Friday, June 28, 2013

Today at the train station...

Part of commuting regularly by public transportation is seeing the same people along your route nearly every day. I wait for my train with Black-Haired Bouffant Businesswoman and Perpetually Scared-Looking Woman with Bangs. On Fridays (when I go in an hour later) I am forced to share the platform with Sporty Green-Headphoned Smoking Woman. When it's raining she sits inside the shelter and smokes me out like an exterminator does pests; I always consider asking if she's seen the rather prominent no smoking signs. I think I picked up a healthy dose of Britishness while in England and have never done so.

I also see the same train conductors and one doesn't bother asking for my ticket anymore. That's a fun little perk, especially on the day after my monthlong pass expired and I forgot to buy a new one.

These people may be my commuting regulars, but sometimes the train station serves up a heaping dose of weirdness as well. Today I caught the later train home from work and so had to go all the way to the central train station rather than my usual stop. First I met two middle-aged men with very long beards that were braided from chin to somewhere near their navels. Then, while walking through the entrance hall, I came upon a group of ten or so young men all wearing hot pink cheetah-print bathrobes and drinking beer at the the little restaurant/bar. Alas, I couldn't figure out how to take a picture furtively. On reflection, perhaps they wouldn't have minded if I wasn't furtive, as they definitely weren't.

In addition to meeting several odd people, today marked my last official commute and my last official day of work. Through a quirk of my program, I cannot work anymore even though the school year doesn't end until next week Friday. In typically German bureaucratic style, I am in fact forbidden from working because I'm no longer insured by the state and if something were to happen, the school would have to pay for it. So today was something of an emotional day, saying a series of goodbyes and wishing my classes well. Thankfully we have a staff barbeque next week Thursday where I'll make my official goodbyes to my colleagues, meaning that I can have my emotions in two small doses instead of one overwhelming day.

My favorite part of today was the student who informed me that I am "much better than a dictionary" and I may make business cards to say just that.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Lions and tigers and bears

My fifth grade classes are learning about animals to wrap up their year. It's a good choice of topics because they love telling me about their favorite and least favorite animals, recalling trips to the zoo or to a farm, and drawing pictures of animals. This distracts them from the other thing that they really want to do, which is to not be in school anymore. I can sympathize.

So on Thursday I made up a worksheet with pictures of different animals, jumbled names, habitats, foods, and other pertinent facts. The students had to match everything up. Their favorite animal by far is the "pen-gween," and they also delighted in informing me that "pengweens live not in the Nort Pole. They live in the South Pole!" Guess who forgot to proofread her worksheet?

My original idea was to have the students give little presentations on the animals once they'd matched up who lived where and ate what. The teacher suggested that we play a guessing game instead. Word to the wise: kids love games.

Really, all I have to do is call something a game and they're excited about it. Recall that we turned birthday months into a competition.

So they started out using the animals from my sheet, giving as ambiguous of clues as possible. Then one particularly ambitious child asked if he could go off-script and have the class guess a different animal. I was a little nervous about the lack of vocabulary, but it turns out they know the word "octopus" as well as a host of other animal names. We guessed rhinos, elephants, dolphins, ducks, monkeys, bees, chameleons, and lambs before the bell finally rang. Then, because it was my last day with these students and they had a double lesson, we had a quick Q&A in German. The schools are pretty strict about monolingual classrooms, but the students were so excited that they could just ask the questions without worrying about how to phrase them in English, I think the teacher didn't mind.

One more week of school for me, and then my family is coming for a visit. It's odd to think that this chapter of my life is ending and I won't spend the next years reminding young Germans to use the present progressive or pronounce their "th" sounds correctly. I've been warned that at least one of my classes is planning a little party. I see tears in my future.

Monday, June 17, 2013

A musical evening

Last Thursday I went to the school musical: Milchstrasse 2, Stinkfisch und Killertomate.

As you might imagine, a musical put on by fifth, sixth, and seventh graders including the terms "stinky fish," "Milky Way Galaxy," and "killer tomato" is at the same time adorable and a bit difficult to follow. In brief, the follows a businessman who is grumpy that he's only the second-richest man in the galaxy, and that he's being beat by a woman named Emily Petemily. He decides that the way to beat Emily is to buy the hotel on Milchstrasse 2, currently run by two sisters who haven't had a guest stay there in thirty years, and turn it into a dog-grooming salon. The hotel's signature dish is stinky fish with killer tomatoes, made by a chef who is in love with her vegetables and has a special favorite: Paul, the mushroom. The chef is devastated that no one wants to come eat her food, since the vegetables are so wonderful; the sisters are sad that no one wants to stay at their hotel, but don't want to sell, so the businessman hires a spy/film noir type to trick them into signing over the lease. She successfully tricks one sister into selling the property, but somehow someone manages to get the paper back and rip it up. Problem solved.

At various points in the play we also met a scientist, a singer, a troupe of dancing constellations, two green aliens, a thief who sets off bombs Roadrunner-and-Coyote-style, and a policewoman. It was never really clear how their stories interacted with the main story, except incidentally.

A friend of mine noted that we find incompetence charming in children, and this was certainly true. The students often dropped things when changing the sets, whispered loudly and shushed one another, started playing the wrong scene, forgot lines, spoke unintelligibly, and tested the microphones in the middle of another scene. All was cheerful chaos. And the audience mostly refrained from laughing at the "no, it goes over there!" instructions the children gave one another. Or maybe, given the typical German response to jokes, it was a normal rather than a refrained response.

At the end of the play my students were very concerned that I'd understood everything, and I assured them I had. Waiting at the train station with several German friends, I confirmed that they hadn't understood everything either, so the confusion does not stem from language. Very reassuring.

A cute evening, all things considered. And I've seen posters up around town for "Kiss Me, Kate," so I may be stepping up my theater attendance at the end of my time here in Europe...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

How to succeed in a foreign country without missing home too much

I really like Germany. I've enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to live and work here for the past nine months; the idea that it will come to an end in three weeks is both hard to believe and sad. I am fortunate enough to live in a time when world travel is both possible and easy (if rather pricey and stressful sometimes), so I can say with some certainty that this will not be my last time in Germany. Despite that, I will miss my colleagues, my job, my friends, the language, d├Âner kebabs, and the place I've called home.

That does not mean, however, that my time here has been all sunshine and roses.

The entire winter, for example, was cloudy. And grey.

Sometimes you really just want to have a normal conversation in English, without having to coach a reluctant student through unknown vocabulary. My colleagues are fluent and friendly, but there's something different about talking with a native speaker, especially one with whom you have inside jokes.

A couple things have allowed me to read and hear English on a regular basis. I highly recommend them to anyone who is traveling in a foreign country, has access to the internet, and just wants a taste of home.

Thing 1: The Daily Show. John Stewart is hilarious and the studio audience laughs along with me, unlike Germans. Germans aren't big into displays of humor.

Thing 2: The Colbert Report. Ditto. As an added bonus, you can watch both shows from anywhere in the world (or at least in Europe). For reasons unknown to me, they are not part of the "if you don't live in the country where this was produced, that's too bad for you, nya-nya-nya" rules that accompany pretty much every other thing on television.

Thing 3: My home library. In addition to its collection of real books - and I will be reveling in that collection soon enough - it has a number of electronic resources. I have downloaded audiobooks and ebooks all year with great joy and had a grand old time not working so hard to understand every single page. Don't ask me about reading children's books in German. No fun. I think many libraries have a partnership with a company called Overdrive, which provides these electronic resources. Check it out if you're so inclined.

Thing 4: Skype. Seriously, how did the world survive before video calling? I've had my bouts of homesickness both in Germany and while at college, and Skype has been a lifeline. I talk with family and friends regularly. It's nice to feel like I'm still somehow part of these important people's lives even though I'm across an ocean.

Thing 5: Chocolate. Sometimes you just need it. Chocolate is delicious.

So there you go. Along with actually liking the place where you live, making friends, and having a purpose for being wherever-you-are, this is my formula for living abroad. Feel free to add any other stress-relievers or tricks that you know.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Daily Chuckle #7

A seventh-grade student describing how the character in a story became embarassed:
Student: And then she turned into red.
Me: If she turned into red, then she is red now. Poof, I'm red!
Student: I do not think you are.

A twelfth-grade student writing a mock cover letter for a job in psychiatry:
Student: If I want to work with people who have problems with drugs, what is the verb?
Me: Um...to help?
Student: No no, for the people who have the problem. Do they consume drugs or consummate drugs?
Me: Definitely not consummate. Consume is technically true, but we say they use or abuse drugs.
Student: Oh, what does consummate mean?
Me: Ask your mother.
Student: She doesn't speak English.

A colleague in the teacher's room:
Colleague: Jessica, how is President Obama today?
Me: I...don't know. We don't usually talk.
Colleague: But you are American! You must know how he is, in your heart!

A fifth-grade student, after his neighbor says something to me in German:
Student #1: She doesn't speak German! English!
Student #2: Oh. But I don't know how to say in English.
Student #1 (in German): You should think about that before you say something in the future. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

The attack of the Hochwasser

Living along the Rhine has its literal ups and downs. This week specifically saw a pretty dramatic up, as in, the water levels.

Due to heavy downpour in the entirety of central Europe last weekend, every river was running high and pouring all the extra water into the large rivers, like the Donau and the Rhine. I got back from a visit to England on Monday, having not really checked the news for several days, to find that a bunch of ship traffic was waiting on one side of the bridge because the water levels were too high for the huge cargo vessels to fit underneath. This happens with some frequency, since ships are built larger and larger and bridges are not similarly supersized. I figured there had been some rain and the river had gone up a few feet.

Ha. Hahahahaha.

See the bush? That's where the path normally is.

The ducks are having a grand ol' time.

Construction bits moved to the top of the wall

Dirt and gravel dumped in the gap in the wall.

The river is trying to sneak around the gravel!

This entire area is usually construction headquarters.

High-walk.
The fire department helpfully installed this high walk, just in case the river actually made it past the wall that was purposefully built to keep it from getting this far. You know, the construction that woke me up for a month straight when I first moved to my apartment? The huge machines I still dodge nearly every morning on my way to the bus? The wall that has cost the city a great deal of time and money, and means that my lovely view of the Rhine is obstructed by backhoes and mobile offices?

Apparently no one trusts it.

So if the water were to come up as far as the houses, the fire department would bring in steps or ladders and we could all walk high above the river, safe and dry. Then presumably I could enter through my neighbor's window, swim downstairs to my apartment, and...cook? This seems rather unhelpful for those of us blessed/cursed with a first-floor dwelling. This is presumably why my landlady lives on the second floor of her house next door and rents out the first floor.

You will be happy to know that these pictures represent the highest that the water ever came. My apartment is safe, my feet are dry, and the river is slowly returning to its usual place. It's not quite there yet - the path is still underwater, with ducks and swans merrily paddling about - but I'm hopeful that by early next week I can go for my walks along the no-longer-flooding Rhine.

(Hochwasser, literally "high water", is the German word for flooding. Where English-speakers would say that the river is flooding, Germans say that the "high water comes!")

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Public transportation

Normally I'm a big fan of European public transportation. It's (mostly) non-sketchy, fairly cost-effective over distances under four hours, it runs regularly, and it saves me from the expense and stress of actually having a car.

I wish the States had a similar system. Seriously, I'm headed to Colorado this summer for a friend's wedding and my choices for transport are a) rent a car or b) rent a car. Or c) ride the Greyhound at 2am by myself from the sketchy bus station in an unknown city. So really, just a) and b).

But I digress.

Last Thursday was the Feast of Corpus Christi, called Fronleichnam in Germany. Don't ask me what that means. As is often the case, largely-secular Germany has a tradition of religious holidays and no one is willing to give that up because of silly things like not actually following the religion in question, so we had a four-day weekend. I headed to England to visit some friends who are studying there. As a cost-conscious person, I flew Ryanair, Europe's budget airline. They manage to be cheap because they fly out of the most inconvenient, non-central airports possible. In Germany it's not an issues - there's a bus that goes straight from my city to Frankfurt Hahn (the budget airport): eleven euros, one hour, badabing, badaboom.

Not so easy in England. London's budget airport is called Stansted and it is the spawn of the devil. Buses travel the two hours from Stansted to London with some frequency, but I was going to Oxford and I was on a pretty tight schedule to get there before my hosts left for an evening engagement. I wasn't keen on wandering the streets for several hours Friday night. I bought a ticket for one of the few buses that goes from Stansted to Oxford - as Oxford is a student town, you'd think there would be more buses, but no - and was three minutes late thanks to a combination of plane delays and England's obsessive, excessive border control. I missed the bus and discovered that the next direct one left in three hours, too late for my agreed-upon meeting time.

Thankfully I was able to work out an alternate route through London, switched buses, and made it with four minutes to spare.

On Monday, I again pre-booked my ticket on a bus direct to Stansted, waited at the nearest bus stop, and watched my bus drive right by without stopping. Again I found an alternate route through London, inquired at the main office as to the reason my bus had not stopped, and was told that I'd booked it for the wrong stop. That particular bus, uniquely of all the buses in Oxford, only stops at the places where you have pre-booked. I had accidentally chosen the city center rather than the stop closest to where I was staying when buying my ticket, and so the bus passed me by.

Equally thankfully, I was able to buy a ticket on another bus that got me to Stansted just in time for my flight back to Germany.

So this morning I was already feeling a little sour towards European public transportation. Just to tease me, my bus was late this morning, so I missed my usual train, and the second train was also late, though only by five minutes. I power-walked to school, arrived somewhat sweaty but (barely) on time, and promptly began to think longingly about my environmentally-unsound personal car waiting for me in the States. I know buses and trains are the way of the future and I'd really prefer that Colorado had some useful ones, but right now I'm not feeling kindly towards public transportation. Give me a car with automatic transmission over National Express or DeutscheBahn any day.

At least until tomorrow when I'd actually have to drive it. The Germans drive like crazy people.