Departing from Los Angeles International Airport on January 15, 2011, I was shocked when the chilly, 37-degree weather hit my California-tanned skin at the Hamburg airport. My 13-hour flight was delayed, of course, making the 3 other Americans and our coach wait an hour for my arrival. We finally met and greeted each other and headed to the parking lot. After loading the six 50-pound suitcases into the van, we started on our new adventure to Cloppenburg – a town of 27,000 people by Bremen in northern Germany.
We had no training the next day, so we explored the center of town, which was directly across the street of the hotel. I remember so vividly walking outside with almost every piece of clothing I had in my suitcase through the cobblestone streets for the first time in my life. I had made it to Europe!
It was foggy and bone-chilling cold, but nobody else except us seemed to mind the freezing temperatures. I felt as though I was in a make believe world because the people dressed so different, the buildings looked like gingerbread houses in a children’s fable and I heard absolutely no English.
We decided to get a very traditional Italian pizza on our first night out. Forget about hosts greeting and leading you to a seat unless you are in a restaurant with meals over 50 Euro. A couple of us ordered a “pepperoni” pizza and received a cheese pizza with green chili peppers. We were all pondering why the waitress gave us some spicy peppers instead of the juicy salami slices we were craving. It turns out, you need to order a “salami” pizza in Germany to receive the American version of pepperoni. We decided to stick to the bakery for the next few days in order to minimize confusion.
Going to the local Bäckerei (bakery) was a treat for us because we were not used to fresh baked goods…everyday…all day…in all kinds of flavors…all for us! There was dried cake with fruit filling, danishes with sweet glazes and chocolate eclairs (my favorite) with custard centers. Surprisingly, the desserts contained far less sugar content than anything I have eaten in the U.S. This made eating at bakeries a little dangerous, but it was worth it!
I usually do not regret anything about eating desserts or chocolate, however, I do think about one thing whenever Cloppenburg comes to mind. There was a Frerker Bakery by our hotel that I used to go to sometimes before training to get a Berliner for an extra sugar kick. I feel sad knowing that I never got to know the lady who worked at the bakery. I wanted to know her story and her background, but I never asked. The last day before I left home, I went to buy a few chocolates for my family and told her I was leaving and not sure if I was coming back to Cloppenburg. Out of the goodness of her heart, she gave me an extra bag of truffle chocolates and, for some reason, she started tearing up. Not two seconds later after I saw her tears did I start crying. It was a beautiful moment and I never thought I could bond with a total stranger in a town of 27,000 people halfway across the world over chocolates. To the sweet woman at the bakery, thank you for your kindness! I still remember you.
Exploring the city of Cloppenburg did not take very long, but had very charming places. There was a beautiful canal that floated through the city behind the main buildings in the center of town. The actual stores were quite normal and monotonous with the exception of a few boutiques. I thought our hotel was the most charming and had the best food in town, but there were other good hotels to stay at, such as the Park Hotel and the Muensterlaender Hof Hotel (also great food). The best shop (as of 2012) was a store on the Altes Stadttor that had G-Star and Diesel clothing. My friends, and later my boyfriend, and I used to go to a sandwich place called Aladin. The husband and wife duo were the cutest! I always ordered the open-faced turkey sandwich with sweet and sour sauce to fill me up! The Time Partner Arena soccer stadium was, of course, the most sacred place. Many games were played and lessons were learned on that field.
On the other hand, there were several cultural differences that I had to learn the hard way. Inappropriate things were said to employees, but nobody said anything. I noticed the first few months of working there that it was a supportive, close-knit family environment, so perhaps everyone was used to everyone’s behavior.
The first encounter I had with my future ex-boss was at a casual birthday party a few months before we started working at the center. A few of our teammates came up to greet and thank my him for having us. His significant other was standing not more than 20 feet away when my teammates gave him a hug and he followed up by groping and tugging on the girl’s behind. Of course, American women show emotions more externally and would immediately react, but the party went on as usual and not a word was said.
Once work began, the level of appropriateness was upped a notch. I am a big tea drinker because of its many positive affects it has on the body, mind and spirit, and would always get a cup in the morning before work started. For the first few months of work, I would dread making a cup of tea – my most beloved time of the day.
He would come up to me and say, “du bist eine richtige Zicke,” or “bist du eine Ziege?” In German, this means, “You are really a bitch” and “Are you a sheep?” Confused? For weeks I was too, but not after learning that Germans call people “Ziege” (tsee-ga) instead of “Zicke” (tsick-a) sometimes to make fun of them because the 2 words are pronounced the same.
Naturally, I was appalled that my boss could even think about joking around about something like that. Why would he say something so untrue? (unless he meant ”bitch” as in Babe In Total Control of Herself – corny, but had to throw it in there). I was sometimes quiet, but always hard-working and this day, he mistook my kindness for weakness.
The saying “big fish in a small pond” popped in my mind every time we talked. I know the social and working norms between large and small cities was vastly different and knew I was in for a culture shock (mostly of beer and schnitzel). However, I had no idea I had to deal with a less than satisfactory levels of respect at work as well.
Communication and social problems alleviated a bit not only from some coworkers, but also townspeople and teammates once we started learning German. People respected us for trying to pronounce “danke schön” (thank you) or “bitte schön” (your welcome), and they praised us for trying to form sentences. Sometimes the occasional accent mistakes did happen.
One time, my American teammate wanted a scoop of Snickers ice cream at Venezia Ice Cream Store (it seemed like every ice cream place was called Venezia Eis when we first arrived). We literally waited at the ordering counter for 2 minutes and after my friend said “Snickers” about 12 times. Finally, the young woman look enlightened and realized what flavor she wanted and pronounced it “Sneak-kairs.” I was half a laugh away from peeing in my pants. It was then and is still crazy to me how young people our age mispronounce English words with all of the social media and marketing surrounding everything we do.
In California, you can usually order any dish with extra goodies or without ingredients you do not like. It is completely opposite here. I remember our first day at the bakery, I ordered a roll sliced in half with lettuce, cucumber and turkey on both sides. The ladies always insisted they could not fulfill my order even though they made the rolls fresh to order. I was so frustrated that people did not speak English (and that people messed with us in German), I eventually learned the language well enough to order food. Then, I had no more ”pepperoni” or bakery incidents.
The season eventually started and I could focus on soccer for most of the time. Most of the girls were super sweet, tried to speak English with us and invited us to different places. We also had teammates from a few different countries, which was great! Our Polish girlfriends made the best Perogies I have ever had in my life! Many thanks and greetings to Marta, Aga, Domi and Daga! We were pretty close with the men’s team as well, which is also how I met my boyfriend. There were players from Germany, Ghana, Kazakhstan and Holland, and they were all very nice and incredibly funny to hang around, party and speak with.
We met many wonderful people through soccer, including a couple of reporters, who befriended, helped, and showed us around the city. Usually reporters working with foreigners coming to a small town would not be friendly, but these 2 guys were funny, sweet and inviting. There were also 3 beautiful souls in particular that helped us 3 Americans. One had a love for everything foreign, could talk for hours with us about anything and showed us how to be a strong woman in this German culture. Another was a fellow men’s team player, who had studied in California. He took us under his wing since the first day we arrived. He was so helpful with everything, explained the culture to us, how social outings worked and was a great friend to all of us. The last was the sweetest sports therapist, whom, to this day, I stay in regular contact with. I could not have imagined my life in Cloppenburg without them and they will all remain very close to my heart.
Our days consisted of weight training at 9:30am (a few of us went alone twice a week) and soccer training at night because most of the girls were students or worked. Since the 2nd Division in Germany is divided into northern and southern conferences, we left for away games every other Sunday between 8:00am and 9:00am. If we played at home, we met around 12:00pm for a 2:00pm game. Sometimes, we had weekends with no games and could explore Amsterdam, Bremen, Hamburg or Oldenburg.
I would be lying if I said we never had fun and let loose a bit. Part of those fun experiences were spent at the local club – Bel-Air. Having an affiliation as the Fresh Prince was not its only highlight. They actually played hip hop, R&B and reggaeton music all night long! It is extremely difficult to find clubs and DJs in Germany who will play something else other than house, EDM or techno.
Great people, and even more amazing music! My girlfriends and I spent many hours dancing the night away into the morning, just in time for the bakery to open! Almost every time we went, we ran into about the entire city. There was a mix of people and I could have sworn mafia bosses were present a few times, but I am not making any conclusions.
I have so many memories traveling with the girls that I will remember forever! A ton of players abroad have had bad experiences because of their roommates or teammates, but I am so thankful (also at USV Jena) to have great friends long after my career is over. We trained, laughed, cooked, traveled, grew and explored together, and all the while learned about ourselves and one another.
Soccer has literally taken me to 6 countries and 3 continents around the world. I have learned the hearts of so many beautiful people and the treasure of countless cultures. I could not imagine my life without exposure to diversity and am incredibly thankful I was able to do something I love while exploring the world.
Do you have experiences in a foreign culture and had to overcome obstacles? What were some cultural differences that you needed to adjust to? Did you love your experience abroad?