Monday, October 18, 2010

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by.”

The German school system is pretty confusing so let me start by explaining how it works. There are 3 types of "high schools" here. Depending on your academic ability (and a few other deciding factors) in fourth grade you either continue in a Gymnasium, Realschule or Hauptschule. To go to a German University (which is usually free) you need an Abitur, which you can only get by graduating from a Gymnasium. As an exchange student, you are always placed in Gymnasium (lucky us).
So on to the first week of German school. Monday (the day I posted about in the last post) was a little crazy but things definitely calmed down since then. There are still some classes that are somewhat out of control but I guess that's how it is in American schools too. The way my schedule works (and the normal German schedule) is that you only take on average 4 or 5 classes a day. The classes switch everyday so it's always different. On Tuesday we had art and even though my drawing skills are basically non-existent it was nice to understand what was going on. Math I actually understood and was actually able to the do the work.
On Wednesday we start with an hour and a half of Religion. You can choose to go to Evangelische (Protestant), Katholische (Catholic) or Ethics. Ethics is the choice for people who are neither Protestant or Catholic and they basically teach morality and ethics. I chose to go to Evangelische and luckily most of my friends here go to the same class. We studied Judaism between the World Wars (not entirely sure what that has to do with Protestants but it was really interesting. Also I understood what was going on so that was a major plus. Then we had lunch and in my school you can either eat at the cafeteria or walk into town and buy something from the baker or a Döner, which isn't actually German but it is amazing. After lunch we had Biology. I understood about 1/3 of what was going on (they were talking about Neuron Receptors and what happens when you introduce poison to your body). The teacher passed out an article and told everyone to read it but she said I didn't have to read it because I didn't understand it. So I figured I would flip through the Bio book so I wasn't just sitting there doing nothing. About halfway through the class the teacher walked over and asked/yelled at me because I wasn't reading the article. I gave her this blank stare partly because I couldn't understand exactly what she was saying and partly because she told me I didn't have to read it. After she saw that I had no idea what was going on, she remembered that I am the American Exchange student who speaks only broken German. So then she apologized and carried on with class.
On Thursday we had Physik which I understood more than I thought I would (but still not nearly enough) and I actually took some good notes. Then we had an hour of German, which is one class that is seriously out of control. In German school, you stay with the same class all day but switch teachers for each subject so it's not the group that's out of control because they behave in every class except German. We had to read an article called "Ist Deutsch Noch Sexy?"
(Is German still sexy?). It was about how much English has made it's way into Germany. The example I found interesting was Lufthansa, the German airline. Their slogan is "there is no better way to fly", even though they are a German airline, their slogan is in English. After German we had lunch and then Chemistry. Chemistry I understood absolutely nothing in. We were learning about the Periodic Table (the elements have different names in German by the way) and I was thinking "why can't I understand what's going on, usually I can at least get the idea they are learning" but no I didn't even understand that. About halfway through the class he asks me a question and once again I responded with a blank stare. He then responded with "Oh you're the exchange student, oh I guess that means I have to speak High German with now.". Yeah, he was speaking Swabian (the local dialect) and that's why I understood nothing. Then he started to teach the Chemistry lesson in English but the other students didn't appreciate it as much as I did so he switched to High German. Later that day, while explaining this story to my host mom, I said "He teached us in Swabian", that right there is how you know your English is failing. I don't know if I should be glad that my English is getting progressively worse and maybe my German is getting better or sad that my English is failing before I have to take the SAT in about a month and a half.
Friday was a good day, we had just math. Seeing as I only had one subject, I got out of school at about 9:15. The rest of the day I was free to do whatever I want. The other kids from Altdorf asked me if I needed a ride home so I hung out with them for a while and then we went home.
On Sunday there was an AFS event with all of the other exchange students in my area. We all went to a hot spring and swam. The water is this fresh water pumped in from a hot spring deep underground. The water contains sulfur so basically it reeks and tastes gross. Part of the pool was outside and since the air was freezing but the water about 80 degrees, there was a layer of fog above the pool which was pretty cool. Also it was raining so it was basically the weirdest swimming I have ever done (I can't decide if that is proper grammar or not).
Today I had English, German and Gym so I understood most of today and it was a pretty easy day. Also my class is taking a trip to Berlin in June which I might be going on. It's still a maybe though because it has to be approved by AFS.
Before we left AFS gave us some warnings about Germany. The two main ones being that the people are not overly friendly at first and that you have to work hard before they will open up and be friendly with you. The second one is that most Germans have amazing English and they will want to speak to you only in English so you have to repeatedly tell them to use German. The first one is incredibly false, the first month here I didn't know many Germans because I was in a language with mostly foreigners but my host family was not cold or standoffish at all. Then at the Orientation a few weekends ago they said it was mostly the Swabian people who are cold and standoffish and I thought okay my host family isn't really Swabian so I guess that makes sense. So then on the first day of school everyone was so friendly, talkative and welcoming. So I don't know how true those are. The second warning was partly true, Germans speak English very well. Almost everyone is conversational and most of the people are advanced speakers. The part about them wanting to speak only English, also false. They all insist that I speak German so that my German improves (which I appreciate because I really want my German to get better). In school when one of them tries to speak English the others all interrupt and tell him/her to speak in German so I get better. Those were two instances where I am glad that AFS' warnings weren't true.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ask yourself this question: "Will this matter a year from now?"

So last weekend was the Volksfest which was like Oktoberfest but on a smaller scale in Stuttgart. There were beer tents, rides, gift shops and of course beer. The big difference between Volksfest and Oktoberfest was the farm show. There were all kinds of animals, tractors and new farming inventions. There was a little machine that mowed the grass by itself. They had all these different rides; from the the classic Carousel to the ones that fling you around and upside down. The beer tents were huge. The people were all standing on the tables and yelling/singing in German.
This was inside of the beer tents. I don't know if you can see how big the beer glasses are in this picture but they're huge. At Oktoberfest in Munich that is the only size beer you can buy and it costs between 8 and 9 Euro. At Volksfest you can buy smaller beers too but most of the people opt for the big one.

The next day we went to Schloss Esslingen. A schloss is a castle and the one in Esslingen is an old, well preserved castle that rests on the top of a (very high) hill. When you're in the castle you can look out and see the whole city, the river and the mountains. The path up to the castle winds around the hill and the hillsides are covered in vineyards. The vineyards are all a slope which is something that really looks nice.

On Sunday (I think it was Sunday) we took a bike ride to Metzingen. It wasn't a particularly long bike ride but it was long enough. The German scenery is amazing. It's even better now that the leaves are changing colors. When we got to Metzingen we got ice cream and walked around in the city for a little bit. After that we rode home. I haven't ridden a bike in so long (and it showed). I switched gears wrong and the chain came off and then I ran into the curb.

This week was my last week of language school. The school days were basically all the same (except Friday). On Wednesdays there is a Serbian/Bosnian/Montenegrin/Croatian class after ours. I am not really sure which language it really is because they are all so similar (I'm pretty sure it's Serbian though). So Frau Wolf (language teacher) told Nikola (Serbia) to write in Serbian all over the board for the class after us. Little did she know I wrote some of the Serbian too. Seeing as the first month of this year was me and a couple friends mostly from Serbia, I picked up some little phrases and the tongue twisters (Lija je lajala, zalajala ili prolajala, try saying that 5 times fast). Even though I only knew about 5 sentences to write on the board everyone was still pretty surprised. We expected there to be some answer on the board on Thursday morning but there wasn't one. On Friday we had a substitute teacher again because Frau Wolf was on vacation in Paris. We didn't really get much out of Friday's lesson because usually Frau has to explain the new grammar in English so we all understand but the sub didn't speak any English. Eventually she caught on that no one understood and she let us out early.

Language school was very helpful overall. Most of the returnees said it was kinda pointless but it was actually really good. It didn't teach a lot of vocabulary (which was okay because I learned vocabulary at home) but it gave a background on grammar. It was good because it gave us the basics like the (nearly impossible) German articles and the (just as complicated) German plurals.

On Thursday we made the German version of apple pie and while it was very good, nothing compares to good old American apple pie. The filling tasted different (not bad just different) and they use shredded apples instead of slices (????). I will have to make our version of apple pie sometime.

This weekend was an AFS Late Orientation Camp in Sigmaringen. I'll start with what I expected it to be. I thought it was going to be 3 days of intense German and restating everything AFS told us in Washington, I was half right. I didn't speak a single word of German the whole weekend. In the AFS sessions we spoke only English and seeing as it was me and 7 guys from South America, we spoke only Spanish. As far as the AFS repeating everything they had told us before, that part was true. I found out three things about Spanish this weekend and they are

1.) It's so much easier to understand Spanish when women talk than when men talk.
2.)Spanish in Spain is the hardest to understand but once you understand Spanish from Spain then you can understand Spanish from almost anywhere (the exception is Chile, I really had to try to understand his Spanish). Even though the language is the same their accents are really different.
3.) If you speak Spanish slowly and change the accents then the Italians can understand you and if you ask them to speak slowly then you can understand them thanks to Spanish.

While we are talking about languages I will add that I got to put my newly-found Serbian to good use this weekend. There is a girl from Bosnia who has been pretty homesick and she was pretty excited when we had a (minimal) conversation in Bosnian/Serbian.

We stayed at a youth hostel and I shared a room with a guy from Bolivia and a guy from the Dominican Republic so it was basically all Spanish. During the AFS meetings we just talked about how our first weeks were going, homesickness, our free time and about what we thought about Germany. During the day on Saturday we had a scavenger hunt in the city. We broke up into little groups and had to go around and ask random people questions about the city and about AFS. Even though I was in a group with people from Asia and from Russia and of course from South America and Italy, I still spoke no English. Unfortunately we lost the treasure hunt but it was still a good way to see the city. That night was the AFS talent show. All the students presented in groups (their countries) something typical from their countries. The Dominicans Salsa danced, the Thai kids did their traditional dances and Thai kickboxing, the Japanese kid did martial arts, the Russians showed us a typical game and the Venezuelans played drums (garbage cans) and did some South American dance. Now in the USA we don't really have century old martial arts or very traditional dances unique to the USA. We wanted to teach everyone how to do the Soulja Boy dance but we didn't have the music. So basically we put some dances together and just did that. We combined the sprinkler, the shopping cart, the cabbage patch and the worm and while our performance was not as serious as the other ones everyone laughed and thought it was hilarious. After the talent show the Dominicans taught everyone how to Salsa dance.

On Sunday we came home and we went to an off road/extreme biking competition. I don't know the name of it but basically they have special bikes and have to do tricks like start on the ground and jump up onto like a six foot tall platform. Another thing they had to do was balance on the back wheel standing up and hop from post to post. It was really cool. One of their cousins was competing and I think he took fifth place. I took a couple pictures because I figured it would be really hard to explain.

So on to probably the most exciting part of this (incredibly long) blog post. Today was my first day of regular German school. I'll start with the fact that I got out of French class because I speak no French and this is their fifth year. So that means I get out an hour earlier on Mondays and go to school an hour later on Wednesdays. Also I got out of Orchestra because I don't play an instrument and Choir because I can't even speak German let alone sing it. So my school day started off with an hour and a half of German. I understood some of it but not all. They had to read an article from a German newspaper and analyze it. I think it is safe to say that about half of the class did that. The other half of the class crumpled the article, yelled English and German profanity and then threw the article in the trash. The teacher told me just to flip threw the German book and read parts that I could understand. After I flipped through the German book the girl next to me told me to read something in the English book that was homework over the weekend. It was a speech by Obama. Then class ended and we had a break. A couple of the other kids invited me to the "student lounge are" and we played Foosball. Then we had English class which was worse than German. The teacher came in and announced that he had to give a lecture in a different class and then left. So we had forty five minutes of about 30 students sitting in a class without a teacher (terrible idea). First they broke the keys of an old computer keyboard and then threw them at each other and then they crowded around me as I helped them with their English homework. After that one kid hopped out the window and then they shut the windows so he was trapped outside. He had to walk around to the school door and walk into the class room from the hallway door. Then we had Gym which was actually normal. It was an hour and a half of soccer. Then because I don't have to take French I got to go home.

That is pretty much it. Now that I have written a novel for you guys.