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.

Monday, October 25, 2004


(Note: I haven´t posted for a while because I´ve been indisposed-- I broke my ankle. To read about my accident, scroll down to Hals- und Beinbruch !)

Wessi (West German) and American prejudices to the contrary, hospitals in Saxony are very good. Nationally, they rank just behind Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg in quality of care: pretty impressive, considering that those are the two richest Bundesländer (federal states)!

While American hospitals release people far sooner than they should (so that insurance companies can save money), German hospitals keep patients around much longer than necessary (in order to make money off the insurance companies). (I think that German hospitals are smarter.) After my bike accident I was in the hospital for 11 days. Originally the doctors had planned to hold me a full two weeks, but then somebody decided it would be best to free up my bed for incoming accident victims.

I had never been in a hospital overnight before. I had never had surgery before, discounting the removal of my wisdom teeth, which was an ambulatory procedure performed in a small clinic.

I had no idea what to expect.

The first surprise was that Germans no longer believe in putting casts on broken bones. Despite both of my fractured ankle-bones, I remained cast-free. Instead, they always kept my leg in some kind of dressing and ordered me not to put any weight on it, but to move it as much as possible. Every day a physical therapist came and did some leg- and ankle-strengthening exercises with me (to prevent thrombosis and muscular atrophy), massaged my leg (using a special technique developed to prevent swelling), and taught me practical skills like how to climb stairs on crutches (very carefully).

Surprise number two was that the food at this particular hospital wasn’t bad. The breakfast and dinner menu wasn’t fixed: you could order whatever you wanted from a long list of possibilities. At lunch there were always three entrees to choose from, including a vegetarian option that was generally the safest bet.

One thing that came as no surprise is that hospitals are boring. Especially when you’re not allowed out of bed except for physical therapy or to use the bathroom. I read. I slept a lot. (Heavy painkillers will do that to you.) I assembled paper folk-costume dolls that the Sorbian teacher brought me. I talked to my roommate. I received visitors. Thanks to you great people back in the States, I also received phone calls.

And that was about it.

My hospital stay wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience, but it wasn’t horrible. My only real complaint is with a certain night-nurse with the face of a boxer who’d lost too many fights and the disposition of Nurse Ratchett from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (My father informs me that every hospital has at least one nurse like this.) When the pain kept me awake one night, said nurse yelled at me for not being asleep, and then for asking for something to deaden the pain, when everyone knows that such medications gnaw at the lining of one’s stomach.

Whatever. I never developed any ulcers.

Hals- und Beinbruch

Apologies for the long time lapse between posts. I have an excellent excuse.

On Tuesday, October 5th, at about 4:30 pm, I had a bad bicycle accident. I haven’t posted since because I was in the hospital for 11 days and after my release I had no way of getting to the school to use the internet. (The past two weeks were our fall vacation.)

It was my habit to going hiking or bike-riding just about every afternoon. October 5th was beautiful—fairly warm with a cloudless blue sky. I ate lunch (spaghetti with tomato sauce) and then decided to go for a long bike ride. I wanted to check out the villages west of my own. So I rode to Crosta, to Lomske, to Luppa, to Luppedubrau, then back to Lomske.

This is where things got interesting.

I didn’t want to take the same route home, so I turned north onto a rural highway, heading toward a village called Milkel. German rural highways aren’t the Autobahn—there is a speed limit—but Germans drive faster and more aggressively than most Americans. Country roads over here are basically one-lane affairs. If somebody comes from the other direction, you pull off to the side and slow down so they can pass. If somebody wants to pass you from behind, you do the same thing.

The road between Lomske and Milkel is notorious for speeding. Unfortunately I didn’t know this at the time.

I was only a couple hundred meters out of Lomske when I decided to pull closer to the shoulder to make room for cars. I no longer remember whether there was an immediate need or if it was just a preventative measure. I do know that I veered too far to the right and ended up on gravel. I lost control of my bike and went flying.

(Note: Everyone asks me whether I was struck by a car. The most honest answer I can give you is I don’t know. I have no memory of a car, but the doctors say that my injury looks much more like something that would result from a collision than from a simple bike accident.)

I did a somersault in the air. My head hit the ground first. Thanks to my helmet, I hardly felt a thing—it was like landing on a pile of mattresses. Then I bounced, rolled, and came down hard on my left leg.

For a few seconds I thought I’d just get up, get back on the bike, and keep riding. After all, I’d taken spills from my bike before.

Then I realized that I felt very weak and rather queasy. My leg hurt like hell. I decided to wait for help. I lay there on the shoulder of the road, waving my arms in an attempt to halt passing cars, but they just drove on by me. Finally, two or three minutes after my accident (which already seemed like an eternity) somebody pulled over and stopped. Two men emerged from the vehicle and asked me what was wrong.

(Dialogue in this entry will be translated into English for the ease of my monolingual readers.)

“I had an accident on my bike,” I explained. “And I think something’s wrong with my leg.” I offered them my hand and introduced myself. “I’m Ada.”

They helped me to my feet. I tried to put weight on my left leg. I screamed. Since I couldn’t walk, the younger man picked me up and carried me to the car, setting me in the front seat. After establishing who I was (Ada M., teaching assistant), where I came from (the United States), and that nobody was home to look after me, the men put my bike in the ditch for safekeeping and drove me to the nearest doctor’s office.

We’d been on the road for less than a minute when everything went dark all around me. I willed myself not to lose consciousness. I feared that I was bleeding internally and that if I passed out I wouldn’t wake up again. “I can’t see anything! Everything’s black!” I exclaimed. I lifted my leg and rested it on the dashboard. This helped. I could see a little, but without details. Driving through the forest I saw only the outlines of the trees, all green and black—a cross between a photographic negative and a silhouette. The darkness didn’t resolve itself until we reached the doctor’s office’s parking lot.

The younger man carried me inside. A nurse took off my shoe and sock. My ankle was bent at about a 70 degree angle and already grotesquely swollen. “Is it broken?” I asked. “Almost certainly,” the doctor said. They pressed on my other leg, stomach, ribs, back, head. “Does that hurt?” Thankfully nothing else did.

I didn’t have my insurance card on me—or any other form of identification—and I didn’t know my home phone number, my insurance policy number, or anything important. Without the card, I couldn’t receive any treatment.

I started to cry. The nurse stroked my cheek and tried to distract me.
The doctor called the hospital in Bautzen. They agreed to send an ambulance. Somebody would have to bring the insurance card later. After what seemed like forever, the ambulance showed up. It looked just like the one in Run Lola Run. On the way to the hospital they joked that it was nice to pick up a cute young girl for a change. “Normally we get heart attack and stroke victims. They’re always ancient.”

After reaching the hospital I made small talk with the ER nurse (actually the mother of two of my students) in order to keep myself from crying again. Whenever she had to leave me alone for a few seconds I recited poetry to myself. “I saw the best minds of my generation/ destroyed by madness/ starving hysterical naked/ roaming the Negro streets at dawn…” As I explained it to the X-ray nurse, “Excuse me for babbling. If I shut up I’ll start sobbing.”

She had to twist my ankle to fit it onto the screen. I screamed for my mother like a little girl. They couldn’t give me any painkillers, although I literally shook from pain. It was hard to hold still long enough to get a decent picture.

Explaining myself to the receiving nurses made me feel like someone from another planet. I knew my address, but not my phone number.

“Family doctor?”

“I don’t have one. I’ve only been in Germany since September 1st and I never needed a doctor until now.”

“How tall are you?”

“I have no idea. We don’t use the metric system.”

“And how much do you weigh?”

Thanks to my host family’s bathroom scale, I could answer this one. “51 kilograms.”

“Closest relative?”

“My parents.”

“And where are they?”

“In Michigan.”

“Closest relative in Germany?”

“I don’t have any family here.”

“How about a boyfriend?”

I rolled my eyes. “No.”

A doctor came in and explained that I had broken my ankle—both bones—and required immediate surgery. If we waited, the ankle would swell so badly that operating would be impossible for seven days. The proposed operation, which would stabilize my ankle with 13 screws, required full anesthesia.

We tried unsuccessfully to reach my parents at work. First they got my mom’s voice mail, then my dad’s boss hung up on us because the operator at the hospital spoke no English. Finally I did get ahold of my dad and explained the situation. But there was another problem—no one at my host family’s house was answering the telephone. Finally I suggested that they try my boss instead. Success!

They wheeled me into the operating room at 9:30pm. It looked exactly like operating rooms always do in movies. This was not at all reassuring. The nurses strapped my arms down and covered me with a thin blanket. Then they started the anesthesia. “You’ll be out in less than a minute,” the anesthesiologist reassured me.

I felt a little sick. Things went black again, just like earlier in the car.

When I woke up I puked in my hair. “Wir sehen die Spaghetti wieder!” (“Here comes the spaghetti again!”) said one of the nurses. (I left this bit in German because I think it sounds funnier in the original language.)

Somebody gave me a shot in my good leg to dull the pain. (Morphine?) Then I went to sleep, all alone in a foreign hospital.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Teeth of a Nation

Things around here have improved somewhat. My host family (or landlords, or whatever) have warmed up to me a bit, and there is now one resident of my village who greets me enthusiastically whenever he sees me. His name is Ajax. He´s a German Shepherd. The only human resident of my dorf who says `Guten Tag´to me on a consistent basis (other than the people I live with, I mean) is a teenage girl named Jenny who is actually one of my students. But one feels a lot better than none!

Things at school are going better too. I´m having a lot of fun with the kids (especially the younger ones) and they seem to like me. One of my eighth grade girls gave me a little present today-- information about the Sorbian theatre company in Bautzen!

The television in my room still doesn´t work, but the landlords are working on that. For now I watch the news in the kitchen while I cook my Mittagessen (hot midday meal-- the main meal of the day in Germany). It´s not quite the same without Peter Jennings, but I´m learning to live with that.

While watching the news the other day, I heard that it looks like Mount St. Helens is about to erupt again... Special greetings to my German prof, ID, who had her high school graduation cancelled when it blew its top the first time! (All 26 members of her graduating class were bitterly disappointed.)

Someone once told me that `You can tell who´s an Ossi (East German) as soon as they open their mouth.` Strange dialects that use the word ´nie` instead of `nicht`aside, this has nothing to do with the accent... It´s their teeth. East Germans over about 40 almost uniformly have terrible teeth. This isn´t due to inadequacies of the Communist health care system (which actually was pretty good), but rather to difficulties in importing fluoride, which led to poor-quality toothpaste. Which led to teeth that are sometimes (to quote Frank McCourt, who was actually talking about a kid in Ireland, but oh well) `white. And black. And green.`

I said they almost uniformly have terrible teeth, because there are exceptions.

I wonder a lot about the exceptions. They could have just had their teeth fixed up after the Wende (German for Reunification), but I have another theory.

I think it has to do with the Stasi (former East German secret police).

I gave a report on the Stasi in German class once, so I know that lots of people snitched on their neighbors for small favors and Western goods. Possibly including toothpaste... I can just imagine the conversations that must have taken place.

`Listen, I´ll tell you the names of everybody in my village who´s been making derogatory jokes about the Socialist Unity Party, but only if you hook me up with some West German toothpaste. The good kind, with fluoride, tartar-control, and whitening power...`

(Note: This is really not nearly as far-fetched as it sounds. 1 in 40 East Germans were Stasi informants! This means that even in a dinky little dorf like the one I live in, around 3 people cooperated with the secret police at some time in their lives!)

Friday, October 01, 2004


Yesterday the English teacher drove me to Bautzen so I could complete my visa application. I now boast a special stamp in my passport identifying me as a legal temporary resident of Germany. Without the visa Americans are only allowed to stay for three months-- with it, I can be here for ten!

After clearing this important burocratic hurdle I celebrated with a trip to a Turkish fast food joint for a Döner Kebab (something like a gyro, only better) and then to the book store, where I purchased a coffee-table book on Sorbian Tracht.

Tracht is the German word for folk-costumes: you know, the colorful local dress that provincial types put on for special occasions-- like Lederhosen, for example. (Interestingly, Lederhosen are only part of the Tracht in Bavaria and Austria-- not all German-speaking people wear them!) The Sorbs don´t wear Lederhosen (although I own a pair-- they were a gift from a family friend), and in fact the men don´t have much Tracht at all. But Lusatia is a veritable haven for women´s Tracht! Within Lusatia, which by itself is only about the size of Delaware, there are around 13 different mini-regions with their own Tracht traditions. And it goes further-- each mini-region has its own specific Trachten for working in summer, working in winter, working during the harvest, brides, bride´s maids, mothers of brides, godmothers (married or unmarried), schoolgirls, going to a dance in your own village, going to a dance in a neighboring village, going shopping, going to church, taking communion (but only if Protestant), confirmation (but only if Catholic), mourning close relatives, mourning not-so-close relatives, etc.

While today most Sorbian women only wear Trachten on special occasions (like weddings), there are still some old ladies who wear it every day. I have yet to meet one though.

Having always had a weakness for folk costumes, I am in heaven! I actually would like to buy a Tracht of my very own, except that it would be prohibitively expense and I´d never get a chance to wear it.

It´s time to let you in on a little secret. When I was about ten, I grew bored with my monolingual suburban upbringing. So I invented my own culture, which was called Glunt. I created a language (which I could actually speak), a cuisine (based around dandelions, of all things), a religion (pagan with Christian overtones), an educational system (including beadwork and folkdancing classes)-- and yes, Trachten. I created my very own everyday Tracht, holiday Tracht, religious Tracht, sleeping Tracht, and even swimming Tracht. While I was never able to actually sew them, in my imagination and on my drawing boards they were very real. I constantly pretended that I was in, or from, Glunt, and I coerced my then-best-friend, an easygoing fundamentalist Christian named Jenny, to play along.

I am disappointed that my Trachten were not nearly as elaborate or interesting as the Sorbian ones. I´ve always thought that I was such an imaginative child! Apparently fashion design was not my forte.

Now, if you´ll excuse me, I have to go put on my grocery-shopping Tracht.