During my first term at FUBiS, I stayed in a residential dorm. When I was signing up for the program, I had several options for housing, with the options being: dorm, apartment, and a host family. I naturally chose the dorm for a couple of reasons. The first reason was that it was the cheapest option. The second reason was that I figured I would meet plenty of other German students if I lived in a dorm, and it would be the easiest way to make new German friends. Besides, I had heard too many horror stories of host families from friends and acquaintances that I believed staying with a host family would be too hit-and-miss. Like, “finding-good-decent-guys-at-Phi-Delt” hit-and-miss. But I digress.
My flat consisted of five other students, all except for one being from the FUBiS program. This was problematic on several levels, the immediate one being that I was living with FUBiS students, as opposed to actual Freie Universität students. Living with four Americans and a French girl, nobody wanted to speak to me in German, and when talked to in German, their responses would immediately be in English. Awesome, guys—really improving your German. To make matters worse, and what was completely mind-boggling, was that the only FU student living in my flat could not speak a lick of German. He was Chinese. However, all this paled in comparison to the bigger problem, one that would actually force me to lose whatever little mind I had left:
I was living with a bunch of hopeless, typical American idiots.
At this point, I would like to point out that, I, too, am American, and I, too, have been referred to and described as a lower life form bestowed with less-than-average intelligence. With that being said, about fifty percent of my shit is somewhat together, and I do a relatively good job of hiding my mental shortcomings from people who aren’t my friends. (*A collective “Ehhhhh…” from people who know me*)
“Hans,” you’re inevitably thinking, dear reader/spam filter, “you’re probably being a little too harsh. Americans aren’t that stupid, and you sound like you have a stick up your ass.” Although a red herring, you’re very much correct about the latter – I do have a stick up my ass, and I swear I’ve been trying to pull it out for the past twenty years with very little success (I guess it’s really jammed up there). But you also underestimate the powers of Murikanus Fumbduckus.
I will first present some stories of the typical Murikanus Fumbduckus that are not ones involving my flat mates.
‘Murica, Land of the Free, Home of the Fumbducks
The first story was told to me by the receptionist of the hostel I stayed at in Prague, as we were drinking together after her shift was over. The conversation had shifted to the topic of the “Typical American Tourists,” and I asked her if she had had her fair share of experiences with the Fumbduckus population during their seasonal migrations.
“Last week,” she began, “an American girl came up to the desk to ask me a question. She was first of all very rude, like she was angry with me for having to waste her time asking me a question. Made no sense. Anyway, she comes up to my desk, and she asks me, ‘So, is the tap water in Prague safe to drink?’ Now, I don’t know why she would think that the tap water in Europe, much less Prague, wouldn’t be safe to drink, but you know, I guess she didn’t take five minutes to just Wikipedia about Prague before she came here. Okay, so it was a bit of an ignorant question, but I just replied, ‘Yes, it’s very safe to drink,’ She then rolls her eyes at me and says, ‘No, I meant, is it safe to drink for Americans.’”
The second story is a little better, depending on your definition of the word “better.” This time, I was at a club, again in Prague, where I had met a couple of Polish girls. Upon finding out that I wasn’t completely brain-dead and ignorant (she probably had a little too much to drink if she thought that favorably of me), she told me her experience from several years ago with an average Fumbduckus student at the high school where she was a foreign exchange student. “I was on the volleyball team at the school, and one of my teammates, during one of our practice breaks, asked me, ‘Why are dogs banned in Poland?’”
“But wait, there’s more!”
The German word doch has no exact English counterpart. The closest way doch can be defined is “Oh, but yes!” So if you’re thinking that the upcoming tales of the idiocy of my flat mates as well as program mates cannot get any worse: doch! I won’t specify which ones were flat mates and which ones were program mates, but I think you’ll get the idea, that, erm, constantly being around the typical American is probably more irreparably damaging to ones brain cells than snorting bath salts while high on coke and heroin and washing everything down with a bottle of painkillers and Everclear for good measure. Or so I’ve heard.
One Thursday, when I went to a döner shop for my lunch break, I happened to come across a girl, L., who I knew, and after getting our döners, we sat down together to chow down. While shooting the shit, she asked me to tell her about my family. “What would you like to know?” I asked. “Everything,” she replied.
“Well,” I began, “I have two siblings, an older sister and a younger brother, and my older sister went to university in Tokyo—“ Here, she interrupted me, and said, “Okay, so I know Tokyo is a country, but where exactly is it?” If only I had kept up with my international news, I probably would have known that Tokyo had successfully seceded from Japan recently and became its own country, and wouldn’t have had such a dumbfounded look on my face at that moment!
Another girl, H., asked my friend Tim, who was visiting me for a week in Berlin, a very difficult question about Germany. “Sooo like, I know that East Germany used to be called the DDR, and West Germany was called the BRD. And I’m wondering, do you know what East Germany is called now?” As Tim described it later, “As a European History major, it was actually one of the more offensive things I’ve had anyone ask me.”
On the last day of the term, when I went to the Resident Advisors’ office in the afternoon to check out, I encountered J., who I thought had already left earlier in the morning to catch her flight. I could see that she had been crying, and after conversing with Smilen, one of the advisors, she left. “Smilen, what happened to J.?” I asked. “Look man,” Smilen said with a straight face, “you can’t laugh about this… Instead of booking her flight for July 7th… she booked her flight for June 7th.” A moment later, he could not restrain himself and was laughing uncontrollably. By that point I had already changed my accommodation for the next term to stay with a host family, but Smilen’s story confirmed what I already knew: I can’t do this shit anymore.
Life on 58. Gritzner Straße
I find the word “host family” slightly unsettling because it sounds like they are the host and I am the parasite benefitting at their expense – which, to be honest, is quite accurate. Anywhere I am, I practice a kind of scorched earth policy on refrigerators and pantries that even the Russians would have been proud of. Regardless, I assumed the role of the parasite, and my host mother Astrid and host father Bernd assumed the roles of the hosts.
Bernd and Astrid live in a house about eight minutes walking from Rathaus Steglitz, the nearby shopping district, and live by themselves. They have two children, but they have both moved out and one of the daughters has four children. Astrid is in her late sixties, retired, and enjoys reading, exercising, and maintaining the garden. Bernd is in his seventies, smokes like one, mean customer, and has the kind of jolly laugh that shakes his entire body. I’ve found both of them to be unbelievably friendly, very accepting, and, to my delight, quite garrulous. They make breakfast and dinner for me (both can cook, though Astrid tends to cook more than Bernd mostly because he still works), always talk to me in German, and have no problem with me going out whenever. Bernd, in particular, is extremely intelligent and well read, and he often cites philosophers that I’ve never heard of. “You know, what you’re saying is kind of like so-and-so,” he will frequently tell me, “Have you ever heard of his works?” “Nope,” I reply, “you’re clearly the better philosopher.” In other words, it’s as close to a perfect situation as it can get, and better than anything I could have hoped for.
As if things weren’t good enough as they were already, they quickly figured out that I love to eat. After having three servings of dinner the first evening of my stay, they now constantly push me to eat as much as possible by presenting me with never-ending food. I will come back from classes, and Astrid will be waiting with some cake and coffee for me. “Here, eat!” she says, and I of course oblige without a second thought. In fact, the situation might have gotten slightly out of control, when, after coming back to their house for dinner, Bernd offered me a pastry, to which Astrid reprimanded him for offering snacks right before dinner. “Look at what you’ve done,” Bernd jokingly said with a sheepish grin on his bearded face, “your appetite’s gotten me into trouble!”
Anyone read the recent article on the New York Times about the “hook up culture” at Penn that interviewed a bunch of Penn female students? Without really going too deep into what I came away with from the piece, the one thing that was surprisingly depressing was what seemed like a deterioration of, if not the lack of, human connections. The interviewees responded to the writer that, really, they’re fine, they’re empowered, they are part of the hook up culture as much as the men are too, and that, as the title says, “She Can Play That Game Too.” But, and this certainly isn’t isolated only to the females, what struck me was how much that took away from actual, meaningful connections. How, if anything, this mirrored the other antisocial aspects of the university like the thousands of kids I see walking around glued to their cell phones. I partake in both of these examples, and maybe that forbids me from writing about it, but at the same time, I’m painfully aware what that does to my psyche. At times, I’ll feel incredibly alone. I feel uncomfortable. I’ll squirm in my chair, or I’ll be laying still in my bed, not able to go to sleep because I’ll be thinking about how it’s so damn difficult to build deep, meaningful relationships with people at a place like Penn. It’s a painfully slow process that makes me wonder why it’s so exacting, physically and mentally and emotionally.
Maybe it has to do with the setting. At Penn, there are so many expectations, so many people busy to jerk off the right person to climb the next rung in the ladder, so much disingenuous fake bullshit that makes the Jersey Shore cast look down-to-earth. Sometimes, it’s hard to feel comfortable, to find that niche, and to stop to take a deep breath. Here, with Bernd and Astrid, there are no expectations (well, except maybe to not burn the house down), and there’s nobody to impress, and, whenever I am there, I’m accepted without question with smiles and the thin, floating smoke coming from Bernd’s cigarette.
I know they’re only my host family, and I only have three weeks left with them, and that however I feel about them is nothing comparable to how I feel about my actual family. At the same time, I feel calm. I feel at peace. I’m comfortable, and when Bernd winks at me and offers me a piece of cake while Astrid isn’t looking, I can’t help but to think that this is what human connection is about. This is real, this is genuine, and this is so much better than dumb American blonds asking me where Tokyo, the country, is.