Friday, June 29, 2018

Sister City Exchange Program

I have written before about the exchange program between Esslingen, Germany and Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA - here, here, and here, for example.

This exchange program means the world to me. I am who I am because of it. My husband and I met through it 32 years ago. This past Wednesday was our 12th anniversary (we were friends for 20 years first!). I’d planned to write this blog post that day to celebrate both the exchange program and our anniversary, but as sometimes happens, the day had other plans for me.

Glengorm Castle, Isle of Mull
Scotland, 2006
My hometown of Sheboygan and my favorite town in the world, Esslingen, are sister cities (Partnerstädte). The exchange program began in 1970, and we have had around 300 students participate from both towns in the years since then. My year was 1986, and M participated a couple of years later. For me the experience was life-changing.

It's funny how, nearing age 50, you can look back and see where your seemingly insignificant choices influenced the rest of your life.

  • If my brother had not done the exchange in 1983, I might not have decided to take German.
  • If I had not taken German in school, I could not have applied for the exchange.
  • If I had not applied for the exchange, I would not have been accepted.
  • If I had not been accepted, I would not have met my wonderful host family, my now-Schwiegermutter or my husband.
  • If I had not had such a fabulous host family, I would not have loved my experience so much.

[And if I had not met my husband, I would not be living very happily with him in Germany with enough free time to have given back to the exchange program! That's another, more private branch of this story.]

  • If I had not loved the experience so much, I would not have been motivated to study German in college.
  • If I had not studied German in college, I would not have been able to teach German in the US.
  • If I had not taught German in the US for 13 years, I would not have been hired to teach Syrian and Eritrean refugees in Germany in 2016.
  • If I had not been able to teach that group of Syrian and Eritrean refugees, I would have missed the most rewarding teaching experience of my life.
part of the group I still refer to as "my dream team"
  • If I had missed that opportunity, my passion for teaching would not have been renewed.
  • If my passion for teaching had not been renewed, I wouldn’t have met the rest of the students I have had here since then from Syria, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria, Scotland, Argentina, Chile, Japan, Tanzania, Ukraine, the Dominican Republic, Switzerland, Turkey, Denmark, Hungary, and Poland.

As it turns out, there have been very few decisions during my life that weren’t in some way related to the exchange or stemming from it. I chose my daughter’s name because it is my exchange partner’s name, and I made sure my son’s name was also easily pronounced in both English and German. I exposed my kids to German as they were growing up by reading German children's books to them and teaching them German children's songs. In 2008 the kids and I welcomed a girl from Esslingen into our home for the summer (she was my co-chaperone on our trip this year to Berlin!). Through art and décor, Esslingen has been in every room of every house I have ever owned.

I will always be grateful to the organizations and individuals that brought these two towns together and gave life to the exchange program. I owe my profession, many life choices, my marriage, and much of my happiness to this exchange.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Defending the Indefensible

I’ve seen and heard some conversations recently and have read many articles and comments about the current situation at the U.S.-Mexican border. I learned one thing: I am wasting my breath. I don’t know what to say to someone who can think it’s acceptable to willfully allow children - any children - to suffer. I don’t know how to explain to someone why we human beings should care about other people – including those who are not like us.

This is my son, Alex. In this photo he is about 3 years old. He was born into a privileged, loving white family that never needed to flee from anywhere for any reason. Our neighborhood was safe, and he didn’t have to fear that gang members or drug lords would destroy his youthful joy. We provided for him, watched over him, and filled his room with books and toys. If he ever had trouble with other children, it was not because of the color of his skin, where he came from, or how poor his parents were. He was never ripped from my arms and put into a cage for an unknown period of time. He sometimes cried when I went to work and left him at a daycare or with a babysitter. His babysitter was often one of his grandparents, and when he was sad, scared, or lonely they could pick him up and comfort him with a hug.

I can’t look at what’s happening with these immigrant children without thinking about Alex when he was the tender age of many of those children sleeping for days or weeks on floor mats in metal cages. I can't help but wonder how he would have felt and how long he would have cried.

To those who are saying, „It’s the parents‘ fault! Why don’t they just apply to come into the country legally?” – I imagine it is fair for me to assume you have never had to flee your home or country due to violence, war or poverty. Lucky you. There are 68.5 million people auf der Flucht (forcibly displaced) in the world today (today, which happens to be World Refugee Day). I hope you recognize the blessing and privilege of not being one of them. 

I would like to ask a parent who has crossed or tried to cross the border illegally why he or she didn’t use the proper and legal channels. There must be reasons. I don’t think any parent would weigh the two options and casually decide, “Ach, let’s take the illegal path. It’ll be so much more fun. This journey out of poverty/violence/war hasn’t been dangerous or risky enough yet.”

To those who say “most of those kids aren’t even with their parents; criminals and traffickers are using the children to get across the border pretending to be a family” (one person even wrote that we are protecting these children by taking them away from the adults they’re with) – I understand this happens. I think it’s base to pretend, though, to suddenly care about human trafficking or slavery, which goes on every single day all over this world, including in the U.S. Those who actually care about human trafficking and slavery should do something about it, like Urmila Chaudhary is doing, rather than using the “But...traffickers!” excuse to justify cruelty toward immigrant children.

To those who ask “Well, what should we do instead?!” I say for starters, what we were doing before Jeff Sessions put this policy into action. “It wasn’t working!” they say? Of course it wasn’t working. Is there any country in the world that has solved the problem of immigrants crossing borders illegally – short of shooting them dead, as during the DDR (East Germany) years? Even that didn’t work. People who are desperate for a better life will risk anything, even death, to find security.

What should we do instead? Act with compassion. Keep these little children with the family members they came with, while continuing to look for criminals and traffickers who use the children. To separate all these children from the adults they are traveling with because some of them might be bad people is, for me, deplorable.

To U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who told a roomful of people the other day that these children are separated from their parents for “a very short period of time” and then defined that as “a week or two or three,” I’ll say he should watch his grandchildren (if he has any) at age 4 or 5 or 6 be taken away from their parents, put into a cage to sleep on a mat with a thermal blanket but no pillow, and see how that goes for “a week or two or three.”

From a CNN article: “UNICEF and UNHCR assert that all children on the move, no matter why or how they were uprooted, should receive the same care and compassion as any other child. Children are first and foremost children -- and regardless of their nationality, their legal status, or that of their parents, their welfare and rights must be at the center of our actions.”  Fitting, isn't it, that the U.S. left the UN Human Rights Council yesterday?

For those who parrot Jeff Sessions and say “American citizens that are jailed do not take their children to jail with them,” I’d like to remind them that crossing the border illegally wasn’t a federal misdemeanor requiring jail time until #45 and his gang made it so*. These parents haven’t killed anyone or caused bodily harm, they haven’t stolen anything, and they haven’t committed perjury or treason. They are being thrown in jail for seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Since there is no plan for reuniting the immigrant families after the parents’ incarceration is over and the parents often have no idea where their children have been sent, this is not the same as a citizen going to jail. A person in jail knows where his or her children are and is able to communicate with them as long as family members on the outside don’t take measures to prevent that.

*Edit: I read recently in a CNN article, which I now can't find, that it has been a federal misdemeanor for some time to cross the border illegally, but that past administrations have gone easy on the immigrants and not been strong about enforcing this.

The idea of not punishing children because a parent of theirs is in prison is not foreign or new. At my school in Wisconsin each year the students and teachers participated in a project called “Angel Tree,” which I just found out is a worldwide organization. Each class was assigned one child whose father or mother was in a Wisconsin prison. We bought clothes and a toy or two for the child, wrapped the gifts, and on the gift tag was the name of the incarcerated parent – no reference to our school or “Angel Tree.” As far as the child knew, he received a few Christmas presents from his parent even though he/she was in prison. 

To those who are saying it’s ok to store these immigrant children in cages because their parents committed a crime, I’m sorry, I disagree. If our government can find space to cage children and jail their parents, then they can find space for family detention centers to keep the families together while the now-criminal case (it used to be civil) is processed. 

Compassion, folks. Mercy. Love.

I know my words will have no effect, and yet I write anyway because I believe silence is approval or complicity.

I know many of these people are crossing the border illegally. I know there are some thugs and criminals among them. I have heard all the arguments for why this policy is unfortunate but justified (in their view), and still I choose compassion. 

"The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference."  ~Eli Wiesel

I don’t have all the answers. But I cannot understand someone who says tearing children away from their parents and putting them in cages is acceptable. Government-sanctioned cruelty. Look what we have become. We have elected a government who is proud and unapologetic of this action and refuses to end it, and we have among us many who defend and applaud the cruelty.

I hope this issue doesn’t fade away without getting solved. I hope those opposed keep raising their voices and hounding their representatives* until the child cages disappear and a different solution is found that allows families seeking shelter to stay together. I hope somebody will help these children and families – help them as if they were children from white middle-class families.

Thanks to a friend of mine, I know there is a list of organizations who are mobilizing to help.
And thanks to M, I came to this article, which addresses most of the issues much better than I have in a very reasonable and balanced tone.

*As one of approximately 9 million U.S. citizens living abroad, I have no representative in Congress that I am aware of. I contacted the [Republican] representatives I would have had based on my last address in Wisconsin and my parents’ address, but all I got was a staffer’s thank-you and spam from the reps for the next year or so.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Fünf Fragen am Fünften: Juni 2018

It's well past the fifth of June, but it's been a busy few weeks. I hope I can remember how to link to Nic's blog for this fun link-up of five questions on the fifth - the alliteration is much better in German. Once again, I will answer in German as the questions and Nic's blog are in German.

1. Wenn du emigrieren müsstest (oder wolltest), in welches Land würdest du auswandern?

Das habe ich schon 2012 gemacht - von meinem Heimatland nach Deutschland. Das war schon lange mein Traum, und ich bin immer noch sehr glücklich hier. Ich könnte niemals zurück gehen. Wenn ich nochmal emigrieren müsste, dann nach Schottland! Das Land, die Landschaft, die Menschen...alles so wunderschön und herzlich.

2. Nach welchen Kriterien suchst du ein Buch aus und fällt es dir schwer, es einfach aufzugeben und nicht zu Ende zu lesen, wenn du es doch nicht so gut findest?

Die ursprüngliche Frage war über Filme, aber ich habe sie geändert, weil ich lieber Bücher lese als Filme schaue. Wie suche ich ein Buch aus? Ich mag interessante Titel, aber ich lese fast immer die Zusammenfassung - von Amazon, Goodreads, oder am Liebsten auf der Rückseite des Buches weil ich in einem Buchladen stehe und das Buch in der Hand habe. Hauptsache ist für mich, dass ich dabei etwas Neues lerne wenn ich ein Buch lese. Wenn das Thema oder das Genre mich interessiert, kaufe ich das Buch von dem kleinen Buchladen in meiner Stadt. Es fällt mir sehr schwer, ein Buch abzubrechen, nachdem ich angefangen habe, es zu lesen, aber ich habe schon welche abgebrochen. Moby Dick, zum Beispiel, und einige Krimis.

3. Wann hast du das letzte Mal zusammen mit anderen gesungen?

Vorletzte Woche! Ich war mit meiner Freundin Sophie und drei Austauschschülern in Berlin, und Sophie und ich haben "Oh, Where is My Hairbrush?!" von VeggieTales gesungen! Na ja, wenigstens die erste Strophe.

4. Was ist dir im Bezug aufs andere Geschlecht ein Rätsel?

Warum Sport (besonders American Football) ihnen so wichtig ist. Sie diskutieren alles ad nauseum, kennen Statistik von Jahren zuvor, und haben schlechte Laune wenn ihre Lieblingsmannschaft verliert. Es ist doch nur ein Spiel/Saison/Wettbewerb/Meisterschaft, und er kommt auch nächstes Jahr (oder in 2 oder 4 Jahren) wieder! M ist aber nicht so einer. Er schaut WM-Spiele und Formel-1 Rennen. Wir schauen alle Deutschland Spiele zusammen. Heute haben sie gegen Mexiko verloren. Das Leben geht weiter.

5. Was liegt auf deinem Nachttisch herum?

Mein selten benutzter Wecker, eine Lampe, meine Lesebrille, und zwei Bücher. Und etwas Staub.

Ich bin schon auf die Fragen für Juli bereit!!

Monday, June 11, 2018

Four Days in Berlin

Once a year I take the exchange students from my hometown, who are spending 5 1/2 months in Esslingen, to Berlin for four days. When I did the exchange back in 1986, the dear lady who is now my Schwiegermutter was the chaperone - and she chaperoned the trip for something like 30 years! She has happily passed the responsibility to me, and as a result I keep becoming more familiar with the nation's capital. And it's growing on me! This year my co-chaperone was Sophie, who lived with my kids and me in Wisconsin for eight weeks in 2008.

We have a full plan and start each day at 9:00, after coffee and breakfast at the hotel. I build in some free time for the kids during the day and/or evening, partly because I need some as well, and we do a lot of walking. But let me start from the beginning.

Day 1

We fly into Tegel, and near Gate 1 I find the BerlinWelcomeCard booth and buy a 72-hour ticket for each of us. This covers all transportation for exactly 72 hours from the time you punch the card at your first use. Quite a few museums and activities provide discounts when you show them your card, and it pays for itself rather quickly.

The 72-hour ticket for zones A&B costs €28,90 (2018). A Tagesticket for zones A&B costs €7,00, and we would have had to buy four of them per person for Monday through Thursday - so €28,00 per person. With the BerlinWelcomeCard we got discounts usually around 25% for things like our bike tour, several museums, the Berliner Dom, and the Berlin Underworld tour. For us, the WelcomeCard is the better deal, not only because we didn't have the hassle each morning of having to buy 5 Tagestickets.

From Tegel we get Bus 109 - which departs every ten minutes - into the city. Our hotel is on Bleibtreustraße, which is conveniently one of the stops for Bus 109. This works well for arrival and departure - as long as we get on the right bus. More on that later.

We've stayed for three years in a row at Kurfürst Hotel Pension and I have been happy there every time. It's modest and there is no air conditioning, but it is a great location - just off the Ku'Damm and not far from the Uhlandstraße Endstation of the U1 line.

After checking in we go together to the next street where there are two Supermärkte, and we buy snacks for when we're in our rooms and drinks for the road.

This year we then went straight to the U-Bahn and navigated our way to the Brandenburger Tor, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Reichstag, and in search of ice cream.

The memorial to the Sinti and Roma murdered during the Holocaust is also near the Reichstag.

After sight-seeing we walked toward Friedrichstraße where there are plenty of places to eat as well as Dussmann, which is a bookstore galore open until 23:00.

My challenge - given to me by my daughter after the year I ate at Italian restaurants nearly every dinner - is to never eat the same cuisine twice while in Berlin. Sophie and I started at a Persian restaurant called Shan's Bistro across the street from the Gendarmenmarkt. Our meals were delicious!

(This is the part where I don't tell you the kids ate at McDonald's their first night in Berlin.)

We were tired and sweaty enough to return to the hotel by 10:00 for refreshing showers and sleep.

Day 2

On Tuesday we headed toward the Nikolaiviertel to see what I call "the pretty part of Berlin" and wait for our bike tour to start at 10:24. This is the second year I've done this with kids, and it was a highlight! You can see so much more on a bike than on foot, and with a guide who is either a native of Berlin or a Berlin enthusiast, you can learn a whole lot you wouldn't otherwise know. There are dozens of bike tour companies, and I randomly selected this one last year. I have no reason to try anyone else because the students and I have liked the tours and the guides. It's a 3-hour tour and costs €16 for adults and €13 for students with the BerlinWelcomeCard.

After the bike tour I took them to Alexanderplatz and gave them free time for lunch. Sophie, one of the students, and I ate at Vapiano, an Italian restaurant where they cook your meal while you watch. These restaurants get mixed reviews, but I like them. I don't know how many are in Berlin, but I've eaten at three different Vapianos!

We didn't go up the Fernsehturm this year or last because it's quite expensive, and I have found an alternative for a "view from above" that is much more reasonable. The students this year found an even better one, which somehow I've been missing - climbing up the dome of the Berliner Dom! We go into this cathedral every year, and once the entrance fee is paid, you already have access to the cupola. The students said it was worth the climb, and it became even more so when I discovered the Französischer Dom on the Gendarmenmarkt was closed for renovations.

From there we walked toward the Humboldt Universität and found the book burning memorial on Bebelsplatz.

We then walked to Gendarmenmarkt and found the fancy chocolate shop, Fassbender & Rausch. Don't miss this stop, if only to see the chocolate sculptures of Berlin's Sehenswürdigkeiten.

made of chocolate and cookies
The one problem I have in Berlin is coming up with things to keep the students occupied in the evenings. Attractions and many stores tend to close by 18:00 (6:00 p.m.), and the crazies start coming out by 21:30. Sophie had the idea to go to Potsdamerplatz and set them loose in the Berlin Mall, which is open until 21:00. That allowed them time to get something to eat and do a little shopping, while Sophie and I explored and then had ice cream for dinner.

Day 3

This day started with a dash to the Gesundbrunnen U-/S-Bahn station, where we located Berliner Unterwelten and bought tickets for the first English tour of a WWII bunker at 11:00. You can't book these tours online or by phone; on the day you want the tour you have to show up and stand in line. Get there around 10:00 and you'll have your pick of the tours. During the 45-minute wait for the start, we went to the nearby Kaufland for a snack and drinks. 

TIP: It's always better to buy water at a Supermarkt rather than at tourist stores and stands - a small one costs €0,89 rather than €2,50. If you only see packages of 6 bottles, know that in Germany you may unwrap the package and take one bottle instead of all six. An even better idea is to buy one bottle on your first day and fill it up in your hotel sink each morning. The tap water in Germany is fine to drink and you use less plastic!

The tour ("Dunkle Welten") was very interesting and I took lots of notes, but we were not allowed to take pictures. They rotate their tours each day, so look ahead for the day you plan to go in order to see what they'll have available. I suspect they are all interesting!

After the 90-minute tour we walked to Bernauerstraße to stroll along a stretch where the Berliner Mauer was, and to stop in the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer, which is a small museum. This museum does not charge admission, and there is a platform one can climb up to look over a replica of the wall, death strip, and guard tower. Visitors can also see videos of eye witnesses talking about when the wall was first built as well as explanations of escape attempts.
The stone slabs show where tunnels had been dug
for people trying to escape from East to West.
(This view is looking from the point of the wall into the former East.)

We then took the S-Bahn to Hackischer Markt, where I treated them to lunch at Barcomi's Deli. Which cuisine is this? American! But good American, not fast food. Here they could order things they haven't seen in their 4+ months in Germany: Reuben sandwich, egg/tuna/chicken salad, grilled cheese, bagels & cream cheese, apple pie, pecan pie, devil's food cake, brownies, muffins, cheesecake... I have made it a tradition to eat here each time I come to Berlin.
German teachers love this kind of street art.
It's a list of adjective opposites - a great vocabulary exercise
in the first Hinterhof on the way to Barcomi's.

Cynthia Barcomi's baked treats
They had more free time to explore the Hackische Höfe - exclusive and quaint boutiques and shops in a maze of Hinterhöfe or courtyards - and the Hackischer Markt. Apparently the most interesting thing the boys saw was a man walking casually toward where they were sitting and peeing on a grassy spot. One boy's shock and awe as he told me the story revealed his small-midwestern-town sensitivities. Life in the big city, lads... ;-)

We made the obligatory stop at Checkpoint Charlie and I took the kids' photo with the "soldiers" standing there holding the American flag. (Our bike tour guide last year told us they are strippers by night, and the way one of them was behaving, I can believe it.) I don't want to be sassy, though, because they gave us a student discount on the photos (€1 each instead of €3).

From there we went to one of the top highlights of the trip - an escape room! This is a fun activity to add into a trip that is mostly about learning. I'd signed us up weeks in advance for the latest time slot of the Illuminati room. The group got locked into a room arranged like a chapel, and we had 60 minutes to search for clues that would finally solve the mystery and unlock the door. Amazingly we succeeded - with 30 seconds to spare! We worked well as a team and had a great time. Obviously we couldn't take photos, nor will I reveal any of the secrets. But if I get everyone's permission, I'll post our "We did it!" photo.
Permission granted! Escape Room WIN!!

Day 4

On our last morning we usually go The Story of Berlin museum and cold war bunker, which is very close to our hotel. This year I gave the students the choice between that and the Topography of Terror, which is an open-air museum at the former site of the Gestapo headquarters, and they chose the latter. This museum is free of charge, and although they said it was interesting and worth a visit, they didn't need more than an hour. It's very heavy - descriptions of arrests, interrogations, torture, beatings... But inside there is also a section about resistance against the regime, mentioning groups such as die Weiße Rose (the White Rose).

We took the S-Bahn back to the Ku'Damm and got out at Wittenbergplatz. I pointed them toward the KaDeWe (largest department store in mainland Europe) and the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche, the bombed-out church left after WWII as a reminder of the devastation of war. They had time to explore at will until our meeting time back at the hotel, and Sophie and I went in search of the memorial at Breitscheidplatz where a terrorist drove a semi into the Christmas market in 2016, killing 12 people.

The symbolism of the golden crack or tear in the pavement is worth a read. (See here for an article in German.)

Although we had checked out in the morning, the receptionist allowed us to store our suitcases behind the desk until we needed to catch our bus. We collected our bags and walked the short distance to our bus stop. When the bus arrived we hopped on, but after about 4 stops I realized I didn't recognize anything we were passing. WRONG BUS! (Many buses stop at Bleibtreustraße, and I didn't bother to double-check the number. Oops!) A woman sitting next to Sophie told her where we could get off and then get a connection to the right bus, and when we got off and were a little discombobulated despite her help, another woman rescued us and showed us where to go. There really are friendly and helpful people all over - even in the big city.

We made it back to Tegel in plenty of time because I always plan in extra time for mistakes and detours. Why we landed in Zürich and took a bus to Stuttgart in the middle of the night rather than landing in Stuttgart at 19:25 as was our travel plan is fodder for another blog post.

Thus endeth this year's Berlinreise!

P.S. A tip for teachers: I have a box of 100 question cards for the U.S. Citizenship test, which my daughter gave me for Christmas this year. I brought those along and always had a handful in my backpack. During waiting times and on the S-Bahn or U-Bahn, I took the cards out and quizzed the kids to pass the time. They enjoyed the challenge! Once on the U-Bahn I noticed a couple leaning over to have a look at each question, so I made a point of turning it so they could see clearly, too. They were from Portugal and also enjoyed the activity! They even knew an answer or two that stumped the students.