Tuesday, November 30, 2010

That (Im)personal Touch

The other day, one of our interns mentioned something about how she had been signed up to attend one of our seminars a couple months ago.  When I expressed surprise, she brought it my attention that we had in fact been in email contact about it.


Much to my distaste, I've realized that I've become a sort of automated response system.  I spend time almost every day responding to people interested in the work of pbi, either providing them with more information about our volunteer program or turning them down because they don't meet our qualifications.  In either case, I use one of several pre-written letters, taking the time only to change the name following the "Dear..."  I'm fairly certain that one of these days I will in fact forget to the change the name and will mortally offend some lady named Lena because I addressed her as Ralf.

Sure, it is not practical for me to take the time to learn the life story of everyone who sends me an email (and if I did, it would probably just creep them out); I just wish there was an efficient way to provide information that didn't leave me feeling like a robot.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Giving Thanks for Thanksgiving

 Having now spent my third (non-consecutive) Thanksgiving in Germany, I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on how I've been fortunate enough to celebrate this classic American holiday each year:

 I started the day by continuing in my quest to introduce as many Germans as possible to the greatness of Rice Krispie treats.  These were well-received by my co-workers, and I had the amusement of hearing them all try to pronounce Thanksgiving (Considering how my times my German pronunciation has been mocked, I have no misgivings whatsoever in taking amusement in their mistakes).
After work I headed to the home of the American family I knew from church who were hosting a big dinner. I didn't really know anyone, and, shortly after arriving, I realized I was one of the few people there that was neither a member of the military nor a spouse/kid of a military member..."Hi, I work at a peace organization..."
Still, it was pleasant, the food was delicious, and I got to chat about international law with someone who works for the UN.  Because, really, what says 'Happy Thanksgiving' better than international law discussions?

But the revelry didn't end there.  This year I was lucky enough to get to celebrate twice.  Saturday I headed to Kelly's house for 'Smug Married Couples' Thanksgiving.'  Okay, so they really weren't smug, but I couldn't resist the Bridget Jones reference, and it was me, 4 married couples, and 12 kids (10 of which were age 5 and under).  It was intense.
And the food.  Oh, the food!  The highlights included rekindling my relationship with green bean casserole and discovering my love for sweet potatoes.
And, we played Cranium!

The bounty.
This picture in no way reveals how excited I was to be playing this game.

I had taken a few days off from the girls' home and traveled to Hamburg to visit Anna and Sara, my two Swedish friends who were also doing an FSJ.
On Thursday morning, as we were discussing our plans for the day, they told me they were wanting to go to IKEA for Swedish meatballs. The fact that it was Thanksgiving had actually escaped my mind, so I wasn't too bothered by the idea of taking a trip to a furniture store.
But, lo and behold, their actual plan was surprising me with a trip to an American-style restaurant that was hosting a Thanksgiving buffet.  Those tricky Swedes.
After paying an exorbitant price, we were welcomed to a buffet filled with all the typical Thanksgiving foods, or, at least, what the Germans think are typical Thanksgiving foods.  My favorites were the muffins as desserts (muffins are inescapably connected with America here) and the bowl of giant marshmallows (apparently they missed the memo that they are traditionally cooked with the sweet potatoes).  The food was great, but I was much more thankful for the thoughtfulness of my friends in staking out the place and doing their best to make me feel at home.
Please take notice of the abundance of American flags as well as the turkey trying to bite my skull.

My program in Berlin had classes on this day, but luckily Thursdays were field trip days for my morning German language class.  And this time we took a trip to Deutsche Welle!  Deutsche Welle is basically the German version of the BBC and is therefore awesome.
[Sidenote to illustrate the coolness of Deutsche Welle: their website has these time-traveling programs/games where you can learn German by helping the hero Anna stop those who want to hinder Germany's reunification, learn French by helping the hero Eva against her opponents who want to take France back to the time of Napoleon, and learn Polish by helping Suzanna stop the gangsters wanting to prevent Poland from joining the EU.]
Needless to say,  getting a tour of an international radio/TV news studio was amazing.

I'm pretty pumped about my DW swag.

From there, I headed to my afternoon class, which was about the multi-culturalism of Germany/Berlin, and this class too was having a field trip.  So, I headed to the depths of eastern Berlin, where our class consisted of eating at a Vietnamese restaurant and hearing about the city's Vietnamese community.  Not a bad way to spend class-time.
Then, thought, it was really Thanksgiving time.  My friends (mostly Americans plus a Bulgarian and a Portuguese) and I had planned a potluck, and it was one of the most fun Thanksgivings I've ever had.  And, for being entirely cooked by a bunch of 20 year-olds, the food was quite delicious.  The most amusing menu item was the choice of meat.  Whole turkeys are hard to come by here, so instead, my friend bought a rotisserie chicken that are sold ready-to-eat all around the city.

Friends and a feast.

If there's one thing I've learned from my overseas Thanksgiving experiences, it's this: you can take the glutton out of America, but you can't take the America out of the glutton.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Day Is Done

The day is done, and the darkness
Falls from the wings of Night,
As a feather is wafted downward
From an eagle in his flight.

I see the lights of the village
Gleam through the rain and the mist,
And a feeling of sadness comes o'er me
That my soul cannot resist:

A feeling of sadness and longing,
That is not akin to pain,
And resembles sorrow only
As the mist resembles the rain.

Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.

Not from the grand old masters,
Not from the bards sublime,
Whose distant footsteps echo
Through the corridors of Time.

For, like strains of martial music,
Their mighty thoughts suggest
Life's endless toil and endeavor;
And to-night I long for rest.

Read from some humbler poet,
Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start;

Who, through long days of labor,
And nights devoid of ease,
Still heard in his soul the music
Of wonderful melodies.

Such songs have power to quiet
The restless pulse of care,
And come like the benediction
That follows after prayer.

Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.

And the night shall be filled with music
And the cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The week in review

Monday: Trying to convince the choir director that The Police's "Every Breath You Take" is a stalker song and really doesn't fit the imagery of a mother lovingly watching over her children.  Vois Sur Ton Chemin.  Free imbiss.  Celebration of religious diversity. 

Tuesday: Torsten not disappointing expectations with the Hand Song.  Laughing with pre-teens over Kotzende Kangaroo and James Bond.  Human Rights Taboo.  The handful of jr. high kids willing to discuss human rights at 5:00 in the evening.  Learning the proper greeting to use in Kenya.  Board games!

Wednesday: Being able to laugh about my paperless status.  Walking the streets of Hamburg en masse.  The right to demonstrate.  Peaceful protests.  The hope that social action will have an effect on Germany's refugee policies. The dichotomy of going directly from a demonstration to the movie theater. Living in a city big enough to offer movies in original English.  The magic of seeing a Harry Potter movie for the first time.

Thursday: Humor in the office.  Poking fun at Americans' bad taste.  Email from a friend I haven't heard from in a long while.  The smell of clean laundry.  Jon Stewart's wit.

Friday: An unproblematic rideshare.  Glimpses into the lives of others.  Seeing the sun for the first time in two weeks.  The beauty of deep greens and browns in the rolling hills.  Seeing hills at all after spending so much time in the city in the middle of flatlands.  The warmth of sunshine on my face.  Incidentally entering the shooting of a German TV show.  Bonn's Innenstadt.  Simply getting away.  Riding the train along the Rhein.  Knowing the trip was worth it for the view of the river and hills alone.  Sunset over the Rhein.  Taking an excessive number of pictures of the sunset as I made my way through Neuwied.  Hanging out with an 'ironic and sarcastic buddy.'  Amusing ourselves with all manner of ridiculous ideas.  Trying out pizza with spinach and feta.  Having my play ticket paid for by someone whom I'd met just 5 minutes before.  Liebe in Dunklen Zeiten.  Nighttime stroll on the Rhein. 

Saturday: Starting the day off with a book.  Finding the most awesome rainboots on the planet.  Pink shoes! Couscous and tzatziki on a baked potato.  The excitement of a free Brötchen.  Happy Hippos.  The ridiculousness of the 1980's European music scene.  Re-discovering the delights of a playground.  Exploring Mystery Island.  Receiving a wave from a barge driver.  Ellen taking song requests as a minstrel.  "You scared the Baby Jesus out of me!"  Strawberry-Elderberry wine.  The coolness factor of telling the flatmates, as they were headed to the bars and clubs, that were were going to the playground.  Trampoline!  Nighttime swinging.  Talks at the river.  Scheming the greatest retreat ever.  Salt & vinegar chips.  Mel Brooks' outrageous humor.

Sunday: More quality reading time.  Nutella toast.  The vast history offered by an old German cemetary.  A shared meal.  Ice cream.  A free concert and the soothing quality of classical music.  More strolling along the river.  Conversation flowing freely between German, English, and French.  Amusing hosts.  Die Erde von Oben.  More ice cream, topped with brambleberry-applesauce.  Tatort.

Taking Rides from Strangers

I'm a big fan of the German train system, but, alas, it is rather expensive.

So, for the more cost-conscious among us, there is Mitfahrgelegenheit.  This is a well-developed, nation-wide rideshare program where you can search on the website and find a ride for a reasonable price.
It can be annoying to have to contact 10 different people before finding someone who a) actually responds and b) has space available, and I have had a few experiences of last-minute cancellations or standing distraught in Cologne because the ride I thought I'd arranged didn't pan out.  Yet, all in all, I think it's a great idea.

I'm sure that the much longer distances between cities is a reason why the US doesn't have such a system, but I also wonder if it has to do with trust.  I feel like Americans have an overly-developed sense of stranger danger and that the media has provided us with so many stories of murderous hitchhikers/rapist ride-givers that many people would have definite reservations about making use of such a system.  Because, after all, Mitfahrgelegenheit is really just a more organized and efficient (aka more German) form of hitchhiking. 
Personally, though, I've never thought twice about it.  I just spent 6 hours traveling alone with a strange man, and my biggest worry was trying to sustain my feigned interest in his endless conversation.

On another note, ridesharing seems to be a prime opportunity to learn aspects of random strangers' personal lives.
If I had to make a generalization about Germans, it would be that they are rather reserved - you generally have to know them a long time before they open up to you.
Not so when cruising the Autobahn with them.  When riding back from Berlin with a lady (who worked as a journalist and now as a therapist for traumatized kids and is therefore my career role model), she proceeded to tell me about how she knows how having an abortion can affect a woman because she had had one herself.
And, within 5 minutes of beginning our journey to Bonn, a fellow passenger told us all about her quasi-boyfriend: the entire story of how they met, how he wants her to be with him but can't commit, how she is considering leaving behind her friends and family and a job that she loves to be with him, and how she was now on her way, unannounced, to visit in a last-ditch effort to win him over.  I felt like I was in a soap opera.

Oh the people you meet.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.

-  Eleanor Roosevelt

Counting the Blessings

Tuesday:  Cherry tomatoes on sale.  Pondering the possibilities of illegally riding the train by hiding on the luggage rack. Discovering radio on the train. Amusing Paul and Juli with my "Forever Young" dance.  Escaping the city. Surviving two back-to-back human rights workshops with confirmands and having them go better than expected.  Working to dispel 13 year-olds' prejudices against foreigners and those receiving governmental aid.  Torsten's inexhaustible enthusiasm.  "The man who calmed the sea!....Oh yeah."  "What's always the right answer in confirmation?  Jesus!"  Paul's humor. Singing and laughing over "Put your hand in the hand in the hand..."  Vegetarian Döner.  Singing "Heute kann es regnen" in celebration of Micha's birthday.  Snacks.

Wednesday: The opportunity to remember the events of Nov. 9/10, 1938.  Movie night.  The score from 'The Cider House Rules.'  Snacks.  "Good night, you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England!"

Thursday: Free concert.  'Solid Ground.'

Friday:  The uncommon experience of being completely alone in the office.  Listening to classical music while working.  Watching 'The Colbert Report' on my lunch break.  The satisfaction of a completed grant proposal.  The smell of clean laundry.  Chocolate with vanilla cookie in the middle.  The magic of Harry Potter.

Saturday: The lovely Fielmann worker fixing my glasses free of charge.  The enjoyment I find in running errands.  Reading TIME Magazine.  Chasing down protests and following riot police around downtown.  The singular experience of standing directly in between protesters and dozens of police lined up in riot gear.  The lack of major violence throughout the day's protests.  Skype calls with the family.  My 3 year-old niece serenading me with The Black-Eyed Peas' "I've Got a Feeling." More Harry Potter.  Amusing Skype conversation with Michael, in which I spoke in German and he responded in English.

Sunday: The rain pausing long enough for me to make my bike trek to church.  Richard playing "Before the Throne of God" on the piano.  Excellent hot chocolate and interesting conversation.  Spending two hours making sweet potato soup (with apple, carrot, and leek) with emotional support from Owl City and Jack's Mannequin.  Enjoying the delicious soup all the more because it took me so long to make it.  Brötchen fresh out of the oven.  Sunday afternoon walk, despite the rain.  The opportunity to remember those who died trying to reach Europe and in pre-deportation detention.  Thought-provoking message.  Stirring music.  Delicious bread and spread.  More Harry Potter.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Rejoicing on a Monday.

Leading 20 young adults in engaged discussion about human rights. All the hard work and overtime paying off in a successful workshop.  Laughing with my co-workers.  Seasons of Love.  Singing "For the Longest Time" in three-part acapella. Sharing an evening meal.  Playing Mensch Ärger Dich Nicht for two hours without getting bored.

Monday, November 1, 2010

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow