VDAC

VDAC Seminars: Always a treat

Two weekends ago, many German and U.S. exchange students were invited by the Tübinger VDAC club to a wonderful seminar in their beautiful city. I can’t help but think that every city I’ve visited in Germany is beautiful, but Tübingen has a special, old-German charm that made driving for six hours in a train worth it.

Before talking about this weekend’s seminar, and talking about the last one in Kassel, which was also great, I want to give a few notes about the seminars themselves.

The VDAC student-exchange program is really fantastic in what it offers roughly 50 students each year in German and the U.S. Not only do they organize studying abroad at a foreign university, often with TA positions for the German students and attractive universities for the special interests of the U.S. students (from exile studies to music conservatories), the Verband provides aid with housing, a 600 Euro stipend a month for the U.S. students and equally helpful funding for the German ones (though, admittedly, paying 300 Euro a semester is easier to help with than the 3000+ tuition at U.S. universities). But on top of this, the Verband, through the efforts of individual clubs in Germany as well as the collective support of the whole Verband, enables five to six different seminars throughout the country. When I write “enables,” I mean that students are treated to a fully-paid–including bedding, meals, events and even travel to and from the seminar with a “selbst-Beteiligung” of 20 Euros– seminar for three days, two nights during various weekends throughout the ten months of the program. When one considers that students are given the chances to visit five or six other German cities at no real costs to themselves, what the VDAC offers is truly fantastic. Such an opportunity to visit a country and get to know a vast array of its cultural, geographic, and political realities is quite rare. Of course, part of this opportunity presents itself through Germany’s small size (maybe one of the reasons German exchange students don’t have the same opportunity in the U.S.), but also due to the hugely effective organization and funding of the German VDAC clubs. They rotate turns to host the seminars in their cities and arrange the cultural programs for the students.

The first seminar, shortly after the semester orientation programs begin at the universities, is the welcoming seminar for the U.S. students as well as the club’s celebration of German Reunification Day and the awarding of the Lucius D. Clay medal for special services for German and U.S. relationship. The former German exchange students also attend to receive their honor, or “Urkunde” for promoting U.S. and German friendship through their exchange. This year, the seminar was hosted in Dresden. In my opinion, this beautiful city was the perfect city to start a year-long stay in Germany, since its iconic Alt-Stadt was historically grounded enough to make a good impression of Germany’s history and small enough to navigate without adding to the issues of the language and the jet-lag/everything-is-new feeling.

The second seminar is a culturally oriented one. This year, it was hosted in Nuernberg and coincided with St. Nikolas Tag and the famous Christmas markets in Nuernberg. The Nuernberg seminar also functioned as a feedback seminar, since the U.S. students had been in two-months now and more than a few experiences to share and ask questions about.

The third seminar, hosted in February, this year in Mainz, is the politically (charged… ha ha, nah) oriented seminar. At this seminar, students got to know Mainz while having the perhaps most seminar-ish experience. The International university near Mainz prepares multiple different lectures with a wide-spread of applicability for the different students, and while I was balancing my thesis writing, due the Thursday following this seminar, I learned a lot at this seminar that I could apply to my academic work (not to say that I haven’t learned things at each of the seminars to apply to my studies).

The fourth seminar, usually held in May, coincides with the VDAC convention that is attended by representatives of each of the clubs throughout Germany and the awardance of the “Urkunden” to the U.S. students, who by this point have spent seven months in Germany. I haven’t gotten to write about this seminar, held this year in Kassel, yet because I’ve been very busy… much busier than my first semester in Germany (even though I don’t have a thesis to write this time) I haven’t gotten around to it yet. I hope the lovely ladies of the Kassel club can forgive my short summary of what they’ve organized for us.

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First of all, you may not know that Kassel hosts the contemporary art event, documenta, every five years, but the people of Kassel won’t let you forget it. Some other claims to fame, asides from the reminders of past documentas, include hosting the brothers Grimm (known for their romantic linguistic and philosophical contributions, as well as the fairy tales), the Bergpark (absolutely gorgeous) and walk along the beautiful Fulda. Also, fun fact was that Kassel hosts one of two dead-end train stations in Germany. This is why the Hauptbahnhof of Kassel is not the actual center of Kassel, nor the one everyone wants to go to found at Wilhelmshoehe. The other dead-end station is Altona Station in Hamburg, which is why most trains throughout Germany begin or end there. The Kassel club organized the whole VDAC convention (complete with fancy gala buffet) as well as a tour of the town hall, a lecture from the Kassel treasurer (Schatzmeister, treasure master sounds so much cooler), a small private tour of the inner-city and a hiking trek + picnic in through the Bergpark.

Finally however, I come to the last seminar of the year, usually held in June so that people whose universities end earlier than the national standard in July can still attend the seminar that functions as a good-bye for the U.S. students and an orientation for the German students going to the U.S. in August. U.S. students can provide feedback of their experiences and German students have the chance to learn from the U.S. students what awaits them in the U.S.

More on the Tubingen Seminar later. 🙂

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In the meantime, a few closing words on what these seminars mean. First of all, they are a medium of orientation for the students. Despite living “normal” German student lives in respective cities, the students have the opportunity at the seminars to be U.S. Americans for a while, maybe even behave like tourists and definitely to talk and hear English for a while. Of course, I’m sure we’re all grateful to have the opportunity for complete German immersion, but hearing the English tongue (not with a British or German accent) for a while is sweet, just like the occasional hearing of the U.S. anthem, as occurred at the first seminar and the VDAC convention. Not usually patriotically sentimental, I’ll admit that hearing the “Star Spangled Banner” brought a few tears to my eyes and made me realize how much my upbringing in the U.S., where the anthem is played at many school, sport, and political events, has defined my life.

So enough of that. I really enjoy these seminars. I only wish that the same kind of possibilities were available for the German students of the U.S. The seminars make rather starkly evident how much stronger the Verband is in Germany than the U.S., and I wonder if there’s anything I can do to help facilitate a more interest in organizing such seminars on the U.S. end…

If you’re in the position (U.S. undergrad or graduate students at a participating school) to apply for a year-long study abroad program, check out this website: http://www.vdac.de/

I could always become a bartender

I’ve done so many things this past week, that I will need several posts to catch up. It’s a good thing today is a holiday in Germany and I have the day off to write; though I do plan on going out on the town a bit too. Some near-future posts will therefore include what it means to join a sports team while studying abroad, the most recent VDAC seminar to Kassel, preparing a presentation or essay for German university courses, discovering sections of Hamburg anew, and transportation options in the city.

This post, however, I’m dedicating to a short blurb about the things I’ve done from my role as VDAC exchange student.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am here through the Federation of German-American Clubs, and the particular club that makes my stay in Hamburg possible is the German-American Women’s Club of Hamburg. They arranged my participation at the Uni Hamburg, my stay in a beautiful dorm not far from Uni campus, and various events for me to participate in, as well as a good amount of other things and all the details they pay attention to blows my mind.

Hamburg AlsterThe most recent event was a sort of charity/donation event for German-American Friendship Day at the U.S. Consulate in Hamburg, right on the Alster. If you don’t know Hamburg, let me explain that the Alster is a lake type thing that comes off the Elbe, and anyone knowing something about real estate can imagine what it means to be directly on this beautiful piece of water. Of course, the US Consulate had a spot there.

The exterior of the consulate is impressive, with a mixture of classical and more modern architecture that I’m sure engineer students could tell me a things or two about. The interior reminded me of the pictures I had seen of the White House: stately furniture, deep red and blue rugs with golden edging. It was really neat to be invited into the building, even if the security was a bit extreme. This picture does not show the five meters of no-man’s land and the two security buildings one has to pass to get to the front door.  photo IMGP0047.jpgStill, it was a treat just to go in.

Of course, nothing is for free 😉 My fellow US exchange student and I were asked to help serve drinks at the night’s event. At first, I had no idea about walking around with trays in my hand and I was nervous about offering people something. But then, I ended up behind the counter of the bar, and I was surprised at how fun it was to sere people drinks, receive the orders from the other students helping that night, chat a few times with the guests (a surprising amount of people liked the rhubarb/water Schorle), and generally have a quick moving, but non-stress pastime. I figure that if the academic career doesn’t pan out for me, I’ll just become a bartender.

What was even more neat was working behind the scenes of this building. I was able to go into the kitchen and allowed to use the industrial dishwashing machine. Three minutes! It only takes three minutes for 40 glasses to get cleaned with one of those boxes. Why can’t my family borrow one around Thanksgiving or Christmas back home?

Several speeches were given that got me thinking about contemporary German-American relations, and the event had been very well organized by the club ladies. It was nice to see a few of them again, some of whom I hadn’t seen since the Charity Bazaar in November. My time is winding down while here though. It sounds strange, but I will be sad to lose some of these opportunities to take part in these events.

“It’s Alive!” or, “how I spent the last three months”

This time last month, I had just submitted my total draft for my MA thesis. Now, the thing has been edited, defended, corrected and edited some more, and submitted, officially this time! Yes, yes, you may congratulate me. Thanks.

Unfortunately, that’s all I have to show for three months. Sorry folks.

No, wait, that’s not entirely true. I have three essays that you’d like to read? No? Okay.

I guess I can tell you about some other cool things though.

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I saw the Main river. It’s definitely worthy of being called “Main” (though in German it’s pronounced like [mine].

For one thing, there was the trip to Mainz in February.  2015-02-20 15.20.44 2015-02-20 12.54.29 2015-02-20 16.10.52 2015-02-20 09.58.36 2015-02-20 09.56.312015-02-20 16.11.09Invited by the VDAC Club in Mainz to a political conference they organized, I was impressed by the beauty of the city even if it was cold and wet. Like Nuremberg, it was a significant city during the time of Holy Roman Empire. That’s part of the reason why there are golden horses just prancing around.

2015-02-20 15.35.18Gutenberg was also here, so if anything, the city is well-known because of the man who invented the movable-type printing press. A fun fact we learned on a tour was that no one actually knows what the guy looks like so the face is a little blurred and androgynous.

But Mainz is also the capital of Rhineland-Pfalz. This means that there’s politics (we got to visit the rheinland-pfälzischen Landtag) and wine (Rheinland is well known for it’s grape fields and vinification); I think it’s a splendid combination.

Unfortunately, I spent the weekend in Mainz shortly before submitting my thesis, so a wee bit went over my head, but I cannot emphasize enough how well-organized the seminar was. Even though I am a literature student, the material comparing German/EU and U.S. politics was interesting enough for me to follow, simply by virtue of being familiar with both locations. There was a session on speech-writing and rhetoric, which explained some things I’ve noticed in German literature. For example, did you know that the strive for less emotional writing was an active decision to present things in a more rational way following WWII and the Holocaust? The people had learned to fear politicians who spoke too much to the people’s emotions. There was also a session on migration in the U.S. and Germany, and I was pleasantly surprised that I could use some of what Professor Dr. Thunert explained in my thesis.

We were also invited to lunch by the Mainz woman’s club, so I had my first Spundekäs (a type of cheese dip) with a pretzel. In hindsight, I would have ordered something more filling, but this was good! If you’re ever looking for something to go with a cool German beer, Spundekaes isn’t all that bad (it’s really good, actually).

Finally, I have to mention the wine tasting. It was my first time, and I never would have known that five sips of wine would be enough to get a room from quiet to really, really chatty. I learned about the different types of wine, why cheap wine isn’t necessarily bad (it often means less middle-men), and that I like sweet wine. It’s good to know!

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Going home reminded me how I’ve taken Florida lighting and green so much for granted.

So, what else? I got very used to the German library cataloging system, found a great appreciation for the Hamburger coffee and tea, and was able to keep my sanity with the German habits of not-too talkative and giving me space.

I did end up going home to defend my thesis. It’s a bit rough trying to wrap up a phase of studying while abroad… there’s so much hassle with fulfilling requirements and such. I’m glad I went home, if anything, to tank up on family love and successfully defend my thesis, but now I’m really happy to be back in Hamburg. I don’t think I would have finished my thesis if it weren’t for being able to hang around in Hamburg during January and February and balance my extreme writing sessions with trips out into the city, exploring churches and taking walks along the Hafen. Now, I get to be here without the academic stress! (classes don’t count. Those are fun).

I am signed up for five classes (four German lit, one English lit) and I’m looking forward to seeing what the Spring brings. It has to include a boat trip around the harbor, a bike tour on the Elbe, maybe a visit to one of Hamburg’s many famous musicals? Who knows? If anything, there’s Easter this weekend, my birthday (ha ha, also on Easter), and the Hamburg marathon coming up at the end of the month. Frohe Frühlings Tage! (I’m loving the daylight savings, it means that there’s more time to explore the city in the afternoon before it gets dark).

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In Review

My WordPress Reader has lately been filled with posts in which bloggers comment on their year 2014 and talk about what they hope for the year 2015.

While I am a fan of keeping private matters off the web (after all, the internet is not an ideal location for diary entries and clouds are not thick enough for nude selfies), I see a strong value in the work done to reflect and look forward. Ultimately, putting things in perspective is one of our defining actions as humans; our ability to think about moments in time and not just re/act “in the moment” is a distinguishing factor (as far as we know and can tell) “separating us from the animals.” Species-ism aside, I think that while such a post may be slightly boring for most readers, it’s hugely beneficial for the writer. The writer can articulate pride, anxieties, and issues that otherwise are left to float in champagne glasses that reflect the lights of fireworks in the sky. Plus, posting about it causes some desire to remain accountable about one’s goals.

So here are my articulations. I actually feel a bit apprehensive of starting a new year, because I fear that nothing can top the one I just had.

I feel like I accomplished so much to be proud of and have been blessed with so many positives, that I worry 2015 will be anti-climatic. On the other hand, I realize an equal number of things that I am not so proud of and have to work on, and those may be the things I want to improve upon in the new year.

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A Good Year – my best five experiences of this past year

5. Teaching university freshman. While this seems ages ago, I am grateful to have successfully completed two semesters of teaching. Since I plan to enter academia and have many more “first days of classes” where I have to learn all the student’s names and second-guess my authority every other minute, this experience will be something I can always look back on with pride. I especially enjoyed being able to design the syllabus myself and chose the works and pace my classes worked at. I kept a teaching journal, so I know there are a lot of things I need to improve upon, but I learned that I can feel comfortable in front of the classroom, and that makes me happy.  Honorable mention: I presented at my first conferences! One was inter-school, so the audience was not intimidating. The other was international! I try not to let that accomplishment inflate my ego.

4. I play forward for a German soccer team!! Of course, not the German soccer team, and not even a huge one. But, I am part of a group of women who play soccer competitively, and I’ve been placed in a great position. Usually relegated to midfield or defense (of course, no less positions that the forward), I have been given responsibility for the team’s success in a way I’ve never had before and, as my confidence slowly grows, I kind of like it. Honorable mention here (since it’s sport related) is running my first trail race in February and securing a PR in the half-marathon.

3. Sugar-free 2014. While it has been a struggle (sometimes more challenging than other times–especially at the beginning and around Christmas), I managed to cut out all sugar out of my diet. I did eat fruit and dairy, so I guess it’s not all sugars, but I cut out the majority of what one would consider sweet food. Catalyzed by a decent amount of self-loathing about how undisciplined I am around chocolate, and news from health professionals that I could be a happier and healthier person (and a better runner!) without it, I stopped eating sugar. No matter the benefits in physical and mental well-being I’ve gained from this move, the discipline I was able to hold is a source of strength from which I will be able to draw upon at any point in the future. I plan to continue being sugar free in 2015, but with a little less vigilance.

2. Based on the promise of my thesis prospectus, I was given permission to write a thesis. I am such a nerd, but I am really excited to be writing about my topic. I am comparing two novels (one English/one German) and examining the use of voice in the “migrant novel.” A better articulation about that here. I also passed my MA oral comprehensive exam. Now the “only” things in the way of my MA degree are completing my courses and the thesis. This work will be defining for my year of 2015.

1. Topping this list, of course, has been my first months studying abroad in Hamburg. This time last year, I didn’t even know if I would be studying abroad, and I remember being able to study abroad through the VDAC as being my main New Year’s wish on Dec. 31st 2013. Wish granted! I’m a student in Germany!!! I continue to be one through the end of the summer term 2015. Through this experience exploring another culture and possibilities than the one I grew up in, I learned a few things about myself that have made me a much different person than I was a year ago. While I hope I don’t have to experience such another transition anytime soon, I feel okay about having the chance to start the new year as more free-spirited and continue exploring.

A few hopes for the year 2015 (but not telling you my specific new year’s wish because I’m superstitious that it then won’t come true):

I hope I complete my requirements for the MA in time so that by the end of July, I have my degree!

I hope my brother successfully earns his BA degree.

I hope to attend another conference and to actually publish an article (or two) in academic journals.

I hope I will be granted a teaching position Fall 2015 as a adjunct somewhere while I wait to be able to apply for PhD programs. In a way, I’m glad I couldn’t make the deadlines for US applications for Fall 2015, because now I’ll have a bit of breathing room post-MA thesis, and maybe have the chance to get more experience teaching something like literature.

I hope I recover from my latest running injury in time to train for and complete the Hamburger Marathon.

I hope the move my family is planning within Florida (planning for retirement, empty-nests, etc.) goes well.

I hope my family and friends make it healthily and without major catastrophes through 2015 to 2016.

I hope the world has a better year than 2014. I realize that while my personal year has been incredible, for the rest of the world it has not.

Here’s to a good year 2015.

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A little bit of southern: A trip to Nürnberg

Despite being barely the size of Texas, Germany is a highly populated country with a largely diversified cultural and linguistic makeup. A lot of this is historically determined and would need a semester or two to explain, but it’s safe to say that Germany is much more than the stereotypical food and entertainment present at Octoberfest. Oktoberfest isn’t even celebrated in a lot of Germany.

I am studying abroad in Hamburg, so I did not experience the twirling dirndls and huge mugs of beer. Instead, I got the tour of the Hafencity and Sunday morning fish-roll at the Fischmarkt (but yes, also a few mugs of beer). Yet, it’s easy to forget that what I experience in Hamburg is not necessarily “German.” Rather, it often belongs to the special brand of “northern German.” I generally like this special brand, but I am grateful for the opportunity to see some southern Germany as well during my study-abroad year.

For the second seminar organized by the VDAC (fondly referred to as “V-dac”  by a lot of my fellow U.S. students), we were invited to spend a weekend in Nürnberg. Known as Nuremberg to non-German speakers, this beautiful, old city has a complicated, fascinating history- both good and bad. Since it is more than a thousand years old, one has to consider its significance far beyond the 1930s and 40s, though the city presents enough opportunities to remember and reflect upon the more recent history as well. Our stay here was arranged by the Nuernberger Frauenklub, and they organized a wonderful trip, including a cute welcome bag from St. Nick and a little gift in front of our doors on St. Nikolaustag on the 6th.

We stayed in the youth hostel of Nuernberg. It’s one of the coolest hostels I’ve ever stayed in… actually part of the fort at the top of the hill that gives Nuernberg it’s name. Formerly the emperor’s horse stalls, the building had been remodeled and renovated into a state funded hostel. I would chose sleeping here over a hotel in the city anytime… even if it did mean hiking up the hill to get back to the rooms from the city. Those sleeping in the upper stories of the hostel got a terrific view, but even sleeping on the second floor, I was in awe of being able to stay here.

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Since it was part of the entire collection of buildings from the Burg, we were actually not far from it.

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We were given a tour of the city by a very knowledgeable native Nuernbergerin from the Frauenklub. This tour opened our eyes to the wealth of history left in the buildings not destroyed by bombings in World War II. There are a lot of churches (more evangelical than catholic… surprisingly in southern Germany), bridges (Nuernberg is like the Venice of Germany), fountains, patrician houses and the house of the famous painter Albrecht Duerer. Nuernberg was an important city for the Holy Roman Empire during the Middle Ages, often referred to as an unofficial capital, since, among other things, because the Imperial Diet Reichstag) and courts met at the Burg. We had the opportunity on the second day of our stay to actually see the Burg from the inside and learn a little more about its history.

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Our guide explaining the significance of a certain building.

We also had many opportunities to go on the world-famous Christkindlmarkt (and I thought the Hamburger Ratshaus one was impressive!). I bought so much Lebkuchen for family and friends back home. I think at least five kilo of my luggage weight came from the weight of this delicious German Christmas cake/cookie.

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I also used the opportunity to drink a hot toddy at the international partner city Christmasmarkt, and watched a traditional Feuerzangbowle be prepared at another stand (seeing as it was used with sugar burned over rum, I wasn’t about to drink it though. But I heard it tastes delicious!

As already alluded to, however, Nuernberg’s history also has a dark side. I am grateful that we were given the chance to see both, since in the States we usually think of the city as being the location of Hitler’s Reichsparteitage prior to the war and then hosting the War Crime trials after the war. My fellow VDAC students and I were brought to the Dokumentation Center where the history of Nuernberg as the location of these two events and many of the events (deportation of Jewish people, communists, “gypsies,” dissidents) surrounding them was explained in a very well-done exhibition of the German population’s participation in these events. It was a sobering experience.

Overall, the trip was wonderful and perhaps even more enjoyable than the first VDAC trip to Dresden. It was more laid back and we all knew each other better. I look forward to the next seminar and getting to know a new city in Germany!