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Goethe Intern
A North Frisian in Washington

Typical American Diner
©Lara Hansen

In this new series, Lara Hansen, our communications intern, tells us about her arrival in the states and her first impression of Washington, DC. 

By Lara Hansen

When I landed at the airport in Washington DC in early February, my arrival could hardly have been more clichéd. I had barely stepped off the plane and I was already greeted by a dozen American flags and patriotic music–the kind heard at the end of any US blockbuster starring Adam Sandler. After an unbelievably long wait, I finally continued on my journey to Virginia to meet my host Nancy, a retiree, who immediately whisked me off to a typical American diner.

My first day in the States was by no means an ordinary Sunday–it was the evening of the Super Bowl, the most popular sporting event of the year. Keith, a football fan and US veteran, was already waiting for us at the diner and explained the rules to me with an infectious enthusiasm. We ordered barbecue chicken wings, nachos with cheese, and milkshakes–there was no shortage of sugar. The waitress kept on refilling my drink until I finally let her know, almost in panic, that I had only ordered one soda. Visibly confused, she turned away from me. Finally, Nancy and Keith explained that free refills are the norm in the US, a practice I was immediately happy to embrace. The whole diner cheered on their teams during the game, though Keith’s team lost in the end. After such a long day of traveling, I literally collapsed into bed. I didn’t have much time to rest, though.

The next morning I was headed to Washington DC for the very first time to begin my new job at the Goethe-Institut where I will be spending the next three months. The moment my bus crossed the border into Washington, the pace of life changed noticeably. While an old lady had greeted the bus driver by name in my neighborhood in Alexandria, cars and taxis in downtown Washington were competing to see who could honk their horn the loudest. Standing on the left-hand side of the escalator down to the subway? Suicidal! The rule is to walk on the left and stand on the right–though the right-hand side tends to be empty.

All cafés assume you want everything to go–if you actually want to eat or drink in, you need to say so, though you’ll still be served your drink in a cardboard cup. That would be unthinkable in Germany, especially in North Frisia. Our coffee and cake culture tends to be associated with a cozy afternoon with friends and family more than with a caffeine fix. And then there is all the plastic waste. That said, the Golden Triangle–as the downtown district is immodestly known–is impeccably clean. While women in swanky coats and men in expensive suits enter the World Bank building, the homeless play a blend of reggae and hip hop on the street that suggests Caribbean temperatures, despite the windy and frosty weather that almost made me feel at home on my first day.

As it turns out, I found myself transitioning from a hectic American city to an almost utopian German world. A high-rise building in the heart of Washington is home to the Goethe-Institut where over half of the staff come from Germany and even the Americans working there speak excellent German. By contrast, I speak a lot more English at my university in Berlin where I am pursuing an undergraduate degree in North American studies. Those who are not actually from Germany themselves have German ancestors or a German partner or have spent a year in Germany during their adolescence–one way or another, everyone seems to have ties with Germany. Nonetheless, the work environment at the Goethe-Institut has more of an American feeling, with a flat organizational structure and ample meetings.

As an intern in the Information Services department, my responsibilities relate to the local institute’s social media presence, its digital content, and editing images. All in the interest of fostering German-American exchange, which goes without saying. Because the web pages are in English, I also have to do some translating, which can be confusing at times. For instance, I have wished the bus driver “Guten Abend” several times, but tend to greet German colleagues with “How are you?” and other anglicisms. Luckily, however, all the American flags–not to mention the White House–serve as reminders of which country I’m currently in. Americans are well-known for their pronounced patriotism, after all, even if this has changed somewhat since the last presidential election. It is an exciting–albeit nerve-wracking–time to be in the USA, and I will report.