Derek Price
Derek Price
Germany 2012-2013
Welcome to my Lumos Student Travel Blog! I will be spending 9 months in Enkenbach-Alsenborn, Germany to help teach English at a local high school and to improve my German. Check here for regular updates about my project. Read More About Derek →

Fasching – the Fifth Season!

I suppose it’s no small wonder that in a country that’s so dreary during winter, there is a long standing tradition and holiday almost made for cheering you up. That certainly seems to be one of the reasons that Germans in the Rhineland always look forward to celebrating Fasching, or the fünfte Jahreszeit (the fifth season). Fasching actually has its roots in the German Catholic tradition, and can be compared with Carnival as celebrated in Brazil, or of course, Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Fasching is a time to cut loose, celebrate, and get a little crazy before the somber season of Lent. Fasching is not celebrated everywhere in Germany, and the biggest celebrations are in Cologne, Mainz, and Düsseldorf. Fortunately for me, Mainz is only about an hour and a half away, so I decided to hop on the train and take part in the festivities.


In Mainz, the season of Fasching, which actually begins on the 11th of November at 11:11am, culminates in the celebration of Rosenmontag, literally “Rose Monday.” Rosenmontag always takes place on the Monday before Ash Wednesday. People from all over Germany come to Mainz dressed in ridiculous costumes, often in Mainz’s Fasching colors, red, white, blue, and yellow. The main event is a huge parade that proceeds through the heart of Mainz. There are marching bands, costumed groups, baton-twirlers, and floats, which are often themed to mock current political issues or leaders of the day.


Fasching is a celebration for all, and everyone from families to the elderly to University students dress up, have a drink (or a few (though not the children)), and greet each other with the traditional Fasching greeting “Hellau!” Along with some pictures, I also took some video footage, so take some time to enjoy a first-person view from the street.

A Fair Warning

Real quick, I had to share something I found on the internet that gives some factual substantiation to something I’ve noticed about Germany: while universal healthcare may be a right, sunshine is a privilege. Even though this graphic was created to describe the use of solar power in various countries, it has a secondary effect that I think you’ll notice right away:

That dark purple/blue blotch on the bottom right is Germany. Fortunately, I live in the slightly lighter blue area in the southwest, but the fact remains that only in Seattle and Portland is it anywhere near as dreary. According to the graph at the bottom, even Alaska gets more sun, on average, than Germany! So to those considering moving to, studying in, or working in Germany, consider yourself fairly warned.

Note: click here for a larger-resolution version of the picture above.

The Learned Hairdresser

A lot of Germans ask me, when they find out that I am an American, about what the typical view of Germans is in America. I tell them that, besides childishly calling them Nazis, most people in America think that Germans are hard-working, efficient, and good at what they do. This is usually received with a thoughtful nod of agreement; most Germans are very much aware of and comfortable with the stereotype that foreigners have of them. And it’s no small wonder – the whole description is more or less a compliment. The worst that can be said about a hard-working, efficient, talented and smart person is that they are too serious, and in Germany there’s no such thing as “too serious.” They are proud of their national character, even if they aren’t necessarily proud of all the things their efficiency has accomplished in the past.

What I’ve always failed to do, due to linguistic skills or otherwise, is to follow up and ask my interlocutor why he or she thinks Germans have that reputation. In what way are Germans and German culture different that they produce such a unique character? Last week I had a conversation that, while perhaps not a direct answer, gave me more insight into a possible cause of the German character.

Since the week of Christmas, the Steinmann household has been nothing but an endless stream of visitors. First came Christmas guests, then New Year’s Eve guests, then birthday guests for Beate, my host mother, then really late Christmas/Holiday guests from Berlin with the newest addition to the Steinmann family, the baby Clara. This last group is the one the concerns us right now. It was coffee hour, and we were eight altogether. Along with the three visitors from Berlin, an older couple had dropped in to join us without much notice (later there was much complaining about this). The older man, whose name I forget even though I had a business card of his, is a teacher at a vocational school. But not just any vocational school – this was where one went to get one’s Masters in everything from construction to hairdressing. That’s right. In Germany, you can acquire an M.A. in Hairdressing.

I was not the only one surprised by this, and fortunately there was much interest in an explanation of what the hell you do to get a Masters in Hairdressing, and why you would need one. Now bear in mind that my German has only recently allowed me to guess at what certain tones of voice mean, or to attempt to deduce something about someone’s character by their manner of speaking. But some personality traits refuse to be restrained by mere language, and I could tell fairly clearly that this particular gentleman was more than happy to explain just how necessary and important this particular Masters degree is. Here is what I gathered from the conversation.

Almost all of the so-called (in English) “vocational” crafts, like building, plumbing, and yes, hair-cutting, require each prospective builder, plumber, and hair-cutter to pass a certain test, which is half-written and half-practical. Usually one will attend a specific school, for example, a hair-cutting school, for a year or so, getting both classroom instruction and hands-on experience. At this point, I’m shaking my head up and down, admiring German culture for creating a magnificently efficient modern-day apprentice system. He continued that those who do not pass the test after one retake must wait another year to take the test again. Hmm, ok, I thought to myself, seems a bit strict, but maybe those people really do need the time to learn and hone their skills. If and when they pass the test, they are officially and legally allowed to do the following: work for an already-existing company in their trade. That is it. They may not open a store, they may not become a co-owner with someone else, and they certainly may not cut hair on the side, as a hobby or something. In other words, unless they can find a job at an already-existing company, they have now wasted an entire year of their lives.

At this point, I’m not quite hostile to this practice, as I agree that we shouldn’t let just any wacko with a pair of scissors near our heads, but the free-market, capitalist American in me, of whose residence I was previously unaware, was whining about invisible hands and liberty, etc., and perhaps with good reason. The consequences of a bad heart surgery are dire and final, and thus the rigorous level of training and education serves a purpose. But the consequence of a bad haircut? Hats. Surely the market would weed out all those bad hair-cutters quickly enough, right? And the people living out in the country in a place not unlike Enkenbach-Alsenborn… wouldn’t they not care about their haircuts, whether they were good or bad, so long as they were cheap?

And yet our rather loud, but likable teacher was continuing, since the question of how one can open one’s own haircutting business naturally arose. This, of course, was his specialty. Saying our theoretical hairdresser wished to open his own business, or even become an owner of an already-existing business, he would be required to obtain a Masters. This program would last 1-2 years, during which he would take business courses relevant to owning and operating a business, and at the end of this education he would have to take at least one more test, most likely two: a test for the business side and another practical hairdressing exam. I didn’t catch whether one could fail and retake this test, but by that point I had heard enough to realize one very important truth: Germans have a reputation for being highly-skilled because everyone, from doctors to hairdressers, is educated, trained, and tested in everything they do. Is it economically sensible? Not at all. But the Germans answer to a different value: pride. They are proud of the reputation they’ve made for themselves, and if that means that hairdressers go through a ridiculous and extraneous amount of mental stress just to cut hair, then so be it. In fact, so should it be!


Correction (1/29/12): As pointed out in the comments, I confused the German word “Meister,” which I heard in conversation, for the English word Master, in the sense of a Masters that one earns after a Bachelors. This is incorrect. The “Meister” which was spoken of during this conversation is roughly equivalent to an American Bachelors degree, but even this comparison is slightly misleading due to the highly specialized nature of secondary and post-secondary German education.

Dinner for One

Despite multiple apocalyptic predictions, it’s 2013 and we’re still here. Might as well make the best of it, right?

I, for one, had a wonderful Winter break. I visited Freiburg, a small city in southern Germany, and met up with a friend and his family. We had some of the best schnitzel I’ve ever had, as well as a few good regional beers. It was a great time. I spent New Year’s Eve in Madrid and stayed for about a week with another friend of mine, and although I cannot figure out why, I felt very refreshed when I returned to Germany. It could have been the plentiful sun, the siestas, the food, the museums, the good (English) conversation, or the company, but it was probably all of those things conspiring together that have left me in such good spirits.

Unfortunately, the New Year has not left everyone in a good mood. My 13th year students have to take their Abitur, a cumulative test in each of their three areas of focus, and most of them miserably spent their “Winter break” studying. Their Abitur has two sections, written and oral, and the entire month of January is dedicated to the three written tests. In Rheinland-Pfalz, students need only take one oral exam in one of their areas of focus, and that test takes place at the end of February. On the bright side, once these tests are finished, the students have the rest of the semester off – 3 extra months of vacation! I can tell that many of them are restless, and anxious to be done with school, so I’ve been doing my best to help keep them motivated. I get the sense that the English teachers use me as a reward for the students, or as a means to keep the students interested, and that suits me just fine. I have no pedagogic education, and I cannot (yet) teach a lesson and be able to answer question in German, but I have always loved the spontaneous ebb and flow of conversation, and since English is not only a native language but also one of my specialties, I enjoy the challenge of coming up with conversation topics and keeping the conversation going. Not to say that it’s always easy for me to do that, but it is something in which I’m well practiced.

That said, I thought I might share this week’s conversation topic: Dinner for One and New Year’s Eve Traditions. I found out about Dinner for One while browsing a few German websites, and I find it equally strange and hilarious. For those of you who don’t know what it is, which probably includes everyone born in America, England, or Australia, the places where you might expect it to be seen, Dinner for One is a silly, old, British 10-minute gag about an old woman and a progressively drunker butler. The humor is far from complex, and I have to admit that the original isn’t the funniest thing I’ve seen, but for some reason this short program is a New Year’s Eve tradition in Germany, and many other European countries including Sweden, Norway, Denmark. Don’t ask me why an English language program has become a tradition on New Year’s Eve in non-English speaking countries, and not in English speaking countries. I have no idea why. If you want more history about it, the Wikipedia page is pretty good. But what I really must recommend is a parody by Bernd das Brot, a German children’s-television character that I find quite hilarious. I’ve posted the original and Bernd’s parody below for your enjoyment.

Until next time,


Just a note for the Brot version – the English bit begins around 3:00


Over the last few months, I’ve noticed a few things about my surroundings, as well as Germany and Germans in general, so I thought I’d share them. I think most Germans would admit to the truth of most of these descriptions, but don’t take my word as gospel. Enjoy!

Food and Drink

  1. Mealtime is sacred. If you’re in the house during noon or 6pm, you are expected at the table.
  2. Pork, pork, everywhere, but not a proper slice of bacon to be found.
  3. Do you like bread? Good, because the Germans do too. Fresh baked bread. And always, always, always these little rolls called brötchen. It’s like a crisp hamburger roll that actually tastes good.
  4. Some people accuse Germans of neglecting vegetables in their diet in favor of bread, meat, and cheese, but that’s an unfair accusation. Why, in just the last few days I’ve had mashed potatoes, Knödel, and fried potatoes. Potatoes are plants, so they count as a vegetable, right?
  5. Lunch is the big meal, not dinner. This one threw me for quite a while.
  6. Everything you drink has bubbles. Breakfast juice, apple juice, water, punch, beer, Fanta, cola, and wine all can be, and often are, carbonated.
  7. Only foreigners drink tap water. To Germans, Wasser ist zum Waschen Da (Water is for washing!)
  8. Every time I drink with a German, they are more than happy to explain how German beer is the best beer in the world, and that all other countries’ beers are awful (especially American beer.)
  9. You do not use your hands to eat. You always use a fork and knife. And if you’re a real German, you never put your knife down. Exception: soup.
  10. German chocolate is fantastic.
  11. Sausages. Every meal. Every occasion.

Manners and Social Customs

  1. In my experience, Germans are far less obsessed with punctuality than I’d been taught to expect. Or maybe I’m just really punctual?
  2. Many people will casually greet you with a “Hallo” or “Guten Tag” on the street, which I did not expect at all. It may be simply because I live in a small town. However, this phenomenon is less common among people with no or white hair, so it’s possible that 20 years ago, greeting each other on the street was not so common.
  3. “And on the seventh day the Germans rested, and no shop was open, and no person left the house, and the people did rest, and a feast was made in preparation for Tatort, an unfathomably popular crime-investigation show (or Krimi). And the Germans saw that it was good and said ‘Alles klar.’”
  4. Everyone wears scarves, all the time, and they are certainly not doing it to be hipsters.
  5. If someone invites you to do something, and you say “yeah, maybe I’ll come,” it means “until my last dying breath, until I am beaten to the ground by all foes, until the sky rains fire and the seas boil, I will not forsake our plans,” and NOT “I don’t really want to go, and I probably won’t come.”
  6. Everyone does their job, and no one does more than their job. Whether it’s a store, a business, or a school, if you want help, you better ask for it. Multiple times. And then you have to hope that the person is in a good mood. Seriously, the attitude of “the customer is always right” does not exist here. Everyone treats you like an adult that can take care of themselves. At first I was offended by this, as well as completely confused and lost, but I’ve grown to appreciate it. The world doesn’t revolve around you, and Germans will be very happy to remind you of this fact.

Beliefs, Values, Opinions

  1. Germans think Americans have too loose of a gun policy, and even before the recent tragedy in Sandy Hook, I had many questions from students and adults about whether or not I owned a gun, who could buy a gun, how, where, etc. EDIT 12/27: Recent German Cartoon (rough translation: “Oh look, an assault rifle”)
  2. Germans almost unanimously love Barack Obama. During election time, I saw a survey among Germans about who they would vote for, if they could: 90% Obama, 8% Romney, 2% Other.
  3. Germans also tend to be, as measured by the American political spectrum, fairly liberal. They take great pride in their social programs for healthcare, job loss, as well as a host of other work-related benefits (parents of a newborn can take a whole year off from work to raise the child, the government will pay them a percentage of their salary, and they have a guaranteed place at their old job).


  1. There is no such thing as a free restroom. If you need the toilet, you’re paying.
  2. The “Pfand” system is used at many restaurants or bars. If you get your drink in a glass, you pay an extra euro for it, and you get it back when you bring your glass back.
  3. The public transport system is amazingly well developed. Even little towns like Enkenbach have their own train station, and the trains run on time for the most part. Their ubiquity and usefulness far outweighs the occasional inconvenience of a missed connection… though if you heard Germans talk about it, you might think Deutsche Bahn makes their trains late on purpose.
  4. Germans, and many Europeans, have the best windows. If you turn the handle up, you can crack the window like this. If you turn it sideways, it opens on the opposite side’s axis. And then turning it down closes it. It’s simple, efficient, and I love it.
  5. Germans cannot play the blues/jazz. They cannot do it. And when they try, it is hilarious.

That’s all for now. This one was fun to write, so I may do another “Observations” post later… but definitely not until next year 😀

Happy New Year and Prosit Neujahr!



The Weihnachtsmarkt in Saarbrucken.

The Christmas season (Weihnachten, in German) is in full swing now, and that means one can expect three things in almost every German town and city: snow, Glühwein, and Weihnachtsmärkte! Though I’m sure many of you dear readers are familiar with snow, I suspect you’re less familiar with the traditional German drink of Christmas and the festively-decorated markets where you can always find it, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about both.

The tradition of the Weihnachtsmarkt originated in Southern Germany and Austria. Some of the oldest Weihnachtsmärkte (plural of Weihnachtsmarkt) date as far back as 1384 (in Bautzen, Germany.) Since then, the tradition spread across Germany and even into the north of France, and now today you can find a Christmas market in every major city in the German-speaking world, and many smaller towns. Some of the most famous Weihnachtsmärkte include the Strietzelmarkt in Dresden, the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt, Berlin and Munich’s Weihnachtsmärkte. Often, the market is set up in the town or city square, though in larger cities there are often several Weihnachtsmärkte, typically in the pedestrian zones. Though Weihnachtsmärkte have not always been so brightly decorated and world-renowned, they have always been and continue to be a place for artisans and shopkeepers to sell their wares and for the public to shop, eat, drink, and celebrate the days of Advent leading up to Christmas.

The small Weihnachtsmarkt in Enkenbach.

For some Germans, eating and drinking are the most important parts of the Weihnachtsmarkt. It’s not uncommon to see large groups of people gathered around a table enjoying roasted sausage, Schupfnudeln (a rolled noodle similar to gnocchi), or soup along with a hot mug of Glühwein. Glühwein is one of my favorite discoveries in Germany. Though the recipe differs depending where you buy it, it is usually prepared from red wine, heated and spiced with cinnamon, cloves, citrus juices, and a little sugar. It’s the perfect thing to drink outside on a cold December night.


I’ve had the chance to visit Weihnachtsmärkte in several cities, but one of my favorites was Saarbrücken. Their Weihnachtsmarkt stretches all the way down the middle of their pedestrian zone, which is flanked by restaurants and shops, and ends at their market square. The square contains all the shops and food stands you would expect at any other Weihnachtsmarkt in a city the size of Saarbrücken, but they had something extra.

Der Fliegender Weihnachtsmann!

As my friends and I found out, every night during Advent “Der Fliegender Weihnachtsmann” (the flying Santa Claus) rides across the square, suspended from wires. He was accompanied by a smiling, waving angel below him, and some sort of German Christmas song. It was delightful.

I’ve only just scraped the surface of information about Weihnachtsmärkte, and I’m told that people come from all over the world to visit these things. If you’re interested in more information, check out a few of the links below (they’re where I found most of my information.) Also, if I get the chance to visit any more markets, I’ll be posting more pictures here.


I’ll have one more post before the new year, but since I’m not sure if it’ll be up before Christmas (Germans celebrate on the 24th), Fröhliche Weihnachten und alles Gute für das neue Jahr! (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!)

Journaling, Writing, and Blogging Part 1

One of the most interesting things about the information revolution brought on by the internet is that millions of people have been given access to a public voice that they never would have had. But it is still questionable whether this has had a positive or negative impact on writing in general. Before the internet, if you wanted people to read something you had written, you either had to give it to them personally, or go through some sort of publisher, be it newspaper, magazine, or book. Those publishers had the tools to reproduce your writing and distribute it to a community of readers that, while varying in size, was always more than you could reach alone. But now anyone can create a blog and a few social media profiles, and within weeks reach thousands, if not tens of thousands, of potential readers.

So while the internet has changed the means of distribution of information, what has not changed is the basic types of writing, of which there are, really, only two: writing for oneself (here, journaling) and writing for others (here, writing-proper). These types of writing usually serve different purposes, and before the internet they also existed in mutually-exclusive spheres, the private and the public. But now these spheres seem to be somewhat mixed up.

This is especially obvious in blog writing, where the line between journaling/writing and private/public is often unclear. This fuzzy distinction has given blogs, rightly or wrongly, a bit of a stigma as the medium of choice for wannabe intellectuals and whiny teenagers[1]. While it would certainly be unfair to see all blogs as belonging to one of these two camps, this stereotype hints at some of the big problems in blog writing today. Blogs, in general, suffer from two major problems: authors presenting journaling as writing-proper, and writers misunderstanding the implicit assumptions in starting a new blog.

But before we deal with blog writing, let me clarify what I mean by journaling and writing-proper. Journaling’s most important attribute is its freeness. When one journals, one is free to work out thoughts or problems without the scrutiny of others or the demands of the rules of language. This freedom from concerns of audience can be invaluable when attempting to work through personal problems, develop new ideas, or be creative. Journaling may lead to writing-proper, but in-itself it is often of interest only to the author. Occasionally journal-style writing will appeal to an audience outside the author, but more often than not it is too narrowly personal, too confusingly self-referential, or too boring or petty to be interesting to others.

Writing-proper, on the other hand, should be of interest to others, because the author writes in order to communicate with someone else. This is the essential distinction of writing-proper, and since the author writes with others in mind, he pays special attention to word choice, style, grammar, and all the other rules of usage in language in order to strike his audience in a particular way. Even when attempting to alter her audience in some way, whether it is linguistically, behaviorally, or intellectually, the author always tries to find the best means for conveying her thoughts. These means could look radically different, depending on whether the author is writing a poem or a lab-report, but there is always a consideration of the audience in writing-proper.

In the next part of Journaling, Writing, and Blogging, I’ll explain how blogs have the accessibility of journaling, but the audience of writing proper, and how this mixture has given blogs an unsavory reputation. I’ll then explain the problem of the proliferation of blogs, and finally how blogs have the potential to be an excellent medium for writing-proper.

[1] And as a wannabe intellectual, I object to being grouped with whiny teenagers.


I meant to write more about my experiences in the German High school (Integreirte Gesamtschule, or IGS from here on), but this has been the first week where I have really felt like I know what I’m doing and what I’m supposed to do. But before I share my experiences, I want to talk a little about just how different the German school system is from the American school system. That, too, has taken me nearly a month to figure out.

There are three “tracks” available to students: Hauptschule, Realschule, and Gymnasium. Normally, a student finds their way into one of these tracks after the 6th grade. The 3 divisions are based around what a student is good at, and each leads to different kinds of jobs. Students in Hauptschule must only attend school until the 9th grade, and will likely take a job that one might get after attending a trade school in the United States. Students in the Realschule receive a broader range of education and stay in school until 10th grade, after which they can choose to go to a special University in a very limited range of subjects or they can enter the workforce. Gymnasium is oriented towards preparing students for University, and almost all Gymnasium students go to University after taking their 12th or 13th year final exam, the Abitur. But there is also a fourth option, and it’s where my school fits in. Though I’ve been told that it varies depending on which “state” you live in (I live in Rheinland-Pfalz), most young students also have the option of attending a Gesamtschule. The Gesamtschule is basically a combination of the other three schools, and offers classes for every kind of student. This makes the Gesamtschule more like an American middle and high school, and you see a much broader range of competencies and skills.

A helpful diagram of the German School system

Primarily, I work with students between 11th and 13th grade, meaning that most of my students have University aspirations. Depending on the week, I work with 6-8 different English classes, and probably 60-90 different students. So far, I’ve been leading small conversations groups with 2-4 students for 10-20 minutes, depending on skill level. And speaking of skill level, I’ve been very impressed so far. Every student I’ve worked with has been learning English since at least 5th grade. I can count on one hand how many students couldn’t or didn’t want to speak English, even in the lower-level 11th grade classes. Excepting those few, every student can communicate at least on a basic level with English, and many are well on their way to mastery. After a few conversations with some of the more advanced students, I’ve realized that the typical student’s perspective about foreign languages is completely different than the attitude I had and observed  during my pre-University education. The students see learning English as a matter of course, and there is a sense that being able to speak and understand English is just as important as Physics, Math, or any other major subject.

And they’re probably right to think that way. The students know that in almost every professional field, from education to business to science, English is the dominant language. And since they’re planning to attend University in order to enter those professional fields, they see English as something necessary and relevant to their plans, not as something superfluous or downright useless. I think this is the biggest difference between the American and German attitudes towards learning languages. Americans grow up learning English as their native language, and when they look at job prospects, even on the international scale, they find that they already have mastery over the most important language, which predisposes them to regard foreign languages as inessential to their lives and careers. And native English speakers will be correct in judging thusly, so long as English really is the preferred language of so many fields.

But shouldn’t the American education system be doing everything possible to counteract this attitude? It certainly is not a long-term solution to just hope that English remains the most popular and widely used language in professions. If anything, American educators should see our linguistic position in the world as a head start, giving us the chance to get even farther ahead by learning other languages. But unfortunately, I believe the real attitude is that we don’t need to do any extra work, because we already know the “most important” language.  It is precisely this complacency that I believe prevents the United States from adopting a more rigorous and comprehensive attitude towards foreign languages. It seems the prospect of excellence is not enough to drive change in such a large scale – only the unexpected bite of necessity.

Note: Updated 11/25 to add picture of IGS.