There’s a particular brand of shame that comes with being a tourist, particularly as an American. Especially in Europe, American tourists are almost universally received with a mixture of annoyance and exasperation, the kind usually reserved for flies buzzing around the ear or children crying on airplanes. I learned to recognize this annoyance while I was living in Germany this summer, and indulged in a sense of superiority when I saw other blatantly American tourists. See? I blend. I’m not like that. I’m one of you. By the end of my time there, I could have written a guide: “How Not to Appear American.” Ditch the white sneakers and cargo shorts. Stop speaking so loudly. Don’t chew gum, and for the love of god, stop asking strangers and cashiers how they’re doing. For your own sanity, develop an intuition for the unspoken rules of German trains. In most every day interactions, I could pass for German. That is, until I opened my mouth.
For having only taken it a year, my German certainly isn’t bad. There are, however, quirks to my speech pattern that any native will recognize immediately as foreign, if not specifically American. My accent, while pretty good, is decidedly un-German for some words. I often mix up the formal and the informal versions of “you,” and even more frequently mess up my verb placement or case usage when speaking spontaneously. To make it particularly difficult, Munich, the city we were staying in, is located in Bavaria, one of the most culturally defined of the German regions—the Texas of Germany. Bavaria has a particularly strong dialect of German known as Bayerisch, which remains to me an incomprehensible soup of guttural “R”s and over-enunciated vowels. The point being, when I actually had to get through conversation with another person to maintain my façade of non-tourism, I was immediately revealed as a fraud.
Perhaps Germans are particularly unforgiving when it comes to people speaking their language badly, but I would know immediately whenever I’d been found out. One misplaced verb auxiliary and the person I was talking to would switch instantly to English. There were some people who were kind about it; they would ask how long I was in town for and where I was from. One man told me, unsolicited, that America was his favorite country in the world, and that he had visited seventeen times. For the most part, though, I could tell it irritated people to have to repeat themselves in English. It irritated me as well, especially when I felt my level of German was above their level of English.
Later in the summer, I left Germany and started travelling in France. As soon as I crossed the French border, something in me relaxed. I didn’t know what exactly it was until the ticket conductor came by and asked for my ticket. I grew up speaking French, having gone to a French immersion school for most of my formative years, and there was something about hearing and speaking it that felt like home to me, even in a country I’d never lived in and in a city I’d never been to, talking to a ticket conductor I’d never met before. The same interactions that had been conscious, daily challenges for me in Germany were once again familiar.
I wonder, though, even if my German speaking one day does get to the level of my French abilities, if I will ever truly feel as comfortable in Germany as I do in France. Part of the reason I wanted to learn German in the first place is that most of my family lives in Germany and Switzerland. I rejected my dad’s attempts to teach me German as a child and consequentially have always felt slightly out of place at reunions of his side of the family. I’ve always attributed this to the missing language. But even now that I can understand and participate in both languages, my family in Germany will often revert to speaking to me in English. After a while, I came to realize that it’s not just the language or lack thereof that prompts the switch. For all I know, I could have flawless German, and people who knew I was American would still speak to me in English. My American grandmother has now lived in Switzerland for the better part of her life. But still, when she goes to the grocery store or to church, the clerks and her pastor will, after all these years, speak with her in English. Even she can’t escape the switch.
It’s different for me in France for reasons outside of language. In elementary school, I grew up reading French comics and watching French TV. I looked up to my French teachers and read the same books as students in France might have. For that reason, I can relate to French culture in a way that I can’t access German or Swiss culture. Before I endeavored to learn German, I thought that what had attuned me to France was my familiarity with the language. It’s only now that I realize that language, like dress and mannerism, can only go so far when trying to understand a culture.
Perhaps all of this can be put down to the fact that can be very easy to be made to feel like an outsider. The other day, a few weeks after I’d returned from my travels in Europe, I asked my dad whether or not he felt more American or more German. “When I’m in America,” he told me, “I feel more German. When I’m in Germany, I feel more American.” Perhaps that feeling of never totally being comfortable, never being at home, isn’t something that goes away. Whether it’s a one-month language exchange or decades of life abroad, perhaps you never stop being a tourist.
Still, I don’t feel that’s a reason to give up. Even though my Swiss and German family would still slip into English with me while I was with them, it was evident that they were glad that I was making the effort. Ultimately, the threshold between outsider and not may be impossible to cross between cultures. What’s important isn’t whether or not we get there; it’s simply whether or not we try.