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.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Welcome to Hamm

Hamm doesn’t appear to be a particularly interesting city, and it’s not gorgeous, but it’s not butt-ugly either. The eastern half of the city, a residential district inhabited chiefly by lawyers (Hamm is the seat of a court of appeals), is quite pleasant. There are also a lot of nice parks.

I don’t live in the lawyer district. Actually, there are no houses here. As far as I can tell, the area I live in consists of nothing but factories and slag heaps—there isn’t even a grocery store within walking distance. But my apartment is very nice. I have a spacious bedroom with two large wardrobes, free internet access (too bad my modem cable won’t fit into a German phone jack!), and a private bathroom with shower. The kitchen is semi-private. I share it with two firemen, but neither of them seems to do any actual cooking—I think they just eat sandwiches—so I basically have it to myself.

Honestly I don’t mind living above a fire station. The PA system is annoying, but the fire chief did shut it off in my room. The sirens can be loud at times, but thankfully there haven’t been any fires at night yet. And the firemen are very helpful. Just a few minutes ago they helped me find the laundry room. (It’s next to the ambulances. Logical.)

“So, where are you from?” asked a fireman (in German).

“The United States.”

“Really? We thought you might be from France.”

“You too!?! I hear that a lot.”

Which brings me to my next point—why does everybody in Germany think I’m French? It isn’t a problem—I don’t have anything against France—but it is rather inexplicable. I’ve never been to France, and my knowledge of the French language is limited to Je ne parle pas français. Furthermore, unless you abstract back to the Norman invasion of England, I’m only about 5% French—and that’s not even real French; it’s Walloon (French-speaking Belgian). Actually, the largest component of my ethnic make-up is German. My maternal grandmother is descended from Bavarians and German-speaking people from the Batschka (which used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but now belongs to Serbia), and on my dad’s side I’m part German-speaking-Swiss.

I’ve been told that if you speak grammatical German and don’t have a hideous American accent, Germans usually assume that you can’t be from the United States. Two friends of mine who’ve lived here have mentioned that people often thought they were Dutch, and my German professor (of Italian and American Indian descent) was usually taken to be Turkish or Greek. Since I’m too short to be Dutch and to pale to be from the Mediterranean, is French nationality assigned to me by default?

Or do I actually look French? I don’t know enough French people to have an opinion on the matter. I am fairly thin, which is a quality often attributed to French people, and I try to dress nicely, but I don’t smoke, drink red wine, or carry baguettes under my arm in a picturesque manner.

--Are there lots of short French people? Do many of them have wavy brown hair? (Thinking of the few French people I’ve known, I would consider red hair to be more typically French…) Are they pale and prone to freckling if they get too much sun, and are their bottom teeth crooked? Do the French tend toward myopia? Do they worry excessively?

6 Comments:

Anonymous kimberly said...

don't get so upset...they are just trying to give you a compliment ;o)

6:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am sure Hamm is a lot nicer than 40 years ago when I lived there. We had two small children, The whole town was covered with a black soot and even the snow turned grey.

5:58 PM  
Anonymous Amelie said...

Knowing how easily one can be wrong with such generalizations, I would guess (!) that most Germans tend to guess "foreigners'" nationalities
1) by the most distinct parts of their appearance/ complexion/ ... (e.g. skin color, approximate facial features, ...)
2) by their accents (!)
3) by the more specific parts of their looks/ outfit/ ...
4) ...
Another important thing is of course people's previous experiences: What's the most common nationality in their region? (It's obviously much easier to be mistaken for a British close to a British army base, to be taken for a Dutch close to the Netherlands, etc.)
After your description, I would simply guess that you don't seem to have a very strong American accent--congratulations! I know lots of Americans who're *really* good at German, but who still have their unmistakable accents... (same if *I* speak English :o( ...)--anyway, maybe you even pronounce things a bit with a French accent, who knows? Maybe just ask the people next time they think you're French?
(And besides, you don't seem to look "extremely typically" American :o) --that's probably enough so that people won't rely on that cue at all...)

And for something completely different: There are some neat adapters for connecting American internet cables to German phone jacks--the nicest I've seen so far is pretty much a "hollow" plug/ jack into which you simply put your American plug... Though I don't know about that particular model, such adaptors are generally not very expensive.
Good luck!

Amelie

10:06 PM  
Blogger Ada said...

Hi everyone--

Thanks for the comments, as usual! Sorry I've taken so long to respond to them. I haven't had much time to blog lately.

Kimberly-- I'm not upset, just confused!

Anonym-- Wow. It sounds like Hamm used to be an industrial nightmare. Yes, I'd say it's improved, even though there still seems to be an air pollution problem (nothing bad enough to turn snow grey, though). I have noticed that I've been having more problems with my asthma since I've been here, and the Lippe still looks pretty icky in places. But on the whole I don't think it's worse than most other medium-sized German cities.

Amelie-- Maybe I do have a French accent? Weirder things have happened; I have a friend who reported speaks German with a Dutch accent (and doesn't speak Dutch). I also wonder whether I dress like a French person. I suppose I'll just have to ask.

Thanks for the plug adaptor tip! Until now everyone has just thought I was crazy when I mentioned that my plug doesn't fit. 'Das ist doch Standard! Es gibt keine unterschiedliche Steckdosen!' I get the feeling that the guys who work in the local Saturn haven't spent too much time abroad...

11:55 AM  
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9:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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10:24 AM  

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