Awkward Abroad: The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”

It started at Oktoberfest. French people I had talked about Oktoberfest with told me that Germans spoke better English than Americans, so I thought that’d be true. WRONG. Everything was in German, even at the train station and at the metro and the signs for everything. It was a huge culture shock and my shoddy scribbled list of German phrases did nothing, even when I showed it to the Germans sitting next to me and asked for pronunciation help. By that point, I had pretty much resigned myself to walking around Munich completely oblivious until …

The beer hall we were in had a traditional German band that played the White Stripe’s “Seven Nation Army” like every ten minutes. Seriously. Every ten minutes.

And the 10,000 people in the beer hall knew the iconic “DUH… duh-duh-duh-duh DUH… DUH” part just enough to repeat it OVER AND OVER AGAIN EVERY DAMN TIME. With the same amount of people standing up or raising their liters of beer at the end of the song.

I didn’t know if it was because they were hammered or because it was such a great song.

“Why is this song so popular?” I asked the German guy next to me.

“I don’t know. But do you like it?”

“Yes! It’s the White Stripes!” I said. Le duh!

“White Stripes!” he repeated, matching my enthusiasm in such a way I didn’t know if he was mocking me or being sincere.

“Yeah,” I said, apprehensively. “And this is ‘Seven Nation Army!’”

“White Stripes!” he repeated again.

“Um, yeah … is this song a soccer thing… or, I mean, football?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if he knew the White Stripes or just knew that I knew the White Stripes.

“I don’t know. But everyone knows this song.”

“Pretty sure it’s a soccer thing. I mean, football,” I sighed into my beer.

It totally was a soccer thing. It’d play on the TV when the French soccer team was discussed on the French news program. It’d play in Irish bars (or be sung by Irish people in Irish bars) when soccer games were on.

But then, it’d play during the first house party my host sister threw and I watched drunk French twentysomethings dance to it. It’d play at a French bar and people would drum their fingers on the counter in time with the music.

And no matter where it was played, EVERYONE knew the guitar part.

It made me wonder if everyone knew if the White Stripes had broken up this year.

Awkward Abroad: Wuthering Heights

My host family has a close family friend, Delphine, who can speak pretty good English. On the second night she came over for dinner, she was very kind and talked to me about French literature because to all French people, I am studying literature since it’s easier to explain than “English.”

Except I couldn’t ask her when she was trying to tell me about this English book she was reading. I’m still not sure whether she meant it was an English book she was reading in French or English. I’m assuming it was in French, based off of what the conversation (in French) went like:

Delphine: It’s called Les Hauts de Hurlevent.

Alissa: It’s called what?

Delphine: Les Hauts de Hurlevent.

Alissa: I’m sorry, but could you repeat that, again?

Delphine: Les Hauts de Hurlevent.

Alissa: Okay. I have no idea what that translates to. “Haut” is “high,” or
up” … right?

[Delphine speaks a little English, so I did ask if it meant “high” or “up” in English. But I also gestured it too].

Delphine: I forget what the English title is …

Alissa: Me too! Haha.

Delphine: But it’s an English novel … written in the Victorian Era, I think? It is a romance novel.

Alissa: I’m really sorry, but there are a lot of those.

Delphine: Don’t worry. It’s no big deal.

Alissa: No, this makes me angry! I need to know! What is the book about? What are the character names?

Delphine: Um … uh … Eat … Eatcliff?


Delphine: Yes!

Alissa: Whew! I am so happy I know now.

Delphine: Wuthering Heights. So I know where the “haut” comes from. What does “wuthering” mean?

Alissa: I have no idea.  What does “hurlevent” mean?

Delphine: I have no idea.

Alissa: (beat) But don’t you love the book?

Awkward Abroad: the Period Joke from Down Under

You can only say “She perioded on me” if you’re Jonah Hill or a New Zealander

[Disclaimer: I was not actually the cause of the awkwardness of what I’m about to tell you. SURPRISE SURPRISE. But I acted so awkward about what happened that I can’t not include it.]

Though I’ve met New Zealanders in France and Ireland, the only time I hung out with New Zealanders was at Oktoberfest, and even then it wasn’t really “hanging out” but rather “sitting at the same picnic table even though there are two Germans separating us.” I didn’t even know they were New Zealanders because it was so loud and they were so far away and I didn’t even end up talking to them until hours into Oktoberfest.

I did, however, notice them as soon as we got in, because 1.) they were both very cute and 2.) one of them had a lip ring and a tattoo sleeve and neither of those are very common in Europe and 3.) they were seated at the edge of the picnic table where the waitress would stand to drop off the beer and take orders so I kind of had to notice them.

I should say that I didn’t make official contact with them until after my friends and I started talking to the Germans. It was towards the end of our Oktoberfest, because I remember this was when I was trying to explain to the German guy why we couldn’t stay there all day and night and then go to a club with them at midnight (he wasn’t accepting my excuse that we didn’t have strong German bladders and livers like they did). We were friendly with the Germans and were working our way down the table, I guess.

My friend Lily was sitting opposite of me on the other side of the table—the side that the lip ring and sleeve tattoos guy was on—and she was standing up because she was ready to go. This guy was standing up too, and I couldn’t see it until Lily pointed out, but it’s kind of hard not to look over when someone says “Hey, why do you have blood on your shirt?”

At this point, the German guy and I both stopped talking and turned to look at the New Zealander because, well, duh. And everyone else at the table did the same because, well, DUH.

The guy swiveled to show us his white shirt, which did have noticeable dried bloodstains on his torso, like where the bottom of his ribcage was.

“Oh, yeah, that. Some girl perioded on me, like in Superbad,” he said, ever so nonchalantly, not even pausing or stuttering or laughing to screw up the joke.

It took me a second to connect the dots and get the reference (can’t believe I’m writing this … a girl has her period and …. crap, I can’t do this … just watch the video in the link). I just couldn’t believe that he just pulled that out, and even as I’m writing this I’m still a little shocked.

First off, the guy quotes Superbad, which doesn’t really happen when you first meet someone. And secondly, he’s quoting that scene in Superbad.

Bold move, sir. Bold move indeed.

I remember I looked over at Lily and just like me, her mouth was open in shock too. She didn’t say anything—maybe like me, she wasn’t ready to say anything just yet—but I could tell we were thinking the same thing: Did that guy just say what I thought he said?

The German guys didn’t really have much of a reaction—either they weren’t prudes like us or maybe they just don’t watch a lot of movies (see: Talking about Inglorious Bastards with some Germans). Lily and I just glanced at each other again before we started doing that incredulous snort-laugh you do when something happens and you can’t believe that it did.

It was Lily who was finally able to respond—I was still trying to figure out whether that guy really did mean to make a period joke to two girls he just met.

“No way, man, she’d have to be an Amazonian or something to do that to your stomach,” Lily pointed out, calling bullshit—another reason why I love her.

He smiled self-deprecatingly and laughed before responding. Turns out a girl cut her finger and wiped it on his shirt. Or so he said.

What girl? Which finger? What did she do to get a cut? Why did she wipe it on his shirt? Is she okay? What happened to her? Does she have AIDS? Do YOU have AIDS?

I was too scared to ask. And alas, now I’ll never know. But that’s probably a good thing.

Lily managed to bark out a laugh at that. I was still quiet. Even when the focus went away from the guy and everyone when back to their conversations, I was still quiet.

And the German guy next to me noticed. “Your face, it’s very red,” he told me.

Red like the bloodstains, I couldn’t help but sourly think. Before I started to utter something commonplace like “Oh” or “Yeah,” I happened to glance over at the guy who started all of this.

He had been watching me. And when I made eye contact with him, he winked at me.

Needless to say, my face got even redder after that.

Awkward Abroad: Hitchhiking

I don’t know when exactly this happened, but sometime between when my dad’s best friend would hitchhike from his hometown thirty minutes south of Boston to his college in Providence, Rhode Island and to the time when I was born it became this huge thing in the States where hitchhiking was something that just never, ever happened.

When I was in elementary school, I remember having to ask my dad what that guy was doing walking along the highway (something my parents had told me never to do) and he had to explain what a hitchhiker was. Hitchhiking was just something I never saw and, therefore, I never really had any desire to hitchhike and never really considered it an actual mode of transportation.

Maybe it’s because I never saw anyone or knew anyone who did it when I was alive, so that made me want to do it. Maybe it’s because of horror stories or movies about the innocent person who picks up the creepy hitchhiker or the creepy driver who picks up the innocent hitchhiker and, well, something undesirable always happens after that. Maybe it’s because everyone stopped being hippies and got jobs and cars. I don’t know.

But I do know that whatever contributed to this change of public opinion has not happened in Europe yet. Or, at least, the Europe stretching from the Netherlands to Paris.

There was a guy who had hitchhiked with his friend from somewhere in the Netherlands (never asked where specifically) to Paris—and as if that wasn’t crazy enough, it was just something they had decided to do for a weekend trip, completely in-the-moment and absurdly, admirably spontaneous.

“We were very lucky. It only took 12 hours and three car rides,” he proudly told me.

“You were very lucky because you didn’t get killed,” I replied.

He threw his head back and laughed. “You are such an American. You are so American right now.”

I shrugged. Yeah, I know. He was right.

“So how are you going back home? Are you going to risk hitchhiking across country borders again?” I asked.

He said yes, but he was shaking his head at much. “Such an American,” he muttered.

I didn’t shrug this time.

I think he was just as taken aback by my incomprehension as I was taken aback by his spontaneity. He was the first person I ever met who had hitchhiked in the modern era. And I’m twenty years old!

“You are an American and you are abroad, so that shows me you are open-minded,” he said, echoing what many Europeans have said to me. “Why wouldn’t you want to try hitchhiking one day?”

Because I want to live, I thought to myself. “I’m a girl. It’s different for me,” I said, stupidly thinking that would be the argument-ender so we could move away from this topic.

“Nonsense. I know girls who hitchhike all the time. You should try it. Maybe you could hitchhike when you are abroad,” he persisted.

He didn’t stop there. It was life-changing (not life-ending). He felt like he grew more as a person because of it (because the driver didn’t hack off his limbs with a machete). It was cheaper (but riskier and deadlier). If he was a candidate in the Mister World competition, he would wax poetic on the advantages of hitchhiking as a way to bring about world peace.

Hitchhiking, hitchhiking, hitchhiking. Blah, blah, blah. Kill me now. And not by forcing me to hitchhike.

This was one of those instances I just couldn’t win and had to forfeit. Usually when that happened, it was about French people telling me how Romney is Satan and Obama is God and regardless of my political beliefs, I don’t agree with that and don’t think it’s as black and white as that.

But do I say that? No! Mostly because I’m a weenie who doesn’t want to debate or have an argument in any language. So in those situations I swallow my ideas, my thoughts, my opinions and my words, and just suck it up.

“Yeah, maybe,” I said glumly. And then I hitched a ride out of that conversation thanks to the bathroom excuse.

Funnily enough, one of my friends that I went to that bar with had actually  recommended hitchhiking to me the first night I met him. We were in an Irish bar talking about my upcoming vacation in Dublin and how he went to Ireland this past summer. And guess what he did? Hitchhiked.

He just went to Ireland by himself. On a whim, for a week or so, just because. He’s that kind of guy (I guess I keep meeting a lot of them around here). And that same kind of nonchalant attitude carried over into Ireland, because he started hitchhiking in the countryside to get to Irish Place A to Irish Place B (I want to say Dublin to Gallway but I don’t really remember).

When he got picked up by this gruff middle-aged man, the guy only agreed to take him a little bit. And then once they started talking (this guy’s English is really good), then the guy said he would go out of his way to drive him to his final destination. And then later the guy said he’d still drive my friend to the end place but first they could have dinner at his place.

“And you did that and nothing happened?” I asked, flabbergasted.

“Of course!” he cheerfully responded. Oui, of course!

Obviously, my friend’s still alive. But his experience, as fun as it seemed, is not one I want to replicate anytime in the near future.

“You should try hitchhiking in Ireland,” he gushed.

“Um … we’re four girls, so I don’t think that’s going to happen,” I replied. The large number of people, coupled with our gender, was enough to make him back off.

So am I just being an American wuss? Have any of you guys ever hitchhiked? What was it like?

Awkward Abroad: David Bowie Killed the Radio Star

I could write a whole blog post about awkward pop-culture conversations I’ve had with my French family. Sad, but true. They said I had the best French out of all of the four girls they’ve hosted, but they’ll probably also say that I was the most awkward. Whatever. I totally earned that superlative.

This is the first awkward conversation that I had with my host family. And, I should add, the one that made me the most upset.

I need to preface this by saying that my French family LOVES the radio the way that Americans during FDR’s fireside chats probably loved the radio. Morning, noon, night: doesn’t matter when but it’s always on. ALWAYS.

And it’s not just the old folks. It’s the twenty-three-year-old daughter too. Which floors me the most, since she’s practically my age and I don’t ever listen to the radio when I’m home or even when I’m in the car.

Neither of my host parents work, so they’re always in the house and that means the radio is always on. So I could exaggerate and say that the radio plays 24/7 … but it’d actually be truthful if I said the radio plays 12/7. I’m not even kidding. There’s chat radio on when I eat breakfast at 9 a.m. and there’s the “100 percent Jazz” program playing up until dinner at 8 p.m. and then afterwards.

At first I thought it was because of me. Like, I was so awkward and conversationally-challenged they couldn’t stand the silence. But then once I started coming home and finding the radio already on, I started being less self-absorbed. Now, two months in, I cringe whenever I think about how self-absorbed I used to be.

So yeah, no radio silence ever. Mostly it’s talk show programs. But even when it’s music, it’s French or old American jazz and blues. Never stuff I know. Except for one glorious time that I wanted acknowledged and … it was not. Not at all.

I’ll cherish it forever. It was the first English-language song I heard on the radio in Paris. And, coincidentally, it was the first song I recognized, and … IT WAS DAVID BOWIE!

DAVID BOWIE!!!!!!!!!

I mean, I’ve written about my David Bowie obsession and how I always judge record stores by their David Bowie selections no matter what country I’m in.  He’s always on my “Top Five People You’d Want At Your Dinner Party” list, although the David Bowie that I want always varies (mostly on the other guests and who has a drug problem there that specific Bowie might have encouraged).

I thought it was a sign.

It was in my first week of living there, I think. I  was at the kitchen table, doing homework. My host dad was on his desktop computer, sitting behind me. My host mom was at her desktop computer on the other side of the room. We had all been sitting quietly, doing our own thing but listening to the radio together.

“Oh Mon Dieu! C’est David Bowie!” I announced (“OMG, it’s David Bowie!”) as soon as I recognized that first guitar chord of “Ziggy Stardust.”

The way I said it made it seem like I was walking down the street or something and saw David Bowie coming towards me. I was that excited.

However, my host parents’ reactions were not even close to being that excited. They weren’t even excited that I was excited. My host mom looked out past her computer and smiled encouragingly at me for a second before going back to work. My host dad didn’t even turn around.

So I sat there at the table mouthing the lyrics to myself and grinning down at my homework. For the rest of the song.

Just in case that description didn’t do a good job of capturing the moment, I’m going to write it out like it was taken from a scene of a play:

[“Ziggy Stardust” comes on]

Alissa: Oh Mon Dieu! C’est David Bowie!

Host mom: …

Host dad: …

Alissa: …

Awkward Abroad: Talking about Inglourious Basterds with Germans

I’ll have to update my resume so now it reads “International awkward conversation starter” because that’s what I’ve been doing since I crossed the Atlantic. I mean, I knew I was good at being awkward in English with Americans, but I never knew my true potential at being awkward in any language with any person until I studied abroad.

So I have all of these weird, embarrassing anecdotes that I pull out on occasion with friends or at a bar or even in my conversation class when my teacher asks what I did this weekend and I complain about all the bises I had to give. But this is only with the people I interact with in person, and what about all of my family and friends back home who won’t be able to see what an expert awkward conversation starter I am for themselves until I’m back???

And, I only tell these stories in person, and I want to be able to remember them so I could cherish my akwardness forever and have good stories to tell my grandkids or, if I grow up to be the crazy Pillow Pet lady that I think I am, anyone’s grandkids.

Therefore … I’ll post the ones I can on here and set up this reoccurring story column kind of thing. It’ll be like in Sex and the City when Carrie gives a voice-over about what she’s going to write about after it happens … except mine won’t be cute or sexy, it will be cringe-inducing. Because I am not a Carrie.

So here’s the first one:

Talking about Inglourious Bastards with some Germans, NBD

There were a lot of far-fetched things in Quentin Tarentino’s Inglourious Basterds, but the auteur was telling the truth about how the Germans count on their hands. Remember when (beautiful) Michael Fassbender’s (beautiful) British spy accidentally reveals himself as a Brit and not a fake SS by the way he counted off the drinks he wanted in that awesome bar scene?  Turns out Germans really do start counting on their thumb (1), and then ring finger (2), and then middle finger (3) and so on and so on.

Except, I only trusted this fact after the German guy sitting next to me at Oktoberfest signaled for three beers like he was making the “L” loser sign with an extra finger and I looked over and was like “Oh my god, Germans actually count on their fingers that way! Inglorious Basterds was right!

This is the wrong way to count on your fingers if you’re trying to be German. But look at his face ❤

And as if that didn’t make me sound like enough of a dumb Valley girl … I had completely forgotten that I was referencing a movie that is all about American scalphunters who wanted to murder Nazis during World War Two … to a German … at a festival celebrating German culture and history (and beer). Yikes.

At first I thought I could take it back. The universal “Ohhhh, I get it” look didn’t appear on his face. I could just say I saw it in a movie once and move on from there. Or so I thought.

“That’s the Nazi-hunting movie, right?” he asked. He seemed more confused than angry. That was a good thing, right?

“Um, yeah. But, see, the character counts on his fingers like this,” I said, demonstrating the non-German way, “and that’s how the Nazi knew he was a spy.”

“Oh,” he said.

“Yeah,” I replied.

Welp. That happened.

Looking back, I think we could have moved on from there. I think I could have saved it and made a joke like, “Well, you already knew I wasn’t German,” or something. I think I might have even risked spilling my beer just to make a distraction and get me out of this mess, even though technically I’d have to create a new mess to do that. But whatever. There was hope.

But nope, then his friend had to ask what we were talking about. And I looked at this guy, and he looked at me, and two whole seconds went by. TWO WHOLE SECONDS. And I just knew that I had to do something fast.

“So do you guys still give thumbs up to people or is that weird because it would look like you’re just counting to one on your hand?” I asked, blurting out the first thing that popped into my head.

I didn’t care if I looked like a ditz, a spaz, a dumb blonde, an American, whatever. There was just no way I was going to repeat this conversation.

They didn’t get it at first and kept giving me weird looks, so I legitimately thought that maybe thumbs up wasn’t a thing in Germany. But then my new quasi-friend started laughing and shook his head, like he couldn’t believe we were having this conversation.

Me neither, buddy.

But hey, don’t worry, the thumbs up is alive and well in Deutschland. The guy must have thought I was an idiot, but he still invited me and my friends to go to a club later. So it was like everything turned out okay in the end—except, you know, I had to leave and we didn’t have enough time to fall in love and get married and spend the rest of our lives eating pretzels and test-driving Volkswagens together in our color-coordinated lederhosen and drindls and never, ever, ever mentioning THAT MOVIE ever again. 

Talking about Inglourious Bastards with some Germans, NBD: PART TWO (yes, there is a Part Two … unfortunately …)

I know what you’re thinking. This girl brings up Inglourious Basterds AGAIN? But this time it was a German who brought it up!! He started it! It wasn’t my fault, I swear!

I did learn my lesson … sort of. This wasn’t at Oktoberfest. This was when I was in Dublin at Temple Bar talking to a German guy and he ordered two beers and used his thumb and pointer finger.

And in that dim light, in the noisy atmosphere, in the cramped bar space, it all came rushing back to me: Oktoberfest Awkwardfest 2012. Duh duh duh!

I want to make this very clear: I didn’t even REFERENCE Inglourious Basterds. I just said, “Oh, that’s right! I forgot about how Germans count on their hands.”

That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. I promise.

“What? Oh, yeah,” he said, looking down at his fingers and then back at me. “Have you seen that movie that came out a couple years ago … it’s American, I think … what’s it called again…?”

I figured since he was the one to bring it up, it would be okay to finish it. I mean, he was practically begging me to tell him. How could I not?

Inglourious Basterds?” I helpfully supplied, praying that was actually the movie he was thinking about.

“Yeah.” He made the same German “two” sign, although now it was used as a finger gun that he shot at me. “That’s the one.”

Any excuse to post another picture of Michael Fassbender on my blog is a good excuse … even when it’s commemorating his deceased character. I have no shame when it comes to Fassy. (GET IT?!)

I didn’t know what to do, and not just because finger guns make everything awkward. But I saw an opening and I took it.

“It’s funny you say that … last time I talked about that movie with a German it got real awkward real fast,” I said.

And then, I swear, his face lit up and he laughed a little. I laughed a little too, nervously, but I thought I was in the clear. It was all good. I survived!

But all of a sudden he stopped and then he got really serious and said, “But seriously though, yeah,” and looked deep into his beer glass for a moment before tipping it back and draining it.


There were no finger guns this time to start off the awkward silence.

Because I was the finger guns.

Once again.

As I festered in the silence, I remembered that (beautiful) Michael Fassbenders’s (beautiful) British lieutenant died because of the way he counted on his fingers. I should just be lucky that I wasn’t killed because of the way I keep unintentionally insulting the way Germans count on their fingers.