There’s a lot of challenges that living in a new city brings. First, there’s the routine or “groove” that one must settle into involving knowing where to get groceries from, what groceries I can buy, how the washing machine works, how the inner-city tram works, where to go to buy new clothes, getting used to a new kitchen, and so on. It can be quite a headache.
Not only that, but this headache can be much further exacerbated when all this is thrust upon someone in a different language. Not only do you feel the creeping, tense feeling of those ‘sniffing out’ the foreigner in you, but you become a bit conscious about your limited ability to speak which, at the same time, further limits your ability to resolve any and all sort of conflicts you come across.
For instance, once I went to the supermarket and thought I had enough money to cover what I had. I even checked the prices and estimated in my head. It seemed like I would just have enough. Cheese, juice, water, gnocchi, apples, butter…yep, pretty sure I had enough. I casually waited in the line until it was my turn to pay for my things.
What? 10.80 EU? That’s more than I anticipated..
“Entschuldigung, ich habe nur..uhh…”
By this time I knew I needed only 2 cents. Yeah. Two. Zwei. I began to panic. I didn’t have two cents to buy all my items. And somehow they were more expensive! It didn’t make sense. I gazed back at the line of people behind me. Great. Eight people in line being held up by the foreigner who didn’t know how to give the bad news of not having two cents to pay for his groceries at the store.
After a few moments of frustration and silence, the cashier asked the man behind me if he had two cents. In a very cold and serious manner, gazing right through me, he offered me two cents. I quickly thanked him, packed my stuff in the bag, and headed out.
I kept thinking of all the jokes that people could’ve said about the American who didn’t have enough money at the supermarket. Yes, America, known around the world as the center of ‘capitalism’ and eternal champion of ‘globalization’…yet an American comes into a store in Germany and doesn’t have enough money. How could an American never have enough money on him for simple necessities as groceries? Oh, the irony! The ridicule! It would never end!
As for the mystery of how the price of all my items went up, I ended up discovering that Germany, like the US, has a recycling program. You pay a little extra on top of items that come in plastic or glass (Californians know it as CRV). Well, I ended up buying juice and water that each had a “pfand” of 25 cents. Yet, in the store, the price shows what it costs BEFORE you add the “pfand.” Even small things like this: how Germany handles recycling and advertising prices of recyclable items can create such confusion. At any rate, if one chooses to live in a foreign country for a while, these sorts of things are expected to arise and make life not only a little awkward, but yes, even embarrassing at times.
But even something as simple as the supermarket, even if you’ve been there five, ten, or possibly even a hundred times, can still be a learning experience if you’re a foreigner. In Germany, you bring bottles and plastic bottles marked with the “pfand” symbol on them and take them to the machine usually located in the back of the supermarket. Then, you insert them into the machine which scans them, and after you are done you get a receipt with the amount that you will earn back from recycling. Ingenious, yeah? No need to take it to the recycling plant or let the garbage men get it for you. You get your money back right then and there.
Now, while this may seem all easy, how and when you get your money back is a little different than how I thought. When you buy groceries from the store, you must first present your receipt from the recycle machine so the woman can factor in how much less your groceries are. You cannot get your money after the fact because then you will ‘hold up the line’. Or, at least what I had somewhat been told when I went through the checkout line that time.
While these things may not seem like adventures back home, they are kind of adventures in their own right when being a foreigner. In mathematics, one’s “misunderstanding” index inadvertently escalates via Murphy’s Law in direct proportion to one’s ‘foreign’ variable. However, time and time again others may get upset or throw a fit or possibly even mutter something unfavorably towards you. Yet, at the same time, it is a humbling experience that makes you realize all the other times that you antagonized or got upset at someone else back home for these same exact types of misunderstandings.
And yes, an American who doesn’t have enough money to pay for items in a store. Maybe I should’ve asked if they took ‘credit’ instead!