(For this assignment, I decided to interview my whole apartment. Both of my room mates were key figures in my orientation and settling into this new culture, though in different ways. Both are sharing classes with me at the University of Konstanz; Anya is a fellow biology student, and Maike is a linguistics and education major. Both of them were born and raised in Germany, though in different areas from each other, and neither are locals. They have done their best to integrate me into student life; from eating lunch with me, taking me as a tag along to parties, introducing me to other German students, helping me wrangle with legalese in bank documents, to showing me local events. They also are always eager to have conversations with me over cultural or linguistic differences, even when the topic gets a bit sensitive. I believe they are best suited for this assignment because both were my initial nudge into the long process of understanding German culture, and sharing the role that I am attempting to slide into of being a “German” student.
I referred to prior conversations we have had in some of the questions posed through out this interview when relevant, but it is hopefully intelligible without that context. Questions are included intact along with a summary of their responses, with quotes from responses that were of particular interest. Both Anya and Maike showed discomfort with either video or audio recordings of our conversations, so there is a lack of media.)
Remind me, where in particular did you grow up? How would you compare living here in Konstanz, a University and border city, to your home town? What influences do you see in the city from our Swiss neighbors? What do you think is an experience or aspect that is unique to Konstanz?
I began the interview asking the same basic questions to both Maike and Anya, since we weren’t altogether initially. Maike spoke a bit about her home town, a small village outside of Heidenheim, closer to Stuttgart than Konstanz, and so quite a bit north from here. It is significantly smaller than Konstanz, so she appreciated all the things that come with moving to a larger town ie more to do in the old city, better infrastructure, better bike paths. She also mentioned the perks of the specific location of Konstanz ie the lake and the accessibility of watersports in the summer, the ease of cultural exchange with the Swiss, and the general beauty of the city and its architecture. When prompted for specific influences of the border, she mentioned the size of the supermarkets (and subsequent busy-ness) and the raised prices, both of which were common complaints I had heard from other residents before. However, she did think of two things as being unique experiences to Konstanz.
“We have a three day, uh, I think you call it a flea market, right? Yeah, a flea market in the summer nonstop for three days and it goes from Konstanz and into Switzerland without worrying about the border. Grenzenübergreifender Flöhmarkt! And in the summer, we have a huge firework[s]! All the Swiss and Germans come together around the Bodensee [Lake Constance] and watch them.” “That sounds really nice! When, specifically in summer?” End of August! You must have just missed them. That’s too bad, because there isn’t really anything else that I can think of where people come together like that?”
As language students, we often talk about variants of English and German dialects, and have discussed the local dialect, Schwäbisch [Swabian]. You grew up speaking Schwäbisch. What is the difference between Schwäbsich and Hochdeutsch [High German]? What distinguishes it from other Baden dialects?
I was promptly cut off mid flow at this question.
“Oh, whoa, you shouldn’t say that! I mean, it’s not bad per say but you’ll get people really upset or irritated or something if you say it like that!” “Say what in particular? I was under the impression that Schwäbisch was classified as a Baden dialect, but isn’t Bäddisch.”
I was in fact mistaken, and I was thinking of the Allemannic dialect group, which Maike also waved off as being a grouping that “Well, nobody really says that though. Allemannisch? Yeah, no.”
“Did a German site tell you that, or an English one?” “I looked up the linguistic relationships on an English site, to be fair.”
Maike then immediately preceded to start pulling up something on her phone while explaining why what I said wasn’t acceptable.
“You’ll really piss off anyone from like, Baden-Baden, or anyone Schwäbisch for that matter. They’re separate! I think it was 18th century? Actually I’m not sure when but you know Baden-Württemberg was originally two states right?Schwäbs comes from Württemberg, not Baden, and the area we are in currently is considered Baden. See?”
She pointed out the distinctions between each region.
“Would Anya speak either then? She grew up around Stuttgart, I remember.” Maike immediately waved this off, “no, she’s more from Hessen, so she’s closer to Hochdeutsch than anything.” “Where would you say speaks actual Hochdeutsch, if you had to pick one place?” Around Hannover, but I think that’s technically Niedersachsen.”
Do you think Schwäbisch is important to understanding German culture in the state of Baden-Württemberg? What is the historical significance of this dialect in the context of this state?
This question was answered without having to be posed in the first place, which is probably for the best as it also had an error. Nonetheless, I was treated to an impromptu history lesson over the tension in Baden-Württemberg (the unification of Baden-Württemberg is actually in living memory, as recent as 1945), and sounds(the st noise is weakened to sch, but g is stronger than in Hochdeutsch), words, and word articles (die plural for fever versus das) native to Swabian. However, notably, I wasn’t able to get a straight answer for why it so easily got people up in arms. The dialects are distinct enough, however, to have almost a culture of their own – some terms are not mutually intelligible to other German speakers even, such as Breschdlingsgsälz instead of Erdbeeremarmalde for strawberry marmalade. This was confirmed later by reading several terms to Anya who could not tell what Maike meant by some items on her list. I suppose that with all visible or easily discerned differences, there is a tension that follows as people try to figure who exactly had a better upbringing or city or word article. However, it seems delegated only to teasing and perhaps some mean-spirited rude comments.
You’ve mentioned growing up in a town close to Stuttgart. How would you compare living here in Konstanz, a University and border city, to your home town? What influences do you see in the city from our Swiss neighbors? What do you think is an experience or aspect that is unique to Konstanz?
Anya grew up in a town called Niederwalgern, which is closest to Marburg. They are more easily placed on a map by looking for Frankfurt first. As opposed to Maike, who grew up in a village, Anya was raised in another university town, albeit one without a centralized campus. She mentioned that it was cheaper to go out where she grew up, but besides that was quick to praise Konstanz.
“It’s richer here, and you can tell, lots of well restored buildings, and it’s kept clean. Beautiful weather, and the Bodensee is so close, so beautiful! It’s easy access to the lake in the summer to swim, and always in the background the Alps. It’s such a pretty city, even all of my friends who visit say so, multiple times. How beautiful, how wonderful!”
As for influences, she quoted that same things as Maike, so I won’t repeat them, except that she added a note about how you would never see an “Ausvorscheine” in Marburg and anywhere except a border town. Apparently, this is a form commonly used for Swiss citizens to be rebated their taxes at the border for their lots of German groceries, and it’s issued at registers. It occurs to me mid-conversation that Germany will never stop surprising me, even with things in plain sight. I had never thought to ask what the forms were for, before.
There have been several other exchange students who roomed with you both before I moved in, and you said you ended up showing them the ropes. Why the interest in exchange students? Do you think other Germans also place such a high value on multiculturalism? Do you think you would still interact with international students if you hadn’t lived in student accommodations?
Anya does not hesitate to answer the last question first. “Of course! If I didn’t live with them, then my friends would, or I’d meet them in class…..I’m always trying to talk to people,” she says, firmly. As for the other questions, it is hard to pin an answer down. She speaks of her family, and their activity in volunteering for international aid, their experiences travelling for as long as she can remember. Her own travels to Africa are mentioned, as is the fact that almost everyone she’s close with is either studying a language or actively studying abroad. I ask her if she knows anyone who doesn’t actively value multiculturalism, and she can’t answer. “Would you say that valuing multiculturalism is a mindset that’s always been with you? That you’ve been raised with? Or is it something you chose?” “I grew up with it, but even if I didn’t, I think you should know others, and live how they live, and go where they go, before you make judgements on them.”
What values and dissonances did they each bring to the flat?
Though I expected this question to give me trouble, it both was more revealing and more useless than I thought. When asked about the values of the other students before me, Anya was unable to bring up a conceptual answer from their time together, but mentioned two things.
“Yeanju was from South Korea, and she always insisted we try to have one meal together a week. Very good cook, always had interesting dishes. And then we would talk and talk for ages. And Cariane, from Norway? She was more reserved, but she always insisted on keeping her door open! To make the space more welcoming. We usually don’t, because you can hear everything from the kitchen, but it was nice.”
More than explaining the international students’ values, I felt this described Anya’s. These were, after all, the things she remembered after a year or so, that still managed to make her sound pleased.Hearing that, I understood why she seemed a bit hard pressed to answer some questions about wanting to understand and include others, about why she so naturally picked me up and started showing me the ropes. Anya is a genuine people person.
As a flat:
Speaking of differences, how have I differed from previous exchange students in your view of my adjustment? How have I been the same?
Maike and Anya note that I seemed to adjust the same way as their other roommates.
M: “Always questions about specific things that surprised you, like all the varieties of bread, or how to sort the trash, how to deal with formal letters….”
A: “And the same type of settling. Coming out and talking to everyone then running back and shutting yourself in your room once you are overwhelmed, then slowly being able to handle larger conversations. A slow adjustment.”
As for things I specifically did, Anya commented that I slept quite a bit more than the others, and Maike said I was more open earlier on.
A: “Carianne was the most reserved, I mean, she was from Scandinavia so not a surprise. Yeanju was shy. You were probably the most open.”
Let’s talk about America for a bit. What is your view on America as a nation? How has it changed since we’ve met? How would you say most Germans view America? Do these views impact their treatment of American tourists and students? Would you say that Americans would have a different or unique experience compared to other international travelers? Why or why not?
They initially hesitate to be too critical, but soon warm up. Anya says that before the election, things were different; they saw Americans as friendly and open, maybe a bit silly at times. Now they tended to default to thinking the citizen’s were “maybe, sometimes, stupid”, but that “Trump, now he’s a real idiot”. Maike tells me what her stereotypical image of an American girl was “a blonde, stupid girl who, I’m not sure, talks about football? It was silly! It’s changed a lot since meeting you though, I mean I always knew it wasn’t correct but it’s different than having someone settle a different image? I’m glad it was you and not someone who proved my idea, you know? Then it would have really stuck!”
Towards the treatment of tourists, they both passed on the question, citing minimal contact with American tourists. M: “I’m not even sure what they’d come here for?” A: “The Bodensee? Then leave, probably?” But when I posed the question about students, they turned it back on me, asking me if I felt any different than other international students. When I said I did sometimes, not necessarily in a bad way, but put aside, Maike only had a short comment. M: “I would think maybe they’re just scared to talk to a native English speaker? Be judged?” I think she had a point: though it is important to analyze the small things when trying to adjust to living in a new country and learn about other cultures, sometimes the answer is really as simple as it seems to be.
The previous residents of our flat did not study German specifically. Do you think fluency in German is essential to having a true experience of Germany? Why? If so, what aspects of culture do you think are only available through speaking German?
A: “Fluency? No. But some knowledge of the language. Yeanju had a rough time not knowing anything, and she never really learned.”
M: “The cinema, theather……usually there’s no English subtitles, so if you want to consume culture you need to be fluent, I think. You can get to know the city on a tourist level with guides, and then German isn’t necessary, but that’s not what you’re asking I think.”
Does being a student hinder or help a resident in getting to know this city, in your opinion? Why?
We ended up discussing more as a group this time. Student life, we agreed, is pretty similar wherever you go. However, Maike thought the flexibility of a student schedule made things easier, while Anya argued the ability to plan ahead for trips made a normal working adult life more ideal for learning a city.
What do you think it means to understand a culture? If you were to visit another country for an extended period of time (or have already), how would you go about learning about your new surroundings?
Both responded simply with learning the language and spending as much time with locals as possible. Anya was rather adamant on spending time with people, and clearly saw the people connection as vital.
While answering questions on specifics may not seem enlightening on understanding a culture as a whole and my place in said culture, I feel that by understanding the people around me and their roles, I can more easily slot into a similar spot in society. What do fellow students value? How did they grow up? How are we the same? These comparisons are vital to getting to know the people in our lives and our surroundings.