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.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

It Hits

American ex-pats in Germany are a fairly diverse bunch. We represent all ages, races, religions, and political persuasions. But there is one thing that unites us: a passionate hatred of Schlager.

Schlager is a specifically German genre of music. The name Schlager comes from the verb schlagen, meaning “to hit.” This leads some foreigners to the mistaken impression that the word Schlager simple means “a hit,” but this is not the case—while some Schlager are (regrettably) hits, not every hit is a Schlager (thank God). The German word for “hit,” in the American sense? It’s Hit, actually—the slogan of a local radio station in Bautzen is “Hit für Hit, ein Hit!” (“Hit for hit, it’s a hit!”)

My theory is that Schlager got its name because when you hear it, you are overcome by the need to hit the singer, or, if that’s not possible, to be hit over the head with a heavy object until you are put out of your misery.

So, what is Schlager, exactly? Let’s start with adjectives I’ve heard other ex-pats use to describe it: “horrible,” “nasty,” “wretched,” “pathetic,” “crappy,” and even “infernal.”

I started with adjectives because Schlager is actually kind of hard to explain to people who haven’t heard it. There’s no precise equivalent in the Anglo-American cultural sphere. It’s music your grandparents would listen to—but not the good stuff like Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole. And a lot of Schlager fans are nowhere near old enough to be your grandparents. It’s what might have happened to popular music if Chuck Berry and his buddies had never invented rock and roll. And, finally, the best description I can give: if Barry Manilow and Paul Anka sang in German, they would sing Schlager.*

Both of them are much more popular in Germany than in the States, incidentally. There was a segment on Paul Anka on Kulturzeit the other day, and at least once a day the local morning show plays Barry Manilow’s “Mandy.” The song was so big here that for a few years, Mandy was one of the most popular names for East German girls.

So, I suppose that Schlager could be loosely compared to “easy listening.” Except that Schlager enjoys a greater popularity, across a much broader age range, than easy listening does. And of course, Schlager is much, much worse.

I have a suspicion that Schlager is more popular here in the former Soviet-occupied zone than in West Germany, but I haven’t spent enough time on that side of the country to be sure. I do know, though, that in additional to pan-German Schlager, there are also specifically East German Schlager. Sample title: “Ein himmelblauer Trabant.” (“A sky-blue Trabant.” The Trabant, better known as the Trabi, is a comical-looking East German automobile about the size of a VW Rabbit. It’s powered by what appears to be a lawnmower engine.)

There are posters up at the bus stop. In a couple of weeks the neighboring village of Neschwitz is hosting a Schlagerabend (“Schlager evening”), featuring artists with first names like Karlheinz, Jürgen, and Gerda.

I plan to skip town.

*I have heard other people say the same thing about ABBA, but I will refrain from doing so. The first reason for this is that I don’t have a huge problem with ABBA, actually—I even boogied to “Dancing Queen” at the Fulbright Conference’s goodbye party. The second reason is that my mentor, ID, who is much bigger than me and is a former professional athlete and could hurt me very badly if she wanted to, is a really big ABBA fan. So, let me repeat, I am making fun of Schlager, not of ABBA. There’s really no comparison. I mean, Schlager is German and ABBA is Swedish, right? Stop aiming that basketball at my head. Thank you.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Why Some People Shouldn't Breed

Since I have no children now and have no real plans to have any in the future, I know I shouldn’t critique other people’s parenting. But sometimes I just can’t help myself.

This is one of those times.

One of my eighth-grade girls has a tattoo on her left shin. I noticed it the other day while I was teaching. This girl, who I’ll call “Mandy,” was sitting in the front row with her pant legs rolled up to her knees, so it was impossible to miss. This wasn’t henna and it wasn’t a temporary; it was the real deal.

Mandy’s tattoo isn’t a butterfly or a flower or any of the other cutesy, girly designs that my college roommates used to get on their ankles or lower backs. It’s a tribal design, all in black. It covers her shin from knee to ankle. It looks like the sort of thing you might expect to see on a Maori warrior. But Mandy is not a Maori warrior; she’s a 14-year-old East German girl who lives in a small village in the middle of nowhere. On her, a tattoo like that makes the statement: “I want to go to prison when I grow up.”

Let me repeat: this child is in the eighth grade. She’s 14 years old.

After class I approached Mr. A.

“Um, are kids allowed to get tattoos in Germany?”

“You have to be 18. But you can get them when you’re younger if you have your parents’ permission.”

So, let’s say you’re a parent and your 14-year-old child approaches you and asks “Mom/Dad, can I get a tattoo?” I can think of a number of responses to this question, including: “No,” “When you’re older,” “Over my dead body,” and “You’re kidding, right?” All of these responses seem ok to me. What doesn’t strike me as appropriate is Mandy’s parents’ apparent reaction:

“Fine by me. –Do I have to sign anything?”

Decent parents do not allow their adolescent children to have big honking tribal tattoos permanently stabbed into their lower legs. There is a reason for this: decent parents know that they have a responsibility to protect their kids from their stupider impulses. Adolescents, of course, are just brimming with stupid impulses: they frequently shoplift, take up smoking, punch holes into walls, and write things like “Ashley (heart)s Josh 4-Ever” on bathroom stalls.

And sometimes they want to get tattoos. This is a bad idea. Often what seems cool at 14 looks stupid by 30, or 25, or even 21.

I went to college with a girl who had four rather large tattoos on her arms. She got them done in high school. (In the US minors don’t need parental permission to get tattoos, they just need reasonably well-forged driver’s licenses declaring them 18.) Of the four tattoos she got between ages 16 and 18, she only liked one by the time she was 21. She wanted to have the other three lasered off as soon as possible.

Mandy’s parents failed to shield their daughter from her youthful bad taste. Instead of signing the forms, or accompanying her to the tattoo parlor, or whatever, they should have laughed their heads off and then said: “No way! --Go do your homework!”

Which brings me to my second point.

About half of the kids in Mandy’s class have already been left back at least once. Several are in danger of failing the eighth grade for the second or third time. A big part of the reason is that they rarely do their homework.

Mr. A assigns homework just about every night—not an excessive amount; usually just some vocabulary words to learn or a written exercise to complete. The students have to write their assignments into daily planners that their parents sign once a week, or, in extreme cases, every day. This would be a good system, except that it seems that a lot of the parents just sign the planners without checking to make sure that their offspring have actually done any work. Mr. A calls these parents to complain, but, as he puts it, “They don’t care.”

So their kids end up leaving school at 16 or 17 without even successfully passing the ninth grade Hauptschule, can’t get jobs, become alcoholics, knock someone up/get knocked up, and the cycle continues.

What the hell is wrong with these people???

(Note: Unlike most of my entries, this one has nothing to do with cultural differences. There are bad parents everywhere, from the mansions of Gross Ile, Michigan, to the mud-huts of the Ituri rain forest. It’s an unfortunately universal phenomenon.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2005


Last week I got to do a lesson on African American music with my eighth-graders.* This was fun for a number of reasons.

The first is that I got to hear a chorus of German schoolchildren repeat the word “mojo” in the same apathetic monotone they use for mundane vocabulary items like “to describe” and “subway.” While mojo sounds cool or even comical to us, it’s just another English word to them! It got me thinking about all the other words and phrases I could order them to repeat after me: voodoo doll, prairie oysters, word to yo’ mother… Pity that they aren’t in the glossary.

I considered other ways to use the word “mojo” in a classroom setting. I would have liked to have posed the following discussion questions:

1. Muddy Waters is upset because, while he believes that his mojo is in good working order, it “just won’t work on you.” What could be causing Mr. Waters’ mojo to malfunction?

2. Think about a time when your own mojo failed to work properly. How did you feel? Describe.

3. Can you empathize with Mr. Waters’ frustration? Why or why not? Explain.

(Unfortunately, my eighth-graders haven’t learned the subjunctive yet and they have trouble with relative clauses, so I had to skip the discussion questions and just play the song for them. )

The second reason that this lesson was cool: I got to play Aretha Franklin! Doubly cool, since most of the kids knew nothing about her and maybe hadn’t even heard her music before. I got to be the one to introduce them to Detroit’s very own queen-sized Queen of Motown music!

Since I come from Michigan, this was a big honor. An appreciation for Motown music just goes along with growing up in the Great Lakes State, like drinking Vernor’s ginger ale to settle your stomach or habitually referring to all department and grocery stores in the possessive (Meijer’s, Kroger’s, Kohl’s, etc.). And Aretha Franklin is as good as it gets! Maybe some of us don’t own any of her CDs, but I can’t think of a single native Michigander who wouldn’t be thrilled to win tickets to an Aretha Franklin concert.

And the song on the CD? “Respect.” What else? But the textbook publishers were too cheap to buy the rights to the whole song, so we only got to hear a snippet. And it cut out just before the coolest part of the song (“R-E-S-P-E-C-T!...”), which was bitterly disappointing. To me, of course. The kids inevitably failed to appreciate the coolness of it all. There’s something wrong with today’s youth, let me tell you.

*No, my school has not softened its policy of sticking to the State-prescribed curriculum at all costs. There’s actually a reading selection on black music in the textbook!

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Hazards of Small-Town Teaching

One of the main difficulties of being a teacher in a village is that you can never really get away from your job. Teachers in larger towns or metropolitan areas can leave work and be reasonably certain that they won't run into any of their students until the first period starts the following day. I'm pretty much guaranteed to see at least one of my students every time I leave my apartment. Often I see them without leaving my apartment-- my building is right next to one of the villages two bus stops, and it also adjoins a small store that sells school supplies, cigarettes, and candy (among other things). Every time I look out my windows, they're there.

This usually doesn't bother me. When we meet on the street, most of the kids are friendly and respectful. We just say hi to each other and then keep walking. I'm not 'cool,' so it's not like they want to have conversations with me. Then again, I wouldn't object if they did-- they're nice enough kids.

In general.

When I was walking to the mom-and-pop grocery store yesterday I ran into one of my eighth-grade remedial students on his bike. He was accompanied by two younger boys who I didn't know. We exchanged 'Hallos' and kept walking-- standard procedure. But then, when they were maybe 10 yards behind me, one of them shouted: 'Feine Arsch, Ms. Muncy!' Nice ass, Ms. Muncy.

I had no idea how to react to this-- after all, it isn't every day that prepubescent boys yell suggestive comments at me. If they'd been in school I would have hauled them in front of their homeroom teachers and reamed them out thoroughly, but they were on the path to the grocery store, so I just pretended I didn't hear them and kept walking.

This morning I talked to a colleague-- a grandmotherly biology teacher-- about the situation, and she told me that I should have shouted back at them: 'Yes, it's much prettier than yours!'

Perhaps I'll try this next time.

Really, although their comments were disrespectful and inappropriate, I also find the whole situation very funny. Especially since they picked my butt-- which stands out only because it's so small that I have to wear belts all the time. Otherwise my pants fall off. Jennifer Lopez I'm not.

Well, if they were trying to get a rise out of me, it didn't work. But I think that from now on I'll do my grocery shopping in less revealing clothing. Instead of jeans and a sweater, I'll put on a nice, modest Carmelite habit, or perhaps a burqa.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Human Lagoon

I had another interesting bus experience recently.

Last Monday I took the bus to Bautzen. I had just settled into my seat and placed my purse securely inside my backpack when an old lady climbed on board.

This was no ordinary Oma-type. This was a flashback to the Middle Ages.

To give you some idea what I’m talking about, I will now quote a short passage from Patrick Süsskind’s novel Das Parfum. (Translation mine.)

“At the time about which we’re speaking, a stench which is hardly imaginable for us modern people prevailed in the cities. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards stank of urine, the stairwells stank of rotten wood and of rat feces, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unventilated rooms stank of musty dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, of damp featherbeds and of the pungent sweet aroma of chamber pots… The people stank of sweat and of unwashed clothes; from their mouths they stank of rotten teeth, from their stomachs of onion juice and from their bodies, if they weren’t all that young anymore, of old cheese and of sour milk and of tumorous diseases… The farmer stank like the priest, the journeyman laborer like the master’s wife, the entire nobility stank, indeed, even the king stank; he stank like a carnivorous animal, and the queen like an old goat, in summer as well as winter.”

This woman reeked. It was obscene. I have never, ever in my entire life been in the presence of a human being who smelled that bad. This was way beyond B.O. This was what happens when you don’t bathe for weeks at a time (judging by the amount of grease build-up in her hair), don’t wash your clothes, and have never so much as looked at a stick of deodorant.

She smelled so bad that the odor wasn’t even identifiable as human. It was greasy, cloyingly sweet, sharp and metallic all at the same time. She didn’t smell like a person; she smelled like a pig farm.

When I related this story to an associate of mine, he commented, “Well, maybe she works on a pig farm.” A perfectly logical comment, but one that makes it painfully apparent that my listener failed to grasp the magnitude of the situation. The lady didn’t smell like someone who’d spent a lot of time on a pig farm, or even like someone who’d just spent the day rolling in manure—she smelled like she WAS a pig farm. Specifically, she smelled as if she were what the hog industry euphemistically refers to as a “lagoon”—a pit full of pig feces the size of an Olympic swimming pool.

She sat right behind me.

The little girls at the back of the bus pointed and giggled. I resisted the urge to hold my nose. Partly because I felt sorry for the old woman, who probably had some sort of psychological problem, and partly because I didn’t think it would do any good. Frankly, I’m not sure that a self-contained portable oxygen tank would have done any good.

She got off at the next stop. The bus driver drove with all the doors open for a quarter-mile or so. As I gasped in fresh air, I considered the fact that I will never again have to ponder what medieval peasants smelled like. I know.

(Note to readers: This is not typical. With the exception of some 14-year-old boys—a demographic group not noted for its oustanding personal hygiene—I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve run into Germans with serious odor problems. Contrary to what some Americans who’ve never been abroad think, most Europeans do bathe frequently. When planning a European vacation, there’s really no need to pack a dozen bottles of Febreeze and your own portable oxygen system. Unless, of course, you’ll be spending time on Bus 104 from Bautzen!)


Lektüre: -Siegfried Lenz, Der Verlust (German lit)
-Anne Frank, Het Achterhuis (Dutch)
-Günther Schweikle, Germanisch-deutsche Sprachgeschichte im Überblick (linguistics)

Tagesmenü: -organic whole-wheat farfalle pasta with spinach-cheese sauce
-tap water
-an apple
-dark chocolate

Nervensäge: -living in a tiny village full of senior citizens

Last week was Easter Break at my school. Naturally, I used the opportunity to escape from my village. (For a hamster-based extended metaphor, please refer to the entry “Escape! Escape!”)

I went to Dresden.

Physically, Dresden is only 45 minutes from Bautzen by train. Metaphysically it is in another world entirely—possibly even another dimension.

There is a university in Dresden, so there are young people. Really. You can actually see people between the ages of 20 and 40 just walking around on the street there, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. And get this—there are plenty of non-German people in Dresden. You can overhear snippets of conversation in Turkish and Russian, for example. Sometimes you can even see black people!

The restaurants offer vegetarian options. The public transportation runs every ten minutes during the day, and, though it slows down at night, it never stops entirely. Some theaters show independent films. They have art museums.

Dresden exists in the same dimension as the rest of modern, cosmopolitan Germany, whereas Bautzen is in some weird parallel universe (possibly inside a black hole) in which the Wall never fell. Transitioning between the two is difficult. My temporal lobes went on the fritz as soon as I arrived. Overstimulation, probably.

I had a fantastic time. One of my main activities: shopping. I’m not a bigger shopper in the US, but after spending months in a town where the only things worth purchasing are mustard and Sorbian folk art (and, let’s face it, you only buy so much of that), I was ready to shell out some euros. Here’s what I picked up:

Stuff I bought in the big city:

-a cute skirt and a top

-sandalwood incense (handmade at an ashram in Pondicherry, India) and an incense burner

-a book (in German) about the differences between British and American English—informative overall, but it contains some interesting errors (Do you know anyone who refers to the seeds in fruit as “pips”? Me neither.)

-shitake mushroom spread for sandwiches (organic and vegetarian), veggie burger mix, the organic noodles I had for lunch today, and some spelt

-postcards from the art museum, with which to decorate my apartment

I also went to museums and did some sight-seeing. But the best part of the trip was hanging out with some pretty cool people. My host, a design student who grew up in my dinky village but has spent a lot of time in California and pretty much gone native, spoiled me rotten and gave great sight-seeing tips to boot. And then I spent a day hanging out with IL, a Fulbright linguist, and enjoyed the first intellectual conversations I’ve had since Berlin. (As a linguistics geek, it’s always nice to be able to toss around phrases like “voiced bilabial fricative” without having to explain yourself.)

It was really hard to go back to the dorf again. I still haven't readjusted!