“Sorry, I don’t speak German,” and Other Ways I Am Inadequate

I’m in Germany!

Getting here was a series of anxieties followed by everything being comically pleasant. I was early for every flight, despite leaving for the airport later than I had expected and the first two flights taking off quite late. I thought I might not be able to move into my housing because I didn’t make an appointment with the building’s janitor, but he was there and even carried my luggage upstairs and gave me a free pillow and ethernet cable. It’s been lovely.

But…

The language barrier is real, guys.

I mean, I knew that everyone would speak German here, but everyone speaks German hereYesterday, the day I arrived in Stuttgart, I felt kind of isolated and kind of embarrassed the whole time. I got in the wrong line at customs (maybe because of my sleep deprivation – I got moved to my own exit row and had the most space I’ve ever had on a plane but still couldn’t sleep much), so I literally entered the country already feeling dumb. I had no trouble navigating the S-Bahn (the Stuttgart subway) to my accommodation, but once I arrived I just crashed.

WARNING, BORING ANECDOTE (read at your own risk): After a shower with no towel and a brief nap under the blanket I took from the airplane, I got back on a train to visit the lab where I’ll be working, the HCILab at Stuttgart Universität. Maybe because I was so tired, I simply could not make sense of where I was supposed to find the lab. I had the name of the building, which was supposed to be located at Pfaffenwaldring 5a. The map in the center of campus said it was at Pfaffenwaldring 7b, and moreover did not mention that P. 5a existed at all. However, the sign right above the map affirmed that the building was at P. 5a, so I followed the arrow to the building that the map said was P. 7b, which appeared to be completely surrounded by a construction zone. So I wandered around campus for nearly an hour, asking three people for directions periodically throughout. The first person had no idea because he worked at the desk of a hotel that is apparently not affiliated with the university despite being on its campus, the second first said he didn’t speak English and then told me (in English) that I was on the wrong street, and the third gave me very clear directions and walked with me for at least five minutes because he was going the same way. We had a really lovely chat about school and America and the the Universität, which I needed because I had been getting really flustered and discouraged. Then I arrived in the building and couldn’t find anything that said HCI, or any sign of the people I was supposed to meet. I figured maybe there just were no signs and everyone had already gone home (it was nearly 6pm by this point), and decided to go get dinner before I passed out. On the way back past the construction fences, I saw a sign that indicated I had actually been in building 5b, while building 5a was the next one over. Overjoyed, I went back and found several wonderful, friendly, funny, and helpful members of the lab, who made me feel incredibly welcome.

END BORING ANECDOTE

This long and annoying story is summarized by the way I’ve felt so far about being here: completely overwhelmed and confused, then very welcomed and pleasantly impressed. There’s definitely been a bit of culture shock. For instance, I was told not to say sorry a lot, because Germans don’t apologize as much as Americans do. I went around yesterday thinking Germans were kind of rude, but it turns out Americans are just too polite! I have already failed at saying sorry less. I am always in the way, so it was reassuring to learn that this is also normal and fine.

However, I’m determined to learn at least basic German while I’m here. Yesterday I held the elevator for a guy with a baby in a stroller, and I was afraid to say anything when he said “danke” and “tschau” so I just was quiet and awkward. Today I almost spoke to a smoothie cart operator in Spanish and then in Danish, because my brain has decided languages are just either English or not-English, I guess.

I have actually been working on my German for several weeks with the app DuoLingo, which I have enjoyed using for Irish and Spanish. So far, though, I have not learned how to ask how much something costs or say what kind of smoothie I want, but I have learned such gems as “Das Pferd frisst Brot” (the horse is eating bread), “Der Hund hat eine Ente” (the dog has a duck), and my new favorite today: “Die Bären lesen eine Zeitung” (the bears are reading a newspaper). So useful.

Today I met up with the other Americans at the lab and got a lovely tour in which I met most of the lab students and postdocs. It was so nice to not be wandering around by myself. The Americans are great. There are seven (soon to be eight) of us, all staying in the same student hostel. All the lab people are much funnier and warmer than I expected, and the assortment of chocolate and other delicious things in their offices is quite impressive. One person had a box of Ritter Sport chocolate squares that was literally two feet long. Anyone want to bet on how much weight I’ll gain in the next two months? I’m thinking five pounds. There’s also a cheap grocery store down the street – I already bought three kinds of candy.

That’s everything for now. No pictures because all the photos I’ve taken have been of maps, no joke. I’ll be back soon with more words for you to read, but for now I’m off to read about Brain-Computer Interfacing and learn more German on DuoLingo.

Liebe und Bären,

Natalie

 

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