What I Learned While Spending the Holidays in Germany

In the depths of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.
Albert Camus

I just spent two weeks with my family visiting friends and relatives in Germany for the holidays. This was a celebration of my recovery from cancer one year ago. I knew I was taking a chance by traveling abroad while still in recovery, but cancer teaches you that you must live every day to its fullest.

Today, the first day back home, my head was swirling with sights and sounds of Germany, so I decided to take a walk to ground myself. While walking along the beach, I thought about what I had learned during my visit. These are the thoughts I want to share today.

Travel: Everyone who can should travel to an unfamiliar place whenever possible. It does wonders for the spirit to have all one’s senses on high alert while taking in the sights and sounds of an unfamiliar locale. What everyone is doing, the language that is being spoken, the unfamiliar routines, the sights and sounds of an unfamiliar place all become very vivid in comparison to our familiar everyday life at home. Comparisons are inevitable, but the real joy in traveling is allowing oneself to become part of the flow and engage with the new venue as much as possible. It made me feel very alive to be somewhere new and different.

Language: For me so much of the flavor of a place depends on the language spoken there. I really wanted to make an effort to begin to learn German so I could communicate better with friends and family. My experience was so much richer for the efforts I made to do so. Everyone appreciated my “baby German” and was very kind and helpful. I felt like much less of an observer and more like a participant in my new surroundings. I was excited about each new word or phrase I mastered.

Commonalities and differences: I read a very touching article in the New York Times today written by a Turkish immigrant speaking about his first impressions of America. When he first arrived, he thought the little red flag on everyone’s mailbox indicated an unusual degree of patriotism, until he figured out that those who had mailboxes with raised flags were actually able to send their letters without even leaving home. To him this was a revelation and a sure sign that America is an amazing place to live! As I compared small details in everyday life, I, too, was amazed by how ordinary things like doing the laundry could be so different. It is refreshing to learn that we do not have the final word on ingenuity; there are many ways to make a pot of coffee.

National character: Stereotypes prevail, it is said, because they are somewhat true. I have lived abroad in two countries, France and Germany, and in both cases found the people to live up to their reputations to a certain extent. The French are smug and stylish and not always friendly to Americans. The Germans are less vain and more serious. They, too, do not always find Americans to be charming as you will learn in the next paragraph.

We had just entered a charming bar and were “borrowing ” an unused chair from another table to accommodate our party of five. This invoked the wrath of the manager. My son, who spent a year living in Germany explained that we should have politely asked if this was permissible. Lesson learned. There are differences to be understood and respected. After all, as Americans we have our own idiosyncrasies, don’t we?

National shame and pride: For most of my adolescence and young adulthood I felt shame about my German heritage because of the events of WWII. I even avoided visiting Germany the first two or three times I went to Europe. Then my son, who studied German at Georgetown University, decided to spend his year abroad studying in German at Humboldt University in the heart of Berlin. When we visited him there we got to know the family he lived with which completely changed my feelings about being Of German descent. The family members were well educated and well informed and they acknowledged their tainted history with humility. But they were committed to the idea that the German people, who had also suffered a great deal during WWII, were trying to remember the past while rebuilding their future. Their current leader, Angela Merkel, who was born and raised behind “the iron curtain,” insists on a compassionate approach to the refugees from the Mideast now arriving daily by the thousands. Many young Germans, including two daughters of the family we stayed with and my son who is spending an extra week with them, are volunteering in the Syrian refugee camps in Berlin.

Cafe culture: What I knew I would miss most upon my return home is the cafe culture of Europe. Everywhere we visited in Germany, whether a small town or big city, there is always a bar or cafe you can stop in for some respite, conversation, and food and drinks. And no one chases you out! You are welcome to stay as long as you like, provided, of course that you are behaving appropriately. My German friends explain that this is part of their culture and they even have a word for it: gemütlichkeit. This means being comfortable and cozy in your immediate surroundings. In these cafes and bars people were not glued to their IPhones; instead, they were talking to each other animatedly, young and old, clearly enjoying each other’s company. I think we here in America would benefit from less technology, which is driving us apart, and more opportunities to relax together and share our interests.

All in all, I did feel rejuvenated by my travel experience, even in the dead of winter. I promise to share photos of our trip next week!

How Many Days to America? by Eve Bunting

“…viewed as a symbolic tale of oppressed people seeking liberty, the story, clothed in contemporary dress, echoes the voyages mad by many throughout the years in search of liberty.  Peck’s deepened chalk colors and misty backgrounds bolster the fragile facial expressions and fearful body postures, lending suspense and believability to the saga. A discussion starter on several levels.”  Booklist, November 1, 1988

Eve Bunting’s emotionally powerful story of a family fleeing oppression from their island nation by taking a dangerous journey to their new destination which they hope will become their new home has a lot of resemblance to the diaspora of people fleeing war and oppression in the Middle East, many of them  risking their lives at sea and too many of them dying on the way.  Although she does not write specifically for English Language Learners, Ms. Bunting was always a favorite author of mine when I taught English as New Language students because of her compassion and empathy for those who are facing what often seem like the insurmountable hurdles  of estrangement from their cultures and isolation in their new culture. In addition, she writes in a simple yet eloquent style that is not condescending to her readers but instead invites them to want to know more about her topic

How Many Days to America? is a book I often taught around Thanksgiving because it in some ways resembles the story of the first European immigrants, the Pilgrims, arriving on our shores with nothing but what they could carry.  But there are also noticeable differences in that Eve Bunting’s story  is about more contemporary immigrants who face different dangers on their journey, including thieves who come on board their boat and rejection by the inhabitants of another island nation. In spite of the differences there are enough common threads for most immigrant students to find  some commonality between their migration  story and that of the family in the book.

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The first time I used the book, in a middle-school ESL class of 7th and 8th grade students, there was one student whose reaction was so poignant and powerful it taught me an important lesson as a new teacher.  He had been put on a boat by his family with his brother to escape the violence taking place during the Vietnam War.  They were taken a perilous journey to a nearby island nation where they were stuck in a refugee camp until they were able to join an uncle living in the U. S.   When I met my student he was clearly quite traumatized and was living in a foster family without his brother.

While perusing the very  illustrations in the book with my students, we came across a two-page spread of the family in this story in a tiny, crowded boat in the middle of the ocean surrounded by whales!  When my student saw this picture,  he leapt out of his chair and began shouting that he had experienced the same thing on his journey. He had clearly been very afraid since he was still quite young when it happened. I learned to become much more attuned to how sensitive some instructional materials can be for students who have been traumatized.

My favorite way to begin teaching the book was to ask the students to examine the illustration on the first page of the story, looking for any details they could find that might give them a clue as to who the characters are and where the story is taking place.  Since the author deliberately does not identify the place where the story begins, this  allows the students to fantasize about and , in some cases, to identify with the setting of the story.  This kind of close reading for evidence is something English Language Learners are good at since they often must rely on visual cues for survival when their language skills are far from proficient.

Needless to say focusing so intently on a text promotes lively discussions which become the basis for word study. As the discussions evolve I chart the new vocabulary provided in the book as well as the new words we need to learn to carry on a meaningful discussion.  Learning new vocabulary in the context of a discussion that students are  committed to is the best way I know to assure that the new vocabulary will stick.

(Due to technical difficulties, the remainder of this blog will be posted on next week’s SOL.)