Monday, December 15, 2008

Politische Bedeutung des PPP Austauschprogramms - a brief foray into International Relations

So basically everyone who gets this scholarship also gets assigned a member of the German Parliament (European word for Congress [Bundestag in German]) with whom they meet once or twice for lunch or something and take pictures. I recently got to meet with my Bundestag representative here in Jena, a Herr Bodo Ramelow. He's of specific interest to me above other possible Bundestag dudes because of his party affiliation - he belongs to Die Linke, literally translated The Left, the socialist party here in Germany. He also is looking to ditch the Bundestag and become the minister-president of this state of Germany, Thüringen. We (being myself, Herr Ramelow, and a girl from Virginia getting her Master's here in Deutschland) sat down at a nice restaurant and shared a bit about our experiences in each others' lands, relations between Germany and other countries, and our respective dogs. He invited us to Berlin for a few days to see the Bundestag (it's one of those things you have to see when you're here, the glass dome of the building being probably the most famous image in Berlin other than the Brandenburger Tor) so we'll have to figure out the specifics of all that, and we got a picture in front of a statue in the Marktplatz. Basically I found him to be really cool - a lot more human than some of the politicians I've seen before, and told us some interesting stuff about German politics and local history. (excuse me if my english sucks right now, this keyboard is broken and I've been speaking another language for the past five months)

Also, we've got Christmas coming up, and hoo boy do the Germans love them some Christmas. They set up a huge market for all of December in the town marketplace and orient the entire month's food towards christmasy fare, especially the desserts. Special types of cakes and cookies abound, and making them is half the fun it seems - it's a whole day's work to bake the things. Homesickness is a matter of course this month for all the exchange students - it's not too bad for me right now except for an omnipresent urge to be at the Mall of America, knowing how decked out it must be. I didn't realize how much that place symbolized home to me until I'd been gone for a while.

I hope the holidays back home are running smoothly and without too much craziness - My first Christmas away from my family is going surprisingly well so far. Now I just have to get the whole presents thing sorted out :p

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Neck deep in the green stuff

Chores in Germany have not been very much of a big deal for me. I clean my room every week and wash the tupperware every night, which is a fairly light load. Today is a special day, though. Today I experienced for a mercifully brief period the deeper circles of Apple Hell.

Yard work always sucks, and today was no exception. Most of it was raking leaves in our very large yard, no big deal except for the time it takes, but there's a special complication here. Before you can even rake some areas of the yard, you have to get rid of all the apples that have fallen from the two immense apple trees we have here. We literally do not know what to do with all the apples. There are two piles sitting outside of just the usable apples, and we have no idea what should be done with them - there's at least two hundred. Forget selling them - we can't give the stupid things away.

Which is not to say those are all the apples we had to collect. This is the full year's worth laying there, some of them since summer. For every edible apple I collected, there had to have been five that not even the most desperate starving rat would touch. Black apples, open brown apples with moldy, digested looking insides showing, apples with seemingly impossible cracks going through them as if they split at the seams, the odd half apple with any one of a thousand possibilities of things wrong with it, and us sitting there picking the things up off the ground. We ran out of room in the garbage for the rejects and ended up throwing the rest of them into a wheelbarrow. When the first bucketful went in you could see the juices dribble down the incline. I have never seen nor imagined in my wildest dreams such an amazing variety of rotten apples, dripping their putrid runoff in one place, together, like some sort of chorus of putrefaction, thousands of voices of the damned singing their reeking doom to those tasked with carrying them out of their resting places.

Other than that, my day was pretty good. Apple suggestions appreciated!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Adventures in the German language

I've been here long enough that I suppose it's time I wrote a bit about the most obvious difference between Germany and the US - namely, the language. Although I wouldn't say I'm fluent, I definitely get along and usually don't have to ask about words very often. I guess I qualify then, to some extent, as being able to speak German. So here are some of the interesting things so far.

First, the immediately noticable aspect of German for any English speaker is that, although Germany has a very formal culture, the least formal aspects of English come from German. The scientific word the Germans use for 'matter' for example is the apparent origin of the English term 'stuff.' The word that is used for 'calculate' seems to be a relative of the English verb 'to reckon.' Scholarly and formal English terms tend to be taken more from romance languages like French, directly from Latin, or in some cases from Greek. There are interesting historical reasons for this but I'm not really too familiar with them. It just comes as an amusement to me that English would be divided in such an initially non-apparent way.

I suppose I should also talk about learning the language. German is considered to be fairly difficult to learn from English - moreso than any of the Romance languages but less so than Russian, Arabic, or eastern Asian languages. Luckily I had some prior experience, through Latin, with the noun cases, so some of it came more easily to me with a relatively small amount of classroom learning amounting to two years. Despite this, I found that when I got to Germany, I couldn't get a single word of what anyone said. It's not that my class had been taught a strange dialect or anything, just that we had focused on getting the grammar and speaking down with less focus on understanding. When we did listen to things by native German speakers, they were fairly short and we generally didn't understand more than a couple words.

This would seem a disadvantage, but actually I rather prefer this method. Two years is enough time to get a basic feel for word order and how the language is spoken and set up, plus a basic vocabulary. It's very difficult, on the other hand, to learn to understand native speakers with only forty five minutes a day of lesson. So you're better off learning the basics, equivalent to two or three years of high school lessons, and then spending some time in the actual country. I did have the advantage, however, of an in-country language course to fill in the grammatical gaps.

It does surprise me how quickly the language starts to come out. A foreigner has to be careful speaking German initially, as it's possible to almost literally choke on the words if you're not used to rolling Rs in the back of your throat, for example. However, my rate of formulation and of speaking have both drastically improved at incredible paces. Using the language seems to make it stick in a weird way - it's hard to explain exactly how, but stuff starts forming itself after a while.

Language is a particular academic interest of mine, and learning German is only making me more curious. I'll probably return to this topic later.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

A posting comes across the blog

Yes, I know it has been a while. I am sorry that I have been too busy partying, going to concerts, grilling and chilling with german people to write things on the blog, but such is the burden that one bears during an exchange year I guess.

More seriously, it has been really cool so far for the first month in my year host family. I barely even believe how much better my German is (mind you, I still have a LONG way to go) and I have managed to make friends with some of the kids at school as well. I don't really have any central topic to write about today, but I figure I might as well make it a bit comprehensive, so here goes.

School: An important topic for any kid my age. I'm at a Gymnasium, which is like a high school except that it goes down to fifth grade, and it's more or less for college-bound kids. The courseload is fairly heavy because the most you have of any class in a given week is four forty-five-minute hours; the schedule changes from day to day. The classes themselves are more intensive than your average US high school to prepare for the german Abitur (equivalent to the British A-Levels or the IB program in the US) but for the most part they're not too different from classes you might take in the States. There's German class, sport (gym), physics, chem, bio, math, social studies, econ, art, geography, and history, but there's also two required foreign languages (English and either Latin or French), Ethics or Religion, and Astronomy. Yes, I take all of these classes in a single week. In German. Yeah. Luckily the average school day here is about five hours long. That gives me more time to sleep.

Oh yes, sleeping. From what I hear, my bedtime is fairly late when it comes to exchange students; I'm going to bed every night between about 8:30 and 9:00 because I have to get up at 6:15 for school. One of the girls I talked to who had been in Croatia for an exchange year said for her first week there she slept every day from 5:00 PM until 8 the next morning.

One thing that I love about this place is that you can walk everywhere. My school is fifteen or twenty minutes away by foot. If I'm meeting someone in the city, I can get there in five to ten minutes with a bus for 2 Euros or I can take forty minutes to walk it, which being a cheap sort of person I do somewhat often. Unfortunately that is not possible when it rains, which it does all winter long in Germany, but it's great nonetheless. I'm considering going into the market for a bike, but most people here can get along fine without them.

I miss water fountains. They don't have them here and I'm always thirsty :(

I think there are a lot of stories about gross german food out there, but most of the stuff I've had is great and even some of the gross sounding stuff like Leberkäse ('liver cheese,' think SPAM with liver in it) goes alright on some of the awesome german bread. There are only a couple of things that I really can't go along with. There's Blutwurst, yes, blood sausage, which comes in a can and is in fact made out of blood and fat. A lot of my friends like the stuff and we have in around but it's not my thing - it's this black paste with white lumps in it where you sort of go ''eeew, that's... oh god.'' There's also this soft cheese we have in our fridge called Creme Royale. It brags on the outside about its 'blau und grun Schimmel' which, yes, means blue and green mold. It smells about how you think it would; the stuff is straight up rotten. I don't really know how they get the mold inside the stuff though... it grows within the block of cheese. Yum.

This was a fairly fragmented post because it was just random thoughts from the past month. I can give more specific stuff later.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The DDR, Thüringen, and Jena

While all the photos I've taken over the last month upload (it's going to take a while) I have some time to write about the region in which I am and have been. One thing that I'm perhaps counterintuitively glad about is spending my year in the east, the former DDR (or GDR in English). It was not so long ago that Germany was in two separate parts, and most of the adults here remember what it was like with the wall up. This gives me an opportunity to learn about how it was to live under Soviet rule without having to go to one of the real eastern bloc countries. I hear Georgia sucks this time of year.

The physical reality of Communist rule is really brought home by the apartment blocks that dot many of the cities in east Germany. Stendal is a perfect example of this; I don't have any pictures unfortunately, but I figure most of you know what I'm talking about when I say 'Communist apartments'. They're big, brown, concrete, square, and oppressively unattractive. This style of architecture exists in the US as well, but only in the east was it elevated to what you might call an anti-art form. The buildings are all over and tell you exactly what they think of you and any concept of individuality that you might have - they actively mock creativity and beauty. A decade after the wall came down, a building called Der Grune Zitadelle (The Green Citadel) was built in Magdeburg (a large urban center composed mostly of communist style buildings) for the purpose of mocking the architecture right back - it is painted entirely in pink and looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. You will see the pictures I took of it when I feel like showing them to you.

DDR paraphernalia of all sorts are a fairly common sight around here, the most common being the Trabie, a natty looking car which one would have had to wait about 17 years on a registry to recieve. You can't miss them; they look like remnants from the 1940s and from what I hear they drive like it too. The other thing that a visitor will almost certainly run into is Vita-Cola, a communist soda that was so popular that it has survived to this day in a capitalist Germany. It's sort of like someone poured a noticable amount of Sprite into a bottle of Coke... it's not bad, although the other American students I met didn't like it.

Thüringen is most well-known for its bratwurst, which is widely held to be the best in the world. It is also a land of mountains and valleys, much of a welcome change from the fairly flat Sachsen-Anhalt. It reminds me of the Black Hills in South Dakota, although lakes are sparser here. There are tons of trees - where I live is more or less surrounded by forest - and of course castles. There's also a wine city not far from here called Freyburg. I haven't tried the wine but I have heard it is good.

Jena itself is an industrial town, renowned for its universities and for the Zeiss optical plant. These two form the backbone of the city, a fairly large one which has a modern center surrounded by old villages. Jena proper was more or less destroyed in WWII, so the city center is mostly new while the surrounding area was mostly left intact, including the area in which I live, a small village called Ammerbach. Like any European city, Jena is compact - I live on the outskirts but I can walk into the middle of the city in under 45 minutes and fairly inexpensive buses are constantly running people in and out. It also happens to be built into the surrounding hillsides, making it a totally beautiful city to bike and walk around. It is pretty much the best and I pity people who have not been here. However, if you happen to be one of those people you can check out the photos I will be uploading at or you can choose not to do so and break my little heart. It doesn't matter. Really.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Just in case my last post seemed a bit down on the Germans about the A/C thing, I figure I should list a couple things that are unbelievably awesome here. First off, the bread. Dear lord, the bread. We have bread for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and it's some amazing stuff, but to me the holy grail is Brötchen (common nouns in German are capitalized - how cool is that). Mostly a breakfast food, Brötchen is what Americans would call a dinner roll except that it's generally much better than our rolls, you buy it at an actual bakery (they have bakeries here!) instead of in a plastic bag at Sam's Club, and when it is served for breakfast it is socially acceptable to smear semisolid chocolate and copious amounts of butter on it and then eat it. The Germans are my kind of people.

The other amaing thing here is what locals seem to call the Kaliberg (spelling may be ridiculously wrong), what looks like a mountain on the horizon of our small town. This part of Germany is called Sachsen-Anhalt and it is known to be flatter than Minnesota - I had a feeling something was awry with the mountains in the background. I turned out to be right. The Kaliberg is actually an enormous pile of salt. I don't mean a fairly large 20 foot high by 20 foot long pile of salt. This thing looks to be the hight of Devil's Tower and about a quarter mile long. I didn't know this much salt existed all together anywhere in the world. Every time I see it my jaw hangs open a little bit.

Óh yèäh, and yöu cán dö stüff like thís with the keyböärds here.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Getting there is half the battle

There was no shortage of stories about the exchange from the counselors, and one which stands out to me in particular was one about waiting in a German airport for six hours right after a seven hour flight. I particularly hoped that this story would not parallel my own, but no dice. After a flight during which the most eventful happening was me finishing an audiobook I'd been working on for a while and then a layover and then another uneventful flight from Frankfurt to Berlin, the six of us CBYXers who were to stay in and around Stendal were quite ready to have the german experience. Unfortunately, the two kids we had to wait for at the airport missed their flight so our initial german experience was sitting in a Starbucks for five straight hours speaking mostly English.

The main difference between our Starbucks and the Starbucks in Germany is that Starbucks here in Deutschland are not air conditioned. In fact, nothing except for cars come standard with air conditioning. Airports, train stations, Subways (yes, the restaurant), nothing here has A/C. That is not a problem 10 months out of 12. We were unfortunate enough to arrive in late July.

In any case, after our wait at the Berlin airport we hopped a train towards Stendal. In fact, we hopped a train towards a train to Stendal, because we had to make a connection. Each ride lasted around an hour - keep in mind none of us had slept in nearly a full day because our seven hour flight took up an entire night's worth of time. We were pretty beat up. When we finally got to Stendal, we fell into the arms of our host families more out of exhaustion than out of emotional overflow. Nonetheless, it was nice to be here finally. I myself slept from eight that night to noon the next day.