Abschied

The last few weeks have been busy and hard and beautiful all at once. I did a German exam, said goodbye to all of the children and staff at school, cooked with youth group. I cried silently at the train station as Inma left to go back to Spain, and swam in the lake. I visited my God-family one last time, and had tea with Sibylle. I cooked delicious food with Judith and Chokri and barbecued with the refugees from the language course. I spent a week with 25 young girls on a summer camp filled with walks and stories and fireflies and glitter and cake and singing. I came back to an evening of street theatre and dance with Lisa and her family. I was prayed for at church, and cooked dinner for 2 pilgrims who had walked 410km from Weimar. I cleaned the apartment with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. And tomorrow is the day I fly home.

I have been saying goodbye for a few weeks now. There is a word for how that feels in German – Abschiedsschmerz, the pain of parting. I have had to disentangle myself from people I love, and watch them keep walking together as I slip away.

I asked Mareike if there is a German word for the opposite of homesickness – when you will miss the place you are in, rather than your home. She said there is no word for that. Because when you feel like that, then it too has become your home. So why am I surprised that I am not ready to leave?

One of the girls in my class on the camp said ‘I like that I can always cuddle you in school. Oh… I mean, that I could always cuddle you.’ I am not ready to be past tense. I am not ready to file away this part of my life, and readjust to a new present. I am not ready for my plane ticket to be one-way, no return. I am not ready, yet. And still, tomorrow is the day I fly home.

Right now, I am stuck in limbo between two countries and two seasons of my life, almost finished and almost starting again. I am anticipating that the next few weeks will be just as much of a culture shock as the first few weeks in Germany were. Adapting to a different rhythm of life is tiring, and I need to relearn how to live in England – it is unsettling when what was once familiar suddenly seems strange. I do not like transitions.

But I did like it here. I liked the spontaneous barbecues, the sunshine-filled days, the friendly handshakes, the fresh bread rolls, the dramatic thunder storms, the fruit-filled quark cakes, the sweet cherries that grow by the side of country lanes, the shimmering lake, the quiet streets, the Sunday ‘Ruhetag’, the people who I got to know.

I have come full-circle, nearly. I arrived in the summer, 11 and a half months ago, and the warm breeze and summer holiday calm remind me that I have lived here through 4 entire seasons. Through breathtaking autumn leaves and deep snowdrifts and rainstorms and sunshine. I feel as if I blinked and missed it. So I will keep whispering to myself that it was real.

Jetzt ist es soweit.

Auf Wiedersehen, Görlitz.

Klassenfahrt

From Monday to Wednesday, I got to go on Klassenfahrt with the Year 3 class (8-9 year olds). We went to Melaune, a nearby village, and had the best time.

On Monday we walked and snacked and swam.

On Tuesday, we did craft and games and trampolining and football and circus skills and barbecuing and singing round a campfire. The songs were new, but somehow familiar, and I rediscovered how happy I am looking at burning embers as the sun sets with lovely people and lilting melodies floating through the air.

On Wednesday, we cleaned and came home.

Judith’s class is an absolute dream. The kids are independent, obedient, co-operative, creative, peaceful, adventurous, quiet (more or less), and friendly. How often does it happen that you can take 19 kids to an outdoor swimming pool and not hear a sound? We could sit in a pool to watch them as they queued patiently for the slide, followed all the rules, passed each other food for Vesper, got changed without so much as a squeak. They were happy with every activity, they worked well together, and (aside from one 4.50 wake up call), they slept well. Every child was included, all the time. When we checked on them in the evening we were ushered out of every room (where they were all in their own beds, pyjamas on, teeth cleaned) because a child was reading them a story out loud, or we were disrupting their prayer time. All of the helpers went back feeling super relaxed and happy – I don’t think I will ever go on a class trip like that ever again! Judith – danke, dass du mich eingeladen hast ❤

(photo credits: Marek Giorgi, who documented the trip in the most beautiful way possible)

Last Thursday, I also went on the end of year day-trip with my Year 1 class. It was… well, different from Klassenfahrt. The kids are different, and let’s just say that some of the attributes listed above are not applicable. But it was no less wonderful. We spent the first few hours at school weeding in the garden, cleaning out the animal cages and watching the first Sams film, before getting the bus to a stables in Friedersdorf. There we were met by parents of one boy in my class, and we set off on a walk, accompanied by a pony called Jurek. After 5 minutes, when 2 of the children had already started with cries of “my backpack is too heavy – can you carry it?”,”my legs aren’t strong enough” and “we need to stop for a break right now” (the latter accompanied by literal digging in of heels and grabbing on to the long grass), I was feeling a little apprehensive. However, a picnic lunch and some team games did the trick, as did strategically timed rides on the pony, and we all arrived back in one piece. Then their parents arrived for a bring and share picnic, which was delicious.

I stood on a grassy bank at the edge of the group, watching as all of the kids played with each other and their siblings, and seeing the parents sitting on picnic blankets playing the guitar, eating watermelon and chatting about life. I was sad that soon, I won’t belong to them any more, but also overflowing with happiness that I was allowed to for this season of my life. What a privilege to have been part of the kids lives this year.  I was just passing through, really – but that community of people, teachers, children and parents – they are in it for the long haul. And if they can keep even a fraction of the magic and friendship of that evening going, then that community is going to be something really special.

 

 

1 month to go

In exactly one month, on the 11th July, I will be flying back to England. I have one short month to cram in a lot of people and places and jobs that need doing.

All year, I have been learning to say goodbye. I have adapted to the fact that in a school, your firsts are often your lasts, too. That many things, we only get to do once. But now is the time when the familiar, every-day, routine things are coming to a close. Term finishes on the 23rd June, and before then, I have a 3-day class residential trip, a day trip to a Polish exhibition and a language exam, all on normal school days. That leaves 5 days of lessons with my class. As many as I have fingers. Particularly in the cold months of autumn and winter, that seemed like an age away. On Saturday, Inma and I will say our official goodbyes at the Sommerfest, and all of a sudden, we won’t belong here anymore. It will be time to move on again, to make space for new volunteers, to let our classes go. It is a happy-sad season of our time here.

So now, I am trying to say yes to everything, even when there is no time to do it. I am choosing to stay calm about the exam I haven’t prepared for, the packing that needs to be done, the dissertation, the preparation for the week-long holiday club, the class trip with the Year 3s, the EVS report I have to write, the presentation I am doing on Thursday for some future volunteers. I am choosing to smile and laugh and eat too much cake and neglect the washing up and spend too long in the sun. I am choosing to sleep less and talk more and enjoy the stillness and welcome the busyness and hug my favourite people tightly. Because in a month, this will all be over – everything will be finished, all the stress will have been forgotten, the slate will have been wiped clean  – and I won’t get to do it again. I am trying to hold on to the moments loosely, and savour them as they slip by, bitter-sweet and delicious.

 

 

Busy days, full heart

This has been a fun week.

At the weekend, Poppy came to visit, and escaped Bamberg for the weekend. On Saturday, we drove to Bad Muskau with Mareike (my DoS has been encouraging me for months to go to the big park there) and we had the most perfect day. It was very hot, and we picnicked by a lake with a view of the Schloss. After lunch we walked across the border into Poland and wandered there, before stopping by the river to paddle and skim stones (I managed it for the first time ever!). We finished our time there in a Biergarten, having watched the steam train leave, drinking cold juice. I am lucky to have 2 such wonderful friends.

Sunday included church, lunch with a friend from youth group, and then watching Trolls. What a happy film. Poppy helped me make 20 cards, one for each child in my class, with something they love on the front. I will fill them with photos, and messages and friendship bracelets and hand them out to the tiny little hooligans that I spend my time with.

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On Monday, we went to the Tierpark and I got to show Poppy all of the animals. Her favourite was the donkey ❤

And then we baked cakes, and walked to the little lake along the river. It was beautifully still. I will miss this place.

In other news, there is now a zoo in my classroom. It is bring-your-pet-to-school-for-3-weeks in my class, and the children are looking after all the animals. I have mixed feelings about the smell, and the chaos, and the capability of the children to remember to feed them – but other than a few small mishaps, it has been a good experience. It is funny how quickly you get used to the chirping and snuffling and munching of all the little creatures. I may actually miss them a tiny bit when they leave!

 

‘Are you fluent yet?’

An often unseen layer of a Year Abroad is, strangely enough, language learning. So here is a snapshot of some of my experiences speaking German this year. 

When I applied to study languages, my friends joked that they now wouldn’t be able to get a word in edgeways in 3 different languages… (Rude. But a little bit true.) Part of the appeal of learning a foreign language for me is definitely speaking to new people – not just with short phrases and pleasantries, but real conversations about real thoughts and feelings. I like people, and I like talking to them – so it isn’t a surprise that speaking German makes me happy, and so do the people I speak German with.

At the start of this year, the sheer volume of vocab and grammar and idiom that I learnt every day meant I needed a lot of processing time. I had to concentrate to listen, otherwise I would simply hear and ignore. Phrases that we hadn’t been taught were new and puzzling to me, too short to give me a context, but demanding a response. I couldn’t switch off, because the thoughts that run lazily through your mind when you’re about to fall asleep demanded to be translated, and then multiplied and intensified in response. My tongue felt heavy under the weight of things I wanted to say and couldn’t untangle quickly enough. In conversations, I had to listen because I was too slow to contribute. There were days where I would go home and cry in frustration that I just couldn’t explain what was in my head. Sometimes, being able to explain 70 or 80 or 90 or even 99% of your thoughts isn’t enough, because there’s still something that remains trapped and unarticulated in your mind. I started writing to free those trapped words, to help me process verbally when I lacked the people to do it with. And I remember for the first time appreciating how beautiful it is to effortlessly weave words together. I learnt to love my mother tongue for everything it could offer me and all the time I had spent, unthinkingly, getting to know it.

And now? Now, I have lost my reflex to translate everything. German is comfortable for me, and somewhere I feel safe. Not quite home, but maybe the home of someone you love. A place where you can stride in and put the kettle on, throw of your shoes, and relax on the sofa without needing an invitation – and yet a place with unfamiliar corners: the code to the safe, the place where the pegs for the washing line are kept, where you don’t know the ins and outs of the insurance policy – a place where if you answered the phone, it wouldn’t be for you. And most of the time, those corners are unimportant. You can run around for ages without reaching them, and maybe, if you didn’t stay long, you wouldn’t notice they are there. But every now and then, you aren’t concentrating on where you’re going and – BUMP. Back in the corner. A discordance, a setting-apart from the people whose home that is, a reminder that your familiarity doesn’t run as deep as theirs.

Sometimes I want to retreat, withdraw, curl up in a ball, because feeling vulnerable is hard. And when I am here, even on the best of days, my surface level of confidence is easily fractured by the fragility of my adopted language. Learning to speak when you know with certainty you will make mistakes, and not be able to express what you really want to, is quite wearing. The torrent of new information doesn’t last the whole year, but the vulnerability does. It is more tiring than I thought it would be.

A friend here, also not from Germany, told me at youth group one week that there are some days, irrespective of how high your language level is, where you just can’t break through. Where the words feel like a riddle, and the sentences are secretive, and you just can’t understand. This has been a comfort to me – knowing that amongst the days where I switch effortlessly between English and German will come days where I forget the easiest things, and feel like a stranger in a room full of friends because we are set apart by a language that we have in common – this is a calming truth. It protects me from frustration and self-doubt and isolation, and reminds me that it is ok to be a bit lost, even 9 months in to my Year Abroad.

I have less than 2 months to go – and so I should have an answer by now, to the question ‘are you fluent yet?’, which I have been asked so many times. I would really like tell you – but I just don’t know. Instead, here are 3 things I do know:

  1. I know that the answer to this question depends on the perceptions of the person asking and answering it. Maybe it means ‘are you coping ok?’, or ‘do you feel like you’ve reached the goal you set yourself?’ or ‘have you had a dream in another language yet?’ or simply ‘can you hold a conversation and communicate what you need to be able to?’. Maybe it is a filler question, because language is a safer topic than asking about work or friends. Or maybe it means something entirely different. I find it hard to give an honest answer because I might be answering a different question to the one you asked.
  2. I know that aiming for fluency is one of the biggest pressures that Year Abroad students face, and yet one that is often taken for granted. We are told it should be our baseline (after all, what is a linguist who can’t speak the language…) – on the days when apathy and homesickness and exhaustion make us feel worthless, the biggest blow of all is that we are not even managing to work on our language skills. If 100% of our time should be in our target language, then every hour not speaking our target language chips away inescapably at our chances of becoming fluent. Not only do the goalposts keep moving, but there is no way of catching up when you inevitably fall behind. I know that this attitude is hurtful for lots of YA students, and that we often don’t talk about it.
  3. And I know, most importantly, that I can aim to become more fluent every day – but German will never be my mother tongue. And that is weirdly reassuring. Every day speaking a different language erodes the gap between your abilities and those of a native speaker – but no matter how hard you try, you don’t ever get to swap categories. Fluency is continuous, but native languages are discrete. And German is not mine, no matter how much I love it or how good I get.

I’m really happy in my second language home – I like it here, and I want to treasure this time where I am surrounded by a language that I love. And I am going to try and remember that these highs and lows are right and important, richtig und wichtig (if you say it in German, it rhymes… how satisfying). If fluency means arriving, then I’m not there yet… but I’m quite enjoying the scenic route. 

Filling the gaps

I’ve not written anything for just over a month, so here are some things that have happened in that time.

The weather warmed up for just long enough for an early-April ice cream. It then got very very cold until yesterday, but a few sunny days definitely cheered us up.

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I got a First Aid Qualification after a day of training at school, and picked up some new vocab along the way (stabile Seitenlage, anyone?). Here is mine and Inma’s cheer-up-the-injured-children plaster application attempt…

I got ill, and navigated the German doctor’s surgery by myself (with some moral support from Inma, some stern instructions from Mareike and Sibylle, and a kind and helpful doctor). I am happy that that 3 week long hayfever-cold-earache-tonsillitis cycle is now well and truly over, because that was a Not Fun Time. Antibiotics are wonderful things, and I now understand why the advice is to sign off work before you get to the point where your immune system is well and truly flattened. Better late than never, I suppose.

My parents and brother came to visit, and we explored Dresden and Görlitz and Rosenbach. This was in the middle of the antibiotics haze, so I wasn’t great company for my long-suffering relatives, but I was proud to show them around my home, and introduce them to some special people. G got to practice his German a little (somewhat reluctantly at times), we went to an amazing museum, they met my animal friends in the Tierpark, it snowed, we baked scones with my God-family and ate some delicious food. We got to stay in a stunning bit of the Altstadt in Dresden, which was an absolute dream. Here are some photos (mostly taken in the dark, after I had been at home all day trying to recover while everyone else went to explore):

I went to the zoo in Dresden with Lisa and her family, which was the best thing for my heart. Spending time with Lisa and Stefan and Ruth and Hanna outside of school is always special anyway, but the kids know me better now, and a combination of toddler cuddles and animals just made for the best day. I forget how much I enjoy voluntarily spending time with little children, and how children do come in a littler size than 6. Ruth sat on my lap for so long when I was reading her stories and listened so intently that I felt like I could have read for hours more. There is just something very special about the trust and friendship and enthusiasm of children. [Especially those that you are not contractually obliged to spend time with.] And Lisa’s gentle encouragement, friendship and guidance has been such a blessing this year.

I finally finished my language work for uni. 1000 words in German of stylistic and thematic analysis of an article on language courses is NOT THE DREAM. But, it is finished. And submitted. Just a teensy bit late – but after all, they can’t get to me here… mwahahah. And now I won’t have any more of that until I actually start the module in October. Let’s pretend that’s not a thing though, because it took me an awful lot of hours and an awful lot of online dictionary usage to compile an even semi-comprehensible essay, and I don’t want to think about doing that in an exam. Just the YAP to go, now.

I had a long and much-needed chat with Jess, who was (at the time) just about to finish her YA – empathy for YA struggles is the best thing, sometimes. And this girl shares my dream of primary teaching, and understands the struggle of the 10-days-work-experience-in-a-UK-school requirement, AND was willing to debate with me about the pros and cons of different PGCE courses. Shout out to Poppy, the third member of our MML trio, who has been at the other end of the phone at perfect times for love and encouragement in the last few weeks, and who is coming to visit SUPER SOON!!!

Inma and I took advantage of the bank holiday Monday to cycle to the lake. It was a lot colder than expected so we had to walk around a lot to keep warm, but was very beautiful.

We had Tag der offenen Tür at school, which was a crazy day of sweeping and moving chairs, face painting, recorder playing, acrobatics-performing, cake-eating and cheering on the children doing the bike rally, finishing with a barbecue. The bike rally was genuinely a highlight of my year… the kids are sponsored to cycle around the block for 1 hour, with part of the course including a massive hill. Seriously, it’s huge. And they cycled up it every 4 minutes. All of the teachers, friends and family take it in turns pushing them up the hill and cheering them on. 3 of my class took part, and 2 of them are really small so it was hard for their little legs – and they were just amazing. AND they took part in the acrobatics performance less than an hour later. So proud.

I interpreted a presentation on Niger from French into German for 5 different classes, which was something I did not think I could do. Translating between two foreign languages isn’t something we’ve ever had to learn or practice, and I was pleasantly surprised to be able to resurrect a good portion of my French for the occasion.

2 months to go now until I’m back in England!

Thankful

The last few weeks have been mainly quite routine, with some special moments mixed in. Here are is a whistle-stop tour of some of the things I am thankful for.

I am thankful for our school musical. For the chance it gave the children to stand proudly on a stage and show off their hard work, for the story that was shared, for the months of preparation from the whole Mitarbeiterteam. I am also thankful that even with the hectic schedule of the day and the lack of breathing space, I enjoyed every second, and didn’t let it go by in a flurry of stress and instructions and child-herding.

Musical Mitarbeiter

(I can’t post photos which have children in, so you’ll have to look at the relieved faces of all the adults at the end of the show. Don’t we look colourful! Photos of children are on the school website here, if you want to see the real stars – http://www.ev-schule.de/pages/posts/musical-dankbar—ein-voller-erfolg-175.php )

I am thankful for friends who come all the way to Nearly Poland (see previous post). Hannah, Tabitha, Rachel – you are so precious to me!

I am thankful for the moments the children in my class are sweet and funny and a little bit crazy. Especially the moments without words, where they pull faces while balancing on one leg in acrobatics, or press a hair bobble into my hand so I can tie a ponytail for them, or greet me with a radiant grin and a handshake. They balance out the moments where I tear my hair out over a boy suddenly starting to write with a quill in an attempt to make his handwriting work go even slower (yes a quill. No, not a quill pen, an actual feather dipped in an actual pot of ink. This same child asked me today ‘if I was alive when Hitler was alive’ – thanks kid.)

I am thankful for all the people who remembered my 21st birthday, and sent me messages, or cards, or presents, and for all the people in my life who (like me) are not good at remembering birthdays but are the best at showing their love in other ways. I am thankful for friends far and wide, across different languages and countries and continents. [And I am sorry for my uselessness at remembering your birthdays. Deeply sorry.]

I am thankful to have made some progress on my Year Abroad Project in time for my first proper deadline. It wasn’t without its hard moments, but I did sit down and get stuff done, even on days when I wanted to crawl into bed after work. I am trying to remember what a privilege it is to be able to study.

I am thankful to live in a city where people continue to welcome me into their lives and hearts, even as my own country turns its back on Europe. I am so grateful to have the chance to live and work in Germany, and I am painfully aware that this may not be so easy to do in a few years.

I am thankful for a housemate who laughs and cries with me. This girl, she tells me she’s proud when I’ve been ‘fleißig’ trying to write my dissertation, reprimands me for procrastinating, still asks for permission every time she wants one of my tea bags. She can tell me about her day by raising an eyebrow and lets me nest on her bed just to chat. She has held me particularly close in the last weeks, as I grieve for Mark, far away from home. She rests her hand gently on my back as she passes by to give me wordless encouragement, and she can do the best impressions of the kids in her class.

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I am thankful for a Patenfamilie that share the good things in their lives with me. Fellowship, fun, Finding Dory, football. Visiting them in Rosenbach helps me to breathe when everything gets hard.

I am thankful for Skype, and for the people who chat with me.

I am thankful for hay fever tablets, walks through hidden hollows with Mareike, birthday cake, animal socks, hot water bottles, emergency chocolate, the DBS update service, hand cream, a kind and patient Director of Studies, people who correct my German, sunshine, Brötchen, colouring books, tulips, English Breakfast Tea. So many blessings.