Sunday, November 24, 2013


This is probably going to be a schmaltzy post, so those of you looking for the mildly amusing me might want to skip this one.  It's November, and to Americans that means Thanksgiving, which in turn means being extra reflective about the people and things for which we're grateful. One of my Facebook friends lists something he's thankful for each day of November, and I love reading those! I think that's what gave me the idea for this post. I have more to be grateful for than I could possibly fit in a blog post of reasonable length, but here it goes.

I first want to mention that there isn't a day that goes by when I do not feel overwhelming gratitude for the life I'm living. That may sound doubtful, but seriously just the act of stepping outside - especially when I simply walk to the office, the bank, or the butcher - is enough to trigger gratitude. I love the smell of the air in our community - evergreen hedges, flowers, wet pavement when it rains, smoke from Kachelofen fires (especially ours, which is burning as I type!), the smells of whatever the neighbors are cooking, and I don't even know what else. It just smells good here.

The town of Horb is beautiful in every season. During the Christmas season the colored houses on the hill are lit at night, in the spring the planters, window boxes, and fields are full of new and colorful life, in summer all the trees are filled out providing a lovely contrast to the blue sky and fluffy clouds, and in the fall the turning leaves on the hills and within the town are breath-taking.

Often while I'm walking I marvel at how blessed I am. Our home, our community, the beautiful town of Horb, our relationship, our families, the time we have to spend together, our relatively good health, the great meals we cook together... I wonder how I got so lucky or what I did to deserve this. I had a great childhood and a darn good first quarter-century of adulthood. I have a husband who loves me, two children who mean the world to me, I've been able to travel internationally alone and with groups of students 27 times, and I had a satisfying career as a high school teacher but was able to "retire" at age 43 when I moved here. Now I'm able to do volunteer work and have the time to enjoy tending our home.

My intent is not to rub it in about how great my life is, but to put out there into the universe my gratitude. There is so much negativity out there - in the news, in war-torn countries, sometimes in our interactions with others, in our moods on an especially bad day - that it's good, healthy, and sometimes therapeutic for us to focus on positive things.  With that in mind...

I am incredibly thankful for...

Martin, without whom the life I just described would not be possible. We understand each other, work well together, and we've been soulmates for a long time. He's a fabulous cook, a safe driver, makes me smile and laugh every day, never gets riled up about problems but just deals with them, encourages but doesn't push me, is incredibly patient with me despite my many faults, and knows a lot about so many things! ("The benefits of a classical education," he says.) I love his accent, his sense of humor, his hugs, and the way he pronounces "vocabulary".  There's so much more to say, but I don't want to embarrass him. :-)

My family in America, who understands me well enough to get why I needed to move to Germany and to accept my decision without making me feel guilty for being so far away. My parents and daughter have visited us, and my son is coming for Christmas and New Year's, enduring the long hours on airplanes and in airports and then enjoying the time together.

My friends in America, especially my bestie, who writes to me often, found out last Christmas how blinking expensive it is to mail a package here, checks in with my parents now and then, provides a bed for my daughter when there's no room at her dad's house, and keeps me posted on the goings-on in Fond du Lac. Her namesake also always makes time for me when I return, even if that means driving to Sheboygan. Facebook, necessary evil that it is, and email help me keep in contact with my friends in the U.S., and I always enjoy reading their updates.

My husband and my bestie hanging out at my family's cottage

My extended family in Germany. This includes my mother-in-law, who is also my dear friend, my host mother and sisters (one of whom lives in Madison!), my sister-in-law and her husband and children, and our former exchange student from Deizisau (near Esslingen) who stayed with us in 2008.

The house that Martin found for us, which fits us perfectly in almost every way. We have plenty of space for the two of us, room for guests, a Wintergarten (sun room), an office so we can keep our laptops out of common areas, a large basement for storage, raspberry bushes, azalias and rhododendron which are so beautiful when they bloom, a 4-minute walk to Martin's office, and best of all...a Kachelofen! It's a home full of love and harmony and the several plants that I've managed to keep alive.

Public transportation in Germany, because I can get anywhere I want to go for a day or a weekend without having to worry about driving or parking, both of which are a huge pain here! I've got plans to visit at least seven different Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets) this season, and I can get to every single one by bus or train.

Christmas market in Nürnberg

...the little things:
     summer rain storms
     Christmas markets
     ice cream
     good movies
...and the not-so-little things:
     fresh German bread
     my family's cottage in northern Wisconsin
     thick winter blankets
     the people I have traveled with and learned so much from over the years
     Zwiebelrostbraten und Bratkartoffeln at Straub's Krone
     the post office (I still love old-fashioned, hand-written letters and cards!)
     sunny days
Perhaps if we all throw our gratitude "out there" into the world, things will get better all around for just a little while.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Big City

Last weekend this small town girl headed off to the Big City to visit my daughter, who is studying in Berlin. I flew to Tegel, where she met me and led me back to her host family's city flat. Although Tegel is Berlin's main airport*, it's small and there is no U-Bahn or S-Bahn that goes there. One has to take a bus to an S-Bahn station and then take a combination of S-Bahns to get to your final destination.

*Granted, Tegel isn't supposed to be Berlin's main airport. The new Berlin Brandenburg airport was supposed to open in June 2012, but due to a huge cluster-flup leading to about 66,500 problems such as escalator treads not reaching fully to both ends of the escalators, the opening has been delayed. No one knows when it can open for business, but optimistic guessers say maybe 2015.

The first time I was in Berlin was in 1986 (pre wall-fall), and the last time was in 1991 (1.5 years after the wall came down). Unsurprisingly, a lot has changed since then, and there was only one brief moment when we were walking in Alexanderplatz when I had a flashback to 1986 and recognized where I was. I remember this from 1991, but it is still a surreal experience to have toured Berlin when the wall was still there (not having any idea that it some day wouldn't divide the city) and now to walk through the Brandenburger Tor and freely around areas like the Museumsinsel and the Nikolaiviertel.

The bricks in the street going left to right in the foreground show where the wall once stood. 

I found Berlin to be mainly just big city - big building after big building, and every now and then an incredible landmark, famous beautiful old (reconstructed) structures, memorials, and one pretty section (the Nikolaiviertel). My daughter reminded me that I came at a terrible time. November is not a pretty, pleasant month, the weather was dismal and gray, and the Christmas markets, which we both love, don't open until next week. However, the time spent with her in this city she has come to love was precious, and I'm so glad I went!

She led me around the city on foot and by S-Bahn, and we saw most of the main attractions.

the Reichstag, where the federal government does its thing

Fernsehturm (Television Tower): we decided not to bother going up it to stare into the fog. ==>

The Nikolaiviertel, designed and built up for Berlin's 750th anniversary in 1987. It has the look of somewhat-old  Berlin, and it's a charming area.
the Berliner Dom and Fernsehturm

Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche, mostly covered by what looks like permanent scaffolding

One of the great things about the big city is that one can find just about every cuisine in the world. We ate Spanish, Turkish, German, Italian, and American food. And no, even though you can't swing a dead cat in Berlin without hitting a McDonald's, that is NOT where we ate. An American woman appears on our noon show ("ARD-Buffet") every now and then who has several cafes in Berlin. We found one very close to Stephanie's flat, had a delicious cappucino and I had a bagel (nearly unheard of in Germany) while Stephanie had a chicken salad sandwich. This cafe (Barcomi's) is in a second Hinterhof (inner courtyard) on Sophienstraße, and I do recommend it!

On at least two occasions, Stephanie was asked by tourists if she could give them directions somewhere. That was fun for me, though one of them freaked me out a bit at first. I have a pretty developed sense of other people's presence around me, and so I noticed a guy following us away from the Brandenburger Tor and across the street. Stephanie was pointing in various directions and telling me where things were, and we took a sharp turn and headed to the monument to Roma & Sinti victims of the holocaust. The guy followed us into that area too, and just as I was about to turn to him with my "Don't think I haven't seen you...Back off, Buster!" expression, he approached Stephanie and said, "You sound like you know what you're talking about. Can you tell me where the Jewish holocaust memorial is?" She pointed him in the right direction while I still kept a wary eye on him, but he did seem to lack the ill intentions I'd assumed he had.

I must admit, I was glad to get back to our quiet little one-horse town* where I know my way around, but there certainly is a lot to see and do in Berlin! I can well imagine Stephanie being glad to get back to bustling Berlin after visiting us during her week-long fall break. My favorite parts of this trip were accompanying Stephanie to the school where she does her practicum helping students with disabilities, watching her confidently navigating the public transportation and steering me around the city, seeing how she studies (photo below), hearing her speak German with her host mom and waiters, and just hanging out with her. I wish she were staying longer, but I love knowing that she will return to Germany as often as she can.

studying in her room
*I learned during our English lesson yesterday that in Spain our little Dorf would be called a "four-cats town"!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Fun with ESL

A few months ago I started teaching an Englisch-AG (basically a twice-a-week after-school ESL [English as a Second Language] class) at a school for students with special needs. I've been enjoying it a lot, although I had thought I was finished with teaching when I left the U.S.. There are ten students in the class - four in 7th grade and six in 6th grade, and they are all sweet. The other day they discovered that I had recently had a birthday, and they each got out of their seats to shake my hand and wish me "Alles Gute". They seem interested, play along with whatever I ask them to do, try hard, and want to learn.

One of the best things about teaching this Englisch-AG over teaching German 1 in the States is that there are NO TESTS! There is also no homework (although I encourage them to practice what we've learned on their own), which means I plan lessons but don't have to grade anything. It's just intended to be fun. This is great for both the students and for me! Naturally, though, a lot of the techniques I used to teach German 1 are useful again teaching elementary English.

In German 1 I always taught the alphabet using the American Sign Language finger alphabet to cue them to the next letter. That keeps everyone together like counting with fingers zero to ten - everyone knows when to say the next number/letter. I have found it challenging to keep to English while signing the alphabet after so many years of combining the signs with the German alphabet! L, M, N, and O are the same in English and German, so it's usually at P that all of a sudden I've switched to German. By now I sign the letters but don't say them unless the students falter.

I have searched online for ESL activities, games, materials, and so on, and of course there's a wealth of great stuff out there. However, every now and then I come across something that makes me stop dead and wonder WHAT ON EARTH WERE THEY THINKING??  Here's an example of a vocabulary review game I found last week:

"Bang Bang"
Divide the class into two teams. Explain that they are cowboys and they are involved in a duel. One student from each team comes to the front. Get them to pretend to draw their pistols. Say "how do you say..." and a word in their mother tongue. The first child to give the correct answer and say "bang bang", pretending to shoot his opponent is the winner. He remains standing and the other one sits down. Give 1 point for the right answer and 5 extra points if they manage to "kill" 4 opponents in a row."

Seriously?? There are so many things wrong with that game that I wouldn't know where to start pointing them out! There are tons of great ways to review vocabulary without pretend guns and killing.  Stereotypes, anyone? Cowboys? Duels? Kill as many as you can? What a great cultural lesson.  By the way, most Germans do not understand Americans' apparent obsession with weapons and citizens' right to bear them. I can only imagine the phone calls to the Schulleiter when these kids play the game at home. "What kind of a game is that?!"  "We learned it in the Englisch-AG!"  Obviously I did not choose that particular method of vocabulary review.

The same site where I found that one offers a game like Balderdash, which is a great game! We played that with my dad's parents when I was young, but we called it "the Dictionary Game", since we only used pens, paper, and an actual dictionary to choose the words. Anyway, the game requires the teacher to choose a word unfamiliar to the students and have them make up definitions. The definitions are collected and students win points for either A. guessing the correct definition, or B. other students voting for the definition they wrote. That's all fine so far. But the teacher who submitted this idea ended with "a good word to start with is 'warmonger'."  WHAT?!?  There are billions of beautiful words in the English language. Why on earth would a teacher begin with 'warmonger'??

Combine those two activities in one lesson, and you'll have students believing what they hear about Americans being gun-happy and wanting to wage war wherever they can. I would hope that most ESL teachers' "Bad Idea Filter" would kick in and they would keep looking for other fun, less violent classroom games (or words).

At the school I also have access to a set of ESL materials with flashcards, storycards, posters, books with lesson ideas, etc.. They are a little juvenile, but the students don't seem to mind and it is SO much better to teach with pictures and the new language rather than translating with German words. So this weekend I'm preparing a lesson on "Family". [I am trying to ignore the fact that this lesson is entitled "Me and my family."  ARG!! DO NOT EVER say "Me and..." and for heaven's sake, don't teach it!!]

In this folder there are a bunch of flashcards without words on the back explaining the intent of the picture. Most of them are self-explanatory:

Aww, what a nice family. Mother, father, sisters, brother, son, daughter, husband, wife... Naturally they and all the other family members on all the cards are white, and apparently middle class and happy. There are cards for several types of families: mother with kids, father with kids, multi-generational...and all pasty white. Ok, fine. The pictures are good enough for the basics, and I can also find other pictures online.

But in leafing through the family flashcards, I came across this photo (no explanation):

I decided to call him Uncle Frank. Every family has one of these, right? I could really expand their vocabulary: 'on the lam', 'manhunt', 'restraining order', 'arrest warrant', 'slammer'... Hey! Then I could review the vocabulary, and instead of shooting each other with their finger pistols, they could shoot at Uncle Frank! The student who gets him between the eyes WINS!

For the record, I AM KIDDING...

One of my favorite methods of vocabulary review is a game I learned from my students in Wisconsin. It's a very simple game, but we have had a lot of laughs over the years while playing it. It's called Around the World. One student stands up next to a seated student. I turn over a card with a picture or a word in the native language, and the students have to quickly say the word in the new language. If the standing student says it first, he moves on to the next seated student to challenge her. If the seated student was faster, she moves on and the student who was standing sits in the newly vacated seat. The student who makes it all the way around to his or her original seat wins. No shooting, no killing, no weapons... I haven't tried this one with my new students, but I will soon. I think they will enjoy it as well.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Fantastic German Words II

One of the greatest parts of second-language study is getting to know new clever words that one never thought of before but make a lot of sense. If you stay with a language long enough, you'll get beyond the basic vocabulary (days of the week, animals, food...) and begin to explore longer, more complicated words that sometimes don't have a translation in your native language. It's especially fun to discover single words that, when translated or explained in your first language, require a string of words rather than just one.

Back in July I posted my first list of fabulous German words that I think should be brought over into English. Today I offer nine more useful, efficient words that deserve mention.

1. Zebrastreifen  (Zebra stripes)
This translates easily into English as "crosswalk". In Germany the signs I've seen in the U.S. (in New Hampshire, for instance) instructing drivers that "pedestrians in the crosswalk have the right of way" are unnecessary. Drivers automatically stop on the approach to the zebra stripes the moment someone steps one foot onto the stripes. Often, at least in our town, they slow down because someone is near the zebra stripes. This piece of road is sacred to pedestrians and respected by drivers, even if they grumble to themselves for having to stop again.

As you can see in the above picture, there are three clear signs screaming at the drivers that they are approaching zebra stripes. In some places, there are also flashing lights.

"Can't we just cross here?"
"No, it's safer at the zebra stripes, and you should be a good example for children."

2. -Muffel   (Grouch)
A -Muffel is someone who doesn't like or willingly participate in the thing attached to the word. A Morgenmuffel is a morning grouch - English speakers would say "She's not a morning person." A Gesundheitsmuffel doesn't care much about healthy living. There's no clever word for that in English, and again we would have to describe a person like that: "He doesn't take care of himself." The only English term that comes close is party pooper (Partymuffel), but that would be awkward for Morgenmuffel - "Morning pooper??" I don't think so.
the mug Martin bought me for my birthday this year
3. Besserwisser  (Better-knower)
The English term, "know-it-all", wouldn't work for Germans because it's inaccurate. No one knows it all, but a coworker might act like he knows more about something than I do. Naturally, it's entirely possible that he does know more than I do.  Still, the better-knower is about as popular here as the know-it-all is in the U.S.. Unless the better-knower has a higher academic degree or title. Then it's easier for a German to accept that the better-knower does know better.
     "My cousin is coming over for dinner next week."
     "Fine, but keep that better-knower out of my kitchen. I can't cook with her staring over my shoulder."

4. Übermorgen  (over-tomorrow or tomorrow extreme)
Americans have started to use the German prefix "über-" to indicate an extreme degree, usually of an adjective. I saw an ad for some brand of toilet paper in a magazine a few years ago, calling the product "über-absorbant". The Germans have one word for "the day after tomorrow". "Morgen" means tomorrow, so "übermorgen" is way tomorrow, or tomorrow extreme. What can be more than tomorrow? The day after!
     "When are you leaving for Hamburg?"
     "Over-tomorrow, if all goes well."

5. Vorgestern  (pre-yesterday)
This is the same concept as "übermorgen", in the other direction. Vorgestern is the day before yesterday in one simple word. We need to appreciate the rare occasions when the German language is actually simpler than English...
     "How long has your wife been in Hamburg?"
     "She left pre-yesterday, and she comes back over-tomorrow."

If you think about it, übermorgen wird heute vorgestern:  Over-tomorrow, today will be pre-yesterday. Wow. That's deep.

6. Fremdschämen  (stranger shame)
If you read part I of "Fantastic German Words," you might remember that there are quite a few interesting German terms connected to shame. This word describes what we feel when we watch someone else make an utter ass of himself. I think the feeling is amplified when the stranger belongs to your Landsleute (countrymen). I'm surprised the term "Landsleuteschämen" hasn't made it into common usage. I felt this during the last election campaign when a program aired on German TV about the Tea Party Express.
     "Each time the chairwoman opened her mouth on camera, I buried my face in stranger-shame."

7. Mitbringsel & Kleinigkeit  (little bring-along & smallness)
When you're invited to someone's home in Germany, you always bring a small gift, flowers, a cake, etc. You can go to a gift or flower shop and ask the salesperson for help by simply saying "I'm looking for a Mitbringsel." That tells her all she needs to know to offer suggestions: perhaps some decorative tea candles, seasonal napkins, or a small bouquet. It doesn't have to be expensive, but it should be thoughtful.
When you arrive at your friend or aquaintance's home, you hand her your Mitbringsel, which by now has become a Kleinigkeit. (If you have brought flowers, take off the paper wrapping before you hand the bouquet to her.) Even if you have brought the most expensive bottle of wine from your cellar, you still call it a Kleinigkeit, since Germans are more prone to understatement than bragging.
     "Hi, Katherine, so good to see you again. Please come in."
     "Thanks, Petra. Here's a smallness I brought for you."

8. Lumpensammler  (tattered rag collector)
A Lumpensammler is an important person-vehicle combination at marathons, bike races, and fundraising walks. It is the van and the driver who follow the route at the very end and pick up and transport to the finish line stragglers, persons with minor injuries or fatigue, and parents with over-tired children who thought they could handle the distance but can't. According to a Lumpensammler is also the "last bus of the night," which in our area drives through shortly after 21:00 (9:00 p.m.). I imagine it's later in the big cities.
     "Ugh...I just can't walk anymore. I'm exhausted!"
     "No worries. The tattered rag collector will be along shortly."

9. doch  (this one word is a positive response to a negative statement, as in "Yes, he is.")
This might well be my favorite German word, and I have long wished there were an English equivalent. Since there isn't, it's best explained through examples.
     "It's not raining yet."
     "Doch." ["You're wrong. It IS raining."]

     "Her brother isn't coming to the party."
     "Doch."  ["You're wrong. He IS coming."]

     "You almost got hit by a car? Then you didn't use the zebra stripes!"
     "Doch!"  ["You're wrong. I DID cross at the zebra stripes!"]

This won't be my last post about the beautiful German language, which gets such a bad wrap for sounding harsh and angry. Yes, the grammar presents a great challenge at times and there are as many dialects as there are counties, but German really is (or at least can be) a lovely language.