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, May 25, 2005

The England Trip

I spent last week in England with about 40 ninth-graders from my school, Mr. A, my infamous Boss, and assorted mother-types. Theoretically I was a chaperone, but the kids ignored my pretense of authority and lit up right in front of me (they weren’t supposed to smoke on the trip), so I ended up more or less as a participant.

For the most part, the trip was fantastic.

Our chartered bus left the village at about 8 p.m. and reached the French port of Calais right around 9 a.m. the following morning. I was so tired that I gladly forked over 2 British pounds (roughly four bucks American) for a cup of cappuccino on the ferry. (This says a lot, because I only drink coffee when I really need it, and I’m also notoriously cheap.) The ferry ride took an hour and a half. It didn’t sink, which is a good thing, because the water in the Channel looked really cold.

The first thing we did after reaching England was to drive to Stonehenge, which was actually several hours out of our way, but well worth seeing. In my opinion, at least. Admission was not included in our tour package. Since most of my traveling companions are not history buffs, they elected to save their pounds for something more practical. Like jester hats with the Union Jack on them, for example. Anyhow, I thought Stonehenge was incredible. It wasn’t as big as I expected, but still really impressive, especially when you consider how old it is (already in ruins when the Romans arrived in Britain!) and how long it took to build (hundreds of years!). The oldest temple in the world, and right next to it is a barrow—a tomb of an ancient British chieftain. Literally awe-inspiring! I wish I could have spent more time there.

My Boss and her son also forked over the admission fee. Frankly, I wish they hadn’t. I saw her taking a picture of him from an angle that made it look like he was holding up one of the lintel stones. Even though we weren’t walking together, I was still embarrassed by them. I think this illustrates a difference between them and me: some people appreciate the wonders of the Ancient World, and other people take stupid tourist pictures of them!

The following day was spent in London. Theoretically, at least. In reality it was spent on the tour bus. Our schedule called only for a bus tour of the city and a trip to Greenwich to see the Prime Meridian. I’m not a big fan of bus tours in any case—I’d rather walk around and explore on my own—but lousy bus tours are even worse. And this bus tour ended up being lousy, because the tour company cleverly scheduled our London visit for the day when the Queen was opening the new session of Parliament. Result—almost all of the streets near major sites were blocked off. No Buckingham Palace, no Parliament building, not even Herrods! We did see Big Ben for about 30 seconds—from at least 2 miles away. Greenwich was all right, though. Especially the Indian restaurant. After months of German blandness, I needed some curry!

One of the neatest things about England was being in a multicultural society again. Rural East Germany is extremely ethnically homogenous—I literally go weeks at a time without seeing any non-white people. I grew up in a suburb with a large South Asian community and then went to college in a mostly-black town, so this is really weird for me. The best way I can explain it is that the lack of diversity is like walking around in a building in which all of the walls have been painted white. It’s boring, and it depresses me. England was colorful—South Asians, East Asians, Afro-Caribbeans, you name it! Like visiting another building with murals painted all over the walls.

The rest of our trip went better than the London excursion did.

On Wednesday we went hiking along the cliffs of Beachy Head on the south coast. The weather was fantastic, and the scenery was spectacular. The cliffs are made of chalk, virtually vertical, and drop down 50 feet or so into the sea. On the other side there is gorgeous countryside: rolling hills covered with sheep, cows, and little cottages.

We went to Portsmouth on Thursday and spent the day at various nautical-themed museums, which were quite interesting—even for hard-to-please 15-year-olds! We also toured the HMS Victory, the 18th-century battleship that won the battle of Trafalgar. It’s restored so that you can see how it would have looked when it was still being actively used—complete with rats and maggoty hardtack.

Friday, our last day in England, was spent in Brighton. First we went to the SeaLife exhibit, which was kind of disappointing. It was aimed at an elementary-aged audience, and the admission fee was quite high. Then—free time! Finally. The first thing I did was check out the Royal Pavilion, a palace built by King George IV. According the brochure, it is “decorated in the Chinese taste.” “The Chinese taste” has nothing to do with the taste of actual Chinese people—it refers to 18th century British aristocrats’ ideas of what China ought to look like. And good grief, was it tacky! But interesting to see, all the same. I spent the rest of the afternoon attempting to shop. Friday was my dad’s birthday and I wanted to get him a present. Unfortunately, while Brighton has some really neat stores, everything I saw was way out of my price range.

The ferry ride back brought some unwanted excitement. One of my students, who I’ll call “Maik,” violated the no-alcohol contract that all the kids had to sign, in a major way. Maik is in the ninth grade Hauptschule (remedial track), but he just turned 18—this may tell you something about his mentality and/or academic potential. Anyhow, being 18, he’s just old enough to purchase booze in Britain. And on British-run ferries. So he did—for himself, and for some younger classmates. One of his classmates ratted him out to Mr. A afterward. So, Maik was ordered off the bus and not allowed to get back on until the kids he bought for stepped forward with their beverages. Thankfully, they did so promptly.

One major difference between German and American schools—to the best of my knowledge, no further action will be taken against Maik and his buddies. Something similar happened on a class trip when I was a senior in high school, and everyone involved was expelled! That wouldn’t go over well in Germany, because the societal attitude toward kids and alcohol is totally different. While Maik’s little friends were underage in Britain, both of them are 16, so they can drink legally in Germany. Even the fact that they signed a contract probably wouldn’t impress their parents. The German attitude toward rules is also very different. Germany is a very legalistic society—there are laws and regulations for just about everything. But, the dirty little secret is that most of these laws are rarely enforced (like the law forbidding smoking for youths under 16, for example). American society has fewer regulations, but we take the ones we do have more seriously. If the school were to threaten to expel Mike, his parents would be up in arms. “Come on, all he did was purchase alcohol for minors! What’s the harm in that?” And the community would support them, not the school.

Sometimes I just have to shake my head.

Monday, May 23, 2005

I'm In!!!

Good news!

When I got back from my trip to England (more on that soon, I promise) an envelope from the Pedagogical Exchange Service was waiting for me. My reapplication was accepted, and I'm be spending a second year as a TA in Germany. Next year I'll be in the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen. (For those of you who aren't up on your German geography, that's in the northwestern part of the country, bordering the Low Countries. It's the most heavily populated state, and has the highest concentration of university towns.) I don't know the name of my future school yet or which city I'll be in, but should find out within the next couple of weeks.
I'm hoping for a Gymnasium (college preparatory school) in a university city.

I still plan to head home to Michigan for July and August, so I'll see at least some of you then!


Thursday, May 12, 2005

No News

Once again I've been a lazy blogger and haven't written for a while. This time I have a different excuse: not too busy, no medical emergencies... I've just plain been too nervous.

As most of you know, I applied to renew my contract and spend a second year as a teaching assistant in Germany. (Not at the same school, not in a village, and preferably not within bicycling distance of the Polish border-- I requested to be placed in a university city in the west next time.) When I submitted my application in February, they told me that they would make the decisions about renewals in early May, and that if I didn't receive anything from the organization by mid-May to contact them.

Well, it's May 12th. That's mid-May in my book. And I haven't gotten any news. Every day I check the windowsill outside my apartment several times (since I don't have a real mailbox, that's where the landlords leave my mail). No news. Yesterday I went ahead and emailed the Pedagogical Exchange Service (the organization responsible for the application process). I asked them to please contact me soon, even if all they can tell me at this point is when I might expect the real letter. So today I've been checking my email about as often as a chain smoker lights up. No news.

Is no news good news? Maybe. But it could also be bad news. There is the distinct possibility that they contacted the winners first, and that those of us in the remainders bin are the only ones sitting around waiting for further information.

I have a friend in Bonn who also reapplied. She hasn't heard anything yet, either, but then it's not as important to her-- her boyfriend was accepted to a similar program in Austria next year, and she thinks they'll probably pick Austria over Germany. And since the Pedagogical Exchange Service is also located in Bonn, this might imply that they just haven't mailed any of the letters yet. (The German postal service is a little slower than USPS, but it's not that bad. )

This is as bad as waiting to hear from Fulbright was last year. Maybe worse. You see, if the renewal falls through, I don't really have a back-up plan. Unless you count 'live with your parents and work at some crappy office job that could be performed just as well by someone with an IQ of 85, while simultaneously attempting to convince various Germanic Linguistics programs that you're still promising.' Not my idea of fun...

Although it would still beat the hell out of spending the rest of my life in this village.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Ye Olde Traditional Witch-Burning

What I’m reading: Ulla Hahn’s Das verborgene Wort (fantastic! and the dialogue is in Kölsch dialect!); Lexikon der untergegangenen Sprachen

What I’m eating: vegetarian cevapcici (like meatballs, except they’re sticks) with tzatziki sauce, cucumbers, and millet

I attended a witch-burning in the neighboring village last weekend.

This quaint custom, which dates back to a simpler and smellier time, is reenacted faithfully each April 30th. Each year the peasants of Lusatia round up religious dissidents, uppity women, and unpopular local schoolteachers. These lucky folks are tied to stakes perched above 15-foot-high mounds of brushwood and thatch, which is then set ablaze. The screams echo throughout the countryside.

Just kidding, of course. The witch-burning (German Hexenbrennen) is real, but my description of it was fictional. Rather than burning real people, they use old clothes stuffed with newspapers. Local kids make the “witches” and set them up on the pyre during the afternoon. Then, when it starts to get dark, they parade through the town with lanterns and torches. The volunteer fire department is responsible for containing the blaze and keeping the crowd a safe distance away.

According to the locals, Hexenbrennen actually has nothing to do with the “Burning Times” of the Middle Ages—it’s a pre-Christian custom, and the effigies represent winter. (Everyone’s sick of winter by May, so why not pretend to burn it alive?)

I wasn’t kidding about the 15-foot-high mounds of brushwood and thatch, though. That’s real! These were the biggest fires that I’d ever seen! They were easily 20 feet in diameter. The flames extended at least 10 feet over the top of the pyres, and the sparks shot 75 feet into the air. In addition, there were firecrackers buried inside the mound. (I freaked out when they went off, because I wasn’t expecting fireworks and for a second I thought it was gunfire.) The spectacle was incredible, as was the heat.

If you're ever in the area on April 30th, I highly recommend checking it out!