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.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Off the Wheel and Onto the Dance Floor

Sometimes the hamster has to stop running before it remembers how to get off the wheel.

I had a two-week vacation from work (and from university classes)at the beginning of this month, followed by a nasty sinus infection that kept me in my apartment for five days--in effect lenghthening my vacation. I experienced free time-- REALLY free time, with no pressure to plan lessons or work on my term paper or grad school apps or whatever-- for the first time in two months.

This enabled me to come to a few important conclusions:

1. I like having free time. Having free time is good.

2. When I have more free time, I am happier in general.

3. When I'm not stressed out, I actually really like Germany.

4. I will only be here until the beginning of July.

Basically, this year I have the chance to live in Germany-- something that I like a lot, and might not get to do again for a long time-- but I've been so busy with university classes, etc., that I haven't even been able to enjoy myself. What a waste! Why should I spend all my time at the university, when I can do that back in the US?

So I cut my course load down to my three favorite classes: Beginning Dutch, Intermediate Italian, and North German Dialects. Now that I'm taking fewer classes, I enjoy the ones I am taking a lot more. And I also have time to see friends on weekends, read for pleasure, travel a little, etc. I've been much, much happier lately. And this has led me to Make Discoveries.

For example, the discovery that, contrary to long-held opinion, I am actually not the Worst Dancer in the Entire World.

I've had this complex since elementary school, and I generally blame it on the fact that I got kicked out of ballet lessons when I was six. (It's true; you can ask my mom if you don't believe me.) Intellectually I know they booted me out because I was a pain in the ass and wouldn't shut up, not because of my clumsiness. But deep down, I've always attributed this early disappointment to my lack of dancing ability. Physical coordination has never been my strong suit, and I was never able to enjoy dancing because I thought that people would laugh at me. (And to be fair, sometimes they did!)

This changed last Thursday.

We had a teachers' party at the school to celebrate the end of the semester, and it was a ton of fun. There was a buffet dinner with free drinks (I only had one, but was nonetheless tipsier
than most people who'd had three or four!). The other young teachers convinced me to join them on the dance floor, despite my protestations that it would only be painful for everyone involved. Even though we'd all forgotten to bring our own CDs, and therefore had to utilize the school's collection (a mixture of extremely cheesy early '80s music, Italian hits from the 1950s, and funk), we still managed to get down. As I expected, I was repeatedly reprimanded-- but for having convinced them that I was horrible, when in fact I'm just about average.

Isn't that great! It turns out that I'm not bad, I'm MEDIOCRE!!!

Only the younger teachers danced, and gender-wise it was a bit one-sided. Actually, it reminded me a lot of the seventh grade-- about ten women dancing and having fun, plus one or two brave men we'd convinced to join us-- and then a big group of guys huddled in a corner on the other side of the room.

After the party was over, as I piled into a small, ancient Volkswagen with four student teachers, I imagined how our students would have reacted had they been able to see us dancing. I pictured my eighth-graders howling with laughter at the horrendous music and our cheesy dance moves.

'Look at them! They actually think they're cool!'

Then I pictured my own 8th grade teachers grooving on the dance floor, and I burst out laughing.
But these were people who were prone to pairing corduroy shorts with lavender tights in winter (my friends and I termed this the 'Benjamin Franklin look') or playing Enya and the Indigo Girls as background music during our creative writing exercises. I'm not that lame yet.


Thursday, January 19, 2006

I Can't Believe This is Happening

This entry will not be funny, because the topic is about as far from funny as it's possible to get.

When I was in high school, I had a very talented, very kind Humanities teacher named Mary Beth Carroll. Last week her 28-year-old daughter Jill was kidnapped in Iraq. Jill Carroll is a freelance reporter. She was working for the Christian Science Monitor. She reportedly has a great respect for Arab culture and Islam, and is learning to speak Arabic.

When Jill Carroll went to interview a member of the Iraqi parliament last week, her car was ambushed. The attackers killed her translator and took her hostage.

This morning I got an email from my mother with a link to an article from the Ann Arbor News. Apparently a tape of Jill Carroll was aired on Al Jazeera. The kidnappers are threatening to kill Jill unless the US government releases all female Iraqi prisoners within the next 72 hours.

This is what you don't believe really happens until it affects someone you know. This is the sort of thing you subconsciously don't let yourself acknowledge, the articles in the newspaper that skip over because they're too depressing. Until the victim is your former teacher's daughter and you can't look away anymore.

Please don't look away this time.

Please pray for Jill Carroll and her family.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


Since I’m now learning Dutch, I decided to spend a few days of my winter vacation in northwestern Belgium. I could have also gone to the Netherlands, but I visited Amsterdam last year. When you’re getting to know a new language, I feel that it’s important to comparison-shop amongst the countries where it’s spoken until you find the one that suits you best.

Everyone I know who’s been to Brussels has expressed disappointment. The adjectives dirty, ugly, shady, and charmless are frequently used. Plus last year I met a woman who had all her luggage stolen within five minutes of arriving at Bruxelles-Midi train station. So Brussels was out as a possible destination. After flipping through an outdated copy of Let’s Go, I decided to head to Brugge, better known in English as Bruges.

As soon as I reached downtown Brugge, I knew that I had made the right travel decision. The town was gorgeous—narrow little cobblestone streets lined with low brick houses, canals, medieval churches. But it was more than that. I could tell right away that I preferred the Flemish to the Dutch, and for a very good reason: the Flemish appeared to be significantly shorter!!!

At 5 feet, 1 3/4 inches*, I’m shorter than most Dutch 10-year-olds, and therefore I stuck out in Amsterdam like an Ituri rain forest pygmy. My clothes were unobtrusive and not particularly touristy, but everyone knew I was a foreigner immediately because of my height. The trolley conductors always asked to see my ticket-—in English—-ignoring the six-foot Dutch women who boarded ahead of me. I went to a bar one evening and the other patrons gave me funny looks. They probably wondered why I wasn’t hunting with nets in the jungle or singing back-up vocals for Deep Forest or doing the other sorts of things one might expect to occupy a pygmy’s time.

Belgium was different. The natives weren’t exactly short—-I still fell into the bottom quarter of the growth chart—-but they weren’t taller on average than North Americans, so I didn’t look freakish. Strangers on the street actually addressed me in Flemish a couple of times! (I think they were trying to sell me a new payment plan for my non-existent cell phone, but still.)

But Brugge has many charms apart from its inhabitants’ lack of excessive height. As I mentioned previously, the architecture is absolutely gorgeous. Somehow Brugge escaped bombardment in both World Wars, meaning that it’s not merely well-reconstructed, it’s the real deal: an authentic, well-preserved Northern Renaissance town that hasn’t undergone much structural change since then. (Apart from the introduction of indoor plumbing, of course. The toilets in Belgium are perfectly normal, if a little on the dirty side.) There are also a number of museums, including one that has a nice collection of Flemish Masters pieces, and some very good shopping. And then there’s the food—-chocolate and waffles, of course, but how has it escaped everybody’s notice that the Belgians also make great sandwiches?

It’s a good thing that the sandwiches and waffles were fabulous, because those were pretty much the only things I could afford to eat. Brugge’s main drawback is that it’s very wealthy—-both the locals (many of whom were wearing coats made from the carcasses of small mammals) and the crowds of tourists seem to be drawn from upper income brackets. And Brugge is definitely a tourist town: the prescence of horse-drawn carriages and busloads of Japanese people with cameras makes this apparent. Since the residential areas are well-hidden, it even has the feel of a Potemkin village at times. But somehow it was so picturesque that I just didn’t care. In the event that I ever successfully pursuade someone to marry me, I intend to twist her arm until she agrees to stop in Brugge on the honeymoon.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Belgium. Skip Brussels. Go to Bruges.

*For European readers, this is about 154 centimeters. Approximately.

My Merry Weihnachten

As I mentioned in my last 2005 blog entry, a coworker invited me to spend Christmas with her and her family. Her parents live in a small village in the Sauerland, a lovely but remote rural region noted for hills, forests, and not much else. (It kind of reminded me of the Oberlausitz, but without the Neo-Nazis.)

And so I spent a major holiday with somebody else’s family, none of whom I’d ever met before. It was weird. They were all very nice and did their best to make me feel included, but I was homesick anyway. I suppose that’s to be expected. I had a nice time, but it didn’t really feel like Christmas.

German Christmas is fairly different from Christmas in the United States. For one thing, the big event is the evening of the 24th. In German it’s called Heiliger Abend, “holy evening.” The 25th is just an afterthought used for overeating with the friends and relatives you didn’t see on the actual Big Day (or Big Evening, rather). The 26th, which is also a legal holiday, is a replay of the 25th.

Germans are astounded when they hear that Americans do not have a “second day of Christmas.”* Also when they find out that many stores and restaurants are open on Christmas Day itself. Over here, everything shuts down. By law. This leads to a lot of panic-buying just before the holidays (if you’re planning to prepare three or four large meals for guests over the next several days and no stores will be open, it’s vital to make sure you don’t run out of food), as well as increased holiday stress. But the Germans are used to this stress, and my theory is that they secretly enjoy it.

Anyhow, as I was saying before I distracted myself, the most important part of a German Christmas is the evening of the 24th. This is when people come over for dinner. A very LARGE dinner, on the same scale you see in the US, but of course the food is different. No turkey with stuffing here! Instead, the family I stayed with had three kinds of meat (venison, pork, and beef), and, thankfully for me, plenty of vegetarian side dishes as well: red cabbage, potato dumplings, potato croquets, mushrooms and leeks in cream sauce, a salad, a soup, two kinds of bread, pears stuffed with lingonberry sauce, and tiramisu. I have no idea whether any of this is traditional, but in any case, it what was on the menu. I ate way too much (duh). Shortly after midnight my digestive tract repaid me for my misdeeds with violent cramping.

German families also open their presents on Christmas Eve. With my hosts, this was more low-key than a typical American celebration. I suppose people are probably more extravagant with their kids, but everyone present at the celebration I attended was an adult, and the gifts were more like tokens: some scented soap, a candle, a bottle of fancy lotion. The kinds of gifts that American PTA moms give elementary school secretaries. (Believe me, I know: my mother is an elementary school secretary!) Even I was not forgotten. Somebody gave me a white hand towel with pandas on it. Their taste was questionable, but since I’d never met them before and I’m always short of towels, I was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Maybe part of the reason that Christmas presents are less important in Germany is that the kids, at least, have already opened some presents on St. Nicholas Day. Like the Dutch, German kids leave their schools next to the radiator and wake up to find them filled with goodies. (Interesting trivia tidbit: while Germans celebrate St. Nicholas Day on December 6th, he visits the Netherlands on the 5th. I wonder where he goes on the 7th. Possibly Luxembourg?)

In terms of Christmas decorations, Germans are more traditional, and less, well, garish, than North Americans. Many still put real candles on their trees, and blinking colored lights are considered absolutely tasteless. Germans make a lot of use of greenery. They’re big on wreaths and evergreen bows and such. Inflatable plastic snowmen and glow-in-the-dark creches are definite no-nos. They don’t hang stockings, either, but that’s just because the stocking custom originated in Britain, not on the Continent.

Like Americans (who actually borrowed the idea from the Dutch, with considerable modifications), the Germans do indeed have a Santa Claus. He is called the Weihnachtsmann (Weihnachten is the German word for Christmas). Traditionally the Weihnachtsmann dressed in green, but today you’re more likely to see him wearing the red costume sponsored by the Coca-Cola Company. He makes his rounds on Christmas Eve, when the kids are still awake. Generally some family member dresses up as the Weihnachtsmann and threatens the kids with a wooden switch before actually handing out their presents.

Unlike our Santa, the Weihnachtsmann is not assisted by elves. Instead, he has a number of slaves, all of whom are named “Ruprecht.” These Ruprechts look kind of like miniature Weihnachtsmänner, only really unattractive. The Weihnachtsmann is not married, either. Germans are sort of baffled by the idea of Mrs. Claus.

“But what does Santa’s wife do?” they ask.

“I don’t know. Not much, really. She wears a red dress and a lace cap and has white hair and glasses. I think she just stays at home, bakes cookies, and mends his suit.” It’s ridiculously sexist when you think about it, really. I suppose that someone invented her because it sounds horribly boring and lonely to live alone at the North Pole with nothing but flying reindeer and a bunch of elves for company. Or maybe the Victorians introduced a wife because they wanted to make it clear that Santa does not have some kind of deviant sex life.

Another thing that surprises Germans about American Christmas lore is that Santa has exactly nine reindeer (there were originally eight, but then a 1950s claymation film introduced Rudolph), and that all of them have names, and that every American school child can recite these names: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blixen.** And Rudolph, of course.

These are all of the Christmas-related cultural differences that I can think of at the moment. I’ve probably forgotten a few things. Feel free to mention them in the comments section.

*Note to Canadian readers: This is way off topic, but what, if anything, do you guys actually do on Boxing Day? I’ve always wondered.

**The names Donder and Blixen come from the Dutch words for thunder and lightning. :)