University of Vienna and Remains of City Wall

Those of you who know me (especially those who have lived with me) know quite well that very few things leave me speechless. I have always been so proactive when it comes to speaking up; often the first to break the silence, willing to express myself and be a leader in reaching a goal. I enjoyed the confidence of understanding social cues; I felt qualified to make assessments of peoples’ behaviors, I understood general body language, I wasn’t constantly confused… I was rarely speechless.

But nothing can stop you dead in your tracks and leave you completely speechless like the culture shock of moving across the world.

My Second Day in Vienna

My first night in Vienna wasn’t the greatest night of my life… I couldn’t sleep, my bunk-bed was too high, I didn’t have a pillow, and oh my goodness was it hot! Then the realities of my decision to move abroad streamed into my head; not the positive this will be great pep-talk, but rather are you sure about this??

But after a restless night, I woke up refreshed and ready to embark on my first day in the new city of Vienna. I had a long shopping list: Handy SD Card, Pillow, Hair-Cut, Food, Adult Wallet (I was using the one my sister bought me when I was 9), and most importantly a FAN.

I left my dormitory with such confidence, I strutted down the street to the beat of my newfound excitement, and started towards a nearby shopping street. Along the way, I stumbled upon a small hair shop, and got my hair cut by a kind lady. With a smile on my face, I kept walking; I walked through a market with dresses, wallets, and watches… One guy proceeded to ask for my number and another lady yelled at me (something in which I could not understand) for looking at her purse shop. Continuing down the street, I found entertainment locating a snazzy wallet (that didn’t cause people to question my age) and searching the office supply stores for the perfect notebook and writing utensils…

I was having a good day, but inside, stress was building. It is still hard for me to explain or justify the anxiety, but being surrounded by a sea of people talking, laughing, yelling… in a language I can’t understand is highly challenging for me. That anxiety was only compiled by the introduction to situations in which I had no sense of how to react in an appropriate manner to match the customs of this new culture.

As afternoon approached, I walked into the Electronics store “Saturn”. My primary goal for this store was to find a fan to cool my room. Now up until this point, I had been using my handy-dandy cell phone German-English translator app to figure out my breakfast order and to minimally communicate with the waiters and shopkeepers, but I had not completed an entire sentence. I didn’t know how to – but, I again pulled out my cell phone and translated: Do you a small fan? (Should be easy right: Haben Sie einen kleinen Ventilator?) I found a nearby salesman and asked him (while reading from my phone): Haben Sie Vent–ilat–ato–or? After repeating myself a few times (and showing him the actual translation…) he pointed me in the right direction. But they didn’t have any fans left…

While I was leaving the store, I saw a customer service desk, and it dawned on me: Hey! I could just ask them if they knew of a place I could find a fan! So, I again looked up some words on my phone, and walked up to the desk. However, as I started to speak… Konnen Sie, Uhmm, Konnen Sie ich–mir–mich ein Venti—ventilator, Ges–chaft… The lady behind the desk stood there and starred. But I couldn’t remember, I couldn’t pronounce it, I couldn’t say it, and I was frustrated.

I picked up my bags, and left with a few tears sneaking from my eyes. I was speechless.

My First Traffic Ticket

My first month in Vienna had many ups and downs. I was able to take a couple city tours, do some shopping, and eat some good food. Additionally, I watched some Club Softball games and enjoyed a short trip to Prague.

One Sunday morning, on my way to the Softball Fields to watch a game, I found myself sitting in the familiar Tram No. 1. It was a beautiful, sun shining morning, and I was filled with purpose because I was going to do something at a specific time and place (that was pretty rare in my first couple of weeks). Smiling, I stared out the window and watched as the beautiful Vienna Opera House (featured in the latest Mission Impossible movie – you may recall), the Rathaus, and many other beautiful sights passed by. Then, as I was marveling over the amazing Parliament building, I heard a voice come through the car… (I would like to tell you what she said, but I honestly didn’t know then nor do I know now), but with her statement followed many frustrated looks, and people digging through their wallets and purses.

Ohhhhh, shoot. She was checking transit tickets. Now normally, I like to think of myself as a pretty stand-up-citizen, I don’t push the rules too much and I generally follow the law (give or take a couple miles per hour on the Wyoming highways)… but today, I had forgotten to stamp my ticket, and I was riding illegally.

Play it cool, play it cool! Kept repeating in my head. As the lady looked over my ticket she stopped, you didn’t stamp your ticket for this trip. With the hope of an innocent verdict, I responded, Oh My Goodness, I must have forgotten. I am so sorry, I am new here, I just moved, I am still getting used to the system, I bought a student ticket it just hasn’t arrived yet, as you can see I have done it every other day…

Trust me, I pulled out every single excuse I could come up with… but finally I admitted, I’m Sorry Ma’am, I just forgot.

She pulled me off the tram and told me: that will be 103.50EUR. I stood there in the middle of the tram station speechless. One hundred three Euro and fifty cents?? When I finally came to my senses, I pulled out my wallet and to see how much cash I had brought. The sight was quite clear… Absolutely none. I pulled out my credit card, do you take cards? She told me no, but followed me to the nearest ATM.

One hundred three Euro and fifty cents lighter, I finally carried on towards the softball field. I had survived another frustrating and speechless moment.

The Refugee Crisis: Up Close and Personal

Just a couple short weeks later, I found myself hopping on a train to Budapest, Hungary. I had just started school, but had a couple days off and a serious case of “travel fever”, so I jumped on the opportunity to see a new city and experience a new culture.

I am sure most have heard about the severe Refugee crisis that has taken Europe and the Middle East by surprise; refugees, primarily from Syria, have been risking their lives to cross the Sea and international boarders to seek asylum; to find a place where they can safely live with their families, raise their kids, achieve an education, and reach for their goals. Many see Western Europe as the goal, and thousands upon thousands of desperate people are doing everything they can to make it.

Before embarking on my trip to Budapest, I had seen pictures of the refugees and read articles about the political issues concerning refugees in Hungary. As my train approached the station, however, I realized that no amount of photos or articles can describe the real situation. Hundreds upon hundreds of police officers surrounded the train station and blocked all but one exit. As I followed the masses of tourists through the exit doors, I was confronted with one of the direst and desperate situations I have ever seen.

Hundreds of refugees walking around outside the station, waiting with their families, playing with their kids, sitting and sleeping on T-shirts. All of these people were stuck; Hungary had shut their boarders to the refugees as they attempted to continue their journey to Germany. Politics aside, there were so many people stuck, out in the open to sleep, eat, raise their kids… for days, some even a week.

I had a fantastic time touring the city; I saw many beautiful sights, got lots of exercise, and met some great girls from Belgium. Then, three days later, on September 3rd, I woke up, did some last minute sight-seeing, and casually walked from my Hostel back to the Keleti Train Station. As I approached, I realized that something was wrong.

The refugee situation had only grown worse in the recent days, even more people sat helpless surrounding the train station exterior. But today, News reporters from across the world were interviewing refugees, tourists, and Budapest residents in English, Hungarian, French, and German… What I hadn’t known was, just a few hours before, an organized group of hundreds of refugees had stormed the station just before a train heading towards Munich was set to depart. The train was stopped just outside the station, and the dangerous situation caused Hungarian officials to close their Western boarders completely.

As I entered the station, the chaos only increased. People were everywhere, some waiting in customer service lines, others standing in-front of the screens reading “All Trains Crossing the Western Boarder are Canceled until Further Notice.” I walked around for some time, trying to troubleshoot my personal situation amidst the apparent crisis surrounding me. Then suddenly, I heard screaming. I heard yelling. People began rushing towards the windows; police to the main doors. Terrified and curious, I slowly made my way to the main entrance where hundreds of refugees stood chanting, yelling, and protesting their travel restriction.

I stood in awe as these refugees poured out their hearts in protest; as tourists, residents, and reporters spoke in hushed tones or took videos and photos. I had never experienced such a situation. Being a person who really dislikes conflict, my anxiety level rose higher and higher, but I couldn’t move. I too was stuck; I was curious; I was concerned; I wanted to help… but I was speechless.

I got home to Vienna late that evening by bus, but the state of the helpless refugees was permanently imprinted on my mind.

Learning German

About a month after arriving, I finally started my first German course. On the first day my teacher, Barbara jumped right into it, speaking to us in German, introducing herself, and asking us questions:

Wie heisst du?

I sat starring at her… huh?!

Wie… heisst… du? (pointing at me)

Again, I sat with a blank expression. I could not understand; I couldn’t respond; I was speechless.

Was ist dein Name?

Ahhhh, she wanted to know my name… Britton, I responded. Super! I made it through my first “official” German conversation!

Luckily, my German has gotten much better since that first day of class; I can understand many conversations, I can ask basic questions, and am in the process of reading my first German book. Even with my improvements, I still don’t understand every warning sign, I can’t make-out the public transportation alert messages, I don’t always know what the people around me are talking about, and I still have a hard time speaking – even when I know what I want to say… The reality of a novice German speaker in Vienna is that there are many daily situations that leave me speechless.

The Residence Permit

Exactly two weeks ago, a beautiful Friday in which I hadn’t any afternoon classes, I had arrived home, changed clothes and happily headed out to go shopping. Just a couple blocks from my dorm, I glanced at my phone and saw an email that took my breath away.

“Miss. Hammit, unfortunately we cannot process your residence permit in your time allotted in Europe by your American citizenship. You will need to leave the country by next Saturday, and collect a temporary visa at the Los Angeles Consulate before we can continue processing your residence permit.”

I read this email a couple times… and before I knew it I was sitting in the middle of the sidewalk starring at my phone. Safe to say, I was speechless.

I have to what??

There had been many factors leading up to this email; a missed email (sent to my scam folder on the day I defended my thesis); strict instructions to NOT request any information about the status of one’s residence permit; a couple unanswered emails to the Consulate in which I did, just that; and finally, a one correct email that seemed to have arrived too late to the proper Austrian authority.

After some time, I pulled myself up from the sidewalk and went back to my dorm room, where I proceeded to call my sister (fairly hysterically, I might add…). After a pep talk and some advice, I hung up with my sister, and began making phone calls to see if there was anything I could do to prevent a 50 hour, $1400 trip to LA the following weekend.

After many phone calls, I finally contacted the gentleman who sent me the initial email. After speaking with him, he explained that there was an 80% chance I could avoid this last minute trip if I came into his office immediately, and completed the remaining paperwork. I did, and one week later, I finally caught my breath when I was handed my residence permit (with the worst possible photo ever!!), just in the nick of time.

Maybe at the end of this trip, I won’t be writing a book about “What TO do when studying abroad, but rather what NOT to do!”

The Journey Continues!

Now, exactly 96 days after having arrived in Europe, I can already say without a doubt, that I have learned more in the last three months than any three months on record. Sure, I enjoy my study program and learning German is an exciting challenge to undergo, but the reason I have learned so much is that I have allowed myself to be speechless. I’ve listened.

There will be a time for me to speak up, but this experience is teaching me that sometimes I first need to stop, astounded, dumbfounded, sometimes a little afraid, and just listen.


Two Suitcases, a Backpack, and a Laundry Basket

I hugged my sister goodbye on the train heading for Vienna, Austria on Sunday, August 9th 2015. I sat down and stared onto the platform, watching the world spin around me; I watched tearful farewells and out-of-breath families run to make their train. All I could hear around me were conversations between friends and people who just met; however, they could have been discussing my crazy hairdo, for all I knew…

Over the past few months, a voice of reality had increased its volume reminding me of the flaws and challenges in this adventure; however, it hadn’t spoken this loudly before. What in the WORLD were you thinking, you don’t even speak a lick of German, and do you know what language they speak in Vienna?? While I kindly reminded myself that I could say “Hello” and “How are you?” in German, like a champ, I had to agree; what made me think this was such a great idea?

The train pulled away from the station and began gaining speed, and my heartrate increased at the same pace. Well, there was no going back now! I watched Munchen disappear and quaint villages quickly emerge and disappear behind rows of trees.

Four and a half short hours later, we reached the Wien Haubtbahnhof (central train station), this was my stop! Serious thought and mental preparation went into this exit… I had a large backpack (with a laundry basket hanging from the back) and two suitcases weighing in over 50lbs. I lugged my possessions to the door as the train pulled into the station; then a family of four, with two or three large suitcases, two small children, and an anxious-looking father approached the same door. Okay, I have to be REALLY fast, this stop is less than 1 minute long…

The train stopped, and I was greeted by more than 20 people waiting to board the train. Okay I have to be SUPER-DUPER fast… I will not be the person that prevents someone from getting on this train!! I heaved my first suitcase three feet down to the platform and jumped back to the train to grab my second suitcase. With both suitcases securely on the platform and no torn muscles or broken limbs, I couldn’t help but smile as I ran from the mob impatiently awaiting their turn to board. I did it!! I found the Exit sign and proudly followed the arrows.

Stairs. Yes, stairs. I stood staring at the downward arrow directing me to take a long flight of stairs to exit the platform. No way, after all of that… I do not think I will be hauling these suitcases down stairs! No way! Stubbornly, I kept walking until I found an escalator, which I gladly took.

At the same anxious pace, I raced from the train station to the taxi queue where I made eye-contact with the first driver in line. Okay, here it goes… I was a bit worried about the cab ride as I had to travel to one location to pick up a key, and then to my actual dormitory. I approached the kind looking gentleman, and expressed my well-seasoned German greeting, “Guten Tag” (good day). He grabbed my first suitcase and hoisted it to the trunk of the Silver Prius, clearly struggling with the weight and commenting about it (in German).

After a brief prayer, I asked, “Spreken sie Englisch?” “I am a translator for three languages” he said while shutting the trunk, “with English being one of them.” “Oh thank goodness” I spouted, “We will get along just fine.” We drove away and I began describing my desired route… “You must be from the USA” the driver commented, “You talk way too fast.” I couldn’t help but laugh, I already speak quite fast, but then if you include my racing heartrate and nervousness, and I can imagine it was nearly indistinguishable.

The cab ride couldn’t have gone more smoothly, the driver was extremely kind and dropped me off at the front gate of my new home, Eralchplatz 5. I stumbled through the gate, and rode the elevator to the first floor where I entered the dorms.

The dorms were arranged very differently than any dorm I had seen… four rooms oriented in different directions surrounding a kitchen, couch, table, and bathroom. Hallways led me to two other areas with four rooms and a common space.

I found my room and excitedly unlocked and opened the door. Whoa… Okay, so I used to complain that my Sanders room was small… but in reality it was a Master’s Suite compared to this room. The room was clean and quaint. Hardwood floors with a nice desk, a decent size closet under a tall bunk bed, a large window facing a hardware store, and on the opposite side a window seat with a window into the dorm community area (just give me one reason why you would want this window!!).

Well, this is it! This is home! I told myself as I went back to collect my suitcases. I made it!

The rest of my first day consisted of unpacking my Ziploc sealed clothing (I highly recommend everyone purchase these bags, they are THE BEST for traveling) and my random knick-knacks and possessions. At this point, I had met one of my area-mates, Jana. She is from the Ukraine and could not be more kind. Just an hour after I arrived she had greeted me, provided me with extra dishes, and cleaned the kitchen to make sure I had ample shelf space.

I clapped my hands together once I emptied my last bag, and placed it in the closet! Dang, this day can basically be classified as easy! Who knew?? My next task was to find somewhere with internet so I could inform my family that their world-traveling daughter had arrived in Vienna successfully. I grabbed my keys (yes, I even remembered my keys!!) and began exploring the blocks surrounding my dormitory. But in Austria, and most of Europe, nothing is open on Sundays, so I returned. As I entered the common area, I met Daniel, one of my other area-mates. Daniel is from Hungary and is studying Architecture.

Not only did Daniel provide me his Wi-Fi password, but he also shared Spaghetti with me. With a full stomach I called my parents to inform them of my safety and success in arriving. The exhaustion from traveling led me to lay low that evening, watching the crowd favorites, Pitch Perfect and the Hunger Games. I even painted my toe-nails and filed my nails. So this is what slowing down and having time is like! Nice… As I was watching a movie and braiding my hair (also random side fact, I am now a fantastic braider – I have never EVER been able to do double French braids, but I did on August 9th!) my third area-mate knocked on my door to say hello. With half of my head braided and the other half awkwardly hanging from my head (I really know how to make a great first impression!), I met Phillip, a computer programming student from Germany.

With all of my area-mates met, movies watched, and shower taken, I wobbled up the ladder into my bed. I’ll give you a peak into Monday, the bunk bed didn’t last and the room was rearranged to allow for the mattress to fit on the floor. As I lied in bed, that voice again began growing louder and louder. You’re so far away from home, you don’t know anyone, you don’t speak German, and you don’t have a pillow… But the excitement of my new adventure drowned out the voice of reason. My first day was done, I did it! I moved to Vienna, Austria.