First Time Abroad

Caitlin Jarrell, IIP: Berlin Summer '22

As someone who had never traveled abroad before, I was a bit concerned with the types of challenges I could face. Germany is so different in terms of culture, workplace environment, and daily activities such as going shopping. Though I did not have to speak a different language because most people in Berlin speak English, their interactions are very different. One experience that I can say became less challenging throughout the program was grocery shopping. My first time going to a grocery store in Berlin, I was fully prepared to use Google Translate for product names, but I was not prepared for the process of checking out. Germans are notoriously efficient and blunt, which coincide when shopping. The speed at which I was expected to bag my groceries after just setting them down was impossible for an American who is used to having groceries bagged for me, because that is just our cultural norm. I fumbled with my money, having never used Euros before, and then was ushered away without even having all my groceries in my bag. Even before I was gone, the next person began checking out.
In the moment, I was so in awe of how rude and stressful the experience felt, but then I realized that it flows into the German mentality of high efficiency and not wasting time on unnecessary chitchat or idling. Adopting this thought process helped me to become less of a cog in the checking-out system. The next time I went to the store, I estimated what my total would be to eliminate the time spent fumbling with Euros. This helped immensely, especially because at that point I could understand my total in German without looking at the screen. Because I was prepared for the cashier’s speed in scanning my items, I was able to anticipate how quickly I needed to move in order to get out of the way in an acceptable time frame. Though I was not even close to the pace of an actual Berlin resident, I was less of an annoyance to the cashier and line, which lessened the embarrassment I felt the first time. Over time, I continued to get better at this process, even if I never perfected it.
I think that this example is a reflection of many challenges I faced while in Berlin. Many of my “first times” doing something in Germany did not go smoothly, but that was because I did not know what to expect. Once I began to understand German culture and the emphasis they place on efficiency in everything they do, it became easier to adapt to everyday practices in Berlin. My advice to anyone experiencing challenges while abroad is to trace the issue back to the root. Just because a practice is different in another country and culture does not mean that it is wrong. Just as we may think their habits are weird or confusing, they would most likely feel the same about our practices. Once I realized that checking out at the grocery store in Berlin is different than in America, I found the reason for the difference and applied the situation to overall German culture. There is cultural reasoning behind everything you go through abroad, and identifying that reasoning and adopting it for future scenarios will help you overcome challenges and adapt.