Where’s my Apfelstrudel?! Or why we should drop preconceived notions

Hélène Rybol is the woman behind the Culture Shock Toolbox, a website for expats and international students – or future ones – and travelers, filled with musings, checklists and mantras. CLEW is happy to feature her musings on Apfelstrudels and preconceived notions.

Our expectations shape our experiences. While that is something we might know, we may not always be aware of it when it comes to our own experiences. I was reminded of that when I spent a bit of time in Dortmund, Germany.

I spent my afternoons writing in a small boat-like cafe: blue sky and fluffy clouds were painted in the ‘portholes’ on the back wall and ceiling. There were railings, two fake palm trees and maritime decorations carved out of wood: a seagull, a lighthouse, a sailboat. Corny maybe, but I loved it.

One day, two women walked in with immaculate haircuts and fancy jewelry, speaking English. They seemed excited, as if they’d really been looking forward to this moment. They ordered, merry faced and with their arms firmly planted on the table….an Apfelstrudel. The waiter, a young German-Egyptian, seemed bewildered. A what? Apfelstruuuudel. Apfelkuchen? No, no! The women insisted.

This place offered an array of creamy and luscious cakes, but not Apfelstrudel. The women were incredulous. For some reason they turned to me, and said “Apfelstrudel is SO German! How can they not have it?!” They tried a different cake but kept shaking their heads in disbelief. They were disappointed. It seemed like in their minds, a cafe in Germany that didn’t serve Apfelstrudel just didn’t fit.

Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with this scenario. We have all had moments where we set our minds on something we didn’t get. Consider this though:

Why not ask people on the streets or in shops or restaurants for Apfelstrudel recommendations? Why not go for a ‘German specialty’ instead of Apfelstrudel?

How would their experience that afternoon have changed, had they let go of their idea and simply embraced what they had found?

In a situation like that we have to make a choice:

  • Feel disappointed, incredulous and complain.
  • Embrace what we found. In this situation it could have meant being excited to try a new cake (regardless of which one it is), showing interest in the story of the German-Egyptian waiter (how about some questions?), and then walk away thinking “that wasn’t what we expected, but man! that was interesting!”

So why is it a good idea to drop preconceived notions?

  • It’s more exciting! Replace expectations with anticipation. Of course it’s a good idea to prepare, but once you’re on the plane (train/bus/bike), let go of those ideas.
  • Let go to avoid disappointment. I think it’s a great idea to try local specialties and show interest in another country’s culinary traditions. But be flexible. If there’s no Apfelstrudel, try a Black Forest cake or any other local dish.
  • It helps us be more open. We don’t travel to confirm an image that we have. We travel to learn and grow as human beings. We travel to connect. In order to do that we have to let go of stuff we don’t need, such as preconceived notions. It helps us embrace new experiences and see things we wouldn’t notice otherwise.
  • Reality is often so much more interesting and stimulating than what we picture in our minds – if we cling to the picture, we miss out. Culture shock is already a lot to deal with, we don’t need to add roadblocks by clinging to preconceived ideas.
  • As travelers our expectations shape our experiences, but the reverse is also true. Other people’s preconceptions also have an impact. Be open, flexible and learn from each other.


This article was originally posted here (Culture Shock Toolbox, November 2013)

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