M.Sc. Information Systems
September, 24 last year I made perhaps the most difficult decision of my life: I got on a plane that carried me away from everything I knew to another country for a year. I still barely believe I could do it and I’m still counting the ways it changed me.
I was standing there, in a spot separating leaving passengers and those who were seeing them go, grasping for strength to go further and leave my family behind. I was able to do it (duh, you wouldn’t be reading this otherwise), but only because I thought of how much effort they put into make this come true. Also, I knew that if I didn’t leave, I might have never had the opportunity like this again and would have always wondered about different ‘what if’. And I really, really wanted to study abroad some day. Well ok, I had a bunch of solid reasons. Still, it was a hard choice for me, even though I knew I would come back after just a year in Germany.
It might not be as heartbreaking and tearful for everyone who wants to leave for another country, but it is stressful. Changing your life dramatically, even for some limited time, also changes you, hopefully only in a good way.
I always speak about the cultural differences I see between Germans and Russians as a kind of thing that amuses me. It is true now, but it wasn’t always like this.
I remember one conversation with german students at the beginning of my studies. It was some casual discussion of the lecture we just listened to, and I kept straining myself through all of it. What if I say something impolite? I shouldn’t talk about politics, religion, nationality (discussing an IT lecture — how hard can it be? well…). It’s probably not the best idea to joke about World War II (again, really?..). I didn’t even know I knew so many rude international jokes — I had to keep to myself every second thought popping up in my head!
Meanwhile the conversation went on. I was talking to other students about the cities in Europe we both visited, Prague in particular. When I went to Prague several years ago, I had a chance to see how Czechs celebrated Three Kings Day on January, 6. There were children running everywhere dressed in white clothes with crowns on their heads, asking people for sweets or money for charity.
It turned out, Germans do the same on Dreikönigstag (The Three Kings Day): several people mentioned that they also had a tradition of getting dressed up and going door-to-door for charity and sweets.
They said it as casually as you would tell a tourist that we have a tradition of eating pancakes on Maslenitsa (The Pancakes Week). It was a first one in a long row of such small stories, and it made me realize that the cultural diversity we can see and talk about is much more interesting and important than any stereotypes I had in my head.
The New Environment
So getting along with Germans takes a little bit of practice but it’s not impossible. What is more tricky (was for me at least) is getting by without many familiar things you are so used to at home that you don’t even think about them until they are gone…
It took me a while to learn and remember that Sunday is no longer ‘go to the mall’ day. All the stores are closed on Sunday, because shop assistants are also people with families they want to spend more time with. You won’t starve, of course, there are still small kiosks and gas station stores open, but they usually sell nothing but beer and some canned food. It gets especially inconvenient if you, for example, want to go to a bbq and forgot to buy meat in advance. I was in that situation for three weeks straight once. Every time we had a bbq on Sunday (or during a public holiday, when of course everything is closed too) and I had to be content with some sausages available at the kiosk.
Even if you remembered when to go to the store and when it’s pointless, be prepared not to find some of your everyday products there. Grechka & tvorog are nonexistent in regular stores. On the other hand, I keep finding various types of Russian meat dumplings, called ‘pierogy’ for some reason.
Oh, there is also pharmacy. It is not only closed on Sunday, but also after 2 o’clock or so on Saturday. That in particular is psychologically unsettling — what if I need some medicine right away?
Speaking of healthcare: there is no such thing as policlinics in Germany. There is either a hospital or a specific doctor’s practice, and if you need some medical advice, you should go to the latter. On the plus side, a student insurance probably will cover most of the treatment and even any medicine you’ll need.
Finding your place
Most of well-adapted and feeling relatively happy internationals in Germany (that I know of) have one similar trait in their behavior: the pride for their culture. It is really peculiar, as if for some reason people’s sense of who they are by origin sharpens when they move somewhere far away from home. Of course, it wouldn’t be possible if Germans weren’t curious about other cultures as well. But they are eager to learn, to understand everything that isn’t familiar to them, and that makes you feel as if you are educating them instead of trying to blend in yourself.
For example, in our friend’s circle, we have already established that girls don’t sit on the corner of the table (otherwise you won’t get married for the next seven years). Also, no one shakes hands across a doorstep or whistles inside a building (1 — bad luck, 2 — losing money).
If somebody new joins our company, they usually greet us with a couple of Russian words they know (privet, spasibo) to show that they are somewhat familiar with the Russian culture.
And then they get bombarded by our German friends why know much more already. Two of them even started learning the Russian language, some learned cyrillic symbols and sometimes surprise us with misspelled russian words they pick up while listening to us.
At some point a ‘Na zdorovie’ conversation takes place. Somebody says that along with ‘Cheers’ and ‘Prost’ (German version of ‘Cheers’) from others. It is our job then to explain that we don’t really say that while clinking (it’s a Polish, not a Russian saying). Then we are asked about what we say, and we explain that every time we drink we invent a new cause and clang glasses to that. For most eager to learn we developed a quick tutorial to change ‘Na zdorovie’ into a real Russian phrase: we teach them to say ‘Za zdorovie’ and add a name of any person, that way it is a real cheering ‘for a health of’ somebody. Never before had I so many wishes of health…
Living in Germany for me feels like a never-ending quest on breaking other people’s stereotypes about myself and also my stereotypes about other people. And it is constructed from such little things as conversations with people and buying groceries. It takes time to get accustomed to new ways of thinking, but getting new perspective is definitely worth it!