As promised, here is the rest of my story (ok, so apparently “soon” means “two months from now” in hedgehog time). For those of you who missed it, this is a continuation of me talking about a huge change that I went through during college.
I had just quit the most stressful job I’ve ever had, completely changed my plans for my entire future, and was preparing to go live in the mountains for five weeks to learn a language that I would probably never be able to use without leaving the country.
The future looked dark and scary. When I was in the pharmacy program I was sure that I would be successful after college. I think a recently graduated pharmacist gets something like $110,000 starting salary in my hometown, and I’ve heard that most hospitals and retail pharmacies will help them pay back their school loans once they’re hired. That, as people loved to remind me, was a great plan with a secure future and I was throwing it all away just because I didn’t like my part time job. What was I planning to do, go live in Germany? Yeah, great plan, they said. And then what? You won’t have any skills, they said. No one will hire you, they said.
Despite all of the logical arguments against my decision, I felt more sure of myself than I had ever been. Screw this medicine crap, I wanted to tell them. I was only twenty two at the time, and I had already decided that I hated working in health care. Was I really supposed to base my entire future on the one thing I knew I didn’t enjoy without even trying anything else first?
But for all my bravado, I was terrified.
Five weeks doesn’t seem like a long time now, but that was my first time leaving home on my own. On top of that, I was in an extremely toxic relationship at the time, and the guy was not happy with me planning to leave for over a month. In his eloquent words, I was leaving him to go screw a bunch of Germans for five weeks. He put a lot of pressure on me to keep my job and not transfer universities. He said that this school was a waste of time because we could go visit Germany any old time as long as we were together, and it wasn’t fair for me to leave him like this.
I didn’t break up with him at that time (what stupid little girls our society has raised), but I think I said something along the lines of, “too fucking bad.”
In the end, still completely terrified, I packed my bags and left for school.
First of all, let me say this: I’ve studied at four different language schools in four different countries, and the German Summer School of New Mexico in Taos Ski Valley is absolutely the best language school I have ever been to. From the first day that students arrive, they have to pledge to only speak German the entire time, both in and out of class. The students all live together, eat meals together, and take classes together. Since the school is in an isolated little town up in the mountains, the students experience a total immersion into the language that’s more intense than actually going to Germany. Everyone speaks English in Germany, so it’s easy to be lazy outside of class. Even if you start out in German, people will hear your accent and answer in English, but at the summer school everyone swears not to speak English, and it’s about an hour’s drive to the nearest town. Even if you don’t understand a word, the teachers won’t translate. Instead, they explain it using simpler terms, all in German. It makes a HUGE difference. If you go to this school, you will leave with the ability to speak German.
I was really doubting myself by the time I arrived. Sure, I had put on a brave face for all the people who told me that I shouldn’t (or couldn’t) do it, but what the hell was I doing, anyway? I had no plan, no job, the degree I had changed to probably wouldn’t get me a job, and I was stuck in a tiny village with about fifty complete strangers. How was I supposed to survive here? I’m socially awkward at at the best of times, and now I had to make friends in a language that I could barely speak.
I had arrived a bit late, so I barely had time to find my room before the orientation started. When it did, my hands were actually shaking. When I looked around at all the other people, I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
My experience with the language was random and unorthodox. I didn’t know anyone who spoke German, but I had listened to German bands (thanks, Rammstein!), played with Rosetta stone, and eventually tested into the second year of German at my old university just before I transferred. Since my German education was more self taught than formal, I felt like even if I could put a sentence together, it would sound completely horrible to a native speaker. What the hell was I doing here? I should get out, quick, before I butcher the German language.
But then something amazing happened. When the professors started talking, I realized that I could understand them.
After the professors explained how things would run at the school, they had us play a few getting-to-know-you games. Right then and there, on the very first day, the students were forced to talk to each other in German. After I was able to overcome my terror, I realized that most of the other students were there for the same reason I was: they wanted to learn.
In all honesty, we probably did butcher the German language. But there was no judgement because we were all equally bad at it, and the whole point of us being there was because we wanted to improve. This was honestly the first time in my life that I felt like I could connect to other human beings. I’m not kidding. Sure, in the past I could usually find one or two tolerable people to talk to in a given situation, but this was the first time that I had ever not felt like an outcast in a large group of people.
The fact that most of these people were doing an intensive language program for fun when they could have been goofing off during the summer said a lot about the kind of people I was with. If I went up to someone here and said, “Did you know that the literal translation of the German word for sexual intercourse means gender traffic?” in most cases they would respond with, “Wow, that’s so interesting!” and share some other weird fact about the language. In the real world (or my world, at least), most people would have rolled their eyes or said, “You’re crazy” and walked away, but not here. We were a bunch of nerdy kids who got excited over words like Geschlechtsverkehr and Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung.
It was awesome.
What the hell had I been doing for the past 22 years?
I had gotten a partial scholarship and a work study position, so I worked in the kitchen of the hotel three nights a week. It was simple; I cleaned tables, washed dishes, swept, and carried plates between the kitchen and the dining room. The kitchen staff didn’t speak any German, so the students who worked here got a little break from the German only rule. It was through this job that I met one of my best friends. His German was more advanced than mine so I didn’t have him for any classes, but he also worked in the kitchen. The first time we worked together he taught me the word Spritzpups (slang for diarrhea), and so began a beautiful relationship that consisted mostly of the Safety Dance and yelling random German words to each other just because they sounded funny (Vergnügen was one of our favorites). Even though we live in different states and only see each other about five or six times a year, I still consider him to be one of my best friends.
I broke up with the aforementioned guy about two weeks into the program because I noticed that it’s actually really nice to not be called a stupid worthless bitch every day. I was terrified that he would come looking for me at the school, but I was finally standing up for what I wanted. This is something that all introverts should learn how to do.
I feel like I left this school a new person. Before I had been miserable and insecure, pursing a supposedly great degree and hating every second of it. I had honestly believed that I was broken, that somehow I had been born without that special organ that allows people to enjoy being around other humans. People were alien and scary, full of judgement and bitter grudges. Now I know better. Yes, there are tons of horrible people out there (a depressing amount, really), but there are good people, too.
Probably the best thing I learned is that “because I want to” and “because it makes me happy” are perfectly valid reasons for doing something. I like learning languages, and I’m good at it. Now, two years and three countries later, I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Nor do I want to.