minutia

The next few weeks are going to be pretty exciting… I leave for Berlin on Thursday for a long weekend, the next weekend is the beginning of our Pentecost Break, during which I’m traveling some of central Germany with my dad and then flying to Poland (!), and then the next week I’m going on a school-sponsored trip to Vienna! So expect lots of cool stories from those big events.

For right now, though, I just wanted to share some random little thoughts with you that I’ve had and that don’t really make up a full post in themselves. Little things about life abroad, life in Freiburg, or whatever it is I’ve noticed. Because small things matter too.

First, I’ve noticed that Freiburgers are really committed to what they like. If they want to do something a certain way, that’s how they do it, by golly. I’ve noticed this personified in two things: ice cream and bicycle riding. Random, but hear me out.

Ice cream (gelato, really) is really popular here… there’s literally a gelato place (Eiscafé) on every street. Cones are relatively cheap and it’s great quality. And Freiburgers eat it all the time. It’s not just little kids that you pass on the street eating ice cream. It’s businessmen in suits, moms pushing strollers, college students, cute little old couples… everyone. And they stick to it. I’ve seen people eating ice cream in the rain. And once after a cold front blew through. On days when even I didn’t find the idea of ice cream the least bit appealing, Freiburgers didn’t think twice about ordering a scoop or two. I admire that, in a strange way.

Biking is also huge… I’d say that half of the city’s population gets around by tram, and the other half by bike. Again, it’s not just college kids or hippies, the way it is in Austin. It’s everyone… businessmen, elderly people, moms and dads with kids. It doesn’t matter what clothes you’re wearing… suits, dresses, skirts; and any type of shoe will do, too. The weather phenomenon holds true here, too. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night will stop a Freiburger from riding his or her bicycle. Even on rainy days when I wimp out and take the Straßenbahn, you can bet that 80% of fair-weather bikers still ride to work or school. The people that impress me the most are the parents with little kids who haul a stroller attachment around on their bikes. That, my friends, is dedication.

Second, Freiburg is as big a hippie town as Austin. Seeing people with dreads walking around everywhere reminds me of home. The street-people-with-mangy-dogs thing happens here, too, but it doesn’t seem to be as widespread as in Austin. I think the hippie population is a little more noticeable now because of the anti-nuclear energy mania that’s gone on since I got here. In fact, the other day, a friend and I went on a little day walk around the city and ended up in the middle of an anti-Atomkraft rally. It wasn’t as much a rally as it was a get-together of banner-toting like-minded individuals in a field listening to anti-atomic energy A Cappella music (not joking). It was like a huge city-wide family picnic. About nuclear power.

Third, I’m learning so much about other cultures… and not just German culture either (though I’ve kind of been repeatedly smacked in the face with it). One of my closest friends here is from Australia, and we spent a lot of the day on Saturday talking about politics… not as much politics, but comparing the systems in our respective countries. She asked me a lot about what Americans think about Obama, and what we think about George Bush, and how elections work and all that jazz. It turns out that news media is biased all over the world, not just in America, so she was glad to hear an actual American’s viewpoint. It’s funny how different our system is from Australia’s considering the relatively similar histories of our countries. I also had a conversation with an exchange student from China. It seems like the structure of second-language education there is actually quite similar to ours… everyone takes English starting at age 10 or so, but then once they graduate from high school they basically stop. I don’t know how accurate that is considering I only talked to one person about it, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Finally, there are certain things about living in another country that you wouldn’t think would be a big deal, but then they are. Like, now that I ride my bike, I’m constantly afraid that I’m unaware of a bunch of major laws about bike riding and that I’m going to get pulled over for breaking them. Or the fact that classes here, if they’re scheduled to start at 10, actually start at quarter past. It took me a few weeks of sitting around for 20 minutes at the beginning of every class before I asked someone about it. What a time suck. Also, Germans know so many bad American oldies. I went dancing with some friends at the Jazz Haus, where it was 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s music night, and I got seriously out-Americaned by a bunch of Germans, who apparently know more Kenny Loggins than I do. Go figure.

top five friday: bonus “halfway” edition!

It’s been quite a while since I’ve done a Top Five Friday post, so I’m making this into a DOUBLE Top Five post! I know… awesome.

So as of next week I’ll have been in Freiburg for 2 months and I’ll have a little more than 2 months to go in my exchange. (WHAT?! Where in tarnation does the time go??)  To commemorate this milestone, I’m going to list my Top Five Favorite Things I’ve Done So Far, and then I’m going to follow that up with my Top Five Things I’m Most Looking Forward To. And because I just got out of a 9-hour-long class (seriously, what the heck?), I’m going to rely heavily on pictures. Here goes!

My Top Five Favorite Things I’ve Done So Far:

1. Travel with my mom

What a super fun week! My mom and I get along really well–we’re just similar enough but also different enough from each other. I really loved getting to hear fun stories that I’d somehow never heard before… how she tricked her mom into letting her get her own dog, how she made a horrible cake for my dad right after they got engaged, how she used to work crazy ridiculous shifts when she first became a nurse. It was cool.

2. Get to know Freiburg

My first month here was during the Semesterferien, which meant that no one was really here… so I explored a different part of the city basically every day. I know Freiburg like the back of my hand now (sorta kinda). I’m pretty proud of that. This picture is halfway up the Schlossberg, the hill that overlooks the city.

3. Experience the “taste of Europe”I’ve had beer in Germany, wine in Italy, schnitzel in Munich, pasta in Rome, Rösti in Switzerland, and Alsacian Wurstsalat in Alsace-Lorraine. And of course Bockwurst in Freiburg!

4. Mix travel with faithMy trips to Rome and Vallendar, for JPII’s Beatification and to visit Schoenstatt respectively, were great… a little sightseeing, a little prayer, lots of good times.

5. Make German friends: I don’t have any pictures with them yet, unfortunately. But I have met some pretty fantastic people who are awesome and very patient with my German and lack of bike-riding skills. Also, I have discovered that awkward dancing circles are a universal occurrence among young white people.

My Top Five Most-Anticipated Future Adventures:

1. Go to Poland

2. Do touristy things in Freiburg

This starts tomorrow, when a friend and I are going on a photo tour around the city!

3. See castles

Except that German castles > Swiss castles

4. Travel with more family! Yay! Ryan and my dad are (hopefully) both coming to visit me!

5. Be spontaneous! Yes, this is my cop-out answer because I don’t have anything else 100% planned yet…

Stay tuned for all this fun stuff and more! Happy Friday!

on bilingual education

Note: I have little to no authority on the topics about which I am writing today. Deal with it.

I’m in this class called Bilingualism. I find it really, really interesting… it’s like child development, linguistics, and sociology all rolled into one. But really, I think its main purpose is to make me feel, for two hours a week, completely inadequate language-wise.

For the whole lecture, we learn things about how young children acquire their first language (L1)… the stages of language perception and production, the simplifications children make to their native language,  the effect of parent-child interaction on language acquisition, and so forth… and then we learn about second language (L2) acquisition and the different ways by which one can acquire a second language… naturally, through immersion, residence in a bilingual society, or because of bilingual parents; and artificially, through schooling.

The disparity between the level of proficiency one can reach at an early age through natural acquisition and late-onset proficiency through artificial acquisition (which is 100% how I’ve attempted to acquire German, until this semester) is just downright depressing.

Little kids’ brains are like freaking sponges. Once a child hits the threshold of about 50 learned words, their brain just takes off and by age 10 the average child knows 40,000 words!!!! Not to mention syntax, grammar, and societal language norms like formal cases and etiquette, which are also naturally learned as opposed to arbitrarily taught.

My brain, however? Not exactly sponge-like. Even when I was 14 and in my first ever German class, I was already beyond the level of development at which language acquisition naturally occurs. (Most facets of language acquisition are basically fully developed by puberty.) So basically, fluency in German and subsequent bilingualism is going to be a lifelong endeavor for me if I desire it. Talk about daunting.

Now, I know (and such has been pointed out to me a few times since I’ve been here) that I am very fortunate that my first language is the most important language in the world. I can more-or-less effortlessly and sophisticatedly express myself to a majority of the world’s educated inhabitants. And I know that the reason I was not raised bilingual is because my mom wasn’t raised bilingual; her parents, who both speak Polish (mostly when they don’t want us to know what they’re talking about), wanted their children to be American, so they didn’t pass on the Polish language. But I am still so jealous of people I’ve met here who can switch from English to German to French pretty easily (and who, oh, by the way, are also learning Greek and Latin and Spanish. No big deal.).

It makes me question the general foreign language education system in the US. Now, I am aware that the education system in general is a little bit out of whack and way underfunded at the present time, but that is neither here nor there. As far as I know, the norm is for American students to start learning a second language (let’s be real, probably Spanish) in 6th grade at the earliest. In my particular school district, we had the option to start a second language in 8th grade, and I didn’t start until 9th.

THAT IS ALREADY TOO LATE!!!!

At that point, students have missed the cognitive bus, so to speak, as far as sound formation, vocabulary acquisition, syntactical structures, and general Sprachgefühl go. Therefore, learning that second language is freaking difficult. Therefore, students will probably give up after a few years without having learned very many useful language skills.

I mean, I realize that for optimal timing, you would need to be raised bilingual from the get-go, which isn’t realistic for most people in the US. But the earlier, the better. Or, (PAUSE! Time to use one of my favorite German constructions!) Je früher, desto besser.

I’m studying in Baden-Württemberg, a German state that borders on both Switzerland and France… Freiburg itself is less than 30 minutes from the French border. Lots of people here have learned both French and German since early primary school, and they can at least function a little bit in French. Not to mention all the people in Europe who learn English very early on, acquiring better proficiency than most Americans could ever dream of attaining in a foreign language.

I won’t even get into the current pragmatic impossibility of what I am about to suggest for fear that I would be hurled into a severe state of depression about the future of the United States. BUT I really think that starting foreign language instruction at an early age is the most practical way to teach foreign language. Yes, it is extra effort for administrators, teachers, and students. But at least it is effort that has a chance at success.

Currently, it seems that the model is this: 2-4 years of teaching Spanish to a bunch of frustrated high schoolers, most of whom drop the language after they meet their graduation requirements. That, to me, seemed like wasted time, effort, and money. But if we started earlier, leading to greater immersion and better acquisition, wouldn’t more students stick with the endeavor and become better masters of whichever language they were trying to learn? (Ok… Spanish.) Again… I am not an expert on education reform. But this just makes sense to me.

For now, I guess the most sensible solution for me personally is to marry someone who is fluent in a language other than English. Then we can raise our children bilingual. If you want something done right, do it yourself, right?

bloom where you’re planted

One blog that I read has a running theme called “Bloom Where You’re Planted” that focuses on looking at the positive side of any given situation and making the best of it… being fully present where you are, right now.

Bloom wherever you are planted.

Don’t wait until you are moved to better soil.

Don’t wait until you have more sunlight.

Don’t wait until you have cleaner water.

Just bloom.  Right there.  Where you are.  Bloom where you are planted.”

I really like that.

I’ve been recently working on trying to become more self-assured and content with myself… basically, being confident that I am where I am for a reason.

I have absolutely loved being in Germany, but it seems like lots of people are coming to Europe for the summer having already finished a regular semester at school, so I started thinking that I had somehow played my cards wrong because I’m not quite there yet. That is entirely the wrong attitude… I’m getting to spend 4 months here, not just traveling, but living here. How cool is that?

The timing of my trip has been a little interesting, too. My brother graduated yesterday. I’d known for a year that I would miss his graduation, and it was definitely not ideal, but that was just how it had to work. And then he was named valedictorian of his class… so I missed not only his graduation, but also his speech and one of his (and my family’s) proudest moments. I’m also missing my grandparents’ 60th anniversary (*edit… originally I typed “birthday”… my grandparents may have young spirits but they are not 60 years old!) celebration next month and the resultant Swaintek family reunion this summer, which I am also quite sad about. But I’ve realized that while it’s sad that I can’t be with them during these exciting events, I’m not being kicked out of the family… plus, my sister and her best friend made a “Flat Annie” that they brought to my brother’s graduation brunch and ceremony. I got to meet her over Skype yesterday… how weird. But awesome.

And now a lot of my favorite people from camp are getting ready to head back to Big Sandy for another summer at the Pines… and I’ve found myself getting really sad about not being able to be there this summer. So many of my best friends are going to be there, and I have so many amazing memories from that place, and it’s hard to let that go. But I’m working on it. It’s becoming so clear that my time at the Pines completely transformed my life, and I know that, if I give it the chance to do so, my time in Europe will be a chance for me to grow so much, as well.

So yeah! Good things are on the way here. I’m loving it. I am working on staying in the present, which is always hard for me, but when the present is so amazing, it should be a little easier, right?

(P.S. If you are reading this but have NEVER commented, you should totally leave a comment. Right now. I dare you. I want to know who is reading my blog!!!)

beautiful basel

This week, I kind of got fed up with all the ridiculousness of my class situation (I think I FINALLY have it figured out… after 3 weeks…) and being alone in my dorm worrying about it, so I decided that this weekend I would go to Switzerland. You know. Because I can.

So I asked my friend Elysia if she wanted to come along, and she invited a friend as well, and this morning we set out for Basel, which is only about an hour from here right on the Swiss-German border. Our original plan was go go to Bern, which is a little further from here, but because of budgetary restraints we decided Basel would be a better and more economical option. That ended up being good for two reasons: first, because there was a derailment on the Deutsche Bahn line today which caused all sorts of confusion and delays and resulted in both of our trips taking twice as long as usual, and second, because all three of us loved Basel way more than we had expected to. It is a fantastic city and I had a great time.

Elysia, me, and majestic Rhine! The part of Basel you can see in this picture is actually the German side.

My friend Christie needed to check out one of the museums in Basel for a class presentation, but first we took a quick walking tour around the city. Basel is half in Germany and half in Switzerland, and the two halves are separated by the Rhine. We spent the day in the Swiss half of the city, but walking down the Rhine looking at Germany was pretty cool. We also saw the Münster (far less impressive than Freiburg’s… nice try, Basel), the old city gates, lots of cute little alleys leading in between cute little German buildings, and a city-wide flea market.

We made our way back around to the Museum der Kulturen, or Museum of Cultures, that Christie needs to write a 6 page paper about for one of her classes. I really do not envy this assignment because I can honestly say that this is the strangest museum I have ever encountered. The first two rooms, completely white, had a bunch of random artifacts organized in no particular pattern… an Egyptian statue here, a Dutch tricycle there, old Native American tools hanging from the ceiling… and pictures everywhere of buildings under construction, more specifically of the museum itself being built. We later, after about 3 times walking through these 2 rooms (which comprise about half of the museum) realized that the geniuses who put together the exhibit intended to juxtapose ancient tools, buildings, and construction techniques with modern ones… hence the model of an ancient pagoda right next to a picture of a Basler building. Clever idea, but not quite enough to merit the creation of an entire museum. And it still does not explain the tricycle.

The one continuous theme of this museum was the lack of a theme, because the second half was a monument to Carnival in Basel. It was full of creepy clowns and creepy masks and kind of cool but mostly creepy music.

We decided that this museum was the result of someone owning too many creepy masks, deciding to open a museum containing their unsettling collection, realizing that they did not in fact possess enough Carnival paraphernalia to fill an entire museum, going to the city-wide flea market and buying a bunch of random crap, and then juxtaposing said random crap with pictures taken during the construction of the museum. Sounds great, right? It definitely resulted in lots of laughs and a general appreciation for the fact that entry was free. Because I would have seriously regretted paying to see this museum.

Speaking of money, Switzerland is inhumanely expensive. Prices are so incredibly high! 23 francs for a meal I could get in Freiburg for 7 Euro? 2 francs for an ice cream cone I could get in Freiburg for 80 cents? What gives, Switzerland?? Granted, Swiss francs are a little cheaper than Euros, which is nice, but I would like to ask the Swiss why they have to be such nonconformists all the time. Because even though the Euro is expensive, if nothing else it is convenient. Not so with this whole “unique currency” business. By the time our day of sightseeing/money-spending was over, I had about 9 francs left to spend. Which is too much to waste without guilt, but too little to buy very much of consequence due to the aforementioned extremely high prices. Luckily, I was able to get a shirt from H&M and a bottle of water to exhaust the rest of my funds for the day.

On our way out of the city, we came across probably the best (or at least the least expected) sight of the day. The square where the huge fruit and vegetable market had stood earlier in the day, there was a large group of people assembling something made out of sheet metal, which Elysia jokingly guessed was a rocket ship. After our last-minute spending spree, we came back out to the square to find that she had been right… that the Basel Symphonic Orchestra had, in fact, constructed a huge model rocket in the middle of the Marktplatz. And it appeared that they were planning on launching it into the air by filling it with a large number of helium balloons. So of course we decided to stick around another half hour to witness this spectacle. Some symphony members dressed as astronauts campily waved farewell to the admiring crowd, and the emcee led us in a countdown accompanied by (what else) classical music. At last, behold: lift-off.

It was anticlimactic, to say the least. But it was some pretty inventive publicity for the symphony. One of the coolest parts of the event was the balloon release… symphony members walked around handing out little cards on which you could write your name and address, which could then attach to a helium balloon in hopes that, after the balloon pops, whoever finds it could return the card to the symphony and both parties would receive a symphony-related prize of their choice. Because I’m not sure how long in the future this would hypothetically happen, I chose to receive a CD as opposed to free tickets to the symphony… I’d hate to win something that awesome after returning to the US and not be able to use them! After tying our info (with fake e-mail addresses, don’t worry!) to the balloons, we set them free.

An awesome way to end a fantastic adventure.

dilettantism

So, you may remember that I was a little bit unsure about how many classes I was supposed to enroll in here. Turns out I was justified in my uncertainty, because yesterday I finally got some competent, calculable guidelines about how credits will transfer. And it turns out I need to add like 2 more classes.

I kind of freaked out. For this I apologize to my parents and my friend Andrew, whom I called on Skype either a) in tears or b) unable to hold a conversation because of anxiety. I also apologize to the nice woman at UT who was trying to help me via e-mail (and who kept calling me “Alex” instead of “Annie”…), whom I barraged with frantic questions about transfers and course selection.

But it’s all OK now because I think I found 2 more classes (fingers crossed) that aren’t full yet and that will bring me up to 12 hours! Praise the Lord!

The thing I’m most excited about here is that the classes I’ve found as I’ve been scrambling to get my hours up to full-time actually seem like they are going to be some of the more interesting ones I’ve chosen. I’m super stoked about my Bilingualism class (which is cancelled this week… boo), and last night in my last-minute scramble I found a class called “American Literature and Culture After 9/11.” I know–totally weird to take an American culture class in Germany, but there’s only so much left at this point… PLUS one of the required books for this class is “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer. I’m about halfway through Foer’s first novel, and I love it–I can’t wait to read his take on 9/11. (Hopefully–I’m praying that, when I go to this seminar tomorrow, the professor will not tell me that I registered too late.)

So that’s good… hopefully this all works out.

My class choices (as of right now, I’m in one art history/theology seminar, a medieval history lecture, a linguistics lecture, a German class, the aforementioned American literature seminar, a media history lecture, and a PE class) are a little bit sporadic, partially out of necessity and partially because my interests are a little bit sporadic. This is not the German way. They don’t study the liberal arts here. Not all of them. You have to pick one thing. And then that’s all you will ever study. EVER.

That is basically the opposite of my collegiate career, because I just can’t settle on one subject. I can’t decide if this is really good (I have wide-ranging interests–by honing them I can become a true Renaissance woman!) or really bad (I have a short attention span and will never do anything practical with my life!). I’ll settle for something in the middle–it’s good that I have wide-ranging interests, and eventually due to this exploration I will find the thing that makes me want to do something practical with it. Right? Right? It has to be right.

As for right now, practicality takes the form of a 30-minute presentation I have to write, translate, and give on Friday. It’s on Jean Gerson. In case you were wondering. So this procrastinatory entry needs to end… like… now.

reason #503 why i love being catholic

“Catholic brotherhood and sisterhood are deeper than the brotherhood and sisterhood of men, for Catholic brotherhood and sisterhood are forged in and through the blood of Christ.” -Anonymous

I came across this quote today, and it kind of encapsulated something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. In my experience, this is absolutely true… my friendships which are founded on a mutual love for and belief in Jesus and His Church are formed quickly, last forever, and are especially meaningful to me.

Actually, full disclosure… a vast majority of my friends are Catholic. I’ve always kind of known that, but it was hammered home when I got to my dorm here and was putting up my pictures… and realized that every single person in my photos was Catholic. Except one, but she’s since entered the Church.

I love that I share my faith with so many of my friends, but I do realize how important it is not to “isolate” myself, so to speak, by only being around people who agree with me. I do have challenging relationships with people who don’t believe the things I do. And I know I need to step out of my comfort zone more often than I do now.

But when it comes to true brother- and sisterhood, friendships with people who make me want to be holier and challenge me to be better, that my friends share in the things that are most important to me is necessary.

What I love the most about this brother- and sisterhood in Christ is summed up in this beautiful quote from St. Augustine:

“A true friendship is impossible unless you bond together those who cleave to one another by the love which is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”

True story. St. Augustine is pretty smart. I have experienced this kind of Holy Spirit-guided sisterhood several times in my life… when someone has been put in my life and we have grown extremely close in a short amount of time. I am so thankful for those friendships, and those ladies know who they are 🙂

And even when this spiritual connection doesn’t lead to a once-in-a-lifetime, accountability-partner, be-each-other’s-bridesmaids type of friendship, it creates something very special indeed. Every group of Catholics I’ve ever been a part of has had an inexplicable bond. It’s not like we sit around talking about Jesus and going to Mass all the time (though those things are awesome)… but I think there is a sense of closeness that comes with knowing that you have something in common.

It’s kind of like the camaraderie I’ve experienced in my Plan II classes. We know that we, as classmates, are going to go through the hell of physics and thesis writing together, and that we will also get to share in the joy of our ridiculous professors, general pretension, and the completion of the aforementioned rites of passage. We know that we, and we alone, understand each other. Because let’s be honest, no one else knows what Plan II even means.

Being Catholic is exactly like that, except the things that we share are the crux of our existence. It’s pretty legit.

That being said, the Catholic Church is the universal church, and I have found that my love for welcoming Catholic communities has come with me to Germany… and luckily I have found quite an awesome Catholic community here!  Right when I was getting to the point where solitude was getting kind of old, activities started up for the semester at the Katholische Hochschulgemeinde (KHG).

The first night at the KHG, we had Mass and then all shared in a meal and fellowship. Leonie, whom I met when she directed me to the correct room for Mass because I probably looked extremely lost, introduced me to a bunch of her friends, and we all shared a delicious pasta meal, answered goofy ice-breaker questions (which are a lot more difficult in a foreign language!) and enjoyed some music performed for us by two guys who live at the KHG (which a dorm-esque living community as well as the Uni Freiburg equivalent of the UCC). It was the most fun I had had in a while! Just an incredible sense of home.

Today, some of the people I met that first night at the KHG were having a barbecue because one of the girls’ brothers was in from out of town. (The Germans love to grill. I love that the verb that they use to describe it is “grillen.”) So I went!

The plan was originally to go grill outside somewhere, but it rained, so instead we went to one of the girls’ apartments and grilled up some delicious sausages, steaks, and other assorted things (like feta cheese, which is just as delicious grilled as it is un-grilled), which we enjoyed alongside salads and side dishes we had all contributed. SO MUCH FOOD! (In related news, I learned the German equivalent of a food coma: Suppekoma! I thought that was amusing.) And, even better, the feeling of being at home was still there.

Friendship is just so universal… you laugh at stupid things together, make fun of each other, complain about your schoolwork, and play dumb games that wouldn’t be half as fun if the people playing them weren’t so awesome.

I was reminded a lot of my own little Catholic cult at home when we busted out the group games. We played one called “Die Werwölfer von Düsterdorf” (the werewolves of the eerie  town… haha) that is basically like Mafia… one of my American friends’ faves. The fact that it was just a little bit different from Mafia and that I wasn’t 100% focusing during the explanation of the rules may have led to me later inadvertently killing myself… but that’s ok! It was a great time nonetheless.

Honestly, I had been starting to get down about being alone most of the time. Because I live alone, I am by myself a significant portion of the day. But thanks to the hospitality of some great people, I now feel like I have a place here that I can call home, and that feels pretty good.