Friday, February 25, 2011

If you can't say something nice, say something unabashedly.

In general, Americans are pretty vague. "Do you want some coffee?" "I'm okay, thanks". Or, "Are you coming tonight?" "Probably not". Our vagueness makes us feel polite, like we're not hurting anyone's feelings.
I've always prided myself on my bluntness. It probably springs from the fact that I'm a terrible liar, so I've had to get pretty confident when I want to tell someone my real feelings on their clothes, relationships, cooking etc. Perhaps one of the more strangely emotional things I've had to get used to here in Austria, however, is how directly Austrians speak. Some of my coworkers are not afraid to point out (and touch!) the small hole in my tights, or to tell me that the lesson I taught wasn't very good. Of course, their directness can also be kind. If they like something, they tell you, and they tell you multiple times in varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Honestly, I think we Americans are generally unenthusiastic conversationalists, and usually lean towards a (fake?) positive attitude when we speak. If someone asks how a play was, we respond with "good", and maybe a little about it. Only the extremes ever receive any greater praise.

Here are some examples of real conversations I've had here:

"Katie, do you need the computer?"
"I'm fine, thanks"
"...what does that mean? Yes?"

"Katie, would you like some water?"
"Uhm, okay. Tap water or mineral water?"
"Whatever's easier"
"I don't care. Just pick one."

"Katie, do you think you'll come?"
"Maybe! I think I've got plans though.
"So... you are doing something else?"
"I mean, probably."
"So... you won't be coming?"
"I don't think so."

Clearly, my indirectness is frustrating to these poor Austrians. But I think it's our small way to keep windows open, to not upset people and to in general, keep things positive. I've been trying to become a little bit more Austrian in my speaking, which feel strange but does get the message across! Sometimes the language barrier inhibits polite conversation, and I find myself saying things like "No, I do NOT want to work an extra class for you" or something that to me sounds terrible rude... but to Austrians, shows that we're comfortable enough to say what we need?

Speaking of keeping things positive, I taught a lesson on small talk this week. Now, this seems like such an easy subject, but it's really not! Small talk in another language is difficult, because the range of topics is so broad, and the conversation starts so quickly (and is so unimportant) that it can be hard to switch into the other language. I don't know how many times I've simply mumbled some Denglish at people when they try to talk to me about the weather, or a class, or their weekend. Anyway, in my mind, small talk is a light conversation which both parties walk away from feeling slightly better about mankind. My students didn't quite grasp this concept, and instead got into arguments about football vs. soccer, or talked about the terrible weather and how it made them sad, or complained about their "terrible, abusive boss" at the water cooler. Pretty funny, but not very good small talk.

I've been thinking a lot about languages recently, partly thanks to a book I read called "Mother Tongue" by Bill Bryson. If you're at all interested in understanding more about the English language, it's a great book to read! He explained the history of how English came to be a language, which helps explain why we have so many synonyms for different words, or so many words that sound similar but have slightly different meanings. Also, it was pretty funny. Fun fact: English is one of the few languages where a thesaurus is really necessary - my students have never even heard of such a thing!!

In other news, I'm currently basking in the glory of a visitor-free weekend! Jenni and I are lucky enough to have a big apartment, so we often invite people to stay for a couple nights, and really we do love it. Having out-of-towners is a good excuse to get out and do things in the city. Last weekend, Isaac (a friend from UP) came with some other Dresden Fulbrighters to visit our lovely, cold city. We went to the ballet, drank Viennese coffee and basically showed them what our normal lives are like. This weekend, however, I'm excited to do exactly what I want to be doing at all times (within reason, of course). I think that's kind of how happy people live life, always....

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Great February Experiment 2.0

January 2010 was, for many reasons, not the best month for me. I felt pretty depressed and upset for most of the month, and knew I didn't want to feel that way for ever... so I decided to force myself to be happy by undergoing a project I called the Great February Experiment (GFE). Essentially, it all comes down to positive thinking. I tried to appreciate every little moment in my life, whether it be a great bike ride, or the moon, or some seriously cute little girls selling flowers. I figured that if I could make myself think everything that was "good" was "great", everything that was "okay" was "good", and everything that was "bad" was "okay", then I might be able to change my mood. Turns out, it worked!  I spent most of February 2010 being deliriously happy (props to my roommate Cate for putting up with my insanity) and the experiment has helped me stay a lot more positive since then.

So, now it's February 2011, and the experiment is back in its namesake month. January 2011 wasn't quite as depressing as January 2010, but the short days and bad weather certainly didn't do much for my mood. I'm finding that the whole experiment isn't quite as powerful as it was last year... though it's still good to be reminded that it feels better when I think nice things about people or situations. Always judging people or assuming the worst of every situation makes life worse!

So, let's talk about February so far.

Austria appreciates the February doldrums, it seems; they give their students (and teachers!) a week off! Jenni and I took this opportunity to travel to Portugal and Spain to hang out with her cousin. It was a seriously fantastic vacation. Even though I've been in Europe for almost 5 months, I still have only left Austria twice (once to Slovakia, once to the US). It was great to be in a culture that is different from Austria... not only are the stores open past 7 PM in those countries, but people are just getting their second wind for the day! The weather was great, we ate too much delicious food and we got to have car dance parties - obviously I was in heaven. For me, though, the best part of the whole trip was feeling curious! Having been in Austria for so long, I've kind of gotten used to most things. That's not to say that I understand everything - I certainly don't. But in Portugal and Spain, things were different (they eat at 10 PM? they mostly drink espresso? they take a siesta!?  they love feeling claustrophobic!?) and I found myself feeling interested and curious about everything. It felt... refreshing. I've been trying to carry that mindset back into Austria, because if I don't care about differences in our cultures, I'll never learn or remember anything about them, and then what's the point in being here?

Anyway, while traveling we stayed in a bunch of hostels (including Hostelworld's #1 hostel in 2010) and met lots of people, all traveling for different reasons. I've come to realize recently that I don't have the "travel bug" that many other people my age (or any age?) do. I mean, I am dreaming of the day when I can settle down in Portland, and currently spend my free time looking at kittens from the humane society. Living the "travel" life is, frankly, kind of selfish. You don't make money while traveling, you don't help others while traveling... and sometimes I don't know if that's what I need to be doing. Not to say that I'm not very grateful that I have the opportunity to do this, or that experiencing new parts of the world is a bad thing - I just know I can't do it forever.

In other February news, my schools are great. The teachers have been really kind to me all week, saying nice things about how I teach (although my Betreuungslehrerin did tell me my German went downhill over the semester break... but I'll talk more about the direct nature of Austrians in my next post). It's reassuring to know that they think I'm doing a good job! It helps to distract me from feeling bad about being "selfishly" here.

So... here are some pictures from my adventures!

Castelo de San Jorge in Lisbon. Built in 1147 - bad ass!

Ali and Jenni on the cliffs in Lagos, Portugal

Cats! in Cadiz, Spain

Carmo Convent in Lisbon - roofless since 1755. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

"Advice", or the Austrian version of it

In both of my schools, I've been assigned to one teacher (my "Betreuungslehrer"(in, if female)) who helps me organize my schedule and in general oversees my survival in Austria. At the tourism school, this teacher is great. She's kind, funny, and speaks perfect English (though we almost always speak German/Austrian). Anyway, she's about 45 or so, and we have some pretty ridiculous conversations.

My first day...
G: This is my best friend, S. She's really nice, and she can be your friend, but she can't be your best friend because she's already my best friend.

G: (pointing at S's desk) Katie, this is a "Sauhofen" (pigsty)
Me: Oh, okay! (quickly trying to memorize it)
....2 months later, after having used the word far too often....
G: By the way, you shouldn't use the word Sauhofen in polite society. It's not a very nice word - you should really only say it to S and me, just to be safe.

G: So, you're not going to stay another year.
Me: No... doesn't look that way...
G: The problem is that you need a boyfriend! An Austrian boyfriend!
S: Yes, do you go out in Vienna?
G: Not enough, certainly. You'd have met someone if you went out more. S used to live in Vienna, she went out all the time! She was crazy! But now she's happy. (mind you, S is divorced)
S: We need to find you a boyfriend. Maybe we could have a "speed dating" session for you....

G: Katie, you've been sitting here for hours! What are you doing?
Me: I'm waiting to teach in YOUR class in an hour!
G: What?! No. You should never ever have to wait 3 hours to teach in my class. I would never make you do that! Go home, get out of here!

G: Katie, where is your sweater!? Aren't you cold? I'm the one going through menopause!

G: My husband's coming back today! I'm so happy!
Me: Oh, great! How long has he been gone?
G: Ten days! It's been ten days since I've had sex!
Me: (wondering if I heard correctly, since sex and 6 (sechs) sound very similar)...... sex?
S: Yes, sex Katie! It's what married couples do, you know. Have sex! Didn't you know that? Ha ha ha.
G: Oh, Katie is going to think the Austrians are crazy (true) and that we are obsessed with sex (also true)! Yes, it's been 10 days! I can hardly wait! which point I walked away uncomfortably, because there's really no way to make that situation better.