Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sunday Amusements

Nearly every business in Germany is closed on Sundays and this week is the beginning of fall break, meaning that the city was all but deserted this morning. I got to play tourist after church and run around snapping pictures because I didn't have to worry about avoiding the usual crowds of people downtown. A few highlights:

The fog this morning outside my window was lovely. And this was 9 in the morning!

My current apartment is right on the river, which means that fog is more common than in the middle of the city. Unfortunately being right on the river means that sometimes the river is right on the building - they have a flood every couple of years and the bottom floor apartment gets soaked. Plus, a regular river bath isn't great for the building foundations. Therefore, the city is constructing a wall to hold back the river, much like the levees in New Orleans (though we hope these ones actually work...) to keep the waterfront property un-flooded. Instead of having the river right at eye-level outside my window, I have a lovely view of the construction crew.

I also dodge backhoes on my way home from the store.

But this isn't just about me! Let me introduce you to a corner of Germany.

This fountain commemorates 150 years of a particular industry in the city.

First Forever 18, and now T.K.Maxx. I wonder if German copyright laws aren't very strict...
And of course this would not be Europe without a number of lovely old churches. I know of at least three, but unfortunately my pictures of two of them had terrible sun glare and don't look like much of anything. Digital cameras: I should learn how to use them.

The front of Liebfrauenkirche - the Church of the Blessed Virgin.
The back of Liebfrauenkirche
Two statues with a poem in between.

The little plaque between these two is a poem written in older German, that goes something along the lines of "The market woman said to the policeman 'it is so silly/colorful to me, he has peed on my husband, that nuisance your dog!'" I think. I couldn't find any translations online either into modern German or English, so there's my attempt at being a Renaissance Germanic scholar.

Up next: I discovered mineral water at the store with two different labels denoting how bubbly they are, and I want to see which is bubblier! That experiment will probably happen sometime this evening.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Lesson Fail

Friday was my last day of school before the two-week fall break, and everyone was excited for the day to be finished. I have two tenth-grade classes with the same teacher on Friday and had been asked to come up with a fun, light lesson for this final day. No difficult analyzing or worksheets please, just a game or a cartoon or something similar. So I had a plan.
My tenth-grade world history class played a game called “Congress of Vienna,” in which we pretended we were the five major European powers after WWI, parceling out the continent. France, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Great Britain had to decide who got what in Europe, with three votes (or three countries) required to agree on a certain course of action. For example, three countries might agree that Russia gets Poland while Great Britain gets Malta. Each country had a separate score sheet reflecting the points it would get depending on who got control over which territory. In the case of Russia and Poland, Russia would get 30 points if it could get Poland, 15 points if Prussia could get Poland, and 0 points if Great Britain, France, or Austria got it. The Russian group had to go to the other countries to see if they would vote for Russia to get Poland, and perhaps trade one vote for another. So Russia would vote that Great Britain gets Malta and Great Britain would vote that Russia gets Poland, for example. Or, if Great Britain was unwilling to vote for Russia, perhaps Russia could convince it to vote for Prussia instead and still get some points. We had to make these kinds of deals for two dozen or so different territories and then vote at the end of a few days. Clear? Good.

The Congress of Vienna. Our version included fewer old European men.
I thought that I could make a similar game for the American Constitution, splitting the students up and giving them a variety of issues on which to vote. Somehow they would have to try and convince two other groups to vote with them on something to get those points. A little complicated, certainly, but not unmanageable – I thought it would be fun. Ha.

"An assembly of demigods" in the words of Thomas Jefferson
In the teacher’s room before class started I explained the game to the teacher, who told me very gently that the students might not understand. We could try it, she said, and she hoped I had a backup in case it didn’t work. I did bring a backup (talking about holidays with pictures from my childhood to accompany the discussion) but thought I wouldn’t need it. Cue the beginning of class and my attempts to explain the game to the students. They looked at me in confusion while I explained the rules, then tried to play the game despite not understand what they were supposed to do. Ten minutes into the lesson, the teacher suggested that I go to Plan B and perhaps we could try the game later in the year. Cue Jessica curling up into a little ball and crying inside. Not outside, though, and we had a somewhat forced conversation about holidays in Germany and the US.

It turns out that Christmas in Germany is celebrated on December 24, and it includes a St. Nicholas figure who comes on December 6 to fill children's shoes with candy. In German folklore, St. Nicolas is accompanied by a creature called Knecht Ruprecht who hits bad children with his stick. My students told me that they had never been hit with sticks, though in some places in Austria the Christmas season includes a parade with St. Nicholas and Krampus (a very similar figure, though more like a demon who will eat you) who does actually hit people. Knecht Ruprecht is now more of a story than a reality for German children.
He's usually an old or hooded man, and puts bad kids in his sack.
Krampus is more of a demon that will scare the living daylights out of you
Two confusing German food I’ve been attempting to learn lately:
Paprika – bell pepper
Peperoni – chili peppers

So there you go.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Saga of the Copy Machine

I wrote before that Friday was a normal day for me. This was true: I went to classes and assisted the teachers, instead of visiting for the first time or going to a trip to Bonn. My first class on Friday, however, was one sympathetic teacher away from being an unmitigated disaster.

Friday is my long day, starting with a class at 8am and going almost straight through until 12:30pm. I recognize from the start that this is not a long day to anyone (or any teacher) who works full time, and I know my complaints can be called "whining" without the least bit of untruth. Having said that, it's a stressful and early day for me, with a range of ages (13-18) and a range of different levels of English to keep in mind.

My first hour on Fridays is the 10th grade class with the boy who laughed at my English. The teacher for this class asked me to bring in a story in English. I decided on "The Lady and the Tiger" by Frank Stockton (it's good, I recommend reading it), and presumed she was going to use it later in the year. I presumed wrong. She was planning that I would teach the class on Friday, and I found this out at 7:55 on Friday. To make matters worse, I'd thought I could quickly print out and copy the story before class started, so I didn't even have a paper version, though I thought I'd been clever in bringing my USB drive so I didn't need an internet-connected computer to print it out. Ha.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Proserpine was the picture my high-school textbook used to accompany the story of "The Lady and the Tiger" and I present it to you as an accompaniment to my own story.

The teacher assured me that she could take over for this class and we would plan on me teaching on Tuesday. I could take the class time to print and copy the stories, then give them to the students before the end of the class period, which is forty-five minutes long. Plenty of time.

I discovered earlier in the week that the computers without internet needed a username and password, and so dutifully asked the nearest teacher what those might be. She sent me to the secretary, who told me there was a general password and I should ask the teachers. I found another teacher who gave me the password and I plugged in my USB drive, only to find that the computer is running old software and can't read the file. No problem, I got the story off the internet in the first place, I'll get it off the internet again. Scurrying into the storage room with internet-connected computers, I discovered that they need a separate, individual username and password, for reasons I do not know. Back to the secretary, who tells me that someone else is in charge of those and I can find him in the smaller teacher's lounge. I can't. Thankfully one of the student teachers kindly allows me to use his account for the moment, so I chase down the story, copy it over, add a bit of vocabulary at the bottom, and print it out.

Now to copy. I ask one of the teachers I'll be working with later that day to tell me how to use the copy machine, and she tells me that I first need a copy card. Europe in general is attached to environmentalism, and so teachers at the school must purchase a card to make copies, thereby encouraging them not to do so. The secretary tells me my first card is free, and I should initial it so as not to lose it. Obstacle #1: overcome.

The teacher and I go back to the copy machine, where I attempt to make my one-sided stories two-sided in order to save paper. After five minutes of hunting for this option, we make a trial copy, which proceeds to jam up the copy machine and cause it to beep loudly while I'm scrambling to find the source of the problem. A technically-inclined teacher happens by and sees our difficulties, so he stops to help. We un-jam the copy machine, re-find the one-side-to-two-sides option, and try again. This time the machine beeps a little song and the words on the screen inform us it is out of paper. The paper closet, conveniently located right next to the machine, is also out of paper, so one of the teachers went downstairs to the supply closet or somewhere and found another box. We load the paper and finally make my thirty copies. It feel like too many, but when I count, there are indeed thirty copies and thirty people - twenty-nine students plus the teacher.

By this time class has finished and I hurry back to the classroom to find everyone gone. The teacher assures me that all is in order and I'll teach the story sometime next week. She insists that I don't worry about it. The day goes well after that except for accidentally being too informal with a member of the testing board for student teachers. Once she hears I'm American, she's not offended. Thank goodness for that.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Bonn and Back Again

September 22 is Hobbit Day, of Lord of the Rings fame. I won't be traveling to misty mountains in the morning, but I did make a journey on Wednesday to Bonn, a small city right next to Cologne. Like Bilbo, I didn't go alone.

My school (Gymnasium) has an exchange program with a school in Sweden, and this year was Sweden's turn to send its students to Germany. The eight girls each live with a different student from the Gymnasium for a week while their teachers stay with some of the English teachers (and one who learns Swedish as a hobby). Since most Germans don't speak Swedish and most Swedes don't speak German, English was our common language. Lucky for me. I went along with the group to Bonn to visit the Haus der Geschichte and join in on a guided tour in English through German history. As is true for most history, German history is very sad, but the museum included some very interesting elements despite the sorrow.

Unfortunately we were moving too fast to get any good pictures inside.

First, the whole building is set up in chronological order, with higher floors corresponding to more recent historical periods. Second, the museum includes both East and West German history, separated by iron partitions and color - red for East and white for West. You know your location based on the surroundings. One particular exhibit shows domestic items from just after World War II, all made out of grenades, helmets, and other used bits of war. Immediately above this exhibit is an identical exhibit showing the luxuries available in the early 60s, with a one-way mirror in the floor so you can see the previous items. From later in history you can look back, but from earlier in history you can't look forward.

The museum also had a temporary photography exhibit showing people in work uniforms and leisure clothes. The difference in posture and bearing is amazing, especially in cases like a German air force pilot, a nun, a priest, a butcher, and a lawyer. I wish I'd had more time at that exhibit.

Thursday and Friday were normal school days for me. One tenth-grade class included three nasty boys who laughed themselves silly when they heard me speak German, while their kind classmate told me my accent was sweet. It's astonishing how self-conscious I felt when a handful of children mocked me, but self-conscious I was. I resisted the urge to speak very quickly to him in English in retaliation. Several teachers encouraged me to correct their English at some point this next week - not to single them out, of course, but just not to feel embarrassed and shy around them. I should correct them the same way I would correct any other student. I'll try.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

First Day of School!

Today was my supposed first real day at school, when I would assist in the classes and not be the show-and-tell object for everyone’s entertainment. This was not so. At 9:30 I went to my first class, a group of eighth-graders who were very friendly with me and one another. I only got them to ask me one or two questions unprompted, but asked them things like favorite color and pets. They used my questions as a model for their own questions and we managed to pass the class period in a reasonably painless manner.

Then I had a three-hour break, because my usual seventh-grade class had a special sports day. I wandered around the town, found the train station (Bahnhof), visited a lovely church, and bought a planner. Unlike most of the stores in the States, the store I went to only had 2013 planners, no 2012/2013 or even 2012. So I bought a beautiful 2013 planner that was on sale and popped down to the larger store to buy a notebook. For the next hour I wrote dates in each page to create my own planner. I like the preprinted one better.

This is my school

Around noon I had my last class of the day, a tenth-grade class with a teacher who paraded down the hallway waving an American flag. I found this entertaining, but the students seemed to find it strange. This class was also primarily a question-and-answer session with me, but these students were very chatty and hardly needed any prompting to ask me questions. We also had a bit of a debate about the difference driving ages in the States and Germany – the Germans can’t get a driver’s license until they’re eighteen. One student asked me to say something in German (they don’t seem to believe I actually can speak their language) and a particular boy up front couldn’t stop laughing at my accent. I don’t think I’ve ever been so unreasonably embarrassed as I was then. Thankfully one of the other students told me she thought my accent was sweet, so I corralled my dignity and talked back to the mocking boy. My teacher-contact encouraged me to not feel embarrassed in the future and remind such childish students that I will learn German as they learn English. I suppose it’s no surprise that fourteen-year-olds think they’re on top of the world.

Yesterday I didn’t work – every Monday is a day off – and instead went around to all of the various bureaucratic offices with my teacher-contact to register my address, apply for a residence permit, and apply for a bank account. I was so grateful to have a native speaker alongside me; the appointments all went very well in great part (I believe) to the presence of someone who belonged in the country. She could speak with them far more quickly and fluently then I could, and was herself clearly German. Despite a natural suspicion, everyone seemed very friendly because of her. The people who work in these offices hear a lot of non-Germans attempt to get German residency because German social programs are all-encompassing and generous. The woman at the city hall said that she sees a number of people who have a family outside Germany and get money from the German government to support this family.

This sentiment seems slightly anti-immigration to me, though I understand a system that pays for non-citizens who don’t work in the country can’t be sustained. Certainly it’s difficult that people in Bulgaria or Romania have no good options in their own countries, but for all its economic success Germany can’t support all of Europe. I have to settle on the fact that it’s a difficult question and I understand both sides. It seems a bit of a cop-out.

I’ll end this long post with an example of the German character: this weekend a protest came through the neighborhood where I’m staying. It primarily included a bunch of trucks and cars, including what looked like trucks from waste collection and scrapyard facilities. These vehicles had signs on their fronts saying things like “Is This Integration?” and “More Than 10,000 People With Lives Ruined!” and “Show the People What it Is!” but I have no idea what the protest was actually about. The Germans I spoke with seemed equally puzzled. The people driving the trucks honked their horns and rang bells, though they also stopped politely at stoplights and stop signs, and to let people cross. 

Excuse the roof, this picture was taken out of a third-story window.

Even funnier than the polite demonstrators, though, was that a police car drove in front of and behind the whole procession. It turns out that if someone in Germany wants to have a protest, they must first inform the local police station and get a permit. The police station will send someone to watch over the situation, but not interfere with whatever is happening unless things get out of hand. 

In Germany, even protests are by the rules.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Cologne Adventure

A great deal has happened in a couple of days.

On Wednesday I helped to teach a lesson on parts of the body to “nine-year-olds” comprised of my fellow teaching assistants acting like children. After another evening of information about the Fulbright Program, health insurance, and alumni organizations, I went to bed early and got up dark and early for our trip back to Cologne.

The Cologne main train station (Hauptbahnhof) has these amazing short-term luggage storage containers: you put in €3, shove your suitcase into the little box that opens up, and wait. The door closes, your luggage is whisked away, and you can retrieve it with a little card the machine spits out after taking your money. I think everything goes to underground storage. Wherever my huge suitcase was stored, I appreciated seven hours to explore Cologne without dragging along sixty-something pounds of my life behind me.

A survey some years ago named the Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom) the most beloved place in Germany. It’s certainly huge, beautiful, and very Gothic.

It was raining that day, but I like the idea of the cathedral stretching through the clouds.

The outside is stained black with city smog, even though Cologne’s air is very clean – enough centuries of anything but pure air turns the stone black. The city has undertaken a cleaning project since the mid-1960s, when they finished repairing the damage from World War II. As with all European cathedrals, the detail is gorgeous.

The inside is very tall and plainer than I expected. I accidentally joined the 9am Mass (Gottesdienst) while exploring and got a blessing from a rather confused priest. The priests in German-speaking countries all seem so bemused that I don’t take communion but want to participate somehow. Maybe most non-Catholics just don’t go up. I knew I was in Germany when a woman visiting the cathedral started throwing out the burned-down candles and straightening the hymnals. Naturally, everything must be in order.

Outside the cathedral I found a number of living statues as well as a ton of people. In addition to school groups, I saw two men “floating” (it’s a clever chair contraption) and one adult man walking briskly after a pigeon. The pigeon just walked faster.

Later these people will become "living statue" buskers.

Cologne’s main shopping street boasts a number of high-end stores, including one called Louis Vuitton. Having never been in such a store, I thought I could browse the thousand-dollar merchandise and popped right in. I should have known I was in trouble when the man employed to open the door opened the door for me, but it wasn’t until he asked me to stay on the little walkway in the middle of the store (where I couldn’t see any of the merchandise) that I realized this wasn’t a browsing sort of place. Sure enough, one of the women working there came over to take care of me and asked what I was searching for that day. I told her a present for my mother, at which point she showed me a number of very expensive purses and I tried not to look like I wanted to bolt every moment. After a few minutes I “picked” a purse and asked her to write it down so my mother could look at it online, then left and never went back. I think that was a class faux pas rather than a cultural one, but I felt ridiculous nevertheless.

The shopping street also boast more low-brow clothing stores:

Because twenty-one is pretty much ancient.
Today was my first day in school - I fielded questions (in English) in three classes and thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. It was a little awkward because no one expected me today, but we smoothed everything over and eventually the students even talked. It took some coaxing. Between the school day (which ends at 1:30ish) and the school fair (Schulfest) in the afternoon, I ended up speaking a lot of German and it made me very tired. Amazing how difficult it is to talk when talking doesn't come naturally. I look forward to the day I'm not translating in my head the whole conversation.

To end on a smile: a centurion and Gandalf having a smoke.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Flights and Orienteering

Today is Day 1.5 of orientation at a lovely middle-of-nowhere place called Haus Altenberg. It's a temporary settlement that I find very welcome after the 28 hours of travel on Sunday/Monday, including planes, trains, and automobiles. I got lost twice in Toronto and had to be rescued by two separate friendly employees and went through security three times (once for each airport besides my destination) and customs twice. The Canadian customs was much more thorough than the German customs despite the fact that I am working in Germany. I now have to go through a fairly complicated set of steps to get a bank account and residence permit here, starting Friday or Monday.

The Haus is comfortable and our orientation staff very friendly; the other assistants are rather chatty and seem to have made fast friends with one another. I find the whole thing a bit overwhelming and stretch my comfort levels every day by sitting at a different table and making conversation for meals.

There are, however, many good things about this orientation. My room is adorable and feels like it's under the rafters.

And I have a room key that reminds me of some Romantic European past. Or Cinderella's mother locking her in the attic. Egal.

The church that is connected to Haus Altenberg is lovely and old, with stained glass, stonework, and tombs. The inside is surprisingly plain and boasts a number of what seem to be tertiary altars behind the main altar, but which are neither decorated nor have any elements of the Eucharist. They look rather like they were forgotten.

It is both the Catholic Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the Protestant Cathedral Parish of Altenberg. I think if I were the Protestant in Alternberg, I would have major church envy and try to join up too. Of course this beautiful church also rang its bells at 6am, which pleased me not at all.

The other thing happening in Altenberg besides the Fulbright orientation is an archeological dig aimed at preserving the monastery that used to be here. In the words of our head of orientation Günther, we see a number of "academic looking persons scratching in the dirt" as we go from lunch to another session.

We have another day of orientation and then a very early morning on Thursday to have breakfast and head back to Cologne. I hope I've absorbed enough information to make this whole thing go well.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Ready or Not!

Tomorrow morning I fly to Toronto then to Munich then to Cologne, where I find the main bus terminal and look for all the other sleep-deprived Americans. We'll all try to stay up until a normal bedtime in Germany because that's majorly helpful with jet-lag. (No joke) It'll be fun.

Cologne Cathedral. Very gothic.
Of course, I don't have to wait until Germany to start making stupid cultural mistakes. Oh no. I have those mistakes covered right here at home. See, I went to the bank to get some Euros, because trial-and-error has taught me that the only thing worse than exhaustion when you first land in a foreign county is exhaustion and no local currency. Being the seasoned traveler that I am, I asked for some of the money to be in small bills so I don't hand a cafe worker a fifty when I'm trying to buy a cup of tea. (Fun story: in Trinidad, I handed an ice-cream vendor a hundred Trini dollar bill to buy my 2.50 Trini dollar ice cream. She wasn't happy. I got a lecture) So I say "can I have part of that be tens, fives, and ones? And some twenties too?" and the nice bank teller says "sure" and I go on my merry way. When the money comes in, there's a note that apologizes for no one-dollar bills, because every country in Europe has dollar coins. Which I knew, of course, being in England for a year...

No one-euro bills. Unfortunately this is not my money.

I'll be hanging out in Cologne for a while after my orientation is finished on Wednesday while my teacher-contact gets home from school. So, anyone who has been to/heard of Cologne, what should I see? My luggage will be in a locker in the train station. I will be footloose and fancy free. Also tired. (Please use small words)