My special connection to a fictional character

Want to know what living abroad is really like? YG asked Beth Tobin to enlighten us on life as an American in Germany.

Ever since I stepped off the plane and onto German soil, I’ve been having these fleeting, surreal feelings. I think of them as Gulliver moments. Yes, as in the thick-skulled narrator of Jonathan Swift’s mock-epic, Gulliver’s Travels. And yes, the one you almost surely came across in your standard British Literature course years ago.

Indeed, I am living proof that the classic tale lives on into the twenty-first century, because as it turns out, I’m every bit as much of a cultural dunce as Lemuel Gulliver.

Then again, so is anyone who travels to a new country for the first time.

No Lilliputians, just Germans

These Gulliver moments can be described as virtually any realization of cultural awareness, be it humbling, baffling, or just utterly misleading.

The first of mine came when I successfully sought out and purchased a used bicycle the second day I was here. Instantly upon my arrival in Munich, I noticed everyone zipping around on their two-wheelers and naturally I felt I must have one to fit in.

These riding brigades were full of champion multitaskers: people saving the environment, exercising, and getting to and fro, all while looking incredibly posh. So the minute the owner of Second-hand Sports let me take a rusty 10-speed out for a test-drive, I tried my best impression of the locals.

I rode in the appropriate bike lane that flowed with traffic, rang my bell to politely pass the seniors, waited patiently at all the traffic lights (Germans don’t jaywalk), and even smoothly dismounted while still in motion back at the bike shop.

And that’s when it happened. I proudly gazed at the bustling street scene from which I had just emerged and said to myself, “I’m so European.”

It didn’t matter that no respectable European (or respectable person) would invest in the piece of junky scrap metal I was about to buy. It didn’t matter that the shop owner would make fun of my pronunciation of “danke” when he rang up the total.

It didn’t even matter that the next day my tire would blow and I would have to sweattily wheel my busted bike 20 blocks home in the most non-Euro-posh display of my life.

During that moment at the bike shop, I wrapped myself in ignorant bliss.

A new direction

I’ve channeled my fictional friend many times since that day, and I’d like to think my moments have become less “utterly misleading.” After all, we remember when Gulliver tried to join the idyllic, horse-like Houyhnhnm race and they told him he would always more closely resemble the goat-like Yahoos.

In non-literary terms, I’ve realized that attempting to imitate another culture is not the best way to learn from it.

My goal instead has become to find my place as an American in Germany, a guest in foreign country, and, to be overly ambitious, a member of the global community. It takes a lifetime to gain such a perspective and I have just five short months here.

Yet I am convinced that I can make significant advancements and that I’ve even made a few already.

Working as a student intern for a truly multicultural, multilingual, communications agency has certainly helped. Every day I work with Germans, Finns, Canadians, Americans, New Zealanders, Panamanians, Dutchmen and Dominicans. All of these nationalities are represented in just twelve employees.

I definitely didn’t come to Germany expecting to brush up on my Spanish, for example, or to learn the names of the star Kiwi Rugby players. These are simply the perks that come with my job.

I’ve bridged a few gaps with the Germans as well, namely through some successful — albeit primitive— conversations in Deutsch. Each time I practice my skills on the supermarket cashier and he or she responds without stopping the scanner to gawk at me, I silently cheer.

Never have I been so excited for someone not to look at me when I speak.

Not following in his footsteps

Regardless of their relative importance — and I would consider knowing how to politely order a beer in Germany just as essential as knowing the history of the King Ludwig’s reign — I’m learning cultural titbits every day.

Because no matter how many Gulliver moments I may have, I’ve realized I do not have to end up like him: a shrewd warning against ethnocentrism. Instead, I’d like to set a more positive example as one who broadened her world outlook by making the most of a unique opportunity.

Even if I do embarrass myself a few times along the way.