Sunday, July 28, 2013

Visiting privileges

A dear friend of mine has been a second-grade teacher in Detroit for the past year. Her working life is far more difficult than mine ever was, for all the obvious reasons. But she's brilliant and talented, and she had a bunch of awesome ideas to expose her students to the wider world. One of these ideas was for her friends to send postcards from wherever-we-were to her class, allowing them to see and dream about far-away places they might visit one day. So I sent a bunch of postcards from Europe and on Friday went for a visit, bringing pictures along with.

I learned that second-graders are very wiggly, especially when they've already been in school for seven or eight hours. Like my German students, when reminded of what they were supposed to do, mostly they did it. Usually they then forgot, and I can understand. It's no fun to sit still and be quiet and attentive for hours when all you want is to be somewhere else.

I learned that second-graders are very curious in the best possible way. I brought a dozen or so pictures along to show them - cats in Corsica, the Porta Nigra in Trier, my school - and they had questions about every single one. They also had questions about the things that adults, recognizing the "main point" of a picture, never think to question. What's that fence doing to the side of this historical building? (Hiding construction equipment, it turns out.) Why did that man get banished into a clock that now sticks out its tongue at you every hour? (He stole things and played tricks, which led to several minutes of attempts by the students to catalog what exactly it was that he stole.) What is that statue standing on? (A pedestal.) Why? (I have no idea, because I'd always just accepted that statues stand on pedestals.) Maybe I shouldn't just accept such things. Why exactly is it that statues stand on pedestals? I'm sure it has something to do with a uniform base and such, but is that all?

I learned that second graders sometimes forget what you've told them as soon as the words are out of your mouth. Are there restaurants and zoos in New Jersey? (I don't know, I've never been to New Jersey.) In New Jersey, do people like to go to the zoo? (Uh...I don't know.)

Saturday morning we went to Eastern Market, an enormous farmer's market selling everything from produce to spices to bread to succulents. You could do your whole week's worth of grocery shopping there. It smells amazing, as farmer's markets always do.

I concluded the visit with the Detroit Institute of Art, which has an amazing collection of artwork including (in my friends' words) "that culmination of centuries of art and innovation: home decorations" . The DIA houses Van Gogh, Islamic calligraphy, African masks, and American (both North and South) carvings, among hundreds of other works. The masks were especially interesting, both in their size and their displays of community ideals.

Detroit on the whole may be going through a hard time, and I don't want to make light of that situation. But I was privileged enough to see some of its very bright spots: its art, its produce, and its future. And question the entire point of pedestals.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Finally home

July has been a busy month. Usually it's a supremely lazy month - day off from work for the Fourth, heat and humidity driving everyone indoors, no end-of-summer rush yet. The flurry of final summery activity belongs to August, with July kicking back in the shade.

I spent July moving. First I moved from interesting site to interesting site. Then I moved out of my apartment in Germany. At last I moved back to the States and am temporarily ensconced in my parents' house before moving to my new apartment in August, thence to begin grad school.

But more on that later. To the stories!

My family came for a vacation and to help me move. We saw my apartment and school, visited cousins, and then set off for some dedicated sightseeing. The town of Dinkelsbühl was probably our cutest stop. It's at least 1200 years old and was completely ignored by bombers in World War II, so its medieval buildings and cobbled streets are original, unlike the rest of Germany.

A look down the adorable street
All the buildings were titled with similar fonts...
...except this holdout at the edge of town.
And that holdout flower shop? Out of business. Serves it right for breaking the rules of cuteness and conformity.

Dinkelsbühl offered a few other memorable moments. In the evening we took the night watchman tour, which ended up resembling a pub crawl more than anything else. Interspersed with more educational stops to impart information about the town, we stopped at ten different guest houses where the night watchman sang a song, and each house brought out a glass of wine or beer for us to drink. In our group of eleven, five people refused anything more than the occasional sip and we weren't allowed to take the glass along. It became something of a chore to down a full glass every time we halted and at one point we poured a glass into a potted plant. The night watchman himself refused to drink anything and forbade us to give any to the patrons as well. Plus, he only spoke German, so I was the translator for my family and a Japanese couple who knew some English.

"Snails meeting for the first time, sniffing eyestalks"
 My brother titled this sculpture.

We got a parking ticket not because we were parked incorrectly, but because we'd parked in a one-hour zone without putting up the little "we'll be back at" clock that all German cars have. I'd forgotten to mention it to the family when we unloaded the luggage. Then it turned out that city hall closed at 4p, despite their door listing official hours as 8:00-17:00. We paid the next day before leaving the city.

Sad to leave though - it's really like a storybook city.
Then it was on to Salzburg, Austria, where we retraced Sound of Music sites and I picked up a little Jägermeister bottle full of holy water (no really!) at the church where the wedding scene was filmed. Several visits to the oldest bakery in town and a trip to the cathedral completed our time there.

The Untersberg, one of the famous mountain sites of Salzburg
I officially checked out of my apartment, though not before breaking the toilet seat when I stood on it to clean the shelves in the bathroom. Oops.

The penultimate stop was Bruges, Belgium. There we ate chocolate, climbed a clock tower, took a canal tour, and wandered around happily.

Typical Belgian architecture

Swans in the canal
 The story goes that the citizens of Bruges once killed a tax collector called "Long Neck" and as punishment were ordered to keep sixty swans alive to forever remind them of their crime. They now have two hundred.

Bruges clock tower, 82 meters high. We climbed it.

Isn't he cute just before he bites your finger off?

It's a trap!

View of the city from the clock tower
 And finally we found ourselves in Cologne for a day before flying out of the Cologne Airport.

Naturally we saw the cathedral

The official seal of Cologne
 The commas stand for St. Ursula and the ten virgins who where martyred in Cologne.

At least, on our way home
Twenty hours of travel, with flights from Cologne to Munich to Toronto to the States, and we were home. I went straight to bed, and spent the last four days sleeping, making and attending appointments, and generally trying to get my head screwed back on straight. It's good to be home.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Appropriations committee

A short but entertaining piece on the BBC about the German use of English words. The funny thing is, Germans use English words all the time - almost constantly, in fact - and so Chancellor Merkel's adoption of one is not all that odd to me. Even my most reluctant students talk about das Email, der Computer, ein Hacker, and die Information.

English was created from German and Latin/French; German has been taking words, especially those to do with technology, from English for decades now. It's actually funny to me how much non-German speakers can figure out on menus or street signs because German and English are so close. They're only getting closer.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


Last night I went to the second school play, this one put on by the older students. Called "Gefährliche Liebschaften" or "Dangerous Liaisons," it follows the plot of a 1782 French novel by the same name, wherein a group of French aristocrats play with one another's hearts, reputations, and bodies out of boredom and jealousy. 

Obviously it was a light and entertaining drama.

Any play called "Dangerous Liaisons" would indeed have said liaisons, and there was a lot of sex going on. I was a little uncomfortable because I knew and had taught so many of the students, but they handled the more risqué aspects very well. The whole play was enjoyable and fun to watch, even when the speed of delivery meant that I couldn't always catch what they were saying - they acted enough that I could follow the plot just fine. Although originally French it seemed an excellent choice for German students because Germans are rather obsessed with stories that don't end well. Watch any German movie and the ending will be depressing. Germans, for their part, find the American obsession with das Happy End in films and stories to be overly optimistic and annoying. Culture clash at its finest.

During the Pause I was reminded how much I still have to learn about German when a colleague's husband asked me where I was from in the United States and my brain couldn't process the question. I'm blaming it on the previous hour spent listening to the play, but who knows. Anyone who insists I must be fluent after ten months in Germany, meet my case-in-point as to why that's not true.

In a completely separate vein, I received a package today from an overly attentive delivery man who announced himself by popping his head into my open window rather than ringing the bell. At the end of the little dance of scanning and signing, asked if he might know my age. I blinked at him and said no. He was delivering alcohol, but didn't press it when I refused to answer, so I presume it wasn't any kind of official question. I'm assuming it was some sort of pick-up scheme, all things considered, but find myself mostly just confused.

My family arrives in two days for a trip around Germany, Austria, and Belgium. I'll be back in the States in less than three weeks. It's all moving rather fast, but I'll keep you updated as the internet permits.