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This is a long post about the week at Englischhausen. I thought about splitting it up but there were so many meet cutes and they were so intrinsically tied with the week that I just left all this information together.
The bus ride to the countryside was good, a few Germans came along and looking back now it’s fun to compare those first impressions to how I felt at the end of the week. The first afternoon of our experience at Englischhausen was a bit awkward, but exciting. The German businessmen I sat with at lunch explained to me that they worked at a big department store that was rapidly growing, but it was really pretty difficult to follow them and what they did exactly. I did not expect that by the end of the week we would be laughing and talking as easily as if we’d known each other for so much longer. I felt a bit weird explaining my situation, that I’m just traveling without a real plan, and I’m from Chicago and I’m not sure what I’ll do when I get back. But for the most part they seemed supportive and encouraging, and happy I was there, anyway.
We had a some introduction time and some guidelines to follow, of course, but the program was structured in a way that it ran smoothly and allowed for fun. There were altogether about 34 Anglo speakers and German students and throughout the week there’d be a combination of paired, group, and communal activities. The first afternoon we had an ice breaker activity where we had to check off different things, and everyone was of course apt to use me for the “I have a tattoo” box. We all found out a little bit about each other and that helped get the conversation flowing at dinner a bit. I sat with Martin that first night, an adorable German who later told me he was most interested in improving his English because he would be going to the states to meet his son’s fiancé’s family. That night, Susanne, our program director, kept correcting his pronunciation of Berlin, and I found it so funny and cute that he kept saying nuddles instead of noodles. But Martin had a great sense of humor and had a lot of great jokes throughout the week. I was sad to miss his presentation on happiness and importance of finding it in ordinary moments, but we were all flattered when he said at the end of the week that he had reached a level of happiness he hasn’t had in a long time. During our one to one the next day, he was very curious about Chicago and the sites to see and it was fun to chat about my city.
I had another one to one with Ursula that first day who was a vet and was starting a new job so she wanted to be prepared. We had great talks about our pets and her love of animals. I also had a good hike with Olaf, who told me about his sons and their difficulty with one because of his pretty severe epilepsy. Olaf was such a sweet man and also had a great sense of humor and had so many good jokes throughout the week. His family could not do much traveling but it sounded like they had a good set up at home and made themselves a nice life and had a great attitude despite their son’s struggles. He told me he loved the film Forest Gump. ?
We would have performances or presentations before dinner and I played and sang a few songs on the guitar for everyone. I think they really enjoyed them and it was fun to share that with them. I played ‘daddy lessons’ and asked if they knew the artist and it was fun to see their reaction to that it was a Beyoncé song. Also that night, a group did a theatre sketch and that was really hilarious. There were no words but their facial expressions and acting were excellent. We played taboo that night too and it was great to see the Germans do better than the Anglos because of their simpler associations and creativity. I came in late so I joined the Germans and it was hard finding words they would know or could explain easily enough! But for purple, Prince worked. Overall it was a really fun evening.
The days jumble into one, filled with different kinds of conversations, either in person, or on the phone, or a presentation by a German in front of a few others. There were also times we got 4 people together and had discussions about stereotypes and politics and the environment. Our one to one conversations were cool because we got time to talk more in depth about our interests and hobbies. With Roland we talked about his job and how the company was changing. He seemed like a really good manager, really cared about the future of the company, and enjoyed working with his coworkers who were very much friends, too. He played guitar, too, but more just for himself, and noticed that I sang the oldies very nicely. He seemed to be the brunt of the jokes with his two other colleagues that were also there, but not in a negative way, and he just went with it and had fun right back at them. Wolfgang was one of his colleagues and usually held a stoic expression, but I found him quite mild mannered and he spoke fondly of his cats as his children and the lovely times he has every year with his wife in the Canary Islands. Dieter was their boss and I thought he spoke the most German sounding English, very loud and emphatic, which cracked me up. He was happily remarried with a daughter about to go to Australia and was very encouraging of her new adventures and about traveling in general. He was one of the most appreciative of my musical abilities and the jam session around the fire. He was very funny when corrected grammatically, esp towards the end of the week, often saying “that was a test.” He had a very boss like persona about him. Udo, another businessman who worked for bmw bank, was quite the comedian and great to have around. During our one to one he told me he was in a band when he was younger and once played in front of 35,000 people, just for the fun of the competition. He spoke highly of his wife and two little boys. He always had something funny to say and his retelling of his phone conversation and intense concentration while trying to understand a scottish accent (eyes and curtains closed, lying on the bed, phone pressed to his ear) was so hilarious.
Sabine was a rep for krombacher beer and seemingly very much a businesswoman, but had a true lightness and joy about her that grew increasingly apparent throughout the week. She was excited when I told her that we sold her beer at the restaurant I worked at in Chicago, and from her I learned about the Balearic Islands and apparently I need to go there now. She does a lot of repping in Portugal and Spain and travels a lot for work, often meeting up with her husband in this city or that.
Margit was also a businesswoman in IT and we commiserated about the difficulties woman have in every single industry. She’s very intelligent and sweet and spoke of her 4 rescued cats that’s she trained with a clicker. We also bonded over the film Much Ado About Nothing.
Both Sabine and Margit were nervous about their presentations in English and practiced a bit with me, but they did a great job. I admire both of these women in their career aspirations and ability to not strictly adhere to traditional gender roles. I also had wonderful conversations with Barbara and Heike about their love of the English language and their view on the east/west division and reunion of Berlin. Barbara said it was not a better or worse life before or after, per say, but another life. Barbara was going to Chicago soon so I gave her some good restaurants and things to do there. Her son had stayed with a family in Iowa so they were still friends with them, and it was fun to listen to her talk about her sons. That situation made me want to someday have kids of my own to send abroad to live with another family. Haha.
Our Tuesday night there, the theatre sketch was an enactment of Monty python’s “I would like to have an argument” and it was hysterical. There was a mix of German and Anglo actors and they all did very good together, even though all the Germans were all asking what the word “abuse” meant afterwards. That night after dinner we had the bonfire and a throwing of twigs into the fire, one by one, to symbolically show something we dislike about English. Most said pronunciation and grammar things, Martin said the pronunciation of Berlin, ?, and I said I disliked the feeling of the need to perfect a language when there’s still an ability to communicate. But I release that feeling because I understand the desire and if I can be put up somewhere for a week to help others in that goal, so be it. We all took a shot of schnapps to celebrate. Then we all sang a song from our country. The Australians brought out vegemite, the Americans sang ‘take me out to the ball game,’ and the Germans sang a cute older song that they then tried to teach us throughout the rest of the week.
And then we all sat around the fire and I played more guitar, starting with 99 luft balloons, and took requests and played some of what I had. Olaf and Melissa bonded over their love of josh groban as we sang ‘you raise me up,’ Marc requested James Taylor, and Michelle wanted some maroon 5. Caitlin was an adorable Australian, quite energetic, and emphatic that she couldn’t sing, (but really could), and we all sang ‘hallelujah’ together. (She also taught us the cups game the next night and her primary school teacher qualities came out as we learned ‘clap, clap, tap tap tap,’ and the whole sequence. I’ve been wanting to learn this so I was very excited!)
I believe many of us were brought back to simpler and younger times in our minds through that evening around the fire, as a few told me how much they appreciated it the next day. We had a field trip to the local village and castle and that was really cool and interesting. There was a lot of really old parts of the buildings and churches and it was awesome to hear about how Germany used to be, much smaller principalities that functioned quite independently.
The theatre on the last night was a group of us that came up with a summary like sketch of the week we’d all just experienced. So we quickly came up with some scenes that had happened, some more than once, throughout the week; i.e., everyone sitting down to dinner and not really understanding each other; “I’m from Berlin, where are you from?” “Germany.” Or a conference call on the telephone where each German argued a different point to an Anglo with a thick accent, (“we should bring fruit baskets to Mars,” and “I set up a lunch for the queen of England”). Or a scene at breakfast where we’re all pretty sleepy and not talking much, but keep interrupting each other as we’re about to take a bite; or when we’re counting off to pair up and instead of starting over at 1, someone says 9, because that happened; and making fun of martin’s nuddles, (which while practicing he kept actually saying noodles bc he was then confused as to which was wrong. So funny). It was a hit and everyone enjoyed looking in the mirror, so to speak.
Our last night we had a party and we all danced our asses off. It was so lovely to see all these different people just letting loose and having a good time together. Some of the quieter ones really surprised me with their dancing abilities.
Meltem was a Turkish German and although seemingly shy, could really open up and she showed off her moves a bit, even though she admitted she really only danced for herself and with her friends at home. I feel sometimes wild and judged around Muslims for reasons I don’t really know, maybe because I don’t know many personally and I freely bare my skin and tats and hair, whereas they’re all covered up, but during my conversations with Meltem she never made me feel uncomfortable and I think it’s probably a common problem with Americans, to not have enough interaction with Muslims and the rest of the world, so they project their insecurities, as lots of humans do with things they don’t know. Meltem is a very intelligent and sweet girl, genuinely curious about the world and how to best insert herself and learn from others. She was eager to befriend me, which surprised and delighted me. I have a feeling we will see each other again.
Teddy was another German who really came alive on the dance floor, which surprised me because he was so quiet and polite all week, only briefly bringing out his guitar the night around the fire. Susanne really showed her stuff too, she was practically a professional salsa dancer and really raised the energy of the room. She was a spitfire of a German and really fun to talk to. She also really appreciated my guitar playing throughout the week and it was clear that she really wanted everyone to have a good time learning and socializing.
I think everyone had a good time celebrating the end of a great week. Caitlin and Margit made sure to bring in the businessmen who wouldn’t dance at first, so we finished with a strong dance floor participation. A few of us carried the party outside and my guitar was requested again so I sang a few more to wind down the night. It was truly a good party. Even Jorg, who was also pretty quiet but so sweet, stayed up till 3 with us, and maybe it was fatigue the next day that I saw in his eyes, but I think he was really a bit sad, as we all were, to leave such a community. It was touching how emotional we all were to say goodbye the next day.
I was more sad to leave than I expected, that’s for sure. What a fun and unique experience with people I never would have met otherwise. I didn’t say much about the other Anglos, but they all were so adorable as well. I totally hope to visit Bob and Beth in South Carolina, and I hope Michelle comes to see me in Chicago when she visits her son nearby, or if I could see Caitlin again somewhere in North America since she’s headed to Canada, that’d be sweet.
I truly loved the week spent with these people and I can’t get over how unexpected the plan to do that was and how it all worked out so well. I love life.