10: The Fluency Conspiracy

“Would you say you’re now fluent?” is a question I get asked relentlessly, even more so as my year abroad draws to a close. It is, incidentally, a question posed only by people who have never learned a foreign language themselves.

You wouldn’t spontaneously pluck a chapter from a Dickens novel and ask a literature student to give a detailed analysis of its characters and nuances from the top of their heads. You wouldn’t ask a history student to rattle off every significant legislation that was passed in 1736. So don’t expect me to know how to recall the word for Dodo in German, because chances are I haven’t come in to contact with too many extinct species on my year abroad.

Fluency is too often perceived as a finite state, a black and white label. In reality, it involves an ongoing process of years of cultural immersion and linguistic osmosis. A year abroad undoubtedly catalyses this process, yet simultaneously serves as a harsh wake-up call to the reality of language learning; what you once you once thought of as a quick walk around the park has turned in to an expedition to climb Everest. No amount of text book phrases and listening exercises can prepare you for that. Imagine reading Oliver Twist one day and then being expected to seamlessly assimilate in to Victorian society the next. You’ve learned about it, you’ve passively absorbed its language, you’ve even humiliated yourself by enacting Mr Bumble in a Victorian literature seminar, but you’ve never actually lived inside Dickens’ world. Vicarious exposure can’t ever fully prepare you for that.

This concept is most easily grasped by considering your relationship to your mother tongue. When speaking English, there are frequently times when I am lost for words in conversation, when I ask a friend to repeat what they have just said, when I need to look up words in a book I am reading. Yet under the same circumstances in German, I presume these lapses are indicative of my ‘non-fluent’ status, of my failure to fully grasp my target language. According to the standards that I hold my German to, I am not fluent in English either.  This disparity is a consequence of our misconceptions about fluency. As a native English speaker, I’m not insecure about my use of vocabulary, I’m not instilled with paranoia about how my accent comes across and I certainly don’t worry about accidentally making sexual innuendos every time I comment on the weather.

Yet with insecurity, paranoia and worry comes under-confidence, stuttering and stunted conversations. After all, fluency is a state of mind. It is the symptoms of this mentality, rather than a lack of linguistic capability, that ironically hinder fluency in a foreign language.

It’s therefore helpful to distinguish between social confidence and linguistic competence. I am much more comfortable talking to friends about our plans for the weekend than I am discussing coding with a computer scientist. When speaking German, on the other hand, I judge myself as fluent in the former conversation, yet a complete novice in the latter. Before basing your ability to speak an entire language on a five minute interaction, it is important to take context in to consideration.

And then there’s the mood I’m in. If I’ve had a salad for lunch, I will probably stammer my way through asking for the bill, a request that is articulating perfectly after devouring a pizza. Whilst my exhausted attempts at small talk on the 7.30am bus to work are laughable, after a colleague compliments my German, my conversation starters become almost plausible attempts at social interaction.

Annoyingly, the arrogant people who quickly decide that they’re fluent have the confidence and self-assurance that is, incidentally, what we misconceive as fluency. Accordingly, those humble enough to second guess their competence in the target language are afflicted by the hesitations that expose themselves as foreigners.

If we were to rid language learners of the concept of fluency, all the paranoia and second-guessing would dissolve along with it, ironically making them more fluent…..not that the concept exists.

9: How the other half live

In Britain, it’s unheard of to start your first two weeks at university without shortening your life expectancy, gaining 15 pounds and doing things you’ll almost certainly later regret in the name of an amateur sports team. Beyond conflicting attitudes to small talk and nudity, one of the more significant cultural differences I have noticed between Germans and Brits is the mentality of young ‘twenty somethings’. It never occurred to me before that the ‘path’ I have almost unconsciously followed (and continue to follow) from school to employment is just a British cultural norm. Be it Freshers Week, student housing or graduate schemes, the ‘life stages’ that British students move through do not map on to their German counterparts.

mauerpark

This picture is entirely unrelated to the blog post, I’m just using it to silence the skeptics. Look, I have friends!!!!

Take a gap year or three

Whilst working at my school, I have been asked countless times how I can be both twenty and in my third year of university. They assume that I am really a 25 year old dwarf who is embarrassed about her height and young complexion. Their reaction is unsurprising considering that the average German student in their third year of university is about 23. This is unlikely to be because all British students happen to be innately more intelligent than Germans of the same age, but rather because German students are not bound by ‘year groups’ in the same way as Brits.

In Britain, there seems to be some weird stigma attached to straying too far from peers of your age. In school, age boundaries were crossed for only two reasons; ‘year above’ friends were to make you seem cool and ‘year below’ friends were there for you to unnecessarily patronise. Beyond these two recognised frameworks, friends, enemies and soul mates were limited to your year group, whilst the rest of the world was comfortably ignored. The rules relaxed ever so slightly at university, permitting a rogue gap year friend into your stratosphere but, on the whole, the parameters remained fixed.

Germans, by contrast, have no concept of this ‘year group’ phenomenon. This is likely to because students move between years much more freely; from ‘sitzen bleiben’ (repeating a year) to casually taking a year abroad to an English speaking country (a bizarre number of my students have spent a year in Nova Scotia, Canada), time out from school is much more common than in England. This culture is further encouraged by the fact that an incomparably large amount of German students take a gap year after finishing school, with many taking part in the state organised program involving social work and volunteering. By the time they start university, ‘first years’ are an eclectic mix of ages so that our unfounded fear of straying too far from the ‘path’ of our age group is immediately dissolved.

Degree Choices

I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been asked by my students if I want to be a teacher when I grow up (in a year’s time.) As the months went by, my tactful lie “I’m considering it as an option” has slowly descended in to an aggressive “over my dead body”, much to the other teachers’ annoyance. The reason they repeatedly ask me this is because, in Germany, it is unheard of to study a non-vocational subject unless you are interested in a career in either teaching or academia. Want to be a journalist? Study journalism. Want to be a lawyer? Study law. Want to work in marketing? Study marketing. “Why is then learning German to your taste?”, I hear their irritating voices probe.

It’s surprisingly difficult to explain that, in England, your degree doesn’t translate (pardon the pun) in to what career you’d like to pursue or even what you’re most interested in, but rather to something vaguely similar to your A-levels that an employer might not hate. As all Germans seem to strive for efficiency in body and soul, higher education has an entirely practical function. It does, however, seem pretty ironic that whilst they carefully make the most of their free university education, we treat ourselves to a decadent £30,000 degree of moderate personal interest that we fell into through fear of UCAS.

Freshers Week

What would the first few weeks of university be without pretending to have the time of your life with strangers you hate whilst privately crying over the phone to your friends from home? Yet German universities seem to be devoid of the ‘Freshers culture’ that we know and ‘love’. Where do they get to play embarrassing drinking games with strangers they’ll hopefully never have to see again? Nowhere. When do they get to engage in conversation about how much they love alcohol because they exhausted their three reliable conversation starters? Never. How do they mentally note to avoid the wierdo down the corridor who asked for a breakdown of their A-level results? They don’t need to.

This is because the German approach to starting university is entirely different from ours. Firstly, the majority of students end up going to the university in their home town so that they can save money by living at home. Of course there are exceptions to this, with some students seeking out the towns/cities with universities that are better for their course, but, on the whole, staying at home is the trend for undergraduate life. In fact, even when they do venture to another place, they would be most likely to live in a flat with a friend from their home-town, rather than making new friends.

This inevitably has drastic consequences for their social life at university. Whereas the majority of British students would form a new circle of friends, this tradition of using university as an opportunity to meet new people doesn’t seem to exist in Germany. This is not to say that Germans are anti-social robots who wait for their seminars to begin in silence, but without the structures in place (i.e Freshers week events and halls of residence) to make new friends, a different culture inevitably emerges. For most Germans, the friends they make whilst at school are the ones that they remain close with in adult life.

Graduate Life

Perhaps the biggest difference between British and German ‘twenty somethings’ is the amount of time it’s socially acceptable to remain a student. In Britain, unless you want to burden your great-grandchildren with debt, you would only really do a Masters if you have funding, want to pursue a career in academia or are rich. Germans, on the other hand, can do a Masters either for free or for a few hundred euros. This means that most jobs that we would consider to be ‘graduate level’ require postgraduate qualifications. As a result, life is delayed by a decade. Whilst my 21 year old friends from home panic about not having found a graduate job yet, every single person under 30 I’ve met in Berlin has been either a part of full-time student. Most would have a ‘Nebenjob’ (in café, shop, etc) on the side, but their ‘career path’ seems to be navigated at a much later time and at a significantly slower pace.

I’m not really sure which mind-set I prefer. If I was a German of the same age, I would probably be friendlessly plodding through my first year of university, studying something vaguely useful, despite not having to worry about real life for another five years. As it stands, however, I (socialite of North London, BNOC of Uni and Berghain A-lister) am forced to stare real life in the face by British cultural norms, consoled only by a Venn diagram of extensive social circles.  Yet with the scars of Freshers week and living away from home under my belt, maybe I am better equipped to deal with it.

 

8: Entrapped in free time

friends

I’m in a bit of a weird situation. Bear with me as I attempt to explain the unique circumstances of my year abroad existence. As a language assistant, you work to a timetable of a mere twelve hours a week organised by your mentor teacher. Your mentor should rewrite your timetable every half term so that you can help in as many English lessons as possible. This system operated fairly smoothly for the first four months of my year abroad.

Then one day my mentor decided to go on sabbatical leave to Australia until May. She was not replaced.

Initially, this did not pose a problem as I’d been in the school long enough to know what I was doing and continued going to the same lessons as before she had left. Then, after half term, some of the school timetable spontaneously changed so that a few of my lessons clashed with each other and, with no one there to reorganise my timetable, my hours subsequently withered to 7 a week. I was now in breach of my contract.

My situation forced me to take matters in to my own hands and so I asked all the English teachers I had previously worked with whether they had any other lessons I could help out in or take. I wrote an extensive list of tasks a language assistant can help out with, I offered to take lessons, I even suggested that I could start an English extra-curricular club. Whilst I now want to report that I am the shining beacon of the school, ambassador for England and woman of the people…no one responded to my email.

The issue is that I am working for the school, yet am being paid by the PAD (the German educational exchange service) which means that no one in school cares about taking advantage of me, and the people paying me have no idea of how many hours I am working. Eventually, one of the teachers expressed a vague interest in me and showed me when she has English lessons. After imposing myself on the three lessons I could make, my hours climbed to a staggering 10 a week.

At this point, I gave up trying to get more hours. Asking twelve year olds to repeat the word ‘pedestrian’ five times until it stops sounding like ‘pee-Austri-strain’ is hardly riveting stuff. In short, it’s not like I love the job. It’s fine for twelve (or ten) hours a week, but when no one acknowledges your presence in the staff room, when the deputy head tells you off for the third time to get out of the staff room and back to your lessons and when your best friends in the school are twelve years old, I’m hardly going to beg for more work.

Now I know what you’re thinking. What are you doing with your life when you work ten hours a week?? I know this because I think the exact same thing myself and I’m not entirely sure of the answer. All I know is there should be a channel 4 documentary made about my lifestyle (“Leaching off the educational exchange service: the truth about language assistants”).

The answer is not very much at all. I go to the gym every day which, for context, is the most extraordinarily out of character thing I have ever done. More likely would be for me to stand outside gyms and heckle the people who go inside. However, unlikely 99% of the world’s gymming population, I see regular exercise not as the chance to get in shape, but rather an opportunity to eat double. Between working, eating, exercising, cooking, eating, writing, eating, tutoring, Netflix, lesson planning, eating, socialising (eating) and eating, my days seem to fill up. (My body too.) But I don’t think that’s particularly interesting. I’d like to write about not what people with a lot of free time do, but rather their frame of mind.

Over-thinking

An inevitable symptom of free time is over-indulging your own thoughts and lingering on ideas which, in the real world, would be too trivial to deserve headspace. I, for example, have devoted an unhealthy amount of time to thinking about sweetcorn. Hear me out on this, I am convinced that I have ground-breaking insight in to the flaws of said canned vegetable’s manufacturing process. If cans can’t be kept in the fridge and no amount of family-size cooking requires using up a whole can of sweetcorn, why do they continue to be stored so impractically?? (This has been plaguing by empty mind for weeks.) I was all set to make my millions on refridgerable packets, but apparently this already exists.

Another, slightly more morbid thought that has cropped up embarrassingly often is what I like to call the “year abroad game”. This entails estimating how long it would take any one to notice if I suddenly dropped dead. (When you live with strangers and work in an environment where no one is responsible for you, these thoughts crop up as frequently and as nonchalantly as deciding what I’m going to have for dinner.) My estimation sits at about four days. I think it would take my school about three months to alert someone if I stopped turning up and whilst my friends would find it bizarre that I wasn’t replying to messages, it would probably take them a few more days before they actually turned up unannounced at my flat or made further inquiries. Whilst this may sound depressing, I’m thrilled that the time frame has shorted; in September, at the beginning of my year abroad when my ‘friends’ were people I had known a few weeks, I estimated it would take 8 days until anyone noticed I was missing.

Irrational Paranoia

Free time has also nurtured my new found obsession with investigative murder documentaries such as Making a Murder and the podcast Serial. These programs both present real homicide trials and invite the audience to question whether the defendants are actually guilty, or whether their sentence is a result of spun evidence, a corrupt police force or a flawed justice system. Essentially, these programs elevate me from a lowly language assistant to a criminal detective. Whilst playing Sherlock is fun, it has also made me hyper paranoid that, on the slim chance anyone accuses me of murder, everything I do could be spun to look like I am morally bankrupt of psychologically unstable. This blog, for example, strongly supports both of those accusations. When my friend Kathryn, for example, told me about the questionable behaviour of her boss, I messaged that I was willing to kill him. A vision of me behind bars flashed before my eyes, with a Netflix voiceover of those words ringing in my ears. I have become paranoid that anything I say or do could be spun as evidence of my guilt in a hypothetical murder.

Guilt

My minimal responsibilities at school have also made me hyper-paranoid that someone at school is going to arrest me or, at the very least, tell me off for working such few hours. Admittedly, my obsession with murder documentaries probably isn’t helping. For example, the headmistress approached me in the staff room the other week and just before I was about to spout the list of reasons why I had done all I could to fulfill my contract and that I refuse to be interrogated without a lawyer present, she invited me out for dinner with the English department. “You wouldn’t have to pay, this is an invitation”, she added. I work ten hours a week at this school and the headmistress has had a word with me not to give me more responsibility, but to pay for my dinner. (During said meal she told me that her students love my lessons and that I’m a valuable resource to the school.)

A completely unfounded compliment, of course, but it just goes to show that what goes on in your head has little bearing on reality.

Last year, when I was working at least five times as many hours a week as I currently am, I remember having ambitious thoughts about the things I would achieve, the person I would become and the tidiness of my room if I only had more time. If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that you’re the most free when you’re busiest. Next year, when I’m in the depths of finals, dreaming of the sixth pack that could have been if only I had more time, I hope I’ll remember that I once had multiple entrepreneurial thoughts about sweetcorn.

7: The Flat-Mate Factor

Casting calls, call-backs and rejections have all kept me busy over the past 4 months. It may come as a surprise to you that I am not referring to my up and coming modelling career, but rather to my search for accommodation in Berlin. Whilst you might not associate a flat hunt with an audition process, the enormous competition for a ‘WG’ (flat share) has allowed a casting culture to emerge in which Berliners can afford to play Simon Cowell in their search for a new flat-mate.

At the beginning of my year abroad, I naively assumed that I would select the most suitable flat after a number of viewings. I was wrong on two counts; they would be the ones doing the selecting and these ‘viewings’ were really cut-throat auditions.

My initial criteria was as follows:

1) They must be German
2) They must be around my age
3) The flat must located within the Ring-Bahn (a well connected underground station)
4) At least one flat-mate should be female.

In the end, only one of these criteria was fulfilled.

When each advert for a flat-mate receives hundreds of responses, even getting a viewing (casting) is an achievement. On what basis do they judge you? Your compatibility, your interests, your social skills, your income, your personal habits, your music taste, your looks, your personality, your hopes and your dreams. Everything.

And how did I fare? Remember that I am functioning as a 20% version of myself whilst competing with hundreds of potential flatmates. Enough with the excuses; in 4 months, I sent over 500 emails, received 20 responses, attended 12 viewings and was accepted by one WG.

Whilst, as a mediocre student actress, I am used to rejection emails, there is something distinctly humiliating about being rejected by potential flat-mates. They are not judging your suitability to a particular character, the emotional depth of your monologue or the colour of your hair. They are rejecting you. I played the role of myself, delivered a monologue showcasing my lovely personality and they said no. Imagine trying to make friends in a very selective social group and then getting an email saying, on the grounds of your deficient personality, you have not made the cut. This happened to me not once, not twice, but eleven times. Eleven people met me (well, in my defence, 20% of me) spent about half an hour in my charming company and then decided they would rather live with someone else. It’s one of the few circumstances when the classic reassurance to any rejection “don’t take it personally” is impossible. It is entirely personal.

Here are my best bits:

The shackles of flat hunting

Whilst I’m all for themed decorations, which certainly add character and homeliness to otherwise bleak accommodation blocks, I was rather alarmed by the abundance of handcuffs used to adorn one potential flatmate’s room. What was the theme here? Prison? And the alternative- that the function of these handcuffs went beyond its ornamental value- was an even more concerning prospect. Said potential flatmate (inmate) also wore chains on his jeans, which made for a welcoming touch. However, entrapped in the shackles of British politeness, I pretended I was really interested in the flat*, gave them my contact details and then ran a mile.

*Author’s note: He rejected me before I was able to reject him.
Mutual Interests

When meeting potential new flatmates, it is important to be yourself; honesty is the only way you will find people suited to your routine and personality. In theory. In reality, when you’re fighting it out against hundreds of other hopefuls for a mere roof under your head, you’re authentic self is unlikely to make the cut. Be the tidier, funnier, more interesting, white lying version of semblances of yourself. This is the very reason why I, literature student, aspiring writer and die-hard Harry Potter fan, told one potential flat-mate that I hate reading. I don’t really know how it happened. We were discussing interests, and by discussing I mean he was listing his and I found myself expressing a suspicious amount of interest in his niche hobbies. He told me he hated reading as he usually “finds the writing style too simplistic” and “is rarely exposed to new ideas”. Clearly he was either a pretentious lunatic or an undiscovered genius. Either way, I agreed that I too have graduated on to more complex art forms. I hated myself, but I had to the play the game.*

*Author’s note: It didn’t work. He also rejected me before I got the chance to reject him. Maybe just be yourself after all.

Making friends

Yet the hardest rejections came from the viewings with nice, normal people. The one silver lining of this process was that I got to meet new people and inevitably speak a lot of German. One viewing went so well that, realising we were both in Hamburg for the weekend, we nearly met up the next day. When I returned to Berlin, I went back to meet the other flat (essentially a call-back) and we too got along like a house on fire. A vision of a German circle of friends flashed before my eyes and I was ready to finally fulfil my dream of becoming a German socialite. That evening, they emailed to say that, as much as they liked me, they decided to go for someone who could stay longer than me. This rejection cost me a flat, my pride and two friends.

In the end, however, my charm, wit and charisma triumphed when, after 4 months of on and off searching, I beat several hundred applicants (not an exaggeration- this is the amount of emails they received) to live in a WG in Tempelhof. The flat might consist of men, aged between 24 and 32 and located outside of the Ring-Bahn, but they are GERmen (spelling intentional) and that’s what’s important.

I couldn’t help but ask my new flat mates why they chose me over hundreds of others. After all, I surely deserved a gentle ego massage after 4 months of relentless heart-break. Was it my sense of humour, my unique conversation starters or my winning smile that was the deal breaker for them?

In the end, I found out that I had accidentally sent two (slightly different) emails expressing my interest in their WG. They had said yes simply because they could smell my desperation through cyber space.

6: The Police Raid

It’s not every day on your year abroad that two men violently bang on your bedroom window at 7am. Well, I suppose it depends on what language you study, but for post reunification German students, we thought we were safe.

Assuming it was a few drunks, I chose to ignore the disturbance and continued getting ready for school. After another five minutes of relentless banging, however, I eventually left the flat and cautiously opened the front door to our apartment block.

I was greeted by two men wearing what looked like tracksuits bottoms and scruffy jackets. They were shouting (in German) “police, police, open up”. Whilst I have had little experience of the police back in England, I’m pretty sure they are required to wear a uniform, show an ID and maybe even a warrant before they demand entry in to someone’s home. They certainly wouldn’t bang on a girl’s window at 7am on a pitch black winter morning.  Call me paranoid but somehow I felt a little suspicious.

I asked to see an ID and when I was hastily flashed a dodgy looking key ring, I immediately went to close the door. Before I got the chance to close it, however, the two men barged past me and ran in to the apartment block.

Oh my god, I thought, I have just welcomed two burglars in to a building full of families. Well, maybe not welcomed, but I had granted them entry to rob and murder all my neighbours.

I screamed and ran back in to my flat shouting for help. This prompted my flat mate, Jenny, to rush out of her room and she too demanded to see an ID. One of the men now showed us the courtesy of flashing an actual card from his wallet with ‘Polizei’ (police) printed at the top.

Yet this ‘ID’, designed in the style of a Nandos loyalty card, was far from convincing. They muttered something about refugee smugglers and, before hesitating at the suspicious sight of these panicking foreign girls, ran to an apartment upstairs.

Naturally I have slowed down the pace of the action so as to relay it to you step by step, but this whole exchange probably lasted under a minute. They were well on their way upstairs before we (two English speaking young women) even had the chance to take these German criminal masterminds down.

Locked in the safety of our own flat, Jenny and I discussed the two possible scenarios that might have just unfolded.

Scenario 1:

  1. The flat upstairs is genuinely housing illegal immigrants.
  2. Undercover, scruffily dressed police decided that an urgent raid was necessary at 7am.
  3. They happen to choose the only non-fluent German speaker in the whole apartment block (a young looking girl about to set off for school) to bear the brunt of the raid.
  4. The psychotic, foreign child who answers the door randomly starts screaming for help, slowing down the effectiveness of their raid.

 Scenario 2:

  1. Two drunk men identify a vulnerable school girl through the window of an apartment.
  2. Presuming her to be a gullible idiot, they were even more thrilled when she turned out to be foreign.
  3. They claim to be looking for ‘illegal immigrants’, a nice touch considering this girl clearly isn’t a German national.
  4. When she proves to be slightly less gullible than they initially hoped, they quickly flash a fake police ID (an exact copy of the design of their Nandos loyalty cards) and opt to rob and murder the people in the flat upstairs instead.

Whilst potential theft and murder was obviously a weight on my mind, an additional worry was plaguing me all the more strongly; if I had just permitted two criminals entry in to apartment, I would inevitably have to be a witness in a court case. Do my language capabilities stretch that far? Maybe if they would allow be to read out a pre-written statement but, even then, the inevitable grammar mistakes would surely undermine the strength of my account? Would my inability to articulate myself properly in German allow two criminals to get off scot free?

Before I let my mind run away with itself, however, I realised that I would have to leave the flat now if I didn’t want to be late for school. Neither a confrontation with criminals nor an emergency police raid would be justifiable excuses for being late to school and so, despite the panic of the last 15 minutes, I set off for the train station.

To my relief/humiliation, I noticed a man wearing an actual police jacket emerge from the car parked outside our apartment. He recognised me and apologised for the disturbance, finally explaining that they suspected that someone in our flat was housing illegal immigrants. Terrified much more by the consequences of being late to school than the potential criminal activity that was being carried out in my home, I didn’t ask any further questions and rushed off to school.

So, in the end, scenario 1 held true. The good news is that no horrendous German court case is on the horizon but, on the other hand, I am a paranoid psychopath.

The funny thing is I remember words like ‘Razzia’ (raid) being on my A2 German vocab list and complaining that those type of words would never come in useful.

From unexpected police raids to unexpected niche vocabulary…nobody is safe.

5: The Dresden Weekender

Magaluf, Aiya Napa, Kavos, Malaga.. the choices for a Brits abroad weekender were endless. After much deliberation, we opted for Dresden, famed for its Christmas markets and far-right tendencies. The ‘we’ refers to Jenny, Anna and Katie, who are the friends I went to Dresden with. I wrote that sentence purely to confirm that I do have friends as I realise that, despite this being my 5th blog, I have yet to mention the existence of any. They are real, I promise.

pic2

An authentic GDR experience

Well, the plan was go to Dresden, anyway. Unfortunately, we couldn’t actually find any available accommodation in Dresden and ended up booking a youth hostel in a town called Radebeul, a twenty minute train ride away from Dresden.

You thought you understood what I meant by ‘youth hostel’, but you were wrong. In Germany, a youth hostel does not mean the kind of modern, value for money, sociable hub that Hostel World might refer you to. This is the East. The ‘Jugendherberge’ (youth hostel) rather refers to the kind of accommodation school/youth/scout groups would go to for a training weekend away. Consider Germany’s history for a second, and then imagine the type of youth group that might also have stayed in this 60s-esque facility.

Its exterior looked unsettlingly like the care home in Tracy Beaker, whilst the interior resembled an interesting hybrid of a boarding school and a half-way house. Whilst this might sound like I am complaining, on the contrary, I was thrilled to be experiencing an authentic GDR experience; there was no heating or hot water on the first night, there was one toilet to share between us and our corridor of school children and we were told off (twice) for arriving late to breakfast.

jugendherberge

Pulling Capital of Europe

Yet our big ‘Brits abroad weekender’ certainly didn’t disappoint. I arrived a bit earlier than the others to get there before check-in closed (20:00) and, having espied several young people, assured them that Radebeul was the “pulling capital of Europe” over the phone. Whilst they assumed I was being ironic, just as they arrived, we were approached by three guys of our age. Well, one guy (Sasha) looked about our age, the second looked about 12 and the third about 32. Sasha explained that he was here with his football team and seemed a bit confused as to what Dresden tourists were doing in a residential German town. After deeming our holiday to Radebeul to be a ‘coole Story’ (whilst speaking German) he invited us to have drinks with him and his very under-aged and overaged football team, boasting that they had a whole four beers between them. Although the prospect of some German conversation was tempting, we opted to return to our non-heated bunker instead. Sasha and his prepubescent/middle aged friends will forever be the ones that got away.

Happy 21st birthday to Dresden’s cake festival

Prior to this weekend, the only thing I knew about Dresden was that it has the highest concentration of Neo-Nazis in Germany. So when hundreds of people descended on the city’s main square on Saturday, you can imagine my first thought.

Fortunately, rather than incite racial hatred, these people came out in force to celebrate Dresden’s 22nd Stollen Festival. Whilst I’ve been to a number of festival before (music, fringe, literary, Jewish, etc) I have never been to one which chose to exclusively celebrate a specific type of cake. As a mini Stollen bounced off my head and in to my arms, I questioned whether we had in fact chanced upon heaven, rather than Dresden.

As processions of Stollen bakers and marching bands paraded through town, the Dresdeners lined the streets, desperate to catch a glimpse of the tantalising finale: the ‘Riesenstollen’ (giant Stollen). As if awaiting a monarch, we cheered, applauded and waved our flags as she glided past us in all her 1800 Kg glory. Determined not to miss a piece of the action (or cake), we decided to join the parade and soak up the atmosphere from the inside. Ten seconds later, however, we were dragged out the limelight by a raging Dresdener, furious that we had the audacity to walk side by side with these elite bakers.

pic1

I was impressed not only by the size of the Stollen, but also the people of Dresden’s sheer enthusiasm for this rare breed of cake. I couldn’t help but imagine my name in lights as I pictured myself introducing a festival of a similar vein back home. Could this be my future? Rebecca Heitlinger: founder of Great Britain’s regional cake festivities. Then again, if a giant Victoria Sponge was paraded around Finchley Central high street every year, I’m not sure it would have the same charm.

marching band.jpg

The festival culminated in taking the ‘Riesenstollenwagen’ (carriage used to transport the giant cake) to the Striezelmarkt, the most famous Christmas Market in Dresden. After a number of lengthy speeches and an opportunity for the press to pap the 1800 Kg beauty, she was then cut up in to thousands of pieces, ready to be purchased by the insatiable crowds. As €5 seemed a bit steep for a piece of royal Stollen, we bowed out of the mosh pit gracefully and admired the festivities from afar.

In true ‘Brits Abroad’ style, this ‘Stollenfest’ was the closest thing we came to culture on our mini-break; the rest of the time was divided between eating, browsing the Christmas markets, eating, drinking ‘Glühwein’ (mulled wine) and eating.

On leaving Radebeul, I decided that it was a shame that Dresden has been somewhat tainted by its far-right reputation. Mid-reflection, however, I spotted Neo-Nazi graffiti out of the corner of my eye.  On second thoughts, I might hold off on returning for a while.

4: What’s on the syllabus? Public humiliation

Progress has been made. Six days ago, I made a joke. (This was in German- I tend to tell jokes a little more often in English.) I even got a laugh which probably wasn’t even out of pity. I’m going places.

Despite working in a school for over two months now, I’ve realised that I’ve said very little about it. Whilst the differences between English and German schools is a topic familiar to anyone with GCSE German, I’d like to be a little more specific than boring you with details about their lack of school uniform or assembly:

Public humiliation is considered a necessary part of the curriculum

There’s a reason why Germans are so unapologetically ‘direct’ (tactless)- school encourages them to say exactly what’s on their mind. After students give a presentation or simply read out their work, the teacher encourages the rest of the class to offer feedback on their fellow classmates. Whilst peer assessment is also used in English schools, the outcome is markedly different.

“I thought his presentation was not so good. There were many grammatical errors and also the content was very very bad”, one boy remarked about his best friend’s essay. Sugar coating clearly didn’t make it across the channel.

They all give feedback in this way. Enemy, friend or soul mate, whoever your classmate is, if their work is bad then it is your responsibility to let them know, regardless of the consequences it might have on their confidence/self-esteem/integrity. I watched in horror as eleven year olds’ presentations were ripped to shreds. But then it was my turn.

“I was really impressed by the research that went in to your presentation. Aside from a few mistakes with verb endings, it sounded pretty idiomatic”, I lied about a student’s grammatically incoherent presentation, which had almost entirely regurgitated Wikipedia.

Another example of this tendency to publicly shame little children arose when they got their ‘Klausuren’ (class tests) back after half term. The teacher unashamedly read out the children’s marks to the whole class, deliberately pausing after each grade so that the crowd had time to woop, gasp or laugh accordingly. To rub salt in to the wound, the teacher then wrote up each grade on the board (a 1 is equivalent to an A, 2 = B, 3= C, etc) and then wrote the number of pupils who achieved each mark below it.

I think I was the most mortified person in the room, cringing for the poor boy who had got a 5, much to the delight of the rest of his class. In my old school (Habs Girls), teachers usually handed tests back face down so that only you would get a peak of your own mark. In fact, teachers actively discouraged us finding out how we compared to our classmates, constantly emphasising that “only your marks should be of interest to you”. In typical girls school fashion, the only hint of a friend’s mark was discovered through the leading question “are you happy?” which was almost always answered with a “no”, indicating that the girl in question had got below 90%. By contrast, German teachers are required to, at the very least, inform their pupils of how many students achieved each grade. Clearly the German educational authority has no qualms about shattering the British luxury of confidentiality.

 ‘Lunchtime’ is non-existent

When I was at school, our one hour and ten minute lunch break was far more than time merely allocated to eating. It was an opportunity to get involved in extracurricular activities such as play rehearsals, orchestra or netball or, latterly, bitching, meeting up with the boys or poking at your three salad leaves whilst loudly complaining about how fat you are.

My students, by contrast, are not afforded this luxury. Instead, they have either a 15 or 20 minute break between every double lesson to run to the canteen and scoff down three pretzels. Or they can simply wait until the end of the school day (2.30 at the very latest) to have their lunch. This is, of course, entirely in keeping with their obsession with efficiency; why waste valuable lesson time on over-indulgent lunch breaks when the act of eating only actually takes about 15 minutes? Why waste time on digesting food when you could be simultaneously learning?

Extracurricular activities (known as ‘AGs’) and the social aspect of school are instead pushed back to the end of the school day which, somewhat inevitably, compromises the ‘community feel’ of the school. The lack of school uniform, assembly and long school days all further downplay the role of German schools as forms of communities; they seem to be there more to provide a service (education) than to give students a sense of belonging to something. This may, however, be characteristic of a ‘city school’, rather than a German one.

Wandertag

Every term, usually in a month in which they don’t have any school holidays, the students are treated to a ‘Wandertag’. This is translated as a ‘field day’, although we don’t really have that in England, but it’s basically a day allocated to school trips. In my school, school trips involved five minutes in a museum and four hours in a café, with the visit to the gift shop comprising the highlight of the day.

Rather than pretending that twelve year olds are cultured, German pupils are allowed to choose what they would like to do on their ‘Wandertag’. ‘Wandertag’ is therefore a tacit acknowledgement that school is boring and that, at least once a month, students should be allocated a day to do something non educational (fun) on a weekday.

My year 9 class opted for bowling and I was privileged enough to be allowed to accompany them. This mostly involved them trying to avoid the English girl who keeps lying about how good their language skills are, although I did have the occasional nice conversation. I learned, for example, that the coolest, laddiest, wife-beater wearing boy in the class is actually a Latin and ballroom dancing champion and is in the top 10 in Germany for his age. Never judge a book by its cover.

A lesson which I should perhaps extend to my initial judgement of German schools. Whilst I arrogantly mock the differences between English and German schools and accuse their system of being weird, the more time I spend there, the more I begin to question the traditions and practices of English schools. Why do we treat our grades as private property when, in the real world, success is a relational measure?  Why do we insist on always framing feedback positively when honesty is the only way in which students can accurately gauge their progress? Why do we vaguely model a school day on a 9-5 working day when children focus better before lunch time? Why do we insist on exclusively educational school trips when pupils will always treat it as a glorified ‘day-off’, regardless of the activity?

After all, assimilation is a process of realising that the people you once mocked for their ‘otherness’ might be getting it right, and maybe it’s you who’s the wierdo.

3: A 20% version of myself

Every time I speak in German, I can’t help but imagine how I would sound if the sense was replicated in English. I have come to the conclusion that I come across as a shy, nervous girl with severe social difficulties. At best, I retain 20% of my personality in German, whilst the other 80% remains a horrible combination of text book vocabulary, set phrases, stuttering and over exaggerated facial expressions. Therefore the only possibility of me making any real German friends is if they too have severe social difficulties. Then again, I can’t really afford to be fussy.

Whilst British Council/Expat friends can all relate to this struggle (which is lucky because without them I’d spend the year interacting as a 20% version of myself) it’s difficult to articulate the problem to friends back home over skype or facebook. So I’d like to give a few examples of things I’ve wanted to say on an average day of my year abroad and then suggest how they actually came across.

Conversations with Germans of my age

What I wanted to say:

I’m off to Paris on Thursday to see some friends who are also their year abroad.

How it actually came across:

I have to visit my boyfriend in Paris on Thursday who also participate on a year abroad.

What I wanted to say:

Ah! My finger’s bleeding.

How it actually came across:

Alas! The finger bleeds away.

What I wanted to say:

Sounds really cool! Looking forward to it.

How it actually came across:

Sounds completely horny! I am looking forward to this occasion.

In the staff room:

What I wanted to say:

I am actually a language assistant, not a student.

How it actually came across:

On the contrary! I am the new English foreign language assistant from England rather than a pupil on this school.

What I wanted to say:

I didn’t understand a single word in the sentence you just said.

How it actually came across:

I am in complete agreement!

What I wanted to say:

Hi! Nice to meet you.

How it actually came across:

Hello. It pleases me.

Conversations with my students:

What I wanted to say:

I find that Germans sometimes struggle with small talk.

How it actually came across:

It cannot be denied that the German population has many difficulties with small conversation, although this is of course a generalisation which is not always true. But mostly, yes it is true.

What I wanted to say:

Have a good weekend and thanks for your hard work!

How it actually came across:

I wish a good weekend on all of you and thank you for your hard labour.

In a museum:

What I wanted to say:

Can I get a concessions rate- I’m a student?

How it actually came across:

Would it not be possible to receive a student ticket which I am of course able to prove with an ID?

At the bank:

What I wanted to say:

Can I set up online banking myself?

How it actually came across:

Would it not be possible to introduce online banking alone?

In a restaurant:

What I wanted to say:

Can we order desserts, please?

How it actually came across:

Can we order bedside tables, please?

In conversation with my mentor teacher:

What I wanted to say:

When should I give this presentation? How’s Friday?

How it actually came across:

When shall I perform this presentation? I am happily able to teach it on Friday. If that is inconvenient, I could alternatively happily perform it next Monday. The vote is yours.

What I wanted to say:

I think the students’ English is actually really impressive for their age.

How it actually came across:

In my opinion, their linguistic capabilities are much more influential than mine were when I was your age.

What I wanted to say:

How old are they?

How it actually came across: (this one was particularly awful)

How old are you?

I should probably mention that this is a selected highlights of my experiences so far and didn’t all happen in one day- I doubt I would ever speak German again if that were the case.

As you may well be able to tell, when I speak in German I adopt this bizarre mentality that any monosyllabic/short response is insufficient, even if I would definitely speak that way in English. Instead, I opt for a lengthy, rather superfluous sentences where my opinion is unnecessarily offered and justified. My tone is also far too formal and my language incongruously elevated for breakfast table chat/staff room pleasantries. As I’ve spent a significant proportion of my degree studying Middle High German literature, I sometimes even use words (i.e alas) that haven’t been uttered in Germany for a good 500 years. School/university drills in to you that casual conversation or simplistic responses are for “candidates who tend to attract the lower marks”. In reality, it’s for people with a shot at a social life in Germany.

As this is technically my year abroad blog (which has just essentially descended in to me relaying a series of misfortunes) I should briefly mention what I’ve been up to over the past few weeks. I have moved in to a new flat until Christmas with two lovely flatmates and I have finally got my grubby hands on an Anmeldungsbestӓtigung!!! This involved me turning up an hour before the office opened only to once again be told that the next available appointment wasn’t until the end of December. However, this turned out to be a big lie as, after explaining that I’d been queuing for over an hour and threatening her with an ambiguous “I might kill myself” glance of desperation, she took pity on me and gave me an appointment for an hour’s time. I basically experienced reverse Schadenfreude. My parents also came to visit because they were missing me terribly (wanted an excuse to go to Berlin). Therefore, aside from my social incompetence, it’s been a great few weeks, especially as I’m now on half term for two weeks.

In time, I hope that these creases will iron out as I get more language practice and leave Oxford’s exclusive curriculum of ‘academic German’ behind me, at least for the next year. It does worry me that, rather than normalising my German, I might just adopt these weird linguistic quirks in English. On the contrary, I am most certainly of the opinion that it might not be possible because, self-evidently, English will forever my mother language stay.

2: Bex vs Bureaucracy

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If my year abroad were a tv series, this week’s episode would begin with a montage of various German bureaucrats shouting ‘nein’ at me. I wouldn’t mind these rejections if they offered the possibility of a lengthy German conversation, perhaps even the opportunity to utilise my set rhetorical phrases (“on the other side of the coin…it simply cannot be denied that..”) in a debate over the necessity of bureaucracy. However, these personnel are only capable of speaking monosyllables and I was denied the right to both conversation practice and to register in Berlin.

Just to recap from my previous blog, without attaining this ‘Anmeldungsbestӓtigung’ (confirmation of registration), I can’t open a bank account, get paid, get any kind of membership to anything, sleep at night, etc. So this week’s mission was to get hold of this piece of paper at any cost. Germans, obstinacy, putting up walls to deter outsiders. I think I’m getting déjà vu.

On the 29th September, between the precious hours of 16:00 and 17:30, I had reason to believe that I would finally get my hands on this piece of paper. Here are the events that were to follow:

16:00: After refreshing the appointments page for 3 hours in the hope of a cancellation, a miracle happens. An appointment for 16:50 appears on my screen and I immediately book on.

16:01-16:05: I dance around my room in elation.

16:05: I realise that my appointment is in 45 minutes- it takes about 50 minutes to get there. I run out the flat.

16:05-16:50: Whilst travelling to my appointment, it dawns on me that I am about to have an appointment with not only Germans, the most punctual people in the world, but German bureaucrats, the very ambassadors of this people. And I’m about to be late.

16:50-17:00: I jog out of the Ubahn station, Yorckstraße. I am now certain that I am going to be late. Have I blown my one chance of getting an appointment, which would get me an Anmeldungsbestӓtigung, which would get me a bank account, which would allow me to receive my salary? My jog turns in to a sprint.

17:00: I realise that I’ve been sprinting the wrong way down Yorckstraße. I am already 10 minutes late. Determined this is not the end, I turn around and run in the opposite direction.

17:10: Drenched in sweat, I finally arrive at the Bürgeramt (translation: hell). I explain why I am late in an ambiguous mix of German and wheezing. She offers one word in response, “vorbei” (“over”). As I start to well up, she mumbles to go to the third floor and points to the stairs.

17:12: Whilst catching my breath at the top of the third flight, I catch sight of the lift.

17:13: I apologise profusely at the registration desk and beg to still be seen. She types in my details on the computer, before announcing that my appointment never existed. I show her my email confirmation. She checks again. It still doesn’t exist. She accuses me of appointment fraud.

17:15: She eventually concedes that it’s more likely that there’s been a mix up than that I’ve forged an appointment and, in any case, if I were so desperate that the latter were true then I deserve an appointment anyway. She gives me a ticket with a number on it, but I feel like I’ve won the lottery already.

17:26: My number is called and I go in for my appointment. Fingers trembling, I hand over my passport and rental contract.

17:27: The longest minute of my life.

17:28: Like Rose afloat on the wardrobe before she loses Jack to the ocean, the woman tells me that I am ineligible to register. As I am currently living in student accommodation, I am not allowed to register without the permission of the ‘Studentenwohnheim’.

17:29: She gives me a form to be signed by the Studentenwohnheim, which then needs to be returned to the Bügeramt so that I can register, so that I can then get a bank account, so that I can get paid.

17:30: I explain that without this piece of paper I won’t receive my salary and will therefore starve (accidentally omitting the back-up plans of my Erasmus grant, student loan and middle class parents) yet she shows no mercy. I leave empty handed.

I’m now back to square one, but sweatier and more disillusioned.

I should probably clarify that the past few weeks hasn’t been all fear and misery but, as my dear old friend Bertolt Brecht will tell you, tragedy is a better read.

There have been lots of highlights: Oxford friends (Harriet, Tamanna and Alex) coming to visit, being told off by the deputy head for not being in class, receiving an apology from the deputy head for mistaking me for a student, going out in Berlin, teaching a few classes by myself, shutting children out the staffroom who are waiting for teachers, fun in the sun, etc.

I even went swimming today as I realised I hadn’t exercised since the Anmeldung saga, and even that was accidental. Going to a public swimming pool in Germany is a completely different experience to going to one in England. Now that I am over the age of 10, I would only really go to one in England if I were seeking a verruca or an STD. In Germany, by contrast, they are more like Roman baths than swimming pools, kitted out with jaccuzis, saunas and even a waterslide (without a trace of urine.) They can’t be too bad a people.

The problem, however, remains; I am still without an Anmeldungsbestӓtigung and, with a 6-8 week waiting list, God knows how I am going to get another appointment. I’ll probably have to forge one.

1: “Frau Heitlinger, did your husband and kids come to Berlin with you?”

I expect my blog will average a readership of three: my mum, my dad and a third miscellaneous relative who clicked on this link accidentally. Welcome all.

Auf wiedersehen

I should probably pretend that someone is going to read this who doesn’t know me and explain who I am and what I am doing this year. As a third year German student, I am lucky enough to have a year abroad in Berlin, in which I will be working as a ‘Fremdsprachassistentin’ in a school in Steglitz. Remember the cool, exotic language assistants at school? That’s me. This year’s going to be a piece of Kuchen.

Except I don’t know anybody in Berlin, my paralysing Britishness seems to repel assimilation with ‘the German way’ and I look the same age as my students. Still, my situation is not the Wurst.

Let’s face the problems head on:

  1. I don’t know anybody in Berlin

It’s kind of like Freshers week all over again, except everyone is dispersed over a city (rather than an accommodation block), speaks a different language and is not necessarily interested in befriending a 20 year old English girl. Fortunately, I was able to get to know the other language assistants in my ‘Bundesland’ (Berlin) at the assistantship induction in ‘Maria Von Der Aue’, a picturesque hotel in the middle of nowhere. In these three days, we prepared mock lessons and later delivered them, or imitated cheeky German school children when it was somebody else’s turn to teach. So, thankfully, I now have some friends, but am going to have to somehow seek out friends who actually speak the language I am here to absorb.

Therein lies a new problem; I don’t know how to casually converse in German. The Oxford German curriculum puts little (no) emphasis on the art of socialising. If the foundations for friendships were built on debating the disadvantages of nuclear power or the merits of school uniform, I am likely to be a very popular girl indeed. I fear, however, that my ability to discuss nuances in medieval German poetry may not be a one way ticket to a German circle of friends. In short, I can’t talk normally. For example, my teacher was ill on Friday so I wanted to briefly say “hope you’re feeling better” on the Monday. My attempt at that, however, literally translates as “I wish to you a good healing”.

  1. My paralysing Britishness

After spending a mere 10 days in Germany, I can confidently summarise ‘the German way’ with three broad categories: punctuality and reliability, bureaucracy and directness.

If someone says to meet at 9.00, 9.01 is unacceptable. The 5-7 minute buffer period before it is acceptable for a British person to be angry about lateness is non-existent in Germany. No excuse is sufficient for arriving late; traffic, public transport delays or the sudden death of a relative are all factors that you should have considered prior to leaving the house. Similarly, Germans have a horrible habit of meaning what they say. If I don’t like something, I will come up with a lovely monologue of contradictory clauses adorned with ambiguous adjectives to cleverly disguise any trace of my real opinion. Germans are too ‘direct’ (here we really mean rude) a people to bother with any of this. For example, after one teacher introduced me as ‘Frau Heitlinger’ to her class, she paused, turned to me and asked what my mother’s maiden name is. When I replied that it is ‘Karp’, she smiled kindly and responded “Why did you not take that? Frau Karp sounds much nicer.” I would have gone for something along the lines of “You are lucky enough to have the option of a second surname which complements ‘Frau’ even more beautifully”.

Bureaucracy is another must-have for the quintessential German experience. When you move to Berlin, you are legally obligated to ‘anmelden’ (register) your accommodation with the local authorities within 2 weeks of arriving there. Of course the only way of doing this is by making an appointment, all of which are completely booked up across the whole of Berlin for the next six weeks. Only with this piece of paper (‘Anmeldungsbestӓtigung) can you open a bank account, join a gym, get a phone contract or sort out your life in any meaningful way. You can see how such bureaucracy is essentially a barrier to any hope of functioning as a normal human being.

  1. I look the same age as my students

On my first day in school, the teacher took one look at me and said “let’s get the children to guess who you are. It will be funny because they will think you’re a student”. And so, under five minutes in to my first lesson, my fears were confirmed. However, this insecurity was somewhat subverted in a later lesson, when one student asked me, “Frau Heitlinger, did your husband and kids come to Berlin with you?”. I paused, internally smirked and then plainly responded, “no, they didn’t”. Better use this to my advantage.

I feel I should end by assessing this week’s progress with my raison d’être here (pardon my German). I sort of can actually sometimes speak mostly a bit of German-ish. Some days I have produced perfectly executed sentences with verbs all neatly positioned and ordered according to my chosen conjunctions. On other days, there have been conversations where I have been thoroughly incomprehensible. I’ve realised that I can speak German, it’s just that my sentences lack the humour or subtlety that I would have otherwise expressed in English. Maybe I have already assimilated with the ‘German way’ after all…