Friday, March 31, 2017

March Highs and Lows 2017

I feel like this month was mainly about teaching, and while that's a high because I really do enjoy teaching these students, there's not a great deal else to write about. I think I can muster up a few highs and lows, though, so here we go.


  • having time during the Faschingsferien to meet with a few friends, including a new one. My neglected Sprachpartnerin, Hedda, came here for coffee and we talked nonstop for three hours, I met Asaad, one of my former students, for tea at his apartment to talk about his upcoming visit to Esslingen (see below), and I met three times for several hours with the teacher who took over my class for two weeks while I sojourned in Esslingen teaching this year's Sheboygan exchange students before they started school at the Gymnasium.

  • spending an evening with our neighbors, who, to thank us for a very small favor we did for them while they were in Austria, brought us Bergkäse straight from the Alm (mountain farm) which was absolutely to die for. Although M and I are not the most social of people, we are very glad we have gotten to know our neighbors.

  • teaching the exchange students from my home town who are spending five months in Esslingen. I'd done this last year as well and enjoyed the experience, and I didn't know if it would be as fun and rewarding as it was last year. It was! These are great students, very interested and interesting, and I was glad to have the chance to get to know them. We learned in the classroom for about 90 minutes each morning, and then we went into town for some hands-on learning. They were tasked with buying bus and train tickets and stamps, shopping for picnic food at a fruit and vegetable store, a supermarket, a butcher, and a bakery, finding various buildings around town during a Schnitzeljagd (scavenger hunt), and learning some history specific to Esslingen.

  • on one of our last days I had invited two of my former students from Syria and a friend of theirs to meet us in Esslingen for an interview of sorts with the American students. Everyone enjoyed the activity, based on the feedback they gave me, and one of the American students wrote a blogpost about it.

  • After the American students headed home, I showed my Syrian friends around Esslingen. I told them stories - the kind tour guides tell - and showed them pretty views of the city. I told them about Maultaschen and the Devil's visit to Esslingen, showed them the Stadtkirche, explained some history of the Reformation in Esslingen, showed them a Stolperstein... If they enjoyed the afternoon half as much as I did, it was a good day!
  • meeting meine liebe Gastmutter for lunch and a long chat in Esslingen. 

  • spending two weeks (minus the weekend in between) with my Schwiegermutter, since I stayed with her while teaching the Americans.

  • receiving an email just last night from my first best friend, whom I haven't seen in years though we've kept in contact via snail mail, with details of her and her husband's September trip to southwestern Germany! They'll be able to stay with us for a weekend and explore the area before her husband attends a conference in Freiburg.


  • current events from the homeland. I hate to say it, but batshit crazy really is becoming the new normal. I recently recalled how ridiculous I thought it was that the potus and Sean Spicer both either a.) don't understand verb tenses in English, or b.) are unaware that Frederick Douglass is deceased and has been since 1895. The insanity of almost every day since then makes that detail seem almost cute.

    The potus and his team are openly targeting the environment, the sick and needy, the elderly who are not wealthy, kids in need of free/reduced school lunches, the LBGTQ community, all media that isn't Fox or Breitbart, Planned Parenthood & women's health, Muslims, individuals and travelers from predominantly Muslim countries, struggling college students especially freshmen, (illegal) immigrants... They are turning the U.S. into a very ugly place, in my view.

  • ending my latest Integrationskurs two days ago. Of course it's nice to be able to sleep in longer and have more free time - to get our house back in order! But at the same time I really enjoy teaching and like my students very much. Truly, every single one of them. Some are more advanced and more motivated (and punctual) than others, but every one of them has a pleasant personality, do whatever it is I have planned on any given day, and seem to appreciate my efforts. Each of them has made me smile, and they were the reason I went to school every day with a positive attitude. Ever since I started teaching more than a year ago, there has never been a day when I headed off to school wishing I could have stayed home. I can't say that about my years of teaching teenagers in Wisconsin.

  • losing a friend (and I do not use that term lightly), having no idea why. I'm quite sorry about it, because I truly enjoyed this person's company and interaction. 

Some cool things are coming up in April and May, and since I'm not actively teaching - my next Integrationskurs will probably begin at the end of June - I may have more time for blogging! Spring is here, and my goal in the next few weeks is to get outside more!

Have a great April!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Then & Now: Exchange Programs

When I was 17 and in 11th grade, I left home for six months to participate in an international exchange program. The exchange was between my hometown (Sheboygan, Wisconsin) and its sister city (Esslingen, Germany) and organized through People to People International. The program was designed so that students from Esslingen came to Sheboygan in July for six months and returned home for Christmas, and in February the Sheboygan students flew to Esslingen for six months. The foreign students attended school and lived with their partner's family in a homestay arrangement.

In June of this year the two cities will celebrate their Golden Anniversary - 50 years of partnership. The exchange began three years later, in 1970. For the next 32 years the exchange program flourished with students on both sides of the ocean. Not every exchange was perfect, but all-in-all there was great success throughout the years. Since then there were years here and there where no students applied from Sheboygan, so the program floundered a bit.

Recently some life was breathed back into the exchange, and now that I'm living here I'm involved in the program from an organizer assistant's standpoint. Namely, I spend two weeks in Esslingen near the beginning of the Americans' stay to help them boost their German skills before they head off to the Gymnasium. I also am one of the chaperones who take them on a 3-day trip to Berlin and remain a contact for them in case things go wrong.

Sheboygan & Esslingen: Partners since 1967
Credit: M
Since I was recently in Esslingen with this year's group of three, the idea came to me to write a "Then & Now" post about the exchange experience. Much has changed in those 31 years.


I haven't seen this year's students take many photos yet, but I suspect they are using their smart phones. I use my digital camera, and I can transfer them to my laptop and upload them to our Facebook group the same day. The parents in Sheboygan can see photos of their kids the same day they were taken.

In 1986 I not only used a film camera, but I took mostly slides. In order to look at my pictures from back then, I need to find a slide projector and a big screen or an empty white wall. In order to see my pictures or slides while on the exchange, I had to first take 24 pictures without being able to see whether they were any good or not, bring my used film rolls to a camera shop, wait three days for the developing, and pay (I don't remember how much - 20 Marks?). Only then could I see if the photos had turned out or were blurry.


When the kids choose to (and apparently they don't choose to often enough to suit their parents), they can send a short message over Facebook or other social media, or send an email to their parents, either of which the parents will receive the minute they wake up. We have a Facebook group where students, host parents, and parents can post messages or photos, and I imagine they all send SMS (text messages) with their fancy smart phones.

Back in my day...(you know you're getting old when you start saying that!) I wrote letters to my friends and family and mailed them. There was no internet, no Skype, phoning was too expensive, and there were no mobile phones. My letters and postcards took 5-7 days to get to Wisconsin, and if the recipient wrote back immediately, I would get a reply 6-8 days later. So we're talking two weeks between "How are you doing?!" and "Fine thanks, how are YOU?!" By the time I received a reply, I'd forgotten what I'd written!
To give them a sense of "what it was like in my day,"
I had them write postcards to mail home to Sheboygan.
I asked my host parents if I could call my best friend on her birthday, which of course they let me do. I don't know how long we talked, but afterwards I told my host mom to tell me what I owe her when the bill comes. She just quietly said, "That's ok. You wouldn't be able to afford that." Yikes!  I also got a call one morning from home. My parents called to tell me that the U.S. had bombed Libya during the night, and I should know that before being confronted by it in school. I didn't even know where the hell Libya was back then.


In 1986 my group (seven of us from Sheboygan) traveled with our chaperone to Berlin for five days. Berlin was still divided then, and there was no indication that it would ever be otherwise. One day we went over to East Berlin - through the underground checkpoint at Friedrichsstraße - had to change 25 German Marks for 25 nearly worthless East German Marks, and were warned that we needed to get the hell out before midnight if we didn't want to have problems at the border.  Another day we peeked over the barricade at the Brandenburger Tor and walked along the graffiti-covered Berliner Mauer to one of several outlook platforms. We went to the Museum at Checkpoint Charlie which focused on escape attempts and successes, we attended an evening operetta, and we spent a sunny afternoon at the Wannsee, where the lads among us ventured into the FKK section - where they were easily pegged as the Americans because they were the only ones with "a white zone".

Last year I accompanied the same chaperone (who is now my Schwiegermutter) as her assistant with the group of four Americans. The wall is gone though there's a trail through the city that shows where it was, we could walk right through the Brandenburger Tor, the hub of the city is now in what was East Berlin, and the Ku'Damm, where we had stayed in 1986 and again last year, is nearly dead (compared to the bustling Western central it was in 1986). We roamed freely around the city making use of the underground, which was only functioning in the West back in my day. In order to give the students an idea of what life in Berlin was like with the wall, we visited the Asisi Panorama as well as Bernauerstraße, where there is a viewing platform over a reconstruction of the wall, the barbed wire, the mine field on the east side and a guard tower.

We also visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which opened to the public in 2005.


When I was in high school, it was still common for Americans to learn a foreign language. I remember a decent enrollment in my German classes, and all four Sheboygan high schools - North, South, Lutheran and Christian High - offered German. It made (and would still make) sense because there are many families with German roots in Wisconsin. I didn't knock anyone's socks off with my expert German-speaking skills, but at least I had the opportunity to learn it for several years before coming to Esslingen.

Nowadays due to budget cuts, foreign languages other than Spanish are a rarity in Wisconsin schools. I know of one German teacher who teaches in both public high schools, but both private schools have cut German. Last year's group of Sheboygan students had had virtually no German before the exchange, so our classroom lessons consisted mainly of learning basic conversation. This year all three have had some German (between several months of an online course and three years in the classroom), so we were able to do some grammar as well as conversation and vocabulary building.

It frustrates me no end that world languages get cut so easily and quickly in American schools. Sure, they are electives, but if we want to be part of a global society, we need to learn more about other languages and cultures, not less. 


In the year I applied for the exchange there were fourteen applicants from local German classes who wanted to spend six months in Esslingen! Seven of us were chosen, and we had a great time together. I don't think there were ever that many applicants again, but back in those days there were surely more than there have been recently. As I said, since 2002 there have been several years when no one at all applied from Sheboygan, and in the years when there have been applicants, there have been usually just two or three. 

There are always applicants in Esslingen - part of the education program in German Gymnasien (college-track high schools) focuses on world languages and opportunities to travel to France, Greece, England, Spain, Italy... even in the younger grades as class trips. But for most students in the U.S. it seems friends and sports are more important than exploring the world independently. Of course, the flight overseas is not cheap, and that presents another huge obstacle. One of the current students mentioned college preparations and the ACT test as a reason students don't want to miss half of their 11th grade, and that's surely a weighty reason. It's possible to get around that, though, as one of the other students - an 11th grader - is proving. Where there's a will, there's a way.


The final big "then & now" difference that has occurred to me is the way students have kept record of their time abroad. I kept a hand-written journal, which I still have on my bookshelf and consider an important possession. Every now and then I pull it out to read what I was doing this day 31 years ago. There are many events and incidents I would have forgotten about had I not written that journal.

Today students can keep an online journal - a blog! - as one of ours is doing. It's a great way to combine journaling and communicating with friends and family back home, killing two flies with one swat, as the Germans say ("zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen"). 

I am really proud of the exchange students we have had since I got involved with the program, who have broken out of their comfort zones and ventured to a foreign country where the local language is not their own. I would like to see exchange programs - especially the Sheboygan-Esslingen exchange - flourish again in the coming years as they once did. Students all around the world want to travel to the U.S., and I would like to see more young Americans get out and experience the world as more than tourists.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Things that Kill Americans but not Germans, and vice versa

This post is probably long overdue. Perhaps it will be helpful for Americans visiting Germany as exchange students or guests in homestays. I know there have been plenty of times during past visits to Germany that I saw something shocking to my American brain which I just couldn't understand. There are bound to be things I regularly do that seems strange - or even risky - to Germans.

I'll start with the things that are potentially Lebensgefährlich (life-threatening) to Americans.

Leaving cooked food on the stove overnight

After we've finished our meal and I've cleaned up the kitchen, we often leave the leftovers in their pot on the stove. We have more than once forgotten the leftover Schnitzel in the oven until the next morning. The heat is not on - the food just rests at room temperature, which is admittedly probably cooler than in most American kitchens. The first time M did this, it was the leftover fondue soup with pieces of tenderloin that had escaped from our forks during the meal. OMG!!! Meat in beef broth sitting out - not in the refrigerator - overnight?!? We'll definitely get sick if we eat that the next day!

Not true. For the noon meal on New Year's Day, we heat the soup back up again and have it for lunch. We've been doing this for years and are still alive. Truth be told, we've even done this in Wisconsin with the fondue soup and lived to tell about it.

Homemade chicken broth - same. M puts it in the fridge only when he remembers that not doing so kills Americans.

We're having Gulasch tonight for dinner. M made it last night (Gulasch must be made the day before!), boiled it for a few hours, turned off the heat, and left it. Tonight we'll heat it back up and serve it with boiled potatoes.

If cream is involved in the sauce we nearly always put it in the fridge overnight, but sometimes we forget. Again, still alive. And never once have I gotten sick after eating something that wasn't refrigerated overnight. (M has been in the army. Nothing affects his stomach.)

That's where our Rindergulasch has been sitting since last night.

Raw meat touching a surface that other raw meat has touched

I will say right away that poultry is not involved. However, even at the butcher we frequent, sometimes a raw pork tenderloin will be weighed on the same surface as a piece of beef, and it's not disinfected between (again, poultry is another matter). Aufschnitt (cold cuts) are always weighed on paper, so those never touch raw meat. There's a steel container where chunks of beef and pork are kept together to be ground fresh as ordered, and there's no problem. 

Americans are sure that any raw meat that touches a surface touched by any other raw meat will lead to cross-contamination and possible food poisoning or death. At home we have cut up chunks of raw beef and then on the same cutting board chunks of pork for Gulasch, and again - no problem. Gulasch meat is all pre-packaged together in the grocery store also - it's just not a problem. We have never experienced any ill effects from any of the above situations.

Not refrigerating eggs

The eggs in grocery stores in Germany are stored on shelves, and they are not refrigerated shelves! Madness! Eggs have to be kept cold all the time, don't they?!? They actually don't, as I have learned here. The fresher the eggs are, the less need there is to keep them cold whether they are hard-boiled or raw. German egg cartons have two dates on them: the earlier date is the date until which the eggs can be stored at room temperature, and the later date (about a week later) is the "best before" date. Whenever possible I buy eggs from a local farmer rather than from the grocery store. Our butcher sells eggs from a farmer nearby (and stores the cartons on unrefrigerated shelves!), so it's not even inconvenient.
room temp until Dec. 12,
and they're good in the fridge until Dec. 22.
(This is obviously an old photo.)

The absence of warning labels and signs

"Slippery when wet" is a fine example. When we were leaving the VHS the other day and a janitor was mopping the floor, I pointed out to my students that there was no "slippery when wet" sign in sight. Germans can figure out for themselves that a smooth surface that has just been mopped is bound to be slippery. They also don't need to be told "Warning: this large plastic bag is not a children's toy" or "harmful if swallowed" on household cleaners. You'll see fine print first aid tips for what to do if the cleaner comes in contact with one's eyes or if swallowed, but the "harmful if swallowed" warning is self-evident to Germans.

Another thing along these lines - when I started riding lessons at a stable not far from home, I simply brushed and tacked up the horse while the instructor/owner watched on my first day, and from then on she trusted that I knew what I was doing. I never had to sign a form promising not to sue them if one of their horses kicked me in the skull, and I was never given a list of barn rules to sign. They don't even have emergency contact numbers for me, so if I were to get thrown off or knocked unconscious, I'm not sure what they would do. I leave my purse/i.d. in my locked car and my car key in the horse's brush box. So M and I made a deal that at the end of my lesson after the horse is stabled and munching on her carrot, I'll send him the following text message:

"I didn't die today!"

And here's what freaks Germans (Europeans?) out.

Going outside with wet hair

I have never personally been approached about this because on the days my long hair is wet I have it in a bun and you can't really tell it's wet. But I have read posts from other bloggers who have said that total strangers warn them about the impending doom resulting from waiting for the bus with wet hair. Apparently one is at risk of getting a bad cold or worse. Tell that to someone not from Wisconsin.

Drafts (Draughts, for my British readers)

This is mainly a Swabian thing, from what I understand, but drafts are apparently suspect. At times I've been sitting in a restaurant or café on a blistering hot day with the window near me slightly ajar offering the faintest of breezes. The waitress will come over and offer to close the window if the slight breeze is bothering me, and while I flash my American smile and say sweetly, "Nein, es ist gut so", I'm screaming inside, "Are you mad?! This breeze is the only thing keeping me alive right now!"

On a hot, smelly train years ago when the windows still could be opened and I was enjoying the wind blowing my hair around, a fellow passenger jumped up and slammed the window shut with a panicked, "Es zieht!!" ("It's drafty!!"). I remember thinking, "Wait, that's a bad thing?" As soon as she disembarked I opened it so I could breathe comfortably again - earning stern and disapproving looks from others seated not far away.

The Germans love fresh air, but apparently not if it's blowing where it shouldn't. Breezes outside seem ok, and lüften is all but required; it's just drafts slipping through window cracks that are dangerous.

I'm not sure if it's germs, viruses, or evil spirits that come with drafts in southern Germany, but I have yet to get sick or die because of one.

(Women) Sitting on cold stones

Germans believe that if a woman sits on a cold surface outside in the winter, she will get a bladder infection. I'd heard of this from other bloggers and wondered about it, but then it happened to me. I was waiting for M outside his office one fall day and sitting on the steps to their front door. A woman came to the door to visit M's business partner's wife. As she passed me and I did the American smile-greeting thing, she said to me with great concern, "That's too cold. You shouldn't be sitting there!"

"Honey, thanks for the warning, but I'm from Wisconsin. I was born on a cold stone."*

*Total exaggeration, but still.

Crossing when the Ampelmännchen is red

Just. Don't. I don't care if there is no car within an easily visible 300 yards. I don't care if it's dark and there are no headlights anywhere to be seen and no witnesses standing next to you. Just don't. Be a good example to children, even if there are none around. If you cross when the red Ampelmännchen tells you not to, you'll either end up in the IC ward or in the seventh circle of hell. Save yourself, and wait.

Drinking ice cold liquids when it's hot outside

This doesn't exactly freak Germans out, but there's a general concensus that one is better off drinking room temperature beverages on hot days because it is less of a shock to your system. I think this is where the myth comes from that "Germans drink warm beer." It's not warm. It's just not ice cold. And because it's actually good beer, it doesn't have to be ice cold. Kellerkühl (cellar-cool) is cold enough since Germans don't heat their cellars.

One reason for this is also that German refrigerators are not as monstrous as American ones and there just isn't enough space to keep beer, soda, water, etc. chilled. Germans keep the liquids that require chilling in the fridge - milk and a bottle white wine, typically.

You won't find ice cubes in most German houses either, and restaurants don't serve drinks with ice cubes. The good thing about that is that you get more of the beverage, rather than half a glass of soda in a glass filled with ice cubes - which is nice since refills are not free in Germany.
What is there, like four tablespoons of actual Coke in those glasses?

What did I miss? Have you noticed anything that Americans find risky that Germans don't or vice versa?