Invaluable Experiences | #5

It’s been awhile! After spending time at home with my host and her friend a few weeks ago, I realized how much I enjoyed living in the culture and getting to know the people around me instead of going on intense weekend trips. So, I took one last solo trip to Hamburg, Germany the next weekend.

In Hamburg, I loved spending time near the harbor and taking multiple ferries on the river, going to a chocolate factory museum, as well as exploring the origin of The Beatles’ career. This was also my first time in the “true” former West Germany, and it felt like a completely different country. I couldn’t help notice the strong American influence in the city – English signs all over, everyone speaks English, and lots of American stores, brands, food, fashion, music, and trends were everywhere. They call Hamburg the “home of German capitalism,” and it was so much more expensive than anywhere else I’ve traveled. It reminded me of my conversations about capitalism and communism with my host and her friend from South Africa. Many of us are told from a young age that capitalism is the “best possible option.” I think it’s important to really examine and evaluate current infrastructure, not simply assume it’s the only choice. Something I really appreciated in Hamburg was how one of my tour guides talked about trade and colonialism in Europe, as this was my first time learning about Germany’s role in colonialism. Hamburg is a port city and it’s been a huge center for such trade. If we aren’t reminded, I think it’s sometimes easy to forget that many European economies and magnificent cities were built on exploitation.

Swans on the beautiful harbor
Hamburg City Hall

I have officially been in Europe for two months now. I admit, it can be hard to be on your own for so long. I love the thrill and growth from solo travels, but two months worth of weekends on your own can get lonely. I felt quite alone in Hamburg which made it more difficult to enjoy the city, but I found a slightly helpful cheesy quote saying, “in our most vulnerable times, we are the strongest.” I don’t know how much this applied to my situation, but it was healing to read those words. I think we learn the most when we feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. So, I decided to take a little break from exhausting weekend trips to focus on my internship, improve my German by spending time with my host, and appreciating the complex city of Leipzig.

At my internship, we had to move to a new building due to construction, so now I share an office with my boss! It’s just us, since my intern partner had a shorter schedule and left early. It’s an interesting arrangement, but after one day of working together, it’s not bad at all. I admire how focused, dedicated, and thorough my boss is. She’s taught me so much about how to really write a solid, “bulletproof” research paper (meaning no flaws in any arguments) and navigate the SPSS program. I didn’t think I would enjoy learning SPSS so much, and I hope I can  continue conducting analyses and using code in future research experiences.

Currently, I’m writing the discussion section of the paper. I realized how much I enjoy thinking about possibilities for certain results and future directions to take. My research paper measured knowledge of WHO physical activity guidelines across the German general public. I find it really interesting to see how certain psychological factors (motivation and subjective age), behavioral factors (lifestyle), and demographic factors (age and gender) are related to knowledge of the guidelines. I appreciate how research involves a lot of questioning and thinking of explanations outside of the box. Despite liking my internship tasks, it’s been sometimes difficult to stay at a desk for 7.5 hours every day, but my boss agreed to letting me work at a coffee shop or at the library for a change of pace, and a location change has been quite helpful so far! I really appreciate her flexibility, as well as flexibility in the field of academia in general.

In terms of cultural differences at work, my host mentioned that most Germans are very blunt and straightforward but people don’t take things personally. I’ve noticed this a bit in my workplace and it’s been an interesting dynamic to get used to. Altogether, a blunt approach probably increases efficiency – very typical of Germany! I haven’t noticed much small talk, either. People are nice, warm, and friendly, but quickly get right back to business. Another quirk of Germany is that they knock their hands on tables after a presentation instead of clapping! This was so confusing at first, but I’ve embraced these seemingly “odd” traditions.

To my surprise, my host explained that Americans are her most polite, open, and friendly visitors She’s hosted almost 40 Americans in her apartment, and over 100 residents in total. I thought Europeans looked down on Americans, but all of the Germans I’ve talked to have been so excited to meet a visitor from the States. Through my host, I’ve surprisingly met a lot of locals and practiced the language with real Germans! I’ve met people who are really into American metal music, people who love to travel all over America, people who hate American influence in Europe, and many more. Many of them ask about how I feel about American politics at the moment. I can articulate my thoughts on politics in German, which is such an accomplishment for me! But the four Germans I’ve talked to about American politics all are scared that history is repeating itself, in ways similar to dark parts of German history. Once again, they’re very outright with their opinions and don’t hold back. These conversations have been so interesting and really expanded my perspective on the world.

On a boat tour through Leipzig’s canals
Watching the World Cup finale

I’ve noticed how European cities are really difficult for differently-able bodied people. Cobblestone streets are everywhere so it’s hard to walk or wheel evenly. In my apartment, I have to walk up 6 flights of stairs and there’s no elevator. Many of the bus and tram stops are elevated, so it’s hard for people to use if walking up or down a step is a challenge. Even for the parents with strollers, it’s difficult to get on the bus. For my entire time here, I’ve only noticed ramps at popular museums and a few places at the university. In addition, I have yet to see a unisex or non-gender conforming bathroom in Europe, but I’m not sure how often I’d see such bathrooms while traveling as a foreigner in the States.

Speaking of identities, this week is currently LGBTQ+ pride week! The mayor of Leipzig flew a pride flag in front of the town hall and released a public statement about acceptance of all people, which made me feel so proud. Leipzig as a whole seems to be really into activism. Actually, last weekend I attended a demonstration protesting for better refugee rights! If you told me 6 months ago that I’d be spending my time at a protest in a random city in Germany, I would have never believed it, but I’m so grateful to be here and have such interesting experiences.

The pride flag, EU flag, Germany flag, Saxony flag, and Leipzig flag
A spontaneous demonstration for Seenotretter (rescue missions for lost refugees)

I arrived in Germany feeling really unconfident in my abilities speaking the language, but now I speak German for basically all of my conversations with my host and locals. My speaking isn’t always great and adjective endings are always rough for me, but I can usually understand what people are saying. I now think in German a lot of the time, usually phrases such as “Gott sei Dank!” and “Na ja”. To be honest, I’m even losing my English! I’ve also started to adopt some German habits here. For example, I fold my bedding (in half) to the edge of the bed to air it out. I’m not sure if it works, but I feel like it might? Also, I really appreciate the lack of small talk and orderliness in grocery stores. I’ve become a lot more eco-friendly and informed about recycling, zero-waste living, and even natural beauty products. And, dare I say, I’m used to living without air conditioning. Another thing about Germany is that I feel less pressure to care about my appearance. I feel so much more comfortable to go makeup-free or wear an interesting clothing combination. And, shockingly to me, I’m starting to adopt a more “punctual” lifestyle. I hate when my bus, tram, or train is late, and I get irritated with myself when I’m even a minute or two late to my job. This is a really good habit to stick with, and hopefully I won’t lose it in the States! My experiences of practicing the language with native speakers and learning about cultural differences have been absolutely invaluable; I’d never be able to learn any of this in a classroom.

Spending time with my lovely host

I’m not looking forward to having reverse culture shock when I head home in three weeks. I really love living here and I hope to keep a lot of my German habits in the States. I still feel like such a Midwesterner, especially when I say “ope!” all the time (which I notice even more while in a foreign country!), just a lot more eco-friendly, punctual, carefree, and aware of the world.

The sun beginning to set at a nearby lake

Bis bald und viele Grüße! – Elizabeth

One thought on “Invaluable Experiences | #5

  • July 26, 2018 at 4:00 pm
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    Elizabeth,

    Thanks so much for posting such a thoughtful reflection. I love reading your posts – they’re always so full of life and detail – you’re really quite the gifted storyteller!

    It’s been really interesting and inspiring to watch you build such a solid foundation of skills in the area of cultural competency. The way that you’re approaching these moments of cultural dissonance is really impressive – you’re really keeping an open-mind and taking things in stride, but you take a lot of steps to attempt to understand why certain things are the way they are – I wonder how much your research-intensive internship has to do with this?

    I know it’s a little thing, but I was really glad to see that you asked your supervisor if you could work somewhere else to break up the monotony – particularly in fields where you’re working independently, taking the initiative to make little changes in behavior can really unlock your motivation level. You’ve touched on this a few times, but do you think that for future jobs and opportunities, you’ll look for work that involves more collaboration? It seems like while you’re enjoying the cultural immersion of living and working abroad, your work is making you feel a bit isolated. Are there opportunities for you to work in tandem with someone else, or a side project that involves more collaborative practices that you could get involved in?

    Keep up the good work – I’m excited to read the next post!

    -Josh

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