Wednesday, September 20, 2017

August Highs and Lows 2017, the Forgotten Edition

Oops. I was a week into September when I remembered my traditional "Highs and Lows" post. And then I was too busy. And then too tired. And then too apathetic.

But today*, on my five-year "Expativersary" (I moved to Germany permanently five years ago today), I thought I'd finally run through my highs and lows from last month.

our pretty little town
I keep saying I've moved to Germany permanently because I can't imagine anything changing that. If M gets tired of me, I'll just move in with his mother, who is a dear friend of mine. That's unlikely to happen, though. He and I are so much in sync that we feel completely out of whack when we're not together. We balance each other, and we're better people when we're together.

*Disclaimer: My five-year anniversary was actually yesterday (19. September), but I fell asleep on the sofa last night while writing this blog post, and so I had to finish and publish it today.

On to last month's events...


  • Kaffee in Nagold with a new acquaintance, an English teacher at the high school with whom I have quite a bit in common. It was fun to have a fully Denglish conversation - I thoroughly enjoy talking with people when one language is as good as the other. If I can't find a word in English, I say the German word and vice versa. It was the same for him.

  • meeting one of my former students in Tübingen, though I'd misread the date we'd agreed upon, and I caught the poor guy at the Bahnhof on his way to buy some furniture for his Studentenwohnung. He turned around and came to meet me, not even mentioning my obvious mistake until afterwards.

  • meeting my friend and Sprachpartnerin, Hedda, and then driving together to Tübingen (yes, I really like this town!). We had lunch, I bought a pair of incredibly comfortable shoes at her recommendation, and we met my former student again for tea and a chat.

  • the books I read in August. They were poignant, compelling, disturbing, suspenseful, and enjoyable even though the subject matter was heavy.
  • I took over another class at the VHS, starting at level A1.2. My students this time hail from: Poland, Syria, Chile, Scotland, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Iraq, and Romania.

  • spending yet another afternoon in Tübingen, this time with four of my former students (one of whom I hadn't seen in more than a year!) and his girlfriend. We'd come up with the idea to do a Stadtführung (town tour), which I was happy to lead! I really enjoyed it, and they seemed to as well. I took them into the main church and told them everything I knew, and then we went up the steeple for a great view of the town. We walked around afterwards and I gave them some more information, and then we all got hungry. We had lunch at a Türkischer Imbiss and they recommended what I should try, and then we found an Arabic bakery with delicious treats for dessert! We all agreed that we should do it again, and there is much more of the town I can show them.
I drove because the train was sketchy that day,
and if you know me, you know I hate driving in Germany.
Hence the face.

  • meeting another new friend of mine, a retired English teacher, for Kaffee (it ended up being just water because it was too darn hot to enjoy coffee) at our house. She has subbed for me, and again we have much in common and lots to talk about.

  • not failing at several experiments in the kitchen: Zitronenkuchen, Spaghetti Carbonara, and Kohlrabi-Möhren-Gratin


  • I don't know if this is a low, but it felt like it at first. I learned in August that something I've believed my whole life from Sunday and Bible School stories, movies, etc. is simply not true. I've asked others this question - "Who, from what you've understood, built the pyramids in Egypt?" Slaves, right? The Hebrew slaves from the Moses/Exodus story, right?

    Yeah, no. Fake news. Perhaps the original fake news. In 1990 the builders' village was discovered, and the ornamentation of the graves shows that those buried there were honored and valued. They could not have been slaves.

    Besides that, the pyramids were built around 2600 BC, whereas the Exodus story happened around 1300 BC. The Bible never mentions the pyramids, so this is just a common misconception that came from who knows where. But many people I've asked have answered as I thought - the pyramids were built by the Hebrew slaves of the Exodus story.

    There is no mention of Hebrews or Israelites in Egypt until around 1300 BC.

    The fun part of all of this was when M first responded to my statement "Slaves built the pyramids" with "No they didn't," and after some frantic googling and much reading, I stomped through the living room where M was watching TV, and declared, "I'm calling your mother!" She's been interested in Egyptology for many years, has read more than I have time left in my lifetime to read, and has been to Egypt many times.

    She reminded me that the Frenchman who deciphered the hieroglyphs in the 19th century (Champollion) was ordered by the Catholic church to not publish his discovery, in part because they were pretty sure his findings would prove the pyramids existed long before Christians believed they did.

    Don't misunderstand - I'm not saying the Exodus story didn't happen. I'm saying I have learned that the slaves Moses freed did not built the pyramids. They were probably building temples and great statues.
My parents a few years ago,
with two of the pyramids not built by slaves behind them.
The laborers lived hard and short lives, but evidence discovered
by archeologists points strongly to them being highly valued and respected
for their skills.
  • with the exception of M and my Schwiegermutter, not a single other person I mentioned the above to seemed even mildy interested. I definitely get excited about learning. When I hear something I have a hard time believing, I want to look into it. I need to learn to share the things I'm interested in and new knowledge I acquire only with M and my Schwiegermutter. She and I emailed back and forth much of that weekend because she is as enthusiastic about learning and sharing what she knows as I am.

I'm sure there were other lows, but I've forgotten them by now which means they weren't very important ones.

Here's hoping you had a good August (and are having a pleasant September)!!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

No Fear, No Apologies

Over the last several years I have read and heard many comments from people railing against refugees, immigrants, and foreigners both in Germany and in the U.S.. Whenever something bad happens - there's shooting, a stabbing, a nutball drives a truck into a crowd of people, something got stolen out of someone's back yard, school kids report having seen a dark-skinned man with a gun near a commenters throw accusations at refugees and foreigners as if crime is always committed by minorities.

If you're not a first-time reader you know that I teach integration courses to foreigners in Germany, and many of my students and former students are refugees. Former students have become friends, and I care about every one of them.

I also taught German and English in a private Catholic high school in Wisconsin for 14 and 16 years respectively. You can read about one of my former Wisconsin students here, though I don't recommend it. The title should suffice, and my former student is the perpetrator in that hideous and gruesome crime, which is described in agonizing detail in the article. He is now serving two life sentences plus 98 years in prison.

St. Mary's Springs High School (2009)
photo credit: M
Pilot: another former student of mine

I remember him. He was a really nice and funny kid. He had lots of friends and a great sense of humor. He came from a good Catholic family. He got good grades and spoke decent German. He was one of 17 students I brought to Germany the summer after my first year teaching at that school, and while I had trouble with some of those students, "Andreas" was well-behaved, cooperative, and had a positive attitude even when many of the others were complaining. I lost track of him after he graduated, but according to the article he studied at Marquette University and then went into the military and law school. He was a military lawyer.

Extreme (and even not so extreme) right-wingers seem to want us all to be afraid of refugees, foreigners, and immigrants. They blame refugees for anything bad, and when someone with dark skin commits a crime in Germany, they jump to the conclusion that he must be a refugee. Then they blame Merkel for ruining Germany (Germany is far from ruined, I assure you) and for her "Dumpfbackenaktion" (idiot decision) from 2015 in opening the borders to people fleeing from their war-torn homes. They say Islam is not a peaceful religion and they say all Muslims hate us (us = white Westerners, I guess). They get incensed when authorities declare too soon for their taste that a crime was not terrorist-related, but it is perfectly acceptable to declare immediately and before there's any reliable evidence that it was terrorism. They don't want facts; they want confirmation of their beliefs - that Arabs, Muslims, refugees, and immigrants are dangerous and just waiting for an opportunity to destroy our lives and our way of life. (I'm not sure why I write "our lives" - I'm an immigrant, too.)

When I can read a story like the one about my former student nearly every day - some heinous crime committed by a father, a mother, a husband, a wife, a son, a daughter, an American, a German, etc. - why should I specifically fear refugees, Muslims, or Arabs? I truly do not know the answer to this question. It's people we should probably fear. It's not a religion, it's not a skin color, and it's not a presence or lack of facial hair. How many Christians commit awful crimes every day? If all Muslims hate us and want us dead (yes, this is a common comment on online Fox News articles in the U.S.), then why am I still alive? I've spent a lot of time with Muslims chatting about the German language, the weather, and their plans for the future. 

I once had an acquaintance tell me my impression and opinion of Muslims and refugees was not worth much because it was only "based on a sample of twelve" (my first class of students, who thoroughly impressed me with their dedication to learning German). I am quite certain this person has never met or spoken with a single refugee, but his fear-filled conclusion was more valid than mine in his mind because I only personally knew twelve.

Some of my friends and former students...

It seems for many that a religion is to blame if it's a religion they disapprove of. When a Christian (like my former student) commits a crime it's got nothing to do with religion and the criminal does not represent all Christians. If a Muslim commits a crime, it's because Islam is a religion of hatred. I don't buy that. There are twisted people practicing every religion out there, and no religion at all. It's the people who are the problem, not their religion and not the country in which they were born.

The man who sexually abused me when I was nine or ten was a pasty white American working at the tennis club I was at that day. Why should I fear refugees more than pasty white men? My former student in the story above was a Midwestern Catholic. Why should I fear Muslims more than Catholics?

A few days ago in Immenstadt a 24-year-old guy on a motorcycle who was driving too fast decided to also try a wheelie - lost control and slammed into a mother and her two teenage children, killing them all. They were walking down the sidewalk on their way to heaven knows where. Why should I fear terrorists?

And then there's Charlottesville. Several hundred individuals banned together to march with (confederate and) Nazi flags, salutes, symbols, and chants to champion white supremacy. From what I read, there were even more counter-protesters, and of course the scene got ugly. As if throwing rocks and punches at each other weren't bad enough, a 20-year-old boy from Ohio drove his car into the crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman and seriously injuring at least 17 others. 

And I should fear refugees?

I wish I could have this conversation with someone, but I do not know if I know any reasonable right-wingers who would be willing to explain their viewpoint without attacking me, dismissing my point-of-view, and/or calling me a "bleeding-heart liberal," a "Gutmensch," an "f-ing liberal" or a "libtard."  < Their use of that last word speaks volumes to me about what kind of people they are.

I choose not to be consumed with fear (except while driving on the Autobahn - then I am terrified). I choose not to feel disdain toward others because they are different from me in some way. I choose not to speak against and make assumptions about people who practice a religion I don't practice. 

And I am not going to apologize for that.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Summer Reading

Several of the bloggers I follow post now and then what they're reading or have read, and I always enjoy those. I've been binge reading for the past six weeks in one particular and new genre, which is one reason I haven't posted much lately.

It all started with Erzähl mir von Deutschland, Soumar, and I wish I could remember how I heard of that book. I really liked it, written as almost a conversation between the author and his friend, a Syrian refugee who'd fled to Germany. I contacted the author, Florian Schmitz, to ask if there were any plans to have it translated into English, but a publisher has to be interested first, apparently. He told me they are planning a reading of the book for sometime in the fall in Stuttgart, and I just found out today when it will take place (Oct. 26 at 20:00 in a bookstore in Vaihingen).

Ich komm auf Deutschland zu

Soumar and his story reminded me of many of my students and friends from Syria, and I found myself wanting to read more books like his. Amazon suggested I have a look at Ich komm auf Deutschland zu. The writer, Firas Alshater, is a comedian and a Youtube star - I have no idea how I missed that, but I've watched some of his videos and really like them! He usually gives advice to other foreigners about making their way in Germany, and his tips do not only apply to refugees. In his book Firas writes about his life in Syria before the war and during the revolution, his decision to leave Syria after being arrested, jailed, and tortured for filming what he saw happening around him, his journey to Germany, and his life since arriving here. That he can tell his story with a sense of humor speaks to his character and will probably appeal to many readers.

Both of these books go a long way to shattering - or at least challenging - assumptions and prejudices readers might have about Syrians, Muslims, and refugees.

Nujeen: Flucht in die Freiheit

The next book that crossed my radar while I was reading Firas' book was Nujeen: Flucht in die Freiheit. When I mentioned the book to my daughter, she said the late night talk show host John Oliver had talked about her. Nujeen has been unable to walk since birth and is confined to a wheelchair. She is from Kobani, Syria, and she and her sister fled to Turkey, across the sea in a flimsy boat to Greece, and over the Balkan route to Germany. At one point a BBC reporter saw her and interviewed her - which is what we see in the clip from John Oliver. She tells the reporter she would like to be an astronaut, and in the book we learn why. Despite the many obstacles made even more complicated by Nujeen's disability, their dream of living and learning in a country not torn apart by war spurred them on. Nujeen's sister pushed her most of the way, and at especially critical times others came to their aid and carried her.

So far all the books were in German, although I later found out that Nujeen's book was originally published in English, under the title Nujeen: One Girl's Incredible Journey.

I read reviews on Amazon of several of the books, and as usual I was more interested in the non-five-star reviews than the five-stars. I'm always curious what people with some criticism have to say. I was disappointed in some comments that said the writing was dull or cheesy, the story "lost interest toward the end," etc. These are real stories of real people who went through more suffering than anyone should. I love good literature, but writing style is not important here; the details and the journey are important. Of course, that's just how I feel.

A Hope More Powerful than the Sea

My fourth book was in English, but it is also available in German. The beautifully titled book, a Hope More Powerful than the Sea, was written by Melissa Fleming about the life of Doaa Al Zamel, a young woman who hadn't really intended on leaving her home to go to Europe. During the Arab Spring Doaa got involved in demonstrations in Daraa, their home town, which of course was risky. After it became clear that the opposition would not succeed and people identified as participating in the revolution were being arrested and killed, her family left Syria and settled as refugees in Egypt. While in Egypt Doaa met Basaam, who was at first unsuccessful at attracting her interest. Her family adored him, and eventually she warmed to him. Basaam wanted a better life for them than just living as refugees, and his dream was to go to Europe where they could make something of themselves. They were both hard workers and fighters, and he knew they could pursue the life they dreamed of. But first they had to make it across the sea - and Doaa was terrified of the water.

Good thing I was never a librarian. I'm no good at making displays.
Another thing that ties these books together is the information provided about Syria before the war, during the Arab Spring, and during the war. Still, the focus is on their personal stories more than history and politics. Enough background is provided to give readers an idea of why the questions some have voiced are not so easily answered. "Why didn't they just stay and fight for their country?"  "Why didn't they just flee to a Muslim country closer to their home?"  "How could so many men just leave their wives and families behind while they fled for Europe?"  (I hate the word "just," in case that wasn't obvious.) These writers don't preach, but they do explain pretty clearly what life has been like in Syria.

Unter einem Dach

After Doaa's heart-wrenching story I read one that had been in my Amazon shopping cart for months - Unter einem Dach ("Under One Roof"), by Henning Sußebach and Amir Baitar. Henning and his family hosted Amir, a Syrian Muslim, in their home near Hamburg for about a year. Each chapter or section of the book is written by one or the other of them, as they address all kinds of topics from food to religion to clothing to German culture and traditions. Amir, for example, is taken aback by couples openly and enthusiatically expressing their affection for each other in public. That just didn't happen in Syria. (Incidentally, I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and tell him I find that odd, too!) He doesn't understand why Henning doesn't change clothes when he comes home from work, but rather wears his work clothes (trousers and a shirt or sweater) until bedtime - as I sit here typing in the clothes I taught in this morning. I really enjoyed comparing his observations to my own - what do I find normal that he finds odd, and vice versa? Both Henning and Amir learned from each other and changed in little ways throughout the year because they had open minds and were willing to see the world through someone else's eyes. There were many things they didn't agree on, but they respected each other and gave each other space.

As with Erzähl mir von Deutschland, Soumar, I liked learning how the writers (the German and the Syrian) think and what goes on in their minds. I have spent a fair bit of time with my Syrian friends, but I still have so many questions and there is much I want to know. I know they'd be willing to answer my questions, but I haven't taken the step yet of asking them. One thing is certain - just like with Americans, Germans, Christians, and whomever else, each individual is his or her own person, and there is no way one can or should lump people together and make gross generalizations about them with any certainty. If you find someone saying to you, "Syrians are..." or "Muslims are..." you can stop them right there, because they are wrong. Of this I am sure.

Ich habe einen Traum

The last of the books I have read and currently know of in this genre (stories of refugees from Syria) is Ich habe einen Traum ("I have a Dream"), by Reem Sahwil. Reem is not actually from Syria, but rather Lebanon. If I understand correctly, ever since 1947, when her great-grandmother was forced to leave her home in Haifa (Israel), the family had been living in a refugee camp in Lebanon (Baalbek). That means for generations they have known nothing but a basically hand-made container village with dirty streets, but somehow with a life of its own including small family businesses like bakeries and repair shops. Reem was born prematurely, and the medical facilities are nothing to speak of there. She was therefore unable to walk and confined to a wheelchair for the most part. Her father worked hard and borrowed money to pay for two expensive operations in Europe, and upon her third trip to Europe her father made her, her young brother, and her mother promise to apply for asylum on the grounds of medical need. Reem's father would follow later on the arduous Balkan route. Reem became famous for a while because of this encounter with Angela Merkel, who was blasted as a result for being stiff and cold-hearted. Near the end of the book Reem writes about that meeting in her school in Rostock and the aftermath, as well as her feelings toward Chancellor Merkel (which were and are far more positive than those of some of the media and many internet commenters).

Of course I am interested in these stories because so many details are similar to those I've heard from my Syrian friends and former students. The places, situations, fears, and uncertainties are familiar to me by now, and with every story I hear or read I am more amazed by the resilience of these people and what they were willing to go through to get where they are today. And they keep pushing forward despite the many frustrations of dealing with German bureaucracy and administrators, the German language, and a stiff and sometimes cold country with inflexible rules about what is allowed and what is not.

I do recommend each of these books and wish they were all available in English. I don't feel like I did them justice with my summaries, but I would read every one of them again.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Freedom of Speech, German Style

For what seems like the first time in a while, I'm going to write again about a difference between life in Germany and life in Wisconsin (USA).

It pertains to the freedom of speech.

I did not hear much about the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, VA until things turned ugly. I understand neo-nazis and white supremacists are allowed to speak out, march, display signs, shout nazi slogans, etc. in the United States of America. The First Amendment to the US Constitution grants citizens the freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, so decent people must by law tolerate the filth that white supremacists spew. Nazis get to march in the US if they submit a permit to do so. I'm not sure how those ideologies reflect the "peaceful" part of the right to assemble, since they are based on oppression and hatred, but that's the way it is over there.

Germans also enjoy the freedom of speech as granted to them by the Grundgesetz. However, there are limitations and consequences for those who breech those limitations. In Germany it is unlawful to display nazi symbols, gestures, or paraphenalia publicly. One is also not allowed to openly and publicly declare that the holocaust never happened.* This is based on Article 2 of the Grundgesetz, which states that a person has the right to free development and expression of his personality insofar as he does not violate the rights of others or offend against Germany's constitutional order or moral law.

*One can be a holocaust denier, but s/he cannot speak or write about this inexplicable belief publicly without consequences.

Giving the nazi salute in public in Germany (even if the person claims it was a joke or just to add some spice to their vacation photos) violates the rights of so many and offends moral law and decency. Do I agree that this behavior should not be allowed in Germany? Absolutely.

People/tourists who think it's funny while in Germany to mouth off about Hitler, shout "Sieg Heil", give the "Hitlergruß" (as one of my principals in Wisconsin gave me when I announced I was marrying a German) will get their asses arrested, and could face a [not-hefty-enough] fine. I wouldn't mind if they'd get escorted to the nearest airport - without passing go. Just take your ignorance and hatred somewhere else.

Americans should be familiar with limitations on free speech as well. One cannot yell "Fire!!" or "Bomb!!" in a crowded theather, airport, restaurant, etc. without facing consequences if caught. I find this reasonable. American readers might also want to be aware that the first amendment may not apply at all in American airports, or at least not in the Milwaukee airport.

On the same day as the "Unite the Right" rally in Virginia, an American tourist in Dresden started giving the nazi salute outside a café. An as yet unknown passer-by beat him up and then walked away. Since I don't condone violence I would have rather seen the fool arrested and fined - bigly - but I must admit the thought crossed my mind that he had it coming. Don't pull that shit here, laddybuck. Don't travel to foreign countries if you are that ignorant about the world and human dignity.

However, it is also against the law in Germany to beat people up on the street, and this is a good thing. So now authorities are, of course, searching for the assailant, who will likely face charges of battery if found.

Article 1 of Germany's Grundgesetz is "Die Würde des Menschen ist unantastbar." ("The dignity of persons is inviolable.") This is a statement I know well, as I teach this to my students during the Orientierungskurs. Giving the nazi salute or marching with nazi flags is violating the dignity of all those who were murdered during the holocaust and anyone who lost a loved one during that regime.

Let this be a notice, then, to tourists who come to Germany. You are welcome and we hope you enjoy your stay. But do not for one moment think we find it even remotely funny when guests make "jokes" about or references to nazis except for the purpose of genuine learning. And regardless of the reason for having done it, a nazi salute will lead to jail.

*I am aware that "nazi" should technically be capitalized, but I won't do it.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Family Trip to Scotland: Attractions 2

I hope you're not getting too tired of Scotland posts, because I still have a few more planned! In this post I want to mention the attractions we saw in and near Edinburgh.

I already wrote about Holyrood Palace in my castles post, but I'll just add another shout out to this palace. We enjoyed it more than, well, other castles in the city.

But what else did we do in Edinburgh?

National Museum of Scotland (free, donations appreciated)

Like many in Scotland, this museum charges no admission! This was M's and my second visit to this museum, and there's so much to see that I don't even know where to start. There's a great view from the rooftop that's not to be missed, you can find an extensive multi-level exhibit of Scottish history (where we spent our visit this time, though we still didn't see it all), and exhibits about the natural and modern world. No matter where your interests lie, there will be something for you here.

The only photo I took in the museum was of a Scottish guillotine, so I think I'll leave that and let you find your own photos.

The Potter Trail Tour (free, donations appreciated)

The three "kids" went on this tour, and I will give the keyboard over to my daughter, who described it thus:

This walking tour is about an hour long and covers many of J.K. Rowling's inspirations for the books. Tours are drop in - no booking in advance and meet by Greyfriar Bobby's statue just outside of Greyfriar's Kirkyard. Although the tour is free they do request a donation. They don't have a guideline amount for the donation, but it seems like most donate about 5 pounds per person.

The gist of the tour is that you'll see a few graves in Greyfriar's Kirkyard that inspired some of the Harry Potter characters, you'll see one of the many inspirations for Hogwarts, and two cafes where Rowling wrote some of the earlier books. There are a few more sites on the tour, including the street that inspired Diagon Alley (Victoria Street, which is very picturesque).

At one point the tour guide asked for a volunteer to wear the sorting hat, and Liv threw Al under the bus. He was less than amused - but I love the photo!

All in all, it was a tour that was worth it in my opinion - our tour guide was hilarious and made the tour very interactive and knew so much about Rowling and her inspirations that I didn't already know!

The Real Mary King's Close  (not free)

No photos are allowed during this tour and it's not cheap, but we highly recommend it! It's a journey back into the early days of Edinburgh, the time of the plague, and the world in which the less-than-wealthy lived. Our guide was incredibly entertaining, although he was English and not Scottish - it was clear he enjoyed his role. 

Tickets can be pre-ordered online, but then they must be ordered at least 24 hours in advance. We weren't sure when we'd want the tour, so we didn't pre-order. Instead, after our morning tour of Holyrood M and I walked up the Royal Mile to Mary King's Close and then ordered and paid for tickets for later that day. This worked out perfectly for us. 

The Real Mary King's Close tour was my highlight of our day in Edinburgh, though the entire day was enjoyable.

Calton Hill  (free)

In 2015 M and I walked up Arthur's Seat for nice views over Edinburgh. This time we were all trying to pack Edinburgh into one day, so we went up Calton Hill instead. I'd read that this takes less time, but there are still nice views over Edinburgh. I certainly agree. If you have several days in the city, hike up Arthur's Seat. If you have only one or two days, do Calton's Hill.

The Great Polish Map of Scotland  (free, donations appreciated)

I've written about this attraction in Eddleston before, but since it's still relatively new and not everyone knows about it, I want to mention it again! It is the largest physical relief map in the world, and it was first created in the 1970s by Jan Tomasik and a small group of Polish geographers.

The restoration of the map is an ongoing process, and since our first visit in 2015 the crew has added a sturdy observation platform, rebuilt many of the islands (the white bits on the photo) and refilled the sea. When we were there the sea was refilling after some necessary maintenance, but by now it's full again.

What attractions or tours did we miss in Edinburgh?