When I was getting ready to study abroad, I heard stories from other people who had studied abroad about the trips they went on, the amazing people they met, the languages they learned, and the new appreciation they had for other cultures and the world in general. Which is fantastic. I will experience a lot of wonderful things this year, God willing.
But they don’t tell you about the little things. The things that are assumed. The little victories and the little defeats. You miss a streetcar or two, but then you learn the schedule. You make a mistake sorting your trash, but then a someone who understands the system shows you how. You can’t find the key to open your desk’s drawer, then one day pull hard enough to realize it wasn’t locked in the first place (that last one just happened yesterday, actually).
Of course, these little things are things you have to learn wherever you live. But when learning how people live in a new country, it turns out you have to ask a lot of seemingly stupid questions to learn the way the little details of life work. And sometimes, they are very different from home.
Resumes are formatted differently here in Germany and include much more personal information than in America. Grocery stores in Germany don’t seem to have an aisle with office supplies or bakeware. And yet a single department store in Germany will sell everything from clothing to office supplies to bakeware to fashion accessories. And it probably has a restaurant of its own somewhere, too.
A lot of these things can be found out by just doing research on the country before you arrive. But it’s hard to know what to research! In America, I learned from a young age how to sort trash the American way. Once I started learning to cook, I learned how to plan an efficient trip to the American-style grocery store. Once I learned to drive, I learned the American driving rules and road signs. Looking for internships, I learned how to write my resume. And so on. The little things you pick up along the way in everyday life are the things you don’t think about because they have become so ingrained into who you are and how you live.
So now I’m relearning them. It will take time, I’m sure, and since I don’t have a car here, I may never learn the rules of the German road. I may never learn all of the amazing capabilities the strangely complicated microwave my roommates have. And I may never get all the streetcar departure and arrival times memorized. But I’ll learn the little things I need to know through experience.
And then when I go back home, I’ll either slip back into my American instincts or be very confused. Only time will tell.