October 17, 2007

Leavin' on a Jet Plane - Part Three: Orientation

Jet lag was a term I had heard of but had never experienced until I arrived at that scouting lodge in Austria. We were shown into big rooms full of single twin beds and bunkbeds, where we all fell into an exhausted sleep almost immediately.

I discovered cultural differences the next morning while getting ready that until then I had been ignorant of. Standing at the sink next to a girl from France, I reached for the cold faucet and turned it on at the exact same time she turned on the hot. We had each also simultaneously lowered our toothbrushes under the water to get the toothpaste wet before brushing. We looked at each other in surprise, and she spoke first. “You use cold water when you brush your teeth?!” I replied, “You use hot?!” Interesting. I let her go first. She shook her head and laughed about using cold water with another French girl.

When it was my turn, I got in the shower and proceeded to do my usual routine: wash my hair with shampoo; wash my face with face wash; put conditioner in my hair and leave it in while washing the rest of my body with soap; rinse conditioner out; turn off water. It wasn’t until I was standing at the mirror drying my hair and applying my makeup that I noticed something strange. The girls from Europe and Sweden would get in the shower and step out again within one minute! I thought my eyes deceived me the first time I noticed this, but every last one of the non-Americans did so. Did they wash themselves at all?? I discovered later that day why ~ utilities in Europe (the cost to heat water) were over four times the cost of the same thing in the United States. Another interesting thing learned.

We had five days of orientation at this lodge before our host families were due to pick us up. There were about five Austrian volunteers who were in their early twenties. Each had been exchange students previously, so they understood what we were going through. We would break into smaller groups between meals and have lessons (in English) on Austrian culture while sitting out in the mowed field surrounded by lush trees and greenery. Over half of us were American, and the European exchange students spoke English as well as we did.

We were taught basic German words we would need to know. Philip, the handsomest of the volunteers, taught us how dialects differ in various areas of Austria. For instance, when you go to an outdoor sausage vendor and ask for a hot dog, in Viennese slang one would say (and I spell this phonetically), “Ee voo ah hahssa” ~ he made us say this until we got it right. It meant “I want a hot dog” (although this is a much higher quality type sausage than the American version of a hot dog). High German would be “Ich möchte eine Heisse.”

We were instructed that during meals, proper etiquette in Austria is to hold your fork in your left hand and your knife in your right. You cut your food with your knife, and rather than set your knife down and transfer your fork from your left hand to your right hand before taking a bite, as is customary in American culture, you keep your knife in your right hand and you eat with your left hand. If you have ever eaten next to someone who does the opposite of you so your elbows clash, you will know why they taught us this vital piece of information. We practiced this at every single meal. It was one of the most important lessons, because anything else would be considered very rude behavior.

During my orientation days, I also noticed one thing. I was very aware of how loud and obnoxious the majority of the American exchange students were. While outgoing, I was a lot more reserved and observant during those days. I was drawn to two Swedish girls, a French girl, and a Danish girl. We got along really well, and we would spend free time together, talking about our host families, sharing pictures, poring over maps to see how far away we’d live from each other. We knew we’d be coming back to the scout lodge about once every three months, so that was something to look forward to. We shared our fears that we would end up in a family we didn’t get along with.

On our final day, there was a different feeling as we all ate breakfast. This was it! The day our families were to come and take us home. We were all less talkative and trying to not look apprehensive, when in reality we were all nervous as hell. What if we never learned the language well enough to communicate? What if the language didn't suddenly click with us at around the three month mark like the volunteers assured us would happen? What if they didn’t like us? What if we didn’t get along? The length of a year never seemed so long before. After breakfast, we all packed our suitcases and dragged them outside in the morning sunshine to wait for our families to collect us. I sat with the Swedish girls and suddenly one of them sat straight up and smiled, and we could see that she recognized her host dad from his photos as he walked across the clearing with a smile on his face for her. She gave us a quick smile before heading off into the unknown. The same happened with my other friend a few moments later.

Suddenly a small, red car pulled up and three people got out. It was my host mom, her oldest son (age 20), and youngest daughter (age 12). I stood up, my heart beating out of my chest, and they walked toward me. With tentative smiles on all our faces, we shook hands and carried my things to their car. My journey had officially begun.


KingM said...

Sounds fantastic. One of my big regrets in life is that I didn't do something like this when I was young.

mark said...

Great writing SML. Sounds like an adventure of a lifetime.

hm-uk said...

Very excellent adventure, SML. When I was 14/15 my family hosted an exchange student from Germany. I can only imagine he must have felt similarly about meeting us for the first time as you did with your host family. I met up with our exchange student some years later, in Italy where he was working, and we had a great time reconnecting. Please post the next installment of this story soon, I'm really looking forward to reading what happens next.

MattMan said...

Very gripping story. I agree with hm-uk, keep 'em comin! Like kingm, I too wish I had had such an experience.

Sister Mary Lisa said...

Thanks for the compliments, guys. I really appreciate it. I'll try to continue the story a bit sooner this time...

Bishop Rick said...

Well, sitting here in the heart of Germanicland (Switzerland) I can say this is a nice place. Everything is so close together. I had a free day on the business trip and jumped in a rental car with a co-worker. In one day we drove around Lake Constance and in doing so visited Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein. How cool is that? Funny thing is that SML's blog comments page is in German. The Comment box says: Hinterlassen Sie Ihren Kommentar

Not sure what that means, but I think someone named Irene can see Lassie hither and is commenting about it.

Crap, now I don't know which button is Send.

Veroffentlichen (orange) or
Vorschau (blue)

I'm going with orange.

Sister Mary Lisa said...

BR ~

Eat a Leberkaes Semmel while you're there for me. Mmmmm, I miss those damn things.


Taiko Tari said...

Very fantastic! Makes reflect back to my own exchange program experience here in Japan!

See you in a few weeks!

aka madre said...

I'm loving hearing this.


CV Rick said...

I like the details of what you had to learn in order to be polite, well-mannered and respectful . . . eating correctly is one part of that. Mostly, in my experience, Americans are big, dumb louts when in Europe. In fact, Americans are big, dumb louts in America, they just don't know it.

Well done.

wry catcher said...

CV Rick - I agree with you that Americans are big dumb louts; the thing is, IMO, so is everyone else. Americans just have the most publicised version of loutness, and as the 800-lb gorilla, more attention paid to their particular strain of loutity.

Bishop Rick, I'm gutted that you're in Swizzy and I didn't get a chance to meet you. :-( No one is EVER here.

Love the story, SML. :-)

Bishop Rick said...


SML told me to get in touch with you but I didn't want to be presumptuous. Woulda loved to have met you. Alas, its 23:25 and I'm flying back to the states in the morning.

Next time I promise.

Bishop Rick said...

BTW, how to you get Send out of very often licking? Isn't that how you pronounce veroffentlichen

Equality said...

"I was drawn to two Swedish girls, a French girl, and a Danish girl. We got along really well, and we would spend free time together,..."

Damn. Foiled again. I thought this story was going in a different direction. ;-)

Cele said...

My mother raised us to not be American Tourist, to be respectful, and learn the local customs. When I went to live in Germany I instantly saw what she meant, and was glad for her admonishments and lessons.

Living in a tourist town I have seen that every culture tourist have their own vulgarities but for the most part they try ever so hard to be good representives of their country.

I want to know how you all fit into that little car?

montchan (MJ Bliss) said...

can you just fast forward to the juicy bits? Like what you did with that 20 year old son, and stuff?


see you soon!

Sister Mary Lisa said...

Tari, I'd like to hear about your exchange adventures too! Maybe in Paris we can discuss!

Mom, glad you're enjoying it. I wish I'd been good at communicating back then, so you'd know what it was like. Better late than never, huh?

CV Rick, only SOME Americans are big, dumb louts in foreign countries. Those that aren't blend in. Like I tried to do.

Wry, glad you're enjoying the story. Heady praise for this chick, let me tell ya.

BR, you crack me up. And next time you go to der Schweiz and don't contact Wry, she and I will team up and kick your ass. Just sayin'.

Equality, funny! You wish! I know I could've embellished to make this story more to your liking, but it's not a fiction piece. I'll let you know next time I'm doing a fictional rendering of actual events again.

Cele, host mom and brother in front seats, host sis and me in back. I'll write that into the next installment.

Montchan, patience! It's all good.

Melliferous Pants said...

I can't wait to hear more! I love your writing style SML.

Sister Mary Lisa said...

Pants, I thank you, and return the compliment. I love your writing style more.

An Enlightened Fairy said...

This is wonderful! I wish I would have had the chance to do this as a teen. My strict parents never would have let me though. Who knows what those sex crazed Europeons would have exposed me to? ;) (Their thoughts, not mine)
Anyway, I look forward to reading more. Excellent post!

MsWeb said...

great story.. really enjoyed reading all your posts SML.. :-)

J Blint
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