When I cross the street, I immediately look to the right. When I went home the last time (to Germany’s Liverpool, Dortmund), I handed my passport to the German custom officer saying “Good Morning”. I got into this apologetic habit of excusing myself whenever I’m in somebody else’s way instead of saying “Dankeschön” when someone moves out of his way for me. And, worryingly enough, I drove on the wrong side of the road. So after almost 8 months in the UK and displaying all these symptoms of Britishness, it’s high time for a little review of all the intercultural oddities I’ve come across on what I usually refer to as “the island with its eccentric but jolly people”.
Before having even properly arrived in the UK, I’m already impressed by England’s motorways. Not only shining and blinking with red and green lights, but also illuminated as far as the eye can see by streetlamps. I don’t really see the purpose of this and began to wonder why people in my country actually worry about how to provide power once all the atomic power plants are closed down, while the British illuminate their motorways like Old Trafford on a Saturday night.
I quite literally stumble over the answer when I’m returning home from my first visit to the pub in a little village. With not a single street light is sight it’s no easy task, and I eventually find myself wishing that some of the light illuminating Britain’s motorways would find its way to rural Freeland.
During my first week in Oxford I suffer from a quite different problem and end up going through a phase of insomnia. This is not so much due to the fact that it coincides with fresher’s week but rather due to what will become my long-term nemesis – the fire alarm. The red light blinking every other second simply makes me go nuts and being woken up by an awful noise just because one of my housemates put a piece of bread into the toaster doesn’t do much improve our already fractious relationship. And I find that I am not alone. A friend of mine bumps his head against the fire alarm on a daily basis and eventually labels our enemy with the following sign: “I f**ing hate this piece of shit!”. Profane, but justifiably so. And I find myself reading “Fire door – keep shut” on every other square metre. I do get your concern when it comes to fire prevention, but for fire’s sake! It’s been a while since 1666.
Having to survive Oth week of Michaelmas purely on sandwiches and wraps provided by my hall, I soon find my way to Tesco to give myself a bit of variety – I just guess that every little bit really does just help. During my first shopping trip I come to the conclusion that I will either have to starve or go bankrupt during the next months. After debating with myself for a few minutes, I decide for the latter and try to ignore that fact that I will spend £1.50 on ten slices of cheese that would cost me half the price at home. Once I’m eventually done with my shopping and my personal Greek (financial) tragedy, I make my way to the till and – in a very British way – end up queuing for what I learn is a “self-check out”. I am far from familiar with these machines. Aside from the fact that it takes me hours, I end up putting things where they don’t belong, get into a fight with these awful plastic bags and have to “wait for assistance” multiple times. Other times, I forget my ID, my purse or the system is unable to verify my bag. Using the self-check out becomes part of my daily shopping humiliation and I wonder whether the Tesco team already labels me as “that dumb Kraut”. One day the self-check out starts to fight back and gives me Danish krones as change. I decide that this must be a sign, wave the white flag and from now on queue for the other tills.
British technology in general is worth writing about at some point in my review. Sorry guys, but you lack some of my home country’s efficiency! Whenever one of my housemates takes a shower, the pipes in my room start making the weirdest noises. When it’s windy, the chimney in my room just adds to the noise. My favourite part of British technology, though, is the heating. I still remember clearly writing my first essay with a hot water bottle under my feet, not to mention the four blankets that by now I have piled up in my room.
Speaking of humiliation: The most humiliating experiences throughout the past few months were of a linguistic nature. Still I’ve found myself saying the following sentence to a friend: “So could we make out… an appointment?” Explaining this was just a literal German translation “popping into my head” does nothing to diminish the laughter. The most difficult linguistic barriers, however, I find in the simplest expressions, such as “See you later!” I get to know a guy I really like. We go to the same party, leave early and go out on a date the next day. Thinking we are actually going out, I see him the day after and he acts as if nothing ever happened. I am more than confused, but with too many people being around, there’s not really a chance to talk to him. When he leaves, though, he says “See you later!” I feel relieved, because when I say “see you later” in German, I actually intend to see the other person later on. It takes me a few hours of waiting for him to drop me a text, that in English, apparently, this is not the case. Never mind, I’ve learned my lesson well.
This accumulation of humiliating experiences I’ve been going through during my stay in Britain may not have turned be into what the German curriculum for English students wanted me to become – namely, interculturally communicatively competent, but at least my attempt to adapt to British culture strengthened my character. And most importantly, I’ve learned to love “the island” and the oddities of its eccentric but jolly inhabitants; and when I have to leave, I can say with a clear conscience, “see you later!”