Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Going Deutsch

On the Erasmus Students tumblr here.

We are told that a Year Abroad does wonders for our ‘personal development’, for ‘character building’ and ‘individual progress’.

Three months in, however, I could not have anticipated the transformation I am undergoing. Certainly, my perspective on life’s challenges has changed – having had to cope with uncompromising landlords in a language I am not completely comfortable speaking, for instance, I shall no longer dread getting a broken boiler fixed when I return to England. Or, having had to face a ridiculously complicated tax system (80% of all the world’s published tax documentation is in German, by the way), I shall no longer be fazed by filling in a P45.

But the transformation runs deeper than that. Unbelievably, for someone who drinks six cups of tea a day and who is known for their excessive politeness, I think I might even be becoming a little bit German.

I hadn’t noticed quite how Germanic my habits had become until I returned home last weekend. As soon as I had landed, my train home was delayed. My first thoughts were “this would never happen in Germany” and then, when the drone of that infamous pre-recorded voice announced in the least apologetic tone possible that “we are sorry to announce that the 10.45 train will be delayed by approximated 25 minutes”, I became uncharacteristically irritated. In Germany, on the rare occasion that there is a delay, the driver issues a personal apology over the intercom, as if he really does regret the hold-up. There’s even a public transport policy that if you have to wait more than ten minutes you’re entitled to your money back. If we were to introduce such a policy in Britain I fear we would run the risk of bankrupting the system.

Ah, I haven’t lost my British cynicism then. It’s just found a new object of attack – ironically, the country supposedly famous for it. So, while I’m in the complaining mood, what other British problems has my three months in Germany exposed? The general tardiness and inefficiency of Britons has also become more exasperating: on the same visit, I arranged to meet friends for brunch at 10 o’clock, and was waiting a quarter of an hour until they turned up. When I phoned my mobile network provider to cancel my contract, I was kept on hold for almost an hour and then told it would take up to a week for the change to be applied. Germans, by contrast, simply get things done. It’s telling that procrastination is so alien a concept to them that there isn’t even a word for it in their language.

Am I ready, then, to give up on the frustrations of Britain in favour of dependable Deutschland? Actually, not quite. There will always be a considerable amount of Britishness ingrained in me, resistant to change despite its submersion in German culture. While fellow pedestrians wait good-naturedly at crossings for what seems like forever, I’m stamping my feet with impatience. The British prude in me still squirms at the thought of embracing the ‘clothing optional’ policy of the sauna at my local gym. I’ve also struggled to come to terms with my colleagues’ honesty – I have to remember that a piece of work they would shrug off as ‘ok’ would be hailed as a brilliant achievement back home, and that any criticism is not veiled under false praise but instead given to me outright. It wasn’t an easy pill to swallow when I was told I had ‘room for improvement’ in my first review of my internship, but when I came home and told my German flatmates all that had been said rather despondently, they reassured me I had nothing to worry about – straight talking is just the way it is here. Subsequently, when my manager referred to my progress on a project as ‘excellent’, I felt truly valued – such compliments are not frittered about, so when they are bestowed, the person really means it.

So perhaps my Year Abroad experience so far has not so much changed who I am – a Briton through and through – but made me sensible to cultural differences that affect our day-to-day lives. I still apologise excessively and worry unnecessarily about perceived impoliteness – but I’ve become increasingly aware of doing so in a context where such behaviour is a rarity. It’s made me more conscious of the way I behave and how that might be received, and how important it is to bear this in mind when dealing with other people. It’s made me sympathetic to the difficulties people experience when faced with new circumstances. Above all, it’s taught me to be considerate, and not jump to conclusions. We’re all different, and we needn’t try to bridge the gap between such distinctions – but we do need to be appreciative and respectful in our approach to them.

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