Tourist Info Desk

Welcome to Fernweh, a blog concerning the (mis)adventures of one Fulbrighter during a year spent in Europe teaching English.
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Monday, October 11, 2010

Happy Mensiversery to ME!

Last Thursday was my first mensiversary in Stadtroda. It's been four weeks since I arrived, a bit lost and lugging my bags, on the train platform and met my mentor teacher for the first time; four weeks since I met Bethany; four weeks of trying to get apathetic students to laugh and stumbling through lesson plans. Four weeks in the same town.

You know what this means: Time for a vacation! Hey, how about Spain?!

Ryanair flies three routes out of the small airport in Altenburg, which is within reach of my all-Thüringen ticket: one to London (Stansted), one to Alicante, and one to Barcelona. Hey, I've heard of Barcelona! Let's go there!

Tomorrow we (Bethany's coming too, poor girl) will take a flight to Barcelona and begin our Iberian adventure. (Has a nice ring, doesn't it?) We'll stay three nights in Barcelona, then move on to Madrid for two nights, then to Lisbon for two more. After that, it gets a bit fuzzy (maybe I should plan this, eh?)--I think we may stay a day and a half in Sevilla, then go to Tarifa for the night, and spend our last full day in Morocco. On the 22nd, we fly out of Malaga in south Spain to Wroclaw, Poland. Why Poland, you ask? Well, it's cheaper to fly into Poland and take the train back to Stadtroda than it is to fly into, say, Berlin or Frankfurt. Plus, I have wanted to go to Poland for at least two years, and although we'll only have a day to see a bit of one town, I'm looking forward to it. Plus, it's not that far away, so we can always go back for a weekend or something. :)

As we're preparing for this trip, I find myself getting a little apprehensive, as well as very excited. It's hard to believe that I'm actually going to go to Spain. Spanish was the first foreign language I studied, and although I've never really had the passion for it that it deserves--perhaps because I did begin so long ago, so it doesn't seem so special to me--it played a big role, along with Latin, in getting me into linguistics, so I owe the language, as an entity, at least some respect and gratitude. It's a little frustrating to realize that despite the seven-odd years I spent in Spanish classes, I can't speak more two words in sequence, although I'm hoping that I'll be able to read and understand at a baseline-functional level. Who knows--maybe this trip will inspire me to take up the language again! Finally going to Spain feels like the culmination of all of that--for so long, it's just been a mystical, gold-and-red place full of sunshine and bullfighters, and now I'm actually going there.

The apprehension is because Spain feels like, well, a foreign country. No, don't laugh--actually, go ahead if you like, it does sound daft, but let me explain. All of the countries I visited this summer I'd been to before, so I was returning instead of striking out into the unknown. We did visit a lot of places that I'd never been before, but the country, the culture, the languages in most cases, were familiar to me. I spent most of my time in Britain, which is hardly a foreign country at all! No, I kid, Britain is definitely European and, well, quite British, but the shared language gives at least an illusion of familiarity. So, although I was traveling in foreign countries, hearing foreign dialects, eating foreign food (haggis, remember?), it didn't feel quite so...foreign.

Spain, at least in my head, is a very foreign country. The language is "familiar", but I doubt, realistically, I'll be able to say or understand much. I've never even been close before; I don't know much of anything about their history, and my cultural knowledge is all mixed up with what I know about Latin America. Like I said, Spain in my head is a magical land where people get charged by bulls on a regular basis, people play flamenco music in the streets, and everything is washed in golden light. I really feel like I'm going somewhere new, and it's a bit terrifying.

Speaking of terrifying: did I mention that we'll probably day-trip to Morocco? Morocco, if you don't know, is just nine miles across the Straight of Gibraltar from Spain, but it's...Africa. And Muslim. These are two words that put me a bit on edge. Yes, yes, cultural understanding, people are different everywhere, open-mindedness, I know, but I can't help being a bit nervous. I've never been to Africa or a Muslim country before. This is most definitely something new.

On the other hand, I'm the one pushing to go to Morocco at all, for the simple reason that we can, and when will we ever have an opportunity like this again? Maybe never. Unlike some very open-hearted and courageous people I know, I've never had any particular interest in going to Africa, but being that close and not seeing at least a tiny piece of the Mediterranean bit seems a shame.

So, the lesson in all this is: don't stick Jennifer in a small town in the middle of nowhere for too long, or she'll fly off to Africa first chance she gets. Or maybe it's Don't let Jennifer choose her own mensiversary presents. Or maybe You can never travel too much.

I'll keep you updated. Wish me luck!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Happy Birthday, Deutschland!

The Fourth of July is kind of a big deal in America. In keeping with the millennia-old tradition of celebrating by imbibing copious amounts of alcohol and blowing stuff up, the Fourth is (at least where I come from) a jovial occasion of outdoor barbecues, beer, guests, bunting, fluttering flags, and fireworks. For weeks running up to it, all the stores are packed with gaudy, flag-oriented paraphernalia, and families make their annual trek to the Indian reservations to buy, usually, enough explosives to reduce their garages to shrapnel. It's a chance to enjoy the hot weather (at least you hope for hot weather in Washington), have a good time with your friends, make some craters in your driveway, and reflect with satisfaction on how some upstarts and rebels took on an empire and stuck it to 'em. Watching the fireworks blaze the darkness makes you feel just a bit shivery thinking of all our country's been through, and just a bit warm and fuzzy, feeling like you're a part of it.

Today was Germany's birthday--the Germany in the shape and form that we now know is two years younger than me. Der Tag der Deutschen Einheit ("The Day of German Unity") is an official government holiday celebrating the day that Germany was official reunited from East and West into one nation. As usual for a Sunday in Stadtroda, the streets were mostly deserted, and despite the surprising gift of a warm, sunny day, all was quiet and empty.

I took the train to nearby Jena, looking for some sign of patriotism, and found only two things that could even begin to qualify. First, the only sign of the German black, red, and gold was on the poster for some sort of anti-nationalism rally in a small square outside Jena's movie theater. The protesters--or rallyers, or attendees, or whatever they were--sat rather peaceably listening to a calm, measured voice reading some kind of political speech over a loudspeaker. The proceedings were conducted under the half-wary, half-exasperated gaze of a rather sizable contingent of black-uniformed, no-nonsense Polizei. I moved on from this quickly.

I proceeded past all of the blank, dark, unadorned shop fronts with the amplified voice echoing after me until I came to the market square, where at last I found the second and more welcoming-looking celebration of the Tag der Deutschen Einheit: a small stage, a beer stall, and a sausage cart. The cafes facing the square were open with tables in the sun, and I looked around for a bit before running into an English acquaintance--another ETA--and settling at a table to sip a strawberry juice and listen to the music. Some speeches were made that we neither understood nor listened to; there were no cheers, no clapping, no enthusiasm at all. I eventually just headed home again.

On the one hand, this seems odd to me--perhaps not that this particular German holiday is not enthusiastically celebrated, just that it is barely (or, in Stadtroda, not) celebrated at all. I speculated at first that this lack of interest and enthusiasm might be an East German thing, but was then reminded of my first full weekend in Marburg two years ago, which had similarly shuttered shops, deserted streets, and no signs of life or participation on the same holiday.

Nevertheless, I am inclined to suspect that at least part of this is because of the East/West divide. I asked my mentor teacher about the local attitude to this particular holiday, and her answer was that it depended a lot on how each person fared after reunification. Some, especially those for whom intellectual and artistic freedom was of paramount importance, embraced and desired it; others, who were content to follow the rules and be taken care of by the government, suffered from and resented the governmental switch. I'm reminded of buttons that we saw in an "Ost-Shop" ("East-Shop") in Weimar depicting silhouettes of either West or East Germany before the reunification, emblazoned with "Schön war die Zeit..." (literally "Nice was the time..." but more like "Those were the times" or "The good old days.")

Also, I'm reminded of something I've heard before, but in Japan, upon noticing that there are almost no Japanese flags: that the Japanese associate the Japanese flags with the government in World War II and are ashamed to fly it. I wonder if the same thing is true in Germany. And does a similar premise explain, perhaps in part, why British and English flags are so rare (going back to British Imperialism)?

In any case, the whole holiday felt somewhat surreal--I knew it was supposed to be happening, but Stadtroda seemed to have collectively shrugged, rolled over, and gone back to sleep, while Jena saw it as an excuse to do the proper German thing, i.e. eat sausages, drink beer, and have some nice music. It seems to me that considering the horrors of the recent past, the trauma of separation, and the awkward and mismatched reunification, Germany has a lot to be proud of in terms of progress made. During my years as a German student, I've been struck by (and occasionally fed up with) the near-obsession with rehashing and re-examining, in detail again and again, all of the horror and agony that the 20th century brought to Germany. Rarely, it seems, is much attention paid to Germany's long and illustrious history before the world wars; living down the Nazis seems to consume the German national psyche.

Despite the huge load of guilt the entire country seems to carry, the nation has pressed on: just today, Germany's finally paid off the last of the loans they took out to pay the reparations mandated by the Treaty of Versailles. And here I am, sitting in my room in an old GDR-era building, freely sharing my thoughts, with posters from Britain on the walls and American music on the stereo. When talking to a new German friend, I sometimes am swept away by a sheer sense of gratefulness and awe: only two decades ago, we would've never been able to meet, and there are times in recent memory that we would have been hated enemies. Yet here we are, talking, laughing, correcting each others' pronunciation, learning and sharing freely. It is an absolutely wonderful thing.

So, although the people here don't celebrate with the openness and enthusiasm I might've expected, I'm happy with the progress Germany's made. I'm grateful to be here, and still sometimes a little stunned by it. This country has a way to go yet...but so does any 20-year-old. For goodness' sake, she's barely out of her teens!

Happy birthday, Germany, and many happy returns.