Two years ago this month, I flew out to Germany to be a language assistant in a school in Thuringia. It was the first time I’d ever attempted to live in a foreign country, and I was excited and terrified in equal measure. As part of the whole experience, I resolved to keep a diary throughout the nine-month placement, with the idea that it perhaps might be suitable for turning into a book to help and inform other people thinking of doing something similar. It would be witty, thoughtful and informative, I decided, equal parts travel journalism and professional advice.
That barely lasted a month. The diary became more like a therapist to me as I tried to deal with the stresses of living in an unfamiliar place. It’s a faithful record of all that happened to me, but skewed by my own increasing mental fragility as time went by. I intend to post each entry on or as close to the date I wrote it as possible, other commitments permitting, both as a way of reliving that year for myself and – maybe – to entertain anyone else who wants to read it. Names have been altered slightly to protect people’s anonymity, but if you’re one of the people in this, you’ll probably be able to spot yourself. Otherwise, I’ve changed very little except to clean up especially awkward-sounding sentences and remove anything that was a bit too much information for the public domain.
Let the schadenfreude begin. This time: planes, trains and WOBBLY KNOCKERS.
Better to start at the beginning, actually. Monday morning was surprisingly painless; I woke up (somehow) at some ungodly hour and managed to function fairly normally all the way to the airport, where I was further revived by a full English breakfast which was quite good by Wetherspoons’ standards.
Bizarrely enough, I’d just made it to the gate when who should turn up behind me but J.L., a coursemate from Warwick, on his way to Germany for the same programme. Weirdness piled upon weirdness when it turned out that not only had we independently booked the same flight- with his seat directly in front of mine- we’d also booked the same train across the country for Thursday.
The flight was lovely. I had an entire row to myself, so I stretched out and fell asleep more or less as soon as the plane was in the air. Hadn’t even noticed I was tired up until that point.
And then, the baggage reclaim. Oh, the baggage. I’d been, er, admonished for having hand luggage weighing something over 12 kilograms (the supposed maximum being eight) and when I picked up the suitcase that had gone into the hold, I realised they’d had good reason for slapping a “heavy” sticker on it. I was in some significant pain from carrying both of these before I’d even gone a hundred metres; the train from Cologne airport to the Hauptbahnhof provided some semblance of relief before I had to shoulder the murder-bag again and drag the suitcase of death around a crowded shopping mall masquerading as a train station.
On the bright side, the weather was lovely.
It really was, actually. The British summer of 2009 will forever go down in history as being entirely unremarkable and worthless as summers go. Prepare for heatwaves, they said. It’s going to be really bloody hot, they said. And you know what? It wasn’t. But Cologne, on this particular day, the last day of August, was genuinely lovely. Sunny but not uncomfortably hot (once I took off the long thick trenchcoat, anyway). We had a drink in a café which was quite literally outside the front door of the cathedral. A complete tourist trap, of course, and I ended up paying more for my Diet Coke (Cola Light, as they call it on the continent and which I always feel compelled to order in a silly accent) than J.L. and some other language assistants-to-be paid for their Kölsch beers.
What a shame, I thought to myself, that I didn’t like beer. This would have to be a teetotal year for me or something, no doubt.
The trip across to Altenberg, where we had our induction course, was uneventful. I lay back, closed my eyes and complained at J.L. about my sore neck and shoulder muscles and woeful lack of sleep. When I opened them I found that he’d spent that time actually talking to new people and making contacts for the year ahead. Excellent multitasking there.
Then we had some lectures, which were boring, and a meal which was unremarkable. And then the bar downstairs opened, and what do you know, it turns out Kölsch is very nice indeed. I had a very slight hangover when I woke up the next morning at 6am (ouch), which was particularly embarrassing because I’d actually had to hand over my second beer to a very nice Irish girl. It turned out that while Kölsch is nice, Pils is not.
The next day I found out that Pils is nice, it just takes a couple of attempts to get used to it. The future, it would seem, is bright and beery.
On day 3 of the course, I had to hold a class about parts of the body, delivered to a room full of twentysomethings pretending they were six years old. We sang Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes and played Simon Says, and it was hilariously embarrassing for all concerned.
Day Four, the 3rd of September, felt like it was really Day One, since it was the day I left for Thüringen. And oh, boy, I was miserable for the first few hours. I was cold and tired and in some intestinal distress from acclimatising to German food (which, for all that, was certainly worth it), and on top of it all I had to lug those bastard bloody suitcases halfway across the goddamn country. There was also the minor panic attack I had at one point in Cologne Hauptbahnhof on realising I was alone in some bizarro-world where everybody spoke some barely-comprehensible language far faster than was at all reasonable and oh god what if someone mugs me. If they’d gone for the Suitcase from Hell, of course, I’d have laughed heartily and watched with glee as they collapsed to the floor after a few paces. That’s right, hypothetical mugger, have a taste of the medicine I’ve been force-fed over the past week. My luggage goes nowhere it doesn’t want to go.
After I got on the train, on the other hand, all was well. We followed the Rhine down south towards Frankfurt, passing beautiful town after beautiful town, and an isolated castle on a rocky crag every ten minutes. It was all rather lovely, and I put a particularly dense and noisy piece of prog through my iPod to unwind further. The German rail system, however, had chosen this particular day to have its one breakdown of the year and delay my train by seventeen minutes. Since my schedule allowed for ten minutes to change trains in Frankfurt, that meant I’d almost certainly miss it and be heavily delayed, but after two years of running around on trains in Britain, actually making the connection on time would have felt deeply strange. So instead I sat back and admired the beautiful countryside, and through some arcane Gothic magic, the train arrived five minutes early and I was able to board the ICE train, that god of public transit, with time to spare.
My seat was in a quiet carriage, with masses of legroom and chairs vastly more comfortable, even, than the bed I’d slept in for the past three nights. I nodded off fairly quickly and woke to find myself in a rather undignified position, head leaning forward and almost against the chair in front, drooling slightly. Yeah. I travel in style.
So I arrived in Jena feeling fairly refreshed and met I.B., my landlady for at least the first couple of weeks, and W.B., the head of English at the school where I’ll be teaching. More on them in a bit. They were very friendly, even if the conversation was hampered slightly by my not having spoken any German in about two months, and drove me back to the house where I’ll be staying for a while.
When I heard my room was in the cellar, I mentally prepared myself for, well, a cellar. But it turns out that the house is on the side of a steep valley, so what I actually got was a spacious and well-lit room with an incredible view across the town. Get in.
Later, after I’d unpacked and started to feel somewhat settled in (it turns out the horror stories about the taste of German sparkling mineral water are actually mostly untrue), the eldest child of the family, D.B., took me on a tour round the town.
Think of Thüringen as Germany’s answer to the West Country: wide open fields, tiny villages with tightly-knit communities, and very little to do. To stretch the analogy to breaking point, that would make Jena the state’s vastly superior version of Swindon: big enough to be a local entertainment hub for the very closest towns, but not actually important or interesting enough for anyone else to care about it. It’s better-looking than Swindon, though. Like every continental European country, the Germans have worked out how to put modern things into a historic town and not have it look horribly out of place. The one exception to this rule is the frankly inexplicable Jena-Turm, a glass-and-concrete skyscraper that sticks out very much like a sore thumb indeed; it even has a noticeable red glow to it. You can see it from my room, although I imagine the same can be said of every room in the town and probably most of Weimar as well, and while it’s a fairly impressive sight and a clever piece of engineering, it does look rather out of place among the medieval churches and crumbling towers. Those crazy Communists and their urban planning, eh?
Some thoughts on the people I’ve met over the past few days, then…
(Editor’s note: First impressions are quite the interesting thing, in retrospect. Perhaps as interesting as who I’m mentioning now is who I’m not mentioning; people who I met at the induction course but didn’t seem to realise would be such a big part of the next year. Funny how that can happen.)
J.L.- Technically, of course, I knew him already since, you know, we’re studying at the same university and all. But he’s the closest Warwick person to me, and on top of that he’s living in Weimar, which is unquestionably the best city in central Europe for literary geeking-out, so I’m sure I’ll be visiting him and his wonderful town some time soon.
P.M. is a lovely sort of chap, inoffensive, polite and quiet. I know very little else about him.
D.S., like P.M., is also going to be living in Jena this year. One of the first things he said to me was that he was a “jaded misanthrope”. “If I seem aggressive and misogynistic,” he told me later, “it’s only because I am”. During the roleplaying sessions, in which we had to pretend we were German students of English for the benefit of the assistant-in-training who was giving the lesson, I noticed Duncan taking copious and thoughtful notes. A glance at his notebook later revealed an entire page filled with useful English phrases including “HAIRY KNOBS” and “WOBBLY KNOCKERS”.
B.O.- the Irish girl I mentioned earlier. Funny, charming and easy to talk to. She lives in Erfurt, which is all of twenty minutes away by train, so I guess we’ll see a lot of each other.
I.B.- My host, at least initially. She’s entirely too generous, seems to be baking things all the time, and I’m left thinking I need to move out as quickly as possible or I’m going to get horribly fat and won’t ever be able to leave. I.B. has a family of four children, ranging from age seven to sixteen. They are all very friendly and welcoming, and exact stereotypes of their particular age groups. There’s even a teenage son with long hair and a tendency to mumble; my brother would get along famously with him.
W.B.- He looks a bit like John Lennon. There’s not much more I can say at the moment, since I only met him briefly, but he certainly fits the impression of the school that I’ve picked up so far. It all sounds a bit hippie… but I’m going in for the first time tomorrow, so I’ll leave it at that for now. Perhaps I can explain more next time.