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, July 21, 2005

The Best of Both Worlds

Since my last post, I've successfully readjusted to Eastern Daylight Time, and (somewhat less successfully) readjusted to the ever-colorful sideshow that is daily life in the United States.

(Why is this "small" skirt falling off my hips? Why does that car display both 1.) a bumper sticker comparing the Internal Revenue Service to Nazis and 2.) handicap plates? Why is cheese so expensive? How come every program on television-- even the news-- assumes that viewers have the IQ of Forrest Gump?)

Culture shock notwithstanding, I'm glad to be back. It's nice to have virtually unlimited access to books written in English. (I enjoy reading in German too, of course, but in English it goes oh-so-much faster...) In the past few weeks I've spent a lot of time reading, partly because I'm a natural bookworm and that's what bookworms do, and partly because I'm unemployed, low on funds, and basically bored. Thank God for public libraries! (Also for Harry Potter.)

But enough rambling. The actual point of this entry is a list I've made, highlighting the best of both worlds: what Germany and the United States could learn from each other. (In no particular order.)

Things that Germany Does Better
1. Bread. Germany makes the best bread in the world, and it also produces more varieties of bread than any other country. Even the cheap, mass-produced stuff is made by real bakers who've gone through a three-year apprenticeship program. Granted, you can get good bread in the US, too-- but it's expensive, which is why so many Americans eat cheapy, spongy white mush.
2. Chocolate. Chocolate is less expensive in Germany, and it's better, and it comes in infinite varieties. Maple, blood orange, or blueberry yoghurt, anyone?
3. Cheese. The kind of cheese that Americans reserve for dinner parties and wine-tastings is everyday fare in Germany. Why? Because it's inexpensive. A wedge of brie that costs $3.99 American can be had for $.79 on the Mother Continent.
4. Public Transportation. Virtually all cities of 40,000 or more have their own train stations with regular (usually hourly) transport options. Buses and streetcars run where trains don't. Result? It's perfectly possible to lead a "normal" life without owning a car!
5. Knowledge of Foreign Languages. All Germans learn at least one foreign language (generally English, though in the former DDR it used to be Russian), usually beginning in the third or fourth grade. Lots of people take a second foreign language, and learning a third or fourth language is not uncommon. (In contrast, I doubt that more than 10% of the US population has more than a "tourist" command of a second language.)
6. Doner Kebabs. Like a gyro, only Turkish. This delicious and ubiquitous German fast food is entirely missing from the US. (Might I suggest a trade? You send us some Turkish immigrants so that we can have Doner stands, and we'll send you some Mexican immigrants who can teach you to make salsa properly.)
7. Clothing. First: when I say that Germans are better dressed, I basically mean West Germans, as should be clear from my previous entries. Really, Germans are not spectacular dressers-- they're not like the Italians, who put on $500 slacks to go grocery shopping-- it's just that they look so much better in comparison to Americans. Especially in summer, lots of middle-aged Americans wander around dressed like oversized nine-year-olds: jean shorts, baggy T-shirts with cartoon characters on them, and athletic shoes. (Not just at the beach. In restraurants, and at movie theaters.)
8. Health Care. Like most of the world, Germans subscribe to the belief that health care is a basic human right, and not a privilege for the rich. We're a bit backward in this respect.
9. Vacation Time. 4 weeks paid vacation are guaranteed by law. And, as generous as this sounds to Americans, it's actually standard in many countries. Germans are shocked when they hear that many Americans have no paid vacations at all and are even required to work on public holidays!
10. Public Television. German public TV is better funded; hence, it's of better quality.
11. Fewer Nut-Jobs. Germany has a few people who advocate for the common man's right to own an Uzi, or who don't accept Darwinian evolution, or who go door to door to try to convert you to their religion. But in Germany these people are looked upon as reactionary nuts akin to flat-earthers or the Branch Davidians. In the US, they run the government and are looked upon as pillars of the community.
12. Maintaining a Healthy Weight. Portion sizes are smaller and people get more exercise. So people are trimmer and healthier.
13. Classical Music. They have Bach, we have Sousa marches. There's really no comparison.
14. Environmental Friendliness. Recycling is mandated by law, grocery stores charge for bags (so most people bring their own reusable bags), gasoline costs around $7 a gallon (which encourages people to drive less and use transit more), electricity is pricy (which encourages conservation). They are now where we might be 20 years from now-- and then only if we can get a Democrat in office!
15. Attractive Cities. German cities are, on average, prettier than American ones. (Granted, a person who had seen only Chemnitz and San Francisco might not have this impression, but then, there are exceptions to every rule.) In addition, there is virtually no suburban sprawl. The countryside starts at the end of the city, town, or village-- densely populated residential street here, rye field/forest/meadow there, with no transitional McMansions between them.
16. Pedestrian- and Bicycle-Friendliness. There are pedestrian-only zones, sidewalks and bike lanes virtually everywhere in Germany. Many communities in the US are sidewalk-free, and if you use a bicycle as a means of transportation you're viewed as some kind of social deviant.
17. Not Being Homophobic. In Germany, gays and lesbians are fully integrated into society and can legally register domestic partnerships with most of the privileges of marriage. In the US, gays and lesbians get blamed for terrorist attacks perpetrated by frustrated heterosexual Middle Eastern males, and are faced with the prospect of Constitutionally-mandated second class status.
18. Beer. I don't drink beer, so I can't speak from personal experience, but almost everyone I know who does prefers the German kind. Germans think that American beer tastes like dishwater.
19. Taking It Easy. On Sundays and holidays, businesses shut down and almost no one has to work. Germans actually use these days for relaxation-- as opposed to going shopping, which is not the same thing.
20. Sense of Place. Germans are sentimentally attached to their home towns in a way that's quite rare in the US. Probably because many German families have lived in the same community (or even the same house!) for generations, if not for hundreds of years. There's more regional diversity in German, and more local traditions. Lubeck does not look like Munich, and the Black Forest is very distinct from the Lausitz. In contrast, American suburbs in Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Colorado look pretty much the same.
Things that the U.S. Does Better
1. The University System. Our university system is more intellectually rigorous, especially at the graduate level, and especially especially in the sciences. This is why Germany is now attempting to restructure its "Unis" along U.S. lines!

2. Integration of Ethnic and Religious Minorities. Citizenship laws aside, there is an unwritten rule that in order to be considered German, you have to be northwestern European and (at least nominally) Christian. (My students never really grasped that in the US, black people and Jews aren't considered "foreign." ) Both the United States and Germany encouraged immigration at certain points in their histories. But while the US encouraged the immigrants to settle down and helped their children to integrate into society, Germans avoided them socially and encouraged them to return home. (Most didn't.) Result: while we aren't perfect either, we have a much less ghettoized society.

3. Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. They're less expensive here, bigger, often more flavorful, and available year-round. Germany lacks our secret weapon. (California.)

4. Salsa and Barbecue Sauce. Both German salsa and German barbecue sauce have the consistency of ketchup and don't taste much different from it. I plan to bring jars of the American version over with me for next year. (Tip for expats: German barbecue sauce can be greatly improved if you mix it with German mustard!)

5. Popular Music. My (German) students listen to cheesy pop; my students' American peers listen to indie rock. My parents listen to Bruce Springsteen; their German peers listen to Schlager. No further comment is necessary.

6. Service in Stores. American salespeople smile and tell you to have a nice day. (East) German salespeople scowl and bark at you.

7. All-Around Friendliness. An adjective that Germans often use for residents of the English speaking world is scheissfreundlich, meaning "shit-friendly." This means that we say "please," "thank you," and "you're welcome;" we apologize if we bump into strangers on the street; we open doors for people (especially if they're on crutches, or have their hands full, or are elderly); and that if you walk past a person on a quiet residential street (or share an elevator with them), you're supposed to acknowledge them with eye contact, a quick smile, or a "hello" --even if you don't know them well. While we think of this as good manners, Germans see it as superficiality. Perhaps they're right... but it's a lot more pleasant to be smiled at by strangers than to be scowled at. The German attitude of indifference (or outright aggression) to strangers causes their society a lot of unnecessary stress.

8. Volunteering. From what I've seen, Germans don't really have a concept of volunteering or public service as we understand it in the US (or in Britain, for that matter). Ordinary citizens don't help out at soup kitchens or animal shelters on their days off-- as Germans see it, that's what the government and paid employees of private charities are for. In a way it's a logical side-effect of their well-developed welfare system, but it still strikes me as kind of sad. Germans care about their acquaintances deeply, but don't seem to care as much about the well-being of strangers as Americans do. In a way, it's like their attitude is that social problems are concern you only if you're directly affected by them, or if you're a social worker.

9. Personal Hygiene. Welcome to America, land of the well-scrubbed! While the stereotype of the smelly European is (mostly) wrong, we still have the upper hand in the hygiene arena. Almost all Americans shower daily, wash their hair at least every other day, and put on fresh clothes every day (not just when they smell strongly or are stained). Say what you like about Americans, but opening classroom windows in January to let in fresh air because the pupils stink is rarely necessary.

10. Hair. Here I'm mainly talking about East Germany. West Germans' hairstyles, from what I've seen, don't differ too significantly from what you see in the US. But, oh, do we have better hair than the Ossis! East Germany is Mullet-Land, and the place where every female between ten and seventy has dyed her hair one or more weird day-glo color (usually at the same time). In addition, the East has recently pioneered two new Hair Don'ts: the "Mullet-Flip," which is a mullet flipped up at the bottom (sort of like Marilyn Quayle's "style"), and the "Mullet Mohawk" (use your imagination).

11. Old Farmhouses. Much as I loathe McMansions (with or without fries), I'm a sucker for American farmhouses. You know what I mean: simple two-story wood-frame houses with wood siding (freshly painted... or maybe not!), big porches, and well-hidden detached garages. They're like the Shaker aesthetic: "simple, substantial, and beautiful." German houses, in contrast, leave me cold. Stucco-coated cinderblocks don't do much for me. (Note to European readers: No, our wood-construction houses are not hard to keep warm in winter! You'd be amazed at what one can do with fiberglass insulation.)

12. Discouraging Smoking. In Germany, if you manage to find a restaurant with a non-smoking section (good luck!), don't be shocked to see people lighting up at the next table over. Don't be shocked by the smoking lounge at the school (in some places, it's also for the students!), the cigarette vending machines on every corner, or the cigarette commercials before every movie in the theatre. If you work in a school, don't be shocked by the much higher percentage of kids who smoke-- even those cute little seventh-graders!

13. Flexibility. Germans are rigid. They do not cope well with changes in circumstances. This is why, when Germans lose their jobs, they will draw unemployment checks for years rather than relocate (sell the house? you can't be serious!) or find another line of work. This is also why my former boss (an extremely rigid person, even for a German) kept two of her colleagues at work for five hours to supervise the students during a strike-- although no students had actually shown up for school that day.

14. Gender Equality. There are still strong cultural assumptions that 1. all women want to be mothers (though if you look at the actual birthrate, this is ludicrous!) and 2. mothers should not work. And there's very little legal protection against gender-based workplace discrimination. Welcome to the US circa 1973, or to Germany today! An American woman with children who also has a job is not labeled a "raven mother." She doesn't have to wait five years to get her kids into a reputable day care center. And prospective employers can't ask her whether she has kids, whether she's pregant, or married, or plans to encorporate either pregnancy or marriage into her future. German women aren't so lucky.

15. Early Childhood Education. Just about all US kids attend kindergarten (free and usually compulsory), in effect beginning school at age 5. Many also go to preschool at age 3 or 4-- we even have large-scale programs offering free preschool to children from poor families! In contrast, only a minority of German kids have attended any type of school before they start first grade. At age seven. And when they do go to preschool, they don't learn start learning the alphabet or pre-reading skills. Preschools are strictly places to learn social skills and to play.

16. Natural Beauty. Let's see here: we have the Painted Desert, they have "Saxon Switzerland." We have actual rainforests along the northwest coast, including several primeval forests (i.e., they have never been logged); Europe has only one primeval forest-- and that's in Poland! We have the Rockies; they have the Alps (ok, so maybe this one is comparable). We have the Great Lakes, they have the Bodensee (a.k.a. "Lake Constance"). I'd say we beat them hands-down.

17. Public Libraries. Public libraries in the US will not ask you for a membership fee. And public libraries in Germany will probably not organize Summer Reading Clubs or Story Time for your children.

18. Social Mobility. You are ten years old and in the fourth grade. Your name is Fabian, or perhaps Anna, or Aziza, or Mehmet. You live in the Ruhrgebiet. Both of your parents left school after completing the ninth-grade. Your father is a steelworker, and your mother is a housewife. Next year you will begin attending the Hauptschule, in affect condemning you, too, to leave school after nine years and become something like a steelworker or a housewife. In theory, the decision to send you to the Hauptschule was based on your abilities. But little Susanne, whose grades were only slightly better than yours, will be going on to the Realschule. Her father is an accountant. And Felix, whose grades are about the same as Susanne's, will attend the Gymnasium (college-preparatory school). His parents are a business executive and a pediatrician. ---Social mobility is limited everywhere. But the child of blue-color workers in the US (or Britain, or Norway, etc.) has a much better chance of attending university than the child of blue-color workers in Germany.

19. Optimism. An American magazine might run an article entitled "The Ten Best Things about Public Education Today." A German magazine would be more likely to run an article like "Ten Good Things about Public Education--- Do They Exist?" Americans are a sunny people. We insist that the situation in Iraq is improving even when the country is going to hell in a handbasket. We look for the silver lining on dark rainclouds. Germans interject that this "silver lining" is probably radioactive. Really, they're probably right. But all that gloominess gets tiresome.

20. Macaroni and Cheese. We have it, they don't. Yes, this is trite and insubstantial. But bear in mind that I had my mother ship several dozen boxes to me while I was overseas. Indulge me!

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Reverse Culture Shock

I almost typed "Reverse Culture Schock" into the heading. Which, really, is an excellent example of what's going on here.

I arrived back in the States a week ago, but I think it would be overstating things to say that I've readjusted, other than at the biochemical level. (The jet lag's been under control for two or three days now.) Home has never felt so foreign.

I've been overseas before, but never for more than eight weeks at a time. When I returned from those shorter trips I had "reverse culture shock" too, but it mainly amounted to suddenly noticing how BIG everything is in the US: the vehicles are mostly SUVs; the houses are typically McMansions, Mini-McMansions, and McMansions Deluxe (with or without fries); the residential streets in my parents' subdivision have four lanes; the grocery stores could easily accomodate 15 of the Penny-Markt in my village; the butt cheeks are XXXL and still expanding.

This time the phenomenon is more pervasive.

Take language, for example.

English is my native language. I started speaking it when I was roughly nine months old (first word: "dada"), and as my relatives can attest, apart from pauses for breath I haven't stopped since. On the other hand, I didn't start learning German until I was 19. So it's natural that I have English interference in my German.

But why do I now have German interference in my English? It's subtle, but it's there. I forget which prepositions go with certain set phrases. I produce my L's on the ridge of gums instead of the backs of my top teeth. I try to use German idioms in English. (Asking, for example, "Is your job in order?") And I find myself forgetting what objects, places, and people are called so often that I worried that I'd developed premature Alzheimer's Disease until my friend Kim, who was an exchange student, reassured me. "You're just not used to thinking in English anymore."

Written English isn't much better. When I should type "sh," "sch" comes out. And since I got so used to German keyboards while I was there, I consistently mis-type words with "y"s and "z"s in them (the keys are reversed in Germany) and have trouble finding certain punctuation marks. Reading is slightly affected as well. Yesterday I was at a store, and when the check-out girl rang up one of the beads I was buying at 7 cents, I thought she had overcharged me. I was pretty sure that that particular bead cost 1 cent: the bin it came out of was hand-labeled with a vertical line with a diagonal flag on it (a one, in other words), followed by the cent sign. Then I remembered that Americans write their sevens that way.

Up until 10 months ago, I wrote my sevens that way!!!

I fear that I'll end up like ID, my former German professor. She grew up in a dorf near Coeur D'Alene, Idaho, but spent three years in Germany in her twenties and thirties. Now she speaks English with a distinctly foreign accent and overuses the word "raunchy." New students and the counter people at Starbucks are always asking her what country she's from. Then she has to glare at them and tell them that she's from Idaho, and they get really disappointed.

Reverse culture shock (or "schock") is not confined to the linguistic arena. Other stuff is affected as well-- in both senses of the word "affected." Like when my parents took me out to eat for my birthday, and I felt the need to hold my utensils European-style (knife in one hand, fork in the other, for the duration of the meal). I wasn't trying to look "continental" or impress anyone, I just would have felt uncomfortable eating American-style knowing that people were watching me. As if they would have judged me, though they were all eating American-style themselves. I've been traumatized by being stared at in German restaurants, I guess.

Don't get me wrong. I'm very happy to be home. It's just that home is now very confusing. I know that I'm an American, but I don't always feel or behave the way that Americans are supposed to. I feel like I'm taking a pleasant vacation in a foreign country, rather than returning to the country that I lived in for the first 23 years of my life. As Kim put it, quoting one of her teachers from high school, "Welcome to the 'This-Is-Not-My-Country Club."

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Life after Dorf

As you may have gathered from the change in the "location" information at the top of my blog, I'm back in Michigan now. Nine days ago I successfully escaped my village for once and for all. There was none of the bittersweet feeling that usually overwhelms me when I have to leave a place I've lived in behind. I was thrilled to get ouf of there: absolutely beaming. It's such a relief to know that I never, ever have to go back to that dorf again.

No more running into my evil host family at the grocery store! No more narrow-minded, anal-retentive boss! No more going weeks without having a good conversation in person! No more dodging the Neo-Nazi morons in front of the school! I'm free! I'm free! I'm free!

Ok. You get the point.

So now I'll tell you about what's been going on since then.

Mr. A drove me to the train station in Bautzen on the morning of July 1st. I took the train from there to Hannover. I had to change twice, in Dresden and Leipzig. This was unfortunate because my luggage weighed more than me and DDR-era train stations don't even have escalators, let alone elevators. So I had to haul my big suitcase (a.k.a. "The Monster"), its smaller companion ("Little Monster"), my overstuffed backpack, and my laptop up the stairs manually, taking multiple trips. It took me 15 minutes to get from Platform 1 to Platform 3 in Dresden Neustadt!

Hannover was fantastic. I came for a friend's wedding, which was held on July 2nd. I liked the wedding a lot. Some of the cheesier wedding customs found in the US aren't practiced in Germany, and my friend and her husband dispensed with those that are. So, no one gave the bride away-- a custom that's always bothered me, since it essentially turns the ceremony back into a property exchange--, no embarassing-to-watch tongue kissing in the church (or at the reception), no bouquet toss, no garter removal, no drunken speeches by the best man (or anyone else), and while there was dancing, it was blessedly optional. This wedding was, in short, tasteful. And since a bunch of cool people were seated with me at the reception, I had quite a good time.

And of course, it was just nice to see my friend again!

After spending three days in Hannover I headed to Berlin. I arrived kind of late in the day and was tired from hauling around The Monster again, so I didn't do much in the city, though I did meet a Stammtisch buddy for dinner. (She'll be working at a summer camp there for a couple of weeks.)

The following morning I flew home. This was kind of an exasperating process.

The taxi-driver who picked me up from my hotel wasn't your typical big, burly type. I think I got the only taxi in Berlin operated by a tiny little Turkish woman (my height!) who couldn't even lift my suitcases into the car without help, let alone move them from the curb to the trunk for me. It was raining buckets at the time, so my stuff all got wet. Making matters worse, she also dropped me off at the wrong end of the terminal, so I had to haul my monstrous luggage several hundred yards to get to the appropriate check-in desk. (Without a cart. They all seemed to be in use...) When I reached the line for said desk, the elderly Brazilian woman in front of me half-asked, half-ordered me to let her traveling companions (a half-dozen other elderly Brazilians, each with a large luggage cart) cut in front of me. This meant that I had to walk about 15 feet further, which normally wouldn't be a big deal, but I felt like I was about to collapse. So I was a bit put out.

The Monster was 6 grams under the weight limit.

My first flight (Berlin-Frankfurt) was a half-hour delayed. Already running late, I lost more time waiting for my second boarding pass to print-- for some weird reason, they couldn't give me both passes when I checked in in Berlin. I made it to the boarding area for my Frankfurt-Detroit flight with only 15 minutes to spare.

The second flight was uneventful, except for a 3-year-old Syrian boy sitting directly across the aisle from me who screamed and punched his mother for nine hours straight.

I arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Airport at about 4:30 and had no trouble getting through customs, because I could say the magic word ("Fulbright"). My mom and my friend Kim met me in the waiting area. I was, of course, really happy to see them! After a brief hassle with an evil, troll-like parking attendant, I could FINALLY go home!

And here I am.

(More soon on what I've been doing since I got back.)