Maybe

Maybe this is my last post of the year. This is the post where there is too much to say. The post where there’s nothing left to say at all. Where I’m supposed to answer the question (as I so often am) “Are you excited to go home?” (it’s more often phrased as ‘You must be excited to go home!’). This is the post where I’m supposed to be able to look back on this year and say to myself with certainty that I achieved everything I wanted to. That I spent all my time just like I would have like to. That it was a perfect year. That I’m ready to go home.

And I think I can. I don’t think I could have done anything better with my life this year. I think starting college would have ended up with a pre-mature mid-life crisis. I think not going to college is something that hasn’t really ever occurred to me as a viable option. And look at me now! My German is REALLY good. Even if I didn’t get anything out of the year, that’s something I’ll be able to take with me. I met a ton of new people. I settled into a family that’s not mine. I became a not-twin for the first time since I was negative nine months old. And all on my own.

During my interview for this scholarship, one of the questions I was asked was why I wanted to do this program. I don’t know exactly the words I said. But this has never been a program I just wanted to do. I never WANTED to go to Germany for a year. This is one of those things that I have needed to do. I NEEDED to get this scholarship. Not because I didn’t believe I would survive here on my own (even by the tender age of seventeen it was clear to me that death is a rather unusual effect of loneliness or sadness). Not because I needed to run from my family. But because I just needed to check that I could do it. I didn’t want to just say for my whole life that this was something I could have done. I wanted to be able to say it was something I DID do. All by myself. Despite the fact that I will probably get carded until I’m sixty and can’t help myself from smiling even when I’m not exactly in a great mood.

And here I am. Sitting on my not-very-much-longer-bed in my not-very-much-longer-house with my I’ve-had-him-since-Easter-1997-stuffed dog. The same kid, in a way, that the Easter Bunny brought that dog to. The same one who has a washcloth and a roll of toilet paper as a pet. Who thinks sheep are such surprising looking animals that she thinks “DUDE! It’s a sheep” every time she sees one. Who, three years ago, lost two grandmothers and had mono all at the same time. Who suddenly was unable to eat for months and who scared her mother nearly to death because of it (sorry about that…I promise not to do it again if I can avoid it). And at the same time, I’m a completely different person. Instead of stuffed animals I collected beer glasses and coffee mugs this year. I’d rather buy a magazine in German than in English. I buy magazines now (when possible, Bad Kleinen is rather small). Instead of reading books for school, I read them because I felt like it. I have a younger sister now (who’s more than a minute younger). I have TWO older brothers and suddenly understand what my mom means when she says she hit her siblings more than Sophia and I do/did.

So maybe this is the last post. Maybe I’m leaving this life behind. Maybe my German won’t be so good the next time I’m here. Maybe I won’t find it weird not to have a younger sister and two older brothers anymore. Maybe everything will be just like it was except for the renovated bathroom upstairs. Or maybe, I’ve turned into a new Katherine. A Katherine who can’t write sentences in English anymore without wanting to insert German words that would add clarity. Who has discovered the joy of Freizeit (free-time). Who sometimes just wants to sit and write. Who likes to ride busses and trains by herself because it encourages thought.

And maybe, just maybe, I don’t have to choose. Maybe I can have a pet washcloth and collect beer glasses. Maybe I can speak German and English. Maybe I can pick and choose the best of both worlds. After all, who wants to make a decision? Who wants to say anything for sure? Everything is bound to change anyway.

Maybe my life will go like I’d like to think it will right now. Maybe.

Cooking

In the United States, we like to be very precise about how we measure our sugar and our flour and salt. Although we say “a cup of flour”, we really mean 237ml of flour. And why do we even have the measurement of 1/8 teaspoon? When you think about it, they could just write “not very much salt”.

I’ve pretty much made my point already, but I’ll make it a little clearer anyway. In German(y), they also have measurements of a cup, a teaspoon, a tablespoon, etc etc. But when they say a cup of flour, that literally means you take a cup out of the cupboard, fill it up with flour, and done. Teaspoons are the little spoons, and tablespoons are the big ones. And you still take a “pinch” of salt here.

There’s probably some really deep cultural meaning to that (which I can sort of imagine in my head) but I’m going to just take it for what it is. It’s my fun fact of the day for anyone who was wondering (or not).

Why I Like CBYX

About nine months ago, twenty-five just-graduates from all over the United States all flew to Washington. D.C to kick off their year abroad in Germany. The only noticeable thing they had in common was that they were all Americans and they were all interested for some reason or another in spending a year in Germany rather than going to college or whatever else they might do just after graduating from high school.

When I arrived in Washington that day, I was a bit of a mess. I wasn’t in the least afraid to start this big adventure. What I was scared of (and I still don’t know why) was meeting all of the other CBYXers. For some reason I pre-supposed that all of them would somehow be your typical confused American excited to do a year abroad in EUROPE and otherwise fairly clueless about the world. Therefore, when I arrived, I couldn’t think particularly straight, wasn’t really acting like myself, and wasn’t doing much to get to know everyone. I felt like it would be useless, anyway. It’s not like we’d be living near each other once we got to Germany. These people would never become GOOD friends of mine, they would just be people I knew who would eventually fade out of my life like so many other people I have met for short periods of time.

Fast forward to January, Berlin Seminar. Suddenly, these strangers who I had looked at skeptically and in a way almost condescendingly were friends. The ones I’d never even talked to were friends. Suddenly it became clear that I have a lot of common interests with almost everyone in the group. Of course the starting point for a lot of conversations at the beginning of the week was experiences we had had over the course of the first six months, but the number of actual interesting conversations I had was more than I have probably ever had with people my age in such a short period of time.

And what does that have to do with CBYX in particular? CBYX takes a group of people who don’t necessarily have a lot in common and thrusts them into a foreign (literally) situation. Suddenly, everyone has common interests. Common problems. Common ideas. Common goals. At the orientation in Washington last June, Hecko and Katelyn (former participants who ran a lot of the orientation) told us that the twenty five of us were a family, we just didn’t know it yet. I Immediately thought back to marching band, where I had also been told I was part of a family. The marching band family never really felt like a family to me, more like a giant group of friends. I came to the conclusion that I was once again being forced into a “family” and dismissed the comment as yet another piece of B.S being fed to the young American population.

But they were right this time. Of course, my fellow CBYXers have not LITERALLY become a part of my family. But this year is something the now-twenty-three of us share that no one else at home can be a part of. Although we’ve all had different experiences when it comes to the specifics, all of us have been living on our own for nine months without seeing our real families. While not all of us have dealt with the same problems, it is pretty much a guarantee that if you have a problem, someone else in the group will have dealt with a similar issue. And if you have some sort of success story, funny story, anything, someone in the group is going to be able to relate. It’s become a group of people that I feel really close to even though relatively speaking, I don’t know them nearly as well as my friends at home.

The fact that the vocational part of this program only has twenty five people is another advantage, if you ask me. That means that instead of trying to get to know 250 or however many people there are in the normal program, you get twenty five people and then get to know them fairly well. Having a family of twenty five is a lot easier than a family of 200.

So thanks, CBYX. I’ve been impressed with the setup, and don’t think it could be changed to be much better.

Germany is not France

I think it was about a year into the two years I was in France that it occurred to me that despite my admiration for the French and ability to appreciate their food, I would never be truly French. Why? Because I’m an American. The French (like Americans) convinced that their way of living is correct. There are specific rules that one must adhere to because that’s just the way it is. There are a lot cultural things that are so deeply integrated into every French person that they are taken as truths rather than as opinions the entire country happens to share. Not fitting into these cultural norms is cause for a certain amount of finger wagging from the french and a feeling of guiltiness for not knowing that too much ice in your water is bad for your digestion. For an American such as myself, that can lead to a feeling of constant self-consciousness and worry that I’m not doing something right (I suspect my time in France has something to do with my perfectionism).

And now I’m in Germany. About a month ago I realized that the reason that I am not German (and never will be) is exactly the opposite from the reason I am not French. Rather than adhering to rule after rule, my impression here has been that children are encouraged to cultivate their own identity and to make decisions for themselves from a much younger age than either in the United States or in France. Rather than, like the French, TELLING children in school that they WILL do this or WILL NOT do that, the Germans ASK their children what they want to do and encourage them to try different things. The idea behind this whole method, as far as I can tell is to let kids make mistakes and see what and what doesn’t work for themselves (as opposed to the French who are told what works and what doesn’t). Thus the internships integrated into the school system, thus the option to go to school through eighth, tenth, or twelfth grade, thus the large number of young Germans who go abroad for a year even during high school. It’s not about the way ONE does things, but about the way each INDIVIDUAL chooses to live his or her life.

I think growing up like that would have been difficult for me. I think a mix between the two extremes of French and German (more or less what I think I got) is best-try out a bit, but get input about what has and has not worked in the past. That said, having the opportunity to live in Germany this year has been a good chance to let myself try out things I never have tried out before and to allow myself to say “This is what I think” rather than “This is what I’ve been told, and as I agree with the general principal, I’m going to go with it”. I’ve been able to develop myself as an individual but still have the background that I had from growing up in the family I grew up in.

Talking about all of this in such general terms feels a little weird for me because it makes me feel like I’m overgeneralizing. I know in the back of my head that a lot of the impressions I have about the United States and France and Germany are based on where exactly I was/am located and the people I am with. But on the other hand, there are certain things that are indeed cultural, and while with all cultural things there are exceptions, the feeling that one should keep to the rule is there no matter what.

Integration

You may have noticed that I haven’t posted in a couple weeks. Maybe you even wondered why, and hoped that I would write something (that’s what I like to think at least). I wondered why I didn’t want to post. Why I didn’t have anything to write all of a sudden. Writers block, in a way. Or only thinking about things that I would prefer to write in a journal where the entire world won’t see it. Being the person I am, I don’t just take things for what they are. I have to interpret every little tiny detail of my life (in this case why I didn’t feel like blogging) to determine its potential consequences on my future and that of others.
My conclusion? I’m more than halfway through my time in Germany now. As of today I have been living with my host family for six months (and it’s my half birthday!) so I’m used to the way they live. I’m used to getting around the area. I know what I can and cannot do. I’ve started my internships. I’ve made friends. I’ve had Christmas. And, I’ve been away from the United States long enough that my references are a bit old.
That being said, I would still not consider myself to be completely ‘integrated’ into Germany/German culture. I’m still the Auslander (foreigner) who speaks good German but says ‘what’ a little too often for a real German. And who has an American accent (strangely enough the accent is usually more or less inexistent the first time I talk to people…if only it would stay that way). I still get asked about how it is on the other side of the pond. What I think about our military involvement in this and that. When the primaries are in different states and who is going to win the presidential election. Whether I eat McDonald’s a lot. And so on and so forth. Then again, I guess I should define the word ‘integrated’. If it means I’m in a good mood most of the time and know my way around and have made friends and feel like I have a life here, then yes, I am integrated. It’s just the fact that I’m still a foreigner that makes me feel unintegrated. It’s an odd feeling because in a way I sort of like it. I’m something new and different. I get looks from people that say to me “Wow, I could ask her so many things, but I’m a little shy and concerned that she has an accent because that’s intimidating, plus I have so many things I’m wondering that I don’t even know what I’m wondering”. I am regularly complemented on my ability to speak and understand German. In short, I get more attention because of it. But attention is tiring after a while. There’s a part of me that really wants to go back to my life in southeast suburban Denver where the streets are too wide and the grocery stores are open twenty four hours.

What all that has to do with why I haven’t wanted to write for the past couple weeks is still a bit unclear to me. But I think the longer you live in a place, the less the things that might be weird to a newcomer appear weird. Rather than being the foreigner, I’ve been trying to allow myself to become German. Just for a couple months. Trying to let go of the part of me that is American and trying to embrace the German part (I’ve actually thought sometimes that I would have made a good German, had I been born here. I quite like the lifestyle for the most part). It’s just hard, because, well, I grew up in the United States.

Katherine

Twenty One Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Germany

1) The Germans watch television in German. Obviously. The amusing part is that they watch American shows (the favorites are “Two and a Half Men” and “How I Met Your Mother”) that are dubbed. And for some reason, they always hire the same two or three people (OK, a few more than that…) to do the dubbing. So rather than hearing Charlie Sheen, it’s the same voice as Brad Pitt in some other movie.

2) When participating in gym class, it is important to know more about the sport than how to play. This became clear to me in October or so when I had to take a written test on soccer. The rules. The size of the field, goals, diameter of the middle circle, names of all the different lines (in German). When the German Soccer League was founded. Who the president of the League is, and how long he has been president. You get the point. Essentially, things that I don’t know the answer to. Let’s just say it’s a good thing my grades during my time at school didn’t count. I got 24 of 51 points. With cheating.

3) German trains do not live up to their super-duper on time reputation. I would say approximately half the time my train comes late. Given, it’s only by about five minutes most of the time, but still.

4) If you’re going to play the song “Hangover” incessantly on the radio, it would be good to know what it means. Please.

5) According to a certain percentage of Germans, the United States is warm. “Have you seen snow before?” “Yes, I live in Colorado, we have mountains.” “Oh, but I thought it was warm in the US!” “That’s Florida.” I don’t blame them for not knowing we don’t have snow in Colorado. But the WHOLE United States? Come on, guys.

6) I think the tradition of a 4pm cake and coffee is a good one.

7) Living in the US, I was aware of the fact that my knowledge about American pop culture (movies, music, actors, who’s married to who) was less than adequate. Is it normal that the Germans also know more than me?

8) In my defense (to number 7), the Germans watch different shows and know different American music from Americans. I think, at least. I don’t get the feeling that “Two and Half Men” is a big thing in my homeland.

9) Your eighteenth birthday in Germany is a big deal. In the US, turning eighteen means “cigarettes, voting, and porn” (otherwise known as sex, drugs, and rock and roll). In Germany, it means that as well. But it also means, for the most part, that you are completely independent from your parents. You’re an adult now. Do what you want. None of this “as long as you live under my roof you’ll live by my rules” nonsense. I don’t know if I like that or not.

10) I was watching the Super Bowl a couple days (nights) ago. I laughed when the commentators explained what the electronic yellow line on the field means. It made me feel educated despite my lack of knowledge of American culture.

11) Speaking of the Super Bowl…I think commercial spots here cost less than 4 million per thirty seconds. I saw the same ones over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over.

12) Germans drink out of bottles. Drinking water out of the sink just doesn’t happen. I don’t know why. I have to remind myself to drink water, because when it’s bottled, for me that means it might as well be soda. Also, water with bubbles is lovely. I don’t know why Americans don’t like it.

13) I’ve gained weight since I’ve been in Germany. About twenty pounds, to be exact. When I tell Germans this, they laugh and say that doesn’t make sense because Germans are less fat than Americans. However, I read somewhere that the percentage of fat Americans is something like 65.7%. Percentage of fat Germans? 65.5%. Better watch out, Germany.

14) In Germany’s fatness defense, they have REALLY good bread. Even the French think it’s better than french bread.

15) One of the songs I play(ed) in my oompapa German band has lyrics. They go more or less like this: Franz went to the beer tent/ Because he likes to drink so much/ The beer was nice and cold/ a few more lines that I don’t remember exactly what they say…/ When he arrived in the morning, Franz was doing well/ But in the evening he lay under the table. Yup, that’s German beer culture for you.

16) In movie theaters, you get reserved seats (they all cost the same though). And the popcorn is usually sweet.

17) In tenth grade, my math teacher, Mr. Saracino, taught me SED (Saracino’s Enlargement of Dot Theory). It goes something like “If you are drawing a graph and the line doesnt go through the dot like it’s supposed to, make the dot bigger”. I used this theory on a math test earlier this year. It didn’t work. I guess that’s an American theory.

18) Why would the school’s English teacher think it’s a good idea to read the original version of Macbeth with the twelfth graders? Even I don’t understand Shakespeare without thinking about it. And I thought the point of learning English was to be able to use it. As far as I can tell, no one talks like Shakespeare’s characters any more. Probably never did, it’s too poetic. All I can say is that my classmates are lucky the internet and things like SparkNotes’ “No Fear Shakespeare” exist.

19) Whoever made up German and English was incredibly mean with the verbs “to become” and ‘bekommen’. Bekommen means “to get”. And in German, ‘to become’ is ‘werden’. One of the girls I tutor in English can attest to the incredible meanness of this fact.

20) Germans are good at making windows. Why Americans haven’t caught on to the ‘closed’, ’tilted open’ or ‘all the way open’ style of windows, I will never know.

21) So far, I’m the only one I know here who likes Dr. Pepper. And lemonade doesn’t exist here. And root beer is NOT alcoholic.

That’s it for the moment.

Oh, and since when are Tupperware parties a thing? I thought that was like…1950s America. There’s more Tupperware here than I’ve ever seen.

Berlin: It’s officially the middle of the year

Although my last post was about the importance of lying, I’m going to make this post completely honest.

The days leading up to the mid-year seminar in Berlin, I was really wishing I could just stay here in Bad Kleinen. “I don’t want to go hang out with all those AMERICANS” I was thinking to myself.
“Why would I want to do that when I could just stay here where I’m perfectly happy?” Needless to say, the night before I left I was having a much better time hitting Madita with towels than packing.

Knowing Andrew and my travel habits, it was not surprising to either of us when we were sitting on the train and suddenly realized that we had ridden through Berlin without stopping at the Hauptbahnhof where we wanted to get off. In fact, it was about a thirty minute ride PAST the Hauptbahnhof that the train next stopped and we were able to get off and ride back to the middle of the city to the hostel. Small travel problem, as I said, to be expected when Andrew and I travel together.

Once we arrived at the hostel, there was about an hour for everyone to get reaquainted with each other and to talk about whatever it was we wanted to. I was glad to have that time because since the group was split up for the first two months between Munich and Frankfurt, there were a lot of people I really didnt know. Then we had a seminar that was a sort of “Welcome to Berlin, here’s what we’ll be doing for the next week” thing. Our presenter/guide for Berlin was Ronnie Golz (www.rgolz.de) who is a British guy who has lived in Berlin for a really long time, in the West when it was the West, and now, well…still in the west I guess you could say. But in any case, he is SUPER knowledgable about the city’s history and knows how to present it in an interesting way.

The week consisted of presentations by Ronnie in the mornings about DDR times or Nazis or unification or reunification, and then in the late mornings/afternoons we went to various Berlin sights. Being a government scholarship reciever is pretty cool because it means you get to go into places that aren’t normally open to the public like the 1936 Olympic Stadium and the building behind it which is one of just a few original Nazi buildings. And you get a tour of the Reichstag (did you know there is a room in the Reichstag that is a sort of chapel but is non-denominational, so they have different features for different religions?). You also get to go to a play about the difficulties of being a Muslim in Germany and more specifically about the difficulties of being a Muslim girl. But that wasn’t a very good play, so I won’t mention it.

Afternoons/evenings were free. That meant a lot of time to talk to everyone in the group and to get to know people better. And to go to museums we wanted to go to (there is an incredibly high percentage of people in the group interested in museums, which is wonderful). And to explore the city. And to eat yummy food. And to just hang out in the hostel talking and hanging out until three or four in the morning (not very good for sleep when you have to wake up at 7.30 again, but totally worth it).

It was a good experience for me to realize that I actually do have a lot in common with the people in this program and they aren’t all “just silly Americans” like I sometimes have a tendency to think. And I think after this year, we are all even more similar than we were before it, just because we have all lived through a year in Germany. Even after six months we have a ton to talk about.

I think those are most of the major points of the week. It reconfirmed my trust in this program. It’s really well organized and feels very personal, not just like you are just another participant. I think that’s partly because I’m in the vocational program so the group is really small anyway. But in any case, it’s good.

🙂