Just when I thought my Italian was picking up speed—I had actually had an entire conversation at a bus stop with a delightful elderly man using only three Italian words—it was time to pick up my backpack and switch countries.
I flew from Venice to Dusseldorf where I then connected to Nuremberg, where I met Maggie. The airport in Dusseldorf gave me only a thirty minute layover, but it was my first taste of being a complete foreigner.
I was a foreigner in Italy but Italian is similar enough to Spanish that I never felt too far out of place. There were also tons of tourists so the odds of English popping up either in signage or in conversation were actually pretty high. Germany, on the other hand was not this way. Dusseldorf and Nuremberg are not huge touristy areas so German is the main language spoken and written here. While it's true that many locals know at least some English, they don't speak it unless prompted.
This is where my brain started ticking, when I was sitting in the airport in Dusseldorf. I looked around me and everyone looked like I did. They were pale complected, friendly middle-class Europeans who dressed in the same fashion as me. It was weird then, to be amongst what felt like my people, only to hear a bunch of gibberish come out of their mouths. If it looks like an American and smells like an American...oh wait, it's a German!
As I sat and soaked in the flavors around me I couldn't help but wonder, do I look German? No one was staring at me or alluding to the fact that I was out of place. In fact everyone smiled and made small talk with me in their native tongue. I'd smile and shrug my shoulders as if I totally knew what they meant, and the kicker was, they usually believed me!
My roots are actually German on both sides if you go back a few generations. I have light brown hair and blue eyes and I was raised eating Grandma's recipes like potatoes and meatballs and beef stroganoff. I've always had a slight connection to the German culture, even from my little bubble in Oklahoma. Still, I had no idea how alien I was going to feel by not being able to speak the language.
I had studied German weeks before when I thought I wasn't traveling to Europe until September, but when my trip was moved forward by several months I switched my focus to Italian since Italy was my first stop. Now, in Dusseldorf, I was frustrated that I couldn't instantly pick up the language spoken and I was equally irritated that I hadn't studied harder sooner. On top of not being able to eavesdrop, I couldn't read any of the signs. Very few things were translated into English and that just wasn't the world I grew up in.
Fortunately, I wasn't in this great country alone. I had my great pal Maggie to show me around Deutschland and that was the first familiar face I saw after leaving the airport!
Maggie wasted no time acclimating me to the culture. Our first stop was a local restaurant off the beaten path. The menu was all in German and so was the staff. I had to smile at this new experience and graciously I asked Maggie to order me whatever she saw fit.
My first taste of Germany was a huge plate of Chicken Schnitzel, and Potato Salad, complete with a local German brew. The food was fantastic but the company was even better. Maggie and I hadn't seen each other since August the year before when we said goodbye in Darwin, Australia. She was headed for the west coast and Matthew and I were embarking on the east coast.
Seeing my good friend in a different country was giving us all sorts of fits. Where was the beach? Where was her white station wagon we had made so many memories in? Unfortunately, all of those things were left in the land down under, but our mile-a-minute conversations picked up right where we left them.
After dinner we explored Maggie's city of Furt. She took me to a very historical part of town where we enjoyed drinks at the most adorable of pubs. The ceiling was made up of thick wooden beams, straight out of the middle ages, the space was tiny as if it had been a long kept secret and the walls were rich with elegant wallpaper and fun black and white photos of the modern day customers.
All around us I saw more people who looked like me. There were university students around my age who all seemed to be laughing and having a great time—I'm sure they were saying so in their German dialogue!
The evening was a full and memorable one but both Maggie and myself were ready to turn in by midnight. I had been traveling since early that morning and Maggie had been hard at work all week, trying to get ahead before I came to visit. The morning hours would come quickly and we'd be off on our first full day of German exploration.