It’s 11:06 A.M. in Bonn, Germany, and all of the other students from Loyola Marymount University are currently taking a German test in a nearby room.
You can’t imagine the disdain that twenty-four people feel toward the twenty-fifth when he walks in, listening to fantastic, catchy music on his iPod as they flip through pages of binder paper, textbooks, and flashcards, cramming with just a few minutes before a test, desperately trying to remember conjugations and resenting the fact that Germans assign gender to their nouns — why is Mädchen, a little girl, given the neuter das anyway? — endlessly repeating der, die, das, die and several useful one-liners: “Wo ist die Toilette?”
Meanwhile, I am blogging.
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is what happened after I arrived in Germany.
The first thing I did was hop on a bus from Düsseldorf to Bonn, listening the entire way to the Spring Awakening soundtrack for comfort, after all, who knows when the enemy, culture shock!, would attempt to take hold of me. But honestly, as I looked around, things weren’t immediately different: there were cars and streetlights and human beings driving those cars, indebted to the streetlights.
When we arrived at the Akademie für Internationale Bildung, my school this semester, I was immediately given a sturdy blue folder that contained, in addition to maps, schedules, and other important minutiae, a small pack of Haribo gummi bears. When I started studying German last summer at Middlebury College I was given a similar package, and likewise I received a package last semester along with my application to study abroad.
Thus, when I received this package, I was overjoyed to know that I was now standing, breathing, living amongst the home of these famous little bears. I felt as if I had followed a rainbow to its end and found a pot of gold, except instead of a rainbow it was a jet stream or a great circle or whatever it is that planes fly along and instead of a pot of gold it was a small package of rubbery, gummi delicacies.
I was picked up from the AIB by a woman from Spain, which was immediately confusing, but soon I was dropped off at my host family’s house, where I was greeted by a curious surprise: my host family was in New York, and would be there for about a week. Until then, I would be staying at their house with the mother of my host mother, a wonderful woman who speaks only German.
During this week, I would hear many phrases repeated over and over: “I am so old, 85 years old now!” and “During the war…” were emblematic, which is not to say that I was not appreciative to hear her story. Occasionally, however, the stories of brutal Russians and tortured Jews were a poor accompaniment to scrambled eggs and yogurt.
There were other quirks of hers that I appreciated too, such as the way that she finished nearly every sentence with “Weißt du?” (You know?). Also, I liked that she equated my lack of understanding German words with a lack of understanding basic technology: when, for instance, I forgot the word for refrigerator (der Kühlschrank), she point it out to me and have me put my hand in it, so I would feel the coldness and know its essence and function.
She showed me how to turn on the shower, change the television channel, and cut meat with a butter knife.
The phrase that I heard the most during this week was one that I have heard is typical of German grandmothers: “Du isst zu wenig!” (You don’t eat enough!). Therefore, every morning I was greeted by five scrambled eggs, three sandwiches made of ham, cheese, and tomatoes, a banana, an orange, two pieces of toast, one with jam and one with nutella, hot chocolate, hot tea, orange juice, and water. I don’t think I’ve gained any weight, but either way, gaining kilograms is encouraging because they appear to be only half as detrimental.
And my host grandmother is in the hospital now, so if you pray or meditate or concentrate on others for calmness or serenity, think about her. I really like her.