The Continuous Process of Adjusting to the Unfamiliar
There are more cows than people here. I couldn’t count on two hands the number of times I’ve heard someone say that. And people aren’t kidding. At least not in the little village I am temporarily calling home.
Cows, hills and the infamously unpredictable weather are all trademarks of the Sauerland, my summer home-away-from-home. There’s something really special about small-town life in Germany, something I never even realized was missing from the tiny, farming town in which I grew up. Small towns in America – especially in the south- are known for their slow-paced and friendly lifestyles. Take a drive down Highway 460 in southern Virginia and stop at any small town if you don’t believe me. We are a friendly bunch of people.
But friendly is taken to a whole new level in the tiny villages scattered around the hills of the Sauerland, connected by narrow back roads you’d have to be a local to navigate. Here you have friends for life from all the neighboring villages. You see someone you know, you wave and offer them ‘Moin’. Your neighbor is painting his house, you offer to help. Here you run to the neighbor across the street, who also happens to be the dairy farmer, for fresh milk. Here there are Stammtische and Schützenfests that bring everyone together.
I’m beginning to be included in this friendly familiarity. I am no longer just as Ausländer, at least to the people I’ve met. I receive and return waves. I am invited to join people at festivals. I’m included in the rounds of beers bought for friends. It no longer feels like an obligation or German hospitality. I’m no longer just a visitor; my German-life is becoming life-life. Germany isn’t just a vacation, a cool way to put off figuring out real-life. I don’t answer familial skepticism with “well I can just come home after three months if it doesn’t work out here”.
I’ve accepted that adjusting to another place is a process and a journey, but it’s what makes it so exciting. And it’s something that every Ausländer before me has had to face. It’s the process of learning to expect the weather’s unpredictability; that it will be cold, sunny, hot, and stormy all before dinner. So just wear jeans. It’s learning to avoid the grocery store on Saturday evening because it is the absolute last place you will want to be. And it’s walking on the right side of every sidewalk because there are going to be bikes and only some of them will give you a warning.
Last week I was at a Dorffest – another summer tradition – standing and watching friends playing a drinking game involving a hammer, nails, and a tree stump, when I caught myself “singing” along to a German Schlager song. For those of you who aren’t German, Schlager is a genre of party hits. I have absolutely no clue what an American equivalent is, but just know that Schlager is insanely popular among Germans of all ages and it is what is played at every festival/party/car ride. Basically, knowing Schlager music is the epitome of being German (at least I think so). And I’m at this small town’s festival, a few beers in (naturally, because it’s Germany), and I’m belting this kitschy, lovey pop song about roses; sometimes I sing real lyrics, but mostly I sing fake, semi-German gibberish. But it’s a blast. Recognizing songs is step one, right? Today I received my residence permit. It doesn’t make me any more German, nor does it make it any easier to adjust, but it does give me more time to perfect this whole adjustment process. And maybe to learn the actual words to some Schlager songs. This just got real.