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.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

More Proof that Germans are Crazy

I tutor the principal of a neighboring school in English for an hour and a half once a week. It´s fun, and it´s a good way to earn a little extra money.

While I was over at her house yesterday I noticed a furry seat-cover on one of the stools in her kitchen. 'What kind of animal was that?' I asked.

'House cat,' she replied.

'Did you say house cat?' I asked, not sure if I heard correctly.

She nodded. 'I had a problem with my kidneys when I was younger, so my mother bought this for me. It was supposed to help.'

She said this matter-of-factly, as if it explained everything. After all, everyone knows that the skin of a dead cat is good for kidney trouble, right?!?

The importation of cat and dog fur into the United States of America is strictly forbidden. It actually says so on the Customs forms. (Animal cruelty, you know.)

But that didn´t stop another German-speaking European I know, a certain professor who my friend Kim and I refer to as 'crazy Swiss,' from bringing a coat with a collar trimmed with-- you guessed it-- house cat. The cat belonged to her mother.

Do these people also stuff and mount their deceased relatives??? And what is the connection between cat fur and kidneys??? Can anybody explain this for me, please?!?

Operation: Escape my Dorf

My village is boring. This may sound harsh, but it´s true. The population is about 1,000, and around half those people are senior citizens. There is no library, no theater, and not even a place to rent videos. No museums. No cafes. The only local clubs are the Sportverein (sports club, mainly for people who play soccer-- I don´t) and the Schiessverein (unshaven men who practice indoor target shooting while drinking German beer).

I´d only been back here for two weeks but was already getting bored. So I came up with a plan to escape. It involved a bus, a train, the city of Dresden, and my friends the Baileys, who work in western Germany. But then they noticed that their funds were getting low, so they had to back out.

Plan B. Instead of going to Dresden, I would go to Weimar-- a city in Thuringia that had earned the hearty endorsement of BC and ID, two very finicky Germanists. Goethe, the German writer roughly equivalent in stature to Shakespeare, lived there for several decades. The constitution for Germany's first brief flirt with democracy, between the two World Wars, was also drawn up in Weimar-- hence the name 'Weimar Republic.' Besides, there was a hostel there with beds for only 10€ a night.

This city clearly had a lot to offer.

Last Friday I packed my bags and took the train to Weimar. My 10€-a-night hostel was occupied by a school group from Hannover. The teachers were youngish, probably in their early thirties, and one of them was once a language assistant in England. We hung out that evening, and they offered take me along when their classes went sight-seeing the following day. (Their students were in the 12th grade, and I didn´t look older than them anyway!)

So, I got to see:
-Buchenwald concentration camp
-Goethe´s house
-the palace of Anna Amalia, a brilliant (if unattractive) 18th-century duchess with a shoe fetish rivaling Imelda Marcos'
-the Bauhaus museum

And one of the teachers insisted on paying for everything! She also invited me to visit her if I ever make it to Hannover-- I plan to take her up on the offer.

I must admit I´m jealous of their students. These were Gymnasium kids, and believe me, the difference was obvious. These were motivated, mature students with intellectual interests. My students use the weekends to get drunk and dance until dawn and can´t be bothered to come to my office hours even when they desperately need extra help in English; these kids join after-school clubs to learn Polish and Classical Greek and spend their free time taking theater workshops. I would give snippets of my liver for students like that!

Alas... But at least I had a good time hanging out with them and their teachers in beautiful Weimar, which offers everything my village doesn´t: plenty to see and do, hommus in the grocery store, and little cafes where you can eat your fill of crepes without breaking your budget.
This city definitely gets five stars.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

I am Linguist, Hear me Roar

As a Fulbright Teaching Assistant, my primary duty here in Germany is to help little Krauts learn English. But that´s not the real reason I´m here. The real reason I´m here is to conduct linguistic fieldwork.

Linguistic fieldwork, for those of you who aren´t 'in the know,' is when a linguist visits a community and attempts to document the way the community speaks, usually using tape-recorders. Depending on which language variety is being studied, this might entail a year spent among headhunters in highland New Guinea who practice ritual cannibalism. Or it might just mean cornering your German professor and twisting her arm until she agrees to tape record her mom and stepdad for you the next time she heads home to Idaho.

In my case, I came here to document Sorbian as it is spoken in the Catholic villages west of Bautzen. Specifically I want to scientifically analyze people´s pronunciation using computer programs-- acoustic phonetics, to use the technical term.

The broken ankle delayed my plans for several months. Until I could walk again, I was really in no position to ride buses to remote villages and coerce children and old ladies to talk into my tape recorder. But I´m better now, and I finally got started yesterday!

My first informant is a middle-aged woman who works for a Sorbian children´s magazine. She was recommended to me as an informant by her daughter, who is also a linguistics student. So, yesterday I took the bus to Bautzen and spent about an hour with Mrs. S. Her job was to translate banal German sentences into colloquial Sorbian. She found this deathly boring, of course. 'So, does everybody end up with an apple?' she asked, after forming an umpteenth sentence including the phrase ' ______ dam jabuko.´ She had to translate sentences in which she gave an apple to the old man, the old woman, her sister, her father, her brother, etc.

The boredom factor is kind of unavoidable, since linguists are advised to start out eliciting everyday vocabulary that their informants are sure to know: kinship terms, verbs like 'give,' 'eat,' and 'hit,' numbers from 1-1o, colors, etc. I suppose I could have made the exercise more interesting by asking for words like gallstone or witchdoctor, but then she might not have been able to translate them.

Doing fieldwork is exciting for me. I finally feel like a 'real linguist'. My work may not be groundbreaking, but it´s legitimate scientific research and will contribute to the documentation of colloquial Sorbian. I´m a scientist!!!

Next week I´m going to a Sorbian Mittelschule in a Catholic village to tape record three or four students, and possibly a teacher or two. The principal of the school was very eager to help me.
In return for helping out in three English lessons on Fridays (my day off), I can tape record their students. This will start next Friday (January 21st).

Wish me luck!

Monday, January 10, 2005

The Emergency Rooster

I had an interesting day last Friday.

After suffering a seizure at work, I called off my planned interview with the Sorbian teacher and went home to nap until the burning sensation at the back of my head subsided.

I woke up at 12:55 pm and realized that if I did without my lunch, I just might be able to make the 1:24 bus to Bautzen. After hurriedly making myself presentable, I put on my trench coat, grabbed my new suede handbag, and scurried across the street to the bus stop. Once there, I did my best to ignore the herd of remedial pupils surrounding me, cursing, smoking, and spitting on the ground.

The kids pushed their way onto the bus ahead of me, and by the time I boarded, my usual seat was occupied by a slight ninth-grader with owlish glasses. So I sat down in the nearest available free space, directly opposite the exit door.

There was a button above the door, labeled “Nothahn.”

This made me laugh out loud.

A Hahn is a rooster. An Ausgang is an exit, and since a Notausgang is an emergency exit, then logically speaking, a Nothahn would be an emergency rooster.

“At the Upper Lusatian Regional Transit Authority, your safety is our business. That’s why each and every one of our buses is equipped with an Emergency Rooster for your protection.”

While I realized that most likely that the word Hahn simply had more than one meaning, the idea of an Emergency Rooster captured my imagination. I pictured him sitting in a little wooden box above the exit door, his crested head and feathered white breast poking out of a hole. He crowed periodically and squawked whenever the bus hit an unexpected bump.

As I pondered the Emergency Rooster, who I conceived of as being of the same breed as Foghorn Leghorn from Looney Tunes, it occurred to me that the concept had a flaw: it implied that there was already another rooster on the bus, and that the Emergency Rooster’s purpose was to serve as a back-up in case the first rooster failed.

While I have never claimed to be an expert on agriculture, I do know that you don’t really need (or want) more than one rooster. A single cockerel is sufficient to sexually assault an entire barnyard full of hens and supply your poultry operation with plenty of fuzzy, yellow chicks destined to become layers, broilers, or fryers. Besides, if you have more than one rooster, they try to kill each other. This is where “cock fighting” comes from.

To prevent the Emergency Rooster from becoming aggressive toward the Primary Rooster, who I decided would most likely be kept at the front of the bus, right next to the driver, both fowl would have to wear little blindfolds.

I was considering what function a rooster might serve on a bus—crowing to wake the driver if he fell asleep at the wheel? servicing any hens that passengers from rural villages happened to bring on board with them?—when my bus arrived at Bautzen’s central bus station. Bidding farewell to the Nothahn button, I climbed off.

The bus had just pulled away when I realized that my bag was still on the seat opposite the Emergency Rooster. And not just my bag, but also my passport, my credit cards, my house key, and the change I would need to ride back to my village or place a frantic phone call to one of my coworkers. My ankle is not yet up to chasing down a city bus, so instead I half-ran, half-limped into the ticket-selling area and explained my problem to the man at the desk. He sent me upstairs, to another man sitting at another desk, this time with a switchboard.

“I have left my purse on the bus, the one from Milkel to Bautzen. She is of leather—no, suede—and is violet in color.”
“Take a seat, ma’am,” he said (in German, of course).
The switchboard operator phoned the private company responsible for the rooster-equipped bus while I silently prayed that none of the remedial students had seen my bag on the seat and run off with it.

After several agonizing minutes, my bus pulled back into the bus station. The switchboard operator ran down to meet the driver and returned carrying a burgundy suede handbag. I was relieved—even more so after I confirmed that my passport and wallet were still there, and that no stray feathers had gotten caught in the zipper.

Blessing the switchboard operator, I left the bus station and spent what proved to be a mediocre afternoon in town. Another bus brought me back to my village early that evening. This one didn’t have a Nothahn. Oh, well. I supposed that keeping poultry on public transportation isn’t a very Teutonic idea, anyway—it sounds like something you’re more likely to run into in, say, Botswana, or maybe Albania. But I did wonder about the possibility of training chickens to alert passengers that they were about to disembark without their personal belongings…

By the way, Hahn can also mean “trigger” or “switch.” I looked it up.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Home, Home, Where I Wanted to Go

After four stressful months in a dorf in East Germany, a trip home was just what I needed. The jet lag wasn’t fun, but I got to see my parents, brother, grandma, uncle, pet coyote, and two of my closest friends, which more than made up for it.

At first I couldn’t even believe that it was real. It seemed like one of the nice dreams about home that I have occasionally, and I was afraid that I’d wake up at any moment. When I saw my bedroom again for the first time, I actually cried.

What I did at home:

-I caught up on American documentary films, finally seeing “Supersize Me” and “Fahrenheit 911.” In the original English, as opposed to in (retch!) German dubbing. (I liked “Supersize Me” better.)

-Taking advantage of the U.S.A.’s much lower prices on jewelry and textile goods, I purchased a sweater, three pairs of pants, a purse, a shirt, a nice pair of earrings, a necklace, and a new trench coat. (Ok, technically my mother purchased some of those things. But I picked them out!)

-I ate American food. Turkey with mashed potatoes and stuffing. Cranberry sauce. Candied sweet potatoes. Enchiladas. A gyro. Divine!

-I pulled out the glasses-cleaner roughly every five minutes because my pet coyote insisted on “washing” my glasses for me with her tongue.

-I read books in English-- and marveled at how much quicker it is than reading in German.

-I put together the Graduate Teaching Fellowship application I need to get funding (hopefully!) in grad school next year.

Things I was happy to see:

-The aforementioned friends and family.

-My parents’ house

-My old neighborhood in Ypsi

-EMU’s campus (unfortunately the buildings were locked up for Winter Break, so I couldn’t go inside and stare at ID’s door)

-Downtown Ann Arbor

-Gigantic American grocery stores

-Midwesterners who are so polite that they apologize to you even when they haven’t done anything wrong!

-Ann Arbor yuppies (even though I actually can’t stand them)

-American television (even though I actually can’t stand that, either—with the exception of “World News with Peter Jennings,” of course)

It was definitely worth it.

40 Things I Learned During My First Four Months in Germany

1. I am not cut out for small-town life. At least, not for German small-town life.

2. Walking is more difficult than it looks.

3. The American health care system is really wretched compared to Western Europe’s. Not only do tons of Americans have no health insurance at all, but the quality of care is better here!

4. Hiking is fantastic fun.

5. Bike helmets really work!

6. Living in a stranger’s house is an inherently stressful activity.

7. The Autobahn is terrifying and being in a car going that fast will make you dizzy.

8. Physical therapy works.

9. Racism and prejudice against people of other religions are still socially acceptable in rural eastern Germany.

10. Being a foreigner is also an inherently stressful activity.

11. Teaching is incredibly time-consuming. (Note: I knew this already, but now I’ve experienced it first-hand!)

12. No, it’s not true that all towns and villages in Germany have public transportation!

13. While German Gymnasien may produce better-educated citizens than American high schools, they are attended by only one third of Germany’s young people. And the other two thirds have no better than a tenth-grade education! In other words, both educational systems have their flaws.

14. Germans believe that American cuisine consists solely of fast food. They also have no concept of how big and diverse our country really is-- some of them expect Michigan to have the same climate as Florida!

15. The German conception of American Indians is, frankly, silly.

16. Being liked by your coworkers is nice, but not actually necessary.

17. Germans are a lot more judgmental about infractions in unwritten social codes than Americans are. If you sweep your walkway on Sunday or put up your Christmas tree before December 23rd, you can be sure that your neighbors will gossip about you.

18. How to deal with a your boss: smile and nod a lot, offer criticism only when absolutely necessary, tow the line, keep on your toes, and vent to friends on other continents.

19. How to deal with nasty landlords: move out.

20. Seventh-graders are much easier to deal with than tenth-graders.

21. Sparkling water is actually pretty good!

22. So are Limburger cheese and sour-milk cheese aged with mold.

23. Steak tartar (raw hamburger with chopped onion and seasonings) is not as disgusting as it sounds—but I still prefer my meat cooked.

24. German washing machines are inscrutable.

25. Learning to speak a minority language is like stepping through a secret door into a whole different country.

26. I hate being called an “Ami,” but not nearly as much as I hate hearing my country referred to as “Ami-Land”!

27. Countries work better when they are not ruled by religious fanatics. (Note: Again, I already knew this, but now I’ve seen it for myself.)

28. Intelligent television is actually possible. Over here, at least.

29. I am a typical prudish American. Which is to say, I find anatomically correct garden gnomes, advertisements featuring bare buttocks painted on the sides of buses, and clips of porn on the evening news to be vulgar and unnecessary.

30. Hospitals are boring.

31. Being an “authority figure” is kind of fun.

32. School is much more enjoyable when you have a key to the teacher’s lounge!

33. But I still don’t want to teach middle school or high school on a permanent basis.

34. A technique for shushing chatty students: Look directly at them, smile, raise an eyebrow, and say “Shhh!”

35. A technique for getting kids to stay on task when they’re doing their seat work: Warn them that you’re going to call on them. Then do so.

36. Breaking your ankle is not conducive to doing linguistic fieldwork.

37. The old, regionally distinctive Sorbian dialects have pretty much died out. Unfortunately.

38. Two advantages of living in a rural area: 1. Organic fruit right off the tree! 2. Locally-produced sheep cheese!

39. Don’t judge people until you’ve seen the way they treat you when they’re not under any professional or social obligation.

40. My correct (American) shoe size is not a woman’s 6—it’s a woman’s 4 ½!