Monday, July 20, 2009

In which I am the idiot American abroad

The plan for Germany, Day 1, was to spend the morning in the library, then go buy groceries, then come back to the room and do reading that can be done without a library. All began quite well - got to the library just after it opened, post-coffee and pastry, ready to get to work. I'd confirmed ahead of time that a) the library was open to me, and b) that it had books I need, and so headed confidently to the... where? And the online catalog, in German or English, mystified me. Yes, books were available, but in which library? And what happened to all those friendly DS135Fs and PQ2000s? After finding the right area and paying the 2-euro (!) mandatory locker fee (so much for bringing the laptop), I found a whole lot of stacks arranged in no way thematically - by year, I was told - and felt for the first time this summer like ye olde American abroad, complaining about how wrong things are done in every other country. A frustrating library experience will do that. But eventually, after extensive research, I found Zola's complete works - in French this time, having already found some German Zola I wouldn't much know what to do with.

This occupied me until I was hungry for lunch, then another hour after that, since I realized I should make the most of the locker while I had it. Finding a grocery store was painless enough - I'd passed one along the way - and I felt all set from this, as I had a tote bag in my backpack for the occasion. But! I did not have enough cash on me for the groceries, and they only take "German" cards. A trip to a nearby ATM sorted this out, and I was on my way.

But on my way where? I'd found the library easily enough, but finding my way back was made more difficult by the fact that the only map I had was in Firefox, I did not have wireless access at the library, and so, when my computer picked that window of time in which to crash, I was, I realized, map-less. But I'd bought the groceries figuring I knew my way. Which I did, almost - I proceeded for about two and a half hours to walk in circles around the house I was looking for. Unlike the Netherlands, where people will speak English unprompted, even to those with slightly different Dutch-language accents, here it's probably best to know the language of the land. Also useful to know: the name of the street where you're staying. I remembered some letters, some sounds... and that the street is a tiny one our cab driver had never heard of. I tried to ask one woman for directions, but between her not speaking English (or not wishing to speak it with strange people on the street) and my not quite knowing what to ask, the wandering continued. The suburban-type streets looked to my untrained eye each one just like the next. Things that had seemed like landmarks - some bee-attracting flowers, a particular Ausgang sign - were, of course, on every street.

Long, very long story short, I found a bank or similar and went in and must have seemed pathetic, with all these groceries and no clue. A man came in and joined the discussion - where was I, and where was I trying to get? My botched attempts at saying what I remembered the street name to be led the man to point on a map to a street in a far-off suburb. I tried to explain that I had the info in my email, and that if I could get online we could solve this instantly, but I could see that this was not going to be an option. Luckily, although I have apparently no sense of direction while on foot, looking at the map I found the (unlabeled) street in no time. The man, who knew the area well, announced what it was. I'd totally misremembered - once he said it, I saw on just how many syllables I'd gone wrong. And needless to say, I was just down the block from where I needed to be, and had past the very street shortly before, without noticing it.

I'm now back and ready to do round 2 of the grocery shopping (round one effectively being my somewhat delayed lunch), this time at a store closer to the house, and with the map at the ready. Then, back to the books!

1 comment:

Matt said...

I guess it does make sense that they'd not use the library on congress catalog system in other countries, but I'd not thought about it too much. (Most of the libraries I went to in Russia, the only place abroad I've borrowed books from a library, one could not get the book one's self, but had to write down the title and author and give it to someone who would go get it for you. It sounds nice at first but is sort of a pain in practice.)