This summer, I spent several months in Göttingen, Germany, in order to learn German. It had only been a year since I had moved away from home as a Lawrence freshman, and now I was living alone overseas. Life was moving a little too fast for my comfort. Nothing too bad could have happened to me in such a tiny town and with the Goethe Institute looking after me. Even if something had happened, it would only have made this column more interesting than it will be. But here are some things I learned in Germany:
1. It’s not going to be as bad as you think it is, and even if it is, if you are optimistic enough to get yourself to do it, you’ll be stuck with it and will end up with a nice experience you can complain to your friends about.
This got me through plenty of afternoons when I didn’t want to go grocery shopping because it’s somehow much more difficult in a foreign language. There’s always the worry that someone will say something to you that you don’t understand and you’ll make a fool of yourself. Of course, this situation is expected of language learners, and all you have to do is look pitifully confused and explain that your German isn’t good enough. They’ll either dumb-down what they’re saying, or decide that it’s a lost cause and give up. The only result is that you will have actually talked to someone other than a classmate or teacher.
Of course, occasionally it is worse than you thought it was going to be. I experienced this when I received an invitation to come to a party at a student-corps house. The German student-corps are along the lines of fraternities, with the addition of bloodsport. They practice mensur, a form of fencing specifically designed to give them a facial scar (called a schmiss), of which members are revoltingly proud. They are fully armored everywhere but the face. Then they proceed to slash at each other until blood is drawn. I was excited to see what these places were like, because my childhood fencing coaches always used tell us about mensur to disgust us.
However, one other thing these fraternities are known for is drinking and, fortunately, that was the only dimension I experienced. We ended up standing in a dark street attempting to make sense of the beer-slurred German of possibly the drunkest person I’ve ever met. He kept trying to get us to come inside to drink, with the single-mindedness of the severely intoxicated. It was an early night.
2. Be very wary of traditional German food. It can be done well, but it can also be done really badly. Germany is the only place where I’ve had a vegetarian meal that had no vegetables in it. No vegetables but one small grey Brussels sprout that collapsed as I cut it, releasing a puff of noxious gas. Fortunately, one can pretty much live on pasta, tomatoes and muesli; they’re cheap, and when you’ve seen one potato too many, they look mighty tasty.
Despite the Goethe Institute’s questionable vegetarian cuisine, all Germans make and eat bread like no one else. According to Roger Boyes of London’s The Times, Germans typically eat 87 kilos of bread rolls each, per annum. I absolutely do not blame them. German bread is delicious. They bake with many more kinds of flour than in the US, and they have thousands of types of breads and rolls. Being able to eat German bread made up for having to eat all those German potatoes.