Saturday, 28 September 2013

Language Learning and Bureaucracy

A week at school and I'm finally getting used to its ridiculously early starts. Spent the week sitting in on lessons with students from the ages of 10 - 17, all in an effort to understand the very different levels I will eventually be working with.

It is quite astounding to actually see how far these students come with regards to their English in only five years; much much further than English students come with most of their foreign languages (from my own experience), but from what I can see, most of the Year 11s (16-17 year-olds) in this school speak English almost fluently and can talk about and understand a range of topical subjects, whereas in England you can pretty much guarantee that unless you are extremely naturally talented at learning languages, or your parents come from another country, a language learned in school will be forgotten soon after leaving. And the reason for this: WE ARE ALWAYS TAUGHT IN ENGLISH. Even the 10-year-olds in Germany are immersed in English throughout their English lessons. They are constantly being spoken to by the teacher in the target language, and consequently pick it up much faster. My German lessons up until A-Level mostly consisted of being spoken to by my teacher in English, having German grammar explained in English, doing written exercises, and occasionally listening to a cassette tape of someone saying, "Hallo. Ich heisse Juergen". And I was not even exposed to a foreign language at school until I was 12. Terrible, some might say. Well, I would. Languages are essential, and our education system needs to start recognising that, before the whole of England succumbs to this terrible affliction that is monolingualism.

Aside from my school-life, I have been having a busy 'getting sorted' week; getting ready to move into my new Studentenwohnheim next week, opening a German bank account, and registering myself as a Bautzen resident. A word of warning to anybody wanting to live in Germany for over a month: make sure you go to the local Einwohnermeldeamt and REGISTER (abmelden). I never realised that in Germany every single person who moves to a new town has to register at the local office. Consequently got a serious ticking off from the (very grumpy) woman at the office because I made the mistake of telling her I lived in Bremen for three months in 2010. "Where are your papers", she asks. "Oh, I didn't know then that I had to register", I reply. Cue a stern talk and then half an hour of waiting around while she phones various people trying to find out what she should do. My advice would have been to accept that I have no papers for something I never did three years ago and move on, but I guess that's classic German bureaucracy for you. 

So now, I must pack. It's the big move on Monday.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

September 22nd 2013

So today was spent taking a casual trip to Poland for lunch. And I am now fluent in Polish (i.e. I spent my time pointing and repeating the following words like a demented parrot):

Tak - Yes
Nie - No
Dzien dobry - Hello
Prosze - Please
Dziekuje - Thankyou

My first impression was the ease with which you can travel from Germany to Poland and vice versa - no passports needed. After being totally baffled by this, my host family went on to inform me that this is now the same all over the EU, and the passport control at that part of the border had been taken down three years ago. So it was pretty odd to see German German German written everywhere, when the next moment there is not an 'Achtung' or 'Vorsicht' in sight and instead I am bombarded with masses of Polish.

So that was my first experience of Poland. Next, I was driven to Legnica, which is a little further in and on the way became less and less ignorant to the Polish culture, thanks to my hosts. For example, I didn't know that Poland is the fastest-growing economy in Europe at the moment (I had thought that was Germany - oops!), or that the eastern part of Poland that I was visiting actually used to be part of Germany.

Upon arrival at Legnica, I was struck by how quiet the town was, and then all was made clear when I saw that most of the population was in one or other of the church services going on at the time. Being a highly religious Roman Catholic country, the town was almost littered with fantastically gorgeous churches, but despite this, there were still people standing outside the doors because they couldn't get a seat. I was keen to look around the inside of one of these impressive buildings but would have to wait, so in the meantime I tried some traditional Polish cuisine, Zurek (an absolutely delicious soup), and had a mini-tour of part of Lednica, discovering that it is a town famous for its copper. There is even a copper museum there, but I didn't pay it a visit.

Eventually managed to have a look around one of the churches, and it was indeed incredibly ornate (as you might imagine). My one lasting memory of that church though will be my realisation of exactly how ingrained religion is into Polish society as opposed to the secular-slash-slightly-religious-slash-sort-of-Christian-when-it-suits-us mentality that seems to prevail in England; I went in right at the end of one of the services, just as people were getting up and leaving, and as people got up a lot of them bowed in the direction of the altar before they left. The last people to get up and do this before the church was completely empty was a man in his seventies dressed in a suit and a smart middle-aged woman. No surprises there I thought - just the kind of demographic I would expect to do such a thing. Then, someone came running out from a door at the side of the altar (I have no idea where he came from or what he was doing), and it was a teenage boy with a Grade 1 haircut, wearing a tracksuit, and chewing gum. But even though he was obviously in a hurry, he remembered to stop for a second, turn around, and briefly bow to the altar before quickly making his way out of the church.

After this, we made our way to Jawor, about 10 miles south, and I was taken to see the Protestant Church of Peace (Kosciol Pokoju), which was surprisingly ornate for what I would think of as a Protestant church. The walls are adorned with paintings, and the altar is decorated in gold. And it's very big - to put it into perspective, it can house 6,000 people.

So with my mind filled with new knowledge and a little bit of Polish, we drive back to Bautzen, and I feel that little bit more cultured. Now to get ready for the week ahead teaching English...

Friday, 20 September 2013

Willkommen in Bautzen

As a 22-year-old graduate I was faced with the age old question of how best to fill my time now I no longer had the pressure of essays, lectures, and awkward landlords. So I set about applying for anything and everything, and praying for divine intervention to land me with a great job, ultimately leading to the perfect future (said envisaged perfect future entails both being fluent in German and money being no object. Simple dreams huh). My prayers were answered (sort of) eventually this summer when I found out I'd been offered a place as an English language assistant for a year in a Gymnasium (Grammar School) in Bautzen, which is a town in Saxony not far from Dresden. Ok, so my 800 euros a month isn't going to make me the millionaire I'd always hoped I'd be, but at least it did mean that the Fluency in German Dream was at least slightly in reach.

So, touching down at Cologne airport for my 3-day language assistant training course, I suddenly come to the realisation that this is where the real work begins. Suddenly filled with dread at the thought of having to deal with gobby teenagers, I consider using the few euros I have actually managed to bring to buy a flight back to London. But having got up at 3am to catch my horrendously early flight and also dealing with an unbearably heavy suitcase that does not have a proper handle, I decide I wanted to make that pain worth it. Fears quickly put aside though when I saw all the other mentally harassed, tired, and equally anxious language assistants, and I happily jumped onto the coach that arrived to take us to our destination about 45 minutes away from our city of arrival.

Having always travelled to cities and built up areas in Germany, I was not prepared for the absolutely gorgeous scenery I was confronted with. Steep valleys adorned with trees, green fields for miles, and not a building in sight. I think my previous encounters with especially Bremen and Berlin had got it into my head that Germany was one big bustling city. So seeing this side of it was lovely.

The hotel (Maria in der Aue in Wermelskirchen) was in the middle of nowhere, and as we got off the coach and I walked up to the building, it smacked of a medieval princess castle, what with its archway and round turret, and I was expecting the inside to look just as cosy. It wasn't. But it was certainly impressive. Its modern, business-like interior and rural, out-of-the-way setting are almost paradoxical. It was the kind of conference centre I'd expect to see in the middle of a city.

We were plied with vast amounts of absolutely delicious food morning, afternoon, and evening, with a mid-afternoon cake supply for good measure. As the course comprised intensity from 8 in the morning until about 8 at night, there was little time to burn off this food. Now, I am a keen eater and a not-so-keen exerciser, but even I was feeling so stodgy I wanted to go out for a run by the third day.

The train journey from Cologne to Bautzen was very, very long, and took up my whole Thursday. It also involved changing at Frankfurt and again at Dresden, but nevertheless, in true German-style, everything ran on time and it was a pretty smooth transition. I have been looking into cheaper and faster ways to travel around the country whilst I'm here and think I might try using the online hitch-hiking scheme Mitfahrgelegenheit next time I want to visit a large city. I've been told it's very cheap, and sometimes faster than travelling somewhere by train.

The journey here was definitely worth it though. The panoramic views of this old medieval town took my breath away, and I am excited to start exploring it properly. That hasn't been possible today though as it was my first day at the Philipp-Melanchthon-Gymnasium. A bit of a shock to the system as the school day starts at 7:30am here, meaning I was up at half past 5, but it is a lovely and welcoming school. Sat in on a few lessons and yearned for the German fluency of the 11-year-old students. Also realised that they actually all seemed like quite nice kids, so maybe my fears were a little bit off the mark.

Actually looking forward to starting properly now, and excited for this weekend as going to Poland for the day (another reason I like Bautzen - I am so close to the Czech and Polish borders). But for this afternoon I'm taking it easy. Will definitely be sleeping well tonight.