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.)

Name:
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, March 24, 2005

Fear the Draft



Lektüre: Siegfried Lenz, Der Verlust

Tagesmenü: Meijer brand macaroni and cheese (imported from home), an orange, tap water

Nervensäge: missing the last bus home from Bautzen


When my father was in high school, he was afraid of the Draft.

This was toward the end of the Vietnam War, and he knew that if his number came up, he could be shipped off to Southeast Asia, where he’d be expected to kill people. And where people would try to kill him, too. So his fear of the Draft was quite rational.

Similarly, about the time when Georgie Bush was getting ready to settle his personal grudge against Saddam Hussein (“He tried to kill my dad!”), my then-eighteen-year-old brother started to get nervous. Really he didn’t have that much to worry about, since a youth spent on skateboards and stunt bicycles left him with so many improperly-healed broken bones that the military would have no choice but to offer him a cushy desk job. But, just in case the Draft came calling, he made an agreement with his buddy Nathan. Should my brother’s number come up, Nathan’s orders were to whack him in the feet with a hammer until they broke again. (I should point out that this would not be as painful as it sounds. My brother has nerve damage in both of his feet. A truck drove over one of them recently, and he didn’t feel a thing.)

Germans fear the Draft, too. They also believe it’s a matter of life and death. But the Draft they fear has nothing to do with the armed forces. It’s the kind that results from leaving doors ajar.

As a foreigner in Germany, I was initially perplexed a phrase I heard frequently: es zieht, literally, “It’s pulling.” When I used my dictionary, I found that this is also an idiom: “There’s a draft.”

Typical scenario: It’s a hot, humid summer day. The car you’re riding in doesn’t have air conditioning, so you crack open a window. “Can’t you close that?” complains the German fellow-passenger. “Es zieht. I’ll catch a cold.”

While I was in the hospital with my broken ankle, a nurse reprimanded me for opening the window on a warm afternoon.

“What do you want to let in a draft for? You’ll catch a cold.”

“That’s a superstition. Colds are caused by germs, not cold air.”

“Any doctor would tell you that the cold air can make you sick.”

“I’m American. In the United States, doctors believe that colds are caused by viruses.”

“Well, of course viruses have something to do with it, too. But mainly it’s drafts. You’ll get sick; you’ll see.”

I realized that arguing with her would be like trying to discuss evolutionary theory with a Southern Baptist, so I shrugged and closed the window. I opened it again when she left the room.

I didn’t get sick, of course. And a few days later, the same nurse prohibited me from taking my flowers home with me. “If you take home flowers from the hospital, you’ll be back within a week. Everybody knows that.” So much for rationality.

The weird thing about this whole draft business is that while Germans are terrified of drafts, they are also big fans of “fresh air.” They sleep with their windows open in the middle of winter. If a room smells funny, they don’t whip out the Febreeze, they air the place out—regardless of the weather.

I can’t seem to tell the difference between “fresh air” and “a draft,” but then I’m just a stupid foreigner. It must be the same genetic defect that causes me to wander about my apartment in stocking feet (Germans would wear slippers) and prefer my vegetables crispy (Germans boil the hell out of just about everything).

Case in point:

I walked into a classroom last week and was struck by the powerful aroma of 11 unwashed adolescent boys. (One of my classes has a hygiene problem.) The room frankly stank, so I asked the kids to open the windows. They obliged.

Then Mr. A arrived. “For Christ’s sake,” he said, “Isn’t one open window enough? Do you think I want to sit around in a draft all day?”

The irony of the situation is that Mr. A is usually a big fan of open windows. On some days this past winter he insisted on “letting in fresh air” even though I could literally see my breath. Fresh air is good for you, you see.

A draft, on the other hand--that can be deadly.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Not Again...

Lektüre: -Siegfried Lenz, Der Verlust (German Lit)
-pamphlet describing laposcopy procedure
-Anne Frank, Het Achterhuis (Dutch)

Tagesmenü: -Thai peanut noodles (from a box mix) with tofu
-low-fat yoghurt with cinnamon and sugar
-tap water

Nervensäge: -being diagnosed with yet another health problem…


It seems that I’ve come to Germany in order to explore its health care system.

Allow me to explain.

I’ve been having nasty abdominal pains for a week or so. On Saturday night they suddenly got worse. I had a fever (due to an ear infection), I was confused, I was all by myself, and I freaked out—I thought I had appendicitis or an ovarian cyst or something worse. In the US, I probably would have gone to Urgent Care. But, this is Germany, and there is no Urgent Care. If you get sick outside of the your doctor’s office hours, you can either drive to the emergency room in Bautzen or contact the Notarzt, a kind of doctor-on-call who makes house calls.

Seeing as my only means of transportation is a bicycle, and I didn’t really feel like biking all the way to Bautzen while dealing with terrible abdominal pains, I took the latter option. The Notarzt told me to go to the hospital. So I called a taxi, and away I went.

The examined me and performed some tests. They couldn’t find an immediate cause for what was wrong, so they decided to hold me. –An American hospital would have sent me home until the test results were in, but this is Germany. German hospitals hold you on any possible pretext, for as long as they can. So they didn’t let me go home until Tuesday morning.

Hospitals are wretched. You have no privacy, even in the shower. The nurses wake you at 6:15 a.m. and insist upon shooing you out of your bed so they can straighten the sheets (despite your protests that you’re just going to get right back into it anyway). People are constantly demanding tubes of your blood. The food is icky. There’s nothing to do (German hospitals lack candy-stripers who go around with magazines, and you have to pay extra if you want to watch TV). And, worst of all, you have to share your room with strangers.

One of the strangers I shared my room with was extremely irritating. An old lady, the kind who lives to discuss her health problems—in heavy Saxon dialect, no less. Direct quote (which I’ve left in German, because I think it’s funnier this way): “Heut’ hab’ ich schon Stuhlgang g’habt, und der war hart und derb.” (Translation: “I’ve already had a bowel movement today, and it was hard and coarse.”) She harped on me for not cleaning my plate at meals, despite the fact that I had abdominal pain and nausea. And she told me that since I walk around barefoot on the cold floor, it’s no wonder that I landed in the hospital. I ended up paying for TV privileges just to give myself something else to listen to.

In case you’re curious, here’s what’s wrong with me: apparently I have an endocrine disorder that makes my internal organs hurt. It was aggravated by the antibiotics I was taking for the ear infection. Hence the pains. So, I have yet another chronic condition (add this to temporal lobe epilepsy, TMJ disorder, back problems, etc.), though thankfully it isn’t anything dangerous.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

A Day in the Life



Lektüre: -Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Der Richter und seine Henker (German lit)
-Bastian Sick, Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod (German lite)
-Anne Frank, Het Achterhuis (Dutch)

Tagesmenü: -boiled potatoes with curds and linseed oil (the Sorbian national dish)
-a garden salad with dill dressing
-tap water

Nervensäge: hay fever

To give you a better idea of what Fulbright Teaching Assistants actually do, I’ve prepared a journal entry for you that gives you some insight into my activities on a typical day. On a typical Tuesday, to be specific—since my schedule is different each day of the week, I picked one day that I thought was fairly representative.

Here goes.

6:30 a.m.—Switch off alarm clock, remove earplugs, put on glasses, get ass out of bed. Eat breakfast (usually wholegrain rye bread with cheese or plum butter, plus a glass of juice), get dressed, make self presentable, head out the door.

7:20 a.m.—Walk to school. (This is not a lengthy undertaking, since I live about 200 yards from my workplace.) Greet various students (grades 7 through 10) who stand just outside the school gates, smoking cigarettes they’ve purchased from any one of Germany’s fine vending machines.

7:23 a.m.—Arrive at school. Greet colleagues in teacher’s lounge; hang up coat. If time, briefly access e-mail to see who’s written.

7:40-8:25 a.m.—Teach the 8a (Realschule), under the supervision of the infamous Boss. I’m not allowed to deviate from the textbook. The curriculum has to do with the US—albeit a rather stereotyped, one-sided view of the US. During a typical lesson, I introduce new vocabulary words, read texts aloud, let the students read the same texts aloud, and offer individual help during writing exercises. Here and there I try to broaden my students’ worldviews by introducing new concepts such as “not being hostile towards immigrants,” “yes, non-white people can really be Americans, too,” and “there is nothing wrong with a girl wanting to become a mechanic.” But I can’t do this too often, because it annoys the Boss.

9:15-9:35 a.m.—This is the students’ breakfast break. I usually spend it in the teachers’ computer room, checking my email.

9:35-10:20 a.m.—Teach the 10b (also Realschule), under the supervision of “Mr. A,” the school’s second English teacher. I can be a little more creative in my lessons here, but there’s still a lot of textbook work. Typical activities: debating an issue of interest to the students (cell phones in schools, etc.), reading longer texts, going over things like the use of idioms, how to use a German-English dictionary, etc.

10:25-11:10 a.m.—Teach the 8b with Mr. A. This is a Hauptschule class—remedial students. 18 kids with learning disabilities, ADHD, and/or difficult family situations. The hour generally starts with five minutes of Mr. A. haranguing selected members of the class about a.) their recent poor test results, b.) their bad attitudes, or c.) their general “laziness.” (He doesn’t seem to notice that this does not exactly motivate them.) The curriculum is the same as for the 8a, but the lessons end up being quite different because I spent most of my time making sure that everyone understands the directions, is on the right page (literally), writes in complete sentences, and actually understands at least some of what they’re writing.

11:15-11:20 a.m.—Meet with Mr. A. to discuss lesson plans for the following day. Usually he just tells me what pages to prepare. Sometimes he makes suggestions as to how I should approach an activity.

11:25-11:50 a.m.—Meet with the Boss to discuss lesson plans for the next week. Fill two and a half pages of notebook paper taking down her extremely specific directives. Worry about having forgotten something. (Note: I like Mr. A.’s approach to lesson planning better.)

11:50 a.m-12:30 p.m.—Check email again, write to family and/or friends, update blog, etc.

12:30 p.m.—Walk home, change out of work clothes, and make lunch. (Lunch is usually either leftovers or some sort of pasta dish.) Eat lunch while reading assorted books from the Bautzen Public Library.

1:30 p.m—Take a nap.

2:30 p.m—If the weather’s decent, I usually go for a walk in the woods. (My village may be boring, but it does have some nice walking trails!)

3:30 p.m—Prepare lessons for Wednesday, and, if time, for Thursday as well. Generally I type my lesson plans on my laptop first, then copy them into the notebook I use as a lesson book. Lesson planning is frequently boring and tedious, especially since it involves making my own answer keys—either German textbook publishers don’t believe in printing teachers’ editions, or my school didn't bother to provide me with one; I’m not sure which.

5:15 p.m.—Sit down with my German-English dictionary to work on Dürrenmatt, or with the Dutch-German dictionary to work on Anne Frank.

6:30 p.m.—Make dinner. (Dinner is a repeat of either lunch or breakfast—leftovers, pasta, or bread and cheese with fruit.) Eat dinner while reading library books.

7:00 p.m.—Watch the TV news while washing the dishes.

7:15 p.m.—Tune in to my favorite German TV program, Kulturzeit (“Culture Time”). Meanwhile, I either finish my lesson plans, review Sorbian vocabulary on flashcards, or do some embroidery.

8:00 p.m.—If a worthwhile program follows Kulturzeit (a nature program about moose in Sweden, for example, or a documentary about orphans in Mongolia), I might tune in. Otherwise I do some more reading.

9:00 p.m.—Shower, choose clothes for the following day, and set alarm clock.

9:30 p.m—Vent in journal. If I’ve had a particularly stressful day, I do this while drinking a glass of Beruhigungstee (sedative tea), which smells and tastes like unwashed feet, but is fairly effective.

10:00 p.m—Go to bed.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Greetings from the Fashion Capital of Europe

Lektüre-
-Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Der Richter und seine Henker (German Lit)
-Bastian Sick, Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod (German lite)
-Anne Frank, Het Achterhuis (Dutch)

Tagesmenü-
-cornmeal pancakes (which don’t taste quite right, because German cornmeal is too fluffy)
-pinto beans with weird German salsa
-tap water
-an orange

Nervensäge-
-this bloody snow that won’t stop falling even though it’s already the middle of March


Greetings, ladies and gentlemen, from the Fashion Capital of Europe. No, I’m not in Milan or Paris, or even Düsseldorf—it’s a little-known fact, but the Fashion Capital of Europe is actually a village 8 km north of Bautzen (population: about a thousand). For security purposes, the village will not be named, but that won’t stop your Intrepid Fashion Reporter from filling you in on the latest fashion trends in this often-overlooked region!

First, let’s take a look at the standard-bearers of the local fashion industry: 12- to 15-year-old girls.

This season calls for jeans so low-riding that you need a Brazilian bikini wax to wear them in public. Ideally, these should be coupled with brightly-colored thong underwear that sticks out a good inch over the back of your jeans. When choosing a shirt or sweater, make sure that it reveals least two inches of your stomach—more if you’re overweight or if the forecast predicts temperatures above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Your shirt or sweater should be inscribed with a borderline-meaningless English phrase: something like “Harvard Girls’ Squad ‘68” or “Kiss Me Long, Soft, and Sweet.”* (What it says doesn’t matter. Just remember: English is cool. Other than in English class, of course.) A low-cut neckline is also a plus!

Your earrings should be at least three inches long. Fluorescent-colored plastic hoops are big this season, as are dangly metallic things that appear to be made out of tinsel that didn’t sell at Christmas time.

Now for the young men:

The must-have accessory for the discerning young gentleman this season is a backpack or pencil case decorated with the English curse word “F---“: preferably in white-out, but if you don’t have any it’s ok to borrow your sister’s nail polish and write in that instead. Beyond that, be sure to pick up a pair of baggy cargo pants in olive green or camouflage print. Fill as many of the pockets as possible, and then roll your pant-legs up to mid-calf, exposing your scabby shins and leg hair. Complete the look with a T-shirt or sweatshirt with weird English writing on it.

Now let’s move on to wear this area really comes into its own: hair.

If you’re a woman or girl between 10 and 80 and your hair is its natural color, then shame on you!!! At the very least, you should have highlights. And when I say “highlights,” I don’t mean the conventional streaks meant to accentuate the natural color of your hair. Oh no. The point of highlights is to stand out, be unique (like everyone else in the village), and draw attention to yourself. Which is why they should be as far from your natural hair color as possible. If you have black hair, consider putting in platinum blond highlights, for example. (The “Cruella deVil” look.) If you’re blond, then purple is the way to go, and of course candy-apple red looks good on anyone.

Better yet, dye ALL of your hair. Again, the point is to look as unnatural as possible. The combination of fire-engine red and jet black (yes, on the same head) is quite popular with ladies in their fifties and sixties, for example. And of course, don’t forget to let those roots show!

As for hair styles, the eighties are back with a vengeance: let’s celebrate the return of the Vokuhila (vorne kurz, hinten lang) or Manta-Friseur! Mullets are everywhere in Germany, so grow out your hair! (The back part of it, at least.) Particularly trendy: a cut popularized by the newscaster on ZDF—keep most of your hair short, but grow out a few stringy strands in back and then let them curl up at the ends, flip-style. Another variation on the “Canadian waterfall” theme: sport a mullet and a Mohawk at the same time!!!

Gentlemen, there’s only one rule to keep in mind when selecting a hairstyle: wash your hair as little as possible. This cuts down on the cost of gel needed to attain the “spiky look” that’s so popular this season. But nevertheless, I would like to draw attention to a truly original style sported by one of my more troublesome eighth-grade boys. He keeps most of his hair short, but has grown out his bangs and slicks them up into a four-inch-tall conical formation using what must be an enormous amount of gel and/or hairspray. It makes him look like he should be a minor character in the “Archie Comics” series. –It’s the wave of the future, and he’s a true pioneer.

(Postscript: Yes, I realize that I’m not the world’s most stylish person myself—I own a pair of velour pants, for example, though I never wear them outside the house—but after seeing an umpteenth retiree with hair the color of a fire truck, as well as yet another sixth-grader in an obvious thong, I needed to vent somewhere! Don’t worry, this blog is not going to turn into a running fashion critique. And I’d still rather eat a live grasshopper than buy an issue of Vogue.)

* actual phrases on sweaters worn by my ninth- and tenth-grade girls

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Fun Facts to Know and Tell

Some interesting information about the German educational system, taken from a “Spiegel” special issue from 2002… Some information may be slightly outdated, but most things haven’t changed much.

-15-year-old U.S. students beat out their German counterparts in all three subjects tested in the PISA study! (The famous study compared 15-year-olds in 31 more-or-less industrialized, more-or-less democratic countries in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Subjects tested were reading, mathematics, and the natural sciences. The results of a follow-up study were published recently. Germany’s rankings didn’t improve much, and in one case they had actually slipped!)

-In reading, German students ranked 21st. The U.S. did somewhat better, coming in 15th. The five top-scoring countries were, in order: 1. Finland, 2. Canada, 3. New Zealand, 4. Australia, and 5. Ireland. The five worst were (from the bottom): 31. Brazil, 30. Mexico, 29. Luxembourg, 28. Latvia, and 27. Russia.

-In mathematics, Germany came in 20th. We barely outranked them, taking place 19. The top-scorers were: 1. Japan, 2. South Korea, 3. New Zealand, 4. Finland, and 5. Australia. The bottom of the barrel: 31. Brazil, 30. Mexico, 29. Luxembourg, 28. Greece, and 27. Portugal.

-Germany was also in 20th place in the natural sciences. The U.S. did decidedly better, coming in 14th. The top-scorers: 1. South Korea, 2. Japan, 3. Finland, 4. the U.K., and 5. Canada. The worst: 31. Brazil, 30. Luxembourg, 29. Portugal, 28. Latvia, and 27. Russia. (Side note: If Luxembourg is such a rich country, how come it has such crappy schools??? Can someone explain this to me???)

-The percentage of elementary school students in Germany who are of non-German origin: 11.8%. (This approximately represents the percentage of non-German kids in all German schools. All kids in Germany attend elementary school; after that they get tracked into various kinds of secondary schools-- supposedly based solely on their abilities, but I'm very skeptical.)

-Percentage of Hauptschule students of non-German origin: 17.3%. (“Hauptschule” is the lowest track of the secondary school system. Students take remedial-level courses and leave school after the ninth grade.)

-Percentage of pupils at schools for the handicapped who are of non-German origin: 14.9%.

-Percentage of Realschule students of non-German origin: 6.4%. (“Realschule” is the comprehensive secondary school track, where most German students end up. Realschüler leave school after grade 10.)

-Percentage of students at Gymnasien (college-preparatory schools) of non-German origin: only 3.9%!!!

-Germany and Austria are the only European countries that don’t require preschool teachers to have a college diploma.

-Average age at which German children start school: 7.

-German children attend elementary school for only four years: shorter than in any other EU country.

-According to the PISA study, almost a quarter of all German 15-year-olds have been held back in school at least once. Every year, 280,000 students must repeat a grade—more than in any other industrialized country.

-Average of textbooks used in German schools: 10 years.

-The majority of German students attend school only in the morning—in contrast to policy in almost all othe industrialized countries. Schools with instruction in the afternoon (“Ganztagschulen”) are still something of a rarity. The Federal State with the highest proportion of Ganztagschulen is Berlin (32% of all schools). The Federal State with the fewest Ganztagschulen is Saxony (where I live). As of 2002, all schools in Saxony sent their pupils home before lunch. Only 6% of all German pupils attend schools with instruction in the afternoon.

-Percentage of Germans who earn the Abitur (highest school leaving certificate, earned after 12 or 13 years of school; the prerequisite for admission to university): about 37%. (The other 63% leave school after grade 9 or 10.)

While the American school system certainly has its own problems (meaningless high school diplomas; utter neglect of foreign languages and world history; great disparities in the quality of public schools), I think that the German school system is even more screwed up. At least we provide special help to students that need it, and we don't let anyone leave school after the ninth grade! We may not be Finland or South Korea, but we're also not Germany. Or Luxembourg.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Signs You've Spent Too Much Time in Germany


1. You automatically flag your 1’s and cross your 7’s.

2. You find it quite difficult to speak “pure” English (without any German words, phrases, or idioms) for more than a couple of minutes.

3. You make jokes about Angela Merkel.

4. You add canned corn to dishes in which most Americans would find its presence inappropriate or even bizarre—like salads, pasta, and pizza.

5. You wear jeans under your skirts.

6. You know your European shoe and clothing sizes, your height in centimeters, and your weight in kilograms.

7. You crave döner kebabs and rote Grütze.

8. You aren’t ashamed to wear the same outfit two days in a row.

9. You have acquired a slight German accent in your English, and you frequently use German syntax when speaking English—especially with Germans.

10. When you bump into someone, you automatically say “Entschuldigung!”, as opposed to “excuse me.” (If you stare straight ahead, pretend that nothing happened, and keep on walking, then you've spent way too much time in Germany.)

11. You hold your utensils European-style—even when no one is watching.

12. You’ve tried Blutwurst, Hackepeter, goose, and bread smeared with lard. (If you’ve eaten horse or Bregenwurst, surrender that blue passport now!)

13. You can identify the German “voices” of several American actors.

14. You’ve acquired a taste for carbonated mineral water.

15. You are tired of disclosing your political leanings to strangers, tired of explaining that there’s a lot more to American cuisine than fast food, tired of pointing out that the average American actually has more education than the average German, thank you very much! and you think that if you hear the words Ami or Ami-Land one more time, you will scream.


Footnotes (For those who need them)

As the old saying goes, “if you have to explain the joke, then it isn’t funny.” But I think I owe some explanation to those of my readers who haven’t spent much time in Germany. So, here goes:

1. A handwritten European “1” has a little flag on it, so it looks a lot like an American “7.” This is why Europeans cross their “7”s: to keep them from being mistaken for “1”s.

3. Angela Merkel is the leading politician in the Christian Democratic Union, Germany’s most socially conservative political party. She’s a lot like Margaret Thatcher, but not as warm and cuddly. Making fun of her is, after soccer, Germany’s second national pastime.

4. Germans put canned corn in everything.

5. Jeans (or any kind of pants, really) under skirts is quite popular over here. It’s cute, it keeps you warm, and it makes it easier to ride a bicycle.

6. Shoe and clothing sizes are different in Europe. Examples: in the U.S. I wear size 2 pants and a size 4 ½ shoe. In Germany, my sizes are 32 and 35, respectively.

7. The döner kebab is Germany’s national fast food. Germans think of it as “Turkish,” but actually it was invented (by Turkish immigrants) in Germany. It’s something like a gyro, only better. Rote Grütze is a jam-like dessert made of cooked red berries (raspberries and currants, mostly). It’s usually served with vanilla sauce.

8. That’s normal in most of Europe.

11. Instead of just picking up their knives when they need them, like Americans do, Europeans hold both knife and fork during the entire meal: knife in the right hand, fork in the left. It’s very easy to spot an American in a restaurant, because we’re pretty much the only country which has retained our (archaic) style of utensil usage—so when Americans overseas get sick of being stared at, they have to learn a new set of table manners.

12. Blutwurst is sausage made from blood. Hackepeter (also called “steak tartar”) is seasoned raw hamburger meat with onions, usually served on rolls. Bregenwurst is sausage made out of brains. (Thankfully, in the era of BSE, its popularity has waned.)

13. Instead of using subtitles, Germans dub foreign films into German. The German “voice” of a non-German actor is always the same, unless the guy doing the dubbing dies. So, for example, there’s some guy whose entire job consists of being the German “voice” of Robert DeNiro!

14. Next to beer, carbonated mineral water is probably the most popular beverage in Germany. Order “Wasser” in a restaurant, and this is what you’re gonna get.

15. Ami is a stupid nickname for an American—it used to refer specifically to American soldiers, but now they use it for anyone with a blue passport. Ami-Land is a stupid nickname for the United States of America—kind of like referring to Canada as “Canuckistan.”


Monday, March 07, 2005

Journey to the Planet of the Smart People

Imagine 300 or so highly motivated, intellectual young Americans who work and study throughout Europe: mostly in Germany, but also in Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Greece, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. They are graduate students, teaching assistants, journalists, researchers, teachers, and professors. Their areas of expertise encompass everything from subatomic particles to medieval literature. These are the kids who were in the gifted classes at school, or who got beat up on the playground because the other ten-year-olds didn’t understand their interest in the lifeways of Mongolian nomads. Essentially, these are grown-up nerds.

But they’re cool nerds. Well-rounded, articulate, personable nerds. Funny and friendly nerds. Since they’ve outgrown their high-water trousers and stopped taping their glasses together, these are some pretty attractive nerds.

Now imagine gathering these nerds together. For five days, they all stay at a four-star hotel in the heart of Europe’s most dynamic, multicultural metropolis: Berlin. All of their expenses are paid. When they’re not learning about each others’ research, stuffing themselves at buffets and wine-and-cheese affairs, or attending concerts organized by musical nerds, our heroes are free to wander the city, take in museums, plays and films, or party down in Berlin’s innumerable bars and clubs.

Welcome to the annual Fulbright Berlin Conference.

This is where I spent last week. And let me tell you, it was FANTASTIC.

Aside from making new friends and hanging out in the coolest city I’ve ever been too, I learned a lot. It was incredibly intellectually stimulating! New topics to research (among others, Quakerism and Wilhelm Gleim), new films to see (“Bubbahotep”?), new places to check out—I feel the need to visit Bonn, Rheinland-Pfalz, and Dresden as soon as possible!

My plan to renew my TA-ship and spend another year in Germany (NOT in my current village; NOT at my current school; actually I want to be as far away from both as possible!) got a big boost, too. Mr. “Cleaner Drain,”* who is to the German-American Fulbright program what the Queen is to England, is impressed that I want to stay another year even though my experience this year hasn’t exactly been fantastic. So he’s going to contact the Pädagogischer Austauschdienst and have them put a note in my reapplication file. Basically, something along the lines of “Take this woman, and put her in a nice school in a university town, or else!”

I’m in! I’m in!

*This is what the man’s name means in German. It’s most unfortunate.