Thursday, 26 September 2013

German schools are different to British ones.

Two and a half years ago I thought I'd left school for good. But this week I've been back in the classroom, only not as a pupil but in my new role as an English Language Assistant.

That's not to say I haven't learnt anything though. I've learnt an awful lot actually, both subject matter (the awkward moment when you don't know the right answer in a multiple choice quiz for German teenagers about the UK) and about German school life.

And because I'm oh-so-generous, slash it might be useful to future language assistants, slash I think it's interesting (I'll keep the boring stuff to myself - see, I'm also thoughtful), I've decided to share some of my findings with you.

1. German schools have different timings.

The first lesson starts at 7.45am, which means the kids have to be there by 7.30am. It seems horrendously early, doesn't it? Well, it did to me at first, but then I realised that whilst first lesson at my school back in the UK wasn't until 8.40am, we had to be there by 8.15am, which is actually only 45 minutes later (can you tell I did maths AS-Level?)

In classic German fashion, the school day is meticulously and logically structured - every lesson last 45 minutes (at my school some were 35, others were 40... It was a down right MESS in comparison), and there's a break after every two.

But because school starts extra early, it also finishes extra early. And I mean extremely extraordinarily extra early. I'm working at two Gymnasiums which are types of secondary schools, and the younger kids there (from age 11) go home for the day at noon. NOON!

The older ones only stay a couple more hours too. Compared to my school days of finishing at 6pm and then having to go back to school on Saturday (ah, the life of a day girl in a boarding school), this seems totally cray cray.

Finishing so early, it makes me wonder how they manage to teach everything on the curriculum, especially seeing as until a couple of year ago, German teens went to school until the age of 19. They've only recently cut a year off to be in line with most other European countries, adding a few more early afternoon lessons to try and cram in that extra year.

I don't half feel for the parents. And by that I mean, most probably, the mothers. While the kids can stay under supervision at school during the afternoon, I'm not sure how many do, and having to look after your kids all afternoon mustn't half make it hard to have a career.

But for us language assistants, it's totally awesome. Afternoons off WHUT.

2. German classrooms are behind in the technology stakes.

I don't know about you, but every classroom in my school had at least one computer linked up to a projector and a whiteboard, if not a smartboard. Strangely enough, this is not the case here in Germany.

Despite their technological and engineering aptitude, ze Germans are still using chalk and blackboards in their schools. It seems odd to us, but I think it gives the classroom a more traditional vibe. It's quite sweet - in the younger classes, the kids all want to be the ones to wipe the board clean at the end of each lesson. The older kids, understandably, aren't so keen. They've got snapchats to send.

The classrooms have projectors for those clear, plastic sheet thingies, as well as DVD and CD players, but when I asked if there was wifi for showing YouTube clips and the like from my iPad, I discovered it was a no. Not necessarily a bad, thing, I just think it's interesting.

In fact, I just don't get why German classrooms don't have whiteboards, smartboards and computers. Oh, and I'm not just basing this on experience from one school - I work at two, and have been reliably informed this is the case all over Germany.

I do quite enjoy the fact that schools commonly have speakers in every classroom for announcements, just like in Grease. I bet that's what they were going for.

3. There's no school uniform.

I personally think school uniform is a great thing. That said, I've also noticed the teens generally dress very stylishly here. I think Zara is like the mothership for the girls. To be honest, I imagine their British counterparts would not be at the same level of chic-ness if they got to wear their own clothes every day. No offence, Brits. Love ya.

As an aside, I'm not sure German kids love us... I sat in on an English lesson with a class of 16-17 year old Germans, and when asked what they thought of as 'typically British', this is what they came up with:

Yeah. Not overly positive, is it? In case you can't read it, allow me to transcribe: Football hooligans, beer and alcohol troubles, getting sunburnt, rain, odd food, a dark sense of humour, queuing, CCTV, well-mowed front lawns and laziness. Oh, but at least they mentioned cream tea, THANK GOD.

I'm just going to have to change all that though. Bribery with scones may occur. And they think we're the big beer drinkers!? Pfft. I'll admit the UK has a binge drinking problem though. Fair play, Germans. In fact, it's, um, well... all mostly true, if focussing on negatives.

But I digress... Back to the German pupils. I've also realised there are practically zero overweight kids. It's quite noticeable compared to the UK. I mean, sure, I'm only in two schools, but it did strike me. Interesting, don'tcha think? Despite all their yummy German cakes, which brings me nicely on to...

4. There's free cake in the staff-room every day!

OK, that's not true. It only happened today because the trainee teachers made loads and brought them in as a welcome sort of thing. And oh my! There was so much and it was all so yummy.

It's quite common in German schools to have a fair few trainee teachers. One of my schools is actually a special teacher-training school so they have nearly 30 of them! But that's fun, because they're all in their 20s.

The schools seem to organise a lot for the teachers, and I think there's a nice community feel as a result. For example, there's a staff trip to Heidelberg coming up, and next week we're all going off on a hike with a dinner break in the middle. Warum nicht, eh? 

Woo I've got a pigeon hole! It's empty but that's by the by.
I do feel somewhat odd being in the staff-room though. When walking round school, I really think the teachers who haven't met me yet must think I'm one of the pupils. In fact, most of the kids probably think I'm one of them too. Or maybe I'm just known as the English girl. Maybe I'm not known at all. WHO KNOWS WHAT THEY COULD BE THINKING!?

Sorry, I should calm down.

All the staff and pupils I have met - actually pretty much every German person, end of - have been delightfully friendly and helpful. Just don't mention the war, eh? (Oops. I just did, didn't I?)

You see, I make that joke, but in the second class on my first day, the teacher actually did bring up the war. That was slightly awks. Laugh it off, Rachel, just laugh it off. There has been a lot of laughing when everyone else laughs over the past week.

I'm going to be taking on more responsibility soon, and I have to say I'm really looking forward to it. Naturally, I find language learning really interesting, so it's fascinating to see how German kids are taught English. It also makes you think about your own language in a new way.

You know how German handwriting is really distinctive? Well, if you didn't, you do now. I noticed that when the English teacher was writing in English, she changed her handwriting to the English way. Impressive, no?

Today I actually sat in on a French class too. A French class taught in German. That was confusing. But fun.

But I'm also looking forward to sharing my love for all things British. Slash really hoping I know the answers to their questions - so far they've included 'What's your name?' 'What's your favourite food?' and 'What's your favourite colour?' which I just about managed to answer. Lord only knows what the older children could ask though.

It's the languagey questions that are more difficult though. Often, they're things we know, but we don't quite know how to explain. For example, 'What's the difference between "sentiment" and "sensation"?' Seems simple. But then try and explain it to German teenagers. Yeah.

If I don't know the answer I'll just distract them by offering a slice of Victoria Sponge. Cake is always the answer.

So. To sum up. German school kids dress well and the trainees make good cake.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Year abroad: Making a new home homey.

Today is a good day. Why's that? you ask. Well, today is a good day because my second suitcase arrived (we'd shipped it from home using which I thoroughly recommend), meaning I finally have my slippers, posters, Big Bear and one very precious bottle of squash. My flatmates found it amusing that for the past week I've had British teabags, but an extremely bare wardrobe. Priorities = sorted.

It's different for everyone, but I know that to feel settled and comfortable, I like to have everything unpacked, tidy and organised (neat freak? Me? Never!) Reminders of home and pretty things make me happy, and I think I've done a pretty good job of making my new home feel homey.

I still can't believe I've only been here for less than a week, and having finally unpacked my huge suitcase, done a load of laundry, hoovered (always good for the soul) and put up my (very many) decorations - alas, the fairy lights couldn't make it *sob* - I feel really very at home.

Bayreuth as a town still doesn't fail to take my breath away. I don't think the novelty of the oh-so-beautiful buildings is ever going to wear off. Wanna see a few pictures? Yeeeaaaah ya do. I know I posted a fair few in my last post about exploring Bayreuth, but I can't help it - every time I walk through town (oh, and I go through a PALACE on my way to work), I just want to take more photos as it's all so pretty. Enjoy...

What? Doesn't your town have a dinosaur?

Yeah that was quite a lot of photos, wasn't it? Sorry. But I'm hoping they slightly do justice to the wonderfulness I've been going on about. I really am finding it all rather delightful. Oh, did I already mention that?

Remember how I was waffling on about how much I like my flat in this post? Well now I've finally finished decorating (and as my previous post of room decorating tips and this one about my uni room last year went down well), I thought I'd share a few snaps with you...

My homemade bunting blows in the breeze when my skylight is open. That please me.

Photos = a must
I tied this cutie little bird to the blind pully thingy
Home comforts
How awesome is this little make-up shelf?
This beautiful bouquet was a birthday surprise from my wonderful parents, accompanied by scrapbook, iPad and planner.
Hooray for birthday cards!

Ahh. That was nice.

But I have to reiterate that I just feel so lucky to have been left so many lovely things and such a nice room - it looked delightful before I even exploded on to the scene with my plethora of girly bits and bobs. Some of my fellow year abroader friends have found themselves in unfurnished rooms, so I'm just so grateful I don't have to deal with getting furniture on top of everything else at the moment.

I say that, everything else is going really rather swimmingly. And worry not, dear friends (slash probably just dad... mum if I'm lucky), I shall keep you posted as my year abroad adventure continues. I can't promise not to keep posting pretty pictures of Bayreuth though. If it was good enough for Wagner...

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Arriving, exploring and settling into my new German hometown, Bayreuth.

Despite the fact that I've been living here a mere three days, it feels like I've been in Bayreuth for aaaaaages. I'm hoping that's a sign of how well I'm settling in, and it really has all gone a lot more smoothly than I'd been anticipating. There have been no teary Skypes back home nor any curling up in the foetal position under my duvet. It's all, well, been great thus far.

The Hofgarten
Richard Wagner Festspiele
Bayreuth is a small city in northern Bavaria. It has a university (pleasingly), a spa, lots of shops, restaurants, cafés, bars, museums, a cinema, palace (classic Deutschland), opera house and a beautiful park, the Hofgarten. Bayreuth is most famous for being the home of Richard Wagner, so I'm going to have to visit the museum all about him at some point. Although apparently there's a typewriter museum somewhere here too, so really, my friends have plenty of reasons to come and visit. Am I right?

When I arrived at the station on Thursday afternoon, my school mentors were there to meet me and take me to my flat. Every German person I've met has been so helpful and kind, and my teachers made me feel like nothing was too much to ask of them, which was really nice. Having both been language assistants when they were students, they knew how I was feeling, and understood that all I really wanted to do was move into my flat, sort my life out and rest.

It isn't always easy to find accommodation for your year abroad, let alone good accommodation, but I appear to have really lucked out. In Germany, most students live in Wohngemeinschafts (WGs), and, naturally, there are a lot of really efficient websites for advertising when a room is up for rent. 

Earlier this summer, in a fit of panic, I spent days trawling through the internet in search of somewhere to live. Some people didn't reply to me at all, others said I would have to see the room in person (awks), but one group - a lovely trio of female students - offered me a Skype interview instead.

One stilted (from my end) German conversation later, I'd met my future roommates and they'd chosen me to live with them. I was so very happy! The pictures looked lovely, the rent was ridiculously cheap compared to Bristol and most other European cities, and the location seemed perfect.

However, I didn't want to get too too excited until I got there - it all seemed too good to be true! Readers, it truly is as great as I'd hoped.

The girls I'm living with have been amazing so far, and left me bedlinen, towels, MY OWN TV, hangers, all my furniture, speakers, stationery, pots, pans, plates, cutlery, a bike and all sorts (I'll probably do a hole other post about my new home.)

 Perhaps the most exciting factor, for me, is that THEY HAVE BAKING UTENSILS! And I'm talking lots of baking utensils. So many of my fellow year abroaders don't even have ovens, so I am very excited indeed. The German baking aisle in the supermarket has yet to be fully explored, but don't worry, it'll happen soon.

When I arrived in my flat, my first instinct was: tea and wifi. So, that happened. And it occurred to me that tea and wifi are sometimes all I need to feel settled. 

On my first evening in Bayreuth, my wonderful fellow language assistant, Emma, who'd already been here for a week or so, showed me round the town. Oh my word, I LOVE it!

Bayreuth is utterly charming! It's not the biggest of cities, but it's beautiful and traditionally German, which I adore. Cobbled streets and classic buildings always go down well with me.

As we wandered round, we were approached by two guys with a video camera who proceeded to interview me, auf deutsch, for their church. That was interesting (and potentially embarrassing) but good German practice I guess. My motto for the past few days has been warum nicht? (That's 'why not?', in case you didn't know.)

Emma and I decided to go for a really traditional German dinner in an equally traditional Bavarian restaurant, so Schnitzel mit Kartoffelsalat it was! And it was gooooood.

As we walked back home afterwards, I already felt like I was going to have a great time here. That said, it was all a bit overwhelming. More tea, Skype with the mother, a shower, GBBO and bed was the order of the day night.

Over the past few days, I've explored the town and started sorting out all the necessary adminny bits and bobs with my new German friend, Tanja, and I know I'm really lucky to have her here helping me with everything. Maybe if I was trying to do it all alone, the aforementioned teary Skypes would have occurred. Almost definitely, actually.

Germany seems a bit like France in that they have bakeries round every corner. And I'm certainly not complaining. So, yesterday morning, Tanja and I walked the 30 second trip to our nearest bakery and picked up some fresh German pretzels and bread rolls to have with homemade jam and nutella for breakfast. Mmm.

Then, we pootled off to the supermarket to stock up my kitchen cupboards. Don't you just love looking round foreign supermarkets? They have so many different things, and I find it really interesting. (Please say that's not just me...)

The best Ritter Sport. I'm excited to try this Lindt stuff. FINALLY I found peanut butter!

Continuing my initiation into the German culinary world, we had traditional Bratwurst for lunch. I liked Bratwurst. Tanja then took me round the town, helping me search for a Dirndl (not cheap!), find the best SIM card deal and pointing out the best shops, restaurants and clubs.

Bayreuth isn't the liveliest of cities, but it was really bustling yesterday thanks to it being Interkulturelle Woche (Intercultural Week - see, German's easy, right? Wrong.) 

A new Italian clothes store had just opened, and they were enticing customers with yet more traditional food and drink. It's safe to say it worked on us, and I sampled some Bayerischer Zwiebelkuchen (Bavarian onioncake - delish) and drank a glass of  Federweisse. It was delicious - sweet, like cider.

So, sufficiently fed and watered, we continued my private tour of Bayreuth before cycling back for some pre-night out R & R and more traditional German food for dinner in the shape of Maultasche - sort of giant ravioli pasta parcels, filled with meat, onions and the like. A delicious deutsch dinner. Food here is goooood.

Tea and cake, German-style. Mmmm...
And oh yes, I've had my first experience of German nightlife. Just like in the UK, the night kicks off with pre-drinking. I felt I should probably try the local beer, but between you and me, I didn't totally love it. Ssshhh. 

Next, our little group cycled through the chilly night air into town, and if it's this cold in September, I'm not looking forward to January.

It was nearly midnight, but apparently that's not yet clubtime - we paid our entry fees and got our stamps, but then went off for cocktails elsewhere. And oh my word, I had a good cocktail! It was Malibu and Baileys and pineapple juice and I'm not even sure what else, but it was pink and sweet and half-price. Alles gute.

I was just going with the flow (yolo), and after a cocktail each, we had a round of a very strange concoction - it was like a big shot of coffee-ish liquor and creamy stuff, set on fire. So yeah. That happened.

Then, it was club time. Now, I'd heard about German clubs before - odd-looking men and cheesy Europop were to be expected - and I have to say the reputation prevailed. I'm not sure if it's because it was a 90s themed night (yup, we had Backstreet Boys and Barbie Girl along with a load of German songs I'd never heard) or because it was a Saturday, and, naturally, that's when all the locals rather than students go out, but there were a lot of, well, old people in the club. Young people too, natch, but never before have I been in a club with so many over the age of 35 (no offence, oldies). They were clearly all having a ball though.

Although I didn't really know anyone or many of the songs, it was interesting and fun. When you're in a new country, everything is new and thus fascinating. Well, maybe not everything, but most things. 

But even fascination can't keep me awake all night, and I was happy to go home when we finally did. Readers, we didn't get home till 4am! And that is super late for yours truly. I'm middle-aged like that. 

I suppose I should think of it as my 21st birthday night out, seeing as it's my birthday tomorrow and all. That's weird. It doesn't feel like my birthday eve at all. In fact, I keep forgetting, which is very unlike me. But whatever tomorrow, next week and the rest of my time in Germany shall bring, I'm determined to embrace it.

Sure, I still have a lot of difficult, annoying things like registering at the Einwohnermeldeamt and opening a bank account to deal with, but WE'LL GET THERE. And I know there are still going to be moments where I get suddenly struck with a pang of homeseickness. It all takes time, this settling in malarkey. But I have a feeling it's going to be a cracking six months. And remember, warum nicht?
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