More Adventures

 

The truth is, I’ve been enjoying myself so much that I forgot I had a blog. Oops. In the time that’s passed I’ve been all over the place doing some of the most intense and jam-packed travelling of my life, which I hope you’ve been itching to hear about.

One of the many perks of being a language assistant is that, while you have plenty of free time and very little to do, for the first and probably the last time for many years, you might have money to spare.

Of course, it isn’t all a great big holiday and luckily for me, the university recently reminded me of that, on our department residential. Spoiler: it was in a castle.

But you’re here for the fun stuff.

A&E

Doesn’t sound like fun, I know, but bear with.

Fellow language assistant Fiona and I had been planning an Easter holiday in Vienna since about November, when we stumbled across the idea of stopping off in Munich on the way. It’s not on the way at all. We just wanted to go to Munich.

We were joined by another language assistant, Charlotte, and about two hours in, it was all going swimmingly, until Fiona dislocated her knee, fell and hit her head.

Two Italians were calling us an ambulance, Fiona was lying on the pavement with a huge lump on her head, Charlotte and I were running around like headless chickens, when an English woman appeared, shouting, “Don’t worry, I’m a doctor!”.

She was acting strange, flirting with the Italians and repeatedly asking what might have caused Fiona’s epileptic fit. “She didn’t have a fit. She doesn’t have epilepsy.” She also insisted that she wouldn’t be able to help us once the paramedics arrived. True to her word, she vanished into thin air. When I told the paramedic that this “doctor” had helped us, he raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Did she now?”

batman interesting thinking hmm chin
The plot thickens.

Highlights:

  • being rescued by Italians
  • getting to ride in the back of an ambulance
  • making friends with a fabulous American air steward in the waiting room

And Fiona was alright in the end too.

Lessons learnt:

  • always carry your EHIC card
  • people aren’t always who they say they are
  • don’t dislocate your knee and fall and hit your head

General Munich shenanigans

These included a walking tour, a reunion with Meike in the English Garden, beer, stealing a beer mat from a beer hall, several drunk Americans, and a nude model from Prague who wanted to show us her polaroids.

On a serious note, Munich is a city I think everyone should visit at least once. It’s cosmopolitan, almost mediterranean, full of history and a lot of fun.

That castle from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

From Munich, we went on a day trip to Neuschwanstein, which you probably recognise, even if you’ve never heard of it before.

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Yeah, that one.

Originally it belonged to Ludwig II of Bavaria (the ‘Mad King’ who was declared insane and unfit to rule, which probably had something to do with him being nocturnal, wearing a mask, and generally being odd). He only spent a few nights there, and when he died under mysterious circumstances (oooo), the fairytale castle was still unfinished.

We ended up spending the day with a Brazilian called Pedro, a gentle giant who seemed a bit lost in Europe. He’d never seen snow before, so he was delighted when we arrived at the edge of the snow-capped Alps.

Highlights:

  • Pedro
  • snow
  • Disney

Lessons learnt:

  • history is cool
  • Neuschwanstein is nowhere near Munich
  • We should have taken a selfie with Pedro

Trainy McTrainface

The sleeper train from Munich to Vienna was nothing like the Orient Express but nevertheless extremely exciting.

Nighttime train travel is great if you want as much time as possible for sightseeing in the daytime. It’s not great if you want to sleep or shower. The best bits were the old-fashioned itchy blankets, the foot-pedal sink, and the free tea and croissants in the morning.

The City of Shiny Stuff

We arrived in Vienna at about 8am and everything was still shut. We popped into the Stephansdom cathedral, found Mozart’s house, breakfasted at the opera, and very quickly realised that this holiday was going to be a classy affair.

Fiona’s guidebook listed 10 Viennese must-sees, and we didn’t think it would be much of a challenge to tick them all off. After all, we had a whole week! We were wrong. I knew loosely what to expect – palaces, museums, classical music, art galleries – but I had no idea how much of it there was.

Thankfully, Fiona, an archaeologist, is just as keen on museums as I am. We whizzed around the Sisi museum, the Mozart museum, the Spanish riding school, the art history museum, the Schatzkammer (equivalent to the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London, but bigger and shinier), the Hundertwasser museum, the imperial apartments, the Holocaust memorial, Belvedere palace and Schönbrunn palace.

We saw so many beautiful things, including Klimt’s The Kiss, Empress Sisi’s diamond star jewellery, a ‘unicorn’ horn, and the famous white Lippizaner horses training for dressage in the winter riding school, which is basically a palace for horses. It has chandeliers and everything.

We were staying in a little backpackers’ hostel which was music and art themed, with murals all over the walls and guitars and a piano to play. We met up with my friend Kathy who’s an intern in Vienna, met some more drunk Americans and shared a few beers with some McVitie’s biscuit researchers from Sale. Yes, that’s a real job, although it probably has a different title. They told me that if I’m not sure what to do after uni, the biscuit industry is rock and roll.

We were still very excited about our trip to the opera to see Eine Nacht in Venedig (A Night in Venice) by Strauss, but we discovered last-minute, when reading the guidebook, that one is expected to dress up a little. We had a quick dash around the shops and scrubbed up rather well. It was a light romantic comedy with mistaken identities (wife-swapping) and jokes about pasta. Luckily the words were shown on a screen in German and English, making our lives much easier.

At the end of the week, we’d accomplished 8 out of 10 of the things on our list, and seen some others. We celebrated with a ride on the big wheel in the Prater park, where there’s a permanent fairground, which is actually quite cute and old-fashioned. Only in Vienna would a big wheel have a 1st class dining carriage.

All in all, an incredibly beautiful city that I could spend my whole life exploring. Really great cake too.

 

No one likes a long blog, so I’ve cut this in half just for you.

In the next part, Even More Adventures, I go to Lake Constance, a lake in three countries, try to go to Prague but end up in Koblenz, and put glitter all over my face and dance to Schlager music in Mainz.

Bis dann x

 

 

25 thoughts language assistants have on their year abroad in Germany

This one goes out to all you language assistants out there.

  1. Is there some kind of teacher initiation when you buy your first leather satchel? Do I get one?

2. The sound of chalk on the chalkboard isn’t so bad after all.

3. Black bin, grey bin, yellow bag, or white bag?

recycle help pitch

4. (Children mispronouncing your name) Come on, it’s really not that hard.

5. (Boy has his hand up) Scheiβe, I don’t know your name. It’s probably Lucas or Jonas. Yeah, let’s go with Lucas.

6. Whose great idea was it to put Schillerstraβe, Goethestraβe and Lessingstraβe next to each other?

7. Mmm, bread.

cutting a loaf of bread

8. (Wearing practical coat and walking boots) Ooo, I look German!

9. Mmm, Döner.

10. (Child asks what unknown German word is in English) Stay cool. Act like you know what you’re doing.

11. (Children chant, “Good morning, Mrs Bethan.”) It’s 2.30pm though.

12. What I’d do for a microwave curry.

13. (Visiting a town) This is like a German Leamington Spa/Buxton/Bath/other British town with little to no resemblance.

14. (Visiting somewhere expensive) I’ll bring my parents here.

15. What if my German’s actually getting worse?

16. But I don’t know how to speak English anymore either.

17. What exactly is the difference between a Meldebescheinigung and an Anmeldebestätigung? I can’t possibly need both.

18. (After being paid) I have all the money in the world, now I am a wealthy gii-iii-iii-rl.

19. (Finding hummus in the supermarket after months of searching) My precious!

20. Oh look, this lady wants to talk to me about God. Time to play the “I don’t speak German” card.

21. What a great lesson. Aww, I love teaching!

22. I’m not qualified for this. What am I doing here?

23. I want to stay here forever.

24. I want to go home, now.

25. (Sitting in the sunshine, drinking beer) This is the life.

Hope you enjoyed all the gifs. I’m so down with the kids.

I’ll be back soon with an update on my travels over Easter.

Bis dann x

 

Hallo? Ich bin es.

I was wondering if after all this time I should write my blog.

February was a bit hectic, so I kept telling myself I’d do some writing in March, and now… well, I’m very good at procrastinating.

I’ve been keeping busy. I flew to London to see my boyfriend for Valentine’s, then my parents and my sister came to Haβloch and I took them to all the nice places – the marker of a nice place, to a year abroad student, is, “My parents would like it here.” I visited two of my best friends, Lucy in Hagen and Charlotte in Hamelin (as in ‘the Pied Piper of’), and just yesterday I had a day trip with Chloe to Düsseldorf. At the same time, a lot’s been going on at the school, as the sixth form finished their Abitur (A-Levels) and celebrated in some surprising ways.

School’s out for spring

How to finish sixth form, the German way

First, there was the ‘motto week’: fancy dress with a different theme for every day, leading up to Friday, when the theme was their Abiturmotto (a theme for their graduation): ‘Abi Mafia’. Previous mottos have included, ‘Abi Dhabi’, ‘Abi Potter’ and ‘Abios Amigos’. Comic geniuses. Then, there was the Abischerz (Abi-joke or prank), when teachers arriving for work were locked up in a cage full of balloons in the car park, left for an hour, and then called up on stage in the school hall to perform forfeits, such as cracking eggs on their heads.

The following day, they published the Abizeitung (Abi-newspaper), a yearbook with about 200 pages devoted to critiquing the teachers, with nominations for “least knowledgable on their subject”, “least attractive” and “possessed by the devil”. And finally, there was the Abifeier (Abi-celebration), which I didn’t see because it was my day off and I overslept. These things happen. From what I’ve heard though, it was a kind of graduation ceremony, with performances, speeches and prize-giving.

I know there’ll be some British readers thinking it’s unfair that they can leave in March. However, sixth form actually lasts a year longer here, and the class of 2016 are 19 years old. In some ways though, they do have a lighter load, especially if they’re looking to go to university. There’s no central application system here; no A-level grade requirements; not even an official university league table. The biggest difference, of course, is that there are no tuition fees. As a result, they’re quite relaxed about the future. When I asked my year 13s what their plans were, they mostly had no idea. It’s probably a good thing.

The teachers, however, had a lot on their plate, because they wrote and marked all the exams. The very notion of a centralised exam board draws gasps and looks of horror. They have a curriculum, but the teachers still have a lot of choice/responsibility. It’s a double-edged sword. If students think an exam has been marked unfairly, angry parents go straight to the teacher and demand to know why, and they write nasty things about them in the Abizeitung.

Now that the exams are over, there’ll be an Abiball (prom), and judging by the extortionate ticket prices, it should be a good night for them all.

The continued adventures of Bethan

I’ve now been to Heidelberg three times, first with other language assistants, then with my choir when they came on a trip, and now with my family too. We also ticked off Neustadt, Speyer and the Hambacher Schloss, and one evening we had dinner with the family upstairs, when dad and I had to do quite a lot of translating. While it was lovely having them here, it was also bizarre, because my life here feels completely separate from my life at home and it’s strange when they overlap.

I’ve also been to Hamelin, to visit Charlotte. It’s the home of the Pied Piper and they’re really, really proud of it. There are (fake) rats everywhere, on the walls, pavements and bridges. Coincidentally, there was a medieval festival that weekend and everyone was in costume, looking like a character from the story, apart from that one guy dressed as Gandalf and some pirates who were really in the wrong period.

Düsseldorf was fabulous, because it was full of fabulous people. When my unreliable guidebook described it as a “trendy area”, I took it with a pinch of salt, but it actually was. It was very glamorous, especially on the wide, tree-lined Königsallee street, the place to go for Gucci, Armani and dogs in handbags. It was how I imagine Paris would be, but then again most of my knowledge of Paris comes from this film. Unfortunately, I got a bit ill and we had to go home early, but the sunshine took my mind off it.

Summer Day Parade in Haβloch

It’s high time we had some sunshine. The ‘Summer Day’ parade here was two weekends ago, and it was all about celebrating the end of winter. They actually paraded a giant snowman (not real snow – it was more like a Guy) called Winter around the village on the back of a lorry and then burnt him on a massive bonfire. The parade wasn’t dissimilar to the Rose Day or May Day parades back home, but just on a bigger scale, as things usually are in Germany.

There were visiting wine queens and beer queens and one who appeared to be a pretzel queen judging by the heavily pretzel-themed decoration on her float. Whereas a rose queen at home might be about 11, these were all in their mid-twenties, and drinking huge glasses of beer and wine as they went past. People were throwing down sweets and popcorn from the floats, like they do at Karneval, but to my astonishment and delight, they were also walking alongside with bottles of wine and beer, topping up any cups the crowd held out.

Festivals are just such a big part of life here. I’m starting to think it’s a regional thing, because although there are Christmas markets and beer festivals elsewhere, here there’s at least one festival every month. Coming up is Easter, which Germans love almost as much as Christmas (they even have Easter trees). After that there’s the Spargelfest (white asparagus festival) which apparently is a huge deal. Only the other day when I was explaining to my landlord that we don’t have white asparagus in the UK, he appeared visibly excited just at the thought of the stuff. And of course, around here, it won’t be long until the wine festivals start again. I’ve nearly come full circle.

On Friday it’s the Easter holidays and I’ll be off on a Bavarian and Viennese adventure with Fiona, but after that there are only 6 weeks of lessons before my time here is up. I’m umming and awwing about staying a bit longer to work or travel, but to be honest, after 5 months solid, I’d rather go home.

 

Mario does the can-can & other tales

Helau!

It’s Fastnacht, the last day of Karneval/Fasching, although it doesn’t feel like it. All the nearby Rose Monday parades were rained off (What’s all the fuss about? Put up an umbrella and carry on, I say.) and my two days off work now resemble a miserable bank holiday.

However, I had a wonderful weekend in glorious sunshine with my lovely friend Rachel from home. It was just a flying visit, with 24 hours to tick off her “things to do in Germany” list (she didn’t actually have a list). She tasted her first real pretzel, or three, and we decided to go to the city of Worms – yeah, I know – because it’s very close to Hassloch, and because I fancied seeing somewhere new.

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City walls at the Nibelungen Museum in Worms

Worms, I’m afraid to say, was a little disappointing. It had a big cathedral; a museum about the Nibelungenring (16 hours of Wagnerian opera, if you’re into that) which was closed; and a famous bridge, which was ruined by the smell from the nearby fish factory. It reminded me of Coventry, which isn’t a good thing.

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St. Peter’s Cathedral

15 degree weather paired with hundreds of people in fancy dress made for a surreal atmosphere, especially when we arrived at the Karneval party in time to see the Super Mario Brothers characters doing the can-can on stage. I tried to take a good picture of the crowd to give you an idea of the colour and craziness of it, but as I’m vertically challenged the results weren’t great.

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Here’s a picture of the bridge that smelt of fish, instead.

We spent a lot of time on trains over the weekend and at every station, drunken crocodiles, unicorns and clowns filed on and off the train. Similarly, last weekend, when I went to Freiburg with Charlotte, the parade performers had been rehearsing and we were followed by the jingling of their costumes. At one point, I jumped out of my skin because I was convinced a horse and carriage was coming up behind me. Nope, just a woman with bells on her shoes.

After giving up on Worms, I took Rachel to Speyer, which I knew would be a safe bet, and we had some traditional German grub in a Wirtshaus. We also managed to find some wine that Rachel liked rather a lot, although she couldn’t be persuaded to try the beer.

Since Rachel left, I’ve been cheering myself up with the huge Dairy Milk bar (it even has a Union Jack on it) and Walkers grab bags she bought me. Fun fact: you can’t really buy small bags of crisps here, and everyone knows that once you open a ‘sharing’ bag, you have to eat the whole thing. Salt & vinegar isn’t a thing here either, although cheese & onion is catching on. So thanks, Rachel!

Last weekend’s trip to Freiburg in the Black Forest was a great success. As usual, we hadn’t done our research and spent the whole day trying to work out the map in our last-minute ‘Freiburg in a day’ book. It’s more exciting in a way, going somewhere new with no idea what it will be like. As it turned out, it was beautiful. Charlotte even rated it above Trier, but I’m not sure I’d go that far because I really, really liked the Roman ruins.

 

The old town is a picture from a storybook, with crooked lanes held up by creeping branches. Narrow water channels cross the streets and you have to keep your eyes down to stop from falling in, but that’s ok, because even the cobbbles are beautiful.

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The cobbles are decorated with mosaics.

There was a Bergbahn (mountain-railway, a much better way of describing funicular railways, cable cars and monorails), misleadingly called the Schlossbergbahn (implying there was a castle at the top). If we’d done our research, we would have known the truth: there used to be a castle but there isn’t anymore, just a tower which is actually closed to the public. However, we stuck with tradition and hopped on board, as we’d done in Koblenz and Heidelberg, naively expecting to find a magnificent castle, and set off up the rest of the mountain. Hilarity ensued, as it gradually began to dawn on us.

On the bright side, there was a great view which wasn’t spoilt by trees.

The food was tip-top. We started as usual with a kebab (strictly speaking, a falafel wrap), which is the current leader in our German kebab league. This was followed up by an enormous slice of vegan apple pie for me, and an even bigger slice of Black Forest gateau – what else? – for Charlotte.

The best part was that the journey only cost us €22 each, thanks to the wonderful, amusingly named thing that is the Schönes Wochenende (lovely weekend) ticket, which takes you as far as you can possibly go in one day. I’m tempted to push the limit and see how far I can actually go.

I’ve been busy organising a very exciting Easter holiday with Fiona. Highlights should be the sleeper train, which I imagine is like the Orient Express but probably isn’t, and a night at the opera in Vienna.

It’s back to school tomorrow, and I have planning to do for the many lessons I’ve suddenly acquired. This weekend I’m going home to see my boyfriend and then my parents are coming to visit me, so I can’t wait for that, and then the next thing on the horizon is at the the Summer Day Parade in Hassloch at the end of February, celebrating the start of spring.

Auf Wiedersehen.

Back in town

In the month or two since I last remembered to write a blog post, it’s only properly snowed once in Hassloch, and I slept through it. It’s cold, for sure, but I was promised a real German winter: pretty little chocolate-box houses, of which there are plenty here, with a layer of snow on the rooves and delighted Germans in practical footwear putting on their winter tyres. Instead we’ve had rain, ice rain and sheet ice. Oh well.

Christmas at home was lovely. After two weeks of much-needed family/boyfriend/dog quality time, I was reluctant to leave again. I was especially moody as I’d just begun my Veganuary (Vegan January, duh) fundraising challenge and all I wanted was a big bowl of macaroni cheese.

Speaking of Veganuary, I’ve raised £160 so far for International Rescue Committee UK’s refugee appeal. Donations are still very welcome, so please visit my JustGiving page.

After I got stuck for ten minutes in a passport machine thingy, it turned out I’d booked my train to Hassloch two hours later than intended, so I had a long time sitting around in Frankfurt airport with nothing to do but think and get sad.

I got straight back into my work at the school, at least, and especially enjoyed the last few weeks with year 12, because I’d been given free reign over their literature topic and taught them An Inspector Calls. When I finished it last week, the teacher Pasqual gave me a box of chocolates as a thank you for being a “gift from heaven”. It very nearly made me cry, and not just because I can’t eat them until February. I keep saying that I’m not sure if I want to be a teacher, but Pasqual kept telling me I was a natural, which seriously made me think.

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Oh, the temptation
I haven’t done any travelling yet, but this week, for various complicated reasons, I only have four lessons, so I might pluck up the courage for a solo day trip or two. In the next few weekends, I have a few visits from friends and family to look forward to, starting with the lovely Rachel coming all the way from Leeds to stay with me for Karneval weekend.

Karneval is hard for Brits to comprehend. Whereas we eat pancakes before Lent, Germans throw huge parties and parades. It lasts from the 5th of February to Ash Wednesday (the 10th), and as far as I know that’s 5 consecutive days of celebrating. I’ve been to Karneval before, when I was on an exchange in Geseke, a town in North-Rhine Westphalia (north of Rhineland Palatinate, where I am now), and it was fantastic, with a party atmosphere everywhere we went.

It’s exciting, and I can tell that everyone in Hassloch is particularly excited, maybe too much and definitely prematurely. When school started on the 11th of January, the Karneval Verein (carnival club) had already put up the decorations. That’s a whole month early. Likewise, the little shops around the village centre are full of paper chains and crazy, multicoloured decorations. The supermarket is also full of fancy dress, and not just for children. I may need to get myself a costume.

Charlotte, Chloe and I were planning to go to Cologne Karneval, which is the biggest, or to Mainz, Rhineland-Palatinate, for Fasching, which is what it’s called in parts of south-west Germany. However, after the recent attacks on women in Cologne and several other cities, we changed our minds. I’d like to go anyway, because surely if I let these people intimidate me into staying at home, then they’ve won, but my friends, my mentor and my host family have all said the same thing: don’t go. It might not be so well reported at home, but there are still reports of abuse coming out here, even within Hassloch and the neighbouring towns. I always felt safe before, happy to walk home from the train station on my own at night, but now I always book a taxi or arrange a lift. When I was waiting for a train in Mannheim station (where I find myself almost every week), a lot of police suddenly turned up, and, perversely, that made me very anxious.

The other consequence of the attacks is that they’ve heated up the refugee debate. Flüchtlingspolitik (refugee policy) was already the word on everyone’s lips, but the attacks sparked demonstrations from the right and counter-demonstrations from the left, and it’s still making the news every day. But I still believe trying to help refugees is the right thing to do. Violence and sexual assault isn’t exclusive to one race or religion, and the actions of the few do not represent the many. My concern is why the police were unable to stop it and how they can prevent it from happening again.

On the bright side, I’ve found a language tandem partner. It’s kind of like a blind date for language learning: you offer your knowledge of your native language in return for another, in this case, German. There are even dating-style websites, where you can put out an ad describing yourself and your interests.

Luckily, my partner is neither 40+ nor a weirdo. We chatted on Skype first, which was very awkward and a little scary, but she’s actually really lovely. She’s called Maike, and although she’s a bit older than me, she’s my first German friend in my age group. I’ve had problems finding friends my age because my oldest students are only a year or two younger than me, because they leave school a lot later here. That makes it a little awkward. Maike, however, is great, and we’ve met in person now over a pot of Earl Grey in a British cafe in Neustadt. We spoke in German first, then in English, and we took notes of new vocabulary and promised not to hold back in correcting each other’s mistakes. Next week we’re doing something German and going for coffee and cake.

I’ve just agreed to go to a yoga class in Neustadt this week with Charlotte, and I’m beginning to realise what a daunting task that is, considering we’ve never done yoga before and the instructions will be in German. My range of vocabulary doesn’t quite extend to poses, salutes, muscles and joints, but I guess I’ll have to learn fast.

I’m going to try to do as much as possible to stop me getting bored in this strangely short week. German kids get a day off when they get their school reports, lucky sods, and so do I, as well as Tuesday afternoon, and some of my students are on two weeks’ work experience. So I might take the chance to visit Chloe and Charlotte, and maybe a medieval old town or three.

 

 

 

Planes, trains and bicycles

So named because I’ve spent more time travelling in the last four weeks than in all of last year/possibly my whole life. Every spare minute, I’ve been on the move. It doesn’t help that I’ve been relying on the notoriously slow regional trains; the journey north from here to Koblenz (about 95 miles away as the crow flies) took about three and a half hours as we detoured south through the Saarland (an entirely different state) and back up again. They also have a nasty habit of turning up 40 minutes late, if at all.

As it turns out, the German efficiency stereotype is a myth. Quatsch. I’ve grown up in a land of debit cards and online shopping, where bills can be paid from the comfort of your own sofa while you watch Pointless. But that is not the German way. Say you want to treat yourself to a new pair of shoes. You go online, choose the shoes, and the website gives you three options:

Option 1: Pay by Visa or Mastercard. Bear in mind that German banks don’t typically issue Visa cards; they give you an ‘EC’ card instead, which lots of shops don’t accept.

Option 2: Pay the delivery guy IN CASH.

Option 3: A payment slip attached to the parcel, which you have to fill in, physically take with you to the bank and enter into a machine.

“What about online banking?” I hear you cry. Well, that would be perfect, if it weren’t for the 24-page document in very complicated finance German, sent to you in the post, which you have to post back to the bank literally five minutes up the road.

aint nobody got time for that
“Maybe that’s why the German economy is so strong: nobody can be bothered to buy anything.” – Huw Griffin

Despite all that, I’m surviving pretty well and I’ve had lots to keep me busy. I’ll try to keep this as concise as possible.

Speyer

Speyer! Speyer is a city very close to me that, until about a month ago, I’d only visited once. It was a very rainy afternoon and I spent most of it in the shops so I didn’t get a true sense of how lovely the place is.

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The tower with two clocks

I got an email from the Speyer Lionsclub (like a rotary club or round table) inviting me to an event for foreign language assistants, or rather a programme of events throughout the year to give us chances to get to know one another and the local area. It turned out to be a very classy affair. First we had a three course meal at a traditional Brauerhof (like a posh pub on a massive scale and with much better beer served to you by lederhosen-clad staff) with club members and the mayor of Speyer, in his private mayor’s dining room.

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The tallest, scariest tower

Then the following day we were invited back for an official greeting from the mayor in the town hall (the press had been invited, which was a bit of a surprise) and a guided tour of the city with a lovely retired teacher turned tour guide. We were treated to another fancy meal in a different Brauerhof and then given a tour of the cathedral, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, I’ll have you know. The club had pulled some strings so we had access to the ‘Kaisersaal’ (imperial room) full of enormous paintings and a tall, scary tower, which are normally closed to the public.

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Speyer Cathedral

After that we were invited to dinner in the club members’ homes. It was a long evening with good conversation and plenty of wine, and not for the first time I had some difficulties explaining what I could eat. “Yes I can eat cheese, but not parmesan. Does anyone know what rennet is in German? No, I can’t eat gravy, but thank you anyway.” I ended up eating dumplings and red cabbage, but I had extra servings of yummy apple crumble, which seems to be Germany’s favourite British food.

I was the only English FLA there (not the only English speaker, there was also a girl from Scotland and another from Ireland, who I’d met at our induction course at Maria in der Aue). There were two girls from Russia, two from China, one from Spain and one from France. No boys, which made it seem slightly odd being invited to an event by a male-only organisation. We had the chance to do a lot of ‘networking’ with the club members and their wives (who actually had their own clubs and organisations which were just as interesting to hear about) and they told us that, as they’re all very well connected, if we ever have any problems while we’re here, they’ll be glad to use those connections to help us out, which was kind of them. They’ve already organised lots of other events for us, including day trips to Heidelberg, Strasbourg and, worryingly, something called Schlachtfest, which means ‘slaughter festival’. I think I might pass on that one.

London & UK-German Connection

I applied a while back to be an English Language Assistant Ambassador for UK-German Connection, and I got the job! It’s a very exciting programme in which English language assistants like me get paired with a German language assistant in the UK and we organise a joint project for our two schools, to increase their awareness of British/German culture and give them the opportunity to connect with each other.

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Vreni and I in our UK-German Connection gear.

I had to fly to London to go to an introductory seminar, which was a very long way to go in one weekend. I spent 15 hours travelling and only 16 hours at the seminar, but UK-German Connection paid for a nice hotel and lots of food, so I can’t complain. We did lots of activities to help us find a suitable partner and share our project ideas, and in one of the ‘speed-dating’ sessions I met the lovely Vreni. She’s from Bavaria and she’s working in a private school in Surrey which I cannot wait to show my students, because I know the first thing they’ll say is “Harry Potter!”.

We’ve got lots of things planned for the rest of the year and hopefully the students are going to write a German-English blog about everything they’re doing. I’ll let you know more about the project as it happens, but I’m still knee-deep in the planning and organisation stage. You can find out more about UK-German Connection here.

Koblenz

After the very long and ever so slightly stressful train journey, I made it to Koblenz in time for a meal with Charlotte and Chloe and had a look around my first proper German Christmas market.

Christmas has begun in Germany. It seemed to start at the stroke of midnight on the last day in November when trees, lights and markets appeared out of thin air. The reason, I’m told, is that today is Nikolaus (St. Nicholas’ Day), when German kids put their boots out and wake up to find them filled with sweets (or, if they’re naughty, St. Nick ready to beat them with a stick. Nice). This apparently requires early preparation, but being as it’s effectively a second Christmas, it’s an excuse to get very Christmassy very early on.

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No Christmas market is complete without a windmill.

We gave up on being German for a while and went to a very cheesy Irish pub, but the next morning we went straight to the most famous place in Koblenz, the Deutsches Eck (German corner). It’s where the two rivers, the Rhine and the Mosel, meet, with beautiful views and lots and lots of flags, representing German unity. It also has a great big ugly statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I on a horse.

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Deutsches Eck

After posing with the German flag we took a cable car up to Stolzenfels Castle which overlooks the Deutsches Eck, and although the view from the cable car was amazing, once we got to the top, we hadn’t paid for castle entry and the view there was blocked by trees. This has been happening a lot on our travels, and it happened again in Heidelberg.

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Easy to see why it’s called the Deutsches Eck/German corner.

Heidelberg

Yesterday I went to Heidelberg with Charlotte and another ELA called Fiona, who’s working near Koblenz. I can sum the day up in three words: Heidelberg is beautiful.

IMG_4798It’s only about 40 minutes away on the train and the journey only costs about 8 Euros, but for some crazy reason I hadn’t been before. It had several big Christmas markets and almost all the stalls were selling handmade items. Even if you’re a fan of the Christmas markets in Birmingham or Manchester, you have to admit that the products are hit and miss. Not so in Heidelberg.

 

We queued for about 25 minutes to get onto a packed funicular train which took less than a minute to get up the Königstuhl mountain to Heidelberg castle. If you’re ever there, don’t bother. Just walk.

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Heidelberg Castle

The castle is AMAZING. It’s mostly ruins but they’re so beautiful. We didn’t have a guide book with us so I can’t say much about the place. The views are spectacular, although trees still get in the way. It was owned or occupied by various people who all added bits on, and apparently they liked their wine.

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Wine!

The wine cellar is home to two ridiculous, giant wine barrels. We noticed that the sloping cellar walls and ceiling looked as though they’d been designed specifically to house them. When you think of wine and vineyards, you probably imagine the South of France, or maybe Italy, but from what I’ve seen so far, the true wine-obsessives are the Germans.

I’m due to go back to Speyer for their Christmas markets and to Heidelberg when my choir from back in the UK comes to visit in a few weeks, and looking at my full calendar from now until Christmas, my hopes of visiting all the best markets nearby probably aren’t going to happen.

As a Nikolaus gift, my host family have given me lots of very fancy Lebkuchen (soft gingerbread-type things in chocolate) from Nürnberg which is pretty much the home of Christmas, and I’m torn between eating them all now or taking them home to share with my family. They’re so, so delicious.

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Lebkuchen is life.

I really need to get into a habit of writing this blog, because once again I’ve left it four weeks and almost forgotten everything I’ve done in that time. Fingers crossed, I’ll be back with another post before I fly home for Christmas.

Bis dann.

 

I’m taking part in Veganuary, going vegan for January, to raise money for International Rescue Committee UK and support their European Crisis Appeal. It would mean a lot to me if you could sponsor me.

 

 

The Adventure Continues

This is the first chance I’ve had to sit down and write since I went home four weeks ago. I spent nearly two weeks at home but didn’t really rest at all, between travelling back to uni for the day to catch up with friends and see a guest lecture, going away to see my boyfriend for a weekend, circling around the village taking photos for my host family and a necessary shopping marathon with my mum. After a slight hiccup concerning flights (and very nearly turning up at the airport on the wrong day) I realised I had more time than expected, so I made the most of the extra couple of days with my dogs.

I successfully navigated Frankfurt Airport, which is ridiculously huge, and made it back to Hassloch safe and sound. But when I really should have been resting and preparing for the new school term, I decided it would be a great idea to go on a spontaneous coach trip to Berlin for Halloween. It involved a fair amount of money and 13 hours on a coach, but it was worth it to meet up with my best friends. Jack’s apartment where we stayed is right opposite the TV tower in Alexanderplatz and the view from his balcony was amazing.

In case I wasn't sure where I was
In case I wasn’t sure where I was
Nightclubs and bars in Germany stay open all night, and we made the most of it, starting late and only reluctantly leaving at 5.30am so I could squeeze in two hours’ sleep before my coach home. Probably wasn’t the best thing to do just before the start of term, but I had so much fun, and now I can say that I’ve been to Cologne, Munich, Frankfurt and Berlin in three months.

The first week back went swimmingly and I have a brand new timetable with mostly sixth form lessons. I’ve been given more responsibility this time which is exciting. I’ve chosen a short story to study with one class, been asked to choose a play for another (on my to-do list), and had to give feedback on speaking assignments. My mentor told me I was too nice giving feedback, but it was only my second lesson with them, so I think the two of us can be good cop bad cop for now. It’s still strange teaching 19 year-olds because they’re only one year younger than me, but they seem to like me and appreciate my help, even if I am just a walking dictionary sometimes.

On Friday my lovely friend Charlotte came to visit. She’s an English assistant too, in Hamelin (where the Pied Piper comes from) and we had lots to catch up on. I could barely contain my excitement when we saw Flammkuchen in the frozen pizza section at the supermarket, so we feasted on creamy, crispy goodness before I decided to show Charlotte the forest and the bird park*. In hindsight, it was far too late in the evening and it was further away than I remembered, so we ended up scaring ourselves silly, getting lost and screaming when an ostrich suddenly emerged from the darkness. Sorry, Charlotte.

We got up early on Saturday morning to go to Trier, Germany’s oldest city. We were joined by Chloe and the other Charlotte and kicked off the day with a donner kebab and a two Euro guide to ‘Trier in a Day’. It’s a beautiful city packed with some of the best preserved Roman architecture in the world. Porta Nigra, Trier

Our first stop was the Porta Nigra or black gate, originally the Roman city gate, then a church. It’s actually black which surprised me, and it’s the standard postcard image of Trier. Then we wandered through the very pretty city centre where all the buildings are painted in pastel colours.

Trier City Centre

We looked around some of Europe’s oldest churches and a cathedral where we saw the Holy Robe that Catholics believe Jesus wore for his crucifixion. We got lost trying to find Karl Marx’s house and stood taking photos of the sunset from the Roman bridge (which is still in use!) for so long that several passing Germans threw us suspicious looks and honked their horns. Spot the tourists. Most impressive was Constantine’s Basilica which was the imperial throne room of Emperor Constantine and, to quote ‘Trier in a Day’, is the only complete surviving room from antiquity. It was bare, echoey and atmospheric and I think the amount of time we spent sitting in there just soaking it in shows how impressive it was.

A slightly wonky photo of Constantine's Basilica
A slightly wonky photo of Constantine’s Basilica
I was kicking myself for not taking my camera because there were so many things to see. I’ve pinched a few of the others’ photos and I’ll add some more to the gallery which you can find by scrolling all the way down to the bottom of this page.

Now, for those of you who like things to be in chronological order, I apologise, but just before the school holidays I had another trip to a castle called the Hambacher Schloss. It’s only about 20 minutes away from here, up in the hills that I can see on my way to work, and I remembered it coming up in our lectures last year. My host family and I hiked up to the top of the hill which was much steeper than I expected and we went on a guided tour and looked around the museum.

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It’s famous for the Hambacher Fest which was a demonstration that took place in 1832 at a time when Germany was just a mish-mash of smaller kingdoms, where writing was censored and the people had very few rights. They’d been inspired by Napoleon and wanted to bring some of the ideals of the French Revolution to Germany (liberty, equality and all that) and create a unified German nation. It was one of the first times the German flag was flown and they hadn’t quite decided what the flag should look like, so there were a few different variations. The tour guide also suggested that they could have been drawn upside down or with the colours swapped to evade censorship.

There’s a picture, which I’ve seen in my lecture notes and painted onto the walls of the school hall, of the protesters walking up the hill to the Fest waving flags, but the museum had a version made of Playmobil!

The Playmobil version isn't as steep as in real life.
The Playmobil version isn’t as steep as in real life.

Starring an upside down German flag
Starring an upside down German flag
Hopefully the next few weeks will be just as jam-packed. I quite like being a tourist every weekend and there are still so many places I’d love to see.

I’ve been informed that today is the start of Karneval season, so while Brits were wearing poppies and going to remembrance services, some Karneval-loving Germans were apparently leaving school and work early to celebrate the start of a festival which lasts until February, although I haven’t actually seen anyone celebrating yet. It feels odd.

They’re not being disrespectful; most have never heard of Remembrance Day. In a couple of sixth form conversation classes, it’s come up as part of a British patriotism topic and they’re really surprised that we mark it in the UK. It’s something that just wouldn’t be acceptable here, for obvious reasons, but they came out with really deep, inspiring statements that most British teenagers probably wouldn’t make, just because we’re two countries that have had completely different experiences of war. Things like, “War is a terrible thing and we should never forget that.” I’m not supposed to have favourites but I like that class a lot.

It’s not all dark. They’ve discovered that we don’t all drink tea every day at bang on 3 o’clock, learnt the word “queue” and read some Shakespeare.

In other news, I’ve been invited to a meet-and-greet for language assistants in Speyer this weekend so I’m looking forward to a guided tour with the mayor and dinner at a German family’s house. I’ve been once before to buy my Dirndl and even in the rain it was very pretty, and it’ll be a chance to meet assistants from other countries like Spain, France and China.

I hope you’re enjoying reading my blog and I promise I won’t disappear for four weeks before my next post! Bis dann.

*Still looking for a better translation of Vogelpark!

Hello, Mrs Beth!

Being as I’ve just finished my 6th week at the school, I thought it was high time I wrote something about my experience of living here and the work I’ve been doing. It is, after all, the main reason I’m here. Honestly, I’ve been putting this off, because it’s been what you might call an “emotional rollercoaster”, with some brilliant days, but some really tough ones too. After a particularly hard week, distracting myself with a festival or a weekend trip just seems more appealing than writing about it.

It probably has something to do with the Kulturschock that I’ll reluctantly admit I’m going through at the moment. The term culture shock seems to imply being suddenly overwhelmed by another country and its customs the moment you step off the plane, but despite my last post on ‘Things I can’t get used to in Germany‘, I’m actually finding that most things here aren’t that different. I’ve settled in relatively easily, I know my way around and I even have a favourite supermarket.

What I’m going through is a slow, tiring process that this week in particular has left me feeling pretty miserable. It’s a combination of homesickness, boredom and loneliness. Yes, I’m a bit lonely. I have lots of lovely colleagues and the family I’m renting with still check in on me and invite me to eat with them at the weekends, but what I’m missing is a friend I can just hang around with and talk to. On an average weekday, I have about two lessons, then I sit in the staffroom for about an hour waiting for a third lesson, after which I go home. Admittedly, if I weren’t quite so lazy and actively decided to clean, shop or exercise once in a while, it wouldn’t be so bad. Even so, those four hours are sometimes the only human contact I have.

I have had the chance to see some really wonderful places and meet some lovely people, so it’s not all bad. In fact, if you’d asked me just this time last week how much I was enjoying my year abroad on a scale of one to ten, I’d have said ten. It’s very hard to be objective and think about the year as a whole sometimes when it seems like it’s all going wrong.

Like when I fell off my bike in the Lidl carpark and my shopping came toppling out in front of a queue of traffic, or when a group of students laughed at me for making a mistake in German, or when the teacher didn’t turn up and I was left on my own with a class of rowdy 7th graders who really, really didn’t want to learn English.

In the same week as the teacher-not-turning-up fiasco, several teachers had been ill and 8 out of my 12 scheduled lessons were cover lessons. That would be completely fine, if I’d been able to establish on my first day exactly what I’m supposed to do in that situation. It turns out that the school doesn’t use supply teachers, instead asking their own part-time teachers to cover others’ lessons, which means that if a horrible lurgy happens to strike the entire English department, the chances are their lessons will unofficially become Spanish, Maths or Biology. Unfortunately, I’m not much use in any of those subjects, and what’s more, the teachers sometimes either aren’t expecting me, don’t know what my job is or or aren’t sure why I’m there, so some turn me away and tell me I’m not needed, and others simply sit down and say, “Please, teach”. This has left me in some sticky situations, to say the least.

I’ve had to speak to my mentor about this a couple of times already, because it’s really not what I’m supposed to be doing and I’m not qualified to just teach a lesson with no preparation. After our second conversation she said that if there’s a cover lesson, I don’t have to go, which is a better system and it means I have the chance to make up for the lost hours with other classes I don’t normally get to help. She really is a fantastic mentor and she looks after me. I just wish I’d sorted it all out on the very first day. So if you’re reading this and thinking of doing a Language Assistantship placement next year, my advice is ask about cover or Vertretung straight away. Or before you arrive, if you’re one of those organised people.

Most of the time, I’ve been doing exactly what I’m there to do: helping small groups with conversation, getting used to teaching in the shallow end by running small activities or helping them learn vocab. I’ve had a few scary run-ins with grammar, which I usually quite enjoy, but I’ve very quickly had to learn the actual terms for various rules and concepts which I just didn’t know before. Non-defining and defining relative clauses, for example, which I just like saying because it sounds impressive. The kids do tend to ask me questions that are just a pain to answer, like when to use this or that tense, or the difference between “little”, “a little”, “few” and “a few”. It turns out that for non-native speakers, English grammar is really hard.

My favourite class is the 11th grade, but I worry that I’m boring them or giving them a negative impression of the UK, just because of the topics I’ve been asked to teach. I usually take around six of them out of their main lesson and we ‘discuss’ a theme from their UK cultural studies topic, so last week’s was patriotism and this week’s was Europe and the Brexit debate. Like I said, I’m worried that they now think all British people cry during the national anthem and don’t want to help refugees, because of where those conversations led and the articles we read. Their level of English is insane and it’s like my German conversation classes at university, only better. The hardest part is trying to get them to talk, but saying that, they’re more keen than British 16-year-olds would be to voice their opinions. I’m staying with them next half-term and that means I’ll get the chance to talk about the topics they told me they were interested in, which were mostly about what the British think of the Germans and what teenage life is like in the UK. Second favourite is my 9th grade class who are learning all about Australia, and who have made some hilarious mistakes, including my personal favourite, “Emus aren’t allowed to fly”.

At the other end of the scale I have a new 5th grade class who are far too tiny for big school and who are complete beginners, learning with the help of a parrot puppet. I’d definitely say it’s the easiest group to teach, despite the fact that I have to speak almost completely in German, because they’re so awestruck by my being English that they sit in almost absolute silence and do everything they’re told.

Which is not the case with my 7th graders. I get it, double English on a Monday morning can’t be fun, and they’re at the age where any language seems hard and dull, but sometimes they’re just out of control. One of my 7th grade classes is taught by my mentor and she has this amazing ability to silence them the moment she walks into the room. She has what you might call stage presence, or natural authority, and apparently I don’t. I think they still like me though, or I’m still a novelty at least, because wherever I go around the school I’m followed by little voices saying, “Are you teaching us today?” and “Hello, Mrs Beth!” I have told them my name and explained the difference between “Miss” and “Mrs” several times, but they still can’t get it right.

In some ways, school is more relaxed here. Obviously there’s no uniform and the teachers don’t wear suits either, but the children also have a lot of freedom. For example, they walk or cycle by themselves to school, no matter how young they are. It’s really strange seeing tiny 5 and 6-year-olds walking alone across busy roads and it would be unthinkable for most British parents. Another difference is that they can go home at break or lunchtime and because they have all their lessons in their tutor group in the same classroom (the teachers come to them), they are left on their own in the classroom between lessons, which means that it’s not unusual to walk in and see them standing on tables playing football. They appear to take their own register, which is worrying, and fire alarms are complete chaos. There’s no obvious attempt to organise the rabble once everyone’s outside, unlike at my school where the Deputy Head would be giving instructions through a loudspeaker while we all stood relatively quietly in organised, alphabetical lines.

In other ways, however, it’s more formal than British schools. They stand up to greet the teacher at the start of every lesson, with a monotonous chant of “Guten Morgen, Frau Bethan”, and it turns out that until this Begrüβung (God forbid you happen to forget), they’re not allowed to sit down and the lesson can’t start. They also have very organised systems of “board duty” groups who have to clean the chalkboards (yes, there are still chalkboards here) before every lesson. I’m at a more conservative school as well, so the teachers tend to be dressed a bit more smartly. It means I’ve actually had to iron my shirts, for the first time since starting uni. Overall it’s more similar to what I’ve seen of American schools (admittedly just on TV and in films), in that there are small, frequent class tests which each teacher writes and marks themselves, even in the sixth form, where students can choose to “major” in a subject, meaning they have more lessons in that subject and it makes up the majority of their final qualification, called an Abitur. 

It was the last day of term today and I now have a luxurious fortnight off. By this time on Monday I’ll be landing in Manchester Airport ready to go home to my dogs (and everyone else too). I’ve read advice from various people saying not to go home in the first few months of the year abroad, but I really can’t see why not, and after feeling so down in the dumps this week, I just want to be at home for a little while and catch up on Strictly. I’m hoping I’ll come back all bright-eyed and brave enough to finally call up various clubs, to try and beat the blues next term.

20 things I can’t get used to in Germany

As much as I’m loving life in Germany, there are some things that I just can’t get my head around. Some make a nice change, others not so much, but I might come round to them eventually.

Here are 20 things that I can’t get used to in Germany.

  1. The coins

I miss coins with corners. These ones all look and feel the same. How are you supposed to find exact change in a purse crammed full of coins? What’s more, the cashier will always ask for change if they can see it in your purse, and while you shake it out on the counter and read each individual coin, they and everyone waiting will be giving you the special glare reserved only for the inefficient.

2. Drivers

The obeying-rules thing does not apply to driving. We all know the stereotype that Germans drive fast, but they also commit what would be cardinal sins in the UK: honking (it’s not always clear why) and using their hazard lights (usually to warn other drivers that they’re slowing down, even though that’s what brake lights are for). They’re also strangely nice to cyclists. I’ve been slowing down and waiting obediently at every dotted line only to be waved through by smiling drivers from all directions. It’s actually a little bit frustrating.

3.  Saying sorry

Don’t say sorry unless you’re sorry. I say it in almost every situation, but Germans don’t and they find it odd. Say excuse me rather than sorry after bumping into someone, unless you’ve actually hurt them, because that implies genuine sadness and regret. Oh yeah, and some Germans say the English word “sorry” with an accent, which I cannot bring myself to do.

4.  Saying “Vorsicht”

Likewise, if you’re in someone’s way, they won’t say the polite, British, “excuse me, would you mind possibly moving to your right a bit?”, they will shout “Vorsicht!” which means “caution” (literally, “foresight”), or “Achtung”, which means “attention”.

5.  Curry powder

It’s just not the same here, and “English style” is a lie.

6.  Weak tea and tiny teabags

I’ve got away with drinking mostly my own tea, out of the 100 pack of Earl Grey I brought with me. But the few black teabags I’ve been served here have been truly awful. I’m living up to the stereotype, I know. I’ve seen people dunk the teabag in for 5 seconds before whipping it out for fear of it being too strong, and my mentor sometimes asks me to tip some of mine into her mug for her to dilute with water (no milk). I also had an English Breakfast teabag in a hotel in Frankfurt which was so tiny it took 6 minutes to brew and even after squeezing it was only a sort of dark yellow colour.

7.  Saying ‘you’

For those of you who don’t know, German has 3 words for ‘you’. That is far too many, and no matter how much I practice and concentrate, I still use the wrong ones.

8.  The lack of curtains

No one seems to have curtains, only big metal blinds and shutters, and I don’t know why. I don’t know which I prefer either.

9.  Bottled water

No one drinks tap water, even though it’s clean and safe to drink. I’ve tried to adopt this habit partly to fit in and partly because the water around here is really hard. However, because I only have my little bike basket when I go shopping, I have to make a separate trip just for water, which brings me to my next point…

10.  Pfandflaschen (deposit bottles)

Plastic bottles are usually “Pfandflaschen” which means that the price includes a deposit of around 50 cents to 1 Euro and you can return them to the supermarket to get your deposit back. Like I said, with my little bike basket, that means a separate trip. As a result, the cupboard under the sink is overflowing with these things.

11.  Recycling

My word, Germans really love recycling. They sort all of it at home (I mean all of it) and have various extremely complicated systems of bins, bags, tips and bottle banks depending on where you live. It’s complicated in some places in the UK too but it’s on another level here. It’s probably a good thing, because they use so much paper.

12.  Paperwork

So. Much. Paper. Pretty much everything you do in Germany requires a form and a lot of them aren’t available online. It’s really not very fair on us poor exchange students with our limited understanding of German legal jargon. Even trying to get online banking set up requires a 24 page document, sent to me in the post, which I then have to send back to the bank, and apparently the same bank has a completely different system in every city and state, which is ridiculous in itself.

13.  Bread

I love German bread.

14.  Children leaving school at lunchtime

The kids here are allowed to leave school premises at break or lunchtime and – here’s the amazing thing – they come back (on time).

15.  Teachers’ dress code

Teachers wear high heels, leather jackets, hoodies and football shirts. Whatever they want, as long as it’s not provocative.

16.  Cheap groceries

With a few exceptions, most groceries here are so much cheaper than at home. For example, fairtrade, organic bananas cost about the same as a standard bunch in the UK.

17.  Paying by cash

Most shops don’t have card machines and you usually have to pay for everything (including train tickets, annoyingly) by cash. However, almost every cash machine except your own bank will charge you for withdrawals, and there are barely any cash machines. It doesn’t seem to make sense.

18. Sunday morning TV

19.  Old buildings

In every village, town and city.

20.  Cake

There is always cake.

Flammkuchen, Festivals & Frankfurt

It’s been almost a month since I arrived in Haβloch, but the novelty hasn’t worn off yet. I sometimes forget where I am and slip back into English, but I think my German’s improving very quickly. My main achievement so far was being asked for directions by an elderly couple and, although I’m pretty sure I sent them in the wrong direction, they at least appeared to understand what I was saying.

I still can’t understand Pfälzisch, the local dialect, and I don’t know if I ever will. I got myself into a bit of a pickle in a department store in Speyer when I approached a shop assistant who was in the middle of a fluent Pfälzisch conversation with a customer. I pretended to understand but it quickly got out of hand when the customer patted me on the back, laughed, pointed to my jumper and asked me a series of questions (presumably about the jumper), to which I could only smile and say, “Ja”. I am picking up little things, like the expressions, “he” and “o”, and the fact that every question seems to end in “gell”, which is sort of equivalent to “innit”. Unfortunately for me, my host family also speak Luxembourgisch, and I’ve got no hope there.

I haven’t got used to the bread and potato diet yet, but I have fallen in love with doner (it’s so much better here, and veggie-friendly) and something called Flammkuchen. Think pizza but thinner, crispier, creamier and more delicious.

Just look at that
Just look at that.

The wine life suits me just fine too. Last weekend my lovely colleague Aline invited me to a Weinwanderung, or wine-hike. Oh yes. This basically involves a little bit of walking through vineyards, stopping every few hundred metres at a ‘station’ with wine bars and food stalls, and the wonderful German system of paying a deposit for your glass means you can carry your wine round with you. Unsurprisingly, hundreds of people turned up and the trains were packed. It was in a very pretty village called Freinsheim, and everything – the views, the weather, the wine – was beautiful.

In the vineyards
In the vineyards

This is the main wine region in Germany, and the ones I’ve tasted so far are really good. There is also such thing as a Vinothek, which is a fancy word for a big wine shop, and drinks markets where you can stock up on beer and wine in huge packing crates. In my first lesson with my 11th grade class, a boy asked me what British teenagers do in their free time, and whether they go to wine festivals, and another girl asked me whether there were vineyards in Cheshire. They were so shocked by my answers! We don’t have wine festivals, or vineyards really, 17 year-olds can’t drink alcohol, and even if they could they’d probably drink beer because a bottle of wine costs about £9 (compared to €3 here). They looked as though they actually felt sorry for me.

I had to recover quickly from the wine hike because over the same weekend I also went to a beer festival in Haβloch. Once again, I made the mistake of expecting something small and tame, but this is Germany and everything really is bigger here. There were lots of food and drink stalls like we’d recognise from Christmas markets, all lit up by fairy lights, but there were also a couple of rides and a festival tent which felt like a miniature Oktoberfest, as well as several different stages with bands playing.

The first beers
The first beers

I went once with a girl called Anika and her friends from the final year of sixth form, which was nice, but a bit strange because they’re all only a year or two younger than me, and the following day with my friends Cora, Chloe and Charlotte, who I met at the induction course and who all live in Rheinland-Pfalz too. I finally plucked up the courage to try Weinschorle, which is wine diluted with fizzy water and it’s as yucky as you’d expect. Fizzy water schorle drinks are a local obsession and they drink Apfelschorle (apple juice + fizzy water) by the gallon. However, I was told off repeatedly for not drinking beer at a beer festival, so on my second trip I spent most of the evening in the festival tent, standing on the table and drinking beer.

The brass band on stage were also drinking beer between every song, which was impressive. I remembered a few of the songs from the last time I came to Germany, so I got ridiculously excited whenever a song came on which I could sing along to. It’s a type of music called Schlager which is a combination of folk and very cheesy pop, and everyone seems to love it. It’s fun for someone learning German, because the lyrics are quite simple, and they’re usually accompanied by a lot of enthusiastic clapping. Like Eurovision, it’s just a bit too cheesy for us Brits to understand.

In the Andechser Festzelt
In the Andechser Festzelt

It’s not the only alcohol-themed festival I’ve visited since I’ve been here. I also went to nearby Bad Dürkheim for the Wurstmarkt (not, as the name suggests, a sausage market) which is the biggest wine festival in the world. Frustratingly, I took my camera out without an SD card, so I didn’t get to take any photos, but it wasn’t really my thing and it just seemed like a giant fun fair with more alcohol involved. The atmosphere definitely didn’t feel as special as the other festivals I’ve been to. There were a few festival tents and the world’s biggest wine cask, as well as some lovely food. Funfairs here always have Mandeln which are toasted, sugared nuts, and they’re delicious. I also tried Schopfnudeln which are like gnocchi, drizzled in butter and served with sauerkraut, or bacon for the more carnivorous festival-goer. It was so rich but oh, so good. I even liked the sauerkraut, as it was surprisingly mild. I’m sorry if this is turning into a food blog (not sorry at all).

This weekend the sun was shining on the city of Frankfurt, where I met up with Chloe, Charlotte and a few other Rheinland Pfalz language assistants for the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of German reunification. Although the Berlin Wall came down on the 9th of November 1989, Germany wasn’t actually reunified until the 3rd of October 1990, which is when the Day of German Unity is celebrated. A different state hosts the event each year, and there’s a national bank holiday. The chancellor Angela Merkel and the president Joachim Gauck came to give speeches in the beautiful old opera house, although we were all really hoping they’d come outside where the crowds were. We all squeezed in to watch the speeches on the big screen set up outside, and although there were lots of small demonstrations and protests going on, the general atmosphere was calm and quiet. It’s still bizarre to think that this was actually two separate countries only 25 years ago.

View of the festival from a bridge on the Main
View of the festival from a bridge on the Main

On the banks of the river Main, there were tents set up for every state, celebrating all the things for which they’re known best. Hamburg’s tent was selling – wait for it – hamburgers; Berlin’s tent was basically a nightclub but with photographs of the Berlin Wall covering the outside; Bavaria’s was very Bavarian; and the Rheinland-Pfalz tent was a wine bar. Among other things, there was also a Milka boat headed by a giant purple cow, which gave chocolate-themed river tours. In the city centre there were stages and stalls set up and in the evening, there was an amazing firework display on the river.

Frankfurt itself is a really beautiful city. It’s the financial centre of Germany, with what seemed to me like huge skyscrapers all closely compacted together, just 15 minutes away from the pretty old town. We managed to find a very nice vegetarian Indian restaurant which satisfied my curry craving (curry powder here just doesn’t cut it), and explored the glossy, modern shopping centre before heading to the river to watch the fireworks.

Frankfurt at night
Frankfurt at night

It was a lovely way to spend the weekend before going back to reality tomorrow. I’ve definitely had a taste of the Feierkultur (party culture) that the headmaster told me I needed to experience, back on my first day. Most of the festivals may be over for now, but it won’t be long until the first Christmas markets open. I can’t wait.