A collection of grievances, memories, occasional musings, and everyday happenings

Worst of Culture Shock, part 2: Safety in Sickness

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In September of 2012, I attended an annual women’s retreat called Frauenfreizeit, literally translated – Women’s Free Time. Frauenfreizeit takes place in the gorgeous Alps of Austria in the lusciously green town of Filzmoos. The mountain air is fresh, the rolling hills are freckled with horses and dairy cows, and the occasional yodel can be heard from a man giving tours in the town – complete with horse and buggy. In the center of the town is a tiny fairytale-like garden filled with animals – ponies, a white donkey, bunnies, birds, ducks and ducklings, and a small cat or two. In the middle of this garden lies a quaint pond, the stillness disturbed by a rickety wooden watermill that spills out amounts of water into it over and over. When the sun shines down on this little piece of Heaven, it feels as though Snow White should jump out any moment with her high-pitched notes and singalong blue birds. It really is a perfect place, especially when it can be enjoyed over a warm cup of coffee.

Up a few hills is the hotel – a typical Austrian style building with flowers pouring over every windowsill. My room came with a small balcony, and from there I could look over the town and face the enormous mountains that stand on either side of it. For meals, the ladies and I were served gourmet breakfasts, lunches, and dinners around candlelit tables next to a wall of windows for mountain-gazing. Everything felt, looked, and seemed perfect. I needed this after all; I needed free time. We had only moved to Vienna just months before, and our summer consisted of intensive language classes, culture adjustment, apartment hunting (no small feat), and relationship building. I loved the challenge of our first summer in Vienna, but it was hard, and now I finally had a chance to breathe and relax and enjoy hours of free time in a mountainous paradise.

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The women’s retreat attendees consisted of 14 older ladies (mostly cute white-haired grandmas), one girl around my age, and myself. A few of us were from Austria, a few from Germany, and a few from Switzerland. Even though there were only 3 countries represented, the dialects were from all over the place and were sometimes impossible to understand (Swiss-Deutsch is the most difficult). I was intimidated by it, being a German-newbie at the time, but figured I could hold my own without a problem. The first morning as I was on my way to join the womenfolk for class, the girl who’s around my age, Krista, pulled me aside and said, “Hey, if you get overwhelmed in there and need to step outside, it’s totally okay. No one will judge you. I’ve been in your place and had to leave class a few times last year for a breather and everyone understood. Just know you’re in a safe place here.” I was touched by her desire to give me help and advice, but at the same time, I was puzzled. I had attended close to 4 months of German-speaking church already, AND my German was good enough to allow me to skip a level in class. I was a Level A2.2 speaker! That’s high enough to get by, right?

Culture Shock laughed hard in my face. Like that kind of laughter where you can’t breathe for several seconds and then suck in a huge amount of air so you can keep laughing? That’s what I believe to be the laugh of Culture Shock. Five minutes into class and my eyes were as wide as they would allow themselves to be. I felt hot, queazy, dizzy, and outrageously fatigued. By the time the discussion rolled around I had no idea what was going on other than we were having a discussion about something related to the Bible. I pulled out my notebook and began to jot down words I didn’t recognize – Dankbarkeit, Gnade, Teufel, Zweifel, Barmherzigkeit. My list grew and was three pages long in just under 20 minutes. The lady I sat next to was kind enough to help me out, though I was worried my questions would wear her out and end up something like this in the middle of class:

“What does Gnade mean?”

“Oooh yes! That word means grace.” 

“Oh ok. What about Teufel?” 

“Devil. It means Devil.” 

“Oh… Well what about Barmherzigkeit?”

“MERCY, HOLLY. IT MEANS MERCY. THE MERCY OF THE LORD. THE KIND THAT I ASK YOU TO GIVE ME WITH ALL OF YOUR HUNDREDS OF QUESTIONS!”

“…… What was Gnade again?”

“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

She was actually quite wonderful towards me and leaned over often to help me with definitions or to voluntarily explain to me what someone was saying. But even explanations and definitions didn’t help prevent me from physically feeling as awful as I felt. Regardless, I kept trucking along through the day and was able to experience hours of calm and relief that afternoon by the bunnies and ponies and watermill. I sat on my balcony for a while prior to dinner and took in the scenery all around me before I became vulnerable all over again. The next morning wasn’t any better, in fact it was worse. By lunch time I would’ve paid to speak English with someone. I would have given up lunch and dessert to speak English with someone. Done a dance, yodeled, whatever – I just needed English back in my life. Immediately. I planted myself at a table with some of the women I knew would potentially speak English with me, but I only did this so I wouldn’t look sad and alone at a table by myself. The ladies I knew who actually did speak English as their native language hadn’t come downstairs yet, so I watched the then dubbed “English Speaking Table” in order to be ready at any moment to pop on over and leave German behind. Unfortunately, the “English Speaking Table” filled within moments, and the sweet grandmas who thought they were helping by telling me to stay put so I wouldn’t have to get up, filled in the other chairs. One chair was left, and I stood up frantically to get to it before anyone else, but one last smiley grandma appeared, put her hand on my cheek and said, “Na, du sollst hier bleiben. Du musst mehr Deutsch lernen!” – translates to, “No, you should stay here. You must learn more German!”

*Insert evil Culture Shock laugh here*

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What I call the “Culture Shock Snap” snapped. My face flushed red and I slowly sat back down as if someone had just told me that Paul McCartney died (which will be a HORRIBLE day indeed). My eyes brimmed with tears as I held back the angry, immature 5-year old inside of me who wanted to shout, “OH YEAH? Well… DU musst mehr Deutsch lernen!” An embarrassing comeback that would’ve been. I excused myself from the table and hurried to my room. I collapsed on my bed and cried like I did back in high school when boys hurt my feelings. I fell asleep after a while the very way I had landed on the bed – sprawled out, half in and half out of the covers. I slept for 4 hours, and the only reason I didn’t sleep longer was because of how badly my throat hurt. Thirty minutes later I was sneezing and coughing, and by dinner time I had a full blown fever. I laid in bed miserable but not all together sad that I couldn’t participate in that night’s class. Or class the next morning. Or the following night. My fever went up and down throughout the week while my sneezing and coughing only worsened. I did leave the room once to go to town in order to get myself some Vitamin C tablets from the Apotheke (pharmacy), but for the most part I stayed sick in my room. The grandmas checked on me countless times throughout each day and brought me soup and tea and bread. They would explain in German how sorry they were that of all the weeks in the year my body chose this week to get sick. I too was sorry, as I truly did want to be with them and learn, but unfortunately the only things I learned that week were the following:

How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory are just as funny in German as they are in English.

Austrian soap operas are just as strange as American soap operas.

The makers of 7th Heaven should have produced the show entirely in dubbed-over German so we could have all been spared its never-ending drama.

Hotel rooms are boring.

Why have I waited this long to take a Eucalyptus bubble bath?

On the last day of the Frauenfreizeit, I emerged from my room to sing some last songs and watch the annual Frauen Talent Show. I returned home still sick and still “in shock” but was on the path to healing. Now, almost a year later, I’m happy to report I haven’t been sick one time since last September at the hands of Culture Shock! (I was going to say that I haven’t been sick at all since last September, but then I got sick this weekend and ruined my record.) That’s not to say Culture Shock has never visited me again, but at least it hasn’t given me anymore fevers.

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Author: Holly

Vienna-based American wife/mom/expat.

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