Sending the elevator back down
August 26, 2014
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany -- When my wife and I arrived here five years ago, we felt like we were the first people to ever in-process.
Living out of our suitcases, trying to navigate the paperwork maze, nothing came easy -- and that was on post where we understood the language.
We eventually adapted and will soon leave Bavaria with fond memories and lasting friendships.
Looking back, though, it would have made a big difference had someone given us a few insider's tips during those critical first few months to ease the transition and put us on the right track.
And while I wouldn't call these regrets, the list below includes advice I would give to anyone who wants to make the most of his or her tour in Bavaria.
1. Learn German.
Stop making excuses; buckle down and make learning the language a priority and part of your daily routine.
My wife and I traveled a lot when we first arrived. We'd learn little bits of Italian, French, Czech, etc., to exchange pleasantries with shop owners and at least make an attempt in a foreign country.
But don't let that get in the way of learning your "host" language here like we did.
Practice with German co-workers, speak it whenever you can, like when ordering a pastry at the baeckerei in the food court.
It will not get easier to learn as your tour progresses, but your tour will become easier the earlier you start learning German.
Resources: Some ways to get started include Rosetta Stone, taking Volkschule classes (see the Community Newsletter), duolingo (www.duolingo.com) and Pimsleur (www.pimsleur.com). ACS, the USO and the library also offer classes that are usually free.
2. Join a club -- or several.
There is no better way to get to know your community than by joining a club. Clubs can introduce you to people from all walks of life.
And in addition to participating in activities with people who share similar interests, those same people can help you discover other opportunities, like travel destinations you've never considered or local fests that weren't even on your radar.
Consider also that a club's name can be deceiving: For example, the Bavarian Ski Club also runs hiking, canoeing and camping trips throughout the summer.
Outdoor Recreation trips are another way to explore the area and meet new people, and they rent everything from barbecue grills to scuba gear. They also run overnight trips to locations around Europe each month.
Resources: Bavarian Ski Club (Find them on Facebook), Kontakt Club (see the Community Newsletter for more information), Bavaria Community and Spouses' Club (http://www.bavariacsc.com/), Outdoor Recreation (http://grafenwoehr.armymwr.com/europe/grafenwoehr/programs/outdoor-recreation/).
3. Use the library.
Besides the free aspect of this service, the library is constantly updating its collection, so there's almost never a need to buy a book. Most of my excursions around Europe began with a trip here.
Once you have an account, you can reserve books online from libraries throughout Europe and view the status and due dates for the items you've checked out.
4. Learn to like being uncomfortable.
Whether your travels take you near or far, get outside your comfort zone. Try new foods and visit places other than blockbuster travel destinations like Rome, Paris and Berlin.
Get to know local gems like Nuremberg and Munich, and become an expert tour guide so that when your friends and family visit you can help enrich their experience in Europe instead of just hitting the tourist traps and tchotchke shops.
And while you're exploring new places, travel as light as possible. You can do without that curling iron for a weekend, and you'll be amazed how much freedom comes with a lighter backpack.
5. Ask questions.
Talk to everyone you can about their best travel experiences or recommendations for local restaurants.
Take advantage of the lessons others have learned the hard way, and post questions in an open forum on the garrison's Facebook page. You'll be amazed by how much insight your community can provide.
After you've settled in and can read most of the items on a menu here, one thing is for sure: your time will fly by.
But before you leave, make sure you send the elevator back down -- the newest arrivals will appreciate it and you'll leave the community better than you found it.