Ada Abroad: Living and Working in Germany

An online journal recording two years spent as a Fulbright/Pedagogical Exchange Service Teaching Assistant at secondary schools in Germany. (2003-2004 I was in a village near Bautzen; 2004-2005 I will be in Nordrhein-Westfalen.)

Location: Münster, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany

I'm an American living in Germany, working as a foreign language assistant at a secondary school. Future plans: getting my Ph.D. (probably in Germanic Linguistics), becoming a professor, living an ethical and meaningful life.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Sick Day

On Tuesday I evening I hiked from my home village to the village of Kauppa (Kupoj in Sorbian). It´s a really pretty village, surrounded by ponds with little islands in them. Unfortunately I got lost on the way back and spent a lot longer in the forest than I had previously anticipated. Being out in the damp cold for so long seems to have weakened my immune system-- I woke up on Wednesday morning with the flu (or something). Not the puking sort of flu, thank God, just the `my head aches and my back aches and my stomach aches and places I didn´t even think could ache (toes?!) ache´kind.

So I stayed home from school. I sat in my little room and read Buddenbrooks, and slept, and drank herbal tea. I´m pretty darn sure that I had a fever, but without a thermometer I had no way to measure that. It´s just as well, since I don´t know what temperature the human body is supposed to be in Celsius, anyway. At any rate I alternately sweated and had the chills.

During my sick day, I accidentally locked myself in the bathroom and had to call for help, I fell down the stairs (after visiting the kitchen to get a fork with which to eat my pickled herring), and I experienced the great frustration of having a caller hang up on me because she couldn´t understand my accent.

I´m back at school today (as is evident by the fact that I´m able to post this!), but mainly so that I can use the Internet and because I need to go to Bautzen this afternoon and finish my visa application.

I think that I´m slowly adjusting to European culture. I´ve acquired a taste for carbonated water, for one thing. I find myself cooking things like potatoes with curds and linseed oil (the Sorbian national dish). I automatically close doors. I no longer flinch at the sight of anatomically correct garden gnomes.

Perhaps things will go uphill from here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Cultural Differences

Please accent my apologies for the delay between postings. As some of you may have guessed, I don´t have internet access on weekends, and on Mondays I´m generally too busy with catching up on email to worry about my blog.

Anyhow, I´m currently in the deepest pits of culture shock, very lonely and reasonably miserable. None of my fellow villagers are anywhere near my age, and since there´s no public transportation to Bautzen in the evening or on weekends, I´m quite isolated. This weekend I hiked to three of the nearby villages (which all more or less look the same, although the forest in between is gorgeous) and did some reading. I also ate Sunday dinner with my hosts-- once a week they let me join them at the table. Unfortunately it is quite obvious that my prescence makes them unfortable. They look very nervous and never know what to say. This in turn makes me nervous, which makes my German go downhill, which causes them to (incorrectly) assume that I don´t understand most of what they´re saying, so it´s not worth the hassle to talk to me.

This morning I arrived at my first period class literally ten seconds after the bell stopped ringing. My boss scowled at me and said, ´Late again?` I felt like smirking at her and hissing that by the standards of my own culture, I wasn´t late, but of course I didn´t. I just sat there and felt smug when she pronounced the word ´verb´as if it started with a W.

Yesterday at the market I had trouble locating the baking powder. I had expected it to come in a box of some kind, but no, it´s sold in packets here. (Germans would call the market a Supermarkt, but it isn´t any bigger than a typical Mom and Pop shop in the US, so I feel that it´s unworthy of the name.)

Some of my (male) students don´t wash more than once a week or so, and it´s noticeable!

I don´t want to go home. I just wish there was somebody nearby who I could sit around and bitch with. It´s not as satisfying to do it long-distance...

Thursday, September 23, 2004


I went on a walking tour of my village yesterday. The place is tiny-- actually smaller than my subdivision back home! I think there are around 20 houses, plus one small shop that sells essential grocery items. No post office, no church, not even a bar (!)-- although there is a bus stop. Apparently there are 143 residents.

The village itself is quite pretty. Most of the houses are in good repair, and the handful that aren´t just add to the DDR charm. There are fruit trees all over the place, and a fair number of people have livestock in their yards. Sheep seem to be the most popular choice (my physical therapist friend explained to me that people keep them as lawnmowers), but I also saw some goats and a pony. I haven´t seen any chickens yet, although I´ve heard them.

The residents all kind of look alike. Most have jet-black hair. (I suppose that´s what happens when your ancestors lived in the same locale for hundreds of years. ) They´re not a friendly bunch. I tried to say ´Guten Tag´to people on the street yesterday (I´ve been told that this is village good manners). Most of them just looked at me funny. Only a couple bothered to reply.

Today at school I helped my ninth-graders practice proper English intonation. Germans tend to speak in a very flat, low-pitched tone, and they transfer this to their English. However, in English it makes them sound extremely serious (at best) or downright suicidal (at worst). They also favor one-word answers and hardly ever say ´please´or ´thank you.´ Hence the special ´Friendliness and Politeness´training, which is actually written into the curriculum!

I wonder why ID never went over the proper way to be brusque, harsh, and overly blunt in Geman class? I could have used the training.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Obligatory Linguistics Lesson

First, to clarify something in my last post, since there appears to have been some confusion among my readers: The dialect I was talking about is not Sorbian, but rather the local version of German. Sorbian is a lot more different from German than the Oberlausitz dialect is!

Ich heiße Ada. (I am called Ada-- standard German).
Ich heeß Ada. (I am called Ada-- Oberlausitz German).
Rékam Ada. (I am called Ada-- standard Upper Sorbian).

Sorbian is a West-Slavic language most closely related to Polish, Kashubian, Czech and Slovak. German is a West-Germanic language most closely related to Yiddish, English, Frisian, and Dutch. Sorry for the misunderstanding-- I should have been more clear!

Anyway, I moved into my new room yesterday. So far my host family seems really nice. I like my room (in a basement, but well-lit and very comfortable). One nice thing is that I don´t have to hang out at school all day waiting for my boss anymore. I can ride on over on my bike (borrowed from the boss) in the morning, then ride back as soon as I´m finished with my classes. My plan for today is to do some shopping, have a look around my village, and then hunker down with Thomas Mann. But first, of course, I have to finish unpacking!

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Der Rück´n dut mir verdommt Weh

Things here are going relatively well. I spent the weekend hanging out with a young friend of my boss, who is 22 and lives in a village about an hour south of here. We visited a museum and then went bowling with some of friends. I had a good time, although I´m a terrible bowler (which should come as no surprise to any of you!) and I got kind of sick of explaining over and over that no, actually we in Ami-land don´t really eat fast food every day.

The downside of my weekend stay in the village of Schönbach is that my back now hurts like an expletive which I will refrain from typing in my blog... My new friend is a physical therapist and has undertaken the correction of my bad posture. Apparently the tendons in my neck and upper back are all abnormally short (three guesses why) and I now need to do corrective stretching and back-strengthening exercises. Perhaps this will help in the long-run, but right now I´m jonesing for some Tylenol 3.

So, yesterday I took a look at the room that I´ll probably be staying in. It´s in a basement, but it´s very nicely furnished and I get my own toilet, shower, and mini-fridge, as well as full access to the kitchen, living room, and back yard. The lady of the house will take me with her when she does her grocery shopping (saving me from transporting my groceries on a bike rack); I can eat with the family on weekends; and if they go on short weekend excursions I´m welcome to come along. The only problem is that my rent is rather steep for this area-- €220 per month, including utilities. But I doubt I´ll find anything cheaper, so I´m taking it.

My second adventure today was at the local Sparkasse (savings bank). It took about an hour and a half to open my account, because they don´t get too many American temporary residents in this village and weren´t sure what to do with me at first. Then it turned out that it will take about a week for the travelers´checks I deposited to show up in my account-- lovely. I will have to pay my first month´s rent in cash.

In addition to my biweekly Sorbian lessons, I am also learning the local Oberlausitz dialect. I´m not receiving formal instruction, and I have no immediate plans to learn to actually speak Oberlausitz-- my goal is comprehension. At the present time I can understand about 90% of what is said to me, provided that the Oberlausitzer in question speaks slowly. The dialect is fairly divergent from standard German. For example, Itze gehma daheeme means Jetzt gehen wir nach Hause (let´s go home now) and instead of Ich weiß es auch nicht (I don´t know that either) the locals say Ich weeßes oo(ch) nie.

Ja wanna trade places with me? C´mon, it´s easy-- and it´s not like we don´t speak a dialect too, hey?

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Bautzener Mulletland

I don´t know whether it´s an Ossi (East German) thing or just a German thing, but the Oberlausitz is definitely one mullet-intensive region. Probably 10% of the population here walks around sporting mullets. The amount of ´party in the back´varies by gender, age, and occupation-- but really it´s just variations on the ´Canadian waterfall´theme.

My host´s son, for example, is a nice, quite normal, and otherwise good-looking fellow in his mid-twenties. He has a quite short, unobtrusive blond mullet.

Little girls tend to wear close-cropped hair on the top and sides with a short, curly mullet in the back. I believe that my brother favored a similar hairstyle when he was six or so.

Middle-aged men often wear a longer mullet that is a bit spiky on top.

I get the impression that this is not in general a very stylish area. It might be compared to Michigan´s Upper Peninsula.

I´m afraid to get my hair cut here. When the time comes, I might just hop a train to Nordrhein-Westfalen and ask the Jewkrainian to do it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Good Morning, Boys and Girls

My name is Ms. Muncy. (Point to name on chalkboard.) I come from Michigan in the United States. I am a kind of English teacher. I will be here at the Mittelschule D. for the next ten months. My job is to help you learn English. Do you have any questions for me?

So, that´s my spiel. I´ve been repeating it several times a day for the past three days. Really I´ll only be working with four or five classes on a regular basis, but I plan to sit in on each English class at least once so all the students know who I am. Also so they know that I´m not once of them. Several have already mistaken me for ´the new girl.´ To (over) compensate for my small stature, I´ve been wearing a lot of ´teacher clothes´(even though most of the real teachers come in jeans), make-up, perfume, etc. The English teachers emphasize that the students should call me by my last name (hard to get used to!) and address me by the
formal ´Sie´.

The kids are great. I especially like the eighth graders. They´re so enthusiastic! Yesterday evening the boss and I walked over and visited them (they were on a kind of school-sponsored camping trip at a local fish pond) and a big group of girls cornered me and asked me:
-Where do you put cows and horses and other big animals during a tornado? (I have no idea. Aunt Judy, can you maybe help me out with this one?)
-Has your house ever blown away? (No.)
-Were you ever in a hurricane? (No.)
-Are American men good looking? (I said that some are-- I omitted the fact that I´m probably not the best person to ask!)

Other stuff that´s new:

-Sorbian lessons with Herr B. start tomorrow! I´m pretty excited. :)

-Yesterday was a Wandertag (class hiking trip). The ninth grade vocational students and I walked to a local reservoir and back-- it took about three and a half hours. Then in the afternoon, my mentor (the main English teacher) took me on a walking tour of Bautzen. In the evening, I took a long walk with my boss. Really I enjoyed all of this, but it left me rather exhausted.

-I think in German before I think in English!

-A surprise: apparently, 10-15 years ago East German parents became very fond of
old-fashioned English and American names, especially for their daughters. There are several Peggys, a Sally, at least eight Melanies, two Lindas, and even a Kevin! These are NOT German names. --There are however, no students called Traudl, Hedwig, Helmut, or Otto. Which is good, because I don´t think I could call on a girl named ´Traudl´without cracking up.

-Some of the older boys have a severe hygiene problem Simply put, they stink. The girls seem pretty clean though.

That´s all for now!

Monday, September 13, 2004

First Day of School

Today was my first day at the Mittelschule. It actually went quite well, although I had to get up at about six o´clock this morning (also known as `the crack of dawn´) and then they scared me by starting me off with a class consisting solely of kids with learning or behavioral problems. Thankfully I was there as an observer more than as an assistant.

I will be assisting with the eighth- and tenth-graders on a regular basis. The 10th-graders are already pubescent and jaded and kind of sullen, but the 8th-graders are still surprisingly little and cute and very excited about learning English from a Real Live American.

Stuff that happened at school today:

-They gave me a Schultüte (paper cone filled with candy and teacher supplies). This is a German custom that normally involves kids beginning the first grade-- their very first day of school.

-My boss (Mrs. M) introduced me to two Sorbian-speaking 8th graders, AND arranged for the Sorbian teacher to give me private lessons twice a week! Fantastic!

-The tenth graders had to give little reports about pop stars in class. One kid chose a German folk music band called Die Randfichten who use accordions and sing traditional songs. He was really into it, too. The poster for the band looked like the one hanging behind the son´s bed in Fargo.

-The 8th graders made a special presentation for me.

Tomorrow I´m going hiking with the students (the whole school is going on an excursion) and then the English teacher is taking me to Bautzen to try and figure out my Aufenthaltserlaubnis (residence permit). I don´t know whether that will work out, though, since the principal doesn´t know anything about my insurance card (which she theoretically should have) and I don´t have a permanent address yet, either. I anticipate that the whole bureaucratic nonsense will be a major pain in an unpleasant place. Alas...

In other news, I´ve been speaking so much German that it is actually kind of difficult to write this in English. However, my German is terrible! I find myself making all kinds of errors, which I then notice immediately after they leave my mouth, and I can never remember what gender anything is. Ugh. Oh well. People compliment on my German anyway. But maybe they´re just being nice.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Let´s Git Orientated

I´m really sorry for the time lapse between posts, but there was one computer with internet access at the orientation site, and this had to be enough for almost 200 people. Needless to say, I didn´t get online while I was there. But anyhow, orientation was fantastic.

Monday morning I dragged my luggage to the train station where about 100 other future teaching assistants were milling about. I talked to a couple of people, and then something kind of funny happened. I recognized this girl from my plane (from Frankfurt to Köln). I remember thinking that she looked the right age to be a teaching assistant, and I wanted to talk to her, but I was so tired and shy that I didn´t risk it. So the two of us kind of just stared at each other. Then we went our separate ways. Well, at the train station it became clear that she was indeed a fellow TA, and we recognized each other, so we sat together on the bus to Altenburg. Anyhow it turns out that this girl (henceforth simply `the Jewkrainian`) was pretty cool, and I suppose we bonded, because we hung out most of the time from then on.

Most of the time at orientation we were herded into a large room to listen to lectures, or in small rooms for group work, but there was also plenty of time to socialize and get to know people. Having a winning personality (in addition to epilepsy, Tourette´s syndrome, and a problem with my jaw) I naturally made some friends: the Baileys from Arkansas (a cool young couple who will be in a dorf in Rheinland-Pfalz), MO (going to Niedersachsen), CA (I forget where they´re putting him), ME (Saarland), MN (in Sachsen, near me!) and a few more. And the Jewkrainian too of course, who will be in a dorf in Nordrhein-Westfalen.

Highlights of the Orientation
-Staying up way too late talking to my roommate, MN.

-Helping one of the Baileys (and it should be very obvious which one!) stuff a maxi pad under her knit hat because she didn´t have any pockets.

-Reacquiring my highschool habit of cursing like a drunken sailor. I blame this on my new companions.

-Chocolate. Ice cream!

-Performing my ´Frau Uhltzscht´impression for the entire conference at the variety show, with the Jewkrainian as an extremely southern school secretary. We were quite a success. (For those who don´t know, Frau Uhltzscht is an imaginary German Hausfrau who needs to call an elementary school and enquire about the welfare of her children. This is how I bother my mother when she´s at work.)

-Drinking way too much wine on our last night in Altenburg and having MO and the Jewkrainian tell me that I was acting like a person on acid. (They know this from hearsay only, of course... Ahem...)

More tomorrow, I hope...

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Another Day in Köln

Note to uncle: this post contains some sacriligeous jokes. Do not print for Granny!

I'm on a computer with a European-style keyboard this time, so I can make umlauts! (This makes me happier than it should.)

In the past two days I've done a lot of exploring of the city: Römisches-Germanisches Museum (Köln was a Roman colony; this museum displays artifacts from the city's Roman past), Ludwig Museum (an excellent collection of modern art), and the Altstadt (old town). One painting that I particularly enjoyed depicted an exasperated Mary taking the baby Jesus over her knee and spanking him. Unfortunately I don't remember who painted it.

Today I attempted to see the Sankt-Ursula-Kirche, which features a Goldenes Kammer containting about 800 skulls. The skulls are supposed to be some of the 11,000 virgins who, along with Ursula herself, were massacred by the Huns (a marauding tribe noted for their lack of respect for perpetual virginity). --I think the '11,000' figure has got to be inflated-- there wouldn't have been any virgins left in the Rhein region! Anyhow, the church is closed for renovations, and to see the Kammer you have to schedule an appointment with the rectory, so it was a no-go.

Later this afternoon I plan to visit a museum dedicated to one of my favorite things in the world: chocolate. There are supposed to be free samples.

In other news, the middle-aged Indian businessmen who have commandeered the hostel don't clean up after themselves in the kitchen. As my new buddy Monica from Alberta puts it, 'They're useless without their wives.' Since the rest of us need to use the kitchen, too, the Albertans have washed their dishes for them-- twice! It's very frustrating.

Off to the Schokolade-Museum!

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Greetings from Koeln

You had all better appreciate this post, because I had to go through the seventh circle of hell to get here!

Let me explain.

Both flights were fine. My baggage arrived with me. Things were going well, but then the fun began.

1. I had to wander around the airport for at least 15 minutes looking for a place I could change my money. This might not sound bad, but bear in mind that I was pulling/carrying/wearing luggage that weighs, collectively, more than me. Seriously. My luggage weighs approximately 135 pounds (estimating conservatively); I weigh 112 pounds. You do the math.

2. Then, I had an equal amount of trouble figuring out how to get to the underground train station in order to get from Koeln-Bonn Airport to Koeln proper. Still pulling the luggage!

3. Luggage in tow, now at the Koeln Hauptbahnhof (main train station), I had to buy a 10 euro phone card in order to use the pay phones. (The dollar is weaker than the euro now, so this works out to about $12 American.) I needed the phone card to call various Youth Hostels and see whether any might have room for me. Well, I made my first phone call, got an answering machine-- and the telephone automat ate my card. $12 spent for nothing!

4. I got lost in the train station attempting to find the taxis.

5. When I was very close to physical collapse, a nice koelscher Jung (male Cologne native) took pity on me and carried my bags to the taxi. Which he helped me find. An old man yelled at him for not carrying all of it. "Merken Sie nicht, die Dame ist schwach!" yelled the old guy. ("Don't you notice how weak the lady is!") --Ok, so this was a good part. :)

6. The first hostel that I had the cabby take me to no longer exists. So he had to drive me to another one, which of course only cost more money.

But things improved from there. Some kindly Albertans (people from the province of Alberta, Canada-- not some weird religious order!) took me under their wing, helped me find a grocery store and gave me sight-seeing advice. So I ate and then saw the sights.

Interesting things I've seen today:
-There was a lady with facial tattoos in the airport. She looked Berber. (Some Berber tribes practice that sort of thing.)
-I visited the famous Koelner Dom (cathedral) and climbed all 500 steps to the top-- and then climbed back down. And then sat in the cathedral for about 45 minutes catching my breath.
-The restaurant next door to my hostel is called "Ristorante da Damiano." Those of you from the German program will understand why this amuses me.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Last Post from the U.S.

This will be my last post from this side of the Atlantic. I should depart DTW at 6:05 pm, and arrive in Frankfurt am Main at 8:05 am tomorrow morning (which is 2:05 am Michigan time-- this is why jet lag happens!). Then, at 9:30 am, I'll hop on my final flight, which will take me to Koeln (that's "Cologne" to you monolinguals).

I'll be spending four days bumming around in Koeln before my orientation starts on September 10th. (Orientation is in Altenberg, near Koeln.)

I said four more goodbyes yesterday. The German Literature Stammtisch met for one last time before my trip: this will be my last time hanging out with IA, BC, SW, and MIT for 10 months! (ID couldn't make it; she had to attend some sort of union arbitration meeting.) That will seem strange, since I'm used to seeing them all once a week.

After we finished our meal and were walking to the parking lot, I said, "I'm sad!" So they asked me why. "Because I miss you guys already!" So then BC said, "The world is your oyster. All you have to do is open it." Which was reassuring. The world seems much more manageable if you think of it as an edible marine mollusk.

Who knows? Maybe I'll find a pearl.