertisements prominently displayed outside the duty-free shop, in the quiet conversations held by the waiting passengers of the next flight. There is English here, sure, but only as an undertone, an afterthought, a subtitle. The bold line at the top of each sign is in German, and I congratulate myself heartily for understanding most of it.

Traveling was by no means uncommon for me- with my family, I’ve visited twenty-four countries spanning four continents in my fifteen years of life- but this trip, as my first excursion outside the United States alone, was exciting in a way that most of my travel had never been. I was, for the first time, without a translator to fall back on; I had to make myself understood without help. And I managed. My everyday life there was sprinkled with minor miscommunications, from accidentally ordering apple strudel instead of onion soup in a restaurant to informing my host family that snails (rather than plums) were a favorite food of mine, but still, I had greater autonomy- not to mention responsibility- than I’d ever had before. Ever since, I’ve associated the German language and culture with that freedom, with the feeling of adulthood that comes from persevering despite those obstacles.
My parents both speak some German, and my eleven-year-old sister even knows a few words- we all lived in a small south-German city for four months when my mom, as a chemistry professor, was on sabbatical. But in my family, German is undoubtedly my language. After three summers of immersive language programs in German cities, I’ve gained a colloquial fluidity of speech that- if nothing else- distracts people from my occasional grammar mistakes and somewhat patchy vocabulary. At the same time, I’ve developed an affinity for those subtle cultural differences that make living in Germany such a different experience from my life at home- the ubiquity of reliable public transportation, the collective fondness for fresh bread, the soccer games shown on TV instead of American football.
Just the sound of the language immediately recalls my experiences in Germany- waiting for the tram in Karlsruhe’s main marketplace, or buying a kilo of Milka chocolate to bring home from Augsburg, or walking along a cobblestone street in Frankfurt’s old city. There’s so much more history there than at home, where the really old construction only dates back to the 1600s; Augsburg, for example, was around during the Roman Empire. Even the fast food joints- which, in Germany, are usually Turkish food, sort of along the lines of cheap Mexican food in the US, but much tastier- in the old city sections are in stone-walled buildings, retrofitted with air conditioning and fluorescent lights. The rest of the city is usually thoroughly modern, though nearly all businesses have an irritating habit of closing on Sundays. Coming from the United States, this seems like a backwards custom, but it’s not for religious reasons so much as to encourage families to take a day to be together, without the interference of commercial influences. At first, it annoyed me that I couldn’t go shopping on Sundays, but eventually I realized what a great role it has in keeping families close.
Visiting another country where I’m not just a tourist has broadened my outlook on the world so much. I didn’t fall in love with Germany the moment I stepped out of that plane. The cultural differences took some getting used to- especially the everything-closes-on-Sunday part. Still, I learned to love those variations, and to do my shopping on Saturdays instead. It’s nice, for one month out of each year, to experience a different situation from my normal life in the United States. And after years of making this trip, I feel just as much at home in Germany as I do in New York. There’s something comforting about knowing that somewhere, on the other side of the Atlantic, there’s another place where I fit.

The flight attendant mimes buckling a seatbelt, and a calm German voice emanates from the speakers, instructing the passengers to stow their belongings under the seat in front of them. I savor the voice, knowing it will probably be the last German I hear for a while. When the plane takes off, I watch the ground recede, seeing the city shrink away into a miniature replica. It’s good to be going home- I miss my friends- but I can’t help but feel a pang at the thought of the many months until I’ll next be in Germany. As the little peaked-roof houses of the surrounding villages slip past beneath me, I say my silent goodbyes- until next year.





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