Thursday, 19 December 2013

She doesn't even go here...

So, three months of Year Abroad down, and about to go home for Christmas (TOMORROW!!!!). Looking back at my blog posts from this term, no one would ever believe that I've actually had a job this whole time (I have, honest!). I've mentioned practically nothing about my work as a language assistant at the school, possibly because it didn't seem like the most exciting part of the experience. But I'm sure it will be of interest to some people reading this, be they friends or family members, prospective year-abroaders, or even other language assistants looking to compare experiences.

This first term has been a blur of pen-erasers, 11 year olds wearing 'twerk it' T-shirts (so wrong), and teachers flinging the windows wide (in spite of pouring rain or temperatures of minus a million) for the sake of 'fresh air'. I also had to stand up in front of far too many classes of unenthusiastic teenagers and introduce myself, which is awkward and embarrassing at the best of times, let alone when you're pretty sure none of them can understand a word you're saying.

For the first few weeks, I had my fair share of sitting at the back of classrooms learning about ancient Rome or the student revolution of 1848 (thankfully taught in English), while the pupils shot 'what-is-she-even-doing-here' looks in my direction, and the teacher asked me detailed vocabulary questions about parts of a 19th-Century barricade.

Gradually, however, I've moved on from this. I've even learned a few of the teachers names (at least 3), and am getting fewer 'what-is-that-student-doing-in-here' looks when I sit in the staffroom. Score.

Here are a few things that have particularly stood out about my experience in the school so far:


This seems like a not-completely-relevant topic, but it's a big 'un, so bear with me. Now, school is the only place (really) where I hear English - my beautiful, unique, and hitherto-taken-for-granted mother tongue - spoken by non-native speakers. It's a fascinating experience, hearing the different levels of language, learning what words and structures the pupils find difficult, and spotting direct translations from German (which can sometimes be pretty funny!). And, for the most part, I'm impressed.

But there are a few things I find baffling to the extreme. For example, the inability of any of the pupils of this school to pronounce the word 'clothes'. I already wrote in a previous post about sitting in on the year 5s' oral exams ('I am a chicken'... Remember?), and a few weeks ago I was called upon to do it again, this time for the year 12s. Not a single one of them pronounced 'clothes' correctly. The vast majority of them mumbled a word that closely resembled 'closes', although some went the extra mile and managed 'clothez'. When asked for feedback afterwards, I remarked upon this (with amusement) to the teachers doing the examining, and expected a wry laugh in response, accompanied by the usual complaints about how the students never listen no matter how much something is drummed into them. What I got instead was a pair of blank looks and the dawning realisation that this is how they have been teaching them to say it! And it's not just at my school. I've asked around and received insider information that this is how almost all teachers (hopefully just the ones who are not actually native speakers of English) are teaching this word. Two syllables. Clothez. Consider your minds officially boggled.

Another highly baffling pronunciation problem I've experienced is people (though mostly not the teachers, thank goodness!) pronouncing a 'v' as a 'w'. Yes, you read that correctly. In German, 'w' is pronounced like our 'v', so I would expect that mistake. But the other way around is just bizarre! It means they end up saying words like 'willage' and 'TeeWee' (the latter of which is frankly hilarious). I thought it might just be hyper-correction, but it isn't. I've had the extremely surreal experience of pronouncing 'invade' and 'advice' right there in front of students, and having them say 'inwade' and 'adwice' right back at me. How is this a thing?

Just to clarify, I'm not ragging on Germans for not being able to speak perfect English! I am well aware that my constant difficulties with articles, prepositions and plural endings in German would make me a hypocrite if I were. I am merely expressing my confusion at the bizarreness of these particular pronunciation problems.

I'm a teacher!

Honest! I taught a real class and everything! By myself! And not just once! Lots of times! (I think the abundance of exclamation marks in this paragraph accurately reflects how accomplished this makes me feel.)

I, for whole lessons at a time, was responsible for the shaping of young minds, for the moulding of a new generation, if you will. I think I'll just let that sink in for a moment.


So, although things are going a lot more smoothly than they were at the start, let's not forget that I'm still being a sort-of teacher (with no teacher training) in a secondary school (ugh teenagers) in a foreign country. Pretty solid recipe for awkward times.

Let's start with the keys. Basically, every room in the school locks, and they all get locked after use, so obviously all the teachers need keys. I have no keys. Although hearing stories from other assistants of the extortionate sums they would have to pay to replace their lost keys does make me slightly glad of this fact, it's still a bit annoying. Not only can I not get into the classroom for my English AG (more on that in a bit) because, despite the room being officially booked for the purpose, no one seems to have informed anyone about it, least of all the teachers who continue to lock the room after the lesson before. Cue me having to sprint to the classroom for 1 o'clock to catch the teacher on the way out, then having to wait around on my own in the classroom until 10 past when the lesson actually starts. Also, the staff toilets get locked too when no one's using them - as if any student ever would go in and risk meeting their teacher in the loo (a child/teenager's nightmare come true). This means that I either have to go up to the staffroom and awkwardly ask someone to come and let me in (did I mention the awkwardness?), or just perpetually hold it in. Not ideal.

Further awkwardness arises when I have to choose whether to use Sie or du (the two forms of 'you') (well, there are actually three, but let's not get ahead of ourselves). In theory, I know Sie is more formal, and is used for someone older/more senior than you or just to show respect, and du is more informal. But in practise it is a lot more hit-and-miss. I pretty much just say what pops into my head at the time, then worry about it afterwards. A couple of teachers have specifically asked me to duz them (use du), which makes my life a million times easier. But others just allow me to struggle on unaided, smug in the knowledge that they have their stupid language as a mother tongue and never have to painstakingly learn it. Grr.

N.B. I like German really.

English AG

AG stands for Arbeitsgemeinschaft, and basically just means extra classes. This is my supplementary English class that I set up as a way to offer extra help (and bulk out my woefully-empty timetable), which, despite my worries, people actually come to. And some of them even come back, which would suggest they actually enjoy it. Win!

And while the aforementioned 'advice'/'adwice' scenario did take place during one of these lessons, I love the fact that the 16-19 year olds who come are actually enthusiastic about learning English and want to improve. They're also a laugh; a group of them went to London for a day and were telling me all about their antics, and another girl discussed with me how she'd learnt all about different regional accents from TV shows like Geordie Shore (worrying...).

Faith in children restored

Finally, the one thing that has surprised me the most is the way some children behave towards me. Before coming, I was having visions of some of the classes I was in (or heard about) at secondary school, where the teachers ran out crying or decided to quit their jobs. Of course, the kids here are no angels, but I have had so many of them surprise me in lovely ways. One group of girls came over to me while I was sitting twiddling my thumbs in the mid-lesson break (another thing to add to the awkward list!) because they thought I might like company. Another girl, whose family moved here from Iran last year, offered me sympathy because she knew how hard it was being foreign and not speaking the language well. (That class has actually been told I don't speak German. Awkward list.) And she gave me a sympathy biscuit.

Loads of other pupils have been really friendly to me too, especially the ones who I've met in choir and orchestra, but also loads of others who are just really nice!

Maybe this last bit is just me getting all sentimental about the end of term. Who knows?

Anyway, off to England tomorrow! Bis nächstes Jahr, Deutschland!

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Holly and the Rachel

Hint: the title makes more sense if sung to the tune of 'The Holly and the Ivy'...

So, it's December now. Time to officially break out the Christmas music and drink Glühwein like there's no tomorrow. (Let's pretend I haven't been doing that for weeks already.) Germans do Christmas in a big way, and I won't deny that this was the time of year that I was most looking forward to spending in this country. So far, I've had quite a few Christmassy experiences, which began rather early, considering the school's orchestra started rehearsing their Christmas pieces in September! It even inspired me to download a CD of German traditional Christmas carols. (I'm listening to it right now actually.) I have also been taking every opportunity to purchase all the Christmassy foody goodness in the supermarkets!
Tastefully arranged Christmas foodstuffs. (That house thing is filled with Lebkuchen.) Mmmmmm....
A particularly exciting German tradition that I have discovered since coming here is BAKING. I'm not talking about your standard Christmas cake. Everyone here is crazy about Plätzchen, which are special German Christmas biscuits that everyone seems to bake about a million of around the beginning of December. The Reichelts have about 20 tubs of them, and the mum took a special day off work so they could spend the whole day baking! Now that's commitment. A couple of weeks ago, I went to a Backparty (baking party) hosted by a couple of the teachers from my school, and we spent the whole time rolling out dough and going crazy with the cookie cutters. Yum! Although sadly my attempt to explain the concept of mince pies drew nothing but blank looks (possibly due to my lack of appropriate vocabulary...).

But the most exciting thing (by far) has been the much-anticipated visit from my appropriately-festively-named friend, Holly, which I had been looking forward to for weeks.

A few minor setbacks occurred on the day of her arrival, namely Holly's delayed flight and the perilous combination of giant puddle and passing lorry that resulted in me getting thoroughly drenched (not to mention pointed and laughed at!) on the way to the station to go and pick her up from Hanover. However, these paled into insignificance compared to my gleeful excitement as I waited for her at the airport. I'm pretty sure our joyful reunion at the arrivals gate would have been enough to convince Scrooge of the merits of love and Christmas cheer, or at the very least earn us a place in the final scene of 'Love Actually'.

The next day (6th December, a.k.a. Nikolaustag in German land) we headed off to Lemgo's one-weekend-only Christmas market, Kläschen, but not before discovering makeshift paper Stiefel (boots) on the doorstep, filled with chocolate and goodies courtesy of the lovely Reichelts (I mean, ahem, Nikolaus).
Makeshift paper Stiefel filled with goodness. (Also, yes that is knitting wool...)
When we arrived at the actual market, it was evident that we were super early (keen beans that we are!) and it was mostly still being set up for the day. Undeterred, we headed to the Eiswelt (ice rink) and took advantage of the lack of people, which meant we could skate gracefully and/or flail wildly across the ice without the danger of injuring passing children or embarrassing ourselves (too much). It even snowed while we were skating (!!!) and led to much excited squealing on our part, and much indifference from the Germans. (These people just don't seem to get excited about snow! It saddens me...)
Appropriate levels of snow-related excitement.
Afterwards, we warmed up in a café with a chai latte and a nice game of German monopoly (Holly thrashed me. It was awful.), before taking another wander around the market in its fully festive glory. Of course, the highlight of the experience was all the foody/drinky goodness we were able to sample, namely the ever-present Glühwein, and a hitherto-unknown-to-me delicacy, Poffertjes (like tiny pancake puffs sprinkled with sugar - the best!).

It was certainly nice to see good old Lemgo in its Sunday best, decked out with quaint little huts selling all the foody goodness you could desire (plus plenty of drink-related goodness as well!), and assorted handicrafts, not to mention a bizarre array of canned goods, hideous Spongebob Squarepants hats, and JML-esque kitchen apparatus. It wasn't anything particularly spectacular though. At least, not for Germany! It seems like every town here has a Christmas market. OK, so there are markets in the UK too, but we totally stole this idea from the Germans!

One of my favourite markets so far has to be the Bielefeld one (well, to be fair it's the only really decent-sized one I've properly seen, but still). I went there last Monday with some other assistants, and visited again with Holly on Saturday night.
Part of the food court area - here we had some sort of Glühwein/Punsch/-bowle thing with lots of sugar in it. Lecker!
I have to say, I am loving the festive décor here. It's enough to give anyone the warm fuzzies. Nonetheless, I do miss Christmassy stuff from home, namely carol services (pretty sure they do them here too but I haven't been to one... Besides, they'd all be in German, which is clearly not as good!), Costa Christmas drinks (who'd have thought I'd miss working there!) and putting out all the old Farmer family Christmas stuff round the house. Holly did bring me mince pies though, which is easing the pain a little! Besides, I'll be home in ONE WEEK!!!

Ich freu mich riesig drauf!

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Bonn Voyage

So, a couple of weeks ago, Year Abroad Fever (of the travelling variety) struck again, and saw me and my friend Isobel planning a ganz spontan trip to Luxembourg. We were so smug at the thought of our own year-abroad-inspired spontaneity and living-on-the-edge-itude that we completely neglected to book any trains or accommodation until last Thursday night, by which time it was too late and everywhere was fully booked or much too expensive. This slight spanner in the works did not deter us for long, however, and we chose Bonn as our back-up destination for the weekend, the home of Beethoven and haribo. A great combo if ever there was one. Bring it Bonn!
Bonn is nice :)
I have to confess, this change of plans suited me nicely, not least because it gave me an excuse to think of a punny post title (let's face it, Luxembourg just doesn't lend itself well to this type of humour), as well as that hideous (but brilliant, admit it) atrocity above (Bring it Bonn!? Really Rachel?). Not to mention the fact that we would be able to get up at I-am-a-well-rested-and-functional-adult o'clock, as opposed to it's-so-early-the-Germans-probably-haven't-even-headed-to-clubs-yet o'clock. Good times all round.

Feeling slightly smug with our Semestertickets in hand, Isobel and I boarded a double-decker train (why don't these exist in England?) and sat back as Deutsche Bahn conveyed us effortlessly to our destination (well, there's a first time for everything). A bewildering search for the tourist information and a successful U-Bahn trip later, we arrived at BaseCamp Bonn. This was no ordinary youth hostel. Quite apart from the school-bus-restaurant and unexplained bull statue in the front yard, the accommodation itself was no standard dorms-with-bunkbeds arrangement. It consisted instead of several extravagantly decorated caravans and a sleeper-train carriage (!!!) all crammed into a warehouse.
Isobel and I opted for the more economical train carriage, but regretted it on arrival when we saw what the rest of the accommodation was like. All the caravans were so brilliantly decorated and much more comfortable-looking than our tiny room. One of them even had a statue of Beethoven outside! (You can use the picture above to play 'Where's Beethoven?'. Hint: It's not very hard.)

The rest of the day's adventures included a trip to Vapiano (the most bewildering restaurant ever), a lovely but unintentional stroll through a graveyard (we were trying to find the haribo factory!), and a look round the gift shop of the Beethoven's House museum (we got there just as it closed... Attempt-at-being-cultured fail!). We did successfully manage to go to Starbucks and find this beauteous and wonderful place:
Bonn's other cultural attraction (the haribo shop, not Isobel)
We enjoyed a leisurely moonlit stroll along the Rhine, then through some gardens back to the city. Then it was back to our hostel for our sleeping-in-a-train-carriage-in-a-warehouse adventure. This is one of those things that sounds cooler after the event than it actually was at the time. Our room was approximately the size of a small tin of sardines, and once the ladder to the top bunk was in place there was not enough room for both of us to stand in there at the same time. But I think we can both tick it off our lists as an 'interesting experience.'
Definitely no room to swing a cat. Probably not even a hamster.
The following day, after the heavenly treat of a breakfast buffet (breakfast + buffet = two of the best words ever put together), we made a second attempt to find the haribo Fabrikverkauf (factory outlet), this time with a map! It took forever to get to, but I think the strenuous exercise of walking there definitely justified our buying our weight in gummy goodness.
It's a whole supermarket, but just filled with haribo... Bonn appetite everyone!
This bag may have weighed more than my suitcase. Oops.
Let's just say that certain people's Christmas presents may be a little heavy on the haribo! 

So that was our spontaneous (s-Bonn-taneous...???) trip to Bonn, and though we probably missed out on some of the cultural and architectural experiences of this beautiful city in favour of its culinary delights, it was, as the French might say, a Bonn expérience. I would say sorry for all the terrible puns, but I will never apologise for art.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Herbstferien Part 2 - "Just one cornetto-o-o-o..." (I went to Venice)

So, the after the Farmers left, it was time for another bout of Year-Abroad-Fever, in the form of a 14-hour stint on the German (and Austrian, and Italian) public transport network. No, I wasn't just riding around for the fun of it. I went to VENICE!

Just one cornetto-o-o-o!
After said-14-hour trip, which involved sprinting through Munich Central Station in an enormous rucksack (never again), 2 delayed trains and an ill-advised cheeseburger (just thinking about it makes me shudder), I alighted in the beautiful (and considerably warmer) city of Venezia, and was greeted by my lovely friend Esther who I would be staying with. After a brief stroll along picturesque canals and through winding alleys, we arrived at Esther's flat, which is in the main student square.

The next couple of days involved much walking around taking in the sights, eating delicious Italian ice cream, meeting Esther's friends from Venice uni, shopping, watching films, and generally relaxing and enjoying ourselves. We also stopped to peruse an incredible bookshop, which was absolutely crammed with books of loads of different genres and languages, as well as being able to boast its own book-staircase and indoor gondola. Fancy.

It's a gondola filled with books!!! You might even say someone had *booked* a ride in it... (sorry)
Having been to Venice before, I knew what to expect, but was still impressed all over again by the unique beauty and strangeness of its atmosphere. But, although the city is beautiful, I hear its quirks do eventually begin to grate if you live there long enough. This became evident on the Sunday, when we took a trip to neighbouring Treviso, and Esther was revelling in the fact that there were green spaces and trees, which were showing real signs of autumn. There were even real roads! (Shocking!) Perhaps there's only so much one can take of floating buses...

On Monday, we set off bright and early to watch the Venice Marathon, having hauled ourselves out of bed at stupidly-early-for-when-you're-on-holiday o'clock, and headed to St Mark's Square to witness this exciting event. However, when we got there, it was evident that there was no marathon and we presumably got the date wrong. Embarrassing. But being the enterprising young women that we are, we decided not to let the morning go to waste, and spontaneously headed up the Campanile (bell tower). The unusual lack of queue coupled with the very welcome lift (instead of having to climb hundreds of steps to the top - I'm looking at you, Florence Campanile) made the visit very enjoyable. Oh, and the views were quite nice too...

It's preeeeetty... preeeeetty...
Then, still flushed from the surprising success of our morning, we decided to go the whole hog and make Monday a day to remember by heading out to see some of the islands. Murano, famous for its beautiful glasswork, and Burano, famous for its lace, were beautiful and peaceful, a welcome change from the noise and bustle of the mainland. Totally worth the slightly nauseating boat-trip.

On the last day, we experienced yet more failure, this time in finding the exhibition from the Biennale (some sort of art festival), which was of the work of some Irish photographer. We wandered around in the rain for a while, occasionally dashing into cafés and another photography exhibition when the downpour got too much. The poster I bought while sheltering in the latter even made it all the way home on the train with me, somewhat surprisingly considering my knack for leaving important items on public transport. Eventually, we gave up on the exhibition, but we did end up going to a lovely but rather confusing café called the Reading Room. It was a sort of shop/living room containing a piano and an enormous collection of P.G. Wodehouse books, but did not seem to want to charge any money for anything. The staff there even gave us free tea and cakes, and when we offered to pay, just said 'no, we're not capitalists.' Confusing... But an interesting find nonetheless!
They had books and a piano and gave us free tea and cake! What more could you ask for?
Meanwhile I gradually discovered that all the Italian I learnt at A-Level has been seeping out of my ears these last three years. This, coupled with my having spent the last 2 months trying to convince my brain to think in German, has resulted in the unfortunate demise of any Italian language skills I may once have possessed, and led to many a confused look from café staff and shopkeepers.

I also learnt a couple more things during my stay. Firstly, October is graduation season for Italian universities, and, as a consequence, we were treated to several hundred thousand raucous choruses a day of their graduation song, which sounds like a cross between the seesaw song and 'Oom pah pah' from Oliver! Wonderful. Search 'dottore dottore' on youtube and you'll see what I mean... Another graduation tradition, or so I'm told, is putting up a poster of the graduate with all the embarrassing things they've done during their degree, and making them read it out loud, before throwing foodstuffs on them and forcing them to down a bottle of wine. Those classy Italians.

Another thing I learnt is that, when an Italian menu says Roast beef all'inglese, it will not be English-style roast beef, no matter how much it claims to be. It will actually be wafer-thin slices of nearly-raw beef with grilled aubergines and potato wedges. Nice try Italy.

One last thing: Never trust technology not to all break at the same time.

So the second part of my Autumn Holiday was a success, and I left Venice with almost all that I came with (but sadly, minus one camera memory card. *sob*). Until next time. Ciao!

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Herbstferien Part 1 - When The Farmers came to town

Update: This blog post now has pictures! That's right, real photographs that I took with my own two hands. My camera memory card has now made its way safely back from Venice where it had decided to stay a little longer and enjoy a nice holiday :)

So, you may have noticed that this blog has been unusually quiet the last few days (make that weeks... sorry!). The reasons for this are as follows:
  1. Not a lot of stuff happened
  2. A lot of stuff happened
The week before the Herbstferien (This is the 2-week school holiday most German states have in October. Don't mind if I do!) was extremely normal, so I won't bore you with that. Instead, I will begin this post two weeks ago with a very exciting event (drum-roll please): The Farmers came to Lemgo! (No, it isn't some bizarre German farmer festival, though I wouldn't put it past them... The Farmers are my awesome family!)

After a brief stint lost in Lage (apparently there's no way to drive through it and a very helpful lack of signposts), the Farmers finished their impressive (nearly) two-day's drive from Winchester to Lemgo. Their arrival was celebrated by much hugging and tea-drinking and general excitement, followed by a thrilling trip to the supermarket, where I was able to show off the wonders of German pizza-hybrids (pizza-burger or pizza-pasta anyone?).

The next day, our proper tour of Lemgo began, with an exciting trip to the Junkerhaus. This is just the house of an *ahem* eccentric outsider artist in Lemgo called Karl Junker, who decided to build himself a slightly creepy but extremely beautiful house/work of art out of ornately carved wood. It really was quite amazing - I don't think the photos quite did it justice.

Junkerhaus! My camera memory card finally made it home to me :)
Fun as it was to look around, I can't imagine it would be much fun to actually live there. There were far too many bizarrely staring paintings and hideously uncomfortable-looking chairs for my liking.

For lunch, we headed into town, where there was a market on with loads of stalls selling toasted mandeln (almonds), bratwurst, and all sorts of other German goodies. We sampled some of said bratwurst, before deciding to try the regional speciality pickert, which is a tasty but extremely filling type of potato scone. We had ours with plum jam, but they were also serving it with leberwurst (liver sausage). Some people even had theirs with half and half (though I'm not sure I would try that myself).

That afternoon came the event that one must experience/endure in order to gain a true induction into German way of life: one's first handball game. Following our small misunderstanding, in which I had to ensure the Farmers that they would not actually be required to play handball, I'm sure the others were relieved to just sit on the sidelines and observe the German craziness from afar. Though I'm not what anyone would call a sporty person, and my understanding of football really only extends to kicking a ball in a net (what, there's more to it than that?), I actually found handball really enjoyable. It's kind of like football and basketball's hyperactive love child, with lots of supporters playing drums. Only a few minutes in, we worked out what colour team we were supporting, and were able to make appreciative/derogatory noises at appropriate moments. We lost (as an official resident of Lemgo, I feel it's acceptable to refer to the Lemgo team as 'we', and I'm sure they found my support indispensable), but the opposing team was Berlin, so I don't think we really did that badly.

They throw a ball with their hands (I think).
In the evening we were invited to the home of one of the teachers from my school, and my sister, Esther, was able to chat to a fellow bird-watching enthusiast, while I got my first experience of hearing a German say 'squirrel' first-hand. (Search on youtube for 'Germans saying squirrel' and you won't be disappointed. I feel it's acceptable for me to laugh, because I'm sure my attempts to say Eichhörnchen are just as amusing to them!)

Highlights of the rest of the all-too-short visit included going to see the Hermann statue, or Hermannsdenkmal, (Hermann the German was supposed to have led the Germanic tribes to victory against three Roman legions, but the giant statue of him was actually built much later, apparently as a sort of two-fingered salute to the French!), walking in the woods, having a lovely lunch in nearby Detmold, more walking in the woods, looking round the Brake castle, and some more walking in the woods.

Hermann the German in all his glory
All in all, a really lovely visit! I'm only sorry it was so short.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Hedgehogs, High Jinx and a Happy, Happy Birthday!

So, important news first: The Reichelts have HEDGEHOGS!!!

They found three baby hedgehogs without a mother who would not have survived in the wild, and and took them home to look after throughout the winter. Unglaublich süß!

Now, down to business. On Saturday, it was birthday time!!! (Not my birthday of course, we've still got another month to wait! It's Carly's (my previously-mentioned American friend) birthday today, so we celebrated early.) So, naturally, it was time to head off to trusty Bielefeld again (after retrieving my bike, that I'd left in town during all that saxophone palaver) for the Geburtstag celebrations.

On arriving at the bar, I met Carly's friend Stuart, who, I soon discovered, was one of the few teaching assistants with the actual desire to become a teacher (a surprisingly rare occurrence), and who also held an unusual prejudice against the Welsh. He revealed, somewhat enigmatically, that he had once had a 'bad experience' with a Welshman. When pressed further, he recounted a hilarious but decidedly random story, involving a Welsh mandolin player who was less-than-wisely invited round and fed copious amounts of absinthe, whereupon he began ranting about circumcision, and trying to bake a pie... I'm glad to say that I was able to dispel Stuart's preconceptions of Welsh people (this not being entirely representative of the Welsh population, though I've not been to Anglesey in a while). However, I wasn't able to comment on mandolin players...

The evening progressed, and resulted in us returning by the final train to continue the proceedings in Lemgo, accompanied by a bottle of Jim Beam (of which I did not partake - yuck!). Needless to say, my companions were soon looking a little worse for wear, though perhaps my fellow passengers enjoyed being serenaded in raucous English and being offered swigs of bourbon from the bottle. Who knows? The night was finally rounded off when someone (naming no names) fell asleep on the toilet and was kicked out of the bar. So, all-in-all, a highly successful soirée...!

After an (accidentally) extremely lazy Sunday, it was back to reality. Today I observed the year 5s (mostly 10 &11-year-olds, but there are actually a few 9-year-olds in there as well) in their very first class test, which is just a mini presentation about their old and new schools, then a short role-play. I learnt a new word today, Mitleid, which means 'pity', but transliterates as 'Withpain', or pain that you feel along with someone else's. I was certainly feeling some serious Mitleid by the end, as one nervous child after another timidly recited every detail about their old teachers and favourite subjects, interspersed with uncomfortable silences as they desperately tried to find the right words. My heart went out to them, die Arme.

Having said that, one of them, when asked if he had any pets, replied 'yes, I am a chicken!' Now, I would never laugh in a child's face when they get something wrong (mostly because I know all too well how hard it is to pluck up the courage to speak another language anyway, let alone when people laugh at your attempts!), but this took me totally by surprise! Let's just say that I had to retreat behind my water glass for some minutes before I could trust myself to keep a straight face. Witzig!

So that's what happened the last couple of days! I also have a shameless plug to offer you. I've started writing for LearnEnglish Teens, which is an online magazine by the British Council (which can be found here) to help teenagers from around the world learn English. I have written two blog posts so far, so have a gander if you fancy it!



Anyway, I think that's it! Tschau Kumpels!

Saturday, 12 October 2013

A story about a saxophone

So, yesterday was my first experience of true Year-Abroad Fever. I'm talking about the trying-new-things, pushing-the-boat-out, carpe diem kind of fever. For some people it might be taking up a completely new sport, for others it might be couch-surfing or spontaneous travelling.

As for me, I bought a saxophone.

What can I say? I'm a live wire. One minute my eye was caught by a small-ad on ebay, the next (well, the next day actually) I was on a train to Warendorf to pick up my new purchase. Not even the length of the journey and persistent England-esque drizzle could dampen my mood; this spontaneous decision represented a tiny step towards the proverbial edge, and only the gravest of mishaps could quell my gleeful optimism. I didn't even stop to ponder the difficulty of stretching my already-pushing-it luggage allowance to include a heavy and bulky musical instrument, and even less the prospect of putting my erasmus grant to better use.

On the way, I received a text from the seller, Jenny, warning me about her Frettchen. But, since I didn't have any means of looking it up (my phone's too technologically challenged for dictionary apps), I was left to wonder what this word might mean. On arriving at Jenny's flat, she greeted me warmly, and gave me the chance to try out the soon-to-be-mine saxophone before I handed over the cash. I had given it but a few tentative honks, when there was a scuffle and, somewhat to my surprise, two ferrets scurried out from under the bed (thus solving the aforementioned Frettchen mystery!) Lucky I like small animals!

Fast forward two hours and I was back in Lemgo, the burden on my wallet considerably lifted. I set off home, sax in one hand, the other precariously manoeuvring my bike, while resolutely ignoring the torrential downpour in true British fashion. A little further along, now looking distinctly drowned-rattish, I abandoned the bike in town, (Has anyone ever managed to successfully carry a saxophone on a bike? Anyone who has is a liar...) and hopped on a bus, tucking my new instrument lovingly onto a luggage rack.

Ten minutes later, I stepped out into the rain and, having (naturally) got out at the wrong stop, trudged some way up the hill to my flat. It took me a good few minutes to realise I was feeling somewhat less weighed down than I should have been...

Then, my distinct lack of saxophone began to ring alarm bells. I'd left it on the bus. Classic.

Cue an even-more-drowned-rattish Rachel frantically scouring the posters at the bus stop for a phone number, finding one, discovering it did not include area code, flailing wildly at a passing German to ask the area code, mentally searching in vain for the German for 'area code', miming and pointing and flailing some more, and finally getting the valid area code from said rather bemused German (after making him repeat it three times). One mostly successful (but even more lacking in the vocabulary department) phone-call later, I was resigned to the fact there was nothing I could do for now, and headed home.

But, refusing to accept my sax's gloomy fate, I was struck with the bright idea that maybe I could run down to the town centre and catch the bus as it came back around. I am glad that it was dark by this time, so the curious mixture of running (anyone who knows me will know my feelings about this) and hobble-run-shuffling that followed went mostly unnoticed. Despite my woeful lack of skill in the running department, I finally reached the central Treffpunkt, and even felt a faint glimmer of hope at the sight of so many buses.

It seems that my predicament was already known, because the first bus driver I spoke to asked, with amusement, whether I was the one who'd left the trumpet on the bus. I nodded enthusiastically (this not being the time to split hairs), hurried breathlessly in the direction he indicated, and soon found the bus driver who had just finished locking my sax safely in the office. Initially, he stated grumpily that he was already running late and couldn't retrieve it, but something about my pathetic whimpering and sodden appearance must have convinced him, because he eventually consented to let me into the office.

I couldn't say for sure exactly how the bus driver felt about me at that moment, but he did use the word ärgerlich less than sparingly, while shooting dark looks in my direction. But at that point I didn't care, because there, lying innocently on the table, blissfully unaware of the trouble it had caused, was my new saxophone. Unable to express in German the heartfeltness of my gratitude, I stammered many a grateful danke, and scurried back out into the rain.

As the driver headed back to the bus, however, it suddenly occurred to me that, should I want a fast and (most importantly) dry way to get home, I would have to board the same bus as him, and bear yet more of his disdainful looks. I seriously considered the Very British solution of striding resolutely in the opposite direction until the bus had gone, then trudging home in the rain (a suitable fate for any Bus-Delayer and Causer-of-Public-Scene, such as myself). But that certainly would not have been the German solution. And when in Rome... So I slunk sheepishly onto the back of the bus, ignoring the smirks from fellow passengers who had witnessed the whole malarkey, and cradled my offending instrument like a new-born all the way home. 

Finally home! Soaking wet but WITH my new sax. Careless whisper, here I come!
So there you have it, the long, but hopefully entertaining, story of how I acquired a brand new saxophone, and a healthy dose of shame. Here's to Year-Abroad Fever!

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

I guess Germany's pretty OK :)

Not quite my usual post format, but I had fun making these lists, so I hope you enjoy them. :)

So, I've been in Lemgo about a month now (how time flies!), which means I can look back on my first impressions of Germany with a fresh perspective (although I'm sure this will continue to change as my time here goes on). Though I have to admit I'm still very much a home bird, there are many things that I'm distinctly warming to in this strange land; I'm almost being won over to the German way of life. There might even be a couple of ways in which the Germans even manage to one-up us Brits. (Who would've thought!?) Perhaps these Germans aren't so crazy after all.

Here are just a few things that, in my eyes, Germany does better.

  • Giant square pillows... it's true! I've been converted! They're still weird though.
  • Cycling - Everybody does it, even old ladies! And I absolutely love it! Much quicker than walking, but still provides that inner smugness that comes with doing exercise. Win win!
  • Beer (We should definitely bring Altbierbowle to the UK! And who had the brilliant idea of mixing beer with lemonade??? Whoever it was, I take my hat off to you)
  • Table service in pubs - Such a good idea. Though I'll definitely have lost my ability to elbow my way to the bar in Wetherspoons.
  • Haribo - Germans do haribo in a big way. Not just gummy bears, but gummy everything. My taste buds are loving it! My teeth? Not so much.
Yes, I did buy Christmas Haribo in October. Don't judge me.
  • Opportunities for sausage puns - I think we all know how I feel about those... (They're the wurst)
  • Language - Germans have so many useful terms that we don't have single words for in English! I've read about words such as Drachenfutter (a gift to make it up to someone, especially a spouse, who you've done something to annoy) and Treppenwitz (literally 'staircase joke', a joke or comeback that you think of once the moment has passed). Since coming here, I've also come across fremdschämen (to be embarrassed on behalf of someone else), Suppenkoma (or 'soup coma', the tired feeling you get after a big meal), and Liebhaberstück (something an individual especially likes to collect). See, English seems ridiculously wordy by comparison!

However, much as I love the Vaterland, there are some things that we Brits just do better!

  • Tea - sorry Deutschland! I know you try.
  • Tap water. There is nothing wrong with it, despite what the judging looks from waiters would have you believe.
  • Films - seriously, it seems like every German film is actually a British or American one (well, mostly American if I'm honest) dubbed into German. And it isn't half confusing trying to lip-read while you listen.
  • Jokes. (To be fair, humour is one thing that just doesn't translate. When I've grown to fully understand the deutsche Humor I'll know I've become a fully fledged German!)

Edit: I just read the best German word! It's verschlimmbessern, which is the verb used to describe the act of making something worse, while actively trying to make it better. Such a great one!

Saturday, 5 October 2013

I went to some places

Hello first post in October!

So, this Thursday was Tag der Deutschen Einheit (celebrating the anniversary of German reunification) and, since the Germans have a profoundly sensible attitude, my school had a bridging-the-gap day off on Friday too (I have Fridays off anyway, but I still count this as a win!). Hello 4-day weekend, the perfect way to celebrate my first significant contribution to the enrichment of young minds (I told some year 10s some words) in appropriate style.

Although I'd known for a week that this abundance of free time was approaching, my powers of organisation failed me (as usual), and Wednesday evening found me still at a loose end as to how I would spend the next few days. I was determined to make the most of it, however, and ended up arranging at the last minute to meet for lunch with a trainee teacher at my school, Sonja, who lives in Detmold.

Detmold itself is a beautiful town, a little bigger than Lemgo, which I thoroughly enjoyed pottering merrily round, taking many a touristy picture.

This house is old apparently
Probably a horse

We luncheoned at a lovely pub-slash-restaurant, which served Detmold-brewed beers and enormous portions of (delicious) food. It also boasted an impressive but confusingly unnecessary rotating toilet seat (well, it didn't exactly boast it. It was just sort of there)! I can only assume the rotating was for cleaning purposes...

So, all-in-all, I spent a thoroughly enjoyable day of looking round sunny Detmold, chatting shameful amounts of English (considering I spent the day with a real-life German!), and meeting Sonja's highly vocal cat, who did not respond to me, despite my attempts to solicit its affections.

That evening I went to the Hauskreis (or church small group) for Gemeinde am Grasweg, which was fun, but extremely German. Everyone was lovely, but integrating into a group of new people is hard enough when they're all speaking English, let alone when you can't get the words out in time (or in the right order!) to keep pace with a conversation in another language. But this is definitely something that will get better with time!

After a fun-filled Friday in good old Bielefeld, which involved Spaghettieis (ice cream in the shape of spaghetti - ours not to reason why), Semester tickets (FREE STUFF!!), and even more English speaking, we arranged a spontaneous trip to Münster for today. It was certainly strange to be back (I spent just under a month there last year at a language course), and the weather did not quite live up to the memories, but it was still a lot of fun to spend the day somewhere different, and to have the excuse to use our freshly-pressed semester tickets (free train travel in the whole Bundesland? Ja, bitte!).

Summer 2012 - The Aasee in glorious sunshine

We still had a lovely time though.  And we all enjoyed perusing the market in the Domplatz (which included free honey tasting!) and seeing the palace and botanic gardens. We did see a confusing number of wedding photoshoots though (about 3 or 4, all with different couples) in the palace grounds, but no guests or other signs of any significant events taking place. We guessed they were taking photos for a bridal magazine, but who knows!? (Crazy Germans)

Overall, an energetic few days. Here's to a lazy Sunday!


Sunday, 29 September 2013


So (see what I did there?), week 3 of my year abroad is coming to an end, and it's certainly been a fun one (despite the cold)!

On Wednesday, I was invited to lunch with one of the English teachers, where I was treated to a classic student-esque lunch of pasta with ketchup (yum!). Meanwhile, I listened to stories of his time in London, where he apparently lived on Hampstead Heath with Sting and Duran Duran as neighbours. Impressive! Thursday's highlight was undoubtedly a fun-filled evening of Harry Potter and random-youtube-video watching with Carly, the American girl who lives in Lemgo too. So nice to just relax and not speak German! (Yes, I know that's the whole point, but it can get seriously exhausting!)

Friday, after a brief escapade setting up the Schulfest at the school (a sort of festival, complete with beer truck), I headed off to Bielefeld to get my first taste of German nightlife. After an evening of cocktails and chat, which included explaining the concept of sherbert and flying saucers, as well as discovering what seems to be the catchphrase of German yoof, 'Alter' (or, as they kept saying, 'alllllter', which translates, bizarrely, as 'age' but is just a general expression of appreciation), we headed out to a club at 2am. Now, call me an old fogey, but that's way too late in my opinion! The Germans must just be extra hardcore... The club itself was actually quite nice, and a lot cleaner than some I've experienced (*cough* bunker *cough*), but was strangely half-empty, and everyone seemed to be taking themselves very seriously as they busted their best street-moves to the latest europop. So all-in-all a fun night, even if it was a lot later than my tired-out, doped-up-on-cold-meds self could really handle.

Luckily, the rest of the weekend was a lot more chilled, and involved watching a film and picking fruit with the Reichelts (I now have a giant saucepan full of plums that I'm not convinced I will be able to eat before they go bad!).

One thing this week has certainly been characterised by is the abundance of new words I have learnt. I had a couple of serious lightbulb moments, in which I've found out the meaning of a word and have suddenly realised what everyone's been trying to say to me all this time! This is when a smartphone would definitely come in handy (I'm still in the dark ages with my trusty Nokia C2), so I could subtly look up words online or using an app, rather than having to keep a mental list and waiting to look them up at home. A very significant lightbulb moment was when I was told that 'sag mir Bescheid' actually means 'let me know'. I can't even count how many times I've heard this and just nodded and 'oh ja, ok'-ed along without having the faintest idea what it meant! At least now I know!

Oh well... Here's to another week of new experiences, hopefully none of them embarrassing vocab mishaps.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

One Week in Lemgo

So, we've reached Mittwoch, which marks day 7 in beautiful Lemgo.

This week I have been sitting in classes at the school, in an attempt to learn how to actually teach classes (or at least parts of classes) myself. I'd fully expected to prefer working with the older ones with a better level of language, but surprised myself by loving the two classes of 10-11 year-olds I sat in with on Monday. They aren't yet at the age where being enthusiastic is uncool, and they kept on coming up to me in the break and asking me questions, all in adorable German accents. Bless.

One thing I have to work on is forcing myself out there and making my own entertainment. School on Monday finished at 1 (for me at least), which left the rest of the day free for boredom and loneliness. I've heard this is quite a common problem for language assistants, since we have so few contact hours with the school. Monday afternoon was the kind where even that weird corner of youtube where everything is cat remixes (admit it, you've been there!) has been exhausted of all entertainment value, and multiple trips to Aldi suddenly seem like a fun idea. Down-time is sometimes necessary, but if I'm to make the most of this year I definitely need to find a productive way of occupying my soon-to-be-even-more-extensive free time.

That said, yesterday could not have been more different! It was enrolment day for us language assistants at Bielefeld uni, and I spent an eventful day revelling (slightly ashamedly) in the company of other English speakers. Seriously, the ability to express any idea you want without much effort is ridiculously easy to take for granted. I've only been deprived of consistent contact with fellow English speakers for a week, yet I was a little shocked by the relief I felt to be back with people who I could talk freely to without having to think hard before every sentence.. I'm sure this will change as my German improves, but right now I am fully sympathising with all those erasmus students back home who just stick with their own erasmus clan.

That slightly negative (is it? I can't tell...) thought aside, today was great! Highlights included being invited to a weekend of fun with actual Germans (a chance to work on my English-speaking-dependency perhaps?), going to the school's orchestra rehearsal and hilariously mishearing 'festival of carols' (yes, we're doing Christmas music already!) as 'festival of carrots', and finally MY SUITCASE ARRIVING! Huzzah! Now I can stop re-wearing socks (don't judge me).

Anyway, as you can probably tell, things are still very up-and-down around here, and I expect that is likely to continue for most of this year. I suppose that's new experiences for ya! I hope I have lots more positive things to report next time. Sorry for the over-enthusiastic use of brackets.

Liebe Grüße.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Blog Post Numero Uno (or should that be Nummer Eins?)

Here, by popular demand (well, one person's demand!), is a blog to document my Third Year Abroad - exciting times! Hopefully I will have lots of thrilling adventures to make this a worthwhile read.

My farewell cake! 

So, this time last week I had just waved a teary goodbye to sunny (ahem) Britain, and embarked on the first leg of my journey abroad. If I had to sum up the week in one word, it would be this: surreal!

So many things have happened this week that have been way out of my comfort zone that it's hard to know which way is up sometimes! I think I've been incredibly lucky, though, to have encountered so many people who seem to understand my situation and who are doing everything they can to make me feel welcome. I know not everyone gets this, so I'm definitely counting my blessings right now.

A lot has happened this week, so I won't write about everything, but I'll just give a summary of the main events which will hopefully be interesting. Here goes:

I arrived in Brussels and immediately failed at using the metro (I had to awkwardly ask a stranger to pass my ticket through the barrier, as I'd left it behind). Not a great start! But I managed to find my hostel and met two lovely girls in the shared room, one of whom actually went to the same school and college as me. What a small world!

On Monday I arrived in Cologne for the induction course, which was extremely surreal, as everyone was an English native-speaker, and a couple of others from Bristol were there, so it didn't really feel like we were in Germany - it sort of just felt like a holiday! I didn't really know what to expect, but actually really enjoyed myself, and met lots of other people in the same boat as me, which was definitely reassuring.

My year abroad sort-of-officially began on Thursday, when I arrived in Lemgo and was greeted by the amazing Herr Knepper from the school, who sat me down in front of some food and then frog-marched me to the bank and argued in German with the person setting up my account over my student status (if you're a student, you don't have to pay a sign-up fee, and apparently I count as a student, even though I'm not studying in Germany...), for which I was incredibly grateful. I probably could have worked it out myself if I'd been concentrating, but I was so exhausted from the long journey and early start that I just let everything wash over my head. Afterwards, I was given a brief tour of Lemgo by Herr Knepper's son. It's such a pretty town! I doubt I really took in that much of it at the time, but I'm definitely looking forward to getting to know it better. And I did manage to take a couple of pictures of this really cool mini library that I found! How awesome is this???

It's a tiny library in a phone box! So adorable. I will definitely have to make use of it while I'm here.

Anyway, that evening I moved into the Wohnung that I'm renting (thankfully organised by the school - so so grateful!). It's a little granny flat downstairs from a family, who are incredibly nice! They even offered me tea when I first got there. Amazing! I do have trouble understanding them though. Obviously, they all know each other really well, and the two daughters are teenagers, so they speak very quickly with lots of slang that I don't understand. Bit embarrassing that I have to ask them to repeat everything they say. But I'm sure that will get better with time (I hope so, anyway!).

Now, onto the scary bit - the actual teaching. On Friday I went into the school - I'm spending six months as an English language teaching assistant in a secondary school, in case I didn't make that clear before - and was given a tour and met a few of the teachers. Needless to say, I instantly forgot every single name and how to get around the school, but I'm sure I'll work that out as I go along. I also had to stand up in front of a class of 17-year-olds and talk about myself, then answer their questions. I don't think I'll ever get used to standing up in front of a class - it's terrifying! But the actual talking part wasn't too bad, since I just have to speak English, which is something I can actually do. Every cloud...

Yesterday (Saturday) was full of new experiences, but not the ones I'd expected! In the morning I made honey. I kid you not. The family who live upstairs keep bees, and have an adorable Lädchen (little shop) behind the garage for people to buy honey from. So cute! I had to wear one of those bee-keeping suits complete with hat, and once we'd got the honey things (technical term, anyone?) out of the bee boxes (you can tell I know what I'm talking about), we had to melt the slabs of wax with a sort of industrial hair dryer, before putting them into a sort of sideways washing-machine-esque contraption, and spin it to extract the honey. It was a lot of fun, but extremely sticky! (I learnt a new word - "Es klebt!") In the evening, I was invited to Herr Knepper's 60th birthday party. I was actually quite apprehensive beforehand at the thought of meeting dozens of middle-aged Germans who all knew each other, but it was actually a lot of fun. I discovered that it is definitely a lot easier to speak German in a party situation, with dim lights, background noise and a glass of wine in your hand! I spoke to quite a few people who told me I had no accent when speaking German, which was clearly shameless flattery, but quite nice to hear nonetheless.

This morning, I went to Gemeinde am Grasweg, which is a church on the other side of the city. I understood almost nothing that was said (embarrassing!), but afterwards, I was greeted by a lovely elderly lady, who, on hearing that it was my first time there, and that I'd only been in Lemgo 3 days, insisted on inviting me out to lunch with her and her husband. She was so so friendly and so nice that it made me feel quite emotional!

All in all, I think this week has gone a lot better than expected. I didn't burst into tears in public once (despite being very close on more than one occasion), which I count as quite an achievement!

So far, I have found a lot of things to be quite similar. However, there are a few things that are subtly different. I will definitely have to get used to:

  • Sparkling water (It's everywhere.....)
  • Early mornings (School starts at 7:40... WHY???)
  • Mayonnaise on everything!
  • Sundays (Everything is shut. I'm sure that'll take some getting used to!)
  • Coffee cream
  • Handshaking (So much handshaking...)
  • Bottle clinking (I'm told they clink the bottom of the bottle instead of the top! Potential-for-minorly-awkward-situation-alert.)
And finally, my paralysing inability to make any kind of small talk! Seriously, when I was being introduced to teachers at the school, it suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea what to say, and just shook everyone's hand and grinned like a crazed cheshire cat, hoping that would count as being polite. Why don't they teach us that in school? I know how to debate about Arbeitslosigkeit and Atomkraft, but don't even know how to say 'nice to meet you', so in social situations (at least at first, before I know people well enough to start a debate on Abtreibung) I'm completely useless! Oh well. I suppose that will improve with time.

Anyway, thus concludeth the first week of my year abroad, and with it my first blog post.

Bring on the rest of the year!
Bis Bald.

Edit: I would also like to add the MASSIVE SQUARE PILLOWS to the list of strange things about Germany. Seriously, what's the deal with those???