How do I survive the city?
April 3, 2012 5:18 PM   Subscribe

Moving to a big, foreign city from a very small American town- what skills or situations should a country lady be aware of? In other words, how do I not die and/or not go crazy from the people? So. Many. People.

I grew up miles outside of the nearest town....which had 800 people in it. I'm going to be moving in a few months to a very large (for me) city in a foreign country. Basically, moving from small town America to Cologne, Germany. I won't speak the language (I'm working on it, but it is slow going) and I will know one person. I will not have a car, but Cologne has great public transportation, I hear (another thing I will have to learn how to do).

I am finding the city aspect almost as frightening as the not-speaking-the-language part and thus am asking:

-What sort of skills should an urban dweller posses? Are there certain personality traits that I should develop?

-How do you deal with the sheer amount of people always around you? Does this bother you?

-As a lady type, how do you decide when/where it is safe to wander around alone/at night? It seems like in movies/TV big city females are wandering all over the place at all hours of the night. This would make me very nervous (oddly though,it would not really make me nervous out in the country.).

-Have you made this transition before? What was hardest for you to adjust to? What did you do in order to ease that adjustment? How long until you felt comfortable there? If you could tell your younger self one piece of advice about your move, what would it be?

- Germany Specific: As a person who was on some SSRI's in the past for anxiety/depression and who takes comfort in knowing that I could jump right back on them if it ever got that bad again- is there a general German attitude about these medications? Am I likely to run into any static from doctors if I want to resume that course of treatment?

I am trying to look at this whole thing like a big adventure and a fantastic opportunity to live abroad- but I'd like to go into it as prepared as possible. I wish I could be a little more focused with this question, but I really don't know how to prepare or what I will be getting into. Thus the kind of vague nature of my question, but I suppose it all could be boiled down into what does it take to survive and thrive in a city?
posted by Bibliogeek to Human Relations (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
For some reason I don't find big cities as overwhelming when I don't understand the language. Maybe because all the chatter turns into background noise, and I only really KNOW a handful of people.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:21 PM on April 3, 2012

Best answer: Don't smile at people.

In my smallish (though gigantic by your standards) college town I was always thrown off by people randomly smiling at me, or giving one of those "hello" nods. This is extra true outside of the USA.

Sometimes it can be helpful to know your escape routes as well. What I mean is, it's nice to have a park or know how to get out to the countryside so that when you are having a bad day you can just be where you need to be. Good luck on an amazing adventure!
posted by raccoon409 at 5:25 PM on April 3, 2012

When I moved to Chicago the first thing I learned was to ignore homeless people (and just crazy people at the bus stop) who try to talk to you. They will try to engage you in conversation. Just keep walking.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 5:34 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

In less-safe areas, it is very important to be aware of your surroundings and all the people around you. But - you shouldn't make eye contact with people, especially mentally ill people - that often does not go well. The trick is to be alert and aware of your surroundings and look around you without looking directly at people, if that makes any sense at all.
posted by insectosaurus at 5:46 PM on April 3, 2012

I am not suggesting that you are this way at all, but there is some good advice to be had from the various "how not to be an ugly American" posts all over the web. The fact that you are asking this question now already negates the probability of you falling into a vast number of areas, but there are subtle differences in expectations, dress, mannerisms and such that you can glean from various websites. Stuff you may not even realize that we, as Americans, do on a daily basis that can rub people in other countries the wrong way.

Rather than post a bunch of links, just Google "how not to be an ugly American" and you will see what I am talking about.

I wish I had something like this when I was doing a lot of world travelling in the 90s.
posted by lampshade at 5:46 PM on April 3, 2012

(another thing I will have to learn how to do).

The Cologne transport website claims to have an English version, but I can't get it to load. This page has their English leaflet and explanations of the different types of ticket. I was hoping there would be some sort of 'how to use the system' explanation, but there isn't one I could find. I haven't been to Cologne, but there aren't any fare gates in the German cities I've been to. (In Berlin, you have to stamp your ticket on the platform for it to be valid, since you can buy single ride tickets in advance. I don't remember about elsewhere.) Newer ticket machines will have language options including English.

Buses (at least ones that aren't going somewhere obvious, like the train station) are far scarier than subways/trains in an unfamiliar city because you have to signal that you want to get off (there are either buttons to push or a cord to pull). For trains, all you really need to know is that you should get up when the train starts to slow down for your station, not wait until the train stops. (I think this was all my mother told me when I started riding the train alone.)

The rule of thumb is that the U-Bahn runs below ground and the S-Bahn runs above ground. (This is not actually the technical distinction and there are exceptions.)

Uhh... eggs often aren't refrigerated in German supermarkets, which surprised me.
posted by hoyland at 5:56 PM on April 3, 2012

Best answer: I always felt really safe in German cities at night. There are people around all the time, and good streetlighting, and so it doesn't feel very different from day time. That said, you should ask someone who actually knows Cologne about the no-go areas. There are always some. I don't know that part of Germany at all.

The trick I found for coping with moving from small town to big city was to invent your own little bubble around you when you are in public. You can do it physically with headphones and a book to read if waiting/on trains etc, or just by getting in the habit of avoiding all eye contact and tuning out noise. Imagine everyone else as scenery, not humans.
posted by lollusc at 5:59 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Totally random, not having been in Germany, but every German I've ever met spoke English and spoke it well, so the language barrier won't be as bad as if you were moving to, um, somewhere where no one speaks English correctly, such as England.
posted by dancestoblue at 6:00 PM on April 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and the thing that I found really difficult were the homeless people and beggars. There aren't many, but seeing any at all was new to me and freaked me out and upset me. I wanted to give them all my money and buy them a sandwich and a hotel room. Obviously I didn't do this, but I think I gave off some signal that I potentially might, so I always got approached, and sometimes they were mentally ill and sometimes scary. One woman chased me calling me insults because I "only" gave her a Euro. A smelly drunk homeless man grabbed me and tried to kiss me. (If it makes you feel better, this happened during the day, not at night. At night homeless people are usually curled up in their sleeping bags or have gone to shelters). This is part of what taught me to create the "bubble" of untouchableness. It also taught me that it is okay to shout at people, swear at people, and call loudly for the police.
posted by lollusc at 6:02 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't know if this is what you are looking for as a response, but I wanted to give some 'tips' for what I think it takes to survive and thrive in a city:

Friendships and New Opportunities:
-Say yes to new opportunities and new people even if you are anxious about being the new person
-Work on developing friendships with others which takes time, but I think the more time you spend in a city the more difficult it is to find friends and develop friendships. This is largely because you will probably become discouraged or too comfortable with what you are already doing and the people that you already know.

-Realize that it's very easy to spend money in the city rather than small country town (which my roommate has told me of). So, make sure that you can take care of your bills but also miscellaneous spending which I'd recommend putting aside a certain amount of money for miscellaneous stuff like coffee.
-Always have a $20 bill with you for emergency situations.

Public Transportation/Cab Rides:
-Familiarize yourself with the bus routes and public transportation options. Take a few trial runs before actually going to appointments, meetings, work/school, etc...
-Let the cab driver know if they are taking you for a "trip" which means the longest way possible. Be polite, but firm about this.

Acts of Kindness:
-Do things like holding the door open for others. But, don't expect a thank you from everyone. However, still say thank you when others hold the door open for you.
-It's okay to do things like say good morning to strangers that you see on their morning walk

Personal Safety:
-Try to avoid communicating with strangers late at night regardless of how friendly they seem
-A police officer told a friend of mine that you should not talk on your cell phone late at night since people with bad intentions will notice that you are alone and will hear your voice.
-If you feel unsafe, then dial 911 without actually hitting the call button. That way if anything happens you can quickly press call.
-Have emergency phone numbers plugged into your cell phone

-When it comes to homeless people, don't donate to every person. Look them in the eyes if they try talking to you rather than blatantly ignoring them. I've heard this is very painful to experience. But, realize that you don't have to give them money; you can either give them nothing at all or food instead.
-Familiarize yourself with the community's resources such as mental health resources, the local food bank, etc...
-Take part in local community activities such as festivals
-Visit the tourist kind of places during your first year or two of living in the new city

-Have street smarts
-Be kind to others by doing things like holding the door open, saying good morning (when you feel comfortable doing so)
-Don't tell EVERYONE that you are new to the city because some people will try to take advantage of this
-Follow your instincts (gut feeling) rather than ignoring them

Sorry this is so long. I love the city life. Congratulations on an amazing opportunity. Good luck with everything!
posted by livinglearning at 6:03 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Don't feel obligated to interact with people who try to talk to you or give you things. If someone tries to hand you a flyer or ask you if you want to go to x club tonight!!! or whatever, just shake your head and/or keep walking.

If a homeless or seemingly off (or drunk, or whatever) person tries to talk to you, do the same thing. You have a great excuse in not speaking the language!
posted by MadamM at 6:05 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Key to being in a big city by yourself is projecting confidence. That means looking like you belong there, posture, the way you look at/through people, the way you move, etc. The way you project yourself will help keep you safe; people who wander around big cities wide-eyed are putting themselves at unnecessary risk.

I'm not sure you can get that way without practice, though. Can you take any day trips to your nearest big city? Map out a few key places, program the maps into your phone if that's an option for you, and go, trying to convey "confidence" as much as possible.
posted by juniperesque at 6:05 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Although Cologne's population is large, it's spread out over large suburbs; the city centre is very walkable and pleasant. I visited at the height of summer tourist season and never felt overcrowded.

The culture of order permeating through things like urban planning and the public transport system may also help you feel more at ease. It's harder to feel rushed there, than in a culture that exudes chaos. As someone who gets quite stressed in unfamiliar environments, I noticed this helping me out a lot in Cologne (and Amsterdam actually!).

For feeling more grounded in fast-paced, modern cities try seeking out museums, churches, anywhere historical and calm. Cologne has plenty! Also taking the time to walk through different neighbourhoods and getting to know them helps to diffuse the sense that you only know the city via hectic trips here and there.

A great relaxing daytrip from Cologne is the Drachenfels (Dragon Mountain, though it's not very tall). There's a beautiful walk up the side of it through vineyards and woods.

A city can be what you make of it. I was terrified of moving to New York for a few months last year, for the above mentioned SO MANY PEOPLE, and found that spending lots of time in parks and with people outside the young professional rat race made it a lot more approachable.
posted by pickingupsticks at 6:16 PM on April 3, 2012

Best answer: The bigger the city, the lonelier it can actually feel. One of the benefits (or, for many people, the drawbacks) of living in a big city is how anonymous you are. You can go for years and never learn your neighbors' names. You can cry on the train and be studiously, carefully ignored by everyone around you - not because they don't care, but because an important part of caring when people are everywhere is giving someone their space. People will often assume friendly advances are just conversational, and you have to go out of your way to make plans that stick, because everyone knows everyone is so busy so what's the big deal if you don't call back or show up?

This is not to tell you to to change who you are or how you tick in any way. Just to help you be aware that being in a sea of people doesn't mean they will overwhelm you -- once you learn to choose your interactions, you may be surprised how quickly the others turn into scenery. And the corollary to that - if you don't make an effort to find people whose company you enjoy, you can feel more alone than you would alone in a small town, precisely because you're aware that there are so many people out there who you're not with.
posted by Mchelly at 6:29 PM on April 3, 2012 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Big cities are kind of live and let live - there are plenty of people with different lifestyles and subcultures (punks, homeless, yuppies, glbtq, singles, married, childfree, immigrants, whatever). There just is room for everyone.

Public transport in Cologne is good, you can comfortably travel alone. It is probably a good idea to remain skeptical and distanced if someone shady approaches you, particularly at night (not just on the subway that is). Trust your gut, when in doubt rather decide to run and not engage with the person.

Observing how other people go about their business helps to get an idea what is considered "normal" behavior in the particular city.

There are parks in the city and nice get away places nearby. Cologne is not all that big and one can avoid the masses by not going to the shopping streets and malls on saturdays and not riding the metro on rush hours. Well, the main train station is always crowded.

Most young people in Germany do speak English. People older than 40 often don't or not as good. Keep that in mind if you need to ask for directions or buy something.

I think you will find almost anything you are used to from home in Cologne. Yes eggs in Germany are not refrigerated, they can go up to 21 days without refrigeration, but someone who grew up in the country knows that they don't spoil that easily.
You might want to bring some of your feminine hygiene products from home if you are very particular about it. Tampons in Germany look like this they usually don't have the applicators. Also bring your favorite face wash/deodorant or whatever you consider essential because there might not be the same brand there. Oh and vanilla extract if you love baking, that’s kind of hard to obtain and way more expensive.

You can check out toytowngermany for more info.

About the meds: My impression is that SSRI's are not as widely common in Germany as in America. Germany has rather stricter guidelines about meds (composition and distribution). I am in no way saying you will not be able to get the meds you need - I simply don't know for sure. That's why I would suggest you bring some with you and/or bring info about what you have been taking and what the qualitative and quantitative composition of the med(s) is. You will hopefully have some travel health insurance, that means in most cases you can go for (emergency) visits (not for basic check-ups) - check your insurance!

There is a big Uni in Cologne, somewhat about 45,000 students. It's easily possible to find shared accommodation - short & long term.

You can check to meet fellow Americans or other Expats - there will be a few Germans but the site is not very well known in Germany yet.

You already know someone, if they are American they will tell you anything they found odd or missed when they first moved there. And they will show you the sweet places. Enjoy & have fun!
posted by travelwithcats at 6:36 PM on April 3, 2012

Well, I've never been to germany, but I moved from a town of like 500 people to Chicago and a few cities after that, so as a now-urban dweller here's my experience.

-I think for me, in terms of safety or feeling comfortable, it was very hard for me to feel comfortable at first shutting down someone who was trying to engage with me. (To ask for money, to hit on me, to use me as an audience for their nonsensical ramblings, etc.) This is a huge difference between rural and urban I think-- it's pretty unacceptable to ignore someone in a small town because it'll probably turn out that they're your neighbor's brother or something and word will get around that you're stuck up or rude or whatever. In a city, if they're making you uncomfortable, it's accepted that you'll ignore them or physically remove yourself from the situation.

-As far as being around people a lot, I didn't have too much trouble with this when I moved to a city-- you still have an apt/room where you can go to be alone, presumably. I'm not sure the circumstances under which you're going to germany, but actually the times in my life where I've been most stressed out about constantly. being. around. people. have been when I'm traveling-- make sure you're taking time for yourself if you start feeling like the only time you're truly alone is when you go into the bathroom and lock the door! This is not a city-specific thing, but sometimes when you're traveling you're meeting new people and sharing rooms etc, and that can get a little frazzling if you're of the introverted type. Take a walk alone, take a nap, make a long distance call to a familiar friend if it's starting to feel that way.

-As a lady type, I'd say that even people who grew up in cities are all over the map about this, and it's very place-dependent, so it's hard to give you tried-and-true rules. I generally err on the side of caution and avoid walking alone at night if possible until I get a feel for a neighborhood. In general, I copy the level of caution of women who know the neighborhood but I take the caution up a notch until I know the place as well as they do.

-I did (and still do) find it very important for my sanity to find parks/gardens/green spaces when I'm living in cities. They instantly make me feel calmer when I'm rushed. A lot of the time when cities stress me out it's a certain energy that they can have-- people can seem self-focused and brusque at times. When I start to feel stressed out about that I grab a coffee and find a spot of grass and re-focus.

Also, I think you might find the culture-shock of being in a new country harder than the culture-shock of being in a city. Remember to take time for yourself, chat with people from home, get connected with people so you have a support system locally.

In general, I didn't find it too hard to adjust to living in a city-- if you feel frazzled, it's the same self-care as you'd do anywhere else, and most of the safety things are pretty common sense.

Have fun!!
posted by geegollygosh at 7:09 PM on April 3, 2012

"not go crazy from the people? So. Many. People."

You're not dealing with all million of them at once; in your neighborhood, it will mostly be like living in a bigger town with smaller housing and more shops. The times when I felt the size of the big cities I lived in was mostly during my commute (and to a lesser degree, at work).

Occasionally I felt the need to get out from under so many people -- to just go somewhere I could scream at the top of my lungs and not disturb anyone -- but mostly you don't notice the huge number of people when you're at home. Also most big cities have good parks so you can go somewhere to get more vegetation, fewer people, when your need to get "away" is not to go home, but to see open space.

I actually found changes in landscape more unsettling than living on top of a ton of people -- being from the Midwest, I'm used to a wide open sky with flat ground. Mountainous cities, especially in valleys, make me feel hella claustrophobic. (WHERE IS THE SKY, PEOPLE???) A city's worth of skyscrapers can also feel a bit oppressive for the same reason. Sometimes I felt a vague unease that the trees were all wrong. Things like that. But you get used to it and adjust. Cologne appears flat-ish so it'd probably be fine for me but I don't know what you're used to. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:31 PM on April 3, 2012

Best answer: I would aim to do two things quickly in a few city:

-establish a comfort zone of my immediate neighborhood. Walk around your new neighborhood enough that you know it, get to feel like this zone is home. Maybe make a project of walking a one or two block square every day, noting the shops, churches, parks, whatever else.

-establish one place (coffee shop, convenience store, corner market, bakery, whatever is convenient to your neighborhood or routes) that you stop by most days. You'll become a "regular" there, a known face, and you'll get a sense of familiarity with the people working there. It's another little way to build a sense of being "at home" or belonging.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:33 PM on April 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

In regards to "projecting confidence" as has been addressed in some replies:
I agree that projecting confidence is important in uncomfortable or unsafe situations, but I find when I am in a new place (like a big city) I get unnecessarily caught up trying to act like I know what I'm doing and end up stressing myself out or making a wrong turn because I'm too cool to stop and look at a street sign, or I'm too nervous to stop and peek at a store that seems interesting and I end up missing out.

If you're feeling frazzled from walking around busy streets or navigating a train station or what have you, I find it very helpful to cultivate calmness and not be afraid to step to the side, pause in a doorway or find a bench to pull yourself together or take in your surroundings. No need to feel self-conscious like someone is looking at you thinking: "Man, THAT person is not from here, what a weirdo!" or, worse, waiting to take advantage of you somehow. For better or worse, in a big city, you will more or less get lost in the crowd just like everyone else.
posted by dahliachewswell at 9:13 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Remember that not everyone is your prospective friend, and very few want to be. In small towns theres an expectation of familiarity, real or surface, and that just doesn't exist in cities. Try to remember that just because people aren't being friendly doesn't mean they are being mean. You can't be friendly with hundreds of thousands of people, it's too exhausting. So over all, just try and remember that people are busy, they don't know you, and that whatever is rubbing you the wrong way isn't actual personal.

Also, might i suggest spending some time in a medium-size city near to you before heading to Germany? Give yourself a chance to ease in by starting to get acclimated to the 'city' part before you ALSO have to get acclimted to the 'germany' part at the same time.
posted by Kololo at 10:21 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Get a copy of Culture Shock Germany
posted by brujita at 11:27 PM on April 3, 2012

What juniperesque said. It doesn't matter in the daylight, or in busy areas, but if you find yourself somewhere sketchy, keep your chin up and stomp through like you've done it a hundred times. That's been my method in many large foreign cities, and no one has bothered me yet. (I'm a small, innocent-looking female.)

The city won't be such a big deal, once you're in it. A bit overwhelming until you've got your suitcase unpacked, but after that? Adopt a corner shop, a cafe, find the nearest transit stations... it's just exciting! Germany is lovely, largely clean and safe and easy to navigate. Almost everyone will speak more English than you speak German (at first, anyway) so don't worry too much. You're going to have an amazing time!
posted by 0127661 at 12:26 AM on April 4, 2012

-Have emergency phone numbers plugged into your cell phone

In Germany it's 112 for medical emergency or fire, 110 for the police.

Also, what LobsterMitten said: get to know your neighbourhood, become a regular at some shops, cafes etc.
posted by iviken at 1:16 AM on April 4, 2012

Yes to holding doors and offering help to mums struggling with buggies or old people who've dropped something, or other acts of kindness that are likely to be brief encounters (so not carrying shopping home for old lady). Don't know Cologne but these acts may be too friendly there, so don't be offended if they refuse help because they think you're a con-artist.

In general, feel your way to how much friendliness is expected. I got into a train carriage in Milan and there were some strange looks: it was only later I realised that the norm is to acknowledge other passengers in this situation and I should have said hello.

In general, in the street, if a stranger wants to talk to you I recommend a firm 'sorry, no' or 'excuse me' and carry on walking, before you're engaged in a conversation : my city if full of folks who look like they just want to know the time but then tell you a long story about train fares and just needing a few euro. Also, if I were a beggar, and folks just ignored me, I'd be pretty mad too-better to acknowledge a request and refuse it.
posted by Gomoryhu at 3:36 AM on April 4, 2012

Best answer: One of the clichés you hear about city dwellers is that they always act like they have somewhere to be. This is true, and one of the easiest ways to tell the tourists apart from the city people. People unfamiliar with city life interpret "like they have somewhere to be" as "rushed, huffy, and self-important," but that's absolutely not true. Rather, city dwellers treat the streets and subways as unremarkable routes to their destination, and their brains are switched into commute mode rather than time-to-experience-life mode. They also recognize that everyone else around them also has somewhere to be, and make space for them. Tourists amble, they chat in places where everyone else is quiet, they try to engage the cashier in conversation when there are people in line behind them, they stop in the middle of the sidewalk to consult their map or check their phone, they block the doors on the subway instead of moving into the middle of the car. This is as much of an etiquette thing as a safety thing.

The advice I was given on how to deal with threats - which I have been lucky never to need - is that if ignoring people and getting away doesn't work, go loud and slightly batshit. Yell HEY or BACK OFF or WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY, loud enough for the next nearest person to hear.

You get used to being surrounded by people, and cities are actually great places for introverts - you're anonymous in the crowd and aren't expected to interact with anyone. It's sort of annoying having to deal with stores or restaurants that are always busy, but other than that it's not bad.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:02 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've always found that establishing a localized routine helps with the initial adjustment to a larger city. Once you get a place to live, explore your block! Find a regular coffee shop, bar, bookstore, or food cart, and hit it up regularly (though not often enough to be weird, I guess it's a delicate balance). The people who work there will start to recognize you and other regulars might become friends or pleasant acquaintances. I've always managed to at least have one or two places where I can order "the usual" and get recommendations of stuff to do around the city. A lot of neighborhoods can really function sort of as small towns within a big city.

At the very least, a familiar neighborhood provides a nice buffer to the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city, so stepping out your door isn't such an abrupt transition and you have someplace to go when you're bored at home but not feeling up to fighting the horde.
posted by mishamashes at 6:29 AM on April 4, 2012

Best answer: a lot of people are giving you advice that's specific to big American cities, but that doesn't necessarily hold in Germany -- for example, people aren't silent in elevators there, but tend to say goodbye (or at least "Tschuss") upon exiting. similarly, public transit is widely available, safe, and easy to navigate. there are supermarkets, but Europeans do most of their shopping in small markets -- the classic semi-daily stops at baker, butcher, etc. -- so it's helpful to walk around your neighborhood during some daytime free time and get a sense of where these are.

get a tourist map when you first hit town and get yourself some "personal landmarks" -- find the transit line or walking route that gets you to the old part of downtown (where much of the fun shopping and nightlife will be) and ride it a few times just for fun (and to see where all the key stops are), check out the parks closest to you, try out several neighborhood cafes and develop a favorite where you can stop in for a coffee or read a book in cozy urban isolation.

ride some random streetcars to see other neighborhoods so you have a visceral sense of how things are laid out, where the boring industrial stretches are, which parts of town seem underpopulated or run down. none of this is for security, but it helps you "lay claim" to the place and develop your own mental picture, reference frame, and starting points for navigation. similarly, just walking in a random direction from your house can help you flesh out your neighborhood and find the parts of it you're likely to want to get to know better, even just a block or two at a time.

anyway, I think that it will be a great adventure and you'll find out that big cities are just amalgamations of many small towns. by the time you've been there a few months, there will already be a constellation of places you know and feel a bond with, even while there are big stretches of the city you can play tourist in. it's that mix that keeps cities feeling vital. good luck!
posted by acm at 7:23 AM on April 4, 2012

Best answer: One trick I use to gain confidence in a new or intimidating situation, like navigating public transportation in a foreign city, is to ask myself "what's the worst that can happen." Intellectually pondering the worst that can happen is calming for me, because it's never that bad and it puts your predicament in perspective.

It goes like this in my head: Ok, I need to buy a ticket but I don't know how. What's the worst that can happen? I might look a little bit like an idiot to the locals if I go slow at the machine. I might lose a few euro by pressing the wrong button. The people behind me might have to wait a while. I might have to ask the station agent for help. None of those things is so bad, really, so I get up the confidence to get my ticket. Next problem: what if I miss my stop? What's the worst that can happen? I might have to get off at the next stop and walk back. I might have to ask someone on the train for help. I might have to get off and take a return train back. I might get lost and have to call a cab...but those are all things I can handle, so no big deal.

Obviously you have to rein in your imagination somewhat and stick to realistic "what ifs" rather than thinking, I could get kidnapped and sold into sex slavery. But for me, keeping in mind that nothing catastrophic is going to go down if I mess one thing up gives me the confidence to keep trying new things.
posted by CheeseLouise at 8:22 AM on April 4, 2012

Not sure if this will be reassuring or not as I come from a very different background (the two places I have spent most time in my life are London and Hong Kong) but I think that when you think of the overwhelming mass of people in cities you might be imagining throngs of people pushing through the streets - my experience of Cologne is that you're unlikely to see anything like that except at Karneval. I don't think you're likely to see many homeless people either, in the way that you might at slightly bigger German cities - Frankfurt or Munich.

Walking always as if you know where you're going (particularly when you don't) is good advice, and so too is trusting to getting lost once in a while. Germany is a safe place to wander round and the people are as friendly as anywhere else. If you feel self-conscious about eating by yourself, try as hard as you can to get past that quickly - if you're lost or need a break you can regroup while having a cup of coffee and a sit down, catch your breath and go on.

There is no right answer to walking about at night - though I will say I feel far safer walking about in the centre of town (many lights, many people to witness anything) than I do walking through the residential streets where I live now. But there's no point in us telling you that anyone who walks less than 30mins after sunset every day is a massive coward - you must decide what feels right for you. If you don't feel safe, get through the journey you're on and find a way to feel safer next time - either leave earlier or bring a friend with you or give yourself a good talking-to, or whatever.

Please don't worry about not speaking German - by and large, young German people speak very good English, but also you will make much much quicker progress with the language when you get there and start listening to German and trying to buy vegetables and understand how much they cost when the numbers are all backwards and so on. Cologne is a lovely city, it really is - I'm sure you'll enjoy your time. I think perhaps your nerves are betraying you a little towards the end of the question: 'I'm trying to look at this as a big adventure' There is no trying required here, this *is* a big adventure, and whether your time in Cologne is one endless cavalcade of laughter and revelry or whether you spend a lot of time moping in cafes you will definitely find things out about yourself that you don't know now, and you'll surprise yourself with what you're capable of.
posted by calico at 3:23 PM on April 4, 2012

Best answer: I think the biggest difference between "800 person town" and "1m person town" is the pace. That is: a lot of people are trying to get different things done at the same time, so to regulate it all a high degree of clockwork-like timing takes hold, as unconscious practice. Social norms revolve around rapid turn-taking rather than familiarity and socializing. The skill to practice in the face of that is quick decision-making and a willingness to get out of the way and circle around for another try if something goes wrong. Public transit, shopping, traffic, bureaucracy, etc. all demand a sort of willingness to work within a "prepare for what you intend to do, get in place, do it quickly, then get out of the way of the next person" mentality.

That's general commentary on big cities though.

Cologne, if you live in the city itself, is actually quite "small town like" compared to other big cities of the world. Things close early, stuff's closed on sunday, neighbourhood pubs do a good business, people do their grocery shopping in small markets daily, small "in-group" socialization is the main mode, etc. So it should be less of a shock than the picture painted above. Probably your best preparation would be studying some basic German (nightschool or something) and making some friends there before you go, to help orient you and introduce you around.

It's a lovely and comparatively calm town, not terribly big, very compact, very walkable. The transit is so-so. Far better than you'll get in most American towns, but mid-range for German towns. It is very safe at nights. There's public drinking and maybe a bit of yelling but it's generally friendly, open, economically equal and casual. It only really gets packed during Karneval.

If you get sick of people, wander south out to a park, or walk along the riverside. Cologne is also very well connected to every other major city in Europe by high speed train. Take advantage of this if you can afford it! The trains running out of the downtown are just incredible.
posted by ead at 10:09 PM on April 4, 2012

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