This post is a part of our weekly International Voices column, writing by UT students, for UT students. Enjoy!
For some of you internationals, this is your first semester in Austin. You’ve barely unpacked your suitcase and learned the hard way that, while yesterday you could shuffle to school in flip flops and bathe in the Texan sun – today you’ll need layers and a winter coat. Until you get used to our capricious weather god, I suggest you follow the example of a very efficient hipster I saw at the bus stop recently, and you combine the two. I swear his flip-flopped feet seemed unfazed by the biting cold. But then, he was wearing a hat and we all know heat escapes our bodies only through our heads…
The thread of today’s post does not weave through your winter scarves and gloves, however, but concerns first impressions. While I was home during the winter break, a friend of my mother’s handed me a somewhat worn little book called Der andere Planet (The other planet) written by Günter Kunert. The other planet that Kunert describes is the US, specifically Austin, and his observations upon first entering the city are remarkably similar to mine. This is all the more surprising since he first set foot in Texas four decades ago. A fellow East-Berliner and an acclaimed East German writer, Kunert had accepted the invitation of UT’s Department of Germanic Studies to come to Austin as a guest lecturer in the fall of 1972. Like me, he stepped out of Bergstrom Intl’ feeling like he just entered a sauna (give it a few months, newbies). And like me, he strolled down the Drag his first Austin morning wondering at the ubiquity of squirrels and street preachers. Noticing the provisional character of Texan architecture, where one concrete carbuncle cosies up to the next feeling alien in a landscape it’s been dropped on without context (to be fair, this feeling is much stronger driving down I-35 towards San Antonio).
Given that Kunert experienced Austin in the early 70s, there is no complete overlap in our first adventures: Where I schlepped my laptop across the ocean, he leased a color(!) TV and a typewriter. While I relied on smart- and VoIP phones to connect me to the new and old world, respectively, he marveled at how quick Bell was in setting up his landline. Only with respect to cars was he more technologically advanced than me: He bought one shortly after arriving, while I still wobble around on my bike. He realised quickly that a car does far more than drive in this country. It gets you served at a diner drive-thru at 3am (no chance of service if you walk-through, I’ve tried), allows you to drop your laundry at the drive-thru cleaner or get money from an ATM drive thru – anything for the sake of convenience.
Lastly, some curiosities we noticed seem idiosyncratic to a time and place, but looking closer, they show consistency: Both Kunert and I were first bemused by the cashlessness of American monetary interactions, but where my contemporaries draw their credit cards to pay for coffee and a bagel, Austinites in Kunert’s time wrote two dollar checks. On campus, he noticed the (self-imposed) uniformity of dress in co-eds, as did many of my international friends – only that 70s bluejeans and babydoll blouses have given way to XL t-shirts and shorts. So if you’re new to Austin, rest assured that your first impressions and adventures are not unique. Generations of students and scholars have gone through variations of them, and they connect us internationals through the decades.