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, April 06, 2006

A Custom Worth Importing

Today was my introduction to the Abi-Scherz.

When I arrived at work this morning, all of the school’s entrances had been blocked off by people in white isolation suits and face masks, the kind health workers wear during outbreaks of epidemics. Several hundred students waited in line to have their bags searched, be frisked, and get spritzed with bottles of “disinfectant.” Someone gave orders through a megaphone. “You in the red shirt! Get to the back of the line. Pointing at the health inspectors and laughing will not be tolerated. This is a serious matter.”

The school, it seemed, had been exposed to a dangerous virus. Actually, several. In addition to bird flu, we had cases of swine flu and acute abiturientitis on our hands.

The health inspectors made me spin around in a circle a couple of times, rifled through my purse (“Kleenex? Have you been exhibiting cold symptoms?”), and sprayed my pants with water.

Although I wasn’t expecting this scene, I wasn’t too concerned. The white isolation suits appeared to be made of porous cotton gauze, and the “health inspectors’” poor posture and excessive eye make-up indicated that they were only 18 or 19 years old. This was a joke—an Abi-Scherz. The graduating 13th-graders had simply come up with a very creative way to delay the start of the school day.

Today is the last week of lessons for our Abiturienten—graduating 13th graders. After this they have several weeks to prepare for the Abitur. The Abitur is required for all students who attend a Gymnasium (college-preparatory school), and functions something like the American SAT: it’s a grueling multi-hour final exam that determines both whether the students qualify for a high school diploma and the right to attend university.

Traditionally, during the last week of school, the Abiturienten come up with creative ways to interrupt or delay lessons—hence the epidemic idea. Which I thought was great—it was certainly very creative, amused everyone (and hence put people in a good mood), and didn’t hurt anybody. To me, this seems like a custom that Americans might want to consider importing.

The Abi-Scherz idea strikes me as greatly preferable to the equivalent from my old high school. I attended Plymouth-Canton Educational Park, a multi-building school on steroids (when I was there, there were 4,700 students) located in the sprawling, faceless, and morbidly conformist unincorporated township of Canton, Michigan. Traditionally, on the last day of school graduating seniors would spray underclassmen with shaving cream, which hurts like a bitch if it gets in your eyes, ruins your clothes, and can eat the paint off your car. Some people also used whipped cream (not as damaging, though it does attract bees). One kid even brought in a spray bottle of Nair, a hair-removal product! Unimaginative and frankly, brutal. Even dangerous.

Where were the health inspectors???

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Also, She's FREE!!!

I just forgot to mention in my last post that, in case you hadn't heard, they let Jill Carroll go (daughter of my high school English teacher, Mary Beth Carroll)!!! And it sounds like she's unharmed.

This must be such a relief for her family.

Breaking the Silence

OK, I know I haven't written in a really really long time. As usual, my excuse is just that I've simply been too busy. Here's the update:

-I got into all three graduate programs I applied to. All offered me funding, but the amounts vary (of course). However, while that will be playing a role in my decision, it isn't everything.

-Two weeks ago I spent five days in the US visiting one of those three programs. On Friday I'm flying out again to visit another one. (They're paying for my travel expenses. Otherwise, there's no way I could go!) I hope to make my final decision while I'm out there. Since the deadline is April 15th, that will be cutting it a bit close!

Now I suppose I should (briefly) explain the American grad school application process, since there is nothing like it in Germany:

'Graduate school' refers to anything about a Bachelor's degree (the degree that most US college graduates earn-- for us it takes 4 years). In my case it refers to a Ph.D. program. However, since I do not yet have a Master's degree, I'll have to earn one of those first. Doing the coursework for the Master's degree will take 2 years. After that, I will have two years of coursework for the Ph.D., followed by about 2 years of writing my dissertation. Grand total: 6 years. A difference between the US and German systems: since graduate study takes longer in the US, you are not required to know your dissertation topic upon entering. I'll have about 3-4 years to figure that out. However, you do need to know what subject you want to study: you apply directly to the department or program, not to the university.

Applying to grad school is a lot like applying for a job. Unlike in Germany, where you just need a decent grade point average (from the Master's/Magister level) and the support of a sponsoring professor (Doktormutter/Doktorvater) to earn a Ph.D., in the US it is quite difficult to be accepted to grad school. Also, it is considered 'normal' to do your undergraduate and graduate work at two different universities.

The graduate school application process includes:

-Taking a 3-hour (or so) standardized test called the GRE (Graduate Record Exam), which tests knowledge in writing, mathematics, and English. Depending on what you want to study, you may also have to complete additional GRE subject tests. (I took care of the GRE back when I was in the US.)

-Writing a resume/curriculum vitae-- it's expected that you should have won scholarships and awards or presented research as an undergraduate, and you need to document that.

-You need three letters of recommendation from professors who worked with you as an undergraduate.

-You also need to write a Statement of Purpose: basically, an essay describing not only why you are well-suited to attend graduate school, but also why you think that the particular program you're applying to is right for you.

The programs pick and choose which applicants they want to accept-- they aren't required to accept all candidates who meet certain minimum qualifications. In addition, there is the question of funding: Not everyone who is accepted is offered financial support. Without an offer of financial support, you have to pay for tuition yourself (easily $20,000 a year). If you are offered financial support, you are exempt from paying tuition and also receive a small stipend (about $8-$18,000 a year) on which to support yourself. In return, you usually teach undergraduates or serve as a research assistant for a professor.

The point of visiting the programs is to see whether you fit into the department and get along with the people you want to work with. In general, American students have a LOT more contact with their professors than German students do, so it's important to make sure there wouldn't be major personality conflicts.

So, that's what applying to grad school is about, and why it's been eating up all my time and prevented me from blogging for the past two months!

In other news, I'm going to see Brokeback Mountain with my roommates today. Dubbed into German, which will be really weird. Especially since I read the original short story by Annie Proulx (in English, of course-- it's quite good, incidentally) so I have expectations about what Jack and Ennis are supposed to sound like. Hopefully they at least did a decent job translating the dialogue. I dislike dubbing. Why can't the Germans just use subtitles, the way the Dutch do? And might this extra exposure to English have something to do with the fact that the average Dutch person speaks better English than the average German does?

I'll try to write again soon. But probably not til I'm back from the Midwest.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Andere Länder, Andere Viren?

So, I missed two days of work last week because, for the second time in three weeks, I had a really bad cold. It wasn't a relapse; it was definitely a different cold-- I was healthy for two weeks inbetween, and the symptoms were different. Last time it turned it a sinus infection; this time my ears hurt so bad that I had to borrow my roommate's hair drier to relieve the pain.*

Both times I went to the doctor, and he prescribed a bunch of herbal stuff to treat the symptoms. Too bad that it takes a day and a half to kick in. Plus, I can't keep missing work like this. The school has been very understanding about it so far, but I don't like disappointing the kids. Plus, I just don't having a sore throat/stuffy nose/fever/earache/disgusting cough so much of the time!

What I need to do is find out WHY I'm getting sick so often. I didn't have this problem in college, or last year-- and I was working at a school then, too, so I don't think that's the major culprit.

It has occurred to me that different garden-variety cold viruses might be prevalent in Europe than in North America, and that my immune system might just not be used to the German strains. (Question to readers living abroad: Do you guys also find that you get sick more where you're currently living than you did in the country you grew up in?)

Other ideas:

-Climate: German winters are cool and damp; Michigan winters are BITTER COLD and any humidity in the air immediately falls as snow.

-Public Transportation: I didn't use it much in college, and last year I only took the bus to town about once a week, and it was mostly empty. Here, I ride to Hamm and back on crowded commuter trains three days a week, and occasionally take the bus in Münster.

-School: The school I work at this year has roughly five times as many pupils as my former school, so I come in contact with a larger group of people.

: My doctor is running blood tests, because I 'look very pale.' But I've always been rather pale, and I haven't always gotten sick like this... Still, it is a possibility, especially since I'm vegetarian, though I do try to eat plenty of legumes and spinach, which are high-iron foods.

Change of topic: Within the past week, I've been notified of admission to both UC Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin-Madison! Unfortunately neither program can tell me much about financial aid until March, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed (and squeezing my thumbs). Hopefully things will work out there and with Penn State, too, and then I'll have several different graduate programs to choose from. :)

*You let the hot air blow into your ears. It helps. Really.

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.