Translation Tables or Common Ground

One of the struggles anyone will have in moving to a different country will be learning the culture and/or the language.  In our case, learning both is something very hard to do.  I spent a few hours yesterday talking with an American who is moving here next year, and I bet he thinks I’m some type of language fanatic.  The one thing I said over and over was that he would need to guard his first year here JUST to get a basic handle on the language.  The other element we spoke about was the cultural differences between USAmerica and Germany.  Although a very western, post-modern culture, these two countries are VERY different.  At some point, I’ll blog solely about the differences.  Last weekend I was speaking with 3 men who live in Stuttgart, and we were speaking about American expressions like, “That was so good, it’ll make you slap yo’ mama!”  It just doesn’t translate.  When we spoke about Texas, the idea of a “Good ol’ Boy” came up.  I thought I’d done a great job of explaining this one when one of them asked, “So, is Arnold Schwartzenager a ‘good ol’ boy?'”  My saving grace is that the conference presenter used a clip from “Second Hand Lions” where Garth, Hub, & Walter realize the salesman sold them all the same seed, and that they’d be eating corn for the next year.  I was able to lean over to my friend and point to these two old men in overalls eating corn-on-the-cobb that they grew on their farm, and said, “Those are good ol’ boys!”

The next day I received an email from a very close and very wise friend.  He always seems to have the right words at the right time, and was speaking into my frustration getting the Harley road-ready.  And he drove home the point that where my American culture and German language may fail me, the Harley is a “point of translation.”  I’ve been chewing on that, and the implications for life overseas in general.  There is a great temptation to always be transfixed on the differences, and to see the cultural gap as unbridgeable.  But, I think that’s going about things all wrong.  The question should be, “Where are there commonalities that will bridge that gap, and make language and culture a minimal difference (or at least a smaller difference?”  Motorcycles, sports, family, kids, eating, art, the list is endless.  Caryn has been singing in a community choir for the last month.  It’s a group of mostly senior adults who don’t know a lot of English, but they love music and she loves music.  So, they come together in the medium of their interests and bridge the cultural and language gaps with music.

We often quote Paul saying, “I’ve become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor. 9:22)  I know I’ve often used this verse to talk about being places the traditional church hasn’t been, but it’s much bigger than that.  And, even though Paul was a Roman citizen and a Jew among Jews, what does he really mean?  This morning, I’m chewing on the idea that he didn’t let things keep him from his appointed task.  He didn’t balk at cultural or language differences.  Instead, he found the commonalities and plowed ahead.  

Today was the first time I’ve ridden my motorcycle out to have coffee.  It wasn’t just a “ride through the country so the battery doesn’t die” ride.  It wasn’t a ride to the shop because there was a problem, or a ride home from the shop only to be parked.  I rode into town, found a parking place, and was unpacking my stuff when a German man walks up, looks over the motorcycle, looks at me, and, with a smile, says, “Wunderbar!”  Then, he turns and walks off.  For just a moment we connected.  As he walked off, I said, “Danke!” hoping he’d turn around, but he didn’t.  But I guarantee that, had you been standing there with NO knowledge of the German language, you’d have understood, too.  The gap was bridged, and, even for a short moment, we connected using an understood medium, or “translation table,” as my friend called it.

New concept?  Not at all.  For thousands of years, God sought to make Himself understood to humanity.  Although His language was clearly understood, our sin-nature clouded our understanding; a disconnect of cultures perhaps?  But, at just the right time, in just the right way, God made His perfect revelation of Himself in Jesus so that we could say, “Wunderbar!” and connect with the divine. (Gal. 4:4-5)

Instead of living your day today disconnected or discontent, feeling alone or misunderstood, why not follow the model of Christ, the model of Paul, and  strive to bridge some gaps today through commonalities.  You’d be good at it, I promise, if you’d just get out there and give it a try.  There is a world of very diverse people all around you that would benefit greatly from your presence.  Find a commonality and connect with them!

Germany so far…

We’ve just completed week 3 of living abroad, so I thought I’d blog a little about similarities and differences in life here compared to life stateside.

There have been many differences, but the most striking so far has been the weather. I think we’ve had one day where the temperature got close to 80F/27C. And it has rained almost every day since we arrived. As I sit in our living room writing this, it’s Sunday morning, raining (since Friday), and is 52F/12C. This may be our high temp for the day! And because of our northern latitude (same as Edmonton, Alberta), it’s light from 05.00 (5a) until 22.00 (10p). It will be like this for a short part of the year, then make the shift to being dark from about 17.00 (5p) until 09.00 (9a), giving us about 8 hours of sunlight.

We have a car, and are allowed to drive for up to 6 months with our Texas license, meaning we’ve been able to drive since the day we got here. It’s not too different than driving in Texas, and we’ve only been honked at a few times for mistakes we’ve made (like right on red…only exists where specifically indicated by signage). The speed limit is in Km/H (kilometers per hour) instead of MPH. When you are driving through town doing 50Km/H you’re really doing about 35 MPH (multiply by .6 to get to the standard value). And, although we’ve driven on the Autobahn several times, we haven’t hit any of the no speed limit spots. That will happen in next week when we drive to Slovenia and Austria! Yeah, I’m pumped and Caryn is terrified. I may need some homeopathic tranquilizer recipes from you!

The primary form of transportation where we live is still the car, although bikes are probably a close second. Many people walk or bike where they need to go since almost everything is within walking distance. But, we live in the suburbs. In the inner city of Hamburg, the transit system is the predominant form of travel. The trains, buses, and harbor ferry are amazingly efficient and easily accessible. We’ve utilized these forms of travel a few times since arriving. We will use them MUCH more when Caryn and I start school in August.

There are some food options that are very German, as well as Turkish. Our favorite ethnic food so far has been the Döner. It’s a shaved meat, either chicken or beef at the stand we go to, stuffed into a grilled flat bread and topped with lettuce and sauces. Of course, Cayla orders chicken nuggets there! I’ve had some schnitzel, which was delightful! Imagine a breaded, thin-cut pork chop. Mmmm!

Starbucks has some of the traditional offerings, too, but not the drinks we have liked so we’re trying new drinks. But we’ve found a local coffee shop called Sorrano’s that we really enjoy. The owner, a man named Tarak, has been so friendly. He speaks English very well, but has told me he will only let me get by with English for a few weeks. He will gradually only do German with me. It’s a great thing that I can order all of our drinks in German already.

There are Ice-cream stands everywhere! And the kids have found their favorite flavors. Here, ice cream is called Eis (say it like “ice” but more of a “z” sound for the “c” rather than an “s” sound).

There is also a bakery that is within walking distance of our house. The kaffee (coffee) is alright, but the pastries are amazing! We were told about a pastry that is a regional pastry called fronzbrochen. It’s like a croissant/cinnamon roll. Cayla loves it and wants to stop for one every day when we leave our neighborhood!

Contrary to what you hear about Germans, our experience has found them to be friendly and accommodating. Two of our four neighbors popped-in with house-warming gifts (potted plants). We’ve delivered thank you gifts to them (Caryn’s famous chocolate covered/white-chocolate swirled strawberries). Many of the people we’ve encountered have spoken English. The ones that didn’t were very patient and helpful. When we’ve ended up in a language pinch, we’ve resorted to motions and sounds in a way that is probably VERY entertaining to the people around us.

You may have heard people mention the orderly nature of Germans, and we’ve found that to be pretty accurate. There are certain lanes for certain speeds. There are certain procedures that no one would ever violate. Now, there are some people, just as there are everywhere, that put their needs above others and buck the system. But they are not the norm.

Germans enjoy conversation and relationships. It’s the norm for a wait-staff person in a restaurant to assume you’ll use your table for more than an hour. They don’t get antsy and try to move you along. It’s part of a good meal to have good conversation. And when you visit their home they expect you to come in, sit down, and stay a while. We have really enjoyed the people we have met so far.

I could go on an on about the banking system, media, recycling expectations, holiday traditions, etc. But, I’ll sum it up by saying that we are really enjoying our time here. The people are great. The food is great. The weather is generally pleasant. Thanks for your prayers in this transitional time for us!