When I was in college (the first time)it was quite fashionable to randomly drop out of school and strike out on one's own "to find oneself." I was recently flying alone and was seated next to a college student who had just spent 8 months "finding herself" while globe-trotting. Europe is usually the hot spot for American students and post-grads to find themselves, while Europeans favor India and southeast Asia.
I moved to Germany two weeks ago and realized that moving overseas really is the perfect place to "find" myself. One step off the airplane, and it was painfully clear who I was: an American. Before my move I had tried to prep myself on ways to avoid being the gauche touristy American. I practiced German phrases (my pronunciation was way off), armed myself with scarves, and coached my children on not being loud and offensive in public. My sister, who already resides in Europe, in the very chic city of Vienna, tried to warn me, "Kim, they will know you are American, you can't hide it."
I've always prided myself in being more fashionable than Mollie so I swore I would wear the right shoes and swath my neck in a scarf and wear my dark-rimmed glasses so I'd look more stern like a good German. Two days after arrival, my feet were blistered and swollen from my fashionable but uncomfortable shoes, and I gave up and started sporting my beloved flip-flops. I had more than one man eye my feet in disgust that day. Totally unmasked scorn. Over my shoes.
I felt fairly confident about my German until I actually had to go into a store and buy something. Interaction with the locals proved I was a total moron. I couldn't understand simple phrases, no matter how slowly they repeated them. My credit card only works half the time here, so I went looking for an ATM. I confidently walked into a bank, inserted my card in the machine and nothing happened. I kept trying but even when set to English, no money came out. I approached the teller, who politely informed me that was not an ATM, but a machine to give their customers account information. The geldtautomat was on the other side of the lobby. "Oh, ha-ha," I giggled, embarrassed, and got my money out of the right machine.
Making an ass out of myself is a daily routine. I have bought the wrong products at the apotheke (pharmacy), bought the incorrect ticket for the strassenbahn (streetcar), been unable to say "excuse me" when I ran into someone with my stroller. But this has been a great experience for me. I tend to come across a little overly self-confident, and this sort of routine pride-check has reminded me that Americans really are the most absurdly arrogant tourists in the world. I have met Germans who speak German, English and French. Latvians who speak Latvian, German and English. Swedes who speak Swedish, English and Norwegian. But Americans speak English, and only English, and living over here, I can tell you, that will only get you so far.
Germans are a very stern sort, and often feel the need to put you in your place. One day I was checking out at H&M, and I heard the clerk say to her co-worker, "auslander." I couldn't understand everything she said but that one word, and she repeated it several times. I wanted to shriek at her, "I'm not stupid! I know that auslander means foreigner!" Of course, she may have only been referring to my foreign credit card not working in her machine, but I was slightly offput nonetheless.
In spite of all of this, I love Germany. I love knowing who I am again: I'm just me, an American of average intelligence and not much style. For the first time in my life I'm somehow blessedly alright with this knowledge.
Europe is a lovely place, mysterious and aged. I am daily beguiled by the lovely gardens on my Kirschgartenstrasse (Cherry Garden Street) and by the Deutsch men and women gliding by on their bicycles. Each alley is a new adventure to be discovered. Germany is like a woman who appears a bit cold and curt at first, but her veneer is soon melted to reveal her true loveliness. Her mysteries haunt me. I am in love again :)