Category Archives: Fulbright

So Long, Goodbye, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu

To this day there is something illusionistic and illusory about the relationship of time and space as we experience it in traveling, which is why whenever we come home from elsewhere we never feel quite sure if we have really been abroad.

W.G. Sebold, Austerlitz

And with that, I find myself come full circle.  What began with a seven-hour layover at Newark Airport ends in a seven-hour layover at Newark Airport.  It’s an odd feeling being back here, as though this year never really happened.  It doesn’t feel as though I just lost a city; it doesn’t feel like I will never watch the boats go by on that bit of the Rhine again; it doesn’t even feel like I can confidently speak again – a few people ventured a safe small talk conversation starter, and I just sucked.  Blatantly.

I was thinking about this on the plane ride over – how, if this year already just feels sort of dreamlike, what did I really take away from it?  Resume filler, sure; a working knowledge of German (which, two hours into America, I already feel slipping), of course.  But what I think it really comes down to is this: I learned how to be independent.  I navigated German bureaucracy, a school system, foreign cities.  I talked to police, to a newspaper reporter, to students, and I found myself for the first time on the other side of the great student/teacher divide, which was exhilarating, frightening, frustrating, and rewarding all at once.

But more than that, I learned how to be completely and utterly dependent: I relied on the teachers at my school for so, so much – that they would take me into their classrooms and often, their homes.  They found my own apartment for me, showed me around the area, lent me furniture, gave me late-night rides back home, and opened up a side of the culture I never would have known about otherwise.  I relied on homefolk to keep me sane.

I think I also learned a bit about appreciation, and I don’t mean of fine wines (although I did plenty of that this year, just more in a “Mmm, I like white wine” moreso than in a “this has a hint of oak and finishes with a bouquet of raspberry blossoms and midnight rain” sort of way).  You know that phrase, “Expect the best, prepare for the worst”?  Well, my own personal take on that is “Expect the worst, panic about every foreseeable scenario in which things go wrong to Joe.”  If a plane can be cancelled, it will be.  If my paycheck is late, it’s not coming at all.  And so (by my mentality), in a year where so much could have gone wrong, I learned how to be so thankful of what didn’t go wrong: Joe still likes me.  I never had a health issue and had to figure out insurance/German medical system.  Friends and family came to visit.  Fulbright didn’t kick me out for not living up to their standards and send me home in disgrace.  I happened to be placed in the same tiny town with Beth, who became one of my best friends.  So far, my flights haven’t been cancelled.

Also, I learned how to spend obscene amounts of free time alone, which  means, by extension, I am now really, really good at Minesweeper.

And if I can do 67 seconds without a mouse, I shudder to think what I'll do with one.

But back to the thankfulness thing.  I wanted to, in conclusion of my year and of my blog, thank you all for showing some interest in my year.  I hope you enjoyed the blog; I definitely enjoyed knowing you were reading  – but not as much as I’ll enjoy getting to see you and speak good ol’ American English with you, which I’m sure we’ll do soon.

As a side note  (or more accurately, as an end note), I wore my Razorback shirt today, feeling it was appropriate, and I’m not sure what I was expecting: that I’d land and some stranger at the airport would be like “Hey, Woo Pig, am I right?” and then we’d like, chest bump or whatever it is that sports fans do, but instead, here’s what my homecoming was: one lady eyed me and I could tell she wanted to comment on my shirt, but instead of an “Oh, did you go to the U of A?” it was a “Were you by chance in Tuscany?  We saw shirts like that for sale there.”  And then the guy at passport control glanced at my passport, and said “Lori from Ar-Kansas, welcome back.”

It was just the way my German students pronounce it, which made me smile – I felt like it was a farewell to Germany and a hello to the USA all at once.

With the other Fulbrighters from Rheinland-Pfalz on a Ferris Wheel at Johannisfest in Mainz last weekend

One final "Zum Wohl" on the Rhine with Bethlein

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Baby Berlin

So, my hiatus has lasted long enough.  I should have things to say.  I’ve been to Berlin and to Copenhagen since last we met, both wonderful places that I now associate with wonderful memories – an incredibly generous conference/hotel/all-you-can-eat buffet every night provided by Fulbright, no shortage of good food and sightseeing and company, a handful of speeches given by important people including the mayor of Berlin herself, and for real, Copenhagen is the scientifically-proven most beautiful city in the world.

And one of the windiest.

And most expensive.  And home to the most incomprehensible language that closely resembles but is most definitely not German ever conceived by man.

But actual events overwhelm me, and I don’t ever know how to approach them when it comes time to blog about them, which is probably the single suckiest quality I could have as a blogger; that’s why I prefer to stick solely to non-events and non-happenings, like trips to the grocery store and comparing Europe to Harry Potter way too often.  I think this aversion to the big topics stems from the boatload of English papers I’ve completed, the goal of which was always to narrow, narrow, narrow that topic down.

My English degree has made me a uninteresting writer.  Wouldn’t it just.

Anyway, so rather than tackling the real Berlin (I saw museums; I heard speeches, I “networked”), I’m going to tackle something much more manageable: Baby Berlin.

You see, when I first got to Germany, I was a bit overwhelmed (or underwhelmed?  Just plain old regular flavor whelmed?) by how, well, not difficult to navigate it was.  Sure, there are trains you can ride; sure, you can ride a bike here without the crushing fear of being crushed by SUVs on the rampage; sure, there are bakeries on corners and pedestrians in city centers – but adjusting to life here did not demand that I reorient myself to my world.  I didn’t need to change change, I just had to tweak here and there, when it comes down to it.

And so at first, I noticed mostly the funny Americanisms that Germany displayed.  Ben and Jerry’s sold at the hot dog place; Lady Gaga on the radio.  When you’re away, similarities jump out at you, while a lot of the differences are much more subtle, and so noticing them came later, and are still coming, in slow, cumulative waves – a sense of a different approach to politics, a different aesthetic, different ways of greeting and different circumferences of personal space bubbles.  It’s a slightly altered normal, but it’s definitely a different normal.

That’s what struck me when I left my apartment yesterday.  Two girls were playing in the driveway in front of my house.  They had drawn “Berlin” on the pavement with sidewalk chalk, and were busy riding up and down what I can only assume to be Unter den Linden with their scooters.

It makes me smile every time I pass it (and by pass it, I mean stay on the right side of their chalked-on road, and adhere to the rules of their tiny roundabouts – I dare you to walk by this and not fight the urge to do the same) because I remember doing exactly the same thing with sidewalk chalk in the cul-de-sac outside my house growing up.  The idea is the same – a miniature of our respective worlds – but not the execution: I drew, naturally, what was normal to me, just as these girls drew what’s normal for them.  In other words, where they draw roundabouts, crosswalks, and bakeries, I drew drive-through Baskin Robbins.

Which somehow isn’t quite so charming.

The Perks of Being a Fulbrighter

Back in September, when I was but a wee fledgling Fulbrighter (a barely-brighter), I met the other just-arrived dewy-eyed ‘brighters for orientation outside of Cologne.  That half-week is now just a blur of workshops, talent shows, and “networking” (still no idea how people actually do that), and when I replay it in my head it sounds a lot like this: wah wah cultural understanding wah wah wah English instruction wah prestigious opportunity wah wah Winter Ball wah wa – wha?  Winter Ball?  My mind jumped immediately to visions of dress robes and dancing with Viktor Krum to the melodious strains of The Weird Sisters, but then I realized with no small amount of disappointment, as so often happens here, that Europe is not Hogsmeade, even though there are castles here.

But as the hope that we’d dance in an enchanted hall alongside giants and wizards began to fade, a new realization began to dawn: I’d have to dance.  And all I know is the Electric Slide and the box-step to a waltz.  Crap.

I arrived in Heidelberg for the weekend, met up with a long-lost friend (by sheer chance, we shared a hostel room together in Cologne lo’ those many months ago, and decided this weekend would be a good opportunity to relive

Not exactly Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but it'll do.

our hostel-sharing glory days), and got a bit more familiar with the city.  The night of the ball, our hostel was a flurry of too many girls to a mirror, sharing curling irons, and me begging for reassurance that no, my shoes don’t look dumb with my dress.  Even though the night started out promisingly enough, I realized upon our fashionably late arrival to the Heidelberg Town Hall that this was no senior prom.  There was a dinner with courses.  And I may not have been at the Yule Ball, but I was definitely in the company of giants and wizards of a different sort: these people were neuroscientists.  PhD candidates.  Artists.  The sorts of people who are consulted as experts and publish and speak and are presidents of boards and organize fancy-pants events like this one.

I’m a girl from Arkansas with a B.A. in English and extensive knowledge mainly of the Electric Slide.  Crap.

The music started, and I stood respectfully (awkwardly) to one side of the dance floor as people infinitely smarter and more accomplished than myself glided gracefully around to “Que Sera, Sera.”  With the next few songs, more people joined in, as did I when those happy sounds of “The Twist” began to play (hey! I can do this!).  The bad thing about “The Twist,” though, is that it ends, and as the DJ begins again to play songs without dance instructions embedded in the lyrics, I’m soon reduced again to aimless arm-flailing, trying to figure out which muscle to flex to move my legs to the beat.

Really.

Then I heard it.

come on donga bonga donga shake that conga

That beat.

music rhythms bonga donga gettin’ stronga

Those lyrics.  Three words infiltrated my mind: That. My. Jam.  (Actually, this is a song I’ve hated ever since this).  Then three more: Must. Lead. Conga.

And so it was.  For a few ridiculous minutes, I found myself leading some of the most intelligent, innovative people in Germany.  No, not in research, not in inventive approaches to enhancing cultural understanding, not in outreach initiatives or scholarly journal publications.  In a conga line.

I’m sure there’s something symbolic in there somewhere, but I really don’t want dwell too much on what it might mean.

longa bonga donga donga feel that bonga…

Over the Fluss and Through the Wald

How do you celebrate Thanksgiving in Germany?  Or even more pressing, what is Germany thinking in not having Thanksgiving?  Sure, sure, Germany doesn’t have the tale of pilgrims-meet-indians-and-flourish-in-a-short-lived-but-heartwarming-coexistence, but surely it sees value in eating yourself into a gravy-induced stupor, the only coherent words coming from you at this point being “Well maybe one more sliver a pie’ll do me.” Which brings me to this: What is Germany thinking in not having pie?

Luckily for me, Thanksgiving wasn’t too hard to procure.  The Fulbright Alumni Association in Frankfurt hosts an “American style” Thanksgiving every year, featuring a whole turkey for every table!  And they tried.  They did.  All the components were there: the sweet potatoes, just served in boiled wedges, not mashed with brown sugar and pecans.  The stuffing, they just had the nerve to not serve my grandma’s.  The green beans, just served mixed with herbs and cauliflower rather than with the subtle compliments of cream of mushroom

Fulbright Thanksgiving, which pales in comparison to my family's Thanksgiving, as indicated by the poor lighting, poor photo editing, and not-quite-appetizing coloring of this photograph.

soup and fried onions.  The mashed potatoes, except… okay, here’s where they really missed the mark.  All of these sides came out in small-ish bowls, and we helped ourselves family-style.  When they brought out the mashed potatoes, Beth leaned in to me and whispered, “Wait, we each get our own bowl, right?”  No such luck.  The bottom layer of my plate was decidedly not mostly mashed potato.

Really though, it was wonderful that the Fulbright Association hosted this meal: it is, in a microcosmic sort of way, indicative of what this year has meant to me.  Living abroad is, by default, the cultural exchange J.W. Fulbright wanted this program to be; every day involves some amount of reassessing what I’m used to in America, and seeking some way of making it work here, if not foregoing it completely, or conversely, improving upon it.  A car?  I’ll make do with a bike.  It’s my American life, Germanized, as this dinner was an American dinner, Germanized – and when it comes down to it, I’m of the mind that pre-dessert schnapps wouldn’t be a bad tradition to implement in my own future Thanksgiving feasts.

But, appreciative as we were, we American Teaching Assistants were not to be satiated by a German attempt at our favorite meal; lacking a proper feast, we would do it ourselves, and this time, it will be smothered in gravy and bound by cheesy sauces, and there will be a regulation amount of mashed potatoes.  So, we did just that, and I’m quite impressed by our resourcefulness.  We deviled

A Thanksgiving plate with all the fixins' properly piled

our eggs, we stuffed our mushrooms, we made made rather than open a can made cranberry sauce (a revelation), we had Stove Top stuffing compliments of Joe and the postal service (which still had the nerve to not be my grandma’s), we topped our green beans with fried onions.  And it was delicious.  There’s that sense of comraderie I’d been missing, as we ate until we all slumped in our seats, and as we took a walk around Bingen, and as we went back to Beth’s for seconds.

That sense of comraderie was negated the next morning, when I got up at 4 in the morning, expecting to hit up some sweet deals at the Kaufhaus, and maybe hit a few Bingeners in a struggle for the last half-priced souvenir bierstein.  Imagine my disappointment to find they don’t celebrate Schwarzer Freitag here, either.

So that, I suppose, takes me to where every Thanksgiving blog should wind up: a list of what I’m thankful for this year (please excuse my sap).

  1. Thanksgiving.  What a wonderful concept for a holiday, which I take for granted when I’m stateside.
  2. America, which I also take for granted when I’m stateside.
  3. A fantastic group of Fulbrighters here, if their willingness to come together and transport casseroles and cookie doughs via train for a Thanksgiving dinner isn’t indication enough of how fantastic they are.
  4. A fantastic group of friends back home, who make the thought of getting back to America that much more attractive.
  5. A wonderful family and a best friend of a brother; sometimes I can’t believe my luck in winding up with them.
  6. A boyfriend who ships me Stove Top and who didn’t bat an eye when I told him I’d be leaving for a year, and who hopefully sticks with me despite being stuck at a measly number 6 on the “What I’m Thankful For” list.
  7. This experience, which has given me a chance to live in a beautiful part of the world, experience things in a new way, meet new people, develop new skills, and reinforce that this is not what I want to do or where I want to live forever.  I love it, but I am incredibly thankful that this year has not brought up some identity crisis I’d have to struggle with; instead, I only feel more strongly that library science is the route I want to take – and having some sort of rough outline of the future, even if this isn’t it, is definitely something to be thankful for.
  8. You, for reading.  Thanks for taking some interest in my year.

Happy Turkey Sandwich Week.  That bit, at least, I don’t miss.