10 October 2008

The First Ten Days

This Wednesday marked the passing of one week since my return to Germany. Here’s a summary of what the past ten days had in store for me.

I arrived early on Wednesday morning in Munich. The leasing agent for my apartment met me at the airport and drove me to Eichstätt. We entered the town from the same route as I first did by bus two years ago. Now, as then, Eichstätt is aflame; bright hues of red, orange, and yellow from fall foliage engulf the community on the surrounding valley slopes.

The town has not changed much; Eichstätt remains Eichstätt. There are some new additions, such as a new apartment building and some new stores, but for the most part it just as I remember it. As I walked around town on the first day I honestly did not feel any strong rush of excitement or fascination about being back. Not to say that I wasn’t enjoying myself, rather I felt like I had been away for no more than a week. I was back now, and everything felt in order.

After the agent opened the apartment for me, which by mere coincidence is again in the Freiwasser complex, where I lived last time, I walked into town to meet my new tutor. That’s right, the university assigned me another tutor. Better yet, she’s studied here for only two semesters; therefore, I have as much experience with the university and the town as she does. I probably didn’t really need the assistance this time around, but because unexpected problems could arise and I looked forward to the opportunity of making a new friend, Franzi and I met in front of the post office.

Walking around to the different stores and businesses during my first few days offered me glimpses of familiar faces. The Turkish boy still works in the grocery store where I shop, but he wears a goatee now. The staff at the post office remains as attentive as ever. The owner of the Sultan Grill still translates the toppings for döner kebap into English for me, never mind that I don’t ask him to. And I remain uncertain of half the things the proprietor of the bike store says to me.

AK International (the international student organization) held a welcome party Wednesday night for all of the new foreign students. I attended and felt a large dose of deja vu as I met several of the new students.

At one point I was talking with an Italian girl. She asked me which out of the four levels of the pre-semester German course I would attend. I told her that I wasn’t taking the course.

She jokingly said, “Do you think you’re too smart?”

I couldn’t help but respond with the best, but honest, come back. “Actually I’m not one of the students; I’m a teacher.”

She instantly tried to apologize, but I gave her the full story to spare her from any additional embarrassment. To be clear though, other than that humorous incident I am not trying to distinguish or distance myself from the other students by any means.

On Thursday the nightmare of German bureaucracy began. I would do this anyway, but in order to receive my salary from the university and to pay my rent I have to open a German bank account. In order to open the bank account I have to have a visa, which, again, I would have to have anyway. In order to receive a visa one must present several documents. One such document is a verification of funds to ensure that the applicant can support himself financially. For me, this was a printed balance from my bank in America, stamped and given to me by a teller at my neighborhood branch.

Unfortunately, German bureaucrats are particularly finicky about sticking to the rules and official documentation. In the opinion of the Eichstätt office of the equivalent to Germany’s state department, my verification of funds did not look official enough mainly because it lacked a letterhead. Their first suggestion was to open a German bank account and then come back. Of course that would be impossible because, as said, I would need a visa in order to open a German bank account.

The second suggestion was to have my bank in America write a second, more official, letter stating the balance of my personal account. I followed through on this and waited for the letter to arrive on Tuesday. Keep in mind that I essentially could not take care of any other official or necessary matters until I had my visa.

Forced to wait, and needing to relieve some stress, I traveled to Munich of Friday to meet up with some friends and to go to Oktoberfest. I missed this world famous festival the first year, and I was not going to allow that to happen again.

From the minute I arrived in the main train station, I could feel the festive atmosphere in the air. In the view below, a Bavarian man clad in lederhosen talks on his cell phone. The subway station for die Wiesn, as Bavarians refer to Oktoberfest, was congested with a slow and steady procession of people exiting the trains. Several others drunkenly stumbled through the crowd and, hopefully, not onto the tracks.

Oktoberfest was first held in 1810 as a celebration for the marriage of King Ludwig, the leader of Bavaria. For but only a handful of instances, the celebration has reoccurred annually since then. Over time, Oktoberfest morphed from a beer-drinking and horse-racing wedding party, to a beer-drinking and tradition-steeped festival. In all honesty, Oktoberfest strongly resembles an American carnival or county fair. Stands sell junk food of all types, and numerous rides offer thrills for all ages. Naturally, the main difference from American fairs is the presence of the gigantic beer tents.

The tents, which total 14 in number, are large enough to cover a football field or two. And don’t let the word tent fool you; these are complex structures of two or more floors, indoor plumbing, and other conditions not found under a simple circus tent. Most tourists flock to the Hofbräuhaus tent, but each of the 14 presents its own atmosphere. The locals also know to arrive early in the day, as in before noon, in order to find a place to sit down inside a tent. This is important, as you will only be served beer if you are sitting. The festival was especially crowed on this day not only because it was Friday, but also because it was October 3rd, the Day of German Unity, a national holiday celebrating Germany’s reunification after the Cold War.

My friends and I luckily found some open benches in the outdoor seating area of one tent. You may recognize some of the faces below. In the first picture is part of typical Bavaria pretzel, for which I had such a longing while back in America, and a liter glass of beer. At Oktoberfest, one can only order beer by the liter, or a Mass as the Bavarians say. In the second picture from left to right are Dylan, Annabel, and Matt. Dylan and Matt are both Americans who were with me in the second semester in Eichstätt. Dylan is now studying abroad in Salzburg, an Austrian city on the border with Bavaria, and Matt is doing the same in Munich. Annabel is a German who is still studying in Eichstätt. Not seen are our other friends, Rachel and Michael. Rachel is another American now living again in Germany, and Michael is a German who has finished his studies in Eichstätt.

Nearby was a mixed group of New Zealanders and Canadians drinking beer after beer and singing song after song. From what I could tell, the locals, at least the few around us, were a bit more controlled.

While one can also find the stereotypical bratwust to eat at Oktoberfest, there are other items to consider. I opted for the Steckelfisch, something to the effect of “fish on a stick.” This is usually any popular kind of freshwater fish grilled on a spit over an open flame. Following are the before and after pictures of my meal. You could say I enjoyed it.

Not much later into the evening, we decided to leave Oktoberfest and head to a Munich beer hall. In the event that one cannot find a seat inside a tent, like us, he can always follow our lead. As said, the festival atmosphere permeates the city, and Oktoberfest continues inside Munich’s large restaurants and halls. We went to one of the locations of Augustiner’s, a respected brewery and beer hall in Munich. Here’s a photo of Matt, Dylan, and I from the inside.

In the beer hall was a clearly local crowd of hundreds strong. At times, a table from one corner of the hall would erupt with a song or the banging of mugs, and the rest of the dinners and drinkers in the voluminous room would join in. My friends and I decided to give it a try. For those who know it, we chose to sing the tune from The White Strips’ “Seven Nation Army,” a popular soccer song in Germany at the present. We counted down from three, and then opened our mouths, not sure if we would be successful or suddenly turn red. As we beat our mugs on the table, the group of Germans to my left joined us. Then, like ripples in a pond, it spread to the surrounding tables, before, as far as I could tell, the whole hall was participating. The communal song reached a climax, fizzled, and then died. The room fell back to the boisterous sounds of conversation.

Before we left the beer hall, we were witnesses to another humorous event behind us. Presumably as a joke, and perhaps motivated by the consumption of liters of beer, a young man shoved a fat and fresh potato dumpling into the face of the young girl across the table from him. After the girl wiped herself clean, she stood up, grabbed the man’s mug of beer, and, before he could react, poured it over his head. The beer hall filled with cheers and applause. Then, to the surprise of many, the man reacted by pouring the girl’s beer mug over her own head, as seen below.

This time the beer hall booed.

A waiter came over and demanded to know who was responsible for the mess. The man and woman pointed at each other. In the middle of the waiter’s interrogation, an older man near the girl stood up and offered his napkin to the girl, but his assistance did not end there.

And the beer hall, with the girl, laughed.

The day ended and I caught a train back to Eichstätt. On the way I met a couple of friendly German drunks returning from Oktoberfest. After an hour and a half of very confusing and, at least on their part, mindless conversation they had labeled me the best American ever.

On Saturday I did not undertake an adventure of any kind, unless you would put buying a new bike under that category. In the evening I went to the Theke (the student bar) with Franzi, and reunited with my favorite watering hole in Eichstätt.

Over the weekend there was a market and fair held in town; on Sunday I walked around the vendors and stalls with Franzi and a couple of her friends. The event was called the Eichstätt Kirchweihmarkt, and marked the anniversary of the local cathedral’s founding (if I understood correctly). The same market took place during my very first weekend in Eichstätt. In many ways this sequel is beginning in much the same way as the original did. A couple photos of the market and vibrant Eichstätt follow.

Monday morning I met with a couple of the full time English teachers at the university. Our department is known as the Sprachenzentrum, or the Language Center. We are not technically connected with any one of the academic faculties on the university; we are independent. However, students whose majors are, say, English or Spanish must take courses from both the Sprachenzentrum and the actual foreign language and literature department. The other teachers offered some advice for my courses and teaching in general. They highly recommended being strict on the first few days of class, and then easing up as the semester progresses. Bearing in mind that about five months ago I was still a student and that in roughly one week I will be conducting my own university-level courses, I still feel a bit odd about all of this.

I have four courses in all: Debate and Discussion, U.S. Current Events, American Culture, and Conversation on U.S. Current Affairs. The first three are open only to students who study English as one of their majors, while the last if open to all students. This means that the first three will likely be filled with students with a good grasp of English, and the last class could contain all levels of comprehension. The general goal of the classes is to improve the students’ ability to comprehend spoken English and hold conversations in this language; it is not my responsibility to teach written grammar. As the names suggest, each class has a different theme on which the conversations and lectures will concentrate. American Culture was my idea for a class after the leader of the Sprachenzentrum, Dr. Schäfer, gave me the chance to create a new course. After asking Dr. Schäfer and speaking with the full time teachers, one thing has been confirmed for me: there is no curriculum for me to follow for my classes. As Dr. Schäfer put it, I am independent to decide the content of the courses and how they are conducted so long as I conduct at least one exam in order to determine a student’s final grade, which, again, I will determine; although, this exam can come in the form of a written test, oral questioning, or class presentation. To sum it up, while my title is Teaching Assistant, everything else seems to suggest that the “-ing Assistant” should be replaced with –er.

I can’t help but feel that after this year is over I will possess much more respect for every teacher and professor I ever had.

Monday also marked the return of the German bureaucracy problems. My letter from the bank arrived and I walked back into the visa office. In terms of the verification of funds, the matter was then at a rest, but a new problem arose. In order to receive a visa, one must also possess health insurance valid in the European Union. I could include another complex story here about why I couldn’t obtain the national German health insurance, how I tried and failed to fool the national healthcare system, and then eventually found a suitable replacement, but I’ll spare you from that. Suffice it to say that I left the visa office, and found my way to the replacement health insurance office only to find that, thanks to strange German hours of business, they had closed for the day at noon. All official business I had left to complete would have to wait for at least one more day. By then, though, I was expecting additional unexpected twists to appear.

Tuesday began, and I returned to the health insurance office. I finished the paperwork, presented my identification, signed on the line, and was then told to come back on Friday to pick-up the confirmation letter I could use for obtaining the visa. As said, because the rest of the necessary chores associated with moving to a new city and country could not move ahead without a visa, I could not do anything else but shop for groceries and other supplies until today, Friday.

As another break from the stressful German bureaucracy, I joined Franzi and a couple of her friends on Wednesday on a visit in the city of Fürth. The community of roughly 100,000 people lies about a one-hour drive northwest of Eichstätt and directly west of Nuremberg. Nellie, a friend of Franzi, lives in Fürth. The reason for our visit was the Fürth Kirchweihmarkt, similar in purpose as Eichstätt’s but much larger. Think of it as a fair or carnival. Nellie’s mother described it as the Oktoberfest of Franconia, the cultural region of northern Bavaria. Here’s a view of Fürth as we walk from Nellie’s house to the festival. Only an hour north of Eichstätt, yet the architectural style differs significantly from the Baroque buildings of the smaller town to the south.

Originally each German festival like this one was an alien environment to me, but after three festivals in one week’s time and all the others from my first year abroad, I have learned what to expect. For one thing, there are several rides like one would find at an American fair. As the following photos attest, we took part in several ourselves. In the first view you can see me and another friend of Franzi’s, Anna. The pictures after that are of the actual thing that we rode on.

Then of course there are always the food stalls at these German festivals. Again like an American fair, they offer a wide array of junk foods. One can choose from several delectable looking candies and sweets, as seen in the next picture. These include gingerbread hearts, candied almonds, chocolate covered fruits, and licorice. For more savory alternatives, vendors sell several versions of sausages, french fries, skillet-fried potatoes and mushrooms, grilled fish, and smoked fish sandwiches. As you might expect, one can also find stands offering mugs of beer, glasses of wine, and servings of other liquors and spirits. Franzi and her friends recommended for me to try Franconian Federweiser, a drink similar to wine but not allowed to ferment for quite as long, which results in a weaker but much sweeter taste. The second picture below is another view of the festival, which was held in the heart of Fürth’s old city.

Towards the end of the night we rode a few more rides. Below are some pictures I took before we were thrown around on the roller coaster. In the first picture I’m sitting next to Anna. In the second view you can see Franzi on the right and Nellie sitting next to her.

Then it was on to the Ferris wheel.

Anna and I rode one last ride that the others found too scary to try before we headed home. Nellie stayed in Fürth, and the two other girls and I drove back to Eichstätt.

Skipping Thursday, due to the lack of activity, brings me to today, when I finally received my visa. After picking-up my health insurance confirmation letter, I rode my bike to the visa office and confidently displayed it to the man behind the counter. He then told me that my verification of funds was invalid because the requirements had changed; I could not use a letter from my bank in America to satisfy the German government. Also, he stated his dissatisfaction that my bank letter was in English. By then I was assuming that it was his requirements not being met, and not those of the German government. My confidant smile grew only wider at that point though.

I instructed him to turn to another of my documents in the folder he held. It was a letter from the university stating how much I would earn for my work. It was also in German. He finished reading it, closed the folder, and told me that his colleague would assist me from that point on.

An hour later my visa was in hand, my bank account open, and my mind at ease.

There you have it—my first ten days back in Germany, more or less. The semester starts this coming week, but my first class is not until the week after. Hopefully by next Friday I will have a better idea of what I will say and do for each one of my classes’ first sessions.


Anonymous said...

Well, reads like you have had your patience tested. Glad everything has worked out so far. Guess the next hurdle is getting the package I send you thru customs. Sounds like you have gotten the bike repaired also. Who had the car, on your trip up north? Keep the pictures and your comments coming / I enjoy them.


Anonymous said...

Looking forward to reading how your class experience goes as the Teaching Assistant.....it seems to be a resounding chant of teachers across the universe to be really touch the first few weeks....

Looking forward to more Nicho Adventures to come..mc

Anonymous said...

oops that was meant to be Tough not Touch....don't really touch the students. That will not bring about the results a good teacher is looking for....mc

Nick O. said...

mc: Yes, I figured there was some sort of a mistake with "touch." I don't think that would be a good step to take either.