Colliding worlds

Picture the scene. You have more than a decade of learning a foreign language behind you, you’ve lived for an extended period of time in a country where it’s spoken and survived without any major hitches, and now you’re in need of a bit of cash. Feeling lucky, you decide to apply to your chosen country’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and hey presto, you’re accepted! It’s a foolproof method; at home you always manage to get the questions right up to about £50,000, and besides you’ll have the 3 lifelines to help you along the way. Deep breath, here we go. First question for €100:

What would go through the head of an English groundskeeper if a flare got set off in the stands once again?

A: Zewa  |  B: o.b  |  C: Kleenex  |  D: Always Ultras

Err…OK, back to the drawing board.

Fear not, I haven’t gone bust and humiliated myself on German TV, this was a question posed to us 2 weeks ago at Schloss Dhaun, the famous meeting of all of the Warwick University German students currently abroad. While all of the other Leizpig assistants who go to other universities had begun stressing out about dissertation deadlines, I wandered off to a castle in Rheinland Pfalz for the weekend to do translation, literary analysis and discussion by day, and have a good time with all my old uni friends and lecturers by night. A unique feature of Warwick’s German degree, it’s often slated as the highlight of our time at university and I have to admit that that’s probably true. The castle was in a beautiful location, we all had the chance to catch up with the people we haven’t seen for the best part of the year, and thanks to some pretty challenging work (which, to my surprise, was quite enjoyable) it got us in gear for final year, which is looming ever closer! A word of advice for those wanting to study German but not sure where to apply: go for Warwick auf jeden Fall! It really is the best department ever and it feels much more like a family than a bunch of people who just happen to study the same subject. Where else could you spend an all-expenses paid weekend catching up with old friends and dancing with lecturers into the small hours?

The reason we were asked the question above was to highlight a slightly depressing fact: despite the fact that we can at the very least survive here, we will never truly fit in in Germany. Coming on a year abroad is like two worlds – our British one and the unfamiliar German one – colliding, and although we can do our best to understand it, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever become integrated enough to be able to answer the easy questions on Who Wants to be a Millionaire that rely on you having a lifetime of cultural knowledge. Having said that, a really strange thing happened on the way back from Dhaun – as I got off the train in Leipzig and emerged to a beautifully sunny day with the trams thundering past, the city centre towering in the distance and Saxony accents everywhere, I felt as if I was coming home! I might not be able to master it completely, but this strange little world for all its quirks has become very comfortable. And of course, the German kids at my schools can benefit from this collision of cultures, too:

This will probably only make sense to readers from Corby, but you have no idea how long I'd been waiting for an opportunity to teach this!

This will probably only make sense to readers from Corby, but you have no idea how long I’d been waiting for an opportunity to teach this!

There have been some other very welcome reminders of home lately; these include a trip to Amsterdam with Jess from university, a visit from my coursemates, Tom and Marie, last weekend and in 2 weeks time, a long-awaited visit from my parents.

Further off into the future, I’ve got some more trips coming up including Konstanz on the Swiss border, a school trip to Berlin and possibly a mini-excursion into Poland. Lots to write about then! Bis zum nächsten Mal.

Veeeeeeeronika, der Lenz ist da!

The past few weeks have certainly been a bit of a whirlwind! After the end of my project week, I headed straight for the airport for my 2 week, 5 city tour. It was the last time I’d have 2 weeks off before the end of the year, so I figured I’d make the most of it! As I write this spring has most definitely sprung, which is lovely given the rather cold weather Leipzig has been having as of late! You can watch the song the title refers to at the bottom of the post. So, down to business!

First Stop: Paris (isn’t this a nice little church! Oh wait, it’s the Sacre Coeur!)

I met Vicky at Tegel airport where we headed for the city of love to meet up with the rest of our little group from university. It was the first time we’d all been together since July so we were all very excited! After some free wine on the plane…

These things are there to be taken advantage of!

These things are there to be taken advantage of!

…we arrived in high spirits and checked into our hostel. While waiting for the rest of the group to arrive, me, Vicky and Marie decided to go for a little walkabout and stumbled across the Sacre Coeur. Being the exemplary tourists that we are, none of us had a clue what on earth it was until we came across the mass of tourists at the front! Touristy stuff was the order of the weekend from that point on, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking:

Second stop: Marburg (“who, me?” “You’re the only other person in the room!”)

Despite being absolutely loaded with a cold by this point, I ploughed onwards to Marburg with Tom. It’s a lot smaller than Leipzig but it has bucket loads of character; a lot of the city centre, including Tom’s flat, was hundreds of years old and had a very quaint feel about it. Quite a nice contrast from the world city we’d been in that weekend then:

Third stop: Frankfurt

Given that I was flying home from Frankfurt and it isn’t very far from Marburg, we decided to make a day trip there. Frankfurt, being a global financial centre, was perhaps unsurprisingly the least German city I’ve been to so far this year. Despite it being full of skyscrapers, the old town (presumably the bit that didn’t get bombed/cleared for development) was quite nice and all in all, it was a nice way to waste a few hours before my flight!

Fourth/Fifth Stop: Home/Leamington

Having been insanely busy since Christmas, a trip home was more than welcome! Despite getting hideously, hideously drunk with some of the family (and paying the price the day after!) a good time was had. I also decided to go back to Leamington and see some of my uni friends not on their year abroad, and I have to admit that it was a rather odd experience! It really brought home quite how much has changed in the past 7 months or so, and also that the serious business of final year is looming. Despite being an absolutely fantastic experience, this year I live in a bit of a fantasy world; I work a stupidly small amount, with essentially no responsibility, for a not too bad amount of money. From what I gathered while I was back at uni last week, final year isn’t quite so rosy! Note to self: enjoy every last second while you can before it’s over!

Back on my old stomping ground.

Back on my old stomping ground.

This post has gone on for way too long, so I’ll post about Amsterdam another time. Until then, mach’s gut!

(Here’s the video. “Veronika, der Lenz ist da” means “Veronica, spring has arrived!”)

The importance of saying yes

Way back in September when I went to Cologne for my induction course, they told us that the most important word we’d need on our year abroad was “yes”. Within reason, they said, saying yes to every invitation and opportunity that comes your way is the key to having a successful and enjoyable year abroad. Fast forward 7 months (where the hell has all that time gone?!) to just before the end of last term and I found myself having said yes to leading my own week-long project, stood in front of 12 kids armed with little more than a British flag, a copy of Skyfall and a vague plan in my head about how to drag out the topic British Culture for an entire week. Needless to say, it was absolutely TERRIFYING and gave me a little insight into what the first ever lesson as a real teacher must feel like; kudos to all you teachers out there!

It turned out to be a reasonably successful week and gave me lots to think about in the event that I do turn out to be a teacher. We visited the English shop in Leipzig where we did a quiz about English food and bought some English snacks. After this we had a film morning - Skyfall was an obvious choice for its gratuitous shots of the London skyline. The snacks went down a treat (having said that, their reaction to Marmite and salt and vinegar crisps was one of utter disgust)! Once we’d done that, the kids had to choose a part of the UK’s culture that interested them and make a presentation on it, but much to my horror they finished way quicker than I thought they would. By Wednesday afternoon I had just about run out of things to do, so I agreed to one of the student’s ideas to bring a British film from home, which turned out to be Four Weddings and a Funeral. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s basically 2 hours of sex scenes punctuated by a bloke dying. Cue the longest and cringiest 2 hours of my life, which were spent with my head in my hands, praying that the sex would end and that none of the other teachers in the adjoining rooms would hear! Typically for Germany, with their liberal attitude to sex that puts us Brits to shame, it was only rated as a 6 but a valuable lesson was learned: always check what film you’ve agreed to show!

In the film these two spent about 5 minutes having some very, very, loud and melodramatic sex whilst I spent 5 minutes sinking lower and lower into my chair, wishing the ground would open up and swallow me!

I made a rapid exit from school on Thursday afternoon and headed for the airport. No, I hadn’t been asked to leave the country for showing children inappropriate films, but I did have a fun-packed, school-free 2 weeks of travelling about ahead of me! I’ll write about that soon, probably after I’ve been to Amsterdam this weekend, so stay tuned!

I went home during the holidays for a week, where I bumped into Miss James, my old mentor from secondary school where I helped out with a year 7 Geography class while I was in the 6th form. She asked me to do an assembly about my year abroad at her new school, which I gladly said yes to as I thought it would be quite nice to go back into an English school having now seen the way the Germans do things! The moral (every good assembly needs a moral) was that saying yes and stepping outside of your comfort zone can really open a world of new friends, experiences and opportunities to you, as I’ve discovered this year. Saying yes to Miss James when she asked if I wanted to help out with her year 7′s led me to decide to go to uni, study German, come to Germany, and teach my own class for the week, and if I’d have said no at any point the chain would have been broken and I wouldn’t be typing this now. I also wouldn’t have a viable back-up plan if the pilot thing doesn’t work out!

So the moral of this post? Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone, and wonderful things will happen. Oh, and try not to accidentally show children raunchy rom-coms! Bis zum nächsten Mal!

You learn something new every day…

Having moved around a bit in the past few years (when I start my final year of uni in September, my address will have changed 5 times in 4 years!), I’ve come to love the sense of discovery that comes in moving to a new place. This year has been no different – at first Leipzig was an absolute maze; during my first week I spent 55 minutes using the most convoluted route ever to get to the city hall to register as a resident. Six months down the line, I’m (thankfully) now aware that actually it’s only a 10-minute walk away! Despite now being reasonably familiar with Leipzig and its surroundings, there are always new things to see and it’s always quite exciting when you spot something new! Here’s some of the new discoveries I’ve made over the past couple of weeks:

1) That worrying about the temperature dropping to -5°C was horribly, horribly naïve!

This doesn't include windchill. It was a windy day.

This doesn’t include windchill. It was a windy day.

2) That Halle (the nearest major city), has its own Beatles museum. The town (whose unofficial motto according to one of the assistants is “crumbling DDR charm right on your doorstep!”) has absolutely nothing to do with the Beatles, but the people running it seem to be the ultimate fanboys. Fair play to them, it was surprisingly good fun!

The next best thing to annoying drivers on Abbey Road. Thanks to Ruth Gray for the picture!

The next best thing to annoying drivers on Abbey Road. Thanks to Ruth Gray for the picture!

3) That there are reminders of Leipzig’s former industrial glory everywhere. I’m not sure if the factories below closed after the fall of the Wall, as most did, but nevertheless they’re a very eerie reminder of how much has changed for this resilient city. They also kind of reminded me of the old steel work buildings at home in Corby, which, like Leipzig, has changed beyond imagination since the 1980s.

Lindenauer Hafen

Lindenauer Hafen

4) That even places you’re relatively familiar with sometimes have surprises. Sometimes they’re not even that hidden; instead of taking the tram to work today I walked a slightly different route, meaning I got to approach the street I usually go down from the side. This meant that I caught sight of these two buildings which, despite being beautiful, I’d never noticed before!

So those are my recent discoveries which (just about) provide an excuse to write this post. In the next couple of weeks I’m set to discover what it’s like to take a whole class on my own for an entire week; be in Paris for Valentine’s Day; what it’s like in Frankfurt and Marburg; and what it’s like to go back to university for the day. Needless to say that’s quite a lot, and as I’m going to be so busy it’ll be a good few weeks until I write about it. Until then, mach’s gut!

Edit: I’ve just remembered another discovery, or rather an affirmation of a discovery I made quite soon after moving to Germany: the weirdest of things can make you pine for home! This week, after having a bit of a theme tune marathon with some of the other assistants, the Radio 2 News jingle came up on my suggested feed on YouTube. For some reason, it suddenly got me very excited to be going home in a few weeks. God knows why, but I’m not complaining!

Los geht’s!

Johann's feeling the cold today!

Johann’s feeling the cold today!

As I write this there’s still a sprinkling of snow falling, as it has been doing for most of the past two days. Given that it’s arrived so uncharacteristically late this year there was talk amongst the assistants of perhaps avoiding the apocalyptic winters that we’ve been fearing – how naïve we were! On Saturday it’s not forecast to get above -5°C, and this could just be the start! Last year in Saxony night-time lows plummeted to -20°C, so cold that overhead wires froze and the tram network ground to a halt. The reactions of the kids at school has brought up quite an interesting difference between the UK and Germany; in schools across Britain, the slightest bit of snow can completely wreck a lesson plan as kids start bouncing off the walls in anticipation of a snow day. In one of my classes today however, the kids’ response to my “oh look, it’s snowing!” was “yeah, and?”.

I can’t make a blog post just after Christmas and not mention my time at home. I had managed to nab a really – and I mean absolutely ridiculously – cheap fare in Business Class with British Airways so naturally I jumped at the chance. It involved an early start so I stayed the night before in Berlin and was invited to Janina’s dad’s birthday barbecue (yep, the Germans have BBQs in December), which was fantastic. It’s always struck me how welcoming Germans are, and this evening was no different!

The flight back was the most relaxed I’d ever had – if only Business was always that cheap! Mum, Dad, my brother Sean and my Nana met me in the arrivals lounge, which was my only proper request for my time at home. You might remember I wrote about those times where it feels like you’re in a movie; this certainly was a Love Actually moment!

The rest of my immediate family, about 25 or so, were hiding in the dining room when we got home and near enough frightened the crap out of me when they jumped out, but it was fantastic to see them all again. After that the “ahhh home” feelings subsided and I slipped right back into Corby life as if I’d never been away. The only other nostalgic moment that followed from there was being in the bakers near my house and getting asked “are you wantin’ a cake wi’ that son?” in the broadest and most maternal-sounding Scottish accent ever – a welcome change from the typically blunt “NEXT CUSTOMER”, “GIVE ME EXACT CHANGE PLEASE” and “YOU WANT *WHAT*?!” that I’ve become used to over the last few months!

Derek's Bakery just round the corner from my house, where my unfortunate habit of not making my own lunch was cultivated. Not quite Leipzig Hauptbahnhof, but it has sentimental value!

Derek’s Bakery just round the corner from my house, where my unfortunate habit of not making my own lunch was cultivated. Not quite Leipzig Hauptbahnhof, but it has sentimental value!

So it was with a heavy heart that I returned to Leipzig. Much to my surprise, it took quite a few days to settle back into the routine, but now I’m back to “normal” things are really getting into gear, hence the Los geht’s title which is German for “let’s go!”. Last weekend a few of the assistants went to Chemnitz, formerly known as Karl-Marx-Stadt (Stadt: City). We were only there for the massive bust of Marx (see below), but despite numerous people shrugging and answering the question “what else is there to do here?” with “nothing!”, we had a great (and slightly drunken) day out, including an improvised winter olympics on a frozen-over halfpipe:

So, los geht’s - 18 weeks of my year abroad are left and I’m determined to make the most of every day. Look out in the future for posts about trips to Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Konstanz and with a bit of luck, a couple of other exciting places! Mach’s gut!