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Culture for outlanders

Matthew Smedberg | Friday, September 2, 2005

We were a ragtag bunch. We few, we happy few, we band of ausländer.

We came from all over. Some of us met in the airport and suffered through a transatlantic flight in coach. Others we first encountered at curbside, grinning through the sun as it filtered over the tops of the mountains. Still others we waited a while to meet – our roommates and hall buddies, the ones we tentatively introduced ourselves to over a bubbling pot of noodles, a dubbed American TV show in the lounge, a cigarette.

We were the foreigners. French, German, Swedish mostly – and of course American. Little held us in common. For every one of us who skied or rode the breathtaking slopes overlooking the Inn valley, another had tried and given up on the idea, or not felt compelled to even try. For every one who spoke perfect German, there was another who halted and stumbled over pronouns picked at random from frantic searches through his or her brain.

Well, I guess there was one common thread. Not a one among us had a clue what the Tirolers were saying.

They say Notre Dame is a conservative place, and it is. But socially Austria, and mountainous Tirol in the west especially, is a place charitably described as “tight-knit;” more honestly, “slow to welcome,” at least from my perspective. Even their language is something other: German, yes, but like no German you’ve ever met in a classroom or an old war movie. When they want it to be, it is a secret code.

They say it is all about preserving the old ways, when each valley had its own argot – no, that’s French, let’s go with dialekt. And old ways they were – ways which celebrated sameness and defended against too much cultural innovation, ways which had protected the rugged mountaineer civilization from collapse, but perhaps at the cost of mobility, both spatial and spiritual.

They were not unfriendly about it. The Tirolers shared their cooking supplies with us Ausländer, clinked plastic cups of beer with us at dorm parties, beat us handily at foosball and welcomed me onto the hall soccer team. But we had to meet them halfway – and though my German started to sound like theirs after the long train ride to Vienna for the tournament and back, I didn’t understand much more of what they said to me, and much less still of what they said to each other.

They say that study abroad enriches you by allowing you to see other cultures. They are right. There is no culture in the U.S. fighting as strongly as Tirol does for its right to exist where and in the way that it has always existed. And while that makes life a little more complicated for a visiting student there, it gives a new appreciation for culture and “us”-ness, and what people will do to preserve it.