Now that I am back home in America, I am working on reorganizing the entries by date, filling in some of the gaps, and linking the entries to the many pictures I took while I was over there.
I also have lots of photographs from Germany and Europe posted
in the pictures section of my website.
One of the best parts of traveling is meeting new people. While I am not very outgoing by nature, the reward of talking with people from other cultures motivated me to strike up conversations with strangers. It seems to work well by starting the conversation with something like "Do you speak English?" (or "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?" or "Parlez-vous Anglais?" as applicable). In England, I liked to start conversations with "Where are you from?" While that is a strange question to start off with, they will inevitably ask the question back to you. Saying you are from America immediate gives you something interesting to talk about.
It is useful to know how people socialize differently in a particular culture. After just a couple days in Germany, some of the differences between Americans and Germans were very obvious. In America, when you are near someone else, it is normal to make eye contact followed by a friendly smile. That is not true in Germany! I road the city bus to school in the mornings, and people rarely made eye contact with me. When the occasional person did look back at me, they did not smile. That really felt strange the first time, and I never figured out whether I should hold the contact or look away at that point. Probably the best example of the difference is the time when I said "Hi" to a girl sitting next to me at the school cafeteria, and she almost choked on her food - apparently from the shock of a stranger talking to her.
However, Germans are not anti-social. Their society just has different rules. While Germans do not usually meet new people on the bus or in school hallways, they really open up at parties. Despite my personality, I had no problem meeting Germans at parties. I was even able to get rides home from girls after the buses stopped running! The Germans would happily speak English and had all sorts of questions such as what were our opinions of our professors and why we chose to come to Ulm. I was occasionally asked about American politics, but it was in the spirit of discussion.
There are plenty of parties in Germany. Each dormitory in the city has a weekly party. The Studentencafe in Ulm has weekly cocktail bars as well as free movie nights and theme parties. The city is safe at night, and there are plenty of bars. There was even Party-Nacht in Ulm where a 10 Euro bracelet would let you take the bus all night and enter 40 different clubs and bars around town. The drinking age is 16 in Germany, and alcohol is an integral part of German culture. Because German classes are usually structured with the grade entirely based on the final exam, students have plenty of free time until they start cramming towards end of the semester. That is when all the student parties stop.
I wrote earlier that Germans do not make eye contact or give friendly smiles in the school hallways. That actually only applies to people you do not know. After you have met a German, it is a completely different world. With that first meeting between the two of you, a small relationship is formed. Now when you see that person in the hallway, they greet you. When they ask how you are doing, it is a real question that they want to know the answer to. If you mention that you are interested in going to a soccer game, they will e-mail you the game schedule to you tomorrow. Since returning from Germany, I have talked with some German exchange students that are surprised when they are essentially ignored by someone they met last weekend at a party here at Kettering.
Most Kettering University students in Ulm lived within a 10-minute walk from school. Due to a housing shortage, I ended up living across town. To get to class I had to walk to the bus stop, take the bus downtown, change buses, then walk up a hill. This was initially overwhelming but then was just annoying. After talking with more Germans, I realized this was not so bad. Many of the Germans did not even own cars. My friend Manuel lived in a small town outside of Ulm. Every school day he took a bus to his town's train station, then took a train to Ulm, then took the bus to the university. I learned that I had nothing to complain about.
While I did not learn the social rules of other European countries with as much detail as those of Germany, I managed to meet all sorts of people while traveling. One of these was the old German pothead who owned the hostel we stayed at in Amsterdam. He would sit and talk about anything, and he even took us for a ride on his boat - probably the loudest in the whole city - though the canals. When I was in Stockholm, I found myself chatting with someone on our boat hostel who could name more members of the Red Wings than I could. On a train leaving Barcelona, I ended up talking with a nice French girl after she asked me, "Ça va?" Since she did not speak English and I only took two years in high school, the conversation unfortunately did not go much deeper than talking about things like where we were from, where we were going, and how many siblings we had. I also met many American college students traveling on trains and staying in hostels. This was a refreshing opportunity to use American slang and compare experiences with someone having a similar background. I'm thankful for the study abroad program that lead to all these experiences.
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