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, February 24, 2005

I Can the Englisch Languages

Since this is a vocational-type secondary school and our students 'graduate' after the tenth grade and then enter the work force, there's a lot of emphasis on making sure our ninth-graders can write a CV and a letter of application-- in English as well as German. I've been grading a pile of faux CVs and application letters for the past couple of days, and I found some pretty funny examples of beginners' English.


Part I: Overestimation of one's own linguistic abilities

- 'I'm speaking English and German very well.'
- 'I can the English languages.'
- 'I can German and Englisch.'
- 'I can speaking English very good.'
- 'I can good speaking English.'

Part II: Miscellaneous incomprehensibility

- 'I have the school work experience programm done in the chemistry, this, I think that's help me in my job as speech therapist.'
- 'I like it, me busy with other people and that I can help them.'
- 'Because I have loocked for a study that supports my hobbies, And I found the physicle engineer after my grammar school.'
- 'I have already two practical trainings in the direction Media.'
- 'This work experience confirmed me to apply for this job.'
- 'I have done already collect experience in a practical training and I was in a course for the language france.'
- 'But you must know: that you live in another country France or English and the time of work is not regulary, then.'

Part III: Answering the telephone (my personal favorite!)

- 'Personnel Department, Ireen Brook speaking. What's your problem?'

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Crisis

Ok, probably some of you have noticed that the headline on my blog has changed, and others have received frantic phone calls from me... I'm having a mid-life crisis.

It's kind of premature, I know. Unless our calculations are based on the life expectancy of, say, Burkina Faso, I'm nowhere near mid-life. (I hope I live to be older than 47!)

But nonetheless, it seems to be the best possible label for what's going on inside my head right now.

Here's the deal: after spending my undergraduate career preparing to do linguistic fieldwork, applying exclusively to fieldwork-based grad programs in linguistics, and conducting actual fieldwork in some remote villages of Lusatia, I decided that linguistic fieldwork is not for me.

I do enjoy it on an intellectual level. It's fun, and it's very challenging. BUT in order to conduct fieldwork on a professional basis, you have to be willing to live in poor, remote regions for months at a time. And I've found that I just can't do this. Despite its lack of decent bus service and high unemployment rate (20%!), Lusatia is pretty posh by fieldwork standards. Even so, living here is doing nasty things to me. I'm depressed most of the time, I've been having a lot of seizures, and the loneliness is mind-numbing.

I still want to be a linguist. But I think I want to go into Slavic and Germanic Linguistics (yes, both) instead. This poses a problem, because the only Ph.D. program I applied to this year is very much fieldwork-driven. It no longer fits with my career goals. So, what I want to do is renew my TA-ship, spend a year in another part of Germany teaching English and learning to speak Russian (a must for Slavic Linguistics programs), and apply to a different set of graduate programs next fall.

The problem is, if my TA-ship isn't renewed, I'm kind of screwed. I won't be a student, won't be able to stay in Germany, and won't have a job. I'd have to be a rent-a-serf (i.e., 'office temp') for a year. Which wouldn't exactly look good on grad school applications.

I had a really nice plan for my life. And it's still quite workable. I just don't think it's the right plan anymore.

This is really, really disorienting.

Monday, February 21, 2005

The Great Escape, Part III: Amsterdam for the Straight-Laced Traveler

You know who you are.

You’re more interested in the Anne-Frank-Huis than the Sex Museum. You’d rather take a leisurely walk along the canals of the Leidseplein than gawk at the hookers in the Red Light District. When you go to a “coffee house,” all you’re interested in is coffee.

Guess what? You can have a great time in Amsterdam without ingesting any substances that are banned in your own country, and without setting foot in the famous prostitution quarter even once. I did!

Amsterdam was quite an experience.

I experienced culture shock, but it was the pleasant sort of culture shock that comes with watching people sit confidently on bicycle racks as their friends peddle down canal-lined streets. Just about everyone in the Netherlands seems to speak both English and German. I only ran into one person who spoke neither, and then I was able to make myself understood in a kind of pidgin Dutch—it’s not a hard language to pick up if you already know its two West Germanic sister tongues. (Dutch sounds like what would happen if English and German had a baby with some kind of sinus problem.)

So what does the Straight-Laced Traveler do in Amsterdam?

-I visited the Anne-Frank-Huis and bought a copy of her diary in the original Dutch. With the help of a dictionary, I think I’ll be able to read it!

-Took in the Van Gogh Museum and learned some more about my favorite Post-Impressionist.

-Explored a very old Dutch canal house which has been furnished to look as it did in the 18th and 19th centuries.

-Walked up and down the canals at night.

-Spent an evening in a bruin café, the Amsterdam equivalent of an English pub.

-Ate a bunch of falafel from the ubiquitous “Maoz” falafel chain.

-Laughed at other tourists who were stoned and/or high on shrooms.

-Felt extremely conspicuous because anyone could tell by looking at me that I was a foreigner. It wasn’t what I was wearing; it was my lack of height. The Dutch are essentially a race of giants—literally the tallest people in the world!

The Great Escape, Part II: Restoring My Faith in Germanity

No, that’s not a typo in the heading. It’s just a really bad pun!

After three nights of alcoholism in Düsseldorf I headed to Hannover to visit the nice teachers I met at the hostel in Weimar and to hang out with my buddy Jim. This trip was just what I needed.

MP, one of those super-nice teachers, put me up in her apartment. She took me to her school (a Gymnasium), where I was super-impressed by her students: her fifth-graders speak English as well as my seventh-graders do, and the 12th-graders in her German Literature class had better insights than most of my fellow students in college! (I wanted to wrap a few of them up in brightly colored paper and send them express mail to ID, as a gift.) We hung out, along with WR (the other teacher) and MP’s boyfriend, and the three of them made jokes that helped me to feel better about the rather nasty experiences I’ve had in my village in the Lausitz. They also pointed out that there might be a reason that so many of my students are named “Nancy” and “Ronny”… Funny how that had escaped my notice!

Visiting them was a cause for pleasant confusion. These people are so nice, so open and generous! They’re not prejudiced against foreigners of people of other religions! They don’t have weird ideas about Native Americans having a bridge-building gene! How on earth can they be Germans!?!

Essentially, they helped me to realize that I do like Germany, I just don’t particularly like the little corner of it that I live in. And I do like Germans, in general—I just don’t care for some of the people I’m at the mercy of in my village.

I had a good time with Jim, too. We went to a bar with three restrooms. They were labeled “Kerle,” “Women,” and “das dritte Geschlect.” (“Guys,” “women,” and “the third sex” for you monolinguals!)

Funny that when I was in Hannover I wasn’t conscious of being a foreigner at all—and I’d never even been there before! In the Bautzen area, my foreignness never leaves my thoughts. I may as well be wearing a scarlet “A” for “Auslander” here…

The Great Escape, Part I: Party in the Rheinland

After making my hamsterlike escape, the first place I hit was Düsseldorf, a major city in Nordrhein-Westfalen noted for its fashion industry and the fact that my friend the Jewkrainian lives there.

After many weeks in a bleak provincial village, the bustle of the Ruhrgebiet was almost too much for me. I felt like a person who’d just been let out of prison. I annoyed my fellow Fulbrighters with comments such as, “Goodness, do those teenagers have their natural hair color?!? Wow, there are so many people here, and I’ve never seen any of them before!!! Oh my God, you can buy falafel here!!! Listen, I think that man is speaking English!!! What? The public transit here runs on weekends, too!?!”

Three other TA buddies of mine were visiting the Jewkrainian for the weekend. It wasn’t so much that she had suddenly become immensely popular, it was just that this particular weekend was Karneval, the German version of Mardi Gras, and Düsseldorf is one of the two biggest Karneval cities. The other is Köln (Cologne to you English-speakers), which is only 45 minutes away by train.

Karneval was an interesting experience, though not one I’d go out of my way to have again. Streets full of broken beer bottles get old pretty quickly, and those whistles everybody had were really annoying.

Highlights of Karneval:

-Watching a man dressed as a Bedouin woman flash his buttcheeks at the crowd from atop a pedestal.

-Being photographed with a group of very drunken men dressed in pink bunny suits.

-The train trip back from Köln to Düsseldorf on Friday night: a group of elderly people wearing turbans and/or 18th century costumes sang traditional songs in Kölsch dialect.

-The Jewkrainian’s pasta dish: a vegetarian delight.

-Visiting the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen and getting to see a painting I know very well in person: I used to look at it every day in my favorite professor’s office!

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Escape!!! Escape!!!

After a few weeks back in the village, I'm itching to get out again. Like a hamster in an aquarium, I've been searching my environment for weak points that might possible allow me to break out... Under cover of darkness, I fill my cheek pouches with corn kernels and sunflower seeds, shimmy up my water bottle, push up the mesh lid imprisoning me in my cage and scurry to freedom!

(All who agree that I pushed that last metaphor way too far, say 'aye.')

The weak point in my environment: two weeks of mid-winter break! So actually it is perfectly legal for me to get the hell out of the Oberlausitz for a while. I will, however, be leaving under cover of darkness anyway-- I have to take the 6:30 a.m. bus to Bautzen tomorrow in order to make my 7:45 train.

Unlike my childhood pet Sparkles, who always seemed to vacation under the refrigerator, I will be heading to western Germany: first I'll be heading to Düsseldorf to hang out with my friend Alina and experience Karneval (the German version of Mardi Gras-- less toplessness, more beer), then on to Hannover to see my friend Jim and the cool teacher I met in Weimar. After that I'm going to go to Hamburg for a few days and take a side trip to Lübeck, where I can explore Thomas Mann's childhood home.

If all goes well, I'm also going to spend a weekend in Amsterdam! That's right, I'm heading to the Netherlands.

(Note to lurkers with small vocabularies: the Netherlands is a small, low-lying country bordering Germany and Belgium, also known as Holland. It should not be confused with your nether regions, which are your reproductive organs, also known as your private parts, or with the Netherworld, which is where the ancient Greeks and Romans went when they died, and is also known as Hades.) (Please note that is a note to lurkers. Of course I would not wish to insult any of my regular readers by insinuating that they don't know the difference between Holland and Sheol.)

The escape takes place tomorrow... I've got a lot to do in the meantime. For one thing, I have to pack my cheek pouches-- I mean suitcases...

See? I told you I needed a vacation!

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Keep On Rocking In the Free World

I’m not going to get into the details here, since most of you have already heard them, but I’ve had some problems at work lately. Suffice it to say that someone in a position of power has been bullying me. At any rate I’ve been really, really stressed out lately and haven’t had time to blog. My prevailing mood is one of dread.

I’ve had the song “Rocking in the Free World” stuck in my head for days now. Probably because I don’t feel like I live in the Free World. The Wall fell, but 55 years of totalitarianism, Nazi and Leninist/Stalinist, left its mark on East German culture.

The best adjective I can use for rural East German is “unreconstructed.” West Germany went through a dramatic cultural overhaul in the 1960s, trying to come to terms with the Nazi past and to develop a new way of doing things. For the most part the cultural overhaul in the West was a success. Unfortunately the East never underwent anything similar. The Socialist Unity Party took the position that since Communists were brutally oppressed by the Nazi regime, East Germany was the successor state of the victims, not the perpetrators. Innocent of any wrongdoing, it was best if their new country ignored its brutal past and tried to move on. –They neglected the fact that most East German citizens were not Communists during the Nazi period, and were just as likely to have supported the Nazi dictatorship as their relatives on the other side of the Wall!

The Nazi legacy is not so deeply buried in rural East Germany. Racism and xenophobia are socially acceptable, as is the arrogance toward Slavic cultures that led Germany to invade most of Eastern Europe during WWII. Poland and the Czech Republic are viewed as suburbs of Germany, places where you can buy gasoline and cigarettes at reduced prices. Even though residents of border areas tank up in “the east” on a regular basis, few bother to learn even a smattering of Polish or Czech. They expect the “foreigners” “over there” to speak to them in German. –It seems to me that most fail to grasp that they become foreigners the moment they cross the border.

Then there’s the Communist legacy, characterized by rigid hierarchy, social conformity, and unthinking adherence to rules. I see it all the time in my school. Rote learning is emphasized at the expense of critical thinking skills. Teachers worry more about the fact that the students don’t stand up to greet them at the beginning of class than that they leave campus to smoke during the breaks. Students receive a grade for “orderliness.” There is no grade that takes problem-solving ability or creativity into account. Such skills were not valued under the Communist system, and most Communist-trained teachers don’t make a big effort to cultivate them.

These attitudes will take a long time to change.

Technically, all of my students (except a few of the older 10th-graders) were born in the Free World, and none are old enough to remember the DDR period. But in many ways they think like Ossis (East Germans), because they were brought up and educated by Ossis. This is not entirely a bad thing, of course. There are some things I prefer about East Germany—the people tend to be friendlier and more helpful toward strangers, and they have a stronger sense of community.

But then there’s that dark side. Like the Neo-Nazis sitting in Saxony’s State Parliament. They actually managed to get 8% of the popular vote during last fall’s elections!

I compare it to the American South. 140 years after the end of the Civil War, racism is still more acceptable there than in the northern states.

This still isn’t the Free World. Quite.