Thursday, January 31, 2013

Attack of the clowns

As you may remember from this post, Karneval (I misspelled it before, oops) is coming up in Germany and clowns are the major decoration. This is true in more than one establishment window.


In the window of a hairdresser
And then:

A perfectly normal shop window
This one is for an interior design company. But what is that lurking on the left side?

They're everywhere.
Clearly German's haven't gotten the message. Clowns aren't funny or cute, they're terrifying. The internet confirms it.

Mr. Chuckles, please stay out of my pre-Lenten non-revelry. My dreams would appreciate it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Shock and awe tactics

My students got their report cards on Friday, so this week marks the beginning of a new marking period. For reasons unknown to me, certain classes and teachers get entirely new schedules each marking period and others do not. Naturally the roster of stable and changing classes does not remain the same from marking period to marking period. Remarkably, today saw only the second time that I've walked in on the completely wrong class after one of these changes, but it happened.

On the bright side, I may be getting to know a new sixth grade class who I visited today. As is typical my first time in a class, the students had a chance to ask me questions about myself, the States, English, etc. This led to several cute moments. Upon learning that I come from the States, the entire class let out a collective gasp of amazement. One little girl asked me how it was to live in the best country in the world. ("'s not the best?" "For us, it is!") A little boy asked me "Was you ever visited the London Dungeon?" and seemed very sad when I told him that dungeons are typically too scary for me. He brightened considerably when I said I liked the London Eye and Buckingham Palace and he informed me that he planned to visit London one day.

Later in the day I accompanied several hundred students to a screening of The Hobbit in English, which I think was more a treat for me than for them. As you remember from before, I saw the movie in German and enjoyed it, but I really enjoyed it when I could understand all the dialogue.

One of my seventh grade students asked me on the way out if I'd understood everything said in the movie. I deadpanned "not everything" and he got a faintly horrified look on his face. "Really? It must be very hard English," he said. I couldn't help but laugh. Since we weren't in class I spoke German with the students, much to their delight, and they all informed me "Jessica, your German is so good! You should speak it all the time with us." Nice try kids.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Ready to learn?

I'm at a possible impasse with my Lord of the Flies twelfth grade class.

Side note: When I have three different twelfth grade classes, it can be a little complicated to differentiate them in talking to people who don't work with me. Thus far they are called "my guns twelfth grade class," "my Macbeth/religion twelfth grade class," and "my Lord of the Flies twelfth grade class" but that does get a little unwieldy. Trouble is, calling them "12a" or some other logical denotation doesn't mean anything to anyone but me and I would always have to follow it up with "the ones who are reading Lord of the Flies" or similar, which kind of defeats the purpose. So unwieldy it is! At least for now.

This isn't a real impasse. They're a good group of kids with the normal spread of good, bad, and middling students. When I ask questions someone always answers me, but on Wednesday it was the same three very good students who kept raising their hands and no one else. Occasionally I would get a half-hearted shrug of a raised hand from five or six other students, and the rest of the class mostly stayed silent. We got through the lesson, it was generally good, etc. After I left the teacher asked them why so many were quiet and relayed to me that a number of them didn't understand me because I was talking too fast.


Anyone who knows me is well aware that I talk too fast, always. Native English speakers often don't understand me. My family has a code word they say every time I've blurted out a sentence too quickly for them to follow. (Seriously. Plus they always laugh. Every time.) And while I do my best to slow down for my students, my idea of speaking slowly is anyone else's idea of a little faster than normal. You can imagine how frustrating this is for non-native speakers.

The impasse is that my students won't tell me they don't understand. For some, they're embarrassed to admit they can't follow my English. For some, they don't care. For most, I think, school is something you passively complete rather than actively engage in, and it's not worth the bother.

I chatted with my family this weekend and we brainstormed ideas. So far my strategies are: beginning the class in German so they can hear that I struggle with a second language as well, asking them to come up with a code word that means I've talked too quickly, and reminding them that even native English speakers have trouble understanding me sometime. I'm open to any further suggestions.

We'll see how this goes.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Getting ready, Easter edition

Even though we're barely off of Christmas, here in southern-ish Germany it's time to prepare for a new holiday: Carneval.

Like the New Orleans celebration of similar pronunciation and spelling, Carneval marks the time just before the beginning of Lent and therefore the lead-up to Easter. Most people don't go vegetarian for Lent anymore, but several cities in Germany (Cologne and Mainz, for example) still make a bit deal out of Carneval excess and everyone gets very drunk. I think the German version includes fewer topless women and plastic beads, but that could be wrong. No intentions of finding out.

The pub/bar up the street from me has decorated its windows in preparation for Carneval. The decorations are meant for inside and these pictures are taken from the outside, but I think the clowns are easy to make out.

Lurking in the window...

...the windows themselves are really quite lovely.

One clown head, two clown head, red clown head, blue clown head.
Turns out that clowns are a very typical thing to see around Carneval, so the cafe near my school also has a little niche with clown decorations. Creepy. (I'm told that when I was young I started crying around clowns. I think my toddler self was on to something.)

I've confused a number of people asking about Carneval, since Germany also has a celebration called Carneval that beings at 11:11am on November 11 every year and goes through January. That Carneval seems to have little connection to the Easter/Lent Carneval (though maybe it is connected, sources vary) and every time I've asked its beginnings or what it celebrates, I get the very helpful answer of "It's Carneval" and a shoulder-shrug. In addition, I've gleaned that in Cologne the November Carneval is considered a fifth season of the year, right between winter and...winter. So there you go.

As a side note, this continues to be the view from my window:

Notice both the construction equipment and the snow
 So much for the early assurances that the Rhine gives us a temperate climate. Both Saturday and Sunday look to be below freezing yet again, and the weather forecast is for "partly cloudy, possible ice in the mornings". Brr.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Playing a shell game

One of my favorite autumn/winter foods is butternut squash soup, but as we're out of season for squashes, the internet offered up sweet potato soup as an alternative. The internet was right. Naturally this was no easily-microwaved Ramen noodle-style soup and the recipe called for creme fraiche as well as a garnish of buttered pecans. Should you ever care to make buttered pecans, drop a bunch of pecans in a pan with some butter and cook them for a bit. It's a very self-explanatory name.

Finding the bunch of pecans to drop was a bit more difficult. The grocery store had multi-kilogram bags of almonds, walnuts, and cashews and even offered more exotic options like Brazil nuts and macadamia nuts, but no pecans. I finally located a bag pecans in their shells and bought it, figuring that they couldn't be so hard to get open.


First I tried prying, which didn't even begin to work. Then I tried poking the shell with a fork and knife. Also a no-go. The internet, that bastion of all information, suggested a nutcracker but grudging noted that a pair of pliers could work just as well. You may remember from earlier posts that my landlady is something of a DIY-er, and lo and behold, I found a pair of pliers in her basket of tools.

My pecan-shelling setup
Following digital instructions, I used the pliers to crack the shells and used the fork to help me pry out the meat. I pretty much failed to get them out cleanly and ended up with a bunch of pecan fragments. This was fine for the recipe but a bit of a blow to my pride.

The end result
You'll notice from this picture that there are far more shells than pecans. Often I couldn't even get the bits of pecan out of the shell and had to leave it behind.

I'm happy to report that while scanty, the buttered pecans turned out well and were a nice addition to the soup. And it was kind of fun to turn on Star Trek and shell some pecans for a while. I might even do it again. Hopefully I'll manage to get more whole pecans the next time, just for the sake of aesthetics.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Daily Chuckle #3

When German students don't quite know the English phrase for something, they tend to literally translate the German. Some common examples:

"What means (German word)?" instead of "What does (German word) mean?"

"In the near of (a place)" instead of "Near (a place)"

"The nature" instead of "nature"

The last is especially difficult for Germans, because German attaches an article ("the" or "a") to all nouns. Conversely, I often forget the article when I speak German and say things that sound rather like "There is river" rather than "There is the river". Essentially, I speak in the equivalent of Germanic faux-Neanderthal.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


One of the dangers of being an outsider in Germany is that I can fall into the trap of generalizing from only a few points of data. While four months here have served to introduce me to German society, I'm limited by my own observations and a flurry of question directed at my ever-patient colleagues. I do my best to catch myself, too, by looking for several repetitions of the same behavior. With all that in mind, here are a few odd things I've noticed.

German adolescent boys, approximately ages eleven through fifteen or so, seem to be unironically wearing fanny packs. Whether this trend is widespread or limited to a certain group of friends who rides my bus in the mornings, I don't know for certain. I haven't seen any of my students donning the "I'm a target for thieves!" look, which argues that this is a localized trend. I hope that's true.

Certain German adults seem to make a habit of checking the garbage cans at the old mall and the bus terminal right outside. These people are all a little older - sixty or so - but don't appear to be homeless. None of them wear suits, but all are reasonably well dressed and carry a small backpack or briefcase, if anything at all. I wonder what they're looking for. My instinct says bottles and cans to recycle, probably out of a combined desire for the deposit and an overriding concern that recyclables do not belong in a garbage bin. Ever. Everything must be in order.

German schoolkids raise their hands with one finger up instead of the whole hand. It looks like this:

When I asked why, both students and teachers looked at me like I had just questioned gravity and answered "You don't?"

German parents are very lax about their babies and children, displaying no concern when a stranger leans over to pinch a cheek or pat a head. Entire restaurants can stare at a baby and the waitress can bring a piece of bread over to be gummed and no one seems to think it's the least bit weird. Whenever I ask to pet someone's dog, however, they seem taken aback and some even say no and hurry away.

It all makes me wonder: what do I do that Germans find baffling or strange? I'm sure the list is very long.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Travel tales, part 2

So much for the airport, on to everyone's favorite part: the interminable plane ride.

Actually this one wasn't nearly so interminable. I had a friendly seatmate who is a mechanical engineer from John Deere on her way to meet with a supplier in Germany, as well as an astonishing array of movies I wanted to watch. And I slept for a few hours without my neck wanting to kill me, which I find an immense accomplishment. Most likely the credit has to go to my neck for being a real trooper.

#5 - The very cheerful head flight attendant noted at the beginning of the flight that her collegues spoke English, German, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch between them. Apparently they were identified by little language pins. In contrast, Air Canada has never announced anything like that and all of its flight attendants seemed to speak both German and English. I wonder what regulations, if any, exist regarding a multi-lingual staff on trans-Atlantic flights. Or even flights within, say, Europe that go from one language to another. Presumably English becomes your common language on the Continent, but what about between Frankfurt and Beijing, or London and Tunisia? It's a mystery.

#6 - Just before landing in Germany the same perky attendant came on to say that we were arriving at 9:06 and were early! The German announcement made immediately after also gave the time at 9:06 but refrained from any celebration about an early arrival. How German.

#7 - Passport control in Europe has always astonished me with its laxness. This time was no exception. The nice man sitting behind the desk barely made time to glance at my picture before stamping my passport, and for EU citizens he just glanced at the outside and welcomed them. Instead, he spent his time helping a family of first-time visitors to Germany take pictures with his official hat and handcuffs. I have to say, it's my kind of border crossing. By contrast, US border agents question me in a most unfriendly fashion whenever I return to my home country. For example, I took about $35 worth of gifts home with me from Germany and declared them on my customs form. The man behind the desk demanded to know why I was carrying anything back into the US from Germany, where I had bought the items, what I was planning to leave in the US, and if the US was really still my place of permanent residence. He also spent a long time scrutinizing my most recent page of stamps, but that might have been because no one seems to find it important to actually get a readable stamp in the book.

#8 - A moment of bragging. When I arrived in Frankfurt I walked straight to the ticket machines, bought my tickets in German, and went to my platform. No problem. I may have clucked my tongue in contemptuous pity at the tourists who were clearly struggling with the same process. (I would have stopped to help except they weren't speaking English or German, and I'm never sure where the line is between being helpful and embarrassing someone. Thoughts?)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Travel tales, part 1

I arrived back in Germany on Sunday morning, stayed up until a normal bedtime like you're supposed to, and proceeded to sleep for the next twenty hours. Guess how going to sleep last night worked out for me?

Naturally there are a couple different options for time zone acclimation. By far the best one I've found is pretending like you're already on the time zone of wherever you arrive and dealing with maybe a day of not feeling great. Caffeine helps with this. So I flew in at 9am, stayed up with the help of Skype until around 8:30pm, then fell asleep. My body, not realizing its part of the bargain, did not wake me up at 11am or noon like I was planning, but waited until 4:30pm instead. This is what I get for not setting an alarm. I spent all of last night trying to convince myself that I was indeed very sleepy, but even special music meant to make you tired didn't drift me off into dreamland. Now my body and I get to walk the harder road of being forced to wake up early every morning for work and eventually figuring out that we should therefore become sleepy sometime before dawn. I foresee a great deal of that blessed aristocrat Earl Grey in my future. And then maybe some catch-up next weekend, but only if my circadian rhythms have gotten with the program. (Here that rhythms? The program. Get with it.)

Despite the weird sleeping schedules, I have a number of amusing anecdotes to share about my trip back to Europe. I'll share them in two parts.

#1 - While sitting in the airport in Chicago, a college-aged woman sits down across from me with a copy of the magazine Elle and begins an inane conversation on the phone. The biggest gem: "So tell Christopher that I bought a magazine and I'm, like, reading it. He always worries that I'm not reading."

#2 - The electric piano in the Chicago airport (don't ask) played a ten-minute version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," then launched into "What Child is This?"

 #3 - I was hanging out at my gate eating lunch around two hours before my flight was set to begin boarding. I got to watch a flight to LA board, including five standby passengers. After everyone was boarded and the gate agents had a little back-and-forth that suggested they weren't good friends, they locked the gangway door and went to deliver the takeoff papers, or whatever official thing it is that has to be done before a flight leaves. (Crosscheck, anyone? That continues to confuse me). Three minutes before the flight was scheduled to take off and after it had already left its gate, the family of five whose seats provided openings for the standby passengers showed up and tried to get the door open. There were no gate agents to be seen. Naturally the door was locked against terrorists, etc. The family finally collared an agent from another airline who had the misfortune to be walking by and that person chased someone down. The chased-down agent directed to family to customer service and walked away. Air travel, I tell ya.

#4 - The Chicago airport thoughtfully provided a whole row of outlets and seats for its passengers with electronic devices to charge. This is obviously a vast improvement over the person-on-the-floor-next-to-the-only-outlet situation that is standard for most airports. Naturally, therefore, none of the outlets worked. And the seats didn't have any padding.

That last point has always been confusing to me. Airlines stay very up-to-date with technology. On all my flights to Europe my seatback provides me with at least twenty-four hours of recent movies and TV shows. The entire industry is predicated on getting a tin can weighing many tons up in the air, for goodness sake. But outlets in the airport? I think not.

(Yeah yeah, the airport is not owned or run by the airlines, etc. Still.)