It was the best of times, it was the wurst of times

It’s been precisely a week since I arrived in Germany, and promptly burst into tears at the sight of the industrial area of Stuttgart. I’ve moaned, avoided flatmates, and done a lot of wandering around ( wandern around) with my eyebrows raised.

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A museum I haven’t managed to find yet

It will take a lot of love and time, but in some small part of me, I do have faith Stuttgart will grow on me – having been spoiled by Florence most of my adult life, the beautiful Southern Italian landscapes in my childhood, and Oxford, a place I am in love with, later at university, it’s hard to walk around and see nothing but malls (I swear there are at least twelve).. or topless men downing beer (sadly all over the age of 50).. all queing beim Metzger – not a common butchers, but a sausage fest shop, a national obsession. Believe the stereotypes.

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Drowning in it

After a bit of a final (or maybe initial) breakdown on Wednesday evening to my friend Alex, who had to sit and watch me sob about being friendless and a waste of space for about 45 minutes straight, I skyped my friend Naomi (shoutout to you, your fame begins here). My obsessions with being forgotten or things going pear shaped was pretty much dismissed by our two hour chat. It hit home how much I wanted a break from Oxford when she mentioned her collections. Anyone who says they aren’t sick of their degree by this stage is lying – I need a break from sleeping two hours a night and bike accidents, from terrifying tutorials and that feeling of living in an – admittedly very pretty- snow globe… It snows far too many books there.

I woke up this morning and found my housemate had left me fresh apple juice and some coconut müsli (on a müsli related note, they also have entire shops purely for selling müsli). It wasn’t raining when I got off the S-Bahn this morning, and I had managed to keep my office plant gift alive for a whole five days (a true record for a notoriously ruthless cactus killer).  I also managed to keep up office lift chit chat, which had been up until today a social Alptraum.  Ah, the glory of the small things that make happiness.

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What way to better celebrate a new found serenity than with a pretentious year abroad blog post?

Here I recount two types of foreign faux pas which has occurred in my short time here. It´s a far cry from tales of waltzing in Vienna and watching the sun set over Hamburg port, I promise you. 

The One with the Schwarzwald hikers

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They even have their own road sign…

I was given the full view of how much the people of Baden-Württemberg love to hike when I came on a school exchange to Freiburg aged sixteen. We got off at Basel station for a break and they were there. The hikers. With their hiking sticks and horribly practical brown ankle walking shoes. Wandern around like there was no tomorrow. It must be a Swiss thing, I thought, as I boarded the coach again for the final two hours slump to Freiburg. Climbing down the coach stairs, I was faced with an army of them. It was vaguely terrifying – we’d been warned the good people of Freiburg had an acutely higher obsession with recycling than the rest of the country (what normal human being has a grand total of twelve bins in their kitchen? Answer – every family in Freiburg), but nothing could have prepared me for the amount of frantic walking that was being done everywhere. They wear those nightmare shoes everywhere. I walked past a Wandern shoeshop the other day and children were begging their parents to buy the latest Wandern shoes – they just had to get the latest Jack Wolfskin. EVERYONE at school had them. I couldn´t believe my ears – this is the country that bought Adidas to the world, yet they were investing in brown horrors.  But if you can´t beat them, join them. I had only made friends with a very deaf man I’d met in the town Bäckerei at this point after we had a ten minute chat about his latest wasp sting , so I thought that given this was the national hobby I might as well give it a go. One go. I did with rowing, it only seemed fair.

Lo and behold, I found a 60s themed Wandern trip. I love fancy dress. Maybe someone would even bring music tunes along with them. This is ideal, I thought, as I paid my twelve euros to the man at the Wandern info centre. I will get friends, fitness, and some twist and shout while we’re at it too.

Boarding the bus to the depths of the glorious Schwarzwald, I pinned on my friendliest face and sauntered on, already envisioning the pub near the office we could go to together. They could come to see me in Italy and Oxford, maybe even go on holiday together.. I was planning an Interrail trip 2k17  when my thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a sea of old people on the bus. I must have got on some holiday oldies spa thing, I thought, and made to leave when a man grabbed my ticket and shouted my place. I tried to explain I was on the wrong bus, at which point this man (who had the most incredible moustache) picked up my ticket, reread it, and shook his head. “Da mit der Verena” he said, pointing to a frail looking old lady at the front of the bus.  She looked about a hundred and twelve. It hit me then – this was a 60s+ hiking trip.

Time to do some quick thinking here. If I leave, I will have thrown twelve euros down the drain, and probably a lot of language practise.  I’ll stay.  The bus journey lasts two hours, forty five minutes of which I listen to friend number two in this country talk about how things haven’t been the same since her husband died. I nod, say the necessary jas, and go along with it. She then proceeds to fall asleep on the window; at some point during her nap she goes into some kind of raspy breathing, complete with a bit of excess saliva sliding down the window.

An intervention is needed with Maren’s inhaler. Ah, hello Maren. She looks nice, fairly normal, she’s even wearing a bra (although I’m not too sure about that tatty lemon patterned tracksuit…) There’s at least thirty oldies on this coach, I think, I’ll fish out the cool cat and chat to them rather than Verena.

The bus comes to a sudden halt at what looks like a bridge which was built whilst Tutankhamon was still a toddler. The oldies seem to have suddenly gained a second life and run – ok, stagger – round the bus to pick up their full wandern gear. I hang around trying to suss out how long this walk is going to last. If I thought this was sixties themed maybe I’ve got the timings wrong too? It turns out the walk itself is doable, and even pretty pleasant. The surroundings are fresh, there’s no heat involved, and I get chatting to Andreas, who tells me about how he used to come here as a kid to pick cherries. It’s not all bad. As we make our way up the last stretch, Maren then gets involved and pulls her wandern trouser leg up – I try not to flinch at her veiny leg as she launches into a horrific conversation about varicose veins (I’m picking up some incredible vocab here). Her grandma had them, her twin had them, she’s tried it all, nothing has helped, she explains.

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                                   Bucolic

We nod politely for what feels like forever, and then, a blessing comes in the form of a ruckus at the top of the path just as she’s starting to delve into the subject of bunions (the medical word for which, if anyone’s interested, is Ballenzeh) . Verena’s had some kind of respiratory malfunction (Lungenversang, everyone)  – she gets them frequently apparently – and someone needs to take her to Heidelberg. She lives close by, it’s just a bus stop away. I pretend to be enthused by a mushroom as she rasps away and the looks of the rest of the oldies turn towards me. There is far too much heavy hinting about needing someone young to take her back going on. As I nonchalantly wander towards the rocks on the side of our path, Andreas tugs me and orders me to go back to Verena’ s house. I can’t do this. I’m enjoying this walk, for heaven’s sake. I start to stutter about not knowing Heidelberg but a seriously tiny old man whips out a Heidelberg map with astounding speed. These are ancient people, they know the tricks of the past twelve generations. They were probably skipping down that bridge when it had just been built. I’m trapped.

The walk back down is a very brisk one as Verena rasps away. It suddenly occurs to me that if she collapses on the path it’ll look like I’ve killed her, and step up my downhill wandern game, which of course only increases the rasping. I pray God to listen to me and make sure she survives the downhill walk – it’s DOWNHILL, for heaven’s sake.  We manage to get to her house, where her nephew takes her off my hands after I’ve helped her get up to her flat. Needless to say, I did not think my year abroad would involve helping a 92 year old into her Zimmer frame (Gehhilfe).

I opt out of the bus ride back. I never want to go wandern again.

The one with the Dirndl

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The dream

The Dirndl story comes from my recent plans to go to Oktoberfest with my friend Lilli. I got it into my head that I should need a proper traditional dress for the Fest, and traipse around Stuttgart for an entire weekend looking for the appropriate clothing. As you can imagine, there are a million different types of dresses for such an iconic national symbol. I see red, see through, lacy black with Bugs Bunny on the front. All I want, as I repeat to shop assistant after shop assistant, is a nice “”normal”” one (as normal as you can get, at least) with a checked white and red skirt and a white blouse. The Germans are a spectrum when it comes to shop behaviour, I’ve noticed. They can do an Italy on you, tell you that you will be bursting out of whatever you are trying on (one woman then hurried on to specify that the men would love it, but I wasn’t blonde enough) – or an England, politely asking whether you think it is comfortable and delicately enquiring as to whether the size is a-okay. When I reached the fancy dress shop in Stuttgart where I saw my dream dirndl in the window, sadly the former case was that of Brigitte, the shop owner.

I stupidly turned up fifteen minutes before opening time. Brigitte’s daughter, who looks about twelve but is apparently twenty, has just finished design school, Brigitte informs me. She’s the one who has been designing the costumes and they will make sure to fit me into a schönes Dirdnl. I don’t understand why this information is relevant, so I nod along and say the necessary jas as usual, making my way to the top floor. As I walk up the stairs, my phone pings with a Whatsapp – I read it whilst walking and only look up from my mobile when there are two stairs left, almost walking into a Lederhosen clad crotch. This man isn’t even wearing the shop ones, just wandering around in Lederhosen for the sake of it. I try not to stare at the fact he has a rip on the leather on the side of it and make my way down to the section I need. I spot the dream Dirndl, and triumphantly find my size. I casually turn the label over. Shit. It’s 239 Euros. I think I can skulk away from this shop and blame it on needing the S-Bahn home, but Brigitte has other plans.  Her and her daughter follow me around the entire shop, insisting I will look wonderful in a purple Dirndl, maybe a dark green (an odd shade that reminds me of a carpet my grandad used to have) , have I tried the yellow? This is a nightmare.  I give in, and allow this duo to make my sartorial decisions for me. They’re experts, right? They’ll pick something nice.

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Wrong.

Brigitte’s daughter gives me a quick full make up session before I’ve even walked into the changing room  to show me what she’s learned in an extracurricular course, too. I pray she doesn’t opt for matching eyeshadow to one of the dirndls and longingly think about my newly bought Olay make up remover waiting for me at home. I’m going to have travel looking like I have asparagus spread on my forehead given how heavy she’s gone with it (of course she picked the green).

I slip into the first dirndl, the dream one. It’s slightly tight on the bust, and I call Brigitte over asking whether this matters, given it’s hidden beneath the corset. BIG mistake. She takes this as an invitation to get involved in a bust inspection, informs me my boobs are ‘not small’ (news to me) , and  shoves the curtains open before I’ve even zipped the dirndl up – at which point poor Lederhosen man gets a full view of Italian back-wurst –  summoning the daughter over. A big show of squeezing me into the dirndl proceeds. I can barely breathe. I look myself in the mirror (from the neck down, I cannot bear to look at my freshly made-up face). I look surprisingly good, actually. I give a twirl to the shop and Brigitte nods appreciatively. Sadly I don’t have 239 Euros to spend on what is essentially a glorified apron. I head back into my changing room calling out the first lie I can think of, Ich komme wieder am Donnerstag!

Brigitte, however, suddenly is in my changing room. I have given up on this woman not seeing me in my underwear at this point, and agree to try on the purple. It will go so well on your skin, she says, given you are so dark … “like a walnut “ (I’m still unsure as to whether she said walnut). The purple fits rather loosely as a dress but the apron part is weirdly tight. I walk out and the daughter cries Wunderhübsch!

That’s one word for this. I look like a bruise and a hot air balloon had a baby. This is dreadful. I have no shape… I suppose round is a shape if we’re being specific here…  And the worst bit, is that Lederhosen man is still staring.

He then breaks into a smile, and tells me I look beautiful. I’m in the middle of thinking that people will go to any extent to sell things when I catch something about sides. Sie kommt aus England! Brigitte cries, all the girls are so blonde and pale there but look at how nice and dark she is! And the sides! Yes – he agrees – the sides are good. I have no idea what these two are talking about.

He then looks straight at me, and, beaming, enunciates “Very… large… HIPS!” The three of them are sat there, smiling at me , nodding.  My face must have fallen, because Lederhosen man then exclaims “ NO PROBLEM! Men… LOVE!”

I thought that the Bronze Age peeps modelled their statuettes so that they had large hips so to prove fertility. It appears the Germans agree with this principle. I promise Brigitte I will come back to pick up the purple, and her daughter gives me her fashion card and some free purple eyeshadow. They look like all their Christmases have come at once. As I leave the shop, I overhear something about dinner at Oma’s on Sunday. They’re related to Lederhosen man. Aha.

This happened on Wednesday, and I promised I would go back on the Saturday. A week has gone by. I don’t think Brigitte and her family business will be seeing me anytime soon – lest I dress as a plum for Oktoberfest.

WRONG PHRASE OF THE WEEK

In a cake shop, egged on by my mother to ask whether they had fruitcake, I decided to go up to the waitress and ask about the different types of cake they had on offer. Somehow the word Frauen (women) came out of my mouth instead of Kuchen. Because I was using the formal Sie form, a sentence that should have been “What kind of cakes are there?” became “What kind of woman are you?”. Unimpressed by my impromptu catch up line, she flung her apron off and made her boss serve me.

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