Valpo Voyager

Student Stories from Around the World

Author: katherineackerman (page 1 of 2)

Confessions of a Former Francophile

So, to celebrate Easter, I decided to my friend  Pam in Paris. It  was my first time in France’s capital and a trip that I had been dreaming about since I was a kid. When I was younger, one of my favorite book was called Little Jeanne of France  by Madeline Brandeis and told the story of a girl named Jeanne and her adventures in France. And so, France, and Paris in particular, became somewhat of a destination for me. I was dead set on visiting France someday, made my mother start teaching me phrases in French, and even tried to turn in an assignment in first grade written in what I thought was an accurate written representation of the French language, only to have my teacher think that I was struggling with spelling.  My favorite book growing up was the account of a British ex-pat’s go in Southern France, A Year in Provence.  I continually attempted to add small french phrases into my vocabulary and dreamed of Time’s  fashion issue where there was sure to be a number of French fashion designers. Until I reached middle school in a town that offered no French classes, I had fully planned on taking up study of the French language and happily moving to France in some far-off future. But, as with all things in life, plans changed and I ended up in a German class which eventually lead me to my year in Tübingen.

Despite having less of a connection to French language and culture, I still have enjoyed visiting the border cities to Germany and enjoying the delicious food and drink, never fully making it to Paris.  So when I found out that Pam was going to be studying there and in nearby Cergy, I jumped at the chance of avoiding costly hotel fees and getting to see the city with someone who knew their way around.

The trip was short, but totally worth it to see some of the most beautiful sites that the city had to offer and to get to experience some of the things that I  had so long dreamt of.  It was a culmination of a lot of what I had wanted for such a long time and definitely a place that I will come back to explore further.

The best experience was visiting the Tuileries.  I think that the best introduction to my visit is summed up with a quote from Brandeis herself:

“The little girls passed through the Tuileries, which are like fairy gardens. They are a children’s paradise and part of the dream that Paris is”(140).


It was a beautifully sunny day when we visited the Tuileries and the lovely weather helped to highlight the  well-manicured park. We walked around and  got café au lait and drank it whilst sitting in some chairs. Now, I am no longer a child and a bit too old to believe in fairies, but the magic of the Tuileries still existed for me. I especially liked the long rows of bushes at the far end that  seemed like a great place to get away from the world and relax and enjoy good weather.


I also adored riding the metro. I am huge fan of public transportation, so any time that I can use a system in a major city, I could basically spend the entire day riding around.  The name of each stop was repeated twice during the approach, which sounded like  a language instruction tape to me and provided a good opportunity to practice my pronunciation of the French language.


Reenacting Amelie at the Sacre Coeur

Reenacting Amelie at the Sacre Coeur

On Easter, Pam and I went to the American Church (since, unfortunately, my French vocabulary is limited to foods and swear words) and ate lunch next to the Seine.  We also saw a lot of the classic tourist attractions, which I think aren’t necessary to mention here. However, we did find a café  that is a bit of an inside joke:


A cafe that is what it is.

A cafe that is what it is.

Bis bald!

A link  to an electronic copy of Little Jeanne of France  via Project Gutenberg:

Eating my way through Slovakia

So, in the 48-hours that I spent visiting my friend Paula in Bratislava, Slovakia this past week, I am positive that I ate just as much as I would have in a normal week. It was all delicious

When I arrived in the evening, I was greeted with vegetable croquettes and a potato-vegetable salad that my friend’s grandmother made. Then, I was given a large glass of Kofola, a less sweet Slovakian soda that was very delicious.

On the next day, we went sightseeing (or better put, sight eating) in downtown Bratislava. First, we ate a hearty traditional breakfast of bread, egg, cheese, tomatoes, peppers,  tea and coffee.  Then we went to downtown Bratislava and ate a delightful pastry filled with walnuts.

Street food in Slovakia

Street food in Slovakia

After that there was a brief pause in the eating whilst we saw the castle in Bratislava and the Parlament building. After that we headed to a Soviet era WWII memorial located on a hill and on our way back to the city center, we ate some cookies that we purchased at a  convenience store.  After seeing a bit more of the city center, we headed to lunch. We ate at a restaurant called Slovak Pub and it was honestly one of the best restaurants that I have been to all semester. There we each drank a large mug of Kofola and split a samping platter of halušky, a potato dumpling served with sheep’s cheese and onions. This dish was fabulous, I absolutely loved it and was thrilled to have found a traditional dish that could be prepared without meat.  We also had the dish in pierogi form and with cabbage, which were both equally delicious. The pub was covered in traditional Slovakian folk art and clothing and had information about Slovakian historical figure Jánošík, a real life Robin Hood figure from the 1700s. Later after realizing how  tired we were, we headed to a tea room and enjoyed some delicious freshly made chai tea.

The castle in Bratislava

The castle in Bratislava, where Sissi was crowned.

After the tea room, we headed home and were greeted by Paula’s grandmother with pasta in a mushroom sauce. Equally delicious we enjoyed it, but were able manage only a bit after our day full of eating.  On the final day, I ate another hearty breakfast and was sent off with a bag full of bread, cheese, Kofola, and many other Slovakian sweets.

They say that the best way to first get to know a new culture is though the food, and based on that I was lucky enough to get to know a lot about Slovakia.  Ďakujeme to Paula for showing me her city and a bit of her culture!

Bis bald!

Dabbeling in Österreichisch

So, a few days ago I went to Vienna to visit my friend Melissa and to see a new city.

On the first day we went to the Naschmarkt, an outdoor food market, for breakfast. I had ful a bean based dish with flatbread and hummus (which, it should be noted is definitely not an  Austrian dish).  I was especially excited because hummus is sometimes difficult to find in Europe. Then we went to the Ringstraße, which used to be the city wall of Vienna, but was torn down to make way for a new promenade in 1865.  It was a great place to see a surprisingly large number of monuments and famous historical buildings.

A photo of the Wiener Rathaus (city hall).

A photo of the Wiener Rathaus (city hall) on the Ringstraße

On the way, we stopped by the Albertina museum and saw exhibitions from teh archives of the Mussee d’Orsay. Nearly every major artist from a variety of time periods was represented. From Degas to Picasso to Warhol to Roy Lichtenstein to Monet, it was a great collection and overview of art history.

The Kunsthaus Wien

The Kunsthaus Wien

On the next day, I went to the Friedensreich  Hundertwasser musem at the Kunsthaus Wien. Friedensreich Hundertwasser is one of my favorite artists because his work combines art with everyday objects and promotes an understanding of the connection between person, living space and nature.  The museum dedicated  to him was full of colors, irregular shapes, plants and water elements. It was really as much of an experience as it was a work of architecture and a museum.

The Hundertwasserhaus, an apartment complex.

The Hundertwasserhaus, an apartment complex.

The trash processing center designed by Hundertwasser

The trash processing center designed by Hundertwasser

I also went to see some of Hundertwassers practical installations in the form of an apartment complex and a trash processing center.  I even found out that he designed a building right in Baden-Württemberg that i will definitely take the opportunity to visit.

Overall,  it  was lovely to get to see a new city and visit an old friend as well!

Bis bald!

Fasching: the Best Time of Year

So, one of the events that I most looked forward to this year was Fasching. Fasching is a celebration that takes place before the beginning of Lent, much like Mardi Gras.  In the different regions in Germany, it has different names and a slightly different character. Where I previously lived in the Rheinland, it was called Karneval. In Rottenburg am Neckar, a small village near Tübingen, it is called Fasnet and has a tradition that dates back hundreds of years, and because of this I choose to visit Rottenburg to learn a bit about Fasching in the area.

There was also Fasching right at home in Tübingen, but it is a somewhat new tradition, since Tübingen is historically Protestant and Fasching is historically Catholic. The history of Fasching is also a lot better documented in Rottenburg than in Tübingen. I was able to learn a lot from  the website of the group that organizes Fasching in Rottenburg and the link is below, although the information is only in German.

Fasnet consists of a large group of activities mostly directly before the beginning of Lent. The parade (Umzug) is lead by Queen Mechthild in Rottenburg, who is temporarily in charge of the city during Fasching. Both historical figures as well as a whole cast of characters specific to Rottenburg are portrayed by people dressed in costumes and carved wooden masks.

The characters include:

Ahland: a medieval depiction of the devil it is the main character of the Rottenburger Fasnet.

An example of an Ahland, with a blown up bladder.

An example of an Ahland, with an inflated bladder.

Pompele: a spirit that makes noise and carries a large noisemaker

A Poppele figure in the Rottenburger Narrenzunft.

A Poppele figure in the Rottenburger Narrenzunft.

Die Hexe (The Witch): the witches are the leaders of Rottenburgerfastnet and help to usher it in after Three King’s day

A witch in the parade

A witch at Fastnet

The final character is a jester/clown figure called Bogges, of which I unfortunately did not catch a photo.

During the parade the characters walk trough the city and play jokes on the bystanders. My friend Ingrid was standing at the front of our group and fell victim to the face-painting, hair-pulling, shoe-untying and inflated animal bladder-swinging antics of the various characters.

Ingrid after the parade

Ingrid after the parade

There is always something magical for me about Fasching because it is a time in which so many peope choose to come together to just have a good time regardless of social standing or (historically) station in life. It is a time of happiness and joy to celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of Lent as well. I hope you enjoyed reading a bit about my favorite time of year in Germany.

Bis bald!

Link to more information to Rottenburger Fasnet (in German):

Finals…. Month?

So, as the title of this post might suggest, my recent break in posting is due to the occurrence of finals. My exam period here in Germany has been quite a bit longer here in Germany than any that I have had at Valpo and are definitely of a bit of different format. So, here is a quick look into my experience with German exams.


The folders from this semester are different colors like the many different classes I had this semester.

The folders from this semester are different colors like the many different classes I had this semester.

I had a total of 6 courses this semester, each with a slightly different type of examination. The first type was the Klausur. This is a type of written exam, and in my opinion the most comparable to any of the exams that I have had in the U.S. It consists of extended response questions about various topics having to do with the course. This particular one consisted of a shorter and longer section, each with a variety of choices of question to choose from. I have to admit that this was probably mid-difficulty mostly because I chose to write in German (the language of the material in the course), which made the 90-minute time limit seem much shorter than usual. And overall, I think that I liked this format well enough.

The second type of exam that I had was a multiple choice exam. This sounds like it would be the easiest, but in Germany instead of giving multiple choice exams with one correct answer, there are multiple correct answers, and only if you answer with all of the correct answers do you get the points for each answer. I was not exactly expecting this going into the exam, which made it seem much more difficult than it probably was.

The third type of exam is an oral exam. Oral exams are, in my opinion, the heart of the German education system. I had a few when I was in Gymnasium and this semester I also had a 30-minute exam for my theology class. This was by far the most difficult exam because it consisted of the professor quizzing me for 30 minutes straight with no notes whatsoever. I also spent the most amount of time preparing for this exam, but overall I think it went okay.

Another type of exam isn’t really an exam at all, it is called a Hausarbeit, and is a type of research paper. I currently am finishing one for my anthropology class. Instead of having to turn it in for the  end of the semester, you can write it over the semester break as well in order to have more time to research and rework the paper. The one that I am currently working on is about 15 pages and most range from 10-20 pages.

The final type of exam was the portfolio that I completed for my class on intercultural communication, which was both my favorite class and my favorite type of exam. It was something that I was able to work on throughout the entire semester and I really enjoyed being able to see the fruits of my labor for this course. I thought that it was a really great format, because it had such open parameters and is something that I can continually work on as I continue to learn about intercultural communications.

A look into my portfolio, happily a work in progress.

A look into my portfolio, happily a work in progress.

It was definitely a learning experience to work on so many different types of projects at once, but in the end, I am glad that I got to have a taste of a different academic experience.

Bis bald!

A Living Community: A Look at Life in a WG

So, being here in Germany is my first true experience living in an apartment. I live in a traditional style of student apartment called a Wohngemeinschaft (living community) or WG for short. Given that this is a somewhat closed version of an apartment, seeing as how  it is specifically designed for students, there have still been quite a few things that are new to me.

1. Putzplan

The Putzplan is a schedule designed by the student housing service in order to fairly divide up the work that has to be done in the apartment. In my apartment, it means that every 3 weeks I have to clean half of the kitchen and my bathroom (since there are two bathrooms, and each person cleans the one they use) as well as take out the trash. This plan actually works very well, because it means that there are literally no question as to who is responsible for cleaning the common spaces and you pretty much know that come Monday morning, the kitchen will be nice and clean.

The Putzplan, for the entire year

The Putzplan, for the entire year

2. Rundfunkgebühr

So in Germany, there is a tax that each apartment pays to the public radio and television stations each month regardless of whether or not they have a television or radio (I currently have neither). But this funds the public news and television, which is also available online. It was a bit surprising at first to have to pay for this, but in the end, it actually made a lot of sense, especially because I regularly watch some of the public programs online.

3.Student village

Although Tübingen is already a city that consists of mainly students, the area that I live in is basically a student village. All of the dorms are located on a hill just outside of the city center. This means that you have to take the bus anytime you want to go to the university (there is an alternative walking path, but it is slightly less fun if it is rainy or really foggy). For me this was kind of a change of pace, but I actually like riding the bus a lot- it gives a natural break in the more hectic days of the week-so it turned out to be a pretty good deal.

4. Umwelttutor: A German RA

This is an extension of the Putzplan. When I first arrived, I assumed that my apartment would not have any sort of person that would come to check up on us, but as it turns out, a few months into things, we received a note from out so-called Umweltutorin or “environmental tutor.” The job of the Umwelttutorin is basically to make sure that everyone is taking care of their jobs in the Putzplan and to write us a note if we did something incorrectly. This person remains anonymous and simply comes into our kitchen and bathrooms to check that things are clean. I thought this was interesting, because it varies vastly from the RA position we know in the U.S. which is very much based on the American cultural importance of face-to-face contact and personal investment in others’ lives.  So this too, is a reflection of the so-called self-initiative (Eigeninitiative) that is at the heart of German culture. I was surprised at first, that the note that the Umweltutorin left didn’t contain her name, just an anonymous e-mail address written in very small print at the bottom. But since her job is merely to make sure that the trash gets emptied and the toilets get cleaned, it makes sense that her roll is more detached from the people living in our WG.

An example of a note left by our Umwelttutorin

An example of a note left by our Umwelttutorin

4. Zetteln

“Zettel” is the German word for a note, and Zettel are an important part of living in a WG. They are a way to easily communicate information to your many roommates  without having to track them all down. It allows people to clarify things about cleaning, let express their annoyance with an occurrence in the kitchen or simply remind someone about taking out the trash per se. Zetteln are usually anonymous and not often talked about once they are hung up, but sometimes are signed. I think that the anonymity mostly seems less harsh, because it makes it more personal, and after time, it becomes easier to know who your flatmates are based on their handwriting.

The people who run the student housing even communicate with us on this same level from topics as everyday about sorting the trash properly or important like raising the water temperature due to state regulation.

A recent Zettel from our landlord about sorting trash.

A recent Zettel from our landlord about sorting trash.

Some of these points like the Putzplan, the Umwelttutorin and Zettel the made me think about the different modes of communication in German and American culture. Germans seem to prefer the written form of communication and Americans seem to prefer the verbal. I think that this has to do with the prevalence of gestures and facial expression and the indirect way of talking that many Americans use to communicate. Without a lot of these non-verbal cues, it is difficult to figure out exactly what the other person wants and exactly why. In the more direct style of talking that is more prevalent in Germany, it makes more sense to write things down, because there is less room for interpretation and it simplifies communication by allowing the recipient to always refer back to what has been said. The factor of anonymity also plays an interesting roll in the process as well. With the Umwelttutorin, there is simply no reason for her to tell us who is she is. She simply comes around to check something that we are supposed to have already done, so her job is to simply leave a note reinforcing the Putzplan that is already in place.

I am happy to have had the chance to live in this setting because it has given me a new perspective on my own communication and the communication styles of the people around me.

Bis bald!

The German Orchestra: A commentary

So, in my intercultural communications class, we were recently presented a model with which to examine culture that focuses on metaphors. The metaphors are meant to roughly explain the culture as a whole, not necessarily the actions of individual people. Which made me ask myself if culture is really something that can exist in an individual, or if it only really exists in a collective instance, but I will get back to explaining the model and its application to German culture specifically.

The orchestra is the specific metaphor that relates to German culture. This has to do with the fact that the individuals within the orchestra operate seemingly independently of each other, yet work together to produce a common work (in this case, socially instead of musically). Each individual has to practice on their own, and there isn’t anyone who checks up to make sure that they are practicing enough. They have to learn how to judge for themselves whether or not they are doing a good enough job, and take personal responsibility to make sure that their portion of the end product is good enough for the group.

For me this metaphor made a lot of sense. There are a lot things in Germany that fit well into this metaphor. For instance, you do not need to buy a ticket in order to get onto the bus here (or  at least within the confines of the city limits of Tübingen). Instead, each person is expected to buy a ticket either in advance or from the automat located in the entrance to the bus. A lot is left up to the honor system, but when seen through this metaphor, it sort of makes sense. Each person riding the bus is responsible for their own accountability to pay for a ticket, and because the people here are used to this accountability being put on them as individuals, so the system works and the buses can be sustained financially. The same goes for the cleaning schedule in my apartment. Although it merely hangs on the wall, the sense of personal accountability is what keeps my kitchen floor clean, not the paper itself. Just as the orchestra is the collective effort of individual muscians, the structures of German society such as the social system are made up of a collective decision towards individual accountability.

Like the importance of written word  in German culture, music helps to guide a musician's actions, but does not control them.

Like the importance of written word in German culture, music helps to guide a musician’s actions, but does not control them.

Another instance that comes to mind when I think of this accountability is the phenomenon of having your shoe untied. This has happened to me on many an occasion, since I tend to wear an old pair of lace-up boots around town. When walking down the street with an unfastened shoe, people tend to stop, or in passing alert you to the fact that you need to tie it. This is a bit strange, in a society where people tend to keep to themselves, but it is a form of individual accountability to another person.

Another way that the orchestra fits well into German culture is the idea of criticism. As an American living in Germany, I have often been warned not to get too easily insulted. This is because Germans are used to a direct style of talking and a culture that focuses on improvement where possible. This means that people in general, do not shy away from pointing out flaws, like a aforementioned shoe lace incident. In the U.S. it would seem like a bit of a breach of personal space to simply tell a stranger that their shoe is untied in passing, but the normality of critique in German culture makes it generally okay to point out things like this without social repercussions. This is similar to the constant critique that members of an orchestra receive from one another and the conductor.

Again, this model is not designed to describe the actions of an individual, but more of the collective structures and attitudes that are required for social interaction.

This metaphor was taken from the book Understanding Global Cultures: Metaphorical Journeys through 17 Countries by Martin J. Gannon.

In case you were wondering, the metaphor for American culture is an American football team, but perhaps for reasons you might not expect.

Bis bald!

Gannon, Martin J. Understanding Global Cultures: Metaphorical Journeys through 17 Countries. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1994. Print.

A Rented American: Visiting the German Classroom

So, before coming to Tübingen, I signed up for the “Rent An American” program offered by the German American Institute here in Germany. It was a great opportunity to get involved in the community around me, make sure that my English does not deteriorate too much during my stay here and think about one important question: What kind of image of my own culture do I want to project into the world?

Although it may seem obvious, sometimes when asked to most directly define my own culture, I find it most difficult to answer. So for the first visit that I took to a German classroom as a non-member of the class, I sat down and thought a lot about how to present a critical, yet upbeat version of my perspective of American culture and to engage the kids in the class so that they were actively speaking English and staying focused.

I made a quick slide show on the structural differences between the German and American school systems. But for me, explaining the mere differences was not what I really wanted to bring to the classroom. I wanted to bring a perspective about how stereotypes are not necessarily true and that the same goes for German culture. I know that that is difficult to do in the hour that I was in the classroom, but, at least in my opinion it was definitely worth trying. For me, understanding that stereotypes are not always true is the first step in building intercultural communication skills. I also tried to talk about direct and indirect language, which is another good point at which to introduce cultural differences, because it is something that is very different between American and German culture.

We ended up having a very extended question period, which helped the students to use their English and me to debunk some myths. It was a very interesting experience overall and ended with the students giving me a giant bottle of Almdudler, an Austrian herbal soda. In the terms of German middle-schoolers, this move was pretty big, since going to the store and buying candy or soda is an important part of the day. This is something that I have seen quite often, if I go to the store at about 4 p.m. on any weekday.

The lovely bag of goodies I received from my school visit.

The lovely bag of goodies I received from my school visit.

The second visit was full of some equally interesting questions and surprisingly, the students were able to name all of the states in the U.S. (plus a few cities as well). There were the typical American stereotype questions like “Do you know any movie stars?” (to which I promptly asked if they knew Till Schweiger, a German actor) plus a few more interesting ones, like talking about the Pennsylvania Dutch, which is a German language island in Eastern Pennsylvania to which my Grandmother happens to belong. I was impressed that they had learned about such a small group in their class.

It was great to spend some time visiting a school and I am excited to visit my next one.

Bis bald!

Verein, Verein, Verein

So, in Germany there is a strong tradition of organized club activities. The right to found a club is listed in the German constitution, and is something that is taken very seriously here. People are highly dedicated to putting a good effort into whatever field of interest they might have, be it sewing, sports, or any other type of hobby. The idea behind these groups is that they can work together to improve at whatever given skill they choose.

Currently, I am participating in 2 Vereine,  a theater group and a Blasorchester.

Today I am going to talk about the Blasorchester, because we have an upcoming concert. Blasorchester is translated to English as wind band. It is a privately organized group that consists of a bunch of community members playing their instruments for fun. Unlike in the U.S. arts and sports activities are largely organized through schools, in Germany they are purely in the domain of free-time activities. This means that many of the Vereine have loyal memebers who have been participating for as long as 40 years and also a much larger span of ages and life experiences.

Recently we had a year end concert, which consisted of a combination of traditional polkas, modern artsy pieces and a slew of popular music settings that the audience could sing along to. My favorite piece was entitled “Die Klarinettenmückl” (The Clarinetbug) and featured soli from the clarinet section. It worked well because it highlighted the strong mid-section of the band.

I also got a new band uniform, one very different than any of the black band dresses I have previously had to wear in concerts:


My traditional band uniform

My traditional band uniform

When I asked about the origins of this colorful outfit, which consisted of a very lacy blouse, a pink vest, a green jacket and a pink scarf, I was told that it stemmed from traditional German peasant clothing, often called “Tracht” the same category that contains some of the more well known peasant clothing like dirndls and lederhosen (which for the record, are not traditional to the region where Tübingen is located). It was a lot of fun to get dressed up and to see how a different band  uniform worked. I for one have had my share of marching and concert band outfits and although this one was pretty okay, and definitely the most brightly colored one that I have ever worn.

Overall, I really enjoy playing in the band. It helps me to feel at home and connected within the community here in Tübingen. It gives me a change of pace from the normal college student crowd and lets me see a different side of German culture.

Bis bald!

Is this a Dream, or is this just Fantasy? About my Perceived Reality of Intercultural Relations in a Multi-Cultural World

One of the things that has most occupied my time since arriving in Germany is the question of assimilation or “Anpassung” as it is called in German. As I spend more time in a country that has grown to be my second home, I ask myself how central this part of my life has become to my identity. On the one hand, it feels like being here is a wonderful dream. I have a scholarship, so I don’t have to work. I have my own apartment, so it feels like I’m living on my own. I have classes, so I’m really studying. But on the other hand, it seems very separate from the reality that I have come to know whilst living in another country.

When I first lived here, it was my first time away from home, my first time away from the U.S. and my first time away from my family. I thought that because I was having an experience that was so vastly different from anything that I’d done so far in my life, that I had to change a lot throughout it. I thought that it was going to be the defining aspect in my life more so than anything else that I’d experienced. That thought process stayed with me for quite some time, actually. Even when I started at Valpo, I thought that the experience of having been abroad somehow defined me, somehow made me something totally different than I had been before. But now, living in Germany a second time, I am starting to realize that although studying abroad has helped to change many of my perspectives in life, many of the ways I look at things, many of the ways that I make decisions, it is perhaps not the end all, be all of my life. I know that sounds somehow strange to say, but I know that although I am here, I can somehow make an identity  for myself independent of what my own expectations for the other country are.

For instance, in my intercultural competence class, we did a simulation about how people react differently when they come in contact with a different culture. Half of the class was assigned to be part of a home culture and half of the class was assigned to be the visitors in the culture. One of the rules in order to make friends with the visitors was that they were supposed to tell something about themselves before the home culture would accept conversation with them. One of the most surprising things that we noticed at the end was that the visitors, upon talking with the home culture for the first time didn’t even introduce themselves when they first met. It seems like the perfectly logical thing to do when you first meet someone new. You introduce yourself to the others and let them know who you are, but for nearly every visitor that interacted with the home culture, a simple introduction was lacking. The expectation of the visitor was that they were supposed to become a part of the home culture  and learn about it and that their own culture, their own way of approaching the situation was somehow independent of the entire exchange.

Just like my real backpack, culture comes with me and has tools that help me to process the world around me.

Just like my real backpack, culture comes with me and has tools that help me to process the world around me.

And so for me this lead to a lot of thought about how I interact as a visitor in German culture. How do I ignore or overlook parts of my own culture in an attempt to look for the parts of German culture to which I should react. I have to admit, sometimes I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I am American. In part this has to do with the fact that my culture is one that is easily identifiable in the media and therefore something that many people automatically associate with a different picture in their heads than I. To be perfectly clear, it’s the media’s projection of American culture, rather than the culture itself that I find embarrassing. It makes me feel sometimes that I’m disappointing people by not living up to their expectations or having to explain that this is an image that people falsely have in their minds.  Sometimes I think that this media-based image makes me worry overreact in anticipation of being categorized by the preconceived notions of others.  It makes me too eager to assume that my identity as an American is more important than my identity as an individual. And even that is highly confusing territory. As soon as I say my name, which sounds utterly foreign to German ears, people already ask about my nationality. And so already, it seems like this is something that somehow defines me. As soon as it comes out that I’m American, it feels like everything I say is a type of comparison from things in my home country or questions about  the US or questions about “How Things Are” in German or American culture. “How Things Are” questions seem to me to be some of the dumbest questions out there  in terms of getting to know a person, because it is so intrinsically difficult to separate the individual perspective from How Things Are without misconstruing  what may just be an individual experience as a cultural norm. It also makes the individual seem less important, and although we can learn a lot about a culture by talking to the individual, it is difficult to learn a lot about the culture when talking solely to the individual or about the individual when talking about the culture at large.

One of the things that I have realized to be a difficulty insofar as being able to communicate at a deeper cultural level is my personal inability to define my own preconceived notions about German culture. On the one hand, I know the stereotype about German punctuality, but on the other hand, I also lived with a family for a year that ran on a schedule that was much more fluid than I had initially expected. I will admit, that to some extent some of the expectations that I carried with me were that Germans would automatically accept me as one of their own simply on the grounds that I was interested in their culture and wanted to learn about it. Thus far, I have found that a lot more work has got to be put into “becoming a part” of a foreign culture, if something like that even exists at all. No matter how much one changes oneself, the home culture remains looming in the background, it the way that you approach something, in gut reaction to something that you see for the first time, in a way that cannot be shed by simply the will to try something new.

And so this balancing act between my own culture and the culture around me remains. How to authentically experience a culture without simply ignoring the reality of self at hand and how to try to put aside that self without simply playing the part of something one is not.  What are the real factors that affect the nature of culture and self?

I’m off to keep looking.

Bis bald!

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