Munich, Germany, wasn’t necessarily my first choice for a winter vacation. But I came here anyway for a friend’s birthday celebration in early March, which coincided with an uncharacteristic Arctic blast across Europe.
The trip was a brief but intense immersion into German culture. I stayed with a German family and did what they did for a week.
I had no time for jet lag. When Jorg, the father of the family, asked me to run some errands with him my first morning here, I said yes, even though my body said otherwise.
It was cold — so cold that the fountain in the Marienplatz, the central square in Munich, was frozen. No big deal. It was only a trip to the barbershop.
Besides, I love running errands where another language rules, because the context of a place makes understanding a few words of a foreign language a little easier.
The barbershop did not seem any different from any other, an old-fashioned purpose but with some modern updates. A well-coiffed shop attendant sported the latest in beard trends, and shelves were stocked with hair care products for men.
But it disguised some behind-the-times thinking. The shop attendant, whose hair and beard I thought were so hip, was now telling Jorg that I had to leave. In English translated from German, Jorg explained that it was because I was a woman.
Under any circumstance, I would have found the rule odd, but that day, I found it even odder: It was 23 degrees outside.
I was invited to leave anyway, dismissed to a nearby small flower shop that was also a café.
The flower shop was cozy, so I summoned my scant German and ordered a hot chocolate, but there was a follow-up question. The shopkeeper repeated her question, which gave me a second opportunity to respond appropriately.
“Trinken sie hier?” [Are you drinking this here?]
“Ja,” I said. Scintillating conversation it was not, but a minor accomplishment.
There was only one small table. No other customer was in the shop, so I sat down and occupied myself with my drink and with photographing the flowers.
A few minutes later, a woman came in and sat down across from me. It wasn’t long before I broke the uncomfortable silence and started a conversation as she sipped her coffee.
I told her in German that my German was not very good.
She laughed and said, “I’m not German!”
She was from Colombia but had been living in Germany for 15 years. She said her English was poor, so we spoke in Spanish, English and German.
We easily traded superficial facts about our lives, and then I asked how she liked living here. Colombia to Germany must have been a tremendous cultural shift, I said.
She replied, “I feel as if I am now from two different worlds. I am boring in Colombia.”
At first, I didn’t quite understand what she meant. Then I understood. In Colombia, she felt boring, as in quiet or not interesting to talk to. In Germany, she was considered a wild, colorful South American woman.
Having lived in Norway, I was familiar with the feeling. There, I had come off as this bold American who asked many questions. Back home in the U.S., I was an extreme introvert.
Our conversation was no longer a simple exchange of words between two strangers.
Maybe, I thought as I talked with her, you don’t realize your true nature until you are in another country.
I found I had a a gift for something I might never have seen at home.
It’s one of the reasons I love to travel. At home, societal norms rule, and families and friends shape our behavior, but when you’re traveling, you take risks by putting yourself out there because no one at home will ever know.
Freshly shorn, Jorg picked me up from the flower shop. On a routine errand, I had already discovered a different perspective on my exile from the barbershop — and maybe, some new insight on who I could be.