Forming New Opinions: German Language Study in Berlin

Buildings in Europe
Leslie Weilbacher, an American of German descent, studied German in an international language school in Berlin, while accompanied by her guide dog, Cammy.

At age ten, I watched as my older brother went on his first exchange venture to Europe. From that moment, I decided I would also go abroad. But even then, upon mentioning my dream, I encountered obstacles. The adults around me focused on the difficulties that a girl with low vision would have on her own in a foreign land, and they could not conceive of a plan to prepare for the perceived problems. But, I continued to learn the German language and study the culture. After my freshmen year of college, I just went for it.

The trains in Berlin announce over the loudspeaker each station before they stop, a feature I found very helpful. Still exhausted from the flight to Germany and time zone changes, on my third day in Germany, I dozed off on a train in Berlin just for a moment. It was a moment too long.

When I heard a train stop name announced that I did not recognize, I turned to my fellow passenger and asked, “Wo ist Lichtenberg?” which was the name of my intended destination. “Drei Stationen zuruck,” he responded. He had to repeat it twice before I grasped what he said: “Three stops back.” I jumped off the train right before the doors closed.

I asked a German woman at the station for directions to Lichtenberg. My speaking skills were not well practiced and I was nervous. My guide dog also sensed my worry; I walk fast, but I walk even faster when I do not know where I am going.

Two more friendly people, three more trains, and two and half hours later (for a trip that normally would have taken thirty minutes), I eventually found my way back to my host family’s apartment. Not the best beginning for a first international experience, but I proved to myself that I can work through those problems.

I went to Germany to improve my German language skills. I studied in an international language school in downtown Berlin where my classes included foreign students from all over Europe. Together we visited castles and museums, and walked around Berlin enjoying the architecture and food.

Growing up in a family of German descent and taking German classes at the University of Oregon, I learned what to expect from the culture, such as finishing your plate so that you don’t insult the cook. But, a few situations forced me to scrap my forming opinions and start anew.

During my four-week study abroad program, I became accustomed to some people not recognizing my guide dog, Cammy, as a service animal. My German host father, whose sister also has a guide dog, argued with a shopkeeper for several minutes before my guide dog was allowed in the store. While Germany has a law for service dog access, it is not well known.

When my friend and I visited the Cecielinhof museum, I learned that though the familiarity with service animals in Germany is not as common as in the United States, we could still gain access to interesting sites.

Since the museum exhibits were blocked off with velvet ropes, my friend attempted to describe in detail the table and chairs on display beyond the ropes, but it was not very interesting to me at first. Then the museum docent, who I assumed was following us because of Cammy, surprised me by unfastening the rope. She said, “Anfassen, Anfassen!” or “Touch, Touch!” I thought to myself, “She can’t mean that? Hey, they do not let me do that in the U.S.!”

So, I disbelievingly began touching the detailed carving of the chairs and table. Former Russian leader, Stalin’s desk was in the next room. It was big and fancy. The next room held former U.S. President, Truman’s desk. It was medium and plain. The former Prime Minister of England, Churchill’s desk, I touched next. It was small and ornate, but our docent turned tour guide jokingly told us Churchill used the couch more.

I gained much more access to understanding the culture than just touching typically off-limits museum pieces. This cross-cultural experience connected me to the history of Germany and my family. When I return to Germany next, I will not feel the stress of schoolwork or uncertainty of my abilities. And hopefully I will not fall asleep on any more trains.

Author: 

Leslie Weilbacher