My husband and I moved to Hamburg, Germany, shortly before our oldest child entered first grade in the German public school system. On the first day of school I met parents who arrived to pick up their children. Huddled within a small group of mothers, a lady said to me, “I am sure that you are a very nice person but I already have too many friends. I do not want to get to know you because I will not be able to develop our friendship.” She turned on her heel and exited the circle.
My first experience with German tact was enlightening as I stood next to the others, feeling all alone. I spent eighteen years picking myself up off the ground from emotional set-backs and times of loneliness; but, I refused to let any of those experiences paralyze my desire for adventure within the German culture as well as love of the German people and other foreigners while living abroad.
I remember the time I ventured out (alone) to the neighborhood grocer to purchase items for dinner. Nervous that I would have to use my elementary German to ask for items behind the meat and cheese counter, I verbally practiced my order during the five-minute walk to my destination. The line to the counter was very long so I had more time to get nervous, practice, and avoid conversation. I reached the counter and began to order lots of meat and cheese. The lady behind the counter threw off my concentration when she asked me what family I came from. When I told her about my family, she insisted I tell her the name of the family. The customers in line behind me observed this, and many were chuckling, because what I did not realize was that she wanted to know which neighborhood family employed me. She asked again who was in my family and I proceeded to tell her that I had a husband, a boy and a girl and then me. By that time, the whole place was laughing except me…I was so embarrassed! I was trying so hard to communicate but to no avail. The more I talked, the deeper I dug myself into a verbal hole.
On my walk home I thought about the conversation and realized what had happened. I laughed all the way home and felt pretty good that I looked young enough to be mistaken for some family’s au pair, in spite of butchering the German language.
Two years later I returned to my homeland for a visit. I did not realize the emotional pressure I had been under as I tried to fit into a different culture from my own. Now on U.S. soil, the customs controller took my passport, checked the documentation and looked me straight in the eye, smiled and said, “Welcome Home!” I smiled back, thanked him and walked forward toward my next destination as my eyes welled up with tears of gratitude to be surrounded by everything familiar. Years later, I encountered the opposite experience upon re-entering the country that has become my second home. And feel just as grateful!