From Portland, Oregon to Untertürkheim, Stuttgart

From Portland, Oregon to Untertürkheim, Stuttgart

My name is Joe Penkala and I am a CAReer trainee from DTNA (Daimler Trucks North America) in Portland, Oregon. For the last three months I have been a member of the Daimler Trucks #1 (Excellence Programs of the Operating Units) Project Management Office (PMO) in Untertürkheim completing the International rotation requirement as a part of the CAReer program.

During that time the first thing I was usually asked was “How are you enjoying Germany?” Before arriving here in March I thought this would be an easy question to answer with a simple “It’s great” or “I’m having a ton of fun” or even “It’s not really for me” if the experience wasn’t going as I had hoped.

But if there is one thing I have learned from living in Esslingen and working in Untertürkheim, it is that that question has a much deeper meaning than just those five words.

It took me about a month to really feel comfortable with my answer. Initially I would give those generic responses mentioned above, mainly because I really didn’t know better. I was going through so many different emotions on a daily basis that giving a simple and concise answer was almost impossible. The work and projects I was on were familiar, but my environment had changed so drastically that everything seems foreign. It wasn’t until some of the initial shock wore off and challenges went away that I started to get somewhat comfortable. Once that occurred I was able to really think about the question and lay out the two phrases that I feel like I say on a daily basis now: “Every day is an adventure for Joe in Germany” and “It has been an extremely humbling experience.”

Let’s focus on that first statement. The word adventure can conjure up many different thoughts and visions. Its meanings are really endless. But for me an adventure in Germany is something that while in my comfort zone I wouldn’t even think about. For example, during one of my first days in Germany I needed to purchase a train pass for getting to and from work. I did as much prep work as I could, researching what zones I would need, where to go, and even was able to talk to colleagues and figure out exactly how much it should cost. Being the planner that I am, I felt as prepared as possible walking into that train station office in Esslingen. What I had not accounted for was the reality of the worker not speaking any English (I don’t speak German…). Never had I felt as helpless as I did at that moment. For what seemed like a half hour (but was really only a few minutes) we went back and forth, him speaking German and pointing to a pamphlet he had, also in German, while I searched for anything that we could connect on. It wasn’t until another customer walked in and realized the challenges we were facing that we made any progress. Luckily he spoke both German and English and was able to assist both of us in finishing the transaction.

Signs like this one made me realize how lost I was without my language skills.

The adventures don’t just occur when I am away from the office here in Untertürkheim. Although everyone on the DT #1 team tries to make me feel as comfortable and included as possible, whether it be by having meetings in English or trying to change from German to English when there is a topic of conversation I may be interested in, there have been instances where my inability to speak, write, or understand German have been entertaining. Our team has grown to enjoy lunches at local burger place where the menu is only in German. When we go here I am at the mercy of my colleagues with what I order, which is only compounded by the fact that what some Germans think a word means in English is actually not the case in the US. I have been lucky to only have to sit through one meeting that was completely in German after I had been told it would be in English. I know that is not the case for some of my CAReer colleagues. What instances like this have taught me is to be flexible. Enjoy the moment and take nothing too seriously. Enjoy the opportunities that working for Daimler has provided for me.

I’ve got stories like these for days, but I’ll keep it short and give just one more. Every time I go grocery shopping here I get anxious. It’s an anxiety not around the food and what I am buying, but rather about wanting to “fit in” and “not mess up the system.” This anxiety revolves around the checkout process. This process differs in no way from the US, except for the fact that the checker speaks German instead of English. Sometime during the second month of my living here I went shopping just like I had previously. I followed the internal checklist I had created for checking out, even going as far as preparing my bags ahead of time. When it came time to pay I realized that the checker would not be taking my card and swiping it like they had done every previous time. Instead I would be required to use the key pad and figure it out. Unfortunately for me the key pads in Germany are a bit different than those in the US, and I was a mess. I tried the first time and apparently put my card in wrong. After a few German words and a blank stare of “Are you kidding me?” from the checker, I tried again. This time I pulled the card out to fast. Again there were some German words, this time a little louder and stricter sounding. I was so flustered and embarrassed. I had become the person that I normally detest while waiting in checkout lines. I finally figured it out the third time, took my receipt, and walked home in a sweat.

My team @ Daimler Trucks welcomed me with an open heart.

Even though these examples are just a small piece of my experiences here, they provide a solid framework for why I call these past three months an adventure. Even though they occurred at different times and were part of unique situations, there is one thing that all my stories have in common. They have contributed to my experience being extremely humbling.

For my entire life I have lived in a „comfort zone“. It grows and contracts depending on where I am and what I am doing. After joining DTNA last July I’d say it is probably at its biggest as I gain exposure to so many new things, a benefit of joining the CAReer program. It was not until I came to Germany however that I experienced how much of a role communication plays in my life, both from a verbal and nonverbal perspective. When I am home in the US I am a confident and loud person. I have strong beliefs and have no problem voicing my opinions whenever, wherever. But the moment I was taken out of that comfort zone and was unable to rely on my limited communication skills, I was helpless. I felt like I had lost my identity, what made me who I am. No matter how much work I put into researching or planning for something, I was going to be faced with a situation I had not thought of or prepared for. It was not until I was faced with these situations that I gained appreciation for the people who face this on a daily basis. It has made me much more aware and respectful; respectful of different people, their cultures, their languages, etc.

That first month here in Germany was extremely difficult for me. My emotions were all over the place and I was depressed. But as I look back on it now, I would not trade my experience or change a thing. The DT #1 PMO welcomed me as one of their own and made me feel as comfortable as they possibly could. I was provided opportunities to meet new people within Daimler and develop my network that will only help me grow in my professional endeavors moving forward. I am much more open to new things, willing to venture into the unknown. I don’t think anyone who has known me before coming to Germany would describe me as humble, but living here has turned over a new leaf, and now I can’t wait to find out what other adventures I can find in my time at Daimler.


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