This week, I was asked to present the history of America. You know, all of it. This is complicated for a number of obvious reasons: how do you make a lecture like this interactive? (My solution: you pass out Halloween candy beforehand and hope that counts). How do you talk about the history of America when you yourself haven’t really learned it since 7th grade, and even then, you only made it up to the Industrial Revolution? (My solution: cramming like I was preparing for a high school civics exam). How do you talk about the war period to German students without parroting your American History for Dummies book, which has this to say on the topic: “Sometimes a fight can’t be avoided, particularly when it seems half the world is being run by monsters. (…) Americans respond magnificently”? (My solution: assume they know the sitch, and after a short explanation, ask if they have any questions or comments they’d like to make about German-American relations. Any suggestions from the peanut gallery on this one?). And lastly and most bafflingly, how do you choose what’s pertinent between Indians and Afghanistan, while speaking to a group of teenagers with a low level of English comprehension, without presenting a spiel of simplified American mythology that sounds like “So these Pilgrims came and then they fought the British, but then the South was mad, so they fought the North, but the slaves were still mad and that’s why there was the Civil Rights Movement. Also, there were hippies and a Dust Bowl”? (My solution: you don’t).
Needless to say, I have a newfound respect for historians… and for the German education system. The students knew about Christopher Columbus, sure, but I had students who also knew about plantations, about Rosa Parks, and about the Confederacy, which simultaneously impressed me and made me concerned about the popular perception of world history in America, which consists almost entirely of the Romans and Hitler. And Communists, but only in the sense that Obama may or may not be one. (Disclaimer: I’m kidding, not inviting political comments).
In our defense, the students didn’t know about several pressing issues in American culture; they were completely taken aback by Black Friday. Let’s not dwell too long on how Black Friday managed its way into an American history lesson (it involved some well-developed thought process like pilgrims -> Thanksgiving -> Black Friday).
The funny thing, though, is the dichotomy between who I am in the classroom (large and in charge), and who I am in the teacher’s lounge (timid and… invalid? Shouldn’t have attempted that one, I see in retrospect). You see, it takes just as much effort to talk to me as it does for me to talk, my German being so inadequate, and so I’m naturally always a bit confused as to what, exactly, is going on. This experience of being half-in, half-out of the know is an interesting one: it’s a challenge, it’s frustrating, and as I found out last night, it can be a bit lonely.
I went on a Wandertag yesterday with the teachers, sort of an after-school-teachers-only field trip, which was wonderful. We traveled up the Rhine via boat for a bit, disembarked in this perfectly cozy town with the silliest of names, Assmannshausen, took a ski left up to the top of the
mountain, hiked through spectacularly-colored woods, stopped at a few overlooks with stunning views of Bingen, and ended up in Ruedesheim, the town opposite Bingen, for dinner and wine. It was a great little excursion – the first time I’ve been able to cross the Rhine, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for quite a while now. Sometimes I fancied myself as some provincial peasant who doesn’t have the means to leave her little village, and so spends her time wondering just what’s around that bend in the river – until yesterday.
In other words, sometimes I fancied myself as Belle.
Post-harvest Vineyards; Ruedesheim in the distance (Bingen's across the river)
But back to my point.
It was a great experience, but sitting around the dinner table with a group of teachers, watching them act like friends do around a dinner table, it hit me with all the weight of the schnitzel on my plate how much I miss being able to do that – to go out with a little group of people I know and love, to competently tell stories, to not have to think about words or pronunciation or tenses to convey an idea. Also, it strikes me more and more how far I am from coming into my own here, and how formidable a task learning a language is.
But failing that, maybe I’ll set my sights on more do-able goals, like riding a bike like the Germans do. To help me illustrate the obstacles encountered on a typical German bike ride, we see a return of the ever-popular Family Circus-style map:
“Whatever the heck these things are” symbolize, of course, a series of bars meant, I suppose, to deter motor vehicle-ists from entering the given bike path, and while the Germans whiz through them like they’re wizards at Platform 9 and 3 Quarters, these bars interrupt my bike ride, causing me to do some awkward teeter-totter-topple-wobble dance as I shimmy my way through.
But, failing that goal, maybe I’ll give up on besting those bike bars, and set my sights on a real German bike bar: