Sep 25, 2015

Settling In, But Not Settling Down

By Mallory Matsumoto

Fulbright Alumna, U.S. Student Program 2013/2014

I moved to Germany in September 2013 to continue my graduate studies, having fortuitously stumbled across the website for the University of Bonn’s Department of Anthropology of the Americas (Altamerikanistik und Ethnologie) while brainstorming ideas for my Fulbright application. The Master’s program was such a perfect match for my interests that I could only smile in response to each of the many incredulous looks I received during my stay in Bonn from both Germans and non-Germans when they heard that I had moved across the Atlantic to Europe specifically to study Latin America.

Arriving in Bonn Central Station

Yet although I quickly felt at home in my new home department’s academic setting, it was impossible to forget that I was not longer in Virginia anymore. In taking the leap to move to a different country, completing even the most minor, mundane chores becomes a genuine accomplishment simply because everything is so foreign. Even though I had spent the previous year living in England and thus was not unfamiliar with the difficulties of transitioning from the United States to another country and culture, my life in Germany confronted me with a whole new set of challenges to overcome - and new triumphs to relish - as I settled in. Sorting the trash into four separate waste and recycling bins. Learning how to retrieve the Pfand that had mysteriously appeared on my supermarket receipts. Using a kitchen scale, the metric system, and a cake pan to bake a pretty damn good pumpkin pie. Getting to and from the gym without having to ask for directions. Receiving the first text message to my new cell phone number. Sitting in my first German university lecture and realizing that I understood all of it, even the unfamiliar drama unfolding in the buzz of gossiping students around me.

One corner of the annual Christmas market in downtown Bonn.

At the same time, many of the tasks required when relocating overseas - packing, applying for a visa, finding housing, unpacking, furnishing a new home, negotiating health insurance, and figuring out how to pay for all of this and more while waiting for a new bank account to open - are stressful even at home. Having to do all of that and more in a strange country made me realize how much knowledge of my own country’s system I had absorbed over the years just by living there, and how convenient it is to have experienced family members and friends there who are able to provide advice. Furthermore, mistakes and stressful events are an inevitable part of the settling-down process. Some mishaps, such as taking the wrong bus or getting off at the wrong tram stop, could easily happen to me in a strange city in the United States. But others only accentuate the feeling of being stranger in a strange land: standing in front of a darkened grocery store on a Sunday morning. Getting caught without a ticket on the train because I did not realize that my destination station was outside the region covered by my student transportation pass. Reaching into a bag of popcorn in the cinema only to realize that the popcorn is coated in sugar, not salt. Writing a paper for class about architecture in ancient Central America in which I spent twenty pages discussing banks (Banken) instead of benches (Bänke). At times, missteps as trivial as forgetting to bring my own bags to the grocery store or being scolded by an elderly woman for encroaching on her side of the bicycle path were enough to send me home fighting back tears of frustration.

Strolling along the streets of downtown Bonn during Karneval.

Eventually, however, I had opened my German bank account, filled my WG bedroom with furniture, become familiar with the university, and established a daily routine. I now know my favorite jogging routes by heart, which supermarket has the best produce but also the longest lines, which bakery makes my favorite pastry. Tasks like paying rent, shopping for groceries, and preparing for class presentations have become basic components of daily life, rather than formidable tests of intercultural fluency and personal will. Nonetheless, friends from home still email me with exclamations such as, "Wow, you’re in Germany! That’s awesome! What’s it like?" As I formulate my reply, I am torn between the prideful thrill of knowing that I am doing something "different" and the disheartening realization that my day-to-day life is actually not all that different from theirs.

The tree-lined Poppelsdorfer Allee, leading up to the Poppelsdorfer Schloss, an 18th-century Baroque palace that is now part of the University of Bonn.

It is at these moments that I am reminded of the real beauty of moving and living abroad: namely, the sensation of normality. I no longer spend 30 minutes wandering the aisles of the supermarket just to find canned pineapple or peanut butter, and I never wake up on a Sunday morning with an empty refrigerator. Paying my semester university fees takes thirty seconds instead of ten minutes. I know the rhythm of the stoplights, so that I can tell from the traffic pattern as I approach certain intersections whether or not I will make it through before the next red light, or how long I can daydream until it turns green. I can rattle off my phone number, address, and student ID number at will, although dictating them in English is a bit more of a struggle. And upon looking more closely, I realize that my life is still peppered with various events that provide a rush reminiscent of the thrills from the settling-in period, events that are now all the more meaningful because I know what I had to undergo to reach this point. When disoriented strangers stop me in the street to ask for directions to the central train station or the nearest grocery store, I can tell them exactly where to go without wondering afterwards whether I accidentally sent them in the wrong direction. I still smile to myself when purchasing fruits and vegetables at Bonn’s daily open-air market, not only because such an event would never be part of my weekly routine in the United States, but also because it now feels so normal.

Exploring Aachen from the perspective of some of its residents.

Most people do not remember most days of their lives, because familiarity and routine blend the days and weeks and months into a seamless pattern of repeating events delineated only by occasional digressions from the status quo. But even while wading through this sea of normality, I involuntarily feel the occasional chill down my spine walking home from the library, standing in line at the cash register, sitting in the train, hanging up the phone, or sitting down at a restaurant, when I remember how everything had used to feel so foreign, how much I used to struggle, and how much I have learned along the way.

Looking southward along the Rhine River from the Burg Drachenfels, the ruins of a 12th-century castle a few kilometers to the south and east of downtown Bonn

In the academic year 2013-2014, Mallory Matsumoto was a Fulbright grantee at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn in Bonn, Germany, where she studied and participated in several research projects in the Department of Anthropology of the Americas (Altamerikanistik und Ethnologie). She holds a Bachelor's degree in Archaeology and German Studies from Cornell University, a Master's degree in Linguistics from the University of Oxford, and now, after a second year at the Uni Bonn, a Master's degree in Anthropology of the Americas. Upon returning to the United States, Mallory will pursue a PhD in Anthropology at Brown University.

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