Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Few Thoughts

So, Germany is beautiful.  For those who don't know, the area where I am living is called the Odenwald, and even Germans regard it as some of the most beautiful landscapes in Germany.  With rolling hills and thick forests everywhere, it's hard not to be awestruck often.  I have also noticed, that every house in Germany just looks picture perfect.  It took me a while to figure out why, but I've finally put my finger on it.  Gardens.  I don't know what it is about Germans, but they seem to love to have perfect gardens.  I walked down a street in Mannheim the other day, past house after house with small yards in front of their houses.  Every yard was manicured perfectly in its own way.  There are hedges which are cut to perfection lining every yard, instead of fences.  There are patches with herbs and vegetables growing, and beautiful flowers blossoming from flower boxes.  Meanwhile, the grass is cut short and is watered well.  I can't even count the amount of times I have seen people out working in their gardens.  People just seem to have a love of the earth here, and they want their gardens to look beautiful.  Quite frankly, it adds a ton to the attractiveness of towns and neighborhoods too.
Also, I had my first conversation class today.  Basically, in addition to the two regular classes that I am teaching, I am offering a voluntary conversation class to students in grades 8-13.  They can choose to take it to improve their English and learn from a native speaker.  I had 9 people interested the first day and 14 today, so I'm glad to see that interest is increasing.  Most of the kids are in grades 11 or 12, but I have one girl in grade 8.  Anyways, I can already tell that the conversation class is going to be a highlight of my teaching here at Rimbach.  At first, I wasn't too excited about it, why want extra work?  But teaching only 14 students, combined with the fact that these students actually want to be there, provides a really great experience.  I've decided to keep the atmosphere really casual and told them that if they want they can call me Luke.  Meanwhile they are all already really good at English and are really enthusiastic about talking.  Basically we are gonna read or watch anything they want and just have enjoyable discussions about things they find interesting.  At some point, they will be introduced to that pinnacle of art which is Calvin and Hobbes.
In the meantime, I've continued to play basketball in Weinheim, but my money problems have made it difficult to ride the bus or train.  Thus I'm now getting back on the saddle, riding my bike 9 miles there, playing ball for 2 hours, and then riding 9 miles back uphill.  Time to get in shape.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Glory of the Kerwe

I have found Americans to hold several stereotypes about Germans, not the least of which is how great the beer is.  Movies such as Beerfest have helped to solidify prolific great beer drinking as an activity synonymous with Germany.  I'm therefore dedicating this post to sharing some of my experiences thus far with that time-honored activity.
First of all, I came to Germany with a goal of leaving as a far better beer connoisseur than when I arrived.  So far, I am achieving that goal, and I have to say that German beer is just better than American beer.  That is no myth.  It's cheaper and it's way better.  And America should up its game.
Second, I recently had the opportunity to go camping at a music festival with thousands of Germans.  It was a blast, but it also presented a great opportunity to people watch.  Most of the other people there were drunk by the early afternoon, and I noticed two things that are sorely missing in America.  One, is the large quantity of quality drinking songs.  There is nothing quite like seeing tons of different groups scattered around a lawn and a lake all singing loud different drinking songs.  Or sometimes one group would start up and then others would join in.  America needs this, it's quite the atmosphere builder.  Also, it was funny to note that in the wee hours of the morning, when most people were beginning to go to sleep for the night, people would eventually feel the need to yell out at the top of their voices: "HELGA!!!"  This is apparently a pretty well known drunk cry, and it would then be echoed and answered by tons of other people all around the campsites.  This happened about every 20 minutes or so, whenever someone just had the impulse to start a chain reaction of Helga cries.  Totally cool, though mildly annoying if you are taking the task of getting to sleep seriously.
Finally, and by far the most important, I have gotten to learn about the Kerwe.  This, above all else, is something almost too cool for me to describe and something that America needs.  At its core, a Kerwe is like a festival that occurs in the fall and lasts a weekend in a little town, but it is so much more.  Here in the Odenwald, towns are sprinkled around every valley and none of them are very big.  However, every weekend one or two different towns has a Kerwe.  There are booths selling food, carnival rides and games, huge tents with food, and of course, a ton of beer.  Then there are buildings pumping out all sorts of music where people are dancing and just having a blast.  Thousands of people from all over the Odenwald and of all ages come to the Kerwes each weekend and hang out.  There are children running around in the day, students, young adults, and even seniors, all just hanging out, drinking, and having a blast!  On the opening night there are usually fireworks.  I have had the luck of being able to go with some fellow teachers this weekend and it was great.  I already knew like 6 or 7 people at the Kerwe, which for me, was quite an accomplishment!  For most locals however, they see tons of people from all over the valleys who they know.  Essentially, it is like a huge party put on for all the towns, and there is a different party, in a different town, every weekend.  I haven't completely figured out who pays for these to happen, but this is something which has to start happening in America.  I couldn't even imagine how cool it would be if all of downtown Austin would just be shut down for a weekend for a huge party.  Unfeasible perhaps, but unforgettable as well.
Such have been my experiences with beer and the kerwe in Germany so far, but expect an update eventually when I go to Oktoberfest!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Howdy Y'all,
That's a phrase I don't hear often anymore. So it's been about a month since I arrived in Germany now and I figure it's about time to give people updates. Alas, my procrastination can only hold out so long.

First off, I'm kind of writing this on the fly, so as far as excellent grammatical structure and a coherent theme go, expect to be underwhelmed.

By contrast, my arrival in Germany was somewhat overwhelming. I didn't get much sleep the night before I left, because I naturally spent the entire day procrastinating packing and to my horror realized around 2am what a huge job it was to pack for an entire year. Nevertheless, it worked out, and an employee at the airport was nice enough to ignore the fact that both of my checked bags were slightly overweight. Hopefully saying that here won't cost her her job, because she's clearly a baller.

My flight also happened to be delayed on the tarmac for 2 hours with no AC, so that was awesome. Thus, when I landed in Frankfurt, in addition to being jet-lagged and exhausted, I had to frantically find my meeting point with Romy and hope that she hadn't given up on me when I was two hours late. So I dragged over 100lbs of luggage a ridiculously long distance to find out that her flight had also been delayed and I waited for her to arrive. I was greeted by Romy and Tilo who were very accomodating and we traveled back to Rimbach together. At my apartment I unpacked and was very tired and homesick. However not two hours after I landed, one of my podmates from college, Brandon, and his high school friend, Dode, arrived to stay with me two days. I had at first thought that I would need more time to settle in, but their visit proved to be just what I needed. I couldn't be homesick with guests, and together we explored my new town. We even made it to a local bar and I made my first group of friends here in Rimbach.

I spent the next three weeks here at a language course in Heidelberg and it turned out to be quite a great experience. My German improved faster than I could have imagined and I am usually able to say what I want to when I need to. I also met a bunch of friends my age from all over Europe at the language course, and we had fun together on the weekends. It was also a great way for me to practice my German, as it was pretty much the only language we all had in common. Also it has been hard for me to be very talkative with native German speakers because I am embarrassed by all the mistakes I am making. However, with other foreigners, making German mistakes is just normal. Sadly some of the friends I made there have already left back to Greece or to the Netherlands to continue on in their lives, but I hope to see them again sometime. Furthermore, I will definitely continue to hang out with the friends that remain there.

Some of the more potent memories from the first three weeks here are as follows: One night, about ten friends and I hung out on the Neckarwiese in Heidelberg, which is like a 2km long stretch of green grass on the shore of a river that runs through the middle of Heidelberg. We were speaking in like a total of 5 or 6 languages and just enjoying the beautiful sunset in the valley with the Heidelberg castle overlooking us. It was also a blast to go to the swimming pool in Heidelberg and attempt a front flip from around 10ft, the highest I've done a flip off so far, but I'll increase that. I also got dinner with Helmut Hartmann at the local Fischerfest and we enjoyed one of the most picturesque moments of my life. We were eating fish and drinking local beer under a large tent filled with long tables and benches occupied by a ton of locals. Meanwhile, music was playing and the sun was beginning to set. We were sitting on the edge of a hill, looking down on four or five large ponds with walking paths winding between them where couples lazily wound their way home. There were telephone poles strung with light bulbs around these paths. Meanwhile, all around the tent and the pools was a large pine forest. Rising above the trees on the opposite side of the pools were a couple hills with pastures and old wooden fences upon them. I felt like I was in Hobbiton, and Helmut was able to appreciate that. As if that wasn't nice enough, as we ate, a hot air balloon began to land on the hill across from us. As it landed, a herd of horses crested over the top of the hill, ran under it and down the hill towards us. I just broke down laughing, it was ridiculously perfect.

The last few weeks have also contained their fair amount of stress. I've had to figure out how to pay my rent, get visas, navigate public transportation, set up health insurance, set up a work contract, cook, and learn how to be a teacher, all in a language I only mildly understand. If it weren't for the extensive and unending help of Romy Schuster I would truly be helpless, and I need to express my sincere and overwhelming gratitude at how helpful she has been already. Probably the most stressful experience for me was the Friday before school started. It was my first day in the building and I was told how to basically do everything for my job then. I should probably have been preparing a bit more beforehand as to how to teach my English courses, but I felt pretty overwhelmed. Nevertheless, the support offered by fellow teachers at the Martin-Luther-Schule is incredible.

My first day in class was a double hour with the 11th grade in 90+ degree weather from around 3 to 4:30 in the afternoon. To be expected, I was very nervous. Also to be expected, the kids did NOT want to be in class anymore. It led to a rough first day, as I partly took their lack of interest and positive feedback personally. Nevertheless, the next morning I taught them again as well as a 9th grade class and things went much more smoothly. I am still trying to get the hang of the whole teaching thing though, and I have plenty more to learn as I begin my second week.

Also, I joined a basketball club last week, and that has truly been a blessing. My knowledge of German did not really extend to the physical sport vocabulary realm, so I've been learning a lot of that, but the language of basketball is somewhat universal. I have appreciated in America how basketball can connect me to people far different from myself, and I appreciate it here as well. Despite playing with complete strangers on our first day, after a half hour we were high-fiveing and congratulating each other like old friends. It feels great to play that sport again, and a March Madness watching party at my apartment has already been unofficially scheduled.

There are more observations I would like to point out, but this blog entry has already been a bit of a rant. I think I really will update it more frequently now, as that will lead to less wordy entries and also allow me to point out smaller observations. Nevertheless, I hope you find reading about my experience here interesting and I cannot stress enough how much I appreciate the support of friends and family both back home and here in Germany.

Sunday, August 19, 2012


Hello everyone!

This is Ian again, for one last blog here. I am currently sitting at the computer at home, in Wisconsin, after a whirlwind of travel and visits during the last month.  So we'll start with my departure.

Leaving was rough.  I managed to see a lot of people before I went, though not all, and had some great times.  Saying goodbye was difficult, of course, especially to some of my closer friends, but I will see them again, I'm sure. I mailed one suitcase home, since I didn't want to have to carry it around during all the small flights I took (to Sweden, and then from Baltimore to Chicago), and that finally arrived yesterday.  And then, a short ride with Linda later, I was on the plane and headed to Sweden.

The two weeks dancing in Herraeng, Sweden were one of the most amazing things I've ever done.  It was an incredible experience being there, surrounded by hundreds of dancers from all around the world, and the feeling in the camp of enthusiasm and passion for dancing and devotion to fun is indescribable.  It was totally overwhelming at first, the night I arrived, just having left Germany behind, and now in this crazy environment, and seeing one of my friends in particular was all just too much to handle that first night.  The next day I woke up feeling excited and ready, though, and the rest of the two weeks was just the best experience.  I want to go back every year I possibly can.  I learned a lot, and had crazy amounts of fun, and met some wonderful people.

I then flew to Baltimore to stay with my friend Larren and her fiance Eugene, whom I had never before met.  It was great to get to know him, and I really enjoyed my time with them (though I did have an interesting reaction to their cats.  Not my normal scratchy throat and eyes, but rather both of my eyes just turned red.  Like the deep bloodshot red of someone who hasn't slept in a week.  It was...unsettling to wake up to.)

Then it was home to Wisconsin, and a couple days with my mom and dad and my grandma, which were wonderfully relaxing, and then I was off again, headed to the Twin Cities for my friend Charles's bachelor party, a friend's birthday party the next day, then Charles and Heidi's wedding the next day, and then I stayed with a different friend every night for the next week, seeing as many of the folks from Minnesota as I could.  It was great to see so many friends again, and to dance in my "home" swing scene again.

And now I'm back, figuring out what I'm going to do.  I have an audition on the first weekend of September at a dance studio in Chicago to possibly become an instructor there, and then we'll see where things go from there.  I am incredibly grateful to have had the experience I did in Rimbach, and to all the people who helped and supported me, both here and in Germany.  When the school year at St. Olaf starts up again, I hope to go up to visit campus, and hopefully speak with a couple of the faculty about the possibility of forging stronger musical ties with the MLS as well, so we'll see how that goes.  I'll keep you all up to date, probably through email, since this blog is now Luke's.

On a final note, Herr Fink asked me to write a little something about how much German is acquired during the Rimbach year.  In answer, I would say it greatly depends.  For me, it had been three years since I'd spoken German when I arrived in Rimbach, and I had forgotten a lot.  The Sprachkurs in Heidelberg helped significantly to refresh my memory, but I would also say that my German now is far better than it ever was before.  It's certainly not perfect, but I received a lot of compliments on my German, and I felt very good about my improvement.  It's also dependent on how much effort you make to improve your German; asking colleagues and friends to correct you, and taking every opportunity possible to speak in German rather than English.  I didn't always do that, alas, but those are the strategies to really improve.  I would leave any additional comments on the topic to my colleagues at the MLS, who were around to see the change; they can verify or deny what I've said.

Once again, thank you so much to everyone involved with the program, and, before I forget, heartfelt congratulations to Linda Johnke and her husband Mick on the birth of their first son, Deniz Liam!  I'm only sad that I wasn't around to meet him, but I look forward to seeing him someday.

I'm handing the reins to Luke now.  Take care, everyone, and thank you, and good luck, Luke!