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?

Monday, July 31, 2017

July Highs and Lows 2017

The first half of July was all about teaching and preparing lesson plans, but then the three-week summer break started. The Sheboygan-Esslingen summer exchange program got underway this month, and the weather has been fine in my opinion - not blazing hot, enough rain that we didn't have to do much watering in the garden, and pleasant much of the time. Opinions of the weather are relative, though - lots of people have been complaining.

On to the monthly re-cap.


  • My friend and Sprachpartnerin, Hedda, visited me after school one day, and we had Kaffee und Kuchen together, talking non-stop for several hours. Despite the generation separating us in age, we never seem to run out of topics!

  • meeting three times with one of my former students, who'd asked me to help him prepare for his C1 German test. After our first meeting I told him I wasn't sure there was much I could do for him, since my German is not clearly better than his! I told him I noticed he was using words and phrases I don't use - that are beyond what I have ever needed to say. We continued to meet anyway once a week, and I'm sure he did well on his test.

  • the visit of our good friend, D, a German teacher in the US. He came along on the day trip to Ulm (see below) and helped with the tour. At the end of that day he and I parted from the group and came home, where M was ready to grill for us. The next morning we took a walk through the fields near our town, and then he was off on his next adventure.
  • receiving and reading this book - Erzähl mir von Deutschland, Soumar. I contacted the writer to ask if there are plans to translate it into English, but there are not. A publisher has to be interested in it first. I sent him the link to my review, and he liked it enough to put it on his Facebook page. 


  • My cracked front crown broke off (a large corner of it), which made smiling and teaching awkward for about a week. I'd already had an appointment scheduled a week later to start the process of getting a new crown, and since I was in no pain the dentist told me to just keep the appointment. So for a week I tried not to smile. Impossible for an American.

  • A man was murdered in the middle of the day at "my" grocery store - about a mile from our house, where I shop 4-5 times per week. There was an altercation between two men, and one of them pulled out a knife and stabbed the other repeatedly. There was talk of "OMG, none of us are safe anywhere any more!" and "I'm not shopping there any more...", and of course blaming Merkel for letting refugees in (neither of the men was a refugee). I went shopping there the following afternoon when they re-opened and was not afraid. Benefits of having lived in America? We read about stuff like that happening nearly every day, though admittedly the weapon of choice is usually a gun.

  • learning of another murder that took place in Konstanz (similar to the story above, it sounds like it was an altercation between several men early in the morning at a disco). I read some comments on a Fox news site so mainly conservative Americans were commenting, and they were all similar - close the borders, Merkel is ruining Germany, "See?? #45 is right and now Germany is seeing it too!" (No, he isn't and no, we're not.)

    This one was amusing, though: "Germany still has discos?"  A responder replied, "Yeah, Europe is a little behind the times. LOL"  "Disco" is the word used in German for a place opened at night where people can drink, listen to music, and dance. Yep, we still have those here. Not in the US?

Exchange Program Activities

  • I am involved with an exchange program for 7th/8th-grade students living in my hometown, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and its sister city, Esslingen. The Americans fly here in July with a chaperone for three weeks, and then the whole group (Americans and Germans) fly together to Sheboygan for three weeks.

  • I took the train to  Esslingen to meet the group for ice cream and a Stadtführung (town tour) led by one of the German lads, who is a youth city tour guide! Usually my Schwiegermutter or I give that tour, but this was a nice change.

  • I drove the car to Esslingen another day for our evening Welcome Party and buffet and thankfully didn't encounter any serious problems during the drive.

  • Our first group day trip was to the beautiful little town of Tübingen, where I gave the Stadtführung and then released the students for lunch and free time, followed by a little more tour and a stop in the Stadtinfo for souvenirs.

Tübingen Rathaus, with our group in front
(I'm telling them some stories focusing on the Marktplatz.)
  • The next day we took the train to Ulm where I led them again through part of the town and the Münster (minster - church). I sent them on a scavenger hunt to find various figures throughout the church (the Man of Sorrows, St. Peter, St. Martin, the Spatz/sparrow that is the town mascot...), and they seemed to enjoy the activity! I thought we'd be in the church for about 15 minutes, but at 40 minutes they were still going. 
my friend showing and telling the students about Stolpersteine

  • Now the group has a week and a half to spend with their host families before they fly to Sheboygan. 

Have you had a good month?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Family Trip to Scotland: Attractions 1

Traveling with young adult children is fabulous! They can go off on their own including exploring a biggish city and navigating public transportation, make their own plans, have their own fun in the evening when all M and I want to do is sit with a glass of wine and not be responsible for anything, and they help with cooking and clean-up without being asked.

What kind of entertainment did we (and they!) find throughout the trip to keep everyone happy? I've already written about the castles and castle ruins we visited. But what else did we see and do?

Fingal's Cave

We took a wildlife boat tour from  Tobermory to the islands of Lunga and Staffa. Fingal's Cave is on Staffa, and it's a geological wonder. So beautiful and inspiring is it that Felix Mendelsohn composed his "Hebrides Overture" after visiting the cave in the early 1800s.

After disembarking from the boat adventurous visitors walk up some steps and along the volcanic wall gripping tightly to the rail or rope, and eventually come to this cave. The basalt rock formed into hexagonal columns when lava from a volcanic eruption cooled abruptly millions of years ago. The cave was (re-)discovered in 1772 and has been a popular attraction for nearly 200 years.

Just so you're aware...

This is how one approaches the cave. There is a rope to hang onto on the cave wall side, and nothing but thin air to keep you from tossing over the side into the icy ocean water. And it is quite a long way down. It is both exhilerating and terrifying.

the mouth of the cave

basalt columns seen from the stone path on the way to or from Fingal's Cave
Side story: This is Gus. Gus is a Curly Coated Retriever and he is not happy. Gus' human was attempting to navigate that precarious pathway into the cave holding onto Gus' leash with his infant child strapped to his back in a baby carrier and a big camera dangling from his neck. It was pouring down with a relentless, windy, thick, misty rain, making the path even more treacherous. Gus' other human was already in the cave, and Gus was pulling to hurry his human, baby, and camera along. As the human hesitated and started to doubt the wisdom of his next step, I asked him if he would like me to hold the dog while he explored the cave (I was on my way out). He said, "Oh, I don't want you to have to stand here in the pouring rain!" There was no shelter anywhere on the island anyway, so whether I held onto Gus or headed back toward the boat that was no longer at the dock, it didn't make any difference. So he handed me the dog's leash with a grateful look, said, "His name is Gus. He's a good dog!" and disappeared while Gus shot me a "What the hell?!" look and pined after his humans.

My three dog-loving kids came out of the cave to find me hanging onto Gus, and they made instant friends with this dog who didn't want anything to do with them. We crouched down to lower our center of gravity (Gus is a strong dog!) and held on while being pelted with rain. His grateful humans, including the infant who I'm sure was also thinking, "What the hell?!", returned and Gus breathed a sigh of relief before marching off with them with nary another look in our direction. 

Glenfinnan Viaduct

Once back on the mainland, M drove us along single-track roads from the western-most point of the UK (Kilchoan at West Ardnamurchan) to Glenfinnan (or Gleannfhionnainn, in Gaelic). Here we had planned to see the Glenfinnan Viaduct as well as the monument to the Jacobites.  Unfortunately, the weather sucked and I just wasn't in the mood. My daughter snapped this decent photo, but we didn't wait to see if a train would pass over on it.
seen in Harry Potter, on a day more pleasant than this
There's a nice visitors center there with plenty of information presented museum-style about the Jacobite uprisings. Here is the viaduct on a nicer day from a different perspective, when we rode the Jacobite Steam Train in 2007:

Falkirk Wheel

We've been hearing about the Falkirk Wheel for years, but I never really looked into what it was. We had a lengthy stop here because it's where our rental car finally gave up the ghost, and we had to wait several hours for a tow truck. Better here than in the middle of the motorway, eh?

The wheel works as a lock - boats navigating the Union Canal and the Forth and Clyde Canal drive into a caisson which is then sealed, and the wheel turns, lifting or dropping the boat and caisson to the other canal. The energy used by the wheel is equivalent to eight electric teapots. 

The visitors center offers lots of information, and visitors can buy a ticket to ride a boat on the wheel from bottom to top or vise versa. It truly is something to behold.

On the way to Edinburgh from Falkirk, we saw the Kelpies from the cab of the tow truck - we would have otherwise stopped there as well, for another attraction.

Kelpies - small-scale model at the Falkirk Wheel parking lot

With my next Scotland post I'll write about the attractions we visited in Edinburgh.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Book Review: Erzähl mir von Deutschland, Soumar

"Beschreib mal Zuhause. Was ist das?"

"Da, wo man sich sicher fühlt. Dahin kommt man, wenn man müde ist oder allein sein will. Dann kann man nach Hause. Man kann tun, was man will. Man kann sich entspannen. Und alles gehört dir. Dein Bett, dein Sofa, dein Tisch, deine Bücher."

For me one mark of a good book is that I am genuinely sorry to finish it. Erzähl mir von Deutschland, Soumar, by  Florian Schmitz was such a book for me.

There was so much in this book I could relate to, and it was probably good for me to see Germany through a German writer’s critical eye. I see my own passport country through a similar eye, and I get the feeling I come across as unpatriotic to other Americans. I even lost a friend once, who, just before signing off, wrote something about me hating America. I love and value my American friends very much, but I do not have a positive impression of Americans in general, nor do I consider the U.S. the "greatest country in the world" as so many do. It’s a strange reverse-xenophobia. 

Florian Schmitz is a German who, after his studies with a degree in Literary Studies and Spanish, got the message from Germany (the Job Center advisors, for instance) that “We don’t need you.” He had the wrong skill set (at least on paper) after graduation to be valued by German employers, so he left the country and moved to Greece. Throughout the book Schmitz compares life, culture, and people in Greece to those in Germany, and through Soumar, his Syrian friend, we hear comparisons between Syria, Germany and Greece. What I find so interesting is that Soumar sees Germany in a more positive light than Schmitz does, although Schmitz comes across to me as realistic, not negative.

Soumar was on his journey/flight from Syria to Germany in 2016 when he and Schmitz met through Schmitz’s people-magnet dog, Nondas, on a Greek ship. They stayed in contact, and this book describes Soumar’s journey in four parts, their friendship, and their conversations about topics like religion (they are both atheists), war, humanity, integration, food, football (soccer), weather… The book allows readers to eavesdrop on conversations between two people I would enjoy spending time with. They ask each other deep and difficult questions, and the answers are equally deep. 

My book is all marked up with notes and underlined quotes, such as:

A southern European’s advice to Germans: 
Zieht euch endlich den Stock aus dem Arsch und macht eure eigenen Regeln.”
 ["Get that stick out of your butt and make your own rules!"]

At the same time, German punctuality and organization is good! 
Soumar: “Es ist gut, dass man sich auf Leute verlassen kann.”
  ["It's good that you can rely on people here."]

Soumar on religious strife:
Wenn jemand denkt, dass ein anderer dumm ist, weil er eine andere Religion hat, dann hat er diese Dummheit selbst in sich.“
  ["When someone thinks that someone else is dumb for practicing a different religion, then the stupidity lies in him."]

Schmitz on AfD and PEGIDA supporters:
Ich glaube, dass die meisten schlichtweg an einfachen Lösungen interessiert sind…Und dabei sind sie an eine Partei geraten, die so tut, als könne sie die Grenzen dicht machen und dann ist Deutschland sicher. Das ist natürlich Schwachsinn.“ 
  ["I think most of them are simply interested in easy solutions. And they found a party that says closing the borders will make Germany safe. That's ridiculous, of course."] 
  I would add potus fans to Schmitz' description as well.

Life in a refugee camp: 
“For a few days it’s ok, but for years it’s terrible…Can you imagine? It can’t be compared to a concentration camp like Bergen-Belsen, because the people can come and go, have enough water and a warm meal. But to be constantly surrounded by people is not good. One never has peace and quiet or any real privacy, and everyone has to share the kitchen and bathroom. When people are forced to live like that, no matter where, eventually there will be problems.”*

[*Some people in both Germany and the US have said refugees living in camps should be happy they’re out of the war zone. They should feel lucky to be where they are. Ok, but I wonder how long the people saying that would be able to stand conditions in a refugee camp. One day, perhaps?]

And one of my favorite exchanges (the one at the top of this post):
Schmitz: „Describe home. What is that?“
Soumar: „A place where you feel safe. You go there when you're tired or want to be alone. Then you can go home and do what you want. You can relax. And everything belongs to you - your bed, your sofa, your table, your TV, your books.

Soumar tells the story of his three-week odyssey from Damaskus to Bremen in his own words, and it is much like the stories several of my former students have shared with me. It’s becoming very familiar to me – the fear, the uncertainty, the smugglers and traffickers, the police, the maltreatment by police and officials in Hungary, the boat motors that konk out in the middle of the sea, the exhaustion, the relief upon reaching a Greek island, the hunger and thirst, lack of showers, the understandable mistrust, the connections made with other refugees and information shared via Facebook of where to go and whom to look out for, crossing borders under the cover of darkness…and the “Alter, du hast es geschafft!” upon finally reaching Germany.

I think this is a very important book and I wish it were available in English. Anyone who wants to lump all Arabs/Syrians/refugees together into one pot and label them should meet Soumar in this book. I recommend it to expats, travelers, immigrants, wanderers, those living in multicultural families and communities, and anyone wondering what struggles refugees, immigrants, and expats face from day to day.

On Goodreads I gave this book five stars, which for me is rare. But if I don't like the beginning of the next book I have lined up, I might just start this one from the beginning again.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Things That Make Me Think...WTF?!?!

I live in a small village (ca. 2000 inhabitants) connected to a larger (but still small) community (ca. 25,000 when the populations of all the small villages are counted). The Kernstadt (main city of the community) has a population of about 6000. I truly love it here - it's quiet, not much happens, folks are friendly enough, and there are plenty of opportunities to get involved.

This afternoon - just a few hours ago - I learned from the Facebook group "Blaulicht News", which normally informs locals about where Blitzer (speed cameras) have been set up and where accidents have happened and traffic is backed up, that a man had been stabbed to death at the grocery store where I do all my shopping. There had apparently been an altercation between two people inside the store, and one pulled a knife.

Having lived in America for 44 years, this doesn't come across to me as anything terribly unusual. I see the US as a pretty violent place. I've experienced very little violence personally, but it's all around us - we love violent TV shows and movies and violence is not edited out when movies are shown on TV, seemingly every third person has a gun stashed somewhere or displayed in the back window of his pick-up truck (some are carefully locked in gun cabinets), and the more violent the video game, the better kids like it. We read almost daily about shootings in malls, schools, and neighborhoods (a shooting where only one person is killed is hardly newsworthy anymore). Violence is just a part of American culture. Sadly.

This kind of violence is less common here, though, in our small town in southwestern Germany. A similar incident did happen at the other local grocery store a few months ago, but I don't think that victim was killed.

As long as there are humans on this earth, there will be violence. We just have to hope we're not involved, and preferably nowhere near it.

So what made me sit down at my laptop to write this blog post? A discussion on social media about the incident before reliable details were even available.

One person (I'll call him Herr Klugscheißer) wrote a snarky remark: "Yeah, and of course we can't ask about the nationality of the perpetrator!"  [Facepalm. Here we go again.]

Another (Herr Dingsbums) threw some blame at Angela Merkel for her "Wir schaffen das!" and letting many migrants & refugees into Germany. 

Please note, no information about the victim or perpetrator (Täter) was available yet. All that was known was there was one person with a knife and one dead person. And it was reported that the Täter was in custody.

Can someone - anybody - explain to me what difference it makes what the nationality of the Täter is?

Herr Klugscheißer was surely cleverly implying that the Täter was probably a foreigner/migrant/refugee. 'Cuz Germans don't do stuff like that, I guess. [Never mind the 27-year-old German in Altenfeld who stabbed and killed two of his three children last month because his wife said she was leaving him. The third child survived.]

Herr Dingsbums was definitely implying that the Täter had to be a refugee, because "Wir schaffen das" was directly about refugees fleeing from their war-torn homes.

How would the conversation have gone if Herr Klugscheißer had asked his question?

   "What's the killer's nationality?"
   "He's German."

Or maybe:

   "What's the killer's nationality?"
   "He's Syrian."
   "SEE?!?  I told you they're all violent! They should never have been let in!"

Or this:

   "What's the killer's nationality?"
   "He's Turkish."
   "Of course! Damn foreigners! Why are they even here?"

What about this one:

   "What's the killer's nationality?"
   "He's American."
   "Figures. They're all mad as balls. Why can't those nutjobs stay in their own country?!" 

I can assure you it wouldn't have gone anything like this:

   "What's the killer's nationality?"
   "He's Syrian/Turkish."
   "Hm. I know lots of really kind Syrians/Turks. What a tragedy for the victim's family."

Why would someone need to ask about a killer's nationality? The only reason I can come up with is so that the asker can then spout off about his views about all people with that same nationality. Is a murder more acceptable when the killer shares our nationality? Is a crime somehow worse when a "non-native" commits it? What the hell?

If the Täter had not been already apprehended and was at large, then a description of the person is both fair and important! But that was not the case here.

People who ask such questions in a public forum (actually even out loud at all) are not the sort of people I want to know. The question is as ridiculous to me as "Is the Täter overweight?"  "Does the Täter have brown eyes?" Was the Täter drinking a Coke before the attack?"  These questions could all be important if police are searching for him (or her). But otherwise, what the hell?!?

Herr Klugscheißer also seemed to be implying that he will be unfairly deemed racist or anti-immigrant for daring to ask the question. I'm pretty confident in saying that a person who is not racist or anti-foreigner/anti-immigrant would not ask the question like that: "Hrrumpf. Of course we can't ask about the Täter's nationality!!"

How about: "It's terrible that this happened in our community! Do we know anything about the people involved?"  There's nothing inherently anti-others in that question, but many people would probably not ask that either - but just wait for the details to come out in the news rather than participating in the rumor mill.

Asking a question does not make a person racist.
Assuming that a criminal or perpetrator has a certain skin color or comes from a place other than white Germany or white America does.

Relating such a story to someone else and including the [confirmed] detail that the killer is an American/Syrian/Turk/German does not make a person racist or xenophobic.
Adding an editorial comment or snarky remark about Americans/Syrians/Turks/Germans does.

At least in my book.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Family Trip to Scotland: Castles and Ruins

When we started planning our June trip to Scotland, my son, who is studying history, said he would like to see some castles. He saw plenty of castles on his two European trips in 2007 and 2008, but he was young then and has a different perspective by now. Despite living in Germany for 4+ years, I'm always game for a castle - as long as it's not Neuschwanstein - and especially ruins. So I knew we could happily honor his request.

These are the castles and castle ruins we visited during those 12 days.

Duart Castle, Isle of Mull

seen from the ferry
Duart Castle is not far from the ferry port town of Craignure, and it's the seat of the Maclean clan. Years ago on M's first trip to Mull with his parents and sister, his father got gently scolded by a shepherd for driving a bit too fast along the road leading to the castle. "Ye should slow down, m' friend. That would be easier on yer shock absorbers and on my sheep!"  When they were having a cuppa tea in the coffee shop after touring the castle, the shepherd appeared - he was Sir Charles Hector Fitzroy Maclean - the laird of the castle! He died in 1990, but M recognized him on several family photos displayed in the castle.

The castle keep was built by Lochlan Lubanach Maclean in the 14th century and additional buildings were added 200 years later. Improvements have been made throughout the centuries, and although it fell into neglect and disrepair after the Mcleans lost possession of it, the current laird's great-grandfather purchased the ruins in 1911 and spent a fortune restoring it. Clan gatherings are hosted here occasionally, and if you take the shuttle from the Craignure dock to the castle, the driver will ask if any among you are Macleans - the clan chief wants to know.

You can stroll the grounds at no charge, or pay to go inside for a self-guided tour. Information is posted in each room, and visitors can go up to the battlements for a view across the Sound of Mull, Lismore Island, the mainland, and Lady's Rock (at low tide). Duart can be seen in the Sean Connery movie Entrapment, which we quite like! It pretends to be Connery's character's residence, and several scenes were filmed here.

Adult Admission: ₤6.50, ₤11.00 including shuttle to & from Craignure

Did Mary, Queen of Scots stay here?  No. She never came to the island, silly twit.

Glengorm Castle

This might be cheating because Glengorm is not a castle you can visit and tour, but this is where we always stay on Mull - in a self-catering cottage or flat. It overlooks the coast in the north of Mull.

The castle was built by James Forsyth in the 1860s after he bought the Sorne Estate and ran the tenants off the land. The name "Glengorm" means "Blue Valley" and was suggested to him by one of the evicted tenants. She was snarkishly referring to the bluish smoke rising over the estate from the burning houses of the evicted tenants, but the bitter irony was lost on him because he didn't speak Gaelic. He died shortly before the castle was finished. 

The current owners, Tom and Marjorie Nelson, are warm and friendly, and Tom's mother has written a lovely book about the castle's history.

Admission: Not applicable

Did Mary, Queen of Scots stay here? No. She lost her head in 1587 and Glengorm wasn't built until 1860.
Castle Library
Incidentally, if it had not been the gorgeous day it was,
M and I would have had our wedding ceremony in here (in 2006).
Instead, we got married on the lawn next to the castle.


Edinburgh Castle

We really only snoped around this one this time. We did the tour a few years ago, but for whatever reason we were underwhelmed. I've read that Stirling Castle is far more impressive and has been tampered with less over the centuries. We also apparently couldn't take photos inside because we have none. It looks quite impressive from a distance, though.

Adult admission: ₤17.00

Did Mary, Queen of Scots stay here?  Yes! She even had a baby here - the future King James VI of England and I of Scotland, as in the King James Bible.

Holyrood Palace

Holyrood is in Edinburgh at one end of the Royal Mile, and it is well worth a visit. Visitors are not allowed to take photos inside, but they are allowed in the abbey ruins. I have long wanted to visit Holyrood, and I was not disappointed. The tour is self-guided with an audio guide, which is perfect. You can decide how fast or slowly to go through the palace and how much detail you want to pay attention to. 
Abbey ruins
Adult Admission: ₤12.50, includes audio guide

Did Mary, Queen of Scots stay here?  Yes. She lived here in the 1560s. Her secretary and favorite, the Italian David Rizzio, was murdered in her chambers in 1566, while she stood helplessly by.

Tantallon Castle

These adventurous ruins are east of Edinburgh near North Berwick on the coast. It was built in the 1350s and effectively destroyed by Cromwell in 1651. Visitors can explore the ruins at will (it's well sign-posted but I recommend buying a guide for the full story) and climb several different staircases to find various hallways, battlements, and even a prison with a loo! Even if it's a warm day, bring a jacket because it's windy on the coast and up in the castle! Don't leave a single corner unexplored.

Tantallon may be a bit of a challenge for anyone who is afraid of heights, but there are railings and high-enough stone walls that there is really no danger of falling, You could jump over those, but why would you do that if you're afraid of heights? The one photo above makes it appear as though there are no railings, but I'm standing behind it - you can't actually walk along that battlement shown without the railings.

Bass Rock is a feature visible from the ruins. This little island was a refuge for Saint Baldred in the 8th century, a royal residence (there was a castle here in the 1400s), a garrison in the 1500s, a state prison in the 1600s, and finally a beacon - a lighthouse was built on the island in 1902, and a lighthouse keeper lit the lamp every day until 1988! Now the lighthouse is automated and the island is a bird sanctuary.

Adult Admission: ₤6.00

Did Mary, Queen of Scots stay here?  Yes, in 1566 on her return to Edinburgh after a royal progress in the eastern Borders.

Hailes Castle

These castle ruins are accessible by a single-track road not far from Tantallon Castle. My photos don't show much, but again one can climb around a bit. There are signs telling what you're looking at, there are two pit prisons, a kitchen and dining hall... And it's quiet there. The car park is large enough for 2 1/2 cars. If you visit Tantallon, which I highly recommend, do not miss a stop at Hailes.

Admission: free

Did Mary, Queen of Scots stay here? Yes - as you can see from the above sign, in 1567, before her ill-fated marriage to her third and final husband, Lord Bothwell.

There are other Scottish castles and ruins I still want to see when we return - Linlithgow, Callendar House, Stirling Castle, and others. 

Which castles in Scotland do you recommend??

Previously in this series: