Sunday, August 21, 2011

German Education System

Sadly, I didn't take any pictures of the University so here is a picture of our German Culture Today teacher taking us on a tour through Landau.

The education system in Germany differs greatly from that in the United States as well as in other countries. The discussion of education often came up among our international group within the first few months of the semester, which led to interesting comparisons and contrasts. Before I elaborate on some of the international discussions, I'll give a little overview of the German system.

Children in Germany can attend a Kindergarten from ages three to six, which is more of a preschool than the "Kindergarten" class that we tie in with elementary school. Each state differs slightly, but most elementary schools run from first to fourth grade. Secondary school is then divided into three different tracks: Hauptschule, Realschule, and Gymnasium. Hauptschule typically ends after the ninth grade and is designed for students seeking vocational work. Realschule is an intermediate school, ending after the tenth grade. And finally, Gymnasium is the school system designed for students moving on to University after they pass a final test in the 12th or 13th year, called the Abitur. (I might also mention Förderschule or Sonderschule, which is a separate school for children with special needs.) In order to determine which school students will enter, a test is administered in fourth grade. However, once a student is placed in a specific tract, they do have the opportunity to move to a different school but I am not sure on the specifics of how or how often that occurs.

Now this system may be a little shocking to Americans, who are used to a basically one-size-fits-all public education. In some ways I do see having a separate vocational and intermediate school as a positive, since some students in high school tend to drop out because they are just not interested in sitting in a classroom learning subjects that might not pertain to their future area of work. (Although I do believe a basic high school education to be very important for everyone. Drop out rates occur for many different reasons, including a lack of vocational training possibilities). But, on the other side I believe separating the students after the fourth grade is much too early. Many students don't settle into their intellectual capabilities or interests until much later. And by the time they are slotted to a school, it seems very unlikely for them to move up due in part to stigma assigned by others, and by themselves. It may also take an intellectual toll on the immigrant community. If a child has recently moved to Germany, or has not yet had enough time to perfect their German because they come from a bilingual household, they may be at a disadvantage to getting into the Gymnasium track which leads them to college. Realschule students who decide they would like to go to University will first have to take one or two years of prep classes in order to do so, which means there are opportunities for them if they choose.

Most Universities in Germany are public, costing students from around 90 to 500 euros a semester depending on the state. Many students take a year or two off in between to travel or work, meaning that most of the students you will see are slightly older than your typical American university 18-22 year olds. And some students may even wait several years to get a place in their choice university. It is difficult to explain the average number of years spent studying because each subject varies slightly. Landau had a large population of students studying to become teachers, who needed about the equivalent of a masters in order to teach. This took about five-six years.

Moving on and opinions aside, here are some of the interesting international tidbits I picked up:
Universities in Greece are on sovereign land that cannot by policed. This leads to many runs for safety and drug sales on campus. At times, rocks and other dangerous items are also thrown at police waiting on the outside. Private schools in the Czech Republic and Slovakia are not seen as being of high quality, since in many cases students and parents believe they don't have to work or be taught if they have paid for their education--it is thought that the students are just handed their degrees.

There will always be debates on how to best educate our children and which systems work better, but our German teacher at Coe always emphasized that sometimes you cannot always define something as better or worse, just different.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Auf Zwei Räder Bleibt Man Jung!

                                      "One remains young on two wheels"

I found this quaint phrase written on the bell of my wonderfully klappriges Damenrad that I rented from ASTA, a student organization at the university. For 50 Euros I could keep the rattling, squeaking, but functional bike for the semester and the money would be returned in full when I returned the bike intact. Not a bad deal considering how important that bike would become to me during the semester! And in fact, I knew I would appreciate a bike even before I got it. My sore feet could attest to that. It's true that Landau is a small town, but perspectives change when your only source of transportation is your own two feet.

The main campus of the university is only a three to five minute walk from the Wohnheim, but many classes are actually spread throughout the town. Back at Coe, I'm used to jumping out of bed and running across campus to class in a measly few minutes if I need too, but in Europe it seemed that many campuses were spread throughout the city. My hypothesis is that since towns and cities were already well developed and had less space than in the U.S., where a college could buy up a large track of land to house their campus as a whole, European universities had to improvise with departments set up in buildings wherever they could find space. In fact, the English department in Landau is located off the main square in an old French barracks, while some political science classes are housed in the Frank-Loebsches Haus, which is an old Jewish housing complex that also contains a museum (once owned by Anne Frank's great-grandfather in the late 1800s). From the Wohnheim it takes about 15 minutes to walk to the main square, but on a bike you can do it in five to seven minutes. A huge difference if you want to save time in getting to class!

Germany is a very ecologically-minded country, shown by its use of public transportation, trash separation to support recycling, and bicycle friendly cities and country sides. Most students living in Landau used a bike as their main form of transportation because cars can be very expensive (gas prices also come out to about $9 a gallon) and the fact that bikes are so much more convenient in a small town with narrow streets and limited parking. This also means that Germans take bicycle laws very seriously. We soon found out (one of the exchange students through experience) that it is illegal to ride your bike while drunk, and the police can in fact take away your driver's license for such an offense. It is also illegal to ride your bike at night without a light, but I'm not sure of the fine that goes along with this law. Both of these laws seem like common sense, but it was still amazing to think about some of the same vehicular laws applying to bicyclist because we don't normally think of bikes as being a main form of transportation in the United States. This being said however, most bicyclists in Landau didn't wear helmets, something I found very interesting in such a safety-conscious nation.

My mom didn't like the fact that I didn't have a helmet to wear either, and she liked it even less when a fellow Coe student fell off her bike and chipped several teeth. Mom then joked that I should start wearing a football helmet! Didn't happen to say the least. Luckily, I didn't have any spills on my bike. Although my favorite part of the ride from the Wohnheim was a fairly steep, winding cobblestone road down past the university. I would woosh down the road, wind rippling through my hair and pretend that I was flying instead of careening perhaps too quickly around the curve. Several times the thought occurred to me, "If I suddenly had to stop or something happened to my trusty but old bike, I would be splattered horribly on all of these cobblestones..."But I enjoyed the thrill each time nonetheless.

My bike and I went through many adventures including pitch black rides through the forest to the Wohnheim when the headlight would decide it was done working for the night. Riding the bike in total darkness was a lot more comforting than walking through total darkness, but a little more precarious. You had to practice getting the last turn off to the apartments just right, by feel of course--I can't emphasize more about how dark it really was in there--so you wouldn't get whacked by the branches on either side of the path. I also had to remember to bring a little plastic bag with me if it had recently rained because my seat had a crack in it that exposed the foam stuffing, perfect for soaking up water and storing it until I sat down and got a wet pair of pants. The bike also had a terrible tendency of eating up my pant legs and depositing grease on them whenever it could. Although, my all time favorite memory of my bike was the unfortunately hot day I decided to fill up my tires at a small bicycle shop downtown. I got a little too much air in the back tire and within a few seconds it expanded further, bursting the inner tube. No, "bursting" is too light of a word. It was an EXPLOSION that left my ears ringing and my mind in total confusion for several moments before a few people came running around the corner to see what had happened. Luckily I could just leave my bike there at the shop and pick it up the next day as good as new.

I've had a bike at Coe every year, but it never seemed like I got enough usage out of it. I think that after my semester in Germany relying on my bike to get me around everyday, I will take advantage of using my bike more often in Cedar Rapids. It's a newer bike of course, with gears and lights that actually work, but I still think I will miss my klappriges Damenrad.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Landau in der Pfalz

Unfortunately my blogging fell to the wayside for the rest of my time abroad, but there are still some things that I would like to share about my experience before I go back to school at the end of the month and have no time whatsoever to do any blogging :)

I last left you in Berlin on a sunny spring day, the day after which my mom and I took the train to visit our friends Alwin and Elisabeth in Hamburg. After a wonderful few days in Hamburg we were off to Katzenbach for an overnight stay before moving (finally) on to Landau.

Landau is a small town of about 43,500 people, situated in the southwestern corner of Germany in the state of Rheinland-Pfalz. This area of the Pfalz is commonly known as the "Tuscany" of Germany for its temperate weather and abundant vineyards. My mentor Sarah picked us up at the train station and brought us to my new apartment in the Studenten Wohnheim, or student apartments. It included a small bathroom and kitchen (well perhaps I should say refrigerator, sink, stove top and cupboards--not really a kitchen), and fairly large bedroom. Luckily, my room was located on the third floor overlooking the forest and mountains in the distance. This was as opposed to the other side of the Wohnheim which faced a less scenic hospital. Sarah also took me to Aldi to get some groceries and other last minute essentials for living on my own. After exploring the university campus, a five minute walk through the woods from the Wohnheim, my mom and I walked down to the Marktplatz or town square (another 10 minute walk) before a teary goodbye at the train station. I walked back alone to the Wohnheim, feeling a bit sad but also exhilarated to be out on my own. I loved Landau already. A cute little town with many shops and cafes, easily accessible by foot or bike, and surrounded by a lush countryside filled with vineyards and rolling hills.

                                                   View from my window the first evening

Friday, June 3, 2011

Sunny Spring Day in Berlin

                                 View from atop the Fernsehturm

Day 5: Tuesday March 29th

            We have absolutely gorgeous weather today. The skies are completely clear, leaving us with a sunny and crisp spring morning. We take the S-Bahn to Alexanderplatz and make a quick visit to the Marienkirche, which is the oldest operating church in Berlin. Then on to the Fernsehturm—TV Tower—which was built in East Berlin and meant to be a symbol of the prowess and technological advances of Communism. Unfortunately, the architect had not foreseen that the mirrored ball would reflect a golden cross on sunny days. It was then lauded in the west as an ironic symbol of the perseverance of religion. A speedy elevator takes us to the top of the tower--six meters a second, forty seconds to the viewing deck. Our ears definitely popped. We are rewarded however, with an astounding 360° view of the city. Ina points out her former apartment in the East, where the border lay, and all the areas of the city that were reduced to rubble during the war and later made into parks.
            Sabina told us that when she was 17 and recovering from an illness, she went to visit her godmother in the West. Since the rest of her family had the opportunity to leave the east to visit her, they gathered birth certificates and a few other belongings in a hurry to escape to the west. This was only one day before the wall was constructed, which would have blocked their exit. The decision was sure to have affected the rest of her, and her family’s life. Several years after, her mother died of a heart attack followed six months later by her father. Sabina blames the stress of escaping for their deaths. Even families who were able to escape had to deal with hardships.
            After the Fernsehturm we walk towards the Museum Island and take a boat tour that highlights the Berliner Dom, The Parliamentary buildings, The Reichstag, the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) and more. Afterwards we walk to one of Eddie’s favorite Currywurst stands, which features several varieties of sausage including Ostrich! On our walk to the bus, we stop by a swanky Chocolatier shop that exhibits a giant chocolate egg, Easter bunny, Reichstag model, and volcano erupting with chocolate!
            To go home, we decide to take a bus through the Turkish section of town. Turks are currently the largest immigrant group in Germany. Many came during the 60s in search of work and decided to stay. Their influence on German culture is often seen with the high presence of Döner stands—similar to Greek gyros. Many small shops feature Turkish script, but the highlight of the neighborhood is a children’s playground that is decorated in a middle-eastern style. 

                                Giant Chocolate Easter Bunny...mmm

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Train Troubles...

                           An Eichelhäher in the cemetary

Monday, March 28th--Bright and Sunny!

We get up early and head over to the Jewish Quarter to visit the old cemetery. It is an enclosed area about half the size of a football field, tucked between buildings but at least twenty feet above sidewalk-level. It is heaped with rows of jutting gravestones because it was the only area allowed for burial when the Jewish community was confined to a small, swampy corner of Prague. Graves would be continuously added on top, raising the cemetery overtime to its current height. The nearby Pinkas Synagogue was especially impressive and sobering with its walls covered in the names of local victims of the holocaust. It also contained a small exhibit of artwork done by children in the Terezien Ghetto. The Spanish Synagogue was our last quick stop before heading back to the hotel to catch our taxi to the train station.

Troubles…the person who had taken our reservation for the train yesterday had written Sunday’s date on it rather than Monday’s…We go to ask for new ones and learn of an accident that had delayed the train for 2 hours. Just wonderful. (They also wouldn't give us new reservations, so we decide to chance it and not buy new ones) We eat lunch and take a walk outside the station while we wait for the train. While out, we notice a girl frantically calling after her German shepherd, who was not paying her any attention. Afraid that the dog might run out into traffic, we stop for a while to see if he would run our way. He does. My mom and another man detain him while his owner catches up. It was rather strange because he still won't come to her. She had to put his collar back on and drag him along to get him to go with her. Later, we saw her in the park with him. He is loose, chewing on a stick by her side. We observed many dogs loose in Prague, but I can’t imagine why she would so readily let him loose again after he had run away. Apparently he was under control and minded her better.

Finally on the train headed for Berlin. The scenery is gorgeous, but I wish we were just a few weeks later, as I’m sure everything would be much greener. The river runs below the tracks to the rights for much of the journey out of the Czech Republic and into Germany, bordered by sloping hills and cliffs dotted with picturesque villages.

We meet Eddie at the train station and drive to Neukölln. His house is near a large field where the wall once stood, separating them from Eastern Germany. Waiting at home are Eddie’s girlfriend Ina and her cousin Sabina. Dinner consists of leftovers from Eddie’s 70th birthday over the weekend—Tiramisu, meatballs, potato salad, bread, cheese, and cold cuts. We are also introduced to Eierlikör—or egg liqueur—which is Ina’s traditional way of greeting guests. It is a thick, syrupy composition made from egg yolks, liqueur, and sugar. They also suggested serving it over ice cream. Mom hated it, I thought it was ok. It probably would be better to serve it as a sauce rather than drink it, because it is so thick.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hussite Service in Czech

                 Chandelier in St. Nicholas' Cathedral

Day 3: Sunday March 27th  Cool and cloudy, no rain!

Mom suggests that we try going to a church service—more out of curiosity than religious devotion to going to church every Sunday. We meet Lenka shortly before 10 and head to the nearby St. Nicholas Cathedral for a Hussite service. The yawning ceilings and arches gilded with gold inspire awe, along with the massive crystal chandelier above our heads. Soon the organ starts up, accompanied by what sounds like an operatic choir. There are only a few people here, mostly tourists like ourselves, so the Pastor (or whatever she may be called) does most of the singing of hymns and incantations. Unfortunately, her Czech sermon goes on for quite some time so we decide to sneak out during communion. More people have filed into the back during the service, their presence making our o’er hasty departure feel a little less sinful. I confess that sitting in the cold, wooden pew listening to a service in a foreign language helped me understand why churches were so elaborately decorated and why there was such a push to change Latin services into the local vernacular.

On to the train station to make reservations for our train on Monday. We then make our way to the Devil’s River area, which was ironically peaceful and filled with benches, walkways and parks. Lenka shows takes us to see several unique little pieces of art done by the Czech artist and sculptor, David Cerny . The first was a statue of two men, penises in hand, peeing on a map of the Czech Republic. Definitely not a piece of public art you would find in the US. God forbid you have a statue of a naked figure in public when a girl in lingerie lounges on a billboard nearby. The next was a series of three giant, crawling baby statues---but without faces. Lenka told us that the artist likes to make pieces that cause intrigue and attract attention. They definitely do. A quick walk past the Lennon wall---the only one allowed to have graffiti on it so it changes constantly. It was a symbol of rebellion during communist times. We were glad to get out of the Old Town area for a while. It is definitely a tourist hub. Another walk down the Charles Bridge and to a Czech Bakery for a treat—Lattes and Crepes—yum! Lenka has to work on a group project later in the afternoon however, so we bid her a sad goodbye after a short stop for a few souvenirs.

Now, mom and I are alone to navigate the city. We head back to the hotel before going back to the river to have a dinner on a boat, watching the sun set behind the castle. 

                 Part of the Lennon Wall

Monday, May 16, 2011

No defenestration with painted windows

 Overlooking the city with the castle complex to the left (St. Vitus is the darker cathedral)

Day 2: Saturday, March 26th Somewhat cloudy, but no rain!

We meet Lenka around 10 and take a streetcar up to the Prague Castle—a large complex of buildings including the St. Vitus cathedral and the seat of the president. After walking through the central courtyard and down a narrow cobbled street, we stop at the palace belonging to the former royal Lubkowitz family, which is now partially a museum. Surprisingly, the audio tour is voiced by William Lubkowitz (with an American accent). His father, Martin Lubkowitz, escaped Prague with his family as a young boy during the war, and hadn’t been able to return until the fall of communism. The narration often sounded arrogant (perhaps due to the script rather than the narrator), stating several times that family's property and treasures and been stolen from them twice--once by the Nazis and then by the Communists. And they had to work diligently to reclaim what was rightfully theirs afterward. I couldn’t help but think about the millions of people who were just as affected by Nazism and Communism, but did not have the resources to reclaim what had been lost to them. They didn’t have the power or the money that comes with royal status. Regardless, the collection included many incredible paintings, furniture, and other pieces. My favorite room contained instruments and music from the 1700s. They even had 11 and 12-key oboes! Most impressive was the original and annotated score of Beethoven’s "Eroica".

A short break for a late lunch—salad and lentil soup and Gnocchi before a trek uphill to a magnificent view of Prague. Then down Nerudova Street (named for writer Jan Neruda), which is the historic route linking the castle to Charles Bridge. It now contains many cafes and souvenir shops selling absinth and puppets. Lenka points out a house with two rows of windows that at first glance looks like any of the other ornately restored buildings in Prague. However, some of the windows were painted rather than real. She explained that at one time the city had a tax on windows, so homeowners who wanted to save a bit of money but still have an aesthetically pleasing exterior would paint artificial windows instead. 

 See the difference? It's pretty hard to tell at a distance!

We finally cross Charles Bridge and return to our hotel just before dark. Mom and I venture out again for a cup of tea and some dessert before bed.