To say these last six months abroad have altered my perspective and my understanding of the world would not necessarily be an exaggeration typical of an over-excited tourist abroad in a foreign culture. This semester abroad in Germany has imparted a taste of what it’s like to be a “world traveler,” but it has also taught me a lot about myself and what I consider most important to me. My journey with the German language and culture began on a whim in August 2013, and now, just under two years later, I’ve gone from muddling through a simple conversation in German (where I became the master of charades—thank you Middlebury German School) to having the capability and courage to engage in somewhat complex conversations in Germans. The intricacies and values of communication are so deeply ingrained in language, a seemingly obvious concept, but nonetheless, it is a notion I never paid much attention to until I immersed myself in a foreign language I had little cultural ties with. Or at least, that’s what I thought.
Growing up in a bilingual household means I am no stranger to language learning. However, I also grew up with the culture of my parents; it was never truly a foreign concept to me. However, my time here in Germany has illustrated just how profoundly challenging and surprisingly addictive it is to learn a new language. But learning German was never limited to learning how to order a beer at a typical German Biergarten. Along the way, I’ve learned the history and ways of a culturally rich people, who have enriched my understanding of what language is, and its importance to a peoples’ narrative. German language is extremely logical and ordered. Some of its vocabulary is so peculiar for an English speaker, for example, Torschlusspanik: a word that literally means the fear of the door closing, but implies a fear of missing out on opportunities in life the older one gets. Its a rather scary concept for a rising-senior undergrad like me, however Torschlusspanik is just one of many concepts that I’m now capable of articulating. As Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world;” a quote that rings truer in the language of its origin.
Living in a lovely city in the middle of Germany’s famous Black Forest enchanted me in a way that I’m still struggling to fully grasp. I’ve grown so fond of Freiburg and its tiny Bächle and even the cobblestone streets of the Altstadt have an endearing quality to them. The everyday details of life in Freiburg stick out in my mind just as much as my experiences riding the train through the snowy Swiss Alps or wandering through opulent palaces in Vienna. Tiny things like watching the sun set over the Dreisam River while riding the tram or enjoying a 1€ gelato before heading to class, all come together to compose my experience here in Germany, just as much as the traveling aspect. Taking courses at the university here challenged me in an extraordinary way, and at moments, the language barrier made me doubt my competence and worth as a student. Sometimes that language barrier seemed impossible to breach, as if I was scratching away at a physical wall with a spoon, yet most times, my effort were not for naught. Something as simple as successfully saying a sentence or communicating a complex idea in German gave me the greatest satisfaction.
But half the fun of my German experience was making new German-speaking friends from all over Europe. Even struggling with my Colgate friends to learn German was rewarding and I believe an important aspect of my journey here is that I had fun with the language and the local people. Nothing beats trivia nights at the pub playing with a bunch of Germans and arguing over what states border Wyoming in German. The banter and conversations I had with strangers are forms of cultural exchange, and there was always something new to learn. German forced me out of my comfort zone from the very start, and eventually I lost that awful embarrassment of speaking incorrectly that hinders most people, when learning a new language. After I overcame that hurdle, it was as if instead of a spoon, I now had a wrecking ball, ready to start tearing away at that language barrier. The other side of that wall offers new perspectives and lessons that I’ve only begun to understand; it’s truly as if I’ve expanded the boundaries of my world, and I’m not about to turn down an opportunity to go on a new adventure. Navigating a new culture and language is very much like falling down the figurative rabbit hole, and at the end of the day, the journey has been just as whimsical and enchanting as any of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. I’ve certainly grown quite attached to that complex feeling of being lost, and my experiences here in Germany have taught me the joys and frustrations of living abroad. My experiences here have unveiled aspects of myself that I never knew before, and the feeling is just as confusing as it is refreshing. All in all, I may leave Freiburg with a heavy heart, but I’ll be back one day, this is certainly not the end of my journey with German. In the words of John Steinbeck, “I was born lost, and take no pleasure in being found.”