Crossing Cultures with Nicole Thommes

 

If you meet Nicole Thommes, there’s a good chance her birthplace will probably be one of the first things you’d learn about her.

At age 9, she left friends and family behind in the country she called home to start a new life in the United States. But since landing on American soil, her German roots haven’t gone anywhere. As a UF senior, they’re still very much a part of her today.

Every two years, Thommes returns to Bitburg and Trier to visit her grandparents and extended family. After traveling to her homeland just before the start of her freshman year, Deutschland was in her thoughts as she was looking for involvement opportunities on campus.

When she heard about a related study abroad program, she discovered the school’s German club and decided to join (even though only five people were a part of it).

She wanted to improve membership and activities, so she ran for president during her sophomore year. Under her leadership, the club grew to about 30 members, currently meets twice a month, and was approved for a budget to fund social outings.

With the club, Thommes has helped organize conversation groups, in which members practice the language and discuss current events in Germany, an intramural soccer team, and a spring carnival. She has also collaborated with other European-based clubs for an international potluck.

Aside from extracurricular activities, Thommes studied the German language in class; although it is her first language, she moved before she was formally taught higher-level grammar and composition in school.

“I never got any of that in Germany,” she said. “I wanted to be able to keep that same level of writing and speaking.”

She said dealing with a language barrier as a child wasn’t easy at first during her transition to West Palm Beach, but she picked up English quickly from kids in the neighborhood, one who is still a close friend. She didn’t have to worry about being judged because “when you’re little, you don’t worry about how you say things,” she said. After that summer, she’d start school in an ESOL class, but it would only be one semester before she would be placed into all English-speaking gifted classes.

Thommes said she now feels more comfortable speaking in English, but she still reads news from German websites, such as Die Welt, and she still speaks it at home or on the phone with her parents.

Language is an important factor that keeps her connected to the German culture, she said, but it is family traditions and lifestyles that keeps her bonded.

“They put a lot of emphasis on family in Germany,” she said. “You can tell from the cultural thing of everything being closed on Sunday there because it’s a 'stay at home with the family' kind of day. When I was little, my parents didn’t even want me to hang out with a friend on Sunday. That’s a lot different than what it is in the U.S.”

With her family, she attends a yearly Oktoberfest with a German-American club in South Florida, cheers on FC Bayern Munich, and eats nauzen, a type of jelly doughnut, when her mother bakes it during carnival in February. And at Christmas time, which places emphasis on December 6 and December 24 in German culture, her family is especially festive.

“During Advent Sunday, my mom makes cookies; my parents play the accordion – that’s how they met; and, we sit around the table and sing songs.”

Without familial customs, it’s easy to become “Americanized,” Thommes said. But she said she doesn’t favor one culture over the other.

“In my life, I’m studying international business, and that definitely has to do with the fact that I have both cultures in me,” she said. “I want to work for (a company) to bridge the relationship between the two.

“If I never moved to America, I would have a different career,” she said.

This past spring, she studied abroad in Mannheim to see what it would be like to study and experience adult life in the country. While there, she said she “felt like an American” after living in the U.S. for 12 years.

She used to always say she was German first, but she said now she can’t imagine one without the other.

“I can confidently call myself a German-American,” she said.