Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why German?

As most people know, German isn't really a "necessary" language. Frankly, I could survive in this country with just a handful of phrases, because most speak at least a little bit of English. German is rarely (if ever?) the only language someone in the United States speaks, and generally, someone who speaks German and English could probably do a better translation than I can.

So why have I studied this language for 8+ years?!

Let's go back in time. I can remember my first run in with German, which was through a friend named Stefanie in 6th grade. Her parents had lived in Germany when she was younger, so she taught me useful phrases like "Gesundheit" and "Dummkopf" (bless you and stupid head, respectively).
Two years later, we had to decide what language we wanted to study in high school; I believe that this decision changed the course of my life. Basically, I didn't want to study Japanese because it looked too hard, I didn't want to study Spanish because it was the language all the stupid people took (sorry, I was 13) and I didn't want to study French because the girls in the class were mean. So... German it was! I don't really remember much about my first 2 years of high school German except cooking Apfelkuchen once a semester, teaching ourselves "Wir alle wohnen an ein Gelbunterseeboot" (we all live on a yellow submarine.. or something like that) and kids being sent out of class to go to the principal. But I had time in my schedule, so I kept taking it.

When I was 17, I spent a month living in Kiel (north Germany). This month.... was... hard for me! I had never spent so much time away from home, and I realize now that I wasn't really ready to appreciate the differences in our cultures. Plus, I was afraid to make mistakes, and really hardly spoke German at all. So, I spent a lot of the month feeling like I couldn't communicate. It was disheartening. For some reason though, I kept learning German. German classes at Lake Washington HS got even more ridiculous. By the time I was in 4th year German, I was the only student at my level in a classroom of 30 kids at 3 different levels. Basically, I napped in the back, flirted with the 3rd year students and didn't really learn any German. Sorry Frau Taylor.

When college came around, I was automatically signed up for German classes at the University of Portland. I can remember feeling panicked when they placed me in a 301 German class. I got my first ever B in a German class that year. German, however, opened doors for me: I got to go study in Salzburg my sophomore year! By this point, I realized I was good at German if I tried, and so I kept trying, and getting better! My friends all spoke German and it became my favorite class at UP, where we could get nerdy and laugh at jokes that other people didn't understand. I fondly remember writing German papers, because the language is logical, and there is always a correct way to write it. I love that about German. Also, Germany and Austria have fascinating histories. How could I not be interested in learning more about the Holocaust?!

These days, my German isn't perfect (it probably never will be) but I can communciate really well, and can be nearly perfect if you give me a second to think about it. It's strange to think that my time learning German could be over. I don't know where life will take me or whether I will be able to use German much in the future, but it would be nice.

My favorite German sentence (if you were curious): Es gibt einen Löffel in die Geschirrspülmaschine in Schleswig-Holstein!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Semi-Retired Kind of Life

For those of you that don't know, I work a maximum of 13 hours a week. Considering I teach in around 30 classrooms of students roughly the same ages, my lesson planning (especially lately) adds less than an hour a week to that already grueling schedule.

In other words, I am semi-retired. Clearly my four years of university have made me deserve this laid-back lifestyle, right? And I believe that Austria, as a whole, is also semi-retired, so this is a great place for me to be.

There's a great German term that has occasionally be used in English: Gemütlichkeit. According to Wikipedia, its connotation is "the notion of belonging, social acceptance, cheerfulness, the absence of anything hectic and the opportunity to spend quality time." Basically, this is the Austrian lifestyle, particularly outside of Vienna. It seems to me that retired people in America finally take the time to try to attain these goals, but many of us over-worked, stressed-out Americans have no idea how to chill out.

Bench in the middle of a apricot tree grove
So what does Austria do that makes it so different? To begin with, Austria has a minimum of 25 vacation days, along with 13 public holidays. I’ve heard that often these public holidays on Tuesdays or Thursdays create a convenient Fenstertag (window/bridge day) so they can extend their weekends into 4+ day beasts. In comparison, Americans only glean one Fenstertag out of the year (can you think of what it is?). Also, Americans only take an average 12 vacation days a year, with 10 public holidays.

Despite all these holidays, Austrians are not lazy; most work approximately 40 hours a week. It’s common to start the day around 7 so as to create longer afternoons, or, I believe, to allow themselves time for a longer lunch. As lunch is the main meal of the day, it’s generally taken quite seriously. Many restaurants offer a 3-course meal for lunch for just 5 or 6 euro. I have often caught my school’s principal (and other teachers) enjoying a glass of wine with his lunch at my school’s restaurant, something that wouldn’t exactly fly in American public schools.

Bench looking at the Danube
Something I have noticed recently in Austria is the abundance of benches. They are scattered throughout the countryside, placed in the middle of fields or directly facing a brick wall. Why are there so many!? I can only guess that Austrians get tired very easily, or are often overwhelmed by their thoughts and need to sit down.

Schools are a great place to witness Gemütlichkeit. Many of my colleagues are taking part in or preparing for their sabbatical year, by working additional hours now or receiving only half-pay for this year. It’s a concept that I have only ever witnessed in universities in the States, and even then, you are expected to DO something during that time. A woman I tutor is on her sabbatical year and spends her time babysitting her grandchildren, reading, taking dancing lessons with her husband, and practicing her English and Italian. That sounds like a great retired lifestyle to me.

Anyway, as the year draws to an end (3 weeks!), I find myself worrying about what life will be like back in the States. I’m going to start working 40 hours a week two days after I return home… when will I have time to read books, nap, cook elaborate meals and gather my thoughts sitting on a park bench!?

Bench in the middle of nowhere near Mürzzuschlag

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Go Read a Book!

Today, while innocently preparing some students for their upcoming oral English exam, we had a conversation which went like this:

Me: So, if you were only going to read a book one time, would you rather buy a (more expensive) hardcover book or a (cheaper) paperback?
Student: I would purchase a hardcover book.
Me: Okay... Why?
Student: Because then I could put it on my... er... shelf. It would be the book I bought in 2011.
Me: But... would you read it?
Student: Uhm... maybe...

Upon further questioning, I found out that these kids DON'T READ. I'm serious! I asked the group when the last time they read a book for fun was, and they couldn't remember! What is happening to the world? I can remember the days when I would get in trouble for reading my book in class. Ask my mother; I was a real bookworm as a kid. I still am, frankly. Not to brag, but I've read 26 books since October - granted, I have a lot more freetime than my students, but still! Not one book is memorable to them? I was shocked, but then I thought about it, and realized that I have never seen any of my students with their noses in a novel, be it at school or on the train. What is going on!?

To help myself understand, I've made a list of possible reasons why they don't read books.

  1. They're barbarians, and Mama din't learn dem how 2 read good.
  2. The group of students I talked to are a poor sample of the rest of the student population, and the rest of the students do actually read.
  3. They really don't have much free time. This was the excuse they told me, but I know that they have free time to "make party", among other things, so why not have some free time to read a book!?
  4. Not as many books are available in German as in English. There are of course less German-speaking people in the world, and not all English books are translated into German. With a reduced selection, perhaps German-speakers struggle a bit more to find books that pique their interest?
  5. (I think this is the biggest one) These students are part of a generation which grew up around the internet. They are only 4-5 years younger than me, but I myself can barely remember a time before the internet, so I'm sure they don't at all. The internet can provide constant stimulation, allowing the students to access thousands of free movies and TV shows, while also allowing them to know up-to-the-minute information about their friends and the whole world. With such limitless, easy entertainment options, why would anyone curl up with a boring old book?
It's a pity, really. I want to read every great novel ever written (though apparently this is impossible), because stories transport me to a new world, a new mindset, better than watching some actors on a 24" screen possibly could. 

Speaking of which, I would like to briefly mention the biggest accomplishment of my life:
I have finally finished my first "real" novel, auf Deutsch.

Perhaps I should have done this earlier. I mean, I have been studying German for years - more than 8, actually, which accounts for over a third of my life (crazy!). I have read short stories, poetry and newspapers and watched some TV programs or movies, but I've never really sat down and read a real book.

The book I chose to read was actually kind of chosen for me. A friend gave me the book, Der Chinese by Henning Mankell, back in the fall. This book was originally written in Swedish, so it probably didn't have quite the same number of overwhelming, run-on, lost verbs sentences that some German books have, but it was still quite the challenge as it has 600 pages. Basically, it had to do with a murder investigation that's history went back over 150 years and across 3 continents. It was quite good in German, and I'm sure would be equally good in English.

Those non-reading students may never quite understand the extreme pleasure and pride I got from finally finishing that beast of a book.

P.S. Read A Book! <--good message, sorry for the dirty language.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The hills are not really alive.

The title of this post refers to a conversation I had with a student today, who was describing a festival held in Austria on the 30th of April. 
Student: Yes, so there are fireworks and ships on the Donau... er, Danube, and the hills.... the hills are...
Me: Alive?
Student: (annoyed) No. They are beautiful.

Clearly my Sound of Music reference went unappreciated.

Not to make anyone in the Pacific Northwest jealous... but the weather here is fantastic right now. It's been hovering between 60 and 75 degrees for the last couple weeks, and every day seems warmer! I'm not the hugest fan of hot weather, but sunshine and warmth are things I depend on.

Not to sound like a real Sound of Music freak, but I'd like to list of a few of my favorite things... from Austria in the spring. I really like lists - they're organized and you can skim! So, apologies for all the blog posts that contain lists.
Window shopping, at night.
  • People! J and I live near Meidlinger-hauptstrasse, a long, busy shopping street. Meidling, our district in Vienna, is mainly full of apartments. There are many people from all different cultures, meaning we have an Asian grocery store, a Turkish grocery store and our usual Austrian stores within walking distance! Anyway, as the days warm up, people are hitting the streets in droves. It's wonderful to see people of all different ages hanging out on the same street. Families playing together, kids playing with other kids...  I feel like as a teenager I would avoid anywhere that adults were, but here they all play together. It's heartwarming!
  • einen Schaufensterbummel machen, or window shopping - The stores in Austria close obscenely early, around 7 PM. As the days grow longer, this means that the sun is still high in the sky when they shut, leaving everyone to find other activities to entertain themselves. The stores often set up elaborate displays (especially shoe and clothing stores) which people look at at all hours of the night. I've seen people window shopping at 1 AM - no joke. Anyway, as a former business student/human, I can't help but wonder, wouldn't it be effective to have the stores open later hours? There are customers literally standing outside the shops admiring the goods! Ah, Austria and your traditions...
We scream for ice cream (in Krems!)
  • Ice cream - Have I mentioned how much I love ice cream here? The flavor options are fantastic, though I usually just choose nutella and banana. Or green apple. Or pineapple. Anyway, I literally fight the urge to stop and buy an ice cream cone daily. They're so cheap, and everyone walks around rubbing their delicious ice cream in my face (okay not really, but it does seem that way...).
  • Long days - I go to bed around 930 and the sky is just losing it's finally lightness. I woke up at 4:45 this morning (standard procedure) and discovered that the sky was already blue. It's pretty nice to be able to be outside basically during all of my waking hours and discover that it's still light out and not scary.
  • Schönbrunn - I know I talk about this park all the time, but it's the best. I've discovered a new hidden area only accessible by climbing through a bush, where I can read my book in peace while listening to the sounds of people walking around me. Also, a squirrel touched me of his own free will. Kind of gross, but mostly cute.
Finally, let me describe one of my favorite little moments I've had: today, while walking around 9 PM, I passed an elderly man listening to some great Austrian music from a boombox. Only in spring can one jam so publicly. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mai Goodness, it's May

Maibaum in stormy Moedling
Well, friends and family, it's May, also known as the last full month I have in this country. Incidentally, did you know that no other month starts on the same weekday as May? June has the same problem.

May so far has been nice. Austrians celebrate May Day too, but differently. The cities each erect their own Maibaum (may pole/may tree) in the cities. These trees are crazy tall, some are even taller than the nearby churches! I'm not sure about the selection process of these may poles... find the tallest tree in the nearby forest and cut it down? Anyway, I think many Northwesterners would freak out about the murdered tree, but I think it's quaint. The tree took about 15 minutes to put up. which I had not expected, but it meant that I got to have a good, hard look at all the people of Mödling.

Like the stereotypical maypole, ribbons are attached to the maypole and people dance around it in interesting, weaving patterns. Unfortunately, these people were not the young, single people of the town, but rather the middle-aged or older crowd who have been suckered into doing this dance every year for decades.

In other May news, my tourism school sort of tricked me into doing something interesting. A few months ago, someone asked me if I'd like to lead a workshop in their Sporttag, or sports day, and naturally, I accepted without really thinking about it (Americans often make promises they don't intend to keep, if you'll remember my previous blog post on Americans). Anyway, sports day happened to be today, and on Monday I found myself terrified at the idea of teaching some Austrian teenagers how to be cheerleaders (not that I was actually a cheerleader, but no one in Austria understands drill team). I choreographed a short routine, briefed myself on the old games we used to play on drill (ride my pony, anyone?), and got to school early to set up my classroom, discovering that the room was full of chairs and desks, which I moved and stacked in about 15 minutes... only to find out I was in the wrong room. Bad start. Anyway, the workshop went great! The kids actually remembered what I taught them, and they looked like they were having fun. I myself had a GREAT time. Teaching would be a lot easier if I could just start dancing whenever I felt awkward.

 Schönbrunn, looking lovely
Of course, May is also the month where spring is FINALLY visible! Schönbrunn is looking fantastically green this time of year. Being here, often outside and thus exposed to the elements, has confirmed my belief that I am a spring person. There's nothing like the first ice cream of spring, the first day of laying out in the sun with a book or the first springtime bike ride.

I only have about 40 days left in this country, and only 12 days left of teaching. There are a couple things I want to do before I leave Austria, but my primary goal is to finally finish my first real German novel. So far, I'm finished with 470 pages out of 605! Getting close!