Tag Archives: American history

All Roads Lead to Mainz

In light of recent elections, the teachers have been asking me to teach a lot of American history lessons – I guess they’re hoping I’ll be able to lend some perspective and context to what America is and why that’s so, as though the ye olde Tea Party can explain, well, the Tea Party.

But something about the quick-and-dirty timeline I’ve been passing out to the students seems, somehow, increasingly more laughable with each copy I make.  Sure, that’s partly because it starts with Columbus, as though America just materialized from the European imagination there on the Atlantic horizon, and sure, it skips from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, wham, bam, thank you ma’am – but when you’re allotted the time I have and allotted the attention spans I’ve been given, well, I had to make some editing decisions, or butchering decisions, call them what you will.

But that’s not the reason, not entirely.  Mostly, looking over this silly little timeline, it makes me realize how… how… cute our history is*.  It’s so little!  I jush wanna pinch its wittle cheeks!  Awaska hashn’t losht its wittle bay-by fat!

…ugh, I suddenly hate blogging.

My point is this: in Mainz (neighboring town of that’s-where-I-bring-my-laundry-to fame) is built on Roman ruins.  So much so, in fact, that there’s a conflict between preservation and development efforts – builders are afraid to build for fear of striking gold, by which I mean a Roman bath or mosaic or  what-have-you, because this means halting construction while archeologists do their nit-picking through ancient ship remains.  Sometimes this unearthing is incorporated (like the  monument erected to Roman general Drusus, surrounded nesting-doll style by a 17th-century citadel), sometimes it is compromised (like the temple preserved underneath a shopping mall), sometimes it goes ignored entirely (like that time the railroad plowed through the middle of a theater).

So the effect is this city built like a parfait, except not so stratified, so not really like a parfait at all: a Roman crust, a creamy layer of the Middle Ages, some Renaissance fudge, a hearty helping of 1960’s post-war fruit that you sort of scoot to one side so you can get to the chocolate, a dollop of Rococo whip cream, and a Marc Chagall cherry on top.  And, of course, if you want to overextend this metaphor, let’s not forget a spoon of a war that dug through it all and left a sad trail behind:

The shell of St. Christophskirche - which, just to add to this medley of history-upon-history, was where Gutenberg was baptized

So what am I getting at?  That American history/architecture/parfaits can’t hold a (Roman) candle?  No.  I guess all I’m saying is that an American city simply can’t attain the sort of aesthetic you find in a city like Mainz where ancient abuts the modern in a very livable way, and you probably wouldn’t trip over  an aqueduct poking out of the ground like a tree root.  In other words… places are different.  Travel highlights that.

So much for my grand conclusion.  I guess that’s the danger of musing on something like Roman ruins: essentially, you always just wind up at some derivation of “wow, that’s old.”

*Despite my blatant use of the word “cute” and my subsequent baby talk to America, I don’t actually mean to trivialize American history. Really.  I love it too.

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The History of America in Half an Hour

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).

America, explained.

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

Assmannshausen

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:

Country Grammar

Not that my blog has thus far been any indication, but I do have actual, you know, responsibilities as a Fulbrighter.  It’s not all traipsing off to far-off places and gouging myself on chocolate-filled croissants, only mostly.  So, two months in (!), the time has come to tell you the stuff I’ve been telling my résumé as of late (have I mentioned I’ve been applying to grad schools?  I’m applying to grad schools): namely, teaching.  Actual, for-real, getting-up-in-front-of-a-class-and-talking-in-English-too-far-above-their-heads teaching.

I have zero, give or take zero, teaching experience.  But I like American topics well enough, so I figured I could do this.  Folk music?  Got it.  Southern-fried foods?  Love ’em.  Football?  I mean, I’ve seen it before.  So, I saw this opportunity as a chance to get to another country and spread my love for locality, for traditions, for anything specifically not Wal-Mart related (save Fayetteville) – I could rewrite America, not as as the obesity-plagued gun-toting war-mongering McDonald’s PlayPlace it’s become to the international eye, but as a place of diversity and quirky cultural amalgamations, of national parks, folksy traditions, and tall tales.  Essentially, it seems my plan was to swap one simplistic reading of America for another simplistic reading that I just liked better.  Solid.

But whoa-ho-ho, little Lori, not so fast.  Before you embark on your grandiose plan of painting all Americans as down-home folk wearing overalls and baking lattice-crust apple pies on Sundays, you have to get those tenses straight.

And just how un-straight they are.  I’m currently floundering in a sea of present perfect and simple past, of signal words, and of trying to figure out better explanations for the differences between “I’m going to” and “I will” other than “that’s just the way it is!”  Actually, I do really like when I can help with the grammar bits of lessons; it’s fun reminding myself of things I haven’t practiced since grade school days, and I tend to be a fan of grammar anyway – it’s like a puzzle, its formula the closest thing to anything faintly mathematical that I’ll ever like.  And it’s been pretty interesting to see common mistakes Germans make when learning English, generally the fault of direct translation – they live “in the near of” the Rhine, and they “visit” the Berufsbildende Schule, where they “learn” for tests.

But grammar aside, I have been given several opportunities to talk on “themes”: teenage life in America, Route 66, and later this week I’m supposed to present a lesson about American history, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the political system all in one, which will be… tricky.  Luckily, I’ll go armed with candy corn, which might distract them from all the awkward non-sequiturs that lesson will be sprinkled with (so kids, we just talked about the Great Depression; I bet they didn’t get much candy for Halloween during those years!  Kind of like how Charlie Brown just got rocks when he went trick-or-treating in this classic 1966 Halloween special…).  Or whatever.

Still, I’m feeling more prepared for this lesson than you might expect, because I’ve got my own little rock in my trick or treat bag ace up my sleeve:

 

J. William Fulbright, I hope I make you proud.