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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

August 23, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsThe Jetsetters

Finding a home when miles abroad

I have been in Freiburg, Germany, for almost two months, and to be quite honest, I’ve just begun feeling comfortable with living in my apartment and the city of Freiburg. Don’t get me wrong — my roommates are all very nice and helpful whenever I have any questions, and Freiburg is a beautiful, picturesque, fairy-tale city, but I’m still getting used to a few cultural differences.

When I first moved into my apartment, the first thing I noticed was that every bedroom door was closed shut. Even when my roommates left their rooms temporarily to use the kitchen or bathroom, they shut their doors all the way. It made me uneasy and unwelcome at first. Many of the people in my program expressed the same sentiments as I did, and luckily, there was an explanation for it.

During the orientation period of my program, we were required to attend a cultural workshop that was supposed to inform us of the differences between American and German culture. Our workshop leader was a woman named Jamie, who is originally from the U.S. but has lived with her German husband in Freiburg for the past 10 years. One of the first things she touched on was the closing of the doors. Jamie explained that most houses in Germany do not have central heating and have individual radiators in each room. People close their doors so heat won’t escape. It was simple and reasonable.

When I asked my German roommates about what I learned, they said they closed their doors for privacy reasons. They acknowledged the heating reason, but explained that it was normal for everyone living in an apartment to have their bedroom doors closed at all times.

Needless to say, it took me several weeks to get used to seeing uninviting, closed doors when walking down my hallway. I had become accustomed to living with another person in the same room for 2 1/2 years. Now that I’m living in my own room — and keeping my door closed — I feel slightly isolated and distanced from my roommates. It also doesn’t help that my apartment doesn’t have a common room, just a kitchen. The only time I interact with my roommates is when we see one another in the kitchen or pass one another in the hallway. It wasn’t exactly what I had envisioned when I first arrived in Freiburg, but I’ve become much more comfortable with a more private life.

Perhaps the more shocking thing Jamie told us during our workshop was, “Don’t smile at strangers when walking past or bumping into them.” Most of us laughed, thinking it was a ridiculous request. Jamie went on to explain that Germans aren’t initially the friendliest people and usually do not display much emotion. Smiling indicates you know the person you’re smiling at, which can cause confusion. It can also give a signal of romantic interest, which can attract unwanted attention.

I was baffled. These situations never crossed my mind. For many Americans, smiling at strangers they make eye contact with is second nature. I knew the workshop was supposed to help us learn how to blend in without coming off as foreign, but I have yet to break the smiling habit.

The cultural differences I’ve highlighted may seem petty to some people, but these have been the two hardest adjustments I’ve had to make. As someone who likes to think of herself as extroverted and friendly, it has taken me two months to finally feel like a resident in my apartment and host country. My program is almost halfway done, and I am surprised it has taken me this long to adjust. But I always have to tell myself that even though I’m used to being far away from home while I’m at Ithaca College, I’m still in the same country. It’s not the same as being halfway across the world.