July 19, 2008

Denouement

Hello again! It’s been almost three weeks now since I left Germany, and only now am I starting to readjust to daily life here in the USA. I didn’t blog during the final week of our program simply because I was running around like a crazy person most of the time. To be honest, though, I think a part of me wanted to pretend like my time was not ending, that I would not have to leave Germany and all the wonderful people I had gotten to know during my stay. That, somehow, I could just cross my fingers and close my eyes, and I wouldn’t have to go “home? from a place that already felt like “home.? So, blogging about my “final days? would have been a little bit too concrete for my happy daydream.

That being said, I guess this is as good a time as any for me to face the facts:

The USA Goes to Berlin Program is over.
I am back in the United States of America and must begin to get into the groove of my life here no matter how strange and out of sync I may feel.
I miss Germany.
I miss my host family.
I miss my new friends and colleagues from Velten and Berlin.
I even miss soccer…a little bit. (See June 18 post if you need an explanation of that one.)
I don’t know when I will ever be able to go back again, and that thought makes me sad sometimes.

On the bright side, the pace of life here has already picked up sufficient speed that I don’t really have a lot of free time to mope about all this. I work full time in an office and have rehearsals and lessons most evenings. On the weekends, I have my church jobs and a few uncommitted hours to do all the domestic chores that get neglected during the work week. I spent this past weekend sorting through all of my souvenirs and paperwork from my 5-week stay and, while it was emotionally tough to be reminded of everything all over again, it was also a nice way to sort out my key thoughts for this final blog posting.

While I certainly can’t speak with authority for our entire group of 15 students, I think this program was a complete success! Nearly every aspect of my time in Germany was beneficial for me: – host family (music-friendly and all-around wonderful people!), elementary school placement (where I could work in both English and Music classes), lectures on the history of Berlin (I’m not a history major like some of our students, so these were very useful for me.), excursions and group visits (all were great and highly informative), and the research component (I was able to plan ahead and use this experience to make connections with new voice teachers and coaches, and to begin preparing a recital.). The only downside was being located outside of Berlin. This made travel times long, but I managed just fine. And, the longer I am away, the fuzzier my memory becomes about the negatives and dwells instead on all the positives of the program.

The length of this program was just long enough to allow me to get “settled? in my routine in Germany, and to make significant strides in my language abilities. But it was short enough that I didn’t begin to take anything for granted. It has also engendered in me the desire to return to Germany as soon as possible, and for a much longer period of time. To this end, I am signing up for more German language classes and looking into academic fellowship programs like Fulbright and DAAD to facilitate a return trip. Maybe in 2009. I hope so!

As the second half of this exchange program, the German host teachers will be visiting Minneapolis in October for two weeks. They will be housed by middle school and high school German teachers, and will help out in the classes taught by those teachers. In their free time, I expect that they will do many of the touristic things in the Twin Cities, like the Walker Art Museum and a shopping trip to the Mall of America. I know that their time will be limited, but I already have plans for my host mother! I am hoping to cook dinner for her – although I can’t promise it will be anywhere near the delicious meals she made for our family in Germany. I also want to take her to a musical or opera, or maybe she can even come to one of the rehearsals I will be doing for the University of Minnesota fall opera at that time. We’ll just have to see when she gets here. I can’t wait to see her again. For now, I am left with many beautiful memories…and lots of souvenirs!

Auf Wiedersehen!

Pictures from Farewell BBQ

Program participants - teachers and students:
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Program participants - students only:
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Me and Sabine (my host mother):
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June 22, 2008

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Today, our group visited the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp and Memorial in Oranienburg – a town just north of Berlin. Gaby, our program director, had warned us that the day would be an emotional one, but I had no idea how much the visit would affect me. Like most other Americans, I have learned about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust mostly through my school education, museum visits, and movies. And, although I have been moved emotionally by these experiences, nothing in my past could have remotely prepared me for the impact of physically standing in the place where the events themselves transpired. To see the buildings, to stand next to the barbed-wire barricades and stone walls, and even to walk the same paths that the prisoners did: from the wrought-iron entrance gate bearing the sarcastic phrase Arbeit macht frei into the roll-call yard where prisoners were forced to stand in all types of weather until every person had been accounted for or until the SS officers had had enough laughs watching them freeze; from the unbelievably small and cramped sleeping quarters – three persons forced to sleep in one wooden bunk smaller than a child’s twin bed – to the hidden, downward slope that was supposedly the route followed by prisoners expecting to be transferred to other camps that, instead, led to a sheltered enclave where prisoners where either hanged or shot to death.

To be honest, I cannot even comprehend all that I saw yesterday; not because of any language or cultural barriers, but because I think my brain is having difficulty processing the sheer depth and complexity of the evil that was carried out in that place. That place…which is only one of so, so many where these atrocities happened every day for years while the surrounding towns and townspeople were either unable or perhaps unwilling to voice dissent.

Our tour guide was fantastically knowledgeable and was very accommodating of our many questions about the concentration camp and about that time period in general. She was able to help us understand the precision of the Nazi Regime’s horrendous “final solution? and also to see how the plans had changed and developed over time.

In visiting the foundations of the crematorium at Sachsenhausen, she explained how the Nazis decided to deal with the “disposal? of over eleven thousand Russian/Soviet military war prisoners who had been brought to the camp after Germany’s invasion of that country. Knowing that they were holding as prisoners very well-trained, strong men, they decided first to lock them in the living quarters without food to weaken them. Still fearing some resistance, the SS officers at the concentration camp devised an elaborate scheme to murder the soldiers. The prisoners were told that they would be transferred to another camp and be put to work. However, before that could happen, they would each need to be examined by a doctor.

One by one, the prisoners were brought to a front room of the crematorium (which they would not have recognized because they had only just arrived at the camp and were isolated from the other prisoners) where an SS officer pretending to be a doctor told them to disrobe. With very loud music playing throughout this examination room and over the rest of the camp, the “doctor? would check their vital signs and then tell them to go into the next room where height was to be measured. Built into the wall of this smaller, double-walled (i.e. for better soundproofing) room were wooden slats with measurement marks. When the soldier-prisoner stood against the slats to have his height taken, he was shot in the back of the head at the base of the skull through small holes in the wall that allowed a hidden SS officer to pass a gun through from another room. With this deception, the SS officers at Sachsenhausen murdered over 10,000 of these military prisoners in roughly eleven weeks. That’s almost one thousand people a week.

Learning about the utter precision of this soulless extermination literally made me sick to my stomach. Even many hours later, just thinking about it, I feel physically ill. For me, no other story about the Holocaust has, in such a clear way, made me understand the complete dehumanization of the persecuted groups that occurred at the time. I wholeheartedly wish that this particular lesson was one I did not have to learn, but I know that it was an important one, for me and for all of us.

June 21, 2008

Eugene Onegin at the Komische Oper

After several coachings and voice lessons with some musicians in Berlin, I was so excited to finally see my first opera here – Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Komische Oper. One of the singers in the Freier Chor Velten has a good friend who sings in the chorus at the Komische Oper, and she was able to arrange for me to get a ticket for only 13 Euros. When I got to the opera house to pick up the reserved tickets, I was asked if I wanted to sit in the balcony or the parkett (the main floor). I picked the main floor because I didn’t want to be too far away. Low and behold, when the clerk handed me my 13-Euro ticket, it was in the first row!!! When I got inside the theater, I learned that it was not only the first row, but also dead center! I couldn’t believe it. Looking at the price listings, this ticket should have normally sold for over 70 Euros. So, I was ecstatic!

Well, I’m sorry to say that my euphoria didn’t last too long. My first disappointment was that the opera was to be sung in German instead of the original Russian. However, I understand this tradition of using the “language of the people? in European opera houses, so I didn’t let this minor road bump upset me too much. It was the production itself, along with some rather lackluster singing from even the principle players, that caused my overall dissatisfaction with the performance.

From a practical point of view, the stage director’s decision to use a severely raked (slanted) stage created the need to have a slip-proof floor covering. Sadly, they chose what I can only call a “shower mat?-style of covering that caused an inordinate amount of squeaking and extraneous noise when any person took even the smallest step. So, when the choir of roughly fifty singers moved en masse it became more of a comedy than a serious drama.

The late romantic setting was also given a modern interpretation that seemed to be taking place entirely on a plane or maybe a cruise ship. Honestly, I just didn’t understand what the setting was. There were many, many chairs that seemed to be arranged like a plane and that could swivel to four points. At one moment in the show, the whole ensemble, seated in these chairs, seemed to get tossed about in either a storm or some kind of turbulence where they would simultaneously fall/get tossed from one side of the stage to the other and then “climb? back toward the chairs in the middle. Since the story actually takes place in the countryside during fine weather, I’m at a total loss for what the heck all that was supposed to be.

Another complaint, purely aesthetic, is that certain famous elements of the opera – the waltz, the polonaise, and Tatiana’s “Letter Scene? – could not be performed as the composer intended because of the set design. The dances, for lack of space on the stage (because of the 50+ swivel chairs), were changed into a sort of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey games with people in blindfolds chasing each other about. Tatiana’s powerful “Letter Scene? in which she, alone in her room, reveals her deep love for Onegin in a letter, was thoroughly spoiled by the fact that the chorus remained on stage (sitting in those darn chairs) and then left for no discernable reason in the middle of the aria (squeak, squeak, squeak)…and then came back again for, dare I write it, no discernable reason!

Several of the audience members were complaining about the production during intermission and, in fact, many did not return to see the second half. This created an even more ridiculous situation in which the performers on the stage outnumbered the people in the audience. Very sad, especially for someone like me who hopes to be one of those performers in the near future! I would not want to sing in such a production, and I would be embarrassed to sing at a world-class opera house to a crowd of less than fifty people on a Saturday evening.

I still have another opera to see at the Komische Oper next Saturday. It is Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier which I have never seen. I sincerely hope it will be a nice production and that the singing will be very good. We’ll see, though. Maybe it’s a case of “you get what you pay for,? but I would be furious if I had paid $150 for the Eugene Onegin ticket. Wie sagt man “refund? auf Deutsch?

June 20, 2008

Alliierten Museum Pictures


Squeezing it all in

This was certainly a busy week, and I am realizing that I am doing what most people do when the get close to the end of a trip: try to do EVERYTHING! It’s just not possible, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. Also, this has been our most busy week yet in terms of appointments with the rest of the group and the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation. We had a lecture on Monday, a presentation on Wednesday, seminar on Thursday, and a museum visit on Friday. And, I managed to squeeze in a shopping trip on Tuesday and dinner and a musical on Wednesday. Yeah…I’m bushed!

The AlliiertenMuseum, which commemorates the presence of the allied forces in Berlin after the end of WWII, was interesting enough but not as extensive as I had hoped. After Monday’s fabulous lecture from Dr. Bowman, a lot of the museum was simple repetition. (Our tour guide also admitted to being rather hung over after the previous evening’s soccer match which Germany won. So, while he was well intentioned, he mostly sipped his coffee and tried to “maintain? – as he bluntly put it.) Nonetheless, it was neat to see the guard tower out front, the section of the Berlin Wall on display, and the actual edifice of the original Checkpoint Charlie. Other than that, there were only simple, little details that were intriguing. For example, the museum had two separate display exhibits about popular music in the allied zones (meaning the British, French, and American sectors of West Berlin). One was a songbook, harmonicas, and information about radio broadcasts. The other was a one-page song by Irving Berlin that was written in support of the Berlin Air Lift – very interesting! Next to this, there was a display that included an informational brochure for American troops about venereal diseases. The cover showed a rather distraught soldier with the caption: “He didn’t think it could happen to him either…a nice guy like him.? Very humorous!

Anyway, back to the idea of overbooking oneself at the end of a trip. I think that being a little bit sick during the first two weeks meant that I got a slow start on visiting sites and making friendships. Now that I’ve gotten to know my school colleagues better, I want to be able to spend some time with them before I leave. Sadly, that time is all too near. I think we might try to do an “afternoon tea? or something like that, where we can have several colleagues over to the house for a few hours to chat or play board games. Maybe during my last week? I don’t know yet. Should be fun.

Otherwise, I need to spend some time shopping for souvenirs (Because where else in the world could I possibly buy a beer stein?!?!? Just kidding!) and visiting major historical sites in the city. For example, I still haven’t seen the Brandenburger Tor or the Deutsch Oper. Both are high on my list. I also can’t wait to see an opera in the Komische Oper. And, of course, I want to visit Museum Island and the exhibits that are there.

It’s these types of experiences that one cannot have in other places because they are unique to Berlin. Even going to the public viewings of the upcoming semi-final soccer matches should be quite interesting. If the German team makes it to the finals, my family has said that we will go to the public viewing because it is so much fun to be outside with thousands of other people all cheering for the same team…but you don’t have to pay anything because the viewing spots are just huge screen projections of the game put on by the city government. My family even bought me a “Deutschland? floppy hat to wear when we watch the matches at home or at the public viewing. Since everyone else is wearing flags and jerseys and other, much crazier stuff, I’ll fit right in. And although I certainly don’t plan to indulge to the point that our poor tour guide did, it still should be lots of fun!

June 19, 2008

Elisabeth: Das Musical

Went to see my first show yesterday! The music teacher at my elementary school, Sylvie, invited me to see it. She had already seen the show and said it was great. Elisabeth: Das Musical is the title of the show and, according to the website, it is the most successful (i.e. most tickets sold) show to ever come out of German-speaking countries. Since musical theatre as a genre was created in the United States of America, I was most excited to see how it is done in other countries. I have heard the music for several French musicals before, but have never seen a show in France.

Elisabeth
is a modern musical and has that modern rock-pop feel to it, despite the fact that the subject matter is Empress Elisabeth of Prussia! She had an interesting life and personality and reading about her on the internet, even for just 10 minutes, would really be worth anyone’s time. She was a German princess whose sister was intended for Franz Josef the first of Prussia. However, when he met the family, he chose Elisabeth. Later in life, she is quoted as saying that she regretted accepting his marriage proposal. She had three children with the Emperor, including a son, but it was the Emperor’s mother that really ran the household and she did not allow Elisabeth to spend time with her own children. Feeling powerless and weak, Elisabeth used the only weapon she could to regain control over her husband and her life – her beauty. She became obsessed with staying young and beautiful, and even developed an eating disorder because of it. When she got older, she was famous for wearing clothing that covered nearly all of her body and always carrying a parasol to hide her face from onlookers.

She did not have a good relationship with her husband and spent most of her life traveling around the world without him, writing poetry and visiting many exotic places which only added to her renown. Late in her life, her only son and the heir to the royal throne committed suicide; an emotional blow from which Elisabeth never recovered. She wrote that, eventually, she and her husband became friends. She was fatally wounded while boarding an ocean liner when a political fanatic stabbed her in the chest in his attempt to “kill a royal, any royal.?

As a musical, Elisabeth was a little difficult for me to follow even though I knew a lot about her life before seeing the show. The problem wasn’t that the show was sung in German, but rather that the organization of the show was a series of many mini-scenes and musical numbers instead of a fluid story. This is understandable since the show is trying to represent a person’s entire life in 3 hours and, moreover, a person who had such a full and unusual life. But, for my taste, I would have liked to see more continuous developments of Elisabeth’s relationships with those around her. The musical played sort of like “History’s Greatest Hits? – going from big life moment to big life moment, but never resting more than 3 or 4 minutes on any scene.

All in all, the show was very interesting visually, with a rotating stage, beautiful costuming, and constantly changing set designs. The singing was also very good, but I have to admit that I wasn’t as impressed as I have been at professional American musicals. Perhaps it is because American singers have a slightly longer, stronger tradition in the genre, but they seem to perform such things more easily. Vocally, the woman playing Elisabeth sang quite well, but there were maybe 4 numbers where she had to end with the stereotypical, high-note, belter sound. The first time she did it, I thought it was awesome. The second was still really good. But the third and fourth times it happened in the show, I thought she sounded a little tired, or maybe I was just tired of hearing the same type of song over and over. Also, the show was almost entirely solo singing or choral singing. There were only two duets, I think no trios, and one smallish ensemble. So, again, things got a teeny bit repetitive.

If I come back to Germany, I will certainly make it a point to see another musical. Preferably, one like Elisabeth and not an American musical that is translated into German. However, I still feel a bit partial to the Great American Musical tradition of my home country. In fact, after seeing the show, I went home and immediately bought tickets to see the musical Wicked when it comes to Minneapolis in November. Can’t wait!

Update on Research Seminar:

Our Thursday research sessions with Professor Peck are going quite well. I am getting a lot of feedback about my project, and we will be giving 5-minute presentations on the findings of our research next week. Since so much of my research is learning the music I will sing, I haven’t decided yet if I should sing or not for a minute or two of my presentation. It would seem to make sense to do so, but I don’t know if the others will look at me like I am crazy; to just stand up in a conference room of 25 people and start singing an opera aria a capella. Hmmm….

Other students seem to be making headway on their research as well, and it has been interesting to hear them talk about their experiences in Berlin thus far. Others, though, have been less than “scholarly? in their pursuits – meaning that they are spending significantly more time partying than they are utilizing the resources that being in Berlin has to offer. Alas, that is the teacher in me talking. I remember when I spent my year abroad in Paris, and I certainly understand that library research can seem rather less appealing than hanging out with friends. I am curious to see what these certain few have to say during their presentations next week.

June 18, 2008

Learning about Berlin

This week has been full of fantastic information, and it’s only Wednesday! Today we were treated to an excellent presentation on the Berlin School System. While I’ve known for some time how the education system in Germany works, it was great to get a refresher course, and also to learn about changes in the system that are developing as a response to current challenges. For example, Berlin has a very high rate of immigrant students who do not speak German as a mother tongue. In response to this, Berlin has created several schools that teach core subjects in native languages of prevalent populations like students from Turkey, Poland, Russia, etc. These schools allow incoming students to continue to progress in core subjects like Math, History, Science, and Language while also helping them to learn German. Many of these schools have also started programs to support the learning of German by parents and families of these students. In this way, students and families can “learn together? and the hope is that this will lead to a supportive and reinforcing leaning environment at home.

Another unusual facet (and by that, I mean highly disturbing facet) of the German education system is that students with major disabilities are segregated (and, yes, I’m using that word intentionally) into separate schools. Not just different schools from the “normal? students, but also different schools for each disability: vision impairment, physical impairment, hearing and/or speech impairment, and learning and social impairments. When this information was shared with our group, my immediate question was “At what age do these students get mainstreamed into the ‘regular’ schools?? but the response was as expected. The students only “rarely? get put into standard schools. I was assured that the curriculum at these “special? schools was the same, but I could barely process that information over the booming voice in my head: “Separate, but equal?!?!?!?! What year is this??????

In the United States we are so well-versed in regulations for accessibility accommodations that I was dumbfounded by the nonchalant presentation of these facts about German schools. In fact, I think that the statistics had been presented almost as a point of pride by our session leader – sort of a “see how we take care of everyone? approach. But such an approach would be out of the question in the US. Furthermore, when I asked some of my German colleagues about this forced separation, they unanimously declared it an excellent thing because having these students in the general classes “would be very hard for [them] (meaning the teachers).? Hard for whom????? I could see, though, that this trip would not be the best time or place to draw my line in the sand on this issue. But, rest assured, it is something that I will diligently pursue over the next few months.

It also led me to take stock of some other differences I’ve noticed in relation to this topic. One is that there are far fewer reserved parking spaces for disabled individuals. In fact, I doubt that it is even regulated by the government as is the case in the United States. More troubling to me though were the following revelations:

1. There is little to no accessibility in most places I’ve visited. When there is some kind of accessibility, it has been very hard to find/reach, located in the back of a building, and often “out of service.?

2. After processing these previous thoughts about schools and public locations, I started to realize that during my 3 weeks here in Germany, I have seen (and still continue to see) very, very, very few disabled persons out in public. In fact, I can count them all on one hand – 4 persons in almost as many weeks – and I know that two of those were tourists from the US because I asked.

I am not sure what this means, really. I have some ideas, but am not willing to share them at the moment. At least, not until I have done some additional research on the matter. I can only say that I hope my instincts about this are totally wrong. We’ll see, though.

In other news, we’ve also been having lectures from Dr. Steve Bowman about the history of Berlin starting with the Prussian Empire and ending up with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Our last lecture was on Monday, and it was a discussion of the Cold War in Berlin, the GDR/DDR, and the fall of the wall. Dr. Bowman is a fantastic lecturer, and it has been fascinating to learn about Berlin and to then go out and see the actual places we’ve been discussing. I won’t include all the details of our sessions here, but feel free to ask me about them, and then just see if you can get me to shut up about it! ;-P

Finally, a word about German soccer and regional trains.

What do those two things have in common? Not too much, unless you are the only student in your program who has to catch a regional train outside of Berlin to get home at night, and unless you also were in Berlin to watch a soccer match which ended really late and then you had to catch a train but there were numerous delays because 200,000 other people were also trying to get home at the same time but they only live in Berlin and don’t have to catch the special only-comes-once-per-hour train that you have to catch but they won’t get out of your way and hurry up so you can make the needed connection and you are trying to run because the German trains are to the minute but you can’t really run because there are still 180,000 people trying to get home now and you miss your train by like two minutes and have to sit on a dark and chilly and empty platform not for 58 minutes but actually for 88 minutes because the train you missed was the 11 o’clock hour one and the schedule restarts at midnight with the next train coming closer to 1 am. Then, when you finally catch the train and get off at your home station you remember that you still have a 20-minute bike ride in the dark countryside without a bike light before you can get home. And you think to yourself in a kind of half-asleep, half-freaking out voice “I don’t even like soccer.?

June 17, 2008

Mall of America…meet Ka De We!

Before coming to Berlin, so many people I talked to (mostly women, I admit) insisted very, very, very strongly that I make a trip to Ka De We while here in the city. Honestly, I didn’t even know what that was, and had written it in my notes as “Cardévé? from my French background. So, when I showed it to my host mother and said I wanted to go there, I wasn’t too surprised that she looked at me like I was loopy. But, after some explanation that it was some kind of store (read: shopping mecca!), she was able to figure out where I wanted to go.

I think Ka De We, Kaufhaus Des Westens, is either mostly for tourists, or it is super-duper upscale – maybe Macys to the third power, or I don’t know what. The items there were incredibly expensive, even for normal stuff like chocolate bars and bottles of water. What was impressive was the size of the place. No, it wasn’t really like the Mall of America which is a ton of stores under one roof (not to mention an amusement park and an aquarium, too!). Ka De We is a department store that is in the heart of Berlin. It isn’t overly large, but does have 7 floors, the top two of which are entirely dedicated to food and beverage. My kind of place!

Three of us from the Checkpoint Charlie Program went there along with my host mother and host sister. Both have lived here all their lives, but my host mother said she hadn’t been to Ka De We in over 15 years, and my host sister had never been. So, it was kind of a new experience for all of us. We stayed over two hours, but mostly kept to the food floors and the 4th floor which was books, movies, and music.

The food floor had everything from a traditional French bakery to a butcher shop on it, not to mention loads of specialty cafés where you could sit and eat right in the shopping area. I bought some boxes of overpriced chocolate to bring home as gifts and also got some French cheese and a baguette to share with my host family for dinner.

On the book floor, we all had a fun time pouring over the German titles of our favorite American books. For my part, I bought a 2009 calendar of Berlin where the pictures are actually postcards – perfect for me because I collect postcards and was able to pick a calendar that included some of the pictures/postcards I’d been wanting to buy anyway. My only other purchase was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in German. It is, by far, my favorite book, and I already have it in English and French. I thought it would be a great motivator for me to work on my German skills by reading it in German! I also wanted to buy the first Harry Potter book in German, but I know that the language is just beyond me at this point. If things improve, I may try to buy it before I leave in two weeks.

Well, Ka De We was certainly interesting and fun if not life changing! But then again, when is shopping ever life changing? :-P

Tomorrow I am going to dinner with the music teacher at my school and then we will go to the Theatre Des Westens to see a German musical theatre production called Elisabeth: Das Musical. I’m really looking forward to seeing some live music here (besides the accordion players that like to serenade us on the metro most days!). Then, on Saturday, I will get to do what I’ve been waiting for…go to the opera!!!! I don’t even know what the show is yet, but I know that one of the choir members from Velten is trying to get tickets through a friend of hers.

June 16, 2008

Music: the other universal language…

Happy Monday! I’m up early today, so I thought I would fill you in on the fun weekend I had. I’ve been singing with the Freie Chor Velten since I arrived at the start of the month. We already had one mini-concert and, this past weekend, we had our major concert of the summer: Feuerfest. The theme was fire (and water, of course), so we sang all sorts of songs in German, English, and Italian on that topic. I was invited to be the featured soloist in the group, and I sang solo verses in two of the songs as well as performing a solo art song for the audience. It was a wonderful experience.

Being in a choir here really makes me feel at home in otherwise unfamiliar surroundings. Because, despite language barriers, I understand the gestures of our director, and I’ve also gotten very good at understanding the measure numbers and verse numbers when he calls them out to us. That’s just the nuts and bolts, though. What I’ve really enjoyed is how warm and welcoming the choir has been. Many groups will be wary of a “professional? singer jumping in at the last minute, but this group has been very kind. Many people have told me how much they enjoy having me in the group and I can wholeheartedly respond in kind.

The concert went very well, but there weren’t a lot of people in the audience. Both sets of grandparents for my host family came to the concert, as did the music teacher I’ve been working with at the primary school. I am so happy that they got to hear me sing in a more formal setting, which is where I am most comfortable performing. The choir surprised me with some flowers at the end of the concert. I’ve put them in a colorful vase on my windowsill and they look fantastic there – very rustic! The best part is that the concert was recorded and our director said that they would be able to give me a recording to take back home.

After the concert, my host parents and I were invited to the director’s house for an after-party barbeque. Maybe one third of the choir was there with their significant others and we all had a very fun time. I am feeling a little bit more confident with my meager German skills and the choir members are starting to try out their English on me. So, somehow, we managed communicate about a wide variety of things. We talked about music, travel, and careers, and then moved on to more interesting topics like the soccer tournament and all the yummy food we were eating. I made some American brownies for the event and they seemed to go over very well, especially with the children at the BBQ.

Speaking of food, I still can’t get used to a couple of food things here in Germany. For one, I just never have liked sauerkraut and, despite trying it again 4 or 5 times here, I still don’t like it. It just doesn’t taste good to me no matter how I prepare it. I also am highly suspicious of some of the meats I am served. It is unusual for me to have to ask “What kind of food is this?? when eating in someone’s home. The common response is: “meat.? And when I ask what type, I often get told, “It’s meat.? Then I ask again and learn that it is pork or chicken or whatever, but this is always accompanied by an odd look from the person who answered the question. I interpret the look to mean “Why do you care what kind of meat it is?…Just eat it.? Yet, I cannot.

I am also still getting used to a lot of sparkling water instead of tap water or flat mineral water. I understand the concept of sparkling beverages, but I just haven’t acquired the taste for them yet. I’m still a plain old tap water girl and, luckily, the tap water in Velten is delicious.

There are also some issues with the cheese which, bluntly put, can sometimes be seriously stinky. I don’t like that at all. It makes me a little nauseous to eat stinky cheese. I think it is some sort of deep-rooted, primal instinct that keeps humans from eating food that has gone bad/rotten. My host parents tell me that I simply need to work on developing my taste buds to a higher degree. Who to believe? Who to believe? (Me, me, me, me!)

The other big food difference for me is that I am used to having cereal and milk for breakfast, a salad or sandwich for lunch, and a bigger, warm dinner later in the evening. In Germany, most people have a light breakfast of bread and jam or cheese, a warm, filling lunch that really substitutes for dinner, and a later evening meal that can be eaten together with the family or alone but that represents some kind of light dinner. This hasn’t been too difficult for me, though. I do miss having something a little bit warm at night, but it is a very minor inconvenience.

June 13, 2008

Being sick in a foreign country is a total drag!

Dear faithful readers (meaning my Mom and Dad and like 2 other people!) –

Please forgive me for not posting for a while. I got sick, which is just about the dumbest thing a person can do when traveling! It is a complete time waster, and it feels like an eternity before you are yourself again. Obviously, it wasn’t my intention to get sick, but I am happy to report that I’m finally on the upswing.

On a positive note, being ill did lead to one very interesting cultural experience: a visit to the family doctor. After many days of being sick, my host mother suggested that we visit the doctor to see if I needed to start antibiotics. So, we went on a Thursday afternoon. Just being in the waiting room was fun because there were many similarities to US doctors’ offices. For one, there are numerous boring magazines everywhere and one or two token ones that might actually be interesting. Knowing the level of my German language abilities, I headed right for the kiddy section of the magazine rack. I had a good time learning about bunny rabbits and itchy eyes for about 30 minutes before seeing the doctor.

(One quick note about a general difference in the office: every single person who entered or left the office said hello or goodbye to everyone else. It was very nice to be greeted by a stranger, even if just in a general way, but I don’t think that would happen in most places in the United States of America – especially not when we are leaving the office.)

My host mother accompanied me into the office because we were not sure that the doctor would speak enough English to get a good understanding of my symptoms. However, her English was quite good and, while my host mother filled her in on the particulars of the history of the illness, she got a lot of the information from the patient herself! The most interesting thing about the visit was that it was oddly “hands off.? The doctor asked if I thought I had a fever, I said I wasn’t sure and her response was that I didn’t look feverish, so she didn’t take my temperature. She also did not look into my mouth or nose or ears (which were the subject of complaint). She did listen to my breathing and heartbeat for far longer than any other doctor ever has, and in like 50 different spots on my upper body. She also asked me to cough (my other major complaint). After this, she explained that I might have Whooping Cough. Hmmm…

So, if you don’t know what that is, spend 5 minutes on Wikipedia or WebMD and you’ll know right away that I didn’t have it. It’s mostly a childhood disease. Plus, I never had it as a child and I was inoculated against it as a baby. Oddly enough, I also did not have the typical symptoms of Whooping Cough (the “whoop? being the most common one).

I was prescribed rest, vitamin C, and chamomile steaming. The doctor asked me to come back the next day when she would check me out again and see if she wanted to draw blood. When I came back the next day, we went through the same routine of no temperature taking, no orifice inspections (no jokes, please), chest listening, and a little coughing. At the end of that time, she asked me if I was feeling better or worse. “About the same,? I replied. I was then informed that I did not have Whooping Cough nor did I need to have any blood taken. I was told to follow the directions from the previous day, and that I would be fine again in a few days.

Hmmm…I’m still sick. But at least I smell like chamomile most of the time now, so that’s a perk.

I’m not going to use this experience to make any generalizations about medicine in Germany because I have no idea if this was typical or if it was just one flaky doctor. I do know that my German host family thinks that Americans take too much medicine and that American doctors give out too many antibiotics. Rest and staying indoors are common remedies for Germans, but I’m not totally sure that they are the most effective ones.

Other than being ill, my second week of teaching has gone very well. I am able to help out more in class and the students are starting to approach me with questions, both personal/fun and school-related. I’ve even been able to teach a French song to the Grade 6 music class. We are doing “Aux Champs Elysées;? one of my favorites! I think they like it, too. The best thing I’ve done this week is to move around the class on my own offering feedback and suggestions to the students who are working on various projects. This has been great because it allows my host mother to keep teaching, but permits me to give a little extra help to the students who are having trouble with that day’s lesson. In checking student work while in class, it also allows us to go twice as fast, which leaves more time for the fun stuff like singing songs and playing Bingo!

June 8, 2008

Potsdam Pictures

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Potsdam Trip

A very HOT, but very FUN daytrip to Potsdam today. We started at 10 am by meeting at the Potsdam Banhof. I got there a little early, so I decided to treat myself to juice and a donut from Dunkin’ Donuts. I ordered my favorite – Boston Cream – but it was a little bit different than what I am used to having. It wasn’t as sweet or as full of cream, but I enjoyed it all the same. I also had my first experience of having to pay to use a public bathroom. At first, seeing the attendant there and the plate of money on the table, I wasn’t willing to even go in. It irks me a tiny bit that one must pay to use the bathroom in most European cities. Maybe it’s just my overly American sensibilities, but I think that toilet use should be free of charge to everyone! So, I told myself that I could “hold it.? After like 5 minutes, though, that idea bombed, and I forked over the 30 cents to use the potty. When ya gotta…ya gotta, right?

Our whole group traveled from the train station together to the main gate of Sanssouci – the castle and grounds of Frederick the Great. The castle, or Schloβ , is modeled after Versailles in France. Since I’ve visited Versailles, Sanssouci looked very familiar to me. We couldn’t tour the main castle that day, but our tour guide took us to the guest lodges and some ways around the park grounds. The setting was beautiful and functional, as the tiered gardens also served as hothouses for growing fruits and vegetables. This was the biggest contrast to the French gardens which are highly decorative and are rarely used for agricultural purposes.

After our tour guide left us, we had a much needed rest in the shade while we ate our sandwiches and drank the now lukewarm beverages we’d brought. This break was actually the first time I’d had a chance to talk to a lot of the other group members since the Welcome BBQ last week. It was interesting to see where friendships were starting to develop between some members, and to hear about all the different home and school experiences we are having. One student in particular was having a difficult time with his host family, and ended up having to move in with a new family this weekend.

Gaby and her husband walked us over to the Neue Palais which was a secondary residence of Sanssouci for when royal visitors where on the grounds. Luckily, we were able to get audio tours of this part of the visit. The Neue Palais was beautiful! Very lovely furniture and furnishings, but not of the same overly ornate style of Versailles and the main castle at Sanssouci. For me, the highlights of the Neue Palais were the music room where Mozart once gave a concert, and one of the bedrooms (I don’t remember which) that had the most stunning, hand-carved wooden furniture I have ever seen. Sadly, we were not allowed to take pictures inside the Palais, and I couldn’t find any books or postcards that showed this room. So, I just have to keep the images in my brain forever!

After Sanssouci, a few of us walked around downtown Potsdam for a couple of hours. It was great just to stroll leisurely and do some window shopping without being pressed for time. I even had my first German Eis, or ice cream. A perfect end to a long, hot day of sightseeing.

June 7, 2008

“Not what we think of as a typical American?

I have to say, once again, that I have been very fortunate in my placement with this particular host family. We inherently have so much in common that it has been a relatively painless, even pleasurable, transition into their household.

We had our choir concert last night and, while no performance is “perfect? and we certainly had more than a few snafus, the evening was quite enjoyable. I’m looking forward to performing again with the group next weekend – where I’ve also been asked to sing a few solos in the concert.

After the concert, the family relaxed and chatted for a bit before settling down to Abendbrot – a lighter, late evening meal. I always enjoy these times because they tend to lead to the most interesting conversations – sometimes about music and art, sometimes about politics and education, or sometimes just about funny ways of saying things in our respective languages. Tonight, we started with ballroom dancing, crossed through karaoke, sports, and Nintendo Wii, and ended up with cultural miscommunications about the issues of pride and achievement in the public education system. Needless to say, it was a good Abendbrot! I love being around such people – those who converse simply for the pleasure of exchanging ideas and opinions. Even when points of view differ, there is not a need to prove intellectual superiority, but rather an appreciation of opposing viewpoints as a means to better inform one’s own position. Love it…love it…love it!!!!

At the end of the conversation, my host father said, “I just have to tell you something. I am very happy to have you here because you are not what we think of when we think of the typical American. It is good for us to have to you here because we sometimes have a different view of Americans.? Enough said. My only response was to thank him sincerely for what I consider to be a very nice compliment.

Dear Reader, after reading the above statement, please do not assume that I have any negative or unpatriotic feelings towards my native land. Know, instead, that my experiences abroad have made me painfully aware of the way America and its citizens are portrayed in the foreign media – and not without justification in certain cases. I am cognizant of the stereotypes, and am honored to be able to represent not only an atypical version of the caricatured American, but hopefully a highly positive one as well. Indeed, that is my heartfelt wish in traveling abroad – to improve my understanding of other cultures and to help others do the same.

Back to the evening’s conversation, though. My host father did help me to understand something new about the German educational system. That is this: that with a grading system that goes from points 1 to 6, including pluses and minuses, a score of three is considered “average? AND, furthermore, “average? is not a bad thing. I think that is a fairly strong contrast with the American educational system as I know it. While “C? is listed as “average? on the report card, we tend to have a rather negative connotation of a “C? grade and of the word “average? in general. It is not really a positive life goal for most students to aim towards C grades. In fact, it is a personal characteristic of our country’s current President that is often used when describing him in either a humorous or unfavorable light. But, according to my host father, Germans understand Gaussian distribution and the idea that the vast majority of the world fall very near that “average? level of ability. It is neither something to be desired nor avoided; it simply is the reality of things. Top performers are given due credit, but average achievers are in no way penalized for their “average? label. On the contrary, there is a certain level of respect attached to it.

I will have to reflect on this new concept a bit more and also allow it to color my perspective a bit more when observing classes at the elementary school. I think that, when I witnessed a student getting a score of three in class (and having that score mentioned publicly in front of all the other pupils), I felt embarrassed for that student. Yet, the embarrassment was probably all mine and not felt by anyone else in the room. While I still don’t see all the benefits of this publicly competitive environment, I can also recognize the severe limitations of the current American doctrine of positive reinforcement. Perhaps the ideal solution lies somewhere in the middle.

June 6, 2008

Music making and creative research

Thursday, our CCF group met with Professor Peck of Humboldt University in Berlin. Prof. Peck is here to help us refine our research proposals and, basically, to get us on the right path toward utilizing some of the resources available to us while we’re in the city. There are 15 of us in the program, and so the research topics are very diverse. Some students are taking a case study or survey-based approach to topics such as self-identity, global issues, transportation preferences, etc. Others are doing very pinpointed research into German history, politics, immigration laws, and other such things. Me? I’m making music, baby!!!

For performing artists, our creative endeavors ARE our research. In order to present an hour-long vocal recital, many months are needed to learn and prepare the music and to do the requisite translations and research on the composers and poets. In light of the Checkpoint Charlie Foundation’s mission to promote positive relations between the US and Germany, I’ve decided to prepare a recital that highlights the connections between three composers with strong German-American ties: Richard Strauss, Kurt Weill, and the Gershwin brothers.

As part of this work, I met two music coaches yesterday who will help me prepare the music. One is an American who has lived in Berlin for over 20 years and the other is a German who worked and studied in the states. It has been my goal to really delve into this idea of transatlantic musical connections and, after the 4 hours I spent with my coaches yesterday, I think they are the perfect resources for me both musically and otherwise.

Choir concert tonight – yea!