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.
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.