Will Peischel is a journalism junior and Mustang News study
I woke up the other day and realized I wasn’t in the United States. The moment of clarity creeped through the morning haze of still-wet underwear off the clothesline and trying to read the newspaper in a language I didn’t understand. It took me months longer than it should have to sink in, but maybe I should know by now that my most epiphany-receptive state is in damp underpants. I’m in Germany, they politely reminded me.
I sat in the kitchen, made European by the lack of garbage disposal, inconspicuously hidden refrigerator and complete absence of a dryer anywhere in a 10 kilometer radius.
The lapse of profundity didn’t last long. I looked up from my burnt toast and Nutella sandwich, through the front window and across the street to the edge of campus. Half a dozen German college students gazed at my vulnerability, then to each other between cigarette drags. Nearly naked and very afraid, I went into my room.
This was not the first time this happened. At this point I have my suspicions that there’s an on-campus voyeurism club that meets every morning across the street from my house. 8 a.m. sharp. I am an important American after all, a prime specimen and so on. But a free show? I don’t think so.
Germany is weird. The second burnt toast and Nutella sandwich of the day brought more speculation. There are thousands of little nuances and characteristics that form the cultural essence that they don’t tell you over TripAdvisor message boards or subreddits. For example, some time ago Germany collectively decided that nothing besides restaurants would remain open on Sundays. This is fine if you’ve grown up in the culture, but not fine if you wake up on the Sabbath hungover without food or money because the you from last night decided to blow it all on this headache.
If you jaywalk on the way to the ATM around the corner, an elderly German woman will materialize to make you feel like a bad role model for younger humans. It should also be noted that in this very different place, bicycle bells serve an actual purpose. At this point when I hear one, my body prepares to leap and my eyes cover as many directions as possible. Just wait until you’ve had a stress dream about being flattened by a bicycle.
There are also more discreet nuances to this strange place that take more to notice. In Germany, a secret war is being fought over lightpole sticker space. The electric box in front of McDonald’s is a no-man’s land of logos wilted and crisp; hardly a bus stop sign stands without ideological, band or graphic design student affiliation.
Some of the stickers are cute and creative, some are blunt. Probably half are political. “Essen mehr Nazis,” (eat more Nazis) smiles a bright blue, cartoon hamster. Several feet away is the slightly more concise “fuck Nazis.”
There is one sticker series you encounter on every hungover expedition, no matter the European city. The print is an electric yellow, contrasted against a black background, which in turn contrasts against the almost exclusively gray concrete or metal environment it’s stuck to. Above the shining silhouette of a running family are block letters that spell “REFUGEES.” Under the family: “WELCOME.” The sticker comes from an organization that tries to help facilitate housing for asylum seekers from tumultuous parts of the world like Syria, Afghanistan and North Africa. About 1.5 million are expected to come to Germany this year alone. The sticker has become more than just the group’s callsign, an illuminous bread crumb for the weary and scared that says help isn’t so far away.
Yesterday, I saw the remains of a “Refugees Welcome” sticker. The bits left weren’t wilted. Someone removed it, rather than natural sticker death of inclimate weather. As the number of new people entering the country becomes greater and greater, the debate is shifting from corners of the public eye to an open forum. Angela Merkel, the German head of state, faces increasing pressure from her party to close the borders. Still, most Germans view the situation with open arms.
Germany is in the thick of the greatest wave of immigration it’s seen since the end of the second World War, with a bubbling internal struggle over how to bear the weight. It sticks out to me as something instantly relatable in America: learning to accept the influx of a new group. American or German, both mirror each other in their struggle to come to terms. Despite the strange, beautiful, scary old lady nuances of German culture, the realities Germany grapples with are similar to the ones we have in the United States. The most striking of those in immigration, which apparently still scares people in 2015.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned (so far) on this over-privileged manboy experience abroad is how similar humans are to each other, even if on the surface their cultures don’t seem to be. That doesn’t mean you’re not missing out if you’re content behind the fence of your own backyard.
We’re more capable than we think of identifying with foreign cultures, because the people who populate them are more relatable than we give credit.
I would bet that Germans are more similar to Syrians than either would suspect, that Americans are more like Germans than we give credit and that the people across the street from my house probably aren’t voyeurists.