Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Today was my first full day of German classes at the Goethe Institute in Berlin, and boy was it challenging! The strategy employed here is one of total immersion in the foreign language, which means no one says anything to you in English. I was actually at the Institute yesterday as well, but not for a class. On the first day, one has to take a placement test and then have a brief "interview" with an instructor; based on the results of these, one is place in an appropriate level course. I was placed in the A2 course, which (according to Peggy) is just where I should be. But please don't think that this was a simple matter; it was a rather disorienting experience--and I'm sure from the faces of those around me, I was not alone in feeling this way. Privileged American that I am, I'm accustomed to being spoken to in my own language in such situations (after all, the Goethe Institute offers its website in many major world languages, and all the arrangements for the class were done in English), so it was quite a surprise to be so suddenly thrust into German. I drew on my resources, tried to listen carefully and latch on to words and phrases I knew, and managed to get through. I have to say, as a newbie ESL student (well, I guess a GSL student), I have a newfound appreciation and respect for those who come to us at Richland and go through the same experience in preparing to learn English.
The class today was comprised of people (18 of them) from all different parts of world and speaking a wide variety of languages. I was the only Amerikaner and native English speaker in the group. There were people from Syria, Libya, Russia, Japan, Venezuela, Brazil, Israel, Greece and other places I can't now recall. A truly amazing mix of people. Our instructor, Alex, entered the class and immediately began speaking in German--and we were expected to do the same. This, by the way, is a 4 hour class which meets everyday, M-F, for 4 weeks. By the first "pause" halfway through, I had a headache. It was quite hard to listen, absorb info, follow directions, make notes, and of course speak when called upon. But we all did the best we could and had some laughs along the way. We also got to know each other a bit from the series of exercises he gave us that made us ask questions of one another. All in all, a good, if demanding, experience. I am glad, however, that I'm doing this now, before my semester begins. It's going to keep me busy.

In other news, the Teacher Academy conference in Bonn this past week and weekend was a great experience. (more info here, on the U.S. Embassy website) My presentation on The Simpsons and American Culture was very well received, as was the workshop I offered on Media Literacy. There is a lot of interest here in American pop culture right now, and many of the teachers who attended are quite interested in ways to incorporate this into their curricula, in a variety of fields. I met a great many people, and had lots of good, stimulating conversations about teaching, academia, politics, the U.S., Germany, beer, etc. I also had a lot of very good food--the catering was incredible. I got at least three invitations to come speak at high schools and/or universities around Germany, and just this morning received another from someone at the University of Heidelberg. (Fascinating history this place has; check out their website.) So, I guess that I am also going to keep myself busy with some speaking engagements this year, which of course will provide a great opportunity for me to travel the country and get to see even more of Germany.

In short, I'm continuing to have a wonderful and inspiring time here in Deutschland.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Hard Life

Hey everyone,
I've got some more updates for you. First the pleasureful, then the professional.

Here's a snapshot of a few of the beers I have recently sampled. This doesn't included any of those I've tried out at various pubs, bars, and beer gardens (I've found a few good ones there, including an incredibly good dark beer from the Czech Republic that I can't recall the name of--I'll have to go back and sample it again).

Of those in the picture here, the ones I liked the best are the Freibergisch Bock Dunkel and the Jubilaums Festbier, produced by the Freiberger Brauhaus in Freiberg, Germany. This brewery, which Google Maps tells me is just south of Potsdam. opened in 1850. The Bock beer was very rich and flavorful, and packed a powerful 6.7% alcohol. FYI, most of the beer here have a higher alcohol content and come in half-liter bottles, so I'm getting kinda drunk most evenings. Life is so hard these days :)

Clearly, I've had a leisurely week and a half here (aside from the pains of getting acclimated), but it is not all fun and games, of course. Tomorrow, I travel to the town of Göttingen for the official Fulbright Scholar orientation meeting. There I will meet members of the Fulbright Kommission (German spelling) in Berlin and other Fulbrighters who are working in Germany this year. There is to be a walking tour of the city and of the City Forest (!), and a keynote address on immigration and citizenship in Germany. Aside from the business, it should be fun. I'll let you all know how it goes, and maybe have some more good photos to share.

In other exciting news: the following week, I will be going to Bonn, in the western part of Germany, to present at a conference on Teaching Popular Culture, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy's Teacher Academy (more info at: http://germany.usembassy.gov/ta2010/). Some of you are aware that this was not something I had originally planned. After arriving in Germany, I had made an inquiry about publishing in the European Journal of American Studies. In short, emails were exchanged and I was subsequently (and very serendipitously) asked by a member of the Teacher Academy to step in for a speaker from the U.S. who was unable to attend. It's a great honor, and I feel quite privileged to have been asked to do this. I'm in impressive company here--check out the schedule and bios of the speaker. It appears that American Popular Culture is a very hot topic at the moment, so I guess I'm in the right place at the right time. I'll be sure to give you all updates on how that plays out as well.

Til then ... I'm off to sample another beer. Ta.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Photos of Potsdam

Today I rented a bicycle and took an independent tour of the area, trying to get the lay of the land and hit some of the good sights. Of course, there are many here, and one 4 hour venture can't cover it. But I did get some very nice pictures to share. Here's one of the ones I like best:

I've posted all of the pics on Facebook. For those who aren't members there, I've also posted them online using Google's Picassa Web Album feature. Just click this link to reach the site and see the album titled Germany. I hope you enjoy.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Week One

Dear Friends,
Well, it has been just over one full week that I have been here in Germany, so I guess it's time for some updates. It has been a strange week, to say the least. I realize some of you might be expecting to read some exciting travel news; however, the reality of the past week is much more mundane. If you're curious, read on (and my apologies to those who've already heard some of this from me by email).
The most challenging part of this adventure thus far is the fact that there are not many people here who speak English. My contacts at the Welcome Center at the University of Potsdam speak English well, and they have been very helpful to me. But it's a very different situation on the streets and in the shops, where I am constantly having to draw upon what little German I gleaned this summer and speak, I'm sure, in halting and embarrassingly fractured phrases. Mainly it is the younger people here who speak English--apparently those only a little older were required to learn Russian in school and it is they, in the main, who populate the shops and offices around town. It has thus been a real challenge to get around and do what ought to be very simple things like shopping and eating. I'm making use of my MP3 player and audio files, trying to learn more German as quickly as I can. But, of course, it isn't easy. If you care to share my pain (and perhaps get a good laugh in the process), I suggest you read Mark Twain's acerbic essay "The Awful German Language" (click here for a nicely formatted pdf version). I stumbled upon it as I was doing some web translations and couldn't help but love it; it's oh so apropos.
Last Friday night the Welcome Center organized a small gathering at a local restaurant for all visiting students and scholars. Of the roughly 15 people there, I was the only native English speaker in the group (the others were from all parts of the world, with various native tongues, but with limited English skills; some were fluent in German, however). I was also the only person in a Humanities field--all the rest were science and math types, connected to a different part of the University. I was also the only one who will be teaching here; everyone else (at least among those I spoke to) is working on a doctorate or doing research.
Other than that, I have not had much chance to meet other people or socialize. I've just been too busy taking care of the small things required to set up house. You don't know frustrating till you've tried to go to a market and ask a non-English speaking woman where to find clothes hangers and toilet bowl cleaner! Now that's an adventure :) I'm also doing a lot of this on foot or the bus. Thus, every little mission seems to take hours. On the plus side, I have taken time during these excursions to sit at a cafe here and there and have a coffee and a pastry and people watch, and I've done some pleasure reading at night.
Another of the challenges here is that very few places accept credit cards. They do cash for everything! Even at the central station for public transport (where they have a Visitors center and tourist info), I could not use a credit card to by a monthly bus pass. I have found one supermarket that takes cards (but only MasterCard, not VISA--and it seems they've never even heard of Discover or American Express!). Curiously, this little burg has a Starbucks, which does take credit cards, so it's become a home away from home. I'm drinking too much coffee and - yes - smoking too many cigarettes! (This despite all the ubiquitous ads for Chesterfield cigarettes on which is very prominently written "Rauchen kann tödlich sein"! - i.e., Smoking Can be Deadly!
Today was another day for taking care of mundane business. I had to go first to the Town Hall to register as a temporary resident, then to the Foreigner's Office to get a residency permit and then to the Deutsche Bank to open an account. Fortunately, I had some assistance with all of this.
So there you have it. Nothing too exciting, I know. Better things are on the horizon, however. Now that I've settled in here in Potsdam, I expect to start venturing out a bit more. I'm going to an orientation next week inGottingen, which is west of here, and then to a conference in Bonn at the end of the month. I'm also going to be taking a German class at the Goethe Institute in Berlin (why not? Fulbright is paying for it!) and so plan to take the train there soon (perhaps this weekend) and check out the city.
This blogging thing is new for me, so I don't know if I'll enjoy doing it or stick with it, but I thought it was a good way to stay connected and keep people posted, at least for now.
I hope to have some pictures to post in the near future.
Til then,