Three challenges greeted me in my new life in Germany.
- One, communication. (However, I must mention that I had a much better time of it than many foreigners, considering the fact that I had and have a live-in translator! What a blessing! Especially when it comes time to fill out government documents. Yikes.) (Challenge: in continual state of improvement.)
- Two, cold floors.
- Three, the cold shoulder.
In the United States of America, I was accustomed to carpeted floors and central heating. In Germany, I soon developed a major problem I had only experienced one other time in my life: during a few cold months in the Loire Valley of France when I was in high school. How strange, that Europe can change one’s toes so drastically. Yet, there it was. My poor little toes were dying.
Apparently, my extremities need to stay warm. I have a serious case of Raynauds’ Syndrome so my digits don’t dig a big drop in the mercury. The problem was that I did not know I was suffering from Raynaud’s so I did not know how to prevent it. Now that I know, I have to try to keep my tootsies (and fingers, to a lesser extent) from becoming too cold. If once they suffer, oooh, do they itch and burn. If it gets to bad, it really hurts. If–as was the case before I knew what my problem was–my toes remain too cold for too long, the tips start to turn purple, blue, black…bad news.
In both France and Germany, I spent a lot of time on wood or tile floors, sometimes with an unheated storey of the house beneath them. In both places, a person was most comfortable wearing many woolly layers and even a hat to stay warm–indoors. In Germany, the house then was, as ours is now, heated by stoves fueled by wood. This makes for a lovely atmosphere, but that lovely atmosphere is quite confined to a small radius near the blessed heat source.
My Floridian grandparents have a German neighbor who was appalled to hear reports of a German abode without an indoor toilet. True, most Germans have very modern, often luxurious bathrooms in their (often quite modern and luxurious) homes. My in-laws happened to lead a different lifestyle in which an indoor bathroom had not yet become priority. So…although their hospitality was warmly welcoming, during the cold months we lived with them, I grew to greatly appreciate indoor toilets and showers. (Oh, how I adore a hot shower. A good shower will most likely be a post theme one day. That’s how much I love them.)
Now, I’ve always been a girl who lives fairly simply…not being terribly high-maintenance, not requiring much luxury. I soon realized, however, my pioneer spirit was not as real as my romanticized view of an old-fashioned life. I opted for a bucket in our upstairs bedroom to avoid night-time trips in the snow or rain or freeze to go to the bathroom. The positive side of the outhouse was the plastic seat; it warmed up quickly. The less pleasant aspect was fiddling for matches and trying to light a candle in the dark. That and, of course, a person’s strongest sense in that dark place being the olfactory one.
At any rate, roughing it was good for me. The only real problem was that my toes took a turn for the worse. This, however, familiarized me with the most-excellent German health care system right off the bat and reconfirmed how brilliant my husband is at coming up with solutions. Heated insoles! To be fair, I don’t use them like I should, but he did come up with the salvation for my poor tootsies. (Challenge: under control.)
I mentioned before that relationships were not a problem, but that is not entirely true. The relationships we already had were indeed fine and dandy. Meeting new people and making new friends proved to be a challenge, my third big challenge.
I went to a small, Christian, liberal arts college in Kentucky where we greeted each other with hugs. I went to a big, southern university where each year the students celebrated “Hey Day”. “Hey!” was a friendly greeting shouted out to someone as you passed on the sidewalk, not an exclamation like, “Hey! Get off of my toe!” More like, “Hey, ol’ pal!” Yet, a person did not even need to know the other’s name to smile and yell, “Hey!” We were just so friendly, you know. Perfect strangers greeted each other with big grins just to show kindness and solidarity with humanity, I suppose.
Willkommen in “Dunkel Deutschland”. Welcome to “Dark Germany”, as our friends from a different area of the country once called our particular “state” of Germany. One thing a person quickly notices driving the local streets is that almost every yard has a wall or fence, and almost all windows are covered by these firm blinds that roll out from the ceiling. Why such privacy? Well, consider the history. Former East Germany. The DDR (GDR). Neighbors were encouraged to spy on each other (not to mention family members on their families). And before that this was prime Hitler territory. Distrust, anyone?
I arrived in the former East with a smile, a cheery wave, a hospitable “Hallo!” (I soon realized I couldn’t say “Guten Tag” with just the right emphasis so I stuck with the fairly universal “hallo” instead.) My jovial salutations and matching expressions in Brandenburg met with the cold shoulder. No response. At times, not even eye contact. What I found to be worse, though, was when they initiated direct eye contact with no communication to follow and then just went on their way as if nothing had happened. Sometimes Ange and I would be walking down the dirt road behind our property, approach another couple out for a stroll, smile and greet them, know they heard us, know they saw us, and receive absolutely no recognition that we encountered them. How bizarre.
What I find most tragic in this whole cold shoulder syndrome is that I’m succumbing to it! I, who once smiled at everyone I passed on the street, do not do so anymore. I notice it most of all when we return to the States. My manners, my hospitable southern charm, even my basic human friendliness thaw a bit, but they seem somehow incapacitated.
I know, however, that not every foreigner is as weak as I. A dear friend from England had such a charismatic, bright personality that she managed to make friends with all the service people at the mall near the Autobahn. It is possible to retain one’s good-natured attitude. Am I so easily swayed? Do I become all things to all people out of respect for their customs? To fit in better? To avoid ridicule? Because I’m lazy? Because I’m a chameleon? Because my own personality is not particularly strong, making me something of a reed swayed by every passing wind? I didn’t even notice it was happening until I had changed.
One aspect about living in Germany that makes it difficult to exude surface-level friendliness is a culture of formal and informal relationships. As in French, with the formal Vous and informal tu, German makes use of two forms of you depending on whether one is speaking with someone in a familiar fashion (the informal du) or on a professional level (the formal Sie). I am not very good at being polite here. One of my first big mistakes was saying du to our postman. He promptly responded by addressing me with a very emphatic Sie. I do wonder how many people I have offended.
This formality may have its place, but I find it stifling. Do you know how long it takes before one feels like she can ask a slightly personal question? Even asking, “What do you do for a living?” seems too personal. When I taught at a German school, I did not learn any of my fellow teachers’ first names until I had been working with them for over a month.
Still, after years of living here, I can honestly say that Germans can be friendly, and some don’t even mind if I rudely push immediately into using the informal. I’ve come to simply begin a conversation with, “My name is Cara. Oh…is it okay if we use ‘du’?” I guess I’ve decided I’d rather be considered a rude American than lose time I could be getting to know someone.
And the people in the town have either come to accept us or realized we’re not going anywhere. Most respond in some fashion now when greeted, but–sadly–I sometimes don’t really acknowledge a passerby…because it appears to not be culturally necessary.
Talking with other Germans who have moved to this area from other parts of the country, the concensus is clear: our little portion of this varied land is fairly unique in its (at least surface-level) unfriendliness. Very friendly people live here, too. It just takes longer to find them…after a long season of “Sie” and “business only” talk. I suppose I need to be patient. After all, the Wall came down in my lifetime. I’m thankful it’s just the cold shoulder and not the Cold War we’re dealing with now. (Challenge: Hey, du! How about some cold ice cream with a friend who’s determined to thaw a shoulder or two?)