Monday, February 29, 2016

February Highs and Lows 2016

Usually I start this "Highs and Lows" post early in the month and add to it as the month progresses. Not so this month, in part because I was gone for two weeks teaching beginning German to a group of American exchange students from my home town. Then again that's a totally lame excuse because I had my laptop with me the whole time.

So here we go.


  • continuing to teach my Syrian and Eritrean students. Every day is still an adventure, and they make me want to do my best as a teacher!

  • another weekend trip to Breisach to celebrate the 85th birthday of M's father's cousin's husband.

  • stocking up again on wine from the Kaiserstuhl on aforementioned trip to Breisach.

  • teaching the exchange students in Esslingen. The class went better than I'd hoped - because of the students! They were great, fun, interested, and eager to learn. We spent 1.5 - 2 hours in the classroom, and then we went on walkabout to do some "hands-on" learning: each had to buy part of our picnic at a different store, they bought stamps at the Postamt and pens at a Schreibwarengeschäft, we stopped at a Blumenladen and strolled through a Friedhof, we went to an acquaintance's home for Kaffee und Brezeln, I gave them a "secrets of Esslingen" tour, they bought S-Bahn tickets from a DB Automat and we took the train to Plochingen to see the town and visit the Hundertwasserhaus, and they competed in a Schnitzeljagd (scavenger hunt) by asking strangers for help finding various buildings and spots in Esslingen based on the "Esslingen Memo" game pieces they carried with them.

    The photos below are posted with permission!
buying Wurst for our Picknick

after their Schnitzeljagd

This plaque shows all of Esslingen's Partnerstädte, and they all have
a foot on Sheboygan - their Heimatstadt!

buying Briefmarken from the Automat at the Postamt

posing with mannequin heads wearing hats

"Here! Let us help you!"

Hundertwasserhaus, Plochingen
  • afternoon catnaps during the 2 weeks in Esslingen (since January I've been teaching during nap time!)


  • hearing that things didn't go too well in the DaF class while I was gone. I'm not sure exactly what happened, but we just began again this afternoon and will push on to the end of the class. We only have one more month!

  • this teacher fail: I was a Schwarzfahrer! I don't use individual S-Bahn tickets often enough, and I forgot that they need to be stamped in a machine on the platform - there's no machine in the S-Bahn! The kids were on a group ticket and had theirs stamped on the bus we took to the Bahnhof. But I had an individual ticket and forgot to validate it!
    I squeezed a "teachable moment" out of it by telling them what to do if that ever happens to them and a conductor comes onto the train: Go up to him right away and tell him you think you made a mistake. Being proactive might get you off the hook, though I don't know.    Shame on me!!
    • Smiling because they are not Schwarzfahrer, unlike their teacher!
  • returning to my "Englisch-AG" today after a mutli-week absence and being reminded why I was glad to leave the teaching profession. The kids are all nice as individuals, and there are only eight 8th and 9th grade students in the class, but their behavior together as a group is annoying as hell. I had multiple flashbacks to what it was like teaching in Wisconsin - two boys who can't stop touching each other, two girls who are playing keep-away with another's pen, one whining about being cold, two laughing at every answer other students gave, one telling me (after I told him he's welcome to leave and return to his regular class if he doesn't want to listen and learn) "I'm forced to be here. My dad is making me learn English." and so on and so forth.

    I have been spoiled with my four Americans and my Syrian and Eritrean students. They are there because they need and want to learn German, and therefore behavior and "classroom management" are not issues. I feel like a good (and the luckiest!) teacher when I'm teaching them. Today at the AG I wondered why on earth I'm bothering continuing to show up there twice a week. There are two answers to that:
        1. because I said I would.
        2. because there are two kids in that class who are well-behaved and want to learn.

Other Fun Moments

  • being called "hypercritical" on another blogger's comment section. This was fun because I think the person meant "hypocritical". He was commenting on holidays in Germany - for instance All Saints' Day - which is a federal holiday here. He said anyone who takes that day off but doesn't go to church is "hypercritical". I tried to explain that everything is closed on such holidays, but he still insisted it's hypercritical to not attend church if you're not at work. Of course, going to work on such a holiday would amount to breaking and entering, since all stores and businesses are, in fact, closed for business, and most of us don't have a key.

    I also got to use a great line from The Princess Bride: "This word...I do not think it means what you think it means."

    The irony is that I probably am hypercritical - but in this case not hypocritical.

  • one of my American students explaining why she needs frequent WC breaks: "I have the bladder of a puppy." 
Hey, look at that! A whole "Highs and Lows" post without any mention of food!

I wish you all a good start to March!

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Photography Advice from an AirBnB Newbie

In 2014 when my daughter and I decided to travel to Rome for 5 days, I looked into AirBnB for the first time. I found some totally intriguing places - none of which were perfect - but in the end chickened out and reserved a room in a hotel that was really great for us.

Very recently I started making arrangements for a short trip to München and my trip to visit my daughter in Philadelphia, and both of my travel companions (that is, not M) were willing to try AirBnB. In a rather short time span, I booked a place in München for two nights and a room in a small town in New Jersey for one night. Both places have good reviews and seem to fit our needs, and the hosts responded to my inquiry and questions quickly. I think we'll be in good hands, and I'm looking forward to trying this out.

Even though I'm an AirBnB newbie, I do have some advice for people who are listing apartments or properties on the site and who want to attract rather than repell potential guests. For obvious reasons I'm not putting other people's photos here (except one, source noted) to use as bad examples. The photos were all taken by M or me of various places we've lived. The photos are all based on ones I have seen recently on AirBnB while searching for an accommodation.

1. Photos of the Accommodation

Post photos that are in focus, upright, and show the actual accommodations. A photo of a blurry orange cat and no additional photos of the place or room you are offering....No.  A blurry sideways photo of what might be a bed as your cover photo for the accommodation....No.  I actually exclaimed "OMG" at several that I'd clicked on because the price was right, but the photos sent me screaming and running.

Seriously - I saw a photo like this, except that it was also blurry.
And it was the cover (or main) picture.
Again, not helpful. Get (photography) help.
This is our end table. It's a fine photo if I'm selling it on Ebay,
but not for including in an ad for an accommodation I'm renting.
This is not artistic creativity. It's....weird.
For the love of photographic decency, look at other hosts' photos of their accommodations, and copy the good examples. There are a lot of good examples! If you can't distinguish the good examples from the bad, I wouldn't bother listing your flat or room.

2. Cover Photo of Accommodation

I don't have a property listed on AirBnB and therefore don't know how if the cover photo is randomly chosen or if the host chooses it. I have to believe, because I have seen so many good cover photos, that the host can choose it. After you do so, check out what it looks like from a potential client's point-of-view and change it if necessary.
This isn't the cover photo I would choose for a room in this house, but it does show
that it's a bungalow-style house with a patio and a good-sized yard.
If I did choose that for the cover photo, though, it might come out like this (apparently, according to some I have seen:

not flattering

3. Photo of You as Host

Ask someone who is not a close family member or friend, who might actually give you an honest response, which photo you should use as a profile picture. Or possibly go to a cafe and show your potential profile pic to a stranger. Tell her you're thinking of renting a room from that person, and ask her what she thinks. If you look like a creeper who wants to get into the pants of any guest you might lure, you will frighten people away. If you resemble Golom on your photo, I'm not renting from you.

I adore Sheldon. But I'm not renting a room from him.
I vetoed several accommodations because of this. Sorry, but sometimes people DO judge by appearance, especially in a photo that was chosen by the host.

4. Skip Photos of the City

When I'm searching AirBnB for a flat, I want to see photos of the accommodation, not the city it's in or near. Searching in München and finding a place with photos of Oktoberfest, Nymphenburg, and Marienplatz is wasting my time. If I want to know what Oktoberfest looks like, I'll search for photos of that. And even if I wanted to go to Oktoberfest (which I definitely do not. Ever.), such photos are not helpful if I'm searching for a flat in München in March.

I love this photo M took in Hamburg, but if I'm not advertising one of the visible flats,
it's not helpful for AirBnB.
Five good photos of the accommodation are better than 15 photos of the city.

5. Other Photos I Would Not Include

These are recreations of actual photos I saw while looking at AirBnB accommodations. All photos were taken by M or by me.
Since as a guest I will not be spending much time at this particular location,
it's not a helpful photo for your ad. "The room is on the second floor" is sufficient.
I will assume there are stairs to get there.

This is a window. I'm not sure what the point would be,
because it doesn't even show much of the view (which isn't nice anyway).

This is not a photo of the accommodation; this is a cat.
Unless you require your guest to care for the cat, it's not helpful.
Not even if you really love your cat.

Local amorous wildlife in the yard. Why?

Nice bonsai plant. What does this photo tell me about the accommodation?
Nothing except that the photographer (I) doesn't know how to set up a good photo
of a bonsai plant with a bright white background.
Even if s/he did, are you renting to me a room, or a bonsai plant?

I'm sorry for sounding so critical, but when potential renters have to base their decision on your written description and the photos you personally chose for your ad, you want them to be the best possible. For me, it says something less than positive about the owner if the photos are crappy or not helpful. If I look at an ad in which there are few photos of the rooms I'll be renting but several of the grass outside (with or without ducks) or the city, I'm guessing the flat is not flattering in photos. If the owner can't make the flat or rooms look appealing on a few photos, I don't want to stay there.

Perhaps other AirBnB customers are less picky than I am. But if you have listed your place there and haven't had many responses or guests, take a hard look at your photos and see if the problem might be there.

P.S. Our AirBnB experience in München was fine! The host's photos made the apartment look a little nicer than it was, which was to be expected - hotels do that, too. It was a comfortable-enough college kid's flat in a perfectly fine location accessed through a pretty sketchy-looking Hinterhof (courtyard). He didn't include any photos of the Hinterhof, which was a good choice. Although we didn't meet him personally, he patiently and quickly helped us solve two problems by phone (we couldn't figure out how to get the volume on for the TV to watch the news, and we blew the fuse to the entire flat on the first morning and couldn't find the box).

The place my daughter and I are staying in New Jersey later this spring is just for one night, and the host is a young German woman. I settled on that one because of the great photos, one of which showed that the bed is German-style! And unlike the second photo I posted above, hers was nicely in focus...

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Bad Blogger - Teaching Amerikaner

I've hit a blogging slump lately, mainly because I'm somewhat employed. I'm spending my evenings lesson planning and taking care of household business (though not this week; more on that shortly), and mornings fly by for whatever reason.

This week and next week I'm taking a break from teaching my Syrian and Eritrean students, and I'm in Esslingen teaching a 2-week crash course to four American teenagers who are here for a five-month exchange. Since Wisconsin schools have been slashing German programs for the last bunch of years and most American teenagers can't bear to leave their friends and pets for any length of time, long-term exchange programs have been suffering. Esslingen and Sheboygan have been sister cities since 1967, and we had a healthy exchange program between the two cities for several decades. After a number of dry years, we have these four lovely students who have come to Germany with a minimum of German lessons, and when these two weeks are up they'll be attending Gymnasien (high schools) on their own.

It's challenging coming to a foreign country with little understanding of the language, but I think they'll make the most of their opportunity and enjoy their time here.

It was thirty years ago that I was in their shoes! In mid-February 1986 I arrived in Esslingen thinking I was pretty worldly and found out rather quickly that I had a lot to learn. That experience completely changed my life, and I am where I am today because of it.

I'm teaching these students basic conversation, giving them tips on how to handle various situations, introducing them to new words, and giving them lots of homework every night. They're doing very well, and really seem eager to participate and learn.

Side note: I just received an email from one of my Syrian students! I'd given them homework last Friday, to write a few paragraphs about themselves based on the questions we've been practicing and send the "biography" to me via email sometime this week. He did an excellent job on the writing assignment, and it was nice to hear from him! That really made me smile.

Back to my Esslingen class...Each morning we begin at 8:30 and finish at noon. We spend the first half in the classroom, and then we go on walkabout and do something in the town. Yesterday we ambled through town while I taught them all kinds of words for whatever we saw - die Ampel, das Ampelmännchen, die Zebrastreifen, das Tor, das Kaufhaus, die Zigarette (a woman walked passed us smoking, as so many people here do), die Weinberge, der Spiegel, der Stolperstein...  Today we went to a Blumenladen (flower shop) where I told them the importance of bringing a Kleinigkeit (small gift) whenever they are invited somewhere, and then we had a stroll through Esslingen's main Friedhof (cemetery). That may seem a strange thing to do, but cemeteries in Germany are beautiful in months that are not February and March. We saw the section of oldest graves, passed the children's plots, found the Jewish part with Hebrew on the stones as well as a memorial to victims of the holocaust, and we ended at the grave of my host father, who passed away in 2013. I explained to them some of the German customs involving death and cemeteries, and they asked some good questions.

On tomorrow's outing we'll be going to a supermarket, a bakery, a butcher, and a fruit and vegetable store, where each one will buy part of the picnic we'll then eat in the park. On Thursday we're invited to an acquaintance's home where we will practice conversation with a stranger (to them), learn words for setting the table, rooms in an apartment, and furniture and play "I spy".

I will not post photos of my American students without their parents' permission, so I leave you with a few shots of beautiful Esslingen, where they'll live for the next five months.

Ebershaldenfriedhof, photo credit T. Diehl

Ebershaldenfriedhof, photo credit T. Diehl

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

That One Book

If you are a reader, you probably know the experience of coming across a book that changes you. A book that never leaves you again, and one you are pretty sure you would grab off your shelf if you had to flee your home in a hurry. As long as you can read those words, at least something in the world is still ok.

That book, for me, is the Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran.

I first heard of the writer's name when looking through books of quotations while making a gift for a friend of mine - a decorated book of quotes, poems, and excerpts that reminded me of her - and I came to Gibran's passage about children from the Prophet. I found it deep and profound, and I included it in the collection.

The next time I visited her in Germany, I gave her the hand-made book. That very evening I was astonished to see a copy of Gibran's book lying on her sideboard. What a coincidence! I asked her about it, and she said she'd been looking for a quote the other day and just hadn't put it away. When I left a few days later to return to the U.S., she gave me the book - and I still have it, of course (along with three other editions, including the  German translation!).

Sitting at the gate in Stuttgart, I pulled it out and started reading from the beginning.

The Prophet is about a traveler who had been marooned in a foreign land for 12 years, and at the opening of the story he finally sees a ship from his homeland approaching. Filled with unbounding joy, he runs toward town but then realizes he'll be sad to leave this place.

"Too many fragments of my spirit have I scattered in these streets...
  I cannot withdraw from them without a burden and an ache."

The traveler and narrator, Almustafa, describes perfectly the mixed emotions of leaving a place where you have left (or found!) part of your soul and returning home where you need to be, and every word seemed to pierce straight through my heart.

"It is not a garment I cast off this day, but a skin I tear off with my own hands. 
Yet I cannot tarry longer."

The time to return had come.

Needing and wanting to return, yet longing to stay. A lump started growing in my throat.

You see, my kids were "back home," and of course I was looking forward to returning to them. I'd never lived anywhere other than Wisconsin, and it was home. But ever since my days as an exchange student in Esslingen, I knew a part of me belonged here in Germany.

Throughout the rest of the book the people Almustafa had been living among gather and ask him to share his life's wisdom with them before he departs. They ask him about love, marriage, giving, food & drink, freedom, friendship, silence, and many more elements of human life. His words were a truth I'd never heard before but always somehow knew.

"These things he said in words, But much in his heart remained unsaid. 
For he himself could not speak his deeper secret."

And from that point on, I was a mess.

"Think not you can direct the course of love, 
for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course."

"Much of your pain is self-chosen." Yes, it was.  "Your ears thirst for the sound of your heart's knowledge."  Yes they did. "You have given me my deeper thirsting after life." Yes, you had.

"When you part from your friend, you grieve not; For that which you love most in him may be clearer from a distance, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain."

I was leaving my friend and this wonderful place, and returning to my responsibilities. It felt in some ways like my soul was being torn in two. Of course I was going home to my children, and gladly so. But I also needed to return to this place.

And so I have.

I have the best of both worlds now. My children are young adults, settled (more or less - in college and grad school with goals for the future), and happy. We visit each other when we can.

And my soul is content and at peace. I think I fared better than Almustafa. I don't believe he ever returned to the City of Orphalese.

This book is the one by which I judge all others.

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

Incidentally, my friend in the above story is now my Schwiegermutter.

A student of mine from a decade ago knew this was my favorite book, and she painted this for me. It hangs in our home.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Just Another Dirty Thursday

I could have saved my "Here we go again" title for today. It's Schmotziger Donnerstag, or, as I like to call it, "Dirty Thursday". Die Narren sind los - The nuts are loose.

This is the height of Fasching/Fasnet/Fastnacht/Karnival - there are many names for this madness, and I'm sure it's a lot of fun if you're into it.

I thought I should let my students know a little bit about what goes on around here today, on the weekend, and early next week, so I wrote up a "reading comprehension exercise" explaining it roughly - enough so they won't wonder when, while walking to the Bahnhof or bus stop, they'll see a grown man dressed up like zebra - for instance.

Some costumes have a story and old tradition, like these Blockstrecker in Bildechingen.
Those are the ones I find interesting!
We will not have class on Monday because there's a big Umzug (parade) in Horb, and apparently the Narren (fools) can demand a Wegzoll (passage tax) from people trying to pass through town - €2 or €3 for "safe passage through Horb". I would have a serious problem with that, and I can imagine the Flüchtlinge wouldn't appreciate that either, just for trying to get to school to learn German. So the director said we are closed that day - and the doors are bolted shut.

I ended my explanation of the craziness of the next five days with "Ich bleibe lieber zu Hause und lese ein gutes Buch!" (I prefer to stay at home and read a good book!) Several of my students said they think they'll stay home, too, where they'll feel safer. I did tell them when the parades are in each of the towns where they're living, though, in case they want to check them out.

Umzug in Eutingen
While waiting for the bus after class (there was no way I was parking our car in town today), groups of Narren dressed in all kinds of crazy costumes crossed the strees at will, stopping traffic - including a bus - while they stumbled across to the other side. I was really pleased to see the number of groups who were dropped off by taxi - rather than driving themselves.

One thing I saw yesterday really bothered me. While standing at the crosswalk waiting for the little Ampelmännchen to turn green, I saw a mother (or grandmother) on the other side standing with a boy who was probably about 8 years old - maybe 10. He had a toy pistol and was aiming and shooting it at every car that drove past. When the Ampelmännchen turned green, the boy "shot" at those of us who were crossing the street towards him. The mother never said a word to him - apparently she didn't find anything wrong with a child pointing a gun at people and shooting them. I find that highly inappropriate - even with a toy gun.

I cannot for the life of me figure out why stores in Germany sell toy guns during Fasching, when most Germans agree that guns are not something people (who are not hunters or sport-shooters) should have.

Fasching is just not my thing, but I know people who really enjoy it. I am very interested in the history of it - for instance that it began in pagan times as a crazy celebration to chase away the demons of winter, and that the Catholics took it on as a way to celebrate like maniacs before the somber and repentant weeks of Lent.

Anyway, Feiert schön, und bleibt sauber!  (Enjoy the celebration, and stay clean!)