People love to poke fun of me when I say I studied abroad in Munich. “Ah, Europe,” they say, in faux-posh accents. “How ever so worldly you are now, far more enlightened than us American philistines.”
And as much as I would love to maintain the image that I spent my study abroad discussing Kant and Goethe with a coffee in hand, sitting in a cafe next to one of Europe’s most esteemed universities and wearing a beret or a black turtleneck or something, the reality of my experience is significantly more awkward and filled with stumbles. Erase that image of the cool coffee-drinking lass in your mind, and replace it with that of a 19-year-old crying pathetic tears of frustration on public transportation as Europeans try to ignore her.
My first weekend in Germany was not a whirlwind of exploration and wacky European adventures, but rather a nightmarish scenario defined by jet lag, sleep deprivation and a crippling fear of being laughed at for my tenuous grasp of the German language. My biggest anxiety when I first arrived in Germany was not unfamiliar etiquette or interacting with a foreign culture, but going to restaurants. Going to a restaurant and having a waiter snark at me for not being perfect at German was something I irrationally feared. Deciphering Munich’s thorough public transportation system? Manageable. Eating liverwurst? Weird, but doable. Being laughed at by a waiter? That would cause me irrecoverable shame, or so I thought.
I was admittedly out of practice with German. Yes, it would have been wise to polish my skills over summer break, but very few would hazard to call me a wise person. Witty and roguishly charming, yes, but not wise. I would regularly get flustered in conversations with my host mother, lose track of German sentence order or just cave and use the English word. It was so easy to focus on the fact that I wasn’t a flawless German speaker that I neglected to appreciate how much I was learning. I learned more colloquial phrases from my host sister and discovered the regular protocol for how to talk to cashiers and service people just by living and messing up a few times. I even mastered how to order from the waiters who used to haunt my dreams and plague my sleep. I was never made the subject of ridicule as I feared. All people cared about was that I was trying and was making an effort to adjust to the culture, rather than forcing them to adjust to me, a foreigner.
I also had to embrace being on my own. I studied abroad in a group of eight students, all of whom, except for me, were men. Don’t get me wrong, I adore those lads and I’m happy with the connections we were able to forge with one another, but I often felt like the outlier. As a result, I traveled a lot by myself. I went to Switzerland on my own. I spent my weeklong break in Berlin by myself. Even most of my outings on the weekends to museums, restaurants and bars were solo trips. While the experience of trekking around an unfamiliar city by yourself can be lonely, it’s also one I would recommend. My experiences as a solo traveler served as lessons in independence. I love to tell the story of how I sprained my ankle my second night in Berlin and spent the rest of my trip virtually limping around one Europe’s most exciting cities, or the time my phone died while I was alone in a town in the Czech Republic, surrounded by a language that seems to be comprised of an impossible amount of consonants. There’s something to be said about wandering around a city you don’t completely understand as a stranger, being free to discover the new place as you see fit.
It’s cliché to say travel broadens the mind. While certainly true, it’s also a humbling experience. For each time I did something cool and new in Germany, I made a fool of myself twice as often. But each time I fell asleep on a train, talked to a creepy Italian man on a bus or had Russians vomit right next to me at Oktoberfest, I walked away with, if not valuable life experience, then a funny story.