What I’ve learned (so far) from living abroad

Well, I’ve reached that 1-year mark. One year of living in Germany, of living in another country, far away from the mores and laws of the United States. I thought that this would be an appropriate time to reflect on some things that living in Germany has taught me.

The individual is not always that important.

When I first got to Germany and started teaching English, I would try to build rapport with my classes by telling them stories from my past, adventures I’d had and things I’d achieved. And more times than not, my efforts would be in vain because much of my talk would fall flat. Students would either not ask me any further questions on the information I would offer or my stories would just be met with tepid responses. For weeks, I wondered why my banter wasn’t wooing them over.

And then I realized: for that very reason.

Banter, personal stories, the “me”– it doesn’t really go over the same way in Germany as it does in the United States. In the United States, it’s all about the person. Just look at our presidential races. We are obsessed with the person, who he is, what he’s done, how charming he is, if you’d like to have a beer with him. It’s the cult of personality. Not in Germany. Go around in Germany and tell people you’re a doctor or a lawyer: “Oh. Good for you.” Tell people you’re a journalist or a radio personality: “That’s nice.”

They just don’t have the same kind of reverence for the person and his accomplishments as we do. In addition, a lot more emphasis is put on teamwork and what you can accomplish as a team. For example, some job interviews here are group interviews, with applicants all in one room, responding to questions and performing small tasks together. As such, interviewers can see how the applicants perform in a team. How foreign. Bottom line: Living in Germany for this long has really shrunk my ego.

America is a violent. America is rough.

Now let’s not lie: Germany wasn’t always the safest place. There is no doubt a massive history of violence exists here. But living in Germany, far away from the U.S., has sort of given me a bird’s eye view of my home country. And, man, what I have seen straight scares me. The shootings, the killings, the paralysis, the racism, the guns, the murdered children, the rage, the fear. Germans, it should be noted, are not always that nice. But do things devolve into violence and killing in Germany as quickly as they do in the U.S. nowadays? I have to say no.

Just how desperate the situation is in the United States these days is reflected in my reactions to things that happen to me in Germany. For example, sometimes, when someone here does something not so nice to my girlfriend — maybe they push her a bit when she is trying to get on a busy bus — she responds by saying, “F— you, a–hole!”

When she responds like this, I instinctually grab her arm and tell her to stop. Why? Because I come from the U.S. and in the U.S. doing something like that, just cursing someone out, can get you killed. Granted, it can get you in trouble here, too. But the worst reaction you get, from what I’ve seen, is the other person just curses you out, too. They don’t blast you out of existence.

Germans do have a sense of humor.

Some people say Germans don’t have a sense of humor. And you know what, I can see why some people, especially people in the U.S., might think this. In America, we’re big on sarcasm. But Germany is a “say what you think” culture. Germans are very straightforward and often have no problem telling you exactly what’s on their mind. So it’s kinda crazy for a German to be walking around saying things he doesn’t mean all the time. As such, sarcasm, as we know it, really is not their bag.

But Germans do have plenty of humor. German humor is one rich with irony — deep, brutal irony. In addition, a lot of times, German humor is very concise. All one person has to do is say one or two cutting and perfectly timed words and it’ll get the people around him rolling. But back to the irony thing. Let me give you a good example of this “deep” irony.

One time, my girlfriend and I were walking home from the supermarket. On the way, we saw this 2-year-old girl, cute as a button, pushing a big, heavy grocery car, stocked super high with all kinds of groceries. I mean this cart was piled high and she was barely moving it. That, in itself, would have been funny and ironic enough. But then, this girl’s father (who had been behind her all along) noticed that my girlfriend and I were looking at the tyke in amusement, just as he was. And instead of his just laughing along with us at the sight of this tiny person struggling to push something so large, he decided to take it a step further. He started pretending as though he were a slave driver and that he was whipping the little girl to make her keep trudging the load. Once he did this — he just mimed the whole thing — we all bursted out laughing at the absurdity and total “wrongness” of it — deep irony.

Silence is OK.

In the U.S., we really fear silence. Think about it: God forbid you are on a first date and a moment of silence occurs between you and your date. It would — of course! — signal that you two not compatible, it’s all no fun and it just won’t work out.

But in Germany, I’ve noticed that sometimes people think you are crazy if you actually don’t pause for a moment. Constant talk can lead to people thinking you are super stressed or maybe a little frantic. Germans allow the weight of silence to wash over them and perceive silence as time in which one can think or reflect.

In addition, it’s OK in Germany to do absolutely nothing sometimes. For example, there have been instances in which I have walked into my living room only to find my girlfriend just sitting there, staring into space. And I’ve always uttered the same thing upon discovering her: “Uh…what are you doing?”

Initially, I had just shrugged off her ability to just sit in a room and do absolutely nothing as one of her idiosyncrasies. But then I saw other Germans displaying such behavior. I would watch people in waiting rooms or train dining cars, and they would just be sitting there, no magazine, no cell phone, nothing.

Germans, at least I think, really seem to embrace non-activity better than Americans, or at least they don’t fear it as much.

Germans have a different idea of Nazis.

Growing up in the U.S., the basic idea was that Nazis were the sickest, most evil people, period. At least that was the idea that I came away with after having learned about the Nazis in middle and high school. The picture really wasn’t all that nuanced. And perhaps, when explaining the Nazis and similar concepts to young people, there really isn’t much room for nuance. After all, there’s no doubt that my teachers and the culture at large were trying to cultivate in us students a belief system that was starkly different to the Nazis’, and in order to do such a thing, it is necessary, initially at least, to paint with broad strokes.

But, in a way, when it comes to Nazis, there is some nuance. I started to find this out one day when my girlfriend and I were talking about her friend’s grandfather, who was a Nazi. My girlfriend told me, “Yeah, [my friend’s] grandfather was a Nazi, but she doesn’t like to talk about it because he was a bad Nazi.”

What I had thought that she meant by this phrase, “bad Nazi,” was that this guy was a member of the SS or of a mobile killing unit or something. Because, really, that’s the only way that that phrase “bad Nazi,” would make sense to me, if he had done some really monstrous stuff. After all, I had thought, and was taught to think, weren’t all Nazis bad?

But what I later learned was that this man, who was still alive at the time, didn’t necessarily kill anyone. What made him a “bad” Nazi was that he still believed in Hitler’s ideology after the war.

And that’s what really hit me. First off, that there is even such a dichotomy, Nazi vs. bad Nazi. And secondly, the thing that was presented to me as being taboo wasn’t having a Nazi in the family. It was having in the family a Nazi who never stopped believing in Hitler’s ideology.

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