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Tarzan, Strollers, and Scary Bus Drivers: Getting Comfy in Germany

Dear Rudy,

In 1971, I left the United States for the first time. My husband and I moved to Germany so he could study theology at the University of Munich.

When we arrived, two hausfraus from the other apartments on our floor appeared at our door to explain "mit haende und fuesse" -- my week in the stairway-scrubbing rotation. That was our only interaction for 3 years.

The deep, gutteral sound of German made me nervous. I was already edgy about making gaffes. So if a bus driver growled at me, I assumed he was scolding me for something. When I learned enough German for everyday use, people didn't seem to growl so much.

Then, just when I was feeling pretty much at home, I discovered a whole new arena for cultural edginess. I had a baby.

In America in the early 70s, hospitals were allowing fathers into labor and delivery rooms. Not in Germany. And while in America, mothers were saturated with breastfeeding instruction, in Germany, you were on your own. The practice was so much a part of the culture instruction wasn't necessary. My mother sent me letters saying, "Drink lots of water!" Meanwhile, in the hospital, nurses told me, "Don't drink so much." I turned into a secret drinker -- hiding behind the privacy curtain and chugging glasses of tap water.

The nurses were also horrified by our son's going-home outfit. "You can't PIN his diaper on," They said. "You'll stab him!" Even my full-sized, spring-suspension stroller was wrong. Women stopped me on the street and told me, "That's a summer stroller. You need a REAL Kinderwagen for winter!" Every woman over 40, it seemed, was my son's protector.

Adapting to the German way of doing things was a little hard at first, but I didn't want to be like one man we knew in Germany. He felt that anything that wasn't American was bad. "Whoever heard of keeping your money in a Post Office account?" he'd ask. Or, "Why don't they speak English? What's the matter with their education system?" He never learned to appreciate the differences between German and American culture.

We, however, thoroughly enjoyed our stay. We were car-free. (We didn't need one with the extensive network of buses, trams, U-Bahn and trains.) And it was the only time we owned a TV. (Part of our "language immersion program" was weekly doses of "Tarzan" and "Star Trek" dubbed in German. In fact, when we returned to the U.S., all the Star Trek characters had the "wrong" voices.

That was my first experience outside the United States. As I watched and learned in a new culture with new people, I discovered that I don't need an American lifestyle to be happy.

Since then, I've grabbed every opportunity to know other kinds of people and other parts of the world.




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