Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Fly Away Home

So moving out of anywhere is going to be stressful, especially when you have no choice but to somehow get 9-month's worth of your precious things into a 30kg container. However, this did give me time for a much-needed 'minimalisation exercise'. And I felt so good afterwards. There's something so cleansing about ridding yourself of unnecessary clutter in your life and knowing you've really thought about what you actually need to keep and what you thought you needed but in fact is completely surplus to any needs you might or might not have. Anything broken, holey, or imperfect was out (it was quite shameful how many clothes I had that fitted this category actually). Toiletries were out (not because I've suddenly decided to live with the earth and not wash, but because these can definitely be replaced back in Blighty). And bringing back any kitchen utensils was a definite no-no - these were kindly donated to the next lucky language assistant.

Yes, moving out of a country and back home involves a lot of stress (if you've been tight enough to not book an extra bag onto the plane) in addition to the weird emotional turmoil. It's strange how you suddenly feel of the room you've been living in for so long as an old friend when you shut the door for the last time. You might even want to vocalise the goodbye - don't feel ashamed - no-one's watching (unless they are, in which case you might want to weigh up whether or not you care if this person thinks you are an emotionally unstable fruitcake whose best friend is a room). But I digress. My emotional turmoil also involved feeling really happy and excited about going home and seeing friends and family, and really sad about leaving the people and places in Bautzen that I've come to know and love. I was very aware of doing things for the last time, especially during the last week, and getting to the airport knowing this was it - my little room in Bautzen is no longer waiting excitedly to welcome me back - was strange and exhilarating in a happy/sad kind of way. They do say that coming home is one of the best parts of travelling don't they? Well, I wouldn't say the best, but it is one of the nice parts.

So goodbye Bautzen. Goodbye for now Germany. Goodbye little bedroom. This language assistant has shut the door for the last time.


Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Job-hunting and Horses

Traditional hand-painted eggs - a Sorbian custom

Almost a month since my last post and life has been speeding up and not slowing down as I come towards the end of my time here. With only 6 weeks until my final day I am already having to start thinking about the things I have to do before I go - closing my bank account, de-registering as a resident of Bautzen, and even worrying about not buying too much food so I don't have any left when I leave (and yes it's true - food wastage distresses me to an extreme degree).

I have also had to be thinking about what I am going to do when I get back - and have spent the last 4 months looking for, applying, and being interviewed for various jobs and internships. After weeks and weeks of feeling gloomy and depressed at the prospect of returning home and being yet another unemployed graduate living at home with my parents and not being able to get a foot in the job market, I was absolutely overjoyed to find out that I have been offered a 6-month Copywriting internship in Lima, Peru, with Spanish lessons included (I speak not a word of Spanish and after my disastrous attempt at learning Italian I am not sure I'll come back speaking like a native, but I might be able to order a coffee - or a hot chocolate, seeing as I hate coffee). Having never been to South America before, or indeed anywhere on the American continent, the idea of living and working in the capital city of such an interesting country is so exciting. It is also, hopefully, the first step to actually getting a proper career started. I am really looking forward to experiencing and writing about my next big adventure!

And, speaking about jobs, I have also become much busier in the last couple of weeks as I have started work in a cafe-restaurant in Bautzen. I have to say, cafe waitressing is 100000000 times better and more enjoyable than retail work, which I did the whole time I was studying. So my advice to all students looking for work - look for cafes over shops every time! Not only is the work much less boring and more varied, the atmosphere is relaxed and laid back, you get food and drink when you're working, AND the tips are a wonderful highlight! I always resented my sister coming home laden with the golden coin for working in a pub when I busted my ass being a shop assistant and came home with sweet FA. I also think it is a good thing to do on a year abroad as it does really help the language skills, which working at a school as a language assistant doesn't help with unfortunately as speaking English is a must :(

Sorbian women in traditional costume with their hand-painted eggs

And whilst these developments have been unfolding Easter has also passed and, as mentioned in my last blog post, so have the Easter riders (a local Slavic minority, Sorbians, have a tradition that involves all the men dressing up in top hats and riding through the town on horseback singing traditional Sorbian songs). Easter day was absolutely gloriously sunny, and joining the excited crowd in the town centre was a great way to spend the Easter morning. The roads were closed off and the many horses were adorned in their finery. They were trotted around for about half an hour in front of the many enthusiastic onlookers before lining up outside the church building for a short Easter service, around which the men rode a few times singing before heading off through the town. My camera was in constant action and I couldn't have looked more like an over-excited, eager tourist if I had tried - but I just thought, I'm never likely to see this again, and it is such a big deal in this area; think the royal wedding but maybe on a slightly smaller scale (Bautzen is no London!) - I was packed in like a sardine with the amount of people lining the streets. And as they say:

Take too many pictures,
Laugh too much,
Forgive freely,
And love like you've never been hurt.

Til next time.

Ciao x

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Sorbians in Bautzen - Then and Now

Having recently had the golden opportunity to be shown around the local Sorbian Grammar School and sit in a couple of lessons (not a word of which I understood), I thought it would be interesting to post about the unique and little-known Sorbian culture in this corner of the world.

Okay, so here is a little background info:

Once upon a time, over a thousand years past, a Slavic people settled in a faraway land known as Lusatia, an enchanted place that lies in the east of what is now called Germany. Legend had it that these folk had originated from somewhere north of the Sea of Blackness over 2,000 years before, but all we know for sure is that these people spoke a magical language. At first you might mistake it for Czech, or Polish, maybe even Russian, but alas - you'd be wrong. Very wrong. This magical tongue was in fact called Sorbian. 

These Sorbs lived happily and harmoniously in their land. And life was good. "How happy we are", said they (in Sorbian of course) as they grazed their cattle and gathered their wheat. But this idyll was not to last forever....

About three hundred years later, in the 9th and 10th centuries, their lives were destined to change forever; the Germanic peoples crept further and further east until one fateful day these two cultures were to clash, never again to be set asunder. Was there bloodshed, you ask? Oh yes, much. And who was defeated, I hear you ask again? The Sorbians, I reply sadly. In 932 they were defeated by the Duke of Saxony. Subjugation and assimilation followed, leading to the decline of their culture and this magical Sorbian tongue. Alas, today all that remains of this once great people is a mere 60,000 individuals and a language on the brink of extinction.

Bautzen town was actually founded by these Slavs in 1002 and is the Sorbian centre, with most here speaking Upper Sorbian (as opposed to Lower Sorbian, which is spoken mainly in Lower Lusatia). With these people having been oppressed and discriminated against historically, they have become a village folk culture and have over the years gone from being monoglots to a bilingual people. Forced 'Germanisation' during the Third Reich unfortunately led to a decline in the already small number of Sorbs with Sorbian as their mother-tongue; speaking the language was banned in 1937, meaning it could not be passed on to the younger generation. This law was overturned of course, but not until a few years later, by which time there were already many small Sorbian children whose only language was German.

Sorbians luckily had the support of the GDR on their side and after 1949 their right to maintain their native language and culture was legally recognised, and even heavily financially subsidised, and so they have not disappeared completely.

Bautzen now reflects its bi-cultural heritage, with bilingual signs (one example pictured above), a museum dedicated to the history of the Sorbs, Sorbian schools, and even a German-Sorbian Folk Theatre (which is Germany's only bilingual theatre).

Sorbian traditions are also kept alive here- I mentioned in a previous post that I attended a 'Vogelhochzeit' (Bird Wedding) show at the Folk Theatre. The 'Vogelhochzeit' is an old folk tradition that celebrates the end of winter: the night before Jan 25th, a dish of crumbs is left outside for the birds and overnight the 'birds' fill the dish with gifts for the children as a 'thankyou' for having kept them fed all winter. The next day is then filled with children performing and singing whilst dressed up as bride and groom 'birds'. It's a very sweet tradition.

I am also looking forward to the upcoming traditional Easter Sunday 'Procession of the Easter Riders', in which Sorbian men dress up in their traditional gear and sing whilst riding through the towns and villages on horseback. I am led to believe the Bautzen procession is quite large.
What a spectacle!

Thursday, 20 March 2014


Two weeks in after the holidays and I've spent about 50% of my time adorned in sunnies and t-shirts and the other 50% dressed as though I'm embarking on a trip to the North Pole. However, despite the yo-yo weather and the stressful mornings that go with it (not wanting to spend the upcoming 12 hours either sweating like a pig or risking meeting a cold and miserable end), it's been one of the best fortnights so far.

The first week was spent planning my weekend in the South-West of France, where I attended my grandmother's surprise 80th birthday party. As a punishment for being tucked away in some unknown place in the depths of Germany, it took me a while to get over the shock of how long and expensive the journey was going to be. I think I have been spoilt by the plethora of regular and cheap flights it is possible to get from London at any one time - I'm learning the hard way that travel isn't always so simple.

A couple of long journeys, a party, and a bit of sunburn later it was back to Germany to plan my upcoming trip to Prague.
Tip numero uno: when travelling, don't discount coaches! I was forced into a corner and booked one out of sheer desperation when I saw the price of the trains (ok, ok, I left it quite late in the day to book my travel), but it was the best decision I could have made. Comfy seats, hot drinks, and Zac Efron films on demand - I was in heaven.
And tip numero dos: if money is an issue, save it for doing the nice things Prague has to offer and skimp on hostels. When we booked our stay there were so many places for under £10 a night that there's really no reason to spend more. The hostel was pretty basic but clean and provided us with somewhere to sleep - the only issue I had was with the breakfast (or lack thereof), but what can you expect for £5 a night, right?

Going out on the first night we could see why it's such a popular place- the atmosphere was alive and infectious and I even made friends with a big, cuddly shark wandering the streets before we were recommended this absolute gem of a cocktail bar in the main square of the city. 'Black Angels' was the kind of place I would expect to be paying upwards of £10 per cocktail in London, but Prague being Prague we had personalised cocktails, friendly bar-staff, and a damn good night with change from a ten pound note (not that we paid in pounds, but if we had, we would have done).

The next day we umbrella-less souls braved the lashing rain to do a 4-hour tour of the city. Having no prior knowledge of the Czech Republic in the slightest, everything was fascinating to me. I discovered that:

1) Czechs are the biggest beer guzzlers in the world (even bigger than Germany).
2) There is a beautiful clock in the Old Town Square, which has chimed on the hour for about 600 years and      along with the chime comes a dancing chorus of figurines (think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-              esque).
3) The Czech Republic is one of the least religious countries in the world - the reason why so many churches
     have had to be given new uses, such as restaurants, theatres, and even strip clubs!
4) There is a part of the Jewish Quarter that Hitler never wanted destroyed as he had plans to open a
     'Museum of an Extinct Race' - if you didn't think he was psychotic enough!
5) Music by a Czech composer was the first music on the moon.

After a day of learning, we then thought it was important to experience the nightlife of the city and decided to take part in an organised bar crawl. I'd highly recommend it - doing it this way, we paid 500 Koruna (about £15) and got taken to 3 different bars and then a 5 storey club, with lots of drinks included in the price. Aside from the drink per buck advantage, doing it this way instead of on our own meant we met lots of people of a similar age and doing a similar kind of thing. Oh, and we got a t-shirt of course.

The last day we went to Prague Castle (the biggest in the world) and climbed the Old Town Hall, giving us a panoramic view of the city.

The city is a place I would highly recommend to anyone, and if you do decide to go, bear these things in mind:

1) It's a reasonably cheap city, so don't worry too much if you're not rolling in it.
2) Definitely try the Goulash, which you can find EVERYWHERE (unless you are a vegetarian or don't like       beef) - it's a heavenly experience, almost like angels are dancing in your mouth!
3) If you are travelling around Europe and can't be bothered to change up money, don't worry. Everywhere
     seems to accept Euros.
4) If you ARE changing up money, ask the people running the place you are staying or a tour guide to
    recommend a place - Prague seems to have more money exchange places than people, but we were
    warned that an awful lot of them charge extortionate commission and fees - and so it's best to go
    somewhere that's been recommended.
5) Don't ever change money with someone who comes up to you in the street - apparently a surprising
    amount of tourists do this, and it's never good news.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Mountainous Adventures

Well, where to begin! These past few weeks I've packed in an awful lot, managing to see some different parts of Germany and try my hand at skiing, and also going home to England for a couple of weeks whilst school broke up.

A little less than a month ago, I paid a visit to Meissen, not far from Dresden. The timing my friends and I decided on was a little off (we went on a Sunday, forgetting that around here that means shops are closed) and so it did seem like a bit of a ghost town, but we were able to appreciate its beauty nonetheless. This was the breath-taking view we were greeted with as the train pulled into the station (sadly the weather left a lot to be desired):

Its claim to fame is its porcelain (you might have heard of Meissen porcelain) and so its main tourist attraction is the factory where these world-famous, hand-made, very expensive products are produced. Fortunately for us, this was open, and so we paid our entrance fee and did the tour.The tour was short and sweet - it only took about 30 minutes, if that, but we were shown the journey the porcelain art makes from concept to fully-finished product. We watched highly-skilled men and women create the delicate pieces on their pottery wheels and with their own hands, and then decorate and paint them. In true German style the tour was thorough and alongside the full lowdown on how the porcelain is made, we also got a very interesting history of it and the factory itself. English headsets were provided, which is good news for tourists. It's definitely worth a visit if you are in the area (and is very well signposted so you can't miss it), but maybe to be avoided if you have young children as they will be bored, or possibly even knock over a 30,000 euro bowl (and there are plenty of those there, believe me - my stress levels were high as a kite as I made my way through the displays). The displays were very impressive, but as there was so much and only so much porcelain I can stand to see in one day, I didn't see everything, but got the idea. It made me feel very poor too.

This was gorgeous - and even better in the flesh. The little logo at the bottom is the 'Meissen Porcelain' logo that features on every piece made.

The weekend after this, I ventured a little further; travelling to the deepest southernmost part of Germany; an impressive-looking, mountainous region called Garmisch-Partenkirchen, right next to the Austrian border. After the 6-hour journey, checking into the hostel, collecting all my ski-gear, and then meeting the group of people I'd be spending the weekend with, I was glad to get into bed, ready for the early start the next morning. Getting up early both days was definitely a good idea as I was only there for two days and so wanted to get the most skiing time out of my ski-pass.

A shaky start was had. I spent the first morning almost crying with frustration as I couldn't work out how to control my skis and so spent 90% of the time lying in the snow. And getting up whilst you're wearing skis is nigh on impossible! And so I had to take them off every. single. time (which was most of the time actually). However, it was soon worked out that we had started on a red slope (which is one below a black - the most advanced type of ski slope you can get) and so after a little rest and recuperation we beginners downgraded ourselves to the much easier and more enjoyable baby slope, which was one below green, the easiest.

I did, however, after a while, feel the need to stretch myself and thought I did not want to leave Garmisch without at least mastering the green slope. So up I went. All was going well until I lost control of my skis whilst waiting in the queue at the top and went straight into a group of little four-year-olds on a skiing lesson. One of the children and I ended up on our backs in the snow with our skis so intertwined we couldn't separate them - the ski instructor had to come and do that. But after that mishap I was able to spend the rest of the day going (very slowly) down the slope without hurting anyone. Below is a skiing me.

Went back to the hostel that night reasonably pleased with myself - I had managed to master a least a modicum of control as far as the skis were concerned. But I was bothered that I hadn't plucked up the courage to go very fast. So the next day I decided to set myself free. Got to the top of the green slope and this time, instead of angling my skis so I went down more slowly than a snail, I just let myself go. And it was exhilarating. I even managed to turn a few times in order to avoid people. Pumped full of courage I did it again, but this time was not so lucky. As I was flying down the slope I saw a line of children appear in front of me, walking across the slope following their ski instructor. Scared I was going to go into them, I turned my skis, but not far enough - I (luckily) managed to miss the kids but skied at great speed into their instructor, went up into the air and came down with a thud (which made me feel very glad I was wearing a helmet, although I still had a slight headache for the rest of the day), as did he. Needless to say, after that I was a little more conservative with my speed, but I'm glad I managed to go fast at least once!

We also found time that day to hop on the train and go to the top of Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany. As it was such a grey, snowy day that day, we didn't see much once we got there, but we made sure the moment was immortalised:

And then, after this fun-filled day I had to make my way to Munich airport to catch my flight home. Touched down in Gatwick very late at night and once I arrived home crawled into my nice, warm bed.

Monday, 3 February 2014

The Trials and Tribulations of being a Language Assistant

Having been treated to a week of heavy snow, it has in the last few days all but melted. A few icy patches here and there but nothing more. So it looks as though spring is on its way in this far-flung corner of Eastern Germany (although I have been warned that there could very possibly be another snow shower this month), and while that's been happening I've been teaching teaching teaching.

A few weeks ago a few of the Year 12 students (the last year, due to take their final exams in the next few months) requested extra lessons, so I conducted my first after school English conversation class last Wednesday. It's a little different from the normal lessons - the students who stay behind for an extra lesson are the ones that really, really want to learn, so there's none of that bashing your head against a brick wall trying to teach bored students who aren't very interested business. They instructed me to stop them and correct them every time they made a mistake, and the conversations they were having as exam practice were wonderfully detailed and interesting. So there was even more of a stark contrast when I came into school the next day to try and conduct lessons with some classes who seem to have an abject fear of contributing. That's one thing I had neglected to prepare for before I came - in my mind if you ask students for ideas or answers they give you ideas or answers. But maybe I'd forgotten what it was to be in school. Students do have a fear of giving 'obvious' answers as they seem convinced you're out to trick them, most are also worried about being the first to speak, and if you ask them to talk to each other for something like pair work, it's sometimes difficult to get any sound in the classroom other than a series of barely audible whispers. I had forgotten all this (and now, thinking about it, I definitely remember doing it), but my first few lesson plans were far too optimistic and I did not factor in time lost in trying to prise answers from students. For anyone looking to do an Assistantship abroad, bear in mind that it takes time to get to know the ebb and flow of individual students and classes, and try not to feel despondent when lessons don't turn out quite the way you imagine. If anything, this job has made me much more adaptable and I have got to the point now where I can change/invent/eke out/shorten lessons as situations change.

There is soon to be another two weeks off, and this half-term has flown by; I can hardly believe that next week is the last week of school. However, I'm very excited as next weekend I am going on my first ever ski trip. It's only two days and I doubt I'll be a pro by the end, but I'm glad I'll be seeing mountainous Bavaria at least once whilst I'm here. It will also be fun to actually try out skiing and discover my natural talents - but more news on that front in a couple of weeks.

Bis bald :)

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

A Spicey Life

Before I begin I would like to share something that wowed me earlier on this week. http://www.deathandtaxesmag.com/198876/rare-color-film-shows-what-london-looked-like-in-1927/. This video is shot by Claude-Friese Greene in 1927 and is some of the first ever colour film footage. It's a pretty great way to spend five minutes if you have the time, and are interested in what London looks like in 1927. I was entranced not only by the scenery and the vintage colour quality, but also by the people, those people who had got up that morning and had no idea that a few seconds of their lives were to be captured in this historical moment, this fascinating time-capsule for people to enjoy evermore. But if you find that amazing, it's also worth checking out this project: http://vimeo.com/81368735 shot by Simon Smith. He has recreated, almost exactly, the footage from Greene and so we are presented with a perfect visual representation of the extent to which modern life has shaped our capital city, which, actually, when you see the video, is not very much at all.

But, from time-travelling to real travelling, I have had quite an eventful second week back. It started firstly by being told I was to have a reporter from the local Saechsische Zeitung (Saxon Newspaper) visit one of my lessons and then interview me. You can maybe imagine what such news did to my state of mind, and what a nervous wreck I was when I turned up to school on Monday! I was not even sure which language I was going to be interviewed in (of course, I strongly suspected German but you can never be sure...) and lo and behold, it was. The lesson was a little unnerving with a camera man wandering around photographing our faces at close range, and it made trying to pull off the relaxed but great and inspirational teacher vibe I was going for that little bit harder. However, success was had. An interview was conducted. German questions asked, German answers given. And the world kept spinning. Then two days later I was minding my own business in the staffroom, and unbeknownst to me I had become a local celebrity (I jest of course, but the staff were very excited). I must have shaken about 100 hands and received countless congratulatory greetings for an article I hadn't even seen yet. So I bought the paper, but I'm ashamed to say I still need to read it properly. It's gonna take a little time and mental effort on my part to get more than the main jist. And if you've ever wondered what I might look like when I'm desperately trying to look professional in the face of adversity, you're in luck. This is the photo that made the cut:

Another exciting thing that happened to me this week (Bautzen is definitely the place to be!) is that I tagged along on a school trip to the local theatre to see Anne Frank. It was an excellent production. I always hope it's going to end differently every time I see an adaptation, just like I do with Titanic. But of course it never does. The actors were all older pupils from my Gymnasium (and in case you haven't read my previous blog posts and don't speak any German, I mean the Grammar School I work at, not my local fitness centre, wherever that is...) and so I did feel a little sense of pride.

Also paid another little visit to Dresden this weekend, where Ellie and I went out for our traditional cocktails and also watched films, namely Spiceworld and The Lizzie McGuire Movie. I'm not even ashamed.

And so, in the words of Jim Carrey, in case I don't see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Post-Christmas Gloom

Christmas craziness over, my feet are now safely planted back on German soil. One week back and being back home in England already seems like decades ago. I felt a little bit like Taz-mania whilst I was there. With only two short weeks I had to fit in last minute Christmas preparations, Christmas day, meeting up with as many of my friends as I could possibly cram in, having my whole extended family come to stay (but granted, it is not exactly huge. In fact, I could well win awards for the smallest extended family in the history of time), working at Kempton racecourse, and going to London for the New Year (great fun, but resulted in a lost phone, an angry parent, and memory loss). Add to all this the stress of two very very long journeys which included uncomfortable night trains, choppy seas, delayed ferries, and exceedingly lengthy coach drives and you can understand why I do sort of feel like I've been punched in the head (I know, bring out the violins, right?). But to all of you doing, about to do, or thinking of doing a year abroad, either as part of your studies, gap year, or post-graduation year, be prepared for the shorter holidays. University really spoils us. I used to have a drawn-out, month-long, leisurely Christmas break, and so this year I realised how much I failed to appreciate them. What a fool!

But now, to settle back into being a 'teacher' again. Having only been to a week's worth of lessons so far, there is not really much extra to report so far. I did have to plan and implement my own lesson for the second time, and it really wasn't as scary as it seemed the first time around. I guess it's just a case of ripping off the plaster. I've actually quite enjoyed putting my own lessons together, and for anyone who happens to be about to do a scheme with the British Council like I am doing, or anything of a similar ilk, I recommend the following book: http://www.lazyteacher.co.uk/about_book.html. It is such an easy-read, and absolutely packed full of ideas on how to make your lessons more interesting. It is especially useful for anyone without prior teaching training (like me) who has no idea where to start, but I can imagine also useful for anyone already in the teaching profession too. It's been more valuable to me than a golden palace full of gold coins and platinum rings.

Til next time. Until then, here's a video of a cute baby to help banish those January blues: