Monday, March 18, 2013

Spring break!

Nightly thirty degree temperatures nonwithstanding, it is now my spring break. The hardy crocuses (must be a special German variety) even popped back after a surprise snowfall and are busily heralding the return of the sun and warmth and happiness. There's a little path of them right along the Rhine that never fails to make me smile.

Germans really like taking walking vacations on their long breaks, where they pick a place and do lots of physical activity, especially day hikes on trails. I won't be quite so hardcore.

Instead, I'll be visiting around Germany, especially in Bavaria. Munich, Augsburg (site of a famous treaty and birthplace of a good friend), and the Black Forest are all destinations on my horizon, though I suspect I'll be doing far more munching of Black Forest Cake then hiking in the woods. Blame it on being American. Nevertheless, I expect a number of pictures and mishaps to share in a couple weeks.

Until then, happy first day of spring (March 21), happy Easter (March 31), and I'll join you on the other side of Germany's daylight savings time (March 31).

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Abi-this and Abi-that

In the German education system, students at a Gymnasium (where I work) go to school from fifth grade through twelfth grade and then have a six-month preparation "thirteenth grade" before they take their school exit exam. This exam is called Abitur. Unlike in the States, where SATs and ACTs can impact school funding and college acceptances, a student who does not pass Abitur does not graduate from high school. They can leave with the equivalent of a tenth-grade completion certificate (which is what students from the Realschule, the high school that is a level down from Gymnasium, get when they graduate after tenth grade), but the extra two years of school and previous eight years of generally more challenging work will have pretty much been for nothing. And without Abitur, it's very difficult to get into university.

So this test is a big deal.

This week marked the Abitur oral exams. The Abitur written exams happened several weeks ago, and a combination score will dictate if the students passed. The students taking Abitur, known as the Abiturenten, append the prefix "Abi-" (which means nothing by itself) to everything vaguely associated with the test or their lives during this time. So we'll have an Abi-Ball on Friday, the theme this year was Abi-Vegas, the students write an Abi-Zeitung (Zeitung means newspaper), they have an Abi-Motto, and the list goes on.

One of the traditions surrounding Abitur is that the students celebrate at school the day after the test. With a handful of teachers supervising, they rearrange all furniture, block the doors with tables, cover the hallways in balloons, and generally make a big complicated mess within the school. At my school, all students were given the first three hours of the day for this celebration. The students blew whistles, played music, and generally made a lot of noise and chaos. It was kind of stressful for quiet-loving me.

Traditionally at least some of the Abiturenten show up for this celebration very drunk, and indeed that was true. They also run around with stamps that say "Abitur 2013" or a variation thereof and stamp everyone, teacher or student, on any bit of exposed skin. In the middle of March, that usually means the face and the hands. Most of the students sported these strange face masks of Abitur stamps. The second half of the day we have school as normal, though naturally the Abiturenten don't. Instead, they dash from classroom to classroom, blowing whistles, stamping everyone, and interrupting the lesson. Generally they just wreak havoc.

What's crazy to me is that these odd traditions happen in Germany of all places, and that everyone just sort of tolerates it for the day. All the teachers, aware that their classrooms would be regularly disrupted, still held lessons but didn't expect to get much done.

I can assure you that the result of this day was a great deal of Abi-chaos and Abi-stress, as well as some Abi-laughs and regular Abi-interruptions.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

It's getting cold in here

Last week my landlady dropped off a bill for miscellaneous costs associated with my apartment. These include things like trash and recycling, as well as any excess utilities I've used over the last five months. I pay a set utilities cost in addition to my rent every month that is meant to cover gas and electricity, but it turns out that I've been using more gas for heating than is covered by these monthly payments.

The thing that startled me about this news is that I thought I'd been using my heat normally. When I'm not in the room, I turn it off.

This is as low as it goes
At night, I turn it to night.

Complete with cute little graphic
During the daytime when I'm in the room, I turn it to day.

Cute little graphic #2
And sometimes when I'm especially cold, I turn it above day for a while.

I have no idea what temperatures these numbers account for
I am not in the room from 7:30a through 1p Tuesday through Friday. Saturday, Sunday, and Monday see me in and out. During the months covered by the bill, I wasn't in Germany for nearly five weeks - more than a month - because I was traveling. And because my heater operates by radiating rather than forcing air, the general room temperature is never what you would call warm. Despite all of that, I managed to use close to fifteen euros extra of heat every month.

The Germans, I've decided, are an exceptionally warm-blooded or exceptionally stoic people. Probably both. Presumably they don't actually turn on the heater a great deal of the time during the winter. Do they use blankets? Bundle up in jacket, hat, and gloves? Grin and bear it? It's a mystery to me that they manage to be comfortable at home if my use of heat is extravagant.

I think my blanket and I will become close friends over the next few months, and I hope that the warmer weather is here to stay. At the end of the day I prefer to be warm rather than save a few euros, but it would be interesting to try staying within the German-approved limits of heat use.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Here comes the sun!

About a week ago, I complained that it was freezing-winter-cold but without any snow.

(To any who wonder if the glamor that is life abroad in Europe ever settles into a same-old-same-old routine, that post should answer your question. I stumble through teaching over three hundred children every week, I conduct my life in a second language, I'm living in Germany, and the best I can come up with is a discussion on the weather.)

I'm afraid the atmospheric-based discussions haven't quite ended.

Today was a gorgeous day. Fifty-something degrees, sunny, a slight breeze, and a whole day to enjoy the outdoors contributed to a very positive mood. I walked to the city center instead of taking a bus and didn't wear my coat because I didn't need it. Glorious.

This evening I came back to my room and read for a while, which is something I love to do and feel very fortunate that I have the time to indulge. After my lovely day in the sunshine I was kind of sad about evening coming and bringing the dark. Winter in the northern hemisphere brings a lot of dark. I'm tired of it. Even in the daytime, winter has this odd blue/grey cast to it. Witness this picture from my previous post:

Very blue
 And this one that I took earlier in the winter:

Grey. Also, snowing. Still.
But spring is starting to make its way forward, and the light changes too. There's a particular time of the evening when the entire view out my window becomes all orange and warm. Directly across the river are some cliffs that turn coppery and even the trees, still bare this time of year, go the cinnamon-brown of melted chocolate instead of the cold grey of a winter storm.

Today, around six in the evening
Forgive the poor picture, and the constant presence of construction equipment. Notice the orange rocks and how the trees look a little pinkish/reddish/brown. If I'm in my room at this time of the day I always stop and just stare out the window for the five minutes or so that it lingers. I feel cozy and warmed. Even when pitted against the glory that is full, sunny daytime, sunset may be my favorite time of day right now.

Of course tonight, walking back from my Zumba class, I might see all the stars over the river and the fortress lit up a little down the way, and then I wonder if a clear night isn't my favorite time.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Breakfast of champions

One of my colleagues is traveling to South Carolina for two weeks during our spring break as part of a teacher exchange/learning program. She's very excited and had a little brunch on Saturday with a number of other teachers to celebrate her imminent departure. We feasted on sandwiches, quiche, Tex-Mex salad, chili, muffins, and apple pie for six hours before taking our leave.

Let me tell you, living in Germany has been great for my listening skills. Ask anyone who knows me - I have opinions on a great number of topics and like nothing better than to bounce ideas back and forth with a couple friends. "Bounce ideas" can easily become "hold forth without interruption" because while I'm as awkward as a dancing elephant with strangers, I get very chatty with friends. And my friends, bless them, are a patient, adult lot of people who politely listen even when they likely have ideas to discuss as well. As I've gotten older and (hopefully) more mature, I've tried to work on the skill of listening. As it turns out, trying to follow a conversation in German is great practice, because all my concentration is taken up in attempting to understand what's being said. Usually I can't mind-translate and then speak fast enough to add much to the conversation, though I can sometimes ask a question. I hope this habit continues when I'm back in the States

Several other teachers had generously offered me a ride to and from the brunch, sparing me a complicated series of bus changes. We met at school and left from there, and I presumed we would return and I could take the train back home.


In a further gesture of goodwill, these colleagues offered to drive me home, since they were planning to be in the general area anyways. Things got complicated when we realized that, by virtue of never driving in Germany, I have no idea how to get anywhere by car. I can tell you the buses and trains to take, and even recite their timetables, but work to home without public transportation is totally beyond me.

I do, however, know how to get from the center of my city to my apartment. Good. Thanks to highway signs we made it to the city center and went to turn left, when I remembered that the bridge over the river to my neighborhood is under construction and out of order. The bus has been taking an alternate route for the past week, but I could not find that route myself if my life depended on it.

Long story short, three adult teachers and their American assistant drove all through the city and eventually called someone who was sitting in front of a computer to get us across the river. Once there I could direct us, but all told it had been at least an extra twenty minutes of confusing alternate routes to get me home. My colleagues, kind people that they are, insisted they were having a fantastic time being completely lost and laughed regularly at our many aborted attempts to find the right way. And then they refused any money for gas.

tl;dr - take public transportation. Or get a map. Plus, be sure to have very understanding colleagues.

Friday, March 1, 2013

It isn't just what you say, it's how you say it

I've learned a number of unexpected lessons working in Germany. Public transport is great and all but sometimes (often) you really miss having a car. People can live along the banks of a huge river for two thousand years and only just now get around to putting up a wall to keep from being flooded every eighteen months or so. I have a strong accent when I speak German. Things like that.

Attempting to teach English means that I've learned a great deal about my native language as well. For example, its lack of consistent pronunciation is really rough on language learners. (Curse you silent 'e'!) Synonyms aren't always so synonymous - try replacing "search" with "look for" a couple times and you'll discover that it doesn't always work. And most germane to this post, we use a lot of phrases that don't make any sense when translated literally. I don't just mean idioms, though I did spend a delightful half-hour explaining to a group of teachers where "to punch the clock" originated. "Having a crush" or "checking the time" are really confusing when students are translating every sentence word-for-word in their heads.

I helped correct the vocab for a test recently and came away with several gems. The test was in the form of a gap text, where students had to fill in the appropriate word or phrase. Keep in mind that they had spent the last two weeks with this exact text, all filled in, and could pretty easily ace the test by simply memorizing it. I think most of them tried to do just that, with mixed results.

The gap text: I ______ Brussels sprouts!
The correct sentence: I can't stand Brussels sprouts!
A smattering of alternatives: I stand for Brussels sprouts! I stand on Brussels sprouts! I stand Brussels sprouts! I stand against Brussels sprouts! I can't Brussels sprouts!

Other more straightforward grammar (and understanding mistakes) included:

The gap text: My dad _______ how to cook.
The correct sentence: My dad taught himself how to cook.
A smattering of alternatives: My dad thought himself how to cook. My dad thought him how to cook. My dad caught himself how to cook. My dad taught how to cook. My dad toot him how to cook.

The gap text: Next week mom and dad _______.
The correct sentence: Next week mom and dad are visiting Grandpa.
A smattering of alternatives: Next week mom and dad visited Grandpa. Next week mom and dad are Grandpa. Next week mom and dad and Grandpa visited. Next week mom and dad are saw Grandpa.

And we haven't even started with "I must have forgotten my book." Student alternatives: I must need to forgotten my book . I need to forget my book must. I must need have to forgotten my book. And so on. If you can't remember the actual phrase, just throw every word you know in there. One of them will probably turn out to be right*.

*I do that sometimes too. Sympathy, kids. Definite sympathy.