It didn't take Nicole Dillman long to realize she was in over her head. Within minutes of meeting her at a Berlin restaurant, her host father's friend began talking about her country's president. Very soon Nicole, 18, realized she didn't know enough to agree or disagree. »I'm not a big political person. I'm just going to be honest: I don't know enough to argue my point,« says Nicole, recalling the episode while sitting in a Berlin café. »I'm not going to argue something I don't know about. That's just ridiculous.«
Within minutes, Nicole went from a high school graduate selected for a competitive exchange program to the stereotype she dreaded most: the dumb American. »I was like, 'man, I should have studied up,'« she said, then paused. »Yeah, I felt really stupid. I felt plain stupid. I felt like an idiot.«
With time, those moments happen less often for Nicole, who came to Berlin from Rochester, NY, on a Congress-Bundestag Vocational Exchange scholarship last June. In less than six months, the coltish Navy brat with dreams of becoming a filmmaker has learned to adjust on the fly in her new environment. She's learned to ask dumb questions in another language, find her own way and make sure the 3.100 Dollar she saved before coming to Germany doesn't get sucked up too quickly by Berlin's nightlife.
»You can't just stay quiet all the time, you've got to initiate,« she has learnt, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. »You have to. I don't even question it. I don't think about why I do it. I just do it.« That's a tried and true approach for Nicole, who grabbed an application for the program minutes after it was announced over her school loudspeaker. A few months later, she was headed to Washington, DC, for orientation.
Some of the 18 other students that made the trip quickly gave up on the whole integration thing, but Nicole just felt she couldn't. After all, this program was paying for the whole thing. Why not give it an honest shot and really learn the language?
But there were times when words failed her. Like when she saw the television on Sept. 11. The planes going into buildings she had known from her trips to Brooklyn to visit her cousin. Smoke. Explosions. Chaos. Things quickly got worse for Nicole. After unsuccessful attempts to call her parents, Nicole got a call from her boss. An uncle and two of her aunts had died in the World Trade Center attacks.
She fiddles with the cappuccino in front of her, her bubbly personality lost in the bitter memory. »I don't know. I don't know what to do now; I'm just trying to soak into the city and not try to be in denial or anything like that.«
Instead, she found strength in places she didn't know existed. The days after the attacks, her German high school held a for-um where Nicole watched in surprise as her fellow students expressed their sympathy and debated what steps her president was going to take next. Then they gave the mic to her. »I got to stand up there and thank them,« she says. »I was the only American there, and it was overwhelming.«
She threw herself back into her busy life, which included choir and hip hop dance classes in the afternoons. There's enough keeping her busy now to put the bad memories out of her mind most of the time. Her circle of German friends has expanded steadily and she has already gotten a taste of the nuances of the German workplace.
Last February, she worked at the Berlin International Film Festival for two weeks. Now, the program might find a job for her in Babelsberg film studios, the closest thing Germany has to Hollywood. The prospect is enough to make Nicole hyperventilate. »Oh, yeah, that's my life. Oh my goodness, yeah, that's what I want to do,« she says breathlessly.
So far, Nicole had worked on a documentary and made a few abstract films back home in New York. She says she didn't have much knowledge of German cinema before she came, but that's all changed. During her orientation month in Bonn, she went to an international film festival and corralled her friends into watching »Metropolis,« a German classic from 1927, in an open-air theater. She's working at the film festival again this year, an experience that will widen her knowledge of cinema even further. »It's amazing what they're getting. We're lucky as hell,« she says. »We get everything.«
There's really no other option than getting involved, as Nicole sees it. She won't truly understand Germany unless she involves herself. As a result, she keeps limited email contact with her friends and only talks to her mother about once a month on the phone.
Despite some language hurdles, Nicole has made good friends, even best friends, during her time in Germany. Her friendship with a Romanian girl has revealed a new side of relationships. »There's something there that I don't have with other friends because she's a foreigner,« she says. »It's deeper and I appreciate that.«
There's not much about her experience Nicole doesn't appreciate. She's already begun to mature in ways that may only be evident after the entire year is completed. »I need more confidence and that's one of the reasons I decided to do it, 'cause I know this would force me to have some more,« she said. »I still need some more, trust me, but I'll get there.«
And the next time somebody decides to take on her country's president, she might even be ready.
Andreas Tzortzis, 25, is a freelance journalist in Berlin. Sometimes he goes to the movies.