People here are incredibly direct, which took me a while to get used to. I had to shed my British über-politeness and avoidance of confrontation at all costs, especially in my internship, or people would have just taken me for a doormat. This directness manifests itself in many ways. People are quite happy to discuss money, for example, and I have often been asked by near-strangers how much rent I pay and what my wages are. I have also been told off by people from all walks of life when they thought I was doing something wrong. For instance, a bartender shouted at me when I didn’t tell her quickly enough what type of shots I wanted. I worked as a waitress a few Summers back in my home city and had I talked to any of my customers like that, I would have been instantly sacked. Another time, my friend and I were stopped by the state police for crossing the (traffic-free) road when the light was red. And most embarrassingly, in a packed supermarket once, the cashier screamed at me because I realized at the till that I didn’t have enough money to pay for everything so put the packet of gummy bears to one side rather than lose my place in the queue, in order to put it back on the shelf. She subsequently threw the pack in outrage over the heads of the other customers. At work, I now take it in my stride when my boss often just yells, “Elen, das ist BLÖD!” (Elen, that’s STUPID!). By now I have come to find this directness refreshing on the whole (minus assault by gummy bears), as you always know where you stand, for good or bad, but when I first arrived here I found it a bit intimidating.
Another aspect of German openness my poor prudish British sensibilities might never quite get used to, however, is how comfortable people are with public nudity here. When I first arrived, it was high Summer, which meant that in the “Englischer Garten” (Munich's vast public park) and along the city's riverbanks, people were completely naked. I’m all for being comfortable with one’s body but I really wish that some of the, ahem, senior sun-bathers (especially the ones with piercings in intimate areas which glinted disconcertingly in the sun) hadn’t been quite so relaxed …
The Germans take sports to a whole new level. As spectators, they are passionately loyal to their club or national side. I spent an unforgettable evening in a beer garden during the Football World Cup surrounded by ecstatic German fans watching their team thrash England (apologies to all English friends). As far as participation goes, this is an outdoorsy culture, as much for city as country dwellers. Since my arrival, I have swum in Bavaria’s lakes and hiked in her forests, wandered the Saxon countryside and will soon be skiing in the Austrian mountains. I also participate in university aerobics classes and although I rowed a lot at Oxford, and consider myself reasonably fit, I simply cannot compete with these people. Half way through a session of German aerobics, I am usually reduced to a miserable, breathless and unattractively beetroot-coloured heap on the floor, whereas they are still cheerily bouncing along to the instructor’s calls of “Eins, zwei, drei, ACHTUNG!” Even technically overweight people here are sickeningly fit and active. I am always left in awe.
I have to dedicate a section of this article to the wonder that is Deutsche Bahn. Not only does this service get you to your destination in a fraction of the time that a British train would, it’s clean, comfortable and you have enough leg room!! In the Summer, I travelled all over Bavaria and Austria for a greatly reduced price by buying a “Ferienticket” and I hope to make a few more trips before I leave Germany, hopefully to Stuttgart and Prague. An added bonus is the number of people that I’ve actually got to know on the train. When they hear my foreign accent, they instantly strike up a conversation, which makes the journey a lot more interesting. There is something very endearing about most Germans' curious and informed attitude towards foreigners. Actually, they are sometimes embarrassingly well-informed, knowing more about the British economy, or Celtic folk tales, say, than I ever will. But it’s a refreshing contrast to a certain cultural insularity that the English, in particular, can be guilty of – people are far more interested and impressed here, for instance, to hear that I am a native Welsh speaker than they ever are in England.
... it is possible to integrate, make friends and have the best year out here! Before coming, I had been warned by quite a few linguist friends who’d already completed their years abroad that it was nigh impossible to actually speak the target language and get to know people. Well, I was pleasantly surprised to find this has not been the case at all. I concede: it does call for being outgoing to the point of sometimes basically forcing your shining personality on new people, which can occasionally be a bit tiring (for them obviously, as well as for you) but if you are open and don't take the occasional rebuff too personally, you'll have an amazing time. Similarly with the language: if you refuse to cave in during those first few weeks when speaking your target language seems effortful and the word you're looking for is frustratingly elusive, and don’tt succumb to speaking English, you will soon be starting to think and – occasionally – sound like a native speaker. I will be quietly devastated to leave this lovely city, which has made me feel so welcome, when I move to France in about three months, but I'll try and embrace whatever that country has to offer too. Vive la différence!