Having studied German for ten years I thought that, despite having never been in Germany before, I had the Germans and their culture figured out. The 80's photos in my A level textbooks of Hochschulstudenten with mullet hair styles, Birkenstocks and even the odd pair of Lederhosen combined with the role plays in my earlier GCSE exams, in which Ulrike and Wolfgang discussed their hatred of unpunctuality and love of beer, only served to reinforce the widespread cliché of the Germans being a folk of harsh words, large beers, and a fierce sense of punctuality that left the rest of the world looking like carefree drifters. Add my grandparent's generation's view of the Germans and you were looking at a seriously unpleasant breed.
So it is hardly surprising, that when I stepped off the plane at Schönefeld airport in Berlin last September, I expected to be greeted by an array of Lederhosen wearing Germans happily chowing down on a quick Bratwurst before setting off on their holidays. I wasn't disappointed on the Bratwurst front, a few forlorn stands in the subway tunnel in front of the airport boasted a proud selection of sausages, complete with the usual vats of tomato ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise, at the ready to transform the humble sausage into an unrecognizable red, white and yellow mess. But where were the Germans eating them? There seemed to be little interest in the stands as people scurried by on their way, people might I add, who looked far from the picture of Germans I had developed during my years at school.
I boarded the train and started my journey into town. I was embarking on the first half of my year abroad, being one of those 'lazy Arts students' people often refer to, who apparently only study languages in order to be able to spend a year in the countries concerned, in my case these being Germany and a Portuguese speaking country of my choice. This was the first day of my new life and I was determined to absorb as much German culture as I possibly could, living in Berlin and working as a film production intern for six months before jetting off to my next stop at a university in Southern Brazil.
Arriving at my new flat in former East Berlin, (now obviously still geographically East, but no longer politically), I was surprised to find that my new home consisted of a huge, grey monstrosity of an apartment building. These are common in East Germany, part of the socialist housing projects, knocked up during the GDR, concrete and industrial looking but nonetheless practical-and so unlike the lovely wooden triangular houses I had seen in friends' holiday photos. I felt like I had been transported back in time to Stalinist Russia, instead of modern day Germany.
My flat mate Sarah, a fellow Germanist from Bristol University was able to relate to my initial surprise at the lack of things 'German'-she had been in Berlin all summer and had witnessed the Love Parade, a techno festival on the streets of Berlin which takes place every July), made friends with lots of young Germans at her work but had yet to eat a meal of Bratwurst and Sauerkraut. Together we made it our mission to experience this dish before the year was out, and thus my quest for Sauerkraut along with all things German began.
I was due to start work two days after my arrival in Berlin, and with the advice of my year abroad tutor ringing in my ears about the importance of looking smart in the German work place, I ditched my usual jeans and t-shirt and went out to buy a pair of smart trousers and a shirt, which combined with my high heeled boots, I felt said: "hey I'm laid back, cool and yet a shrewd business woman", appearance being of great importance in the media world. (So I had read somewhere). However, the first problem was that I had underestimated the combination of the September heat in Berlin and the U-Bahn, the German version of the tube. How could a country further north than London be this hot?
Despite the relative spaciousness of the U-Bahn compared to London's underground, my half hour journey to Kreuzberg left me feeling sweaty and disheveled. Being English, I have an inbuilt distrust of public transport which meant I arrived at Kottbusser Tor half an hour before my 12 o' clock introductory meeting I had arranged with my boss in the various emails which had been going back and forth in the months leading up to my arrival in Berlin. I hadn't had breakfast and my stomach was rumbling, so I decided to eat my first lunch out in Berlin. I soon realized that my quest for Sauerkraut would have to be put on the back burner, as finding some typical German cuisine proved to be difficult in Kreuzberg. However, much to my delight I joined the queue for a local Turkish Imbiss, one of hundreds scattered around the vicinity, and was served a delicious middle eastern treat which consisted of falafel, (deep fried chick pea patties for the uninitiated) and hummus in a warm pitta bread, later to become a staple part of my Berlin diet.
Sated and eager to impress, I decided that arriving a few minutes early couldn't do any harm and after dawdling around outside the apartment block which apparently housed the KanalB offices, I rang on the doorbell. A distant voice answered and invited me on up: "Zweite Tür links, im fünften Stock". I needn't have worried about arriving early, by the time I had walked up five flights of stairs, in the absence of a lift, I was not only late but even hotter and more flustered than after my sweaty U Bahn trip. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door which was plastered in 'KanalB' stickers amongst other posters advertising various alternative film festivals and left wing demos. The owner of the disembodied voice downstairs opened the door to what was to become my second home for the next six months. He was tall, with long hair tied back in a pony tail, wearing ripped jeans with a t-shirt emblazoned "Capitalism Kills!"; apart from the strong handshake he was as far from a German CEO as I could have possibly imagined.
I immediately felt overdressed and wished I had been more thorough in my company research, prior to abandoning my casual attire for the go-getting ensemble which I had mistakenly assumed to be typically German. We introduced ourselves to each other and he lead me through to the 'office', which turned out to be his living room/editing suite, a jumble of papers, boxes of dvds and various monitors showing crackly reels of the company's latest footage. Volker offered me a seat and I perched myself on the edge of a beanbag wedged between a tv and box of wires and accepted his offer of a coffee, whilst declining a roll up from his packet of additive free rolling tobacco. After managing to persuade my somewhat wary boss of my interest in politics of the left wing persuasion and love of media production, we agreed on my tasks for the duration of my internship-
Translating the company website, helping out with filming and post-production and the obligatory intern's, 'general secretarial duties', i.e., making coffees and photocopying. Having heard that the Germans are a hard working bunch I had assumed my working hours would be long, from 8am until 6pm at the shortest. When I asked Volker what time he wanted me in every morning, he looked a bit puzzled and said, 'you're planning to be in every day?'
Finally we agreed on 10-5 or 6 every day, which pleased Volker and was fine with me as I had had daunting visions of getting up at the crack of dawn for six months, in order to be at work bright and early for 8am. And so my working German life began. Within a week, my boss had given me the keys to his flat and I often arrived, let myself in and had coffee on the go by the time he got out of bed next door, going against all previous images of the super efficient German boss I had envisaged. Soon I was part of the 'Family'-yes, not the 'Familie', but the 'Family'.
The influx of English words into colloquial German never ceased to amaze me. I was often asked 'ob ich etwas downloaden könnte' at work, and was said 'sorry' to if bumped into in the street. Once I had grasped that this very un-Germanic trait wasn't due to the fact I stood out particularly as being foreign, it worked in my favour, as whenever I couldn't remember the German word for something, I said it in English, to which nobody batted an eyelid. In fact, I think it may have even been considered 'ober-cool'.
This great Denglisch adjective generally sums up my experiences in the capital and I soon realized that my quest for what I had previously considered to be the truly 'German experience' was over-I had found it in the midst of gritty and sometimes grimy, but beautiful Berlin, amongst the Falafel shops and Pizzarias, the squat houses and 24 hour bars. So much for clichés I thought, as the end of my time in Germany drew to a close- Germans may love coffee and boast an amazingly punctual public transport system, but during my time there I met and made friends with wild and wonderful, open-minded, fun people. I left Berlin after an exhilarating and exciting six months and as I got on the plane with tears in my eyes, I was certain that it would be a while before I would experience German culture again.
Changing planes at Heathrow for the flight to São Paulo, Brazil, I geared myself up for a completely different experience altogether. Sun, samba and surfing were the key words I would have used to sum up Brazilian culture before I arrived there last February. Not to mention violence. Before leaving Berlin a thoughtful friend had rented out 'Cidade de Deus', an epic Brazilian film based on the stories of drug gangs in Rio de Janeiro, featuring several small children with guns and a gruesome incident with a shovel. This, added to the scaremongering by a middle class lady from Belo Horizonte, the capital city of Minas Gerais, put the fear in me throughout the flight and I expected to be greeted by machine gun toting children upon arrival.
I got off the plane at São Paulo clutching my bags to me, nervously eyeing up anyone within a 10 metre radius. Once again my judgments based on clichés proved me wrong and I was in for a surprise, when after a 12 hour bus journey, I arrived in Santa Catarina, the second to most southern state of Brazil. Although I was due to go to the University of Santa Catarina in the state capital, Florianópolis, I had arranged 2 weeks of voluntary work at a nursery school in the town of Blumenau, a town three hours away inland. I had gathered that there may be a slight Germanic feel to the place, due to the presence of descendents of German emigrants who had settled there in the 19th century, but was shocked at just how this Brazil differed from the images I had had in my mind previously. The bus wound around cobbled streets flanked by those Fachwerk Tudor houses I had expected to see in Berlin, with immaculate gardens cordoned off by white picket fences and neatly mown lawns.
My host family was waiting at the bus station and greeted me in the usual Brazilian manner with warm hugs and lots of kisses. Their appearance, however, was far from the typical Latino image, instead of being olive skinned and petite, they were blonde, blue eyed and tall, strapping and typically German looking. Much to my surprise one of the younger children, Heinrich, (pronounced 'Einricki' in Brazilian Portuguese), was even wearing trousers that looked suspiciously like Lederhosen, as he had just come from a dance practice in the town hall.
On the way home in the car, (a Volkswagen I note), the children chatted excitedly to me in Portuguese and upon discovering I had just arrived from Germany, were eager to show off their language skills and proceeded to talk to me in German. For a moment I thought that my six months in Berlin had not paid off; I could not understand a word of what was being said, until I realized that the German being spoken was actually Hunsrückisch. This is a German linguistic variety that has survived in Southern Brazil due to the influx of immigrants from the Hunsrück region of Germany in the 19th century and still retains antiquated linguistic elements, along with strong influences from Brazilian Portuguese. I had read an article in a journal about this variety, however was unaware of how widespread it remains in modern Brazil, despite being repressed during the Estado Novo, 1930-1954, when President Vargas made Portuguese the national language to create his 'homogeneous' Brazil.
Living with the Müller-Oliveira family was a eye opening introduction to Luso-Teutonic culture, we regularly went 'ufs Fescht', to parties which consisted of tradiational street dancing under the hot Brazilian sun, followed by the odd cheeky 'caneca-chen' (caneca being a large glass of beer in Portuguese, somehow made into an innocent treat by the addition of the German diminutive ending chen), and finally, huge portions of Sauerkraut accompanied by Linguiça, the Brazilian version of Wurst.
The fact that I had encountered this so called German specialty 10,000 miles away from its country of origin got me thinking about clichés, and how important it is to not base our judgments of entire cultures upon them. Several travelers I later met in Rio and the North East of Brazil, condemned the South as not being worthy of a visit, as it could not be classed as the 'real' Brazil-a ridiculous claim as, since its first discovery by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, Brazil has always been a melting pot of different cultures. On the basis of this claim, Berlin could never be the 'true' Germany, as a large part of its population is Turkish in origin; a dangerous and narrow-minded assumption. My year abroad taught me a lot of different things; the main lesson was not to create opinions of people based on outdated and unfounded clichés, as these can only create walls in our minds and stop us from delving into and thus enjoying the richness and differences foreign cultures have to offer.