Archive for ‘Travel’

June 17, 2015

Back-to-Back World Champs

The first thing I realized about Germany was how wrong Americans were about it.

Growing up, I always knew Germans were brilliant, logical beings with an eye for really fast cars. Einstein in a BMW, right? My best friend as a child was German; her family was on a work visa, and I spent many a day listening to “Das Blau”, eating the most amazing spaetzle and reading German comics, surrounded by the arguments of syntax in a family split between West and East German dialects.

Gorgeous wheat fields under a stormy sky in my small village in Malberg.

Gorgeous wheat fields under a stormy sky in my small village in Malberg.

To top it off, we still stay in touch with family in Baumberg, and we have letters tracing back to WWII between us. So when I got an assignment in the military to Germany, I couldn’t be more thrilled. It would be like going home, I thought.

When I shared the joyous news with an engineer buddy who worked in Germany as a civilian for a while, he sarcastically told me I was in for a treat.

“They just don’t do things the same way. I want to go from A to C if it makes sense, but they have to go from A to B to C, no matter what.”

Puzzled at his observation, so at odds with what I saw as German, I shrugged it off and tried to study the German umlaut.

[Okay, so not the best example of something UN-frustrating. Many a German has giggled at my attempt to say “müll” or trash.]

And then, once I landed and settled into a surprisingly verdant, Grimms-like landscape amongst the rural population of a small German village, I realized what everyone was trying to tell me: Germany is different. Germany is not America. And America’s perspective of Germany as a nation? So wrong.

A German gnome watches from the corner. My village Malberg was a battlefield between Americans and Germans during both wars.

A German gnome watches from the corner. My village Malberg was a battlefield between Americans and Germans during both wars. The Germans of modern day value their homes and property, and spend a lot of time decorating and maintaining their homes.

This loquacious writer named Homi Bhabha proposes the concept of a national narrative, one crafted by the dominant culture to represent the whole nation’s identity, and that sometimes contrasts with the individual narrative. In America, we see Germany as a super-efficient, hard-working country.

Part of the national narrative is one of productive, strict  people who economically support the European Union.

But in America, hard work means long hours. It means the customer is always right. It means Americans are right.

In Germany, especially in rural western Germany, stores close by 6 p.m. German employees on the U.S. military base go home exactly when they should, leaving the unfinished work for tomorrow. Waiters don’t come to your table but twice or thrice during the course of a three-hour dinner. Your landlord would effectively fulfill their contract by fixing your pipe when requested, but wouldn’t spend their Saturday planting your entire backyard. And you most definitely cannot put five chairs at a four-chair table…it is just “not possible.”

Oftentimes, I would be able to tell how Americans felt about Germans and Europeans by the words they chose to use. As David Spurr puts it, there is “power inherent in all discourse.” Through language and syntax, I heard the echoes of cultural dominance. I saw how how language shapes narrative, concept of self, concept of others and reality for many.

“Germans are lazy!” some of my American friends would complain. “They are so stingy and rude! They don’t value customer service!” In a way, these could be true. These were, if you didn’t translate their lack of “hard work” for their passion for family and community, or their “rudeness” for their bold genuine spirit, or their “lack of customer service” as a commitment to privacy. The American perspective of Germany varied, depending on the person, but largely, it was difficult not to notice a trend of bitterness and condescension of some sort, whether it be directed at America or Europe.

A Hellenistic statue in the Louvre, just the place a Number One has to go a thousand times, and then tell everyone the new pieces of art they discovered.

A Hellenistic statue in the Louvre, just the place a Number One has to go a thousand times, and then tell everyone the new pieces of art they discovered.

In my experience, there were often four kinds of Americans living in Germany, thanks to the military:

1) Those who loved Germany, and hated America

2) Those who hated Germany, and loved America

3) Those who didn’t even try

4) Those who embraced it, good and bad

I can’t say I didn’t understand where most of these people were coming from (except the Number Threes. No idea.), but what was most unique was why they saw what they saw.

For the Number Ones, Europe was it. The food, the wine, the pace of life, the focus on social support…that was how it should be. Americans, they would say with a shake of their lovely heads, are so pastiche. If they could, they would become expatriates. After all, see how thin everyone is. See how happy we all are. We slip from café to café along the cobble stoned streets of ancient towns, breathing in history and art and culture. What do you do, they ask Number Twos, watch television, speak only one language and drink bad beer?

Number Twos have a common phrase: back-to-back world champs, a rather casual reference to the devastation of two world wars, the remnants of these still evident in the narratives, faces and villages of Europe. Number Twos would long for the freedom of guns and cheap gas and open range of wildness. In America, there are no silly rules of noise pollution or environmental restrictions (“you mean, I have to sort my trash??”). The stores and restaurants are open at times that make sense, the roads are normal size for normal cars, and back home, your neighbor would never tell you to follow the rules about caging your dog. And all these rules! You’d think they would learn better from that last big war…blindly following stupid rules doesn’t end well for anyone.

The fairy-tale town of Brugge is bound to make even a Number Three excited about Europe....I think...

The fairy-tale town of Brugge is bound to make even a Number Three excited about Europe….I think…

Number Threes are quite beyond my comprehension, as those who don’t even try to enjoy themselves. Most of the time, it would be younger Airmen who were afraid to do anything by themselves off the base, and would fear the changes this new, unfamiliar place. Even the famous Autobahn would be beyond them. “It’s too fast,” they would grumble, and shift in their seat nervously.

Number Fours…well, we are the nerds. The ones who went through all the Numbers, to land here, the Lucky Fourth. We have gone through the stages of culture shock and made it out the other end. We don’t despair for America, although we desperately miss Chic-fil-a and hot summers. Oftentimes, as Susan Bassenett bring up in her article about females in travel, the Number Fours were defined by their society and not their internal personality, and so we used travel to redefine who we were, outside of the frame of reference. We discovered ourselves anew.

We find ourselves surprised by the Germans; they are incredibly dedicated to having a great time, no matter their age. They are generous of spirit, and will become fast friends with you once you open up to each other. They work hard, but they value more than an identity in your job. They value the community they are a part of…they value citizenship and rules, because it requires them to respect each other, no matter what. They are boisterous and engaging, smart and educated on your political system more than you could be. And they remind you, with a humility that moves you, that no one won the world wars…that there is no such thing as a champion in the face of such pain and devastation.

An American cemetery, the last resting place of thousands of U.S. military members who fought in World War II.

An American cemetery, the last resting place of thousands of U.S. military members who fought in World War II.

Even through the lens of a Number Four, oftentimes America’s aggressive, persistent cultural ideals impacted how I saw the world, and other cultures. Sometimes, I struggled to see the value of some of the differences. Sometimes, I was incredibly frustrated with my German colleagues for their pace of work or amazing habit of taking the most vacation possible (seriously, they have so many holidays!). But then I take a step back from myself, my beliefs and my perspective…and I think, perhaps there is value to what they value.

Back to art and culture, sighs the Number One with a chilled glass of Epernay’s finest champagne.

Back-to-back world champs, says the Number Two determinedly, crushing a beer on his forehead.

Back to America please, whines the long-suffering Number Three while playing the X-Box.

Back-to-back with the Germans, Number Four resolutely states, and a piece of her heart settles further into its home away from home.


Side note…here are the stages of culture shock, for those who have yet to experience the roller coaster that it is:

Step 1: The Honeymoon Stage- when everything is awesome.

Step 2: The Distress Stage- when differences aren’t so fun anymore.

Step 3: Re-integration Stage- when you hate everything new and compare it to the better homeland (aka, when you adjust and see what you value about your culture)

Step 4: Autonomy Stage- when you accept your new home and begin to appreciate where you are

Step 5: Independence Stage- when you are yourself again, and embrace the culture around you in a realistic light

Have you, dear readers, experienced any of these aspects of culture shock?

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June 11, 2015

Map, Map in my hand…who is the fairest in the land?

This map charts part of our travels in Colorado. We navigated only using old school tools, and mostly orienteered our way through the wild.

This map charts part of our travels in Colorado. We navigated only using old school tools, and mostly orienteered our way through the wild.

This map records more than the wild territory in Colorado. It maps adventure in a wild land not yet ruined by civilization. It maps memories of sudden hail storms, unbelievable swarms of mosquitoes, and the the air that smelled like God’s breath. It reminds me of hardiness, of pain, of joy, and self-discovery. This map of the Weminuche Wilderness is a physical representation of my experience in nature, mountaineering alongside a group of strangers. There were no trails. There was only this map.

According to Casey Blanton, travel “is the interplay between observer and observed, between a traveler’s own philosophical biases and preconceptions and the tests those ideas and prejudices endure as a result of the journey” (pg. 5).

While this may often be applied to foreign cultures, I would venture to say that nature, in its vast depth of detail, is a culture of its own, and the people who venture into it, are observers of it. We view the land before us differently, and thus experience it differently, all due to our perspectives, our histories, our understanding of nature and humanity’s role in it. Some may see the wild through eyes of ownership. Some may see nature as something sacred to protect. Some may view the land as historically relevant or scientifically valuable.

Mountain in Wyoming from the top of mirroring mountain. With the changing weather and fast winds there, the clouds pass in front of the sun, the dark shadows dancing on the land below.

Mountain in Wyoming from the top of mirroring mountain. With the changing weather and fast winds there, the clouds pass in front of the sun, the dark shadows dancing on the land below.

When I first ventured out as a team leader on this particular trip, it was going to be my longest one yet. It was a part of a stewardship and leadership course for wilderness, and I was excited to learn about nature, and myself. Looking back at journals from that time, I can chart how my perspective of social norms and the environment was challenged by this experience. Like Blanton said, with engagements in new territory (and even old), our ideas’ and prejudices’ endurance are tested by our experiences.

So, let me clear: my ideas about myself, my teammates and Nature were challenged…and changed.

When I lived in the open spaces of Wyoming and Colorado for a month, with everything I needed on my back, I made my best efforts to not exploit nature for my own use. Leave No Trace, we preached. Bury your feces in a deep hole, mixing with dirt before covering. Carry out any trash you have. Don’t swim in water sources without washing off bug spray chemicals with your bandanna and water in a cooking pot. And no matter how miserable you are under your tarp, definitely no bright cheerful fires.

Fresh snow on a pine branch, with the rising sun promising to melt it away and make it feel more like July, dang it.

Fresh snow on a pine branch, with the rising sun promising to melt it away and make it feel more like July, dang it.

Nature, however, didn’t really care about us. Heat waves, hail storms, snow and torrential downpours were sudden and careless to the weary travelers below them.

“Lightening!” the team leader would shout, and we all jumped on our rubber sleeping mats, previously tied to our backpacks. I can’t imagine how silly we looked to the sky, laughing in a thunderous rumble at us cowering on the side of a rugged slope on little yellow mats.

To others, this map doesn’t look like much. It’s ragged and there’s a scant red line, trailing the curves of the shaded greens representing incline of a mountain. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say. To me, this map is not just an actual navigational chart and a map of memories; it is a map of myself.

Without trails, we would traverse swamps and large boulders and rivers, oh my! It truly tested your perseverance, agility and patience.

Without trails, we would traverse swamps and large boulders and rivers, oh my! It truly tested your perseverance, agility and patience.

It charted my challenges, the physical and the emotional, because the map defined my journey, and that journey shaped who I am. This map also represents the place where my perspective of nature met Nature, and lost. It’s the place where my concept of teamwork and humor and social norms met my teammate’s cultural value, and lost.

Pratt, a very clever person who writes quite well, crafted this term “contact zone” to describe a “social spaces where cultures interact and wrestle with each other. Oftentimes, this term represents eras and areas of colonialism, exploitation and dominance of one culture over another.

I was different than the most of my team. I was sarcastic, they were sweet. They were mostly religiously conservative, sensitive individuals, and I was open-minded and a bit harsh around the edges. I would fit better in a group of military men who would joke around and punch each other’s shoulders, not so well with a group that cried when their hands were ice cold in the snowy mornings in July. Instead of morphing to their ways of kumbaiyah, I rejected their social norms while assimilating parts of the projected identity. I was the one known for off-the-wall defecation jokes and blunt responses, opinionated and lacking in compassion. The person they saw was not the person I thought I was, but I chose parts of their projected identity anyway.

My basic identity didn’t fit with the norm, and the dominant culture of the team defined who I was. To them, I was different, crude, harsh. To me, they were sensitive, narrow-minded and judgmental. I didn’t fit into their definition of what a ideal team member should be.

So, I accepted their definition in some ways, in a movement of transculturism, as Pratt would call it.

Why nicely ask my tarp mate to move his stinky boots from where my head is for the third time when I can directly tell him to move them? Why not make that rough joke about thunder chili on the trail when they expect it from me anyway?

There is nothing more beautiful than watching a torrential downpour that IS NOT on you.

There is nothing more beautiful than watching a torrential downpour that IS NOT on you.

I learned how grumpy a person can be when they haven’t had a lot of sleep or cleanliness. I learned how ugly you are inside when you are weak, when that point of exhaustion and pain shows you who are you. Compassion is hard to give when you are experiencing just as much pain as the other person, and they can’t do it. In this, I found a part of me I didn’t really care for, that didn’t match my prior narrative of self.

I went into the trip romanticizing not only people and self, but also Nature as an epic landscape of beauty and grandeur. While this is true, the wilderness isn’t mine to define and shape. It’s too big for that. I left realizing how little I actually knew about survival, and how I previously lacked a respect for Nature (I mean, hordes upon hordes of mosquitoes. Those suck. Literally). Nature is unfathomably beautiful. It moved me in the delicate strength of the bright pink Indian Paintbrush flower, thriving against all odds in the crook of a boulder. It humbled me in the face of its terrifying weather and craggy mountainsides, with slippery rocks and vertical slopes that led to skinned knees and sore backs. I thought my concept of nature was accurate until in engaged with it for an extended period, and I realized my preconceived notions of romance and freedom were accurate to a point, but did not endure the tests of the wild.

Before the trip, I treated nature like I had “the privilege of inspecting, of examining, of looking at” it which naturally excludes and elevates the viewer from the “reality constituted as the object of observation” as David Spurr says. Afterwards, I realized it was foolish and arrogant to see the earth as something I can own, observe and enjoy without a little bit of two-way engagement. Nature is not an object to observe. It is a beautiful, wild beast of a thing, and I can’t separate myself from it and thrive, only survive.

I changed in that month. My perspectives and ideas of who I was shifted (final: was not as cool and nice as I thought I was, but was tougher than I knew). The journey tested my preconceptions, and they did not endure. While my identity on that trip was defined by the dominant culture of my teammates, the experience changed how I viewed myself (more honestly), not how I behaved (more stubbornly). I saw myself through my teammates’ eyes, and I saw myself through Nature’s. I was humbled by this, although not particularly pleased that I didn’t meet the inflated ideal I held of myself before the journey.

With physical maps, I navigated and discovered Nature, people and self on that journey. I am not sure if I came out the other end a better person, but I certainly understand more about me as person. I also learned to love the goods and bads of Mother Nature…the goods were so incredibly moving, and the bads challenged me as a person. In the end, my understanding of myself, others and Nature shifted to a broader perspective than before I had gone.

When I returned from my trip, my boyfriend half-jokingly threatened to break up with me if I didn’t stop eating things off the ground (“yeah, it’s fine. Five minute rule.”) and forgetting to shave my legs (“what is this hygiene you speak of….?”). It’s true…Cultural expectations  were not met for a while, but I eventually put away my bandana and stopped being shocked by the sight of myself in mirrors.

So, here’s some food for thought (since we love eating here): What sort of person are you under duress, and how do you map yourself in the face of challenges?