Category Archives: German Culture


As of Friday, I’m officially finished with my Lumos project, but I wanted to take some time to share a few last thoughts about my trip here. I won’t bother attempting the impossible by trying to summarize nine months of my life in a few paragraphs. Instead, I’d like to go back to my first blog post, “Expectations,” and see how my experiences have compared with my hopes. Back in October I was hoping for a few things: I wanted to see a different side of Germany than I’d already seen in Berlin, I wanted to see what it was like to try to integrate into German society, and I was curious about how these months would really change me.

When I arrived in Enkenbach-Alsenborn, I could tell almost immediately that my experience was going to be vastly different than Berlin. In fact, Enkenbach-Alsenborn was about as different as you can get from an international and busy city like Berlin: E-A had one main road that bisected the train tracks, splitting the two towns roughly into quarters. As the name indicates, E-A used to be two towns, but they eventually grew together into one slightly larger town. I lived in the smaller eastern section, Alsenborn. During those first few months I biked back and forth to the school, took walks in the woods, practiced my German with my host family, and commuted twice a week to Karlsruhe for my language course. It wasn’t a lot, but it was my life and it kept me reasonably busy. However, E-A’s remote location came with a few problems: there were almost no English speakers to befriend, very few places to go to meet people, and not much to do on the weekends. Though I took a few trips during those first few months, I spent the majority of my time in E-A, and by the time the cold, dark months of January and February rolled around I became more and more aware that I needed to change something. Though life in E-A completely immersed me in a community of natives, I still needed the chance to socialize, make friends, relax, and just speak a little English. Thanks to my very helpful and flexible partner organization ELI, and my host family, I was able to work out a new living arrangement in Karlsruhe that put me in closer proximity to the things I was missing, but still allowed me to go on teaching in E-A.

During those first 5 months, I really learned what it meant to immerse oneself in something completely foreign. On one hand, there’s no better way to learn the language and customs, since they’re constantly modeled for you in a habitual and natural fashion by everyone around you. But even when you throw yourself into the deep end of the pool, you need to come up for air every now and then. In E-A, I didn’t have a place where I could go, relax, speak English, and do things that were familiar. I learned in a very immediate way how much language effects what you can do, how much fun you can have, how much work you can do; in short, I learned how completely and inextricably language is bound together with action. The statements of “I couldn’t find a place to relax,” and “I couldn’t find a place to speak English,” became, for me, equivalent.

My time in E-A and Karlsruhe definitely gave me a different perspective on Germany, and especially in E-A I was more or less completely immersed in German culture. And I really tried to integrate as much as possible, first and foremost by learning German, but also by adopting other habits, like eating a large lunch and a small dinner, becoming more direct while dealing with others, and countless other little things. But how did these experiences change me, and to what extent? That was the third question I posed to myself, and I’m honestly not sure how to answer it. In some ways I have definitely changed my behavior, as I’m finding out by interacting with my family and Americans again. But during other periods of my trip, I can recall the experience of recognizing something familiar in how I handled myself; certain challenges I faced seemed to reinforce certain personality traits or habits that I think I’ve had for a long time now. In the end, I haven’t got a good answer to this question yet, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. You can’t force some kinds of knowledge, especially self-knowledge, and maybe this trip has changed me in ways I won’t recognize for years. But I know it has deeply challenged me, broadened me, and made me more resilient and self-reliant. And that is, I think, what Lumos exists to do – to challenge you to grow, learn, and adapt to things you might not have ever experienced.

On that note, I wanted to add a big thank you to all the people who have supported me throughout this project. Of course, I want to thank the Lumos Award committee, Belmont University, and ELI for helping to make all of this possible and tolerating my mistakes and last-minute changes to just about everything :D. Also to my host family in E-A, the Steinmanns, as well as all the teachers and students at the E-A IGS, I give my sincerest thanks and gratitude for helping me figure out how to live and work in Germany. Also, to all the people I’ve met, traveled, partied, danced, sung, and studied with, thanks for making my time in Germany a little more fun. And of course, not least of all, all the people back in the States who have supported me with cards, gifts, e-mails, facebook messages, and everything else. I always loved hearing from someone back home, and you helped me get through this project as much as anyone else.

I hope you all enjoyed reading this blog as much as I enjoyed writing it, and that you felt like it was worth your time.

For the last time,



P.S. – If you have any specific questions about my project, or just want to talk a little bit about traveling abroad, always feel free to leave a comment, and I’ll try to get back to you as soon as possible.

Stuttgarter Frühlingsfest!


Last Sunday I had one of the best experiences I’ve had in Germany so far. I was sad when I arrived in October and found out that I was going to miss Oktoberfest since it actually begins in late September and ends in early October. But earlier this year someone told me about Frühlingsfest, which is more or less Oktoberfest during the spring (literally, it’s “spring festival,”) and I resolved to attend. Boy am I glad I did.

As you can see, my friend David and I are dressed in traditional “lederhosen” (literally “leather pants.”) Sadly, I borrowed this pair instead of buying it, since real lederhosen can be quite expensive, but I think the above picture is souvenir enough! We’re also each holding a “Maß,” which is a 1 Liter serving of beer. They don’t sell anything smaller 😀

Frühlingsfest is pretty much one big party. There are always multiple, huge tents set up for celebrating, but we chose to reserve a table at Grandls Hofbräu Zelt, one of the biggest tents at the Stuttgarter Frühlingsfest.


Inside there are rows and rows of tables and benches, though it might be a misnomer to call the benches, benches. They’re more like standing platforms. Basically, unless you’re eating or exhausted, you’re either standing, jumping, or dancing on the benches. There were several live bands playing a wide range of music, but every half hour or so, you were guaranteed to hear this song:

The words are so easy and repetitive that it’s very easy to link arms, sway side to side, and “prost!” with your friends. Even my friends who have only been in Germany for a few months were singing along by the end of the night.

Inside Grandls


All in all, it was a great time. If you ever find yourself in Germany during the spring, and you’re sad that it’s not Oktoberfest time, just remember that Frühlingsfest is (almost) just as good!

Until next time,


The Little Differences

So I’ve finally had some time to digest a lot of the changes that have happened over the last few weeks, which has allowed me to reflect a little more about my trip up to this point. When looking at the calendar last night, I realized that I’m actually closer to the two-thirds mark rather than the halfway mark in my project. It was a sobering and surprising realization. I’ve done all sorts of things to try and remember my attitude and feelings during my first few months, including re-reading some of my old blog and journal entries. Of course, some things are impossible to forget: my struggle with learning and speaking a new language, figuring out my role at the high school, and navigating new social and familial habits with my host family. These are all very typical experiences for someone living, studying, and teaching abroad, and although they were all “German,” anyone would encounter those challenges studying anywhere. But as I was reviewing my old writing I kept coming across all these little notes about small, almost insignificant things. For example, I remember being absolutely delighted when my host mother started regularly making and buying soft pretzels for breakfast. I also recall being surprised the first time I saw multiple people (who didn’t even look homeless) walking around with beer bottles before noon. The examples go on and on, but I think it just goes to show that some of the most memorable things during my project have been, as Vince from Pulp Fiction puts it, the little differences.

After nearly six months, I have gotten used to speaking and hearing German regularly. I’ve become accustomed to German weather and climate. I have a better understanding of the school system and how to run a small-group English lesson. I even feel like I’m beginning to get the hang of those more advanced linguistic skills like joking, flirting, haggling, and arguing. But for the life of me, I cannot get used to the fact that I need to quickly bag my own groceries at the grocery store before the next customers’ groceries get mixed up with mine, or that you have to separate your garbage into 5 different containers. Initially, it was the common, every-day things that made me nervous, excited, confused, and thrilled. But that period only lasts for a while until you realize that Germans are humans just like Americans and they need to eat, sleep, work, go to the hospital, have children, etc. Once you can communicate in those situations, a bit of the charm wears off. But as soon as life is beginning to seem normal again, you start to notice and pay more attention to the smaller things. Your view naturally becomes more subtle as your familiarity with every day life increases. And in the end it’s the tiniest of things that stand out the most.

If my plans work out as I expect them to (and if there’s anything I’ve learned over the last year it’s that this is rarely the case), I’m going to make a concerted effort to take note of and describe more of these little differences that I experience in my day to day life. And who knows, those observations may even lead to a good blog post or two.

Hope you’re all doing well.


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!



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.