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.

Sunday, November 13, 2005


For the past two and half weeks I've been living in a Wohngemeinschaft (shared apartment) in Münster: WG (pronounced vay-gay, for you English-speaking types!) for short. I like it here; it definitely beats the fire station. For the amusement of my friends and family, I'm going to devote this entry to describing my living conditions. Apologies if it bores my other readers :).

So, I share a three-bedroom apartment with two unemployed lawyers in their late twenties. Both recently finished the two-year training period required for all civil servants and state employees in Germany and are hunting for jobs. (This is not easy in Münster--the university here has the third-largest law department in the country, with about 10,000 undergraduate students!) My roommates are both very nice. They give me lots of pointers on the details of German life (properly sorting the garbage, how to get the calcium residue off the shower doors, why the newspaper didn't show up on All Saints' Day #, etc.), and they're great partners for breakfast-time political debates. One of them also occasionally gives me rides in his Panda. (In this case, Panda refers not to a large, bamboo-eating mammal distantly related to the raccoon, but rather to a comical-looking Italian-made automobile with about as much leg room as a large waste basket.)

We have an Altbauwohnung, which means that 1. we have an actual bathtub, as opposed to just a shower, and 2. the windows let in drafts. I have the largest bedroom, which means that I also pay the largest rent-- but it's still only €8 more a month than I paid for a horrible basement room in a village in eastern Saxony, so I'm not complaining.

The floors are tiled and they get really cold, so I've taken to wearing Hausschuhe-- now I get why Germans are so big on wearing shoes indoors! (Last year both the places I lived in had carpeting, so I was able to stick to my American stocking-feet habit.) Hausschuhe are not necessarily slippers, though they can be. They can be pretty much any kind of shoes, as long as they're inexpensive and you only wear them inside. Mine are actually flip-flops.

Furniture. The girl who had this room before me (she moved to Denmark) bequeathed me a large bookcase, an end table, and a bunch of nice plants. My 'bed' is a mattress and Lattenrost that I purchased from a physics teacher for 20 euro. (A Lattenrost is a kind of wooden board thing that you place beneath your mattress--way more comfortable than it sounds. You can adjust it so that the mattress becomes more or less firm. Germans don't use American-style box-spring mattresses!) At the moment my mattress is sitting on the ground, but tomorrow my roomate and I are taking the Panda to the German equivalent of the Home Despot ## in order to get some concrete blocks I can prop it up on. Spartan, yet functional. My mentor teacher gave me a desk and a chair with wheels, and another teacher has an armchair and some lamps I can use (though those haven't arrived yet). Just this Friday I got the final piece of furniture I really needed: a Schrank.

I use the German word 'Schrank' because, well, we don't have Schränke in the US. The equivalent English word is 'wardrobe,' but who uses it anymore? Unless you happen to live in a house built before 1930 or so that was never retrofitted, you probably keep your clothes in a closet. Germans don't have closets. In fact, as far as I know, there isn't even a German word for 'closet.' They have to describe it in a round-about way, as an 'Anziehkammer' (literally, 'room for putting your clothes on'), which isn't even very accurate, since it's neither a separate room, nor do you actually get dressed inside it... (My uncle, who was stationed here for a couple of years back when he was in the military, says that he heard once that the reason that Germans don't have closets is that you're taxed more for each additonal room in your apartment, and a closet would count as a room for tax purposes. Do any of my German readers know whether that's accurate?) So essentially, unless I wanted to live out of my suitcase and wear wrinkled clothes all year, I had to get a Schrank. This was slightly problematic, since, as major pieces of furniture, Schränke tend to be pretty expensive.

Ikea to the rescue! For those of you who are not acquainted with the wonders of Scandinavian interior decorating, Ikea is a Swedish company that makes attractive, mostly light-weight furniture, which is reasonably priced because you assemble it yourself. (They also have really cool accessories. While I was there I bought a windchime, some netting to hang around my bed, a bunch of fake flowers, and an extra set of sheets-- I spent a lot more than I had intended to!) Incidentally, Ikea also has good food. But that's neither here nor there. I wanted to tell you about my Schrank. I got a model called 'Vestby,' probably the cheapest Schrank they make-- only 35 euro. It's inexpensive for good reason. Most Schränke are made of wood. My Vestby has a wood frame (light-weight balsam, or something), but most of it is made of plastic sheeting. It looks nice, and it serves it's purchase, but as my roommate put it: 'If my grandpa saw this, he'd have a heart attack! He was a carpenter. This isn't a Schrank, it's a Kleidungaufbewahrungsgegenstand!' (literally: object in which you store clothes. It sounds funnier in German.)

The other reason that my Schrank was so inexpensive was that it was made in Romania. (Possibly by orphans with shaved heads and poor social skills.) ###

And now, on to the neighborhood. We live on a quiet residential street, within walking distance of a bank, bakery, small grocery store, etc. The funny thing is that it happens to be in the Hafenviertel, a major party district. (Supposedly. I haven't seen any evidence of this yet.) It's also the 'alternative' neighborhood in Münster. There are lots of people here with dreadlocks. You can see them at the traditional German bakery every morning, buying rolls. (The first time I saw this juxtiposition, I couldn't help giggsling.) The other interesting fact about my neighborhood is that it's near the train station, and even closer to the park behind the train station. Lots of alcoholics, drug addicts, and homeless people hang out there. (I prefer the homeless people. They're the least intimidating.) When I told my dad about this he became rather concerned, but I don't actually feel unsafe there. I just don't walk through the park alone at night. One of the nice things about Germany is that's comparatively hard for drug addicted alcoholic homeless people to buy firearms here!

# Reason: It's a legal holiday in Nordrhein-Westfalen: and that means the paperboy gets the day off, too!
## No, this is not a typo. I just have a sick sense of humor.
### I told you that I have a sick sense of humor!

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Another Kind of Culture Shock

It's funny how after you've lived abroad for a while, things that used to make you stare (dogs in restaurants, naked people in political advertisements, etc.) become normal, and you think that culture shock is a thing of the past... but then you're suddenly thrust into a new situation, and your host country seems foreign again.

Something like this happened to me last week when I started taking classes at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universitat Münster.

I'm signed up for a seminar on German-Speaking Minorities Abroad. I figured there would be about 25-30 people in the course. There are at least 60. Which is to say, it is around 400% bigger than the German classes I took in the US (average class size: 15), and 600% bigger than my linguistics classes (average class size: about 10.) And, again, I want to emphasize that this is a seminar, not a lecture class (Vorlesung) in which you might reasonably expect to find 100 students or so. In a seminar, people are (supposedly) expected to participate in discussions, ask questions, create presentations, etc. How is this going to be possible with 60 people in the room? If I want to ask something, I won't even be able to get the professor's attention!

Which brings me to my next point. Expectations about participation are totally different. Basically, by American standards, German students are not expected to participate much. They come to class, sit quietly, and maybe ask for clarification. But my impression is that there isn't much emphasis placed on discussion, debating issues and so forth. The professors don't even randomly call on people to see whether the students are mastering the material.

Another weird thing: there is basically no homework. My professors in the US always at least assigned reading: 'please read pages 45-150, inclusive, and be prepared to discuss varieties of language contact on Monday.' Then, on Monday they would ask questions about pages 45-150 (inclusive), and if you couldn't answer them you'd lose paricipation points and end up with a C in the class. Here, they don't assign reading, they make reading suggestions. Sort of. (My impression is that the reading is only suggested for people who plan to their presentations on particular topics. But if I can, I want to do all of it anyway, because I like to be informed.) And there is no collected homework of any kind. The only assignments are either a 30-minute presentation or a 20-page paper, due at the end of the course. Really. That's it. (In the US, we have assignments like that, too-- but also lots of smaller assignments to go with them!)

My impression so far is that this is child's play.

This is very different, but I think I can get used to it.

But something else, which I don't like at all, is the amount of distance between students and faculty here. At my home university, professors were always encouraging us to go to their office hours-- to talk about the course topics, or sometimes just to chat. After a while we got to know each other, and I could ask things like 'How's your daughter doing?' or 'Did you have a nice time in Argentina?' In short, we treated each other like people. Academics in Germany seem to put themselves on a sort of pedestal. I can't imagine them attending their students' graduation parties, or even just chatting about the weather.

Another thing-- back in the US, I called all of my professors by their first names. Most of them insisted on it. For example, one guy, Dan, would actually correct you if you tried to call him Dr. S! He was a full professor, and nationally known in his field, but as far as I can tell he only used his title at conferences. Here, you have to call professors by multiple titles. 'Herr Doktor Professor S.' 'Mister Doctor Professor S.' This is their way of stressing that they are more important than you are.

Pompousity is the order of the day.

Things are different in my foreign language classes, because the instructors are 1. not tenured faculty and 2. not German. One of my Italian teachers isn't much older than I am. We call her by her first name, and she calls us 'ragazzi.' ('Guys' in Italian.) And the Dutch lady is, well, Dutch. It seems that the Dutch restrict formal forms of address to complete strangers and people they dislike.

But back to Italian. Last year, a German told me that Germans think Italian is an ugly or comical language, which I thought was really weird, since Americans consider it beautiful. But now I get it: as spoken by Germans, Italian is an ugly and comical language. I have a hard time understanding my classmates. I have to ask them to repeat themselves two or three times, so I've taken to feigning a mild hearing impairment. I figure that's more polite than saying 'I'm sorry, but I can't understand you because your accent is so bad.' The problem is that most of them can't produce an Italian R (a trilled or 'rolled' R produced on the back of your teeth). So instead they use a German R, which is basically a gargling sound. This sounds awful, and renders certain words unintelligible. (--Not that Americans learning Italian always have such great accents, either. Italian with an American R is just as unattractive, but it's easier for me to understand because I'm used to it.)

But it's doing good things for my self-esteem. After Italian class, I feel much better about my problems with German consonant clusters.