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.

Friday, December 23, 2005

25 Lessons from My Second Year in Germany (So Far)

Hi everyone. This will probably be my last post for 2005, since I don't have internet access at home and the university library will be closed for the next several days.

In case you guys are wondering what I'll be doing for the holidays, rest assured that I won't have to spend them alone. One of the Referendarinnen (student teachers) at my school has invited me to spend Christmas Eve with her family. Although this won't be the same as spending time with own family (who I'll still really miss!), I think it will be very interesting to see a traditional German Christmas celebration. Plus, my friend lives in the Sauerland, one of the few regions in NRW that actually gets snow! (I hope to see some-- that's something I really miss about living over here. A Münsteraner winter is a lot like a very long Michigan November-- cold, damp, grey, and dismal.) I plan to have a small Chanukah party some time next week (with whichever friends and colleagues are able to come), New Year's Eve will be spend with my roommate and her friends, and then in the week after New Year's I hope to travel to the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium.

Now, on to the actual topic of this post. I've made a list of things that I've learned so far this schoolyear. Those of you who've been reading my blog for a while will remember that I did the same thing last January. Consider this both an update and an Ergänzung.

1. Eastern Saxony is NOT representative of Germany as a whole. Most Germans are not xenophobic, racist, mean-spirited or provincial. There are plenty of tolerant, friendly, urbane people here.

2. That being said, German society does have a decidedly anti-American bias. Whenever the US does something barbaric (torturing prisoners of war, executing criminals, etc.), it makes front page news. Good things the US does are in the sixth page of the paper, if they're mentioned at all. Conversely, barbaric things that go on in other Anglophone countries-- like the recent race riots in Australia-- are NOT generally front-page news. Furthermore, while every new misdeed of the Bush administration is cited as an example of how decadent/undemocratic/uncultured the US is, the race riots will not negatively affect Germans' view of Australia (even among those Germans who've heard of them). Yes, the American government (read: the Republican party) has done some heinous things lately, and the criticism is warranted. But it still annoys me to hear something bad about my country every day-- and to go weeks without hearing a single good thing. The current political situation is not an excuse to deny that America has ever done anything good (examples: stopping incipient genocide in Kosovo, preventing the Russians from invading your ass for about 45 years), or to blindly assume to American culture and society have nothing to offer the rest of the world. Nor is it fair to assume that all or even most Americans agree with the policies of the Bush government!

3. American university students have it good. Sure, tuition is about five times as high as it should be, but small class sizes, research opportunities for undergraduates, and professors who aren't on major ego trips are invaluable.

4. Attempting to take six university classes AND teach schoolchildren 12 hours a week is not a good idea.

5. Münster residents are not noted for being outgoing or polite to strangers.

6. I love living in a WG (co-op apartment)! It's nice to have people to talk to (it beats talking to myself or having one-sided arguments with the newscasters on television, like I did last year). Furthermore, my roommates can give me pointers on things to do, which stores carry certain items, the finer points of inscrutable German household appliances, etc. And splitting the rent three ways allows me to live in a much nicer part of town than I could otherwise afford.

7. People in the Ruhrgebiet are very friendly and open (for Germans), but good grief, the cities there are ugly!

8. Teaching high school is definitely not for me. The teaching part itself is enjoyable-- but I would die of a stress-related heart attack after about two years. I admire people who are actually able to do this long-term.

9. Yes, Virginia, there are non-homophobic societies in the world! And it's WONDERFUL.

10. There is something to be said for light-weight Scandinavian furniture, as well as attractive, moderately-priced home accessories. (Yes, I'm talking about IKEA.)

11. Learning a second foreign language through the medium of your first foreign language is quite difficult, unless a. the two languages in question are very closely related (like German and Dutch) and b. you haven't previously studied the second foreign language through your mother tongue.

12. Giving up meat is not a big sacrifice. Even at Thanksgiving! They do the most amazing things with legumes, tofu, wheat protein, and nutritional yeast these days.

13. German sparkling wine does nasty things to me, even if I only drink one glass of it.

14. Riding a bicycle in traffic is easier than it looks.

15. Most children under the age of about 12 cannot understand irony. (Note: this also explains why the other girls in my Brownie troop never got my jokes.)

16. If you want to freak out a Westphalian, give them a vivid description of Michigan winter weather conditions (complete with average snow fall and wind chill factor).

17. No, filing graduate school applications does not necessarily get any easier just because you've successfully done it before...

18. Unless you're an alcoholic or a drug addict, you may want to avoid the park directly behind Münster's main train station.

19. I'd be happier if I had a dog :(

20. I actually like Jane Austen novels (who would have thought)?

21. Fifth and sixth graders are cheerful and winsome. Twelfth and thirteenth graders are surprisingly mature and rational. But seventh through eleventh graders are ticking hormone bombs and are best left to the professionals.

22. I do not deal well with the long winter nights typical of northern latitudes.

23. Germany is the only country in the world in which every retiree doubles as a plain-clothes police officer. If you don't believe me, just try crossing the street on red (when there's no traffic in either direction), or slowly and cautiously riding your bicycle on the sidewalk for a few yards (because the bike lane ended abruptly).

24. Technologically, I'm so far behind the times that I may as well go Amish.

25. No matter how long you've lived abroad, if you unexpectedly bang your shin against something, you will still curse in your first language.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Well, Back in MY Day...

One of the teachers left me alone with a room full of fifth-graders all day. He said he needed to make a few photocopies and would be about five minutes late to class, but apparently something came up, because he never showed. I generally like working with the younger kids-- they're cute, and they're utterly unselfconscious-- but managing 32 perky, pint-sized individuals who have no sense of irony for a full hour is beyond my capacities. I'm not a trained teacher; I'm a trained LINGUIST. Besides, my contract specifically states that I 'shall not be required to hold entire lessons without a teacher present.'

Mild chaos ensued.

It started with hats. 'Can I wear my hat in class?' asked Felix. 'I don't know. What do the other teachers say?' 'Some let us, some don't,' said Malte helpfully. 'Well, what does your regular English teacher say?' 'He lets us.' 'Then it's ok.'

After we had established that they could wear their hats and gloves (but only if they wore both, because wearing one reminded me of Michael Jackson, which was frankly creepy), that drinking was ok, but eating was not, and that shouting over the children I had actually called on was still unacceptable, two of the girls asked if they could use the bathroom. I let them go-- at the same time. This was my first mistake.

As soon as Maike and Anne were out the door, Klara tapped me on the shoulder and whispered... 'You know, both of them took their mobile phones with them. I don't think they really just wanted to go to the toilet.'


This caught me completely off guard. Having grown up in the last century, it simply hadn't occurred to me that ten-year-old kids would have their own cell phones, let alone bring them to school. Even when I was in high school, none of my friends had mobile phones-- only a handful of spoiled rich kids did. And the only people who could bring them to school were the diabetics, who might conceivably need them for a medical emergency. I know that things have changed, and I wouldn't have been surprised if one of my twelfth-graders had pulled out a cell phone. But the cute little ones? These are people who wear their hair in pigtails and are pleased to find LEGOs in their shoes on St. Nicholas Day! What do they need cell phones for?

'Boys and girls, someone has just brought something to my attention. Everyone who has a cell phone, please put it on your desk where I can see it.'

Two dozen tiny people rummaged through their backpacks and coat pockets until their stubby (and occasionally sticky) fingers clasped objects of high technology that didn't even exist when I was their age.

'Ok,' I said, using my best teacher voice. 'From now on, no one touches their phone during my lesson. And that includes during bathroom breaks.'

Some of the little people began to look mortified.

'By the way, what do you kids need mobile phones for, anyway?'

Hands were raised.

'To call my friends.' 'To send text messages.' 'To call my mom in case I need her to pick me up.' 'My daddy pays my cell phone bill from his bank account.' 'Really? I have to pay mine myself!' 'I got a new phone for Saint Nicholas Day.' 'My phone used to belong to my older sister, but now she has a new one...'

When the discussion degenerated to the point that various groups of children were shouting over one another or chatting loudly with their friends, I motioned for silence. Then I used a phrase which I have never used before in my life, and which made me feel like a senior citizen as soon as it left my mouth:

'When I was a little girl...'

I explained that when I was in fifth grade, NO ONE had cell phones. And that this wasn't really all that long ago-- I'm only 24. And that we got along without them just fine, thank you.

'Oh, but things are different today,' said Florian knowingly. 'It's hard to get by without a cell phone these days. What if I need my mom to pick me up early?'

I should have told him that fifteen years ago, when children needed their parents to pick them up early, they used pay phones. But instead, I told them, 'Well, I don't have a cell phone.'

32 sets of eyes looked at me with undisguised pity. 'Oh,' said Ann-Christine. 'Maybe you'll get one for Christmas?'

I wonder how they would have reacted had I told them that I don't have a television, either.

It's funny how little things like this can suddenly make a person feel like an aging schoolmarm instead of a fresh-faced college kid. I'm so out of it that not only do I not have a cell phone, but I didn't even realize that most preadolescents today do. My lack of a cell phone seemed just as exotic to them as my grandmother's stories about sharing bath water with her seven brothers and sisters did to me when I was their age. How did I suddenly get to be an old person? What the hell happened?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Perils of Intercultural Communication

The other day at work I noticed a basket of holiday goodies on the table-- cookies, tangerines, and chocolate coins.

'Oh, neat!' I exclaimed (in English) to a fellow English teacher, pointing at the coins. 'We have these in the US, too, but for Chanukah. We call them 'Chanukah gelt.'

'For Chanukah?' said the other teacher, eying me skeptically.

I figured that maybe she'd never had any contact with Jewish people before and wasn't familiar with our holiday customs.

'Well, sure. There's a game you play with a dreydl-- a kind of spinning top, see-- and the top has letters on it. It's like a gambling game, but with chocolate coins. If you get a certain letter, you take all the coins in the pot, and another letter means you take half, and then there's a letter where you have to give up your coins...'

As I continued to spell out the rules, she began to look more and more confused.

'And who does this?'

'Jewish people. Well, kids, mostly. It's a children's game. Chanukah's a fun holiday. I'm going to have a Chanukah party later in December. With latkes-- potato pancakes. You can come if you like.'

Now appearing horrified, the teacher asked. 'So, Jewish people in the US have a holiday for CHANUKAH?!?!?'

'Sure. It's the Festival of Lights. I mean, what's the big deal?'

Then she started laughing. 'Oh! Oh, Chanukah!' She used the German pronunciation-- khah-NOO-kah.* 'God! I thought you meant HONECKER.' As in Erich Honecker, former dictator of the German Democratic Republic.

A festival for Erich Honecker, complete with chocolate coins and a children's gambling game. Now, wouldn't that be something?

*in English it's HAH-nuh-kuh, or if you can manage the Hebrew, KHAH-noo-kah. Stress on the first syllable!