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50 Latitudes (USA) Feature

The 50 Latitudes Feature will showcase Latitudes from a resident of each US state in their own words to illustrate that despite age, sex, location, or occupation, every living being on the planet has a favorite Latitude.  A person's favorite Latitude is not restricted to their home state.

Entries in Pennsylvania (1)

Tuesday
Mar292011

Pennsylvania

When I graduated college in 1996 I headed off to Graz, Austria for what turned into a two year stint as an English teaching assistant.  Those two years had a significant impact on my life.  For starters, it laid the foundation for my career as a professor of Germanic Linguistics. But perhaps more importantly, during those two years I met many people who even now, 15 years later, I still count as close friends.

It is these friendships and several of my more memorable experiences while living in Austria that I often turn to when life’s pressures begin to wear me down. It’s funny, when people discover that I lived in Austria for two years, once they’ve gotten past the standard one-liners about whether the hills really are alive with the Sound of Music, they always ask me what my favorite thing is in Austria.

My answer is inevitably “the people I met there.”

For example, my second fall in Graz a group of string players from my orchestra travelled to the coast of Slovenia for an intensive week of chamber music.  So here I was, the lone American, amongst a bunch of Austrians (with a couple of Germans thrown in for good measure).  We spent all day practicing—music to my ears.  But the best part of each day was after finally packing up our instruments for the night, we’d head out to one of the local seafood restaurants.

It was early September, so even at night the weather was still warm.  We would sit outside with the waves of the Adriatic Sea crashing against the shore and the smell of salt in the air. We’d all order a beer, and after a long day of playing music, oh did that beer taste good! Then came the food… 

We’d order fresh seafood platters.  And when I say fresh, I mean fresh.  The fish and calamari I ate each night had probably been swimming in the ocean less than six hours before it ended up on my plate.  However, beyond the food and drink what I remember are the conversations.

It was on this trip that I started to feel like I was one of the gang.  I began to understand some of the inside jokes; I started to tell my own jokes and people actually laughed.  The best part?  These jokes, as with the rest of the conversations, all took place in German.  I realized that not only had I made friends in a foreign country, I had done so while speaking in a foreign language.

This feeling of accomplishment, that I had managed to become an integral member of a community of Austrians, and that I was no longer “the American”, but just “Carrie”, struck me even more when, seven months later, I toured with the same orchestra to The Netherlands.

One day we were between rehearsals and had wandered around Utrecht checking out the sites.  It was March, so it was cold and rainy outside.  We were all in desperate need of coffee to warm up and ended up at Le Café Journal.  We sat there for several hours, writing postcards, drinking our coffee—strong, Dutch coffee—and chatting about whatever.  At some point I looked around me and realized, all of these people are speaking German.  Many of them are speaking in their local home town dialects, with accents so strong that less than two years earlier I could barely understand a word they said.  And now I could understand every word.

How cool is that?!

These are just two of many events from my time in Austria—events ranging from the extraordinary to the downright ordinary— that I can pull from my memories to remind me of how great those two years were.  They also highlight why I see Austria not just as a geographical location on a map, but a place I can always return to and affectionately call my second home.