Just when I thought my Italian was picking up speed—I had actually had an entire conversation at a bus stop with a delightful elderly man using only three Italian words—it was time to pick up my backpack and switch countries.
I flew from Venice to Dusseldorf then connected to Nuremberg, where I met Maggie. The airport in Dusseldorf gave me a thirty minute layover, which was my first taste of being a complete foreigner.
I was a foreigner in Italy but Italian is similar enough to Spanish that I never felt too far out of place. There were also tons of tourists so the odds of English popping up either in signage or in conversation were actually pretty high. Germany, on the other hand, was not this way. Dusseldorf and Nuremberg are not huge touristy areas so German is the main language spoken and written here. While it’s true that many locals know at least some English, they don’t speak it unless prompted.
My brain started ticking when I was sitting in the airport in Dusseldorf. I looked around me and everyone looked like I did. They were pale complected, friendly middle-class Europeans who dressed in the same fashion as me. It was weird then, to be amongst what felt like my people, only to hear a bunch of gibberish come out of their mouths. If it looks like an American and smells like an American—oh wait, it’s a German!
As I sat and soaked in the flavors around me I couldn’t help but wonder, do I look German? No one was staring at me or alluding to the fact that I was out of place. In fact everyone smiled and made small talk with me in their native tongue. I’d smile and shrug my shoulders as if I totally knew what they meant, and the kicker was that they usually believed me.
My roots are actually German on both sides if you go back a few generations. I have light brown hair and blue eyes and I was raised eating Grandma’s recipes like potatoes and meatballs and beef stroganoff. I’ve always had a slight connection to the German culture, even from my little bubble in Oklahoma. Still, I had no idea how alien I was going to feel by not being able to speak the language.
I had studied German weeks before when I thought I wasn’t traveling to Europe until September, but when my trip was moved forward by several months I switched my focus to Italian since Italy was my first stop. Now, in Dusseldorf, I was frustrated that I couldn’t instantly pick up the language spoken, and I was equally irritated that I hadn’t studied harder sooner. On top of not being able to eavesdrop, I couldn’t read any of the signs. Very few things were translated into English, and that just wasn’t the world I grew up in.
Fortunately, I wasn’t in this great country alone. I had my great pal Maggie to show me around Deutchland and that was the first familiar face I saw after leaving the airport.
Reach Haley Hoover at email@example.com or view photos with her blog at www.thesparklinghippie.com.