I went from summer in the Kalahari desert to winter in Europe in one 24 hour period. This is a short story about culture and temperature shock.
How did I end up on the other side of the world in two such extremes? This story had started four and half months earlier, in July, when I left my home in the United States and started my semester abroad in Gaborone, Botswana. Botswana is a peaceful country situated in Southern Africa, and much of it is dominated by the Kalahari desert. This country is famous for two main things: the Okavango Delta, and diamonds. It was about as far from my home as I could think of.
I studied communications and volunteered at a local game preserve called Mokolodi. I travelled around Southern Africa with other exchange students; I saw the beauty Africa had to offer, ate food I wouldn’t have touched back home (goat meat? Ox tails? Impala?), and I even got a tattoo just for good measure. At the end of it all I boarded a plane from Gaborone, to Düsseldorf (with a stop in Johannesburg and Frankfurt between).
Although I love to travel, and although being “different” is something I am used to, I will admit that constantly sticking out like a sore thumb began to wear on me. With my fair skin that burned easily, red checks, freckles, and boyish haircut, not to mention my visible tattoos and American accent, there was no way for me to blend it. Some of the attention was friendly and curious, but a lot of it was what I imagined zoo animals receive. I had other students try to surreptitiously take photos of me, among other things. Additionally, my closest friend was unusually tall for a woman, was Ghanaian and not a native Motswana, and had white yearn in her dreadlocks. This is to say that the pair of us attracted more notice than some of the other foreign students. I began to look forward more and more to arriving in Germany. This would be my third trip the country, and my knowledge of the language covers the basics. I feel quite at home in the culture there having grown up in a very German household. The plan was to meet up with my Dad, who had flown in from Ireland, and meet him at a train station in a different part of the city. I had started my journey at dawn in a dusty city in Southern Africa, and now it was nightfall in Germany. The plane ride in between had given me plenty of time to think about how much I was looking forward to being on home-away-from-home turf.
Bundled into my new blue peacoat (thanks for bring it all the way to Africa for me, Mom!) I stepped out of the airport onto the train platform. I breathed in the cool crisp December air. It was night and the platform was cheerfully illuminated. I felt an internal shift as my body came to some sort of a settling point. I think in some way, some part of me that I wasn’t even aware of had relaxed for the first time since July. I had loved Botswana, but I also loved that I could find my way to a ticket booth and purchase a train ticket with ease. I loved that the train platform felt friendly and familiar. I loved my new jacket. I love the anticipation of adventure in another country.
I sat down on a bench to wait for my train. With a thrill of delight I realized that I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that not only would my train actually arrive but that it would arrive on time. One thing about Bots- the country and everything in it runs on it’s own time. I had longed for German precision and now I was in it’s beating heart: the railway system. A young woman approached me and asked me something in rapid German. I didn’t follow it, so I shook my head and said, “I’m sorry”. She blinked in surprise, and then replied in English,
“Oh, no problem!”
Being mistaken for a German citizen was just about the most exciting thing that could have happened. I smiled to myself and settled into my jacket against the chill air. I was looking forward to reuniting with my Dad and celebrating with good German beer. Sometimes it is just nice to fit in again.