The bulk of May (basically all of it after recovering from the accident) was spent doing “normal” things—studying, hanging out, and visiting a couple museums. The anticipated Kaliningrad trip (that I was so excited about in the last entry) wound up being a no-go for me because I needed to get my stitches out that week. In the end I found out that the visa application they had given me was only for EU member states, and the chances of me being able to go on this trip as an American were probably about slim to none anyway, so all in all I’m not that upset that the accident kept me home. Especially because I had to prepare for my two major presentations of the semester on May 30th and 31st. The first one was for my class on Kaliningrad. My partner and I were responsible for discussing the Soviet settling of the region from 1945 to the early 1950s. The second was for my class on immigration into the Federal Republic of Germany, specifically reporting on the circumstances surrounding the arrival of family members of the so-called “Gastarbeiter” (“Guest” workers) in the 60s and 70s. I found both topics extremely interesting. Having everything in another language made it challenging. Having to present in front of esteemed German professors and 50-70 native speakers—completely intimidating. And of course my desire to work on the projects at all (especially in early May) was hindered by fatigue from the accident, gorgeous weather, and the fact that my host mom’s always telling me to get my nose out of the book and experience life in Germany. She’s right, but considering these two projects are the only graded work for the entire semester for these two classes, I was able to convince myself that it’s good to work sometimes too. It helped that the second half of May was cold and rainy. But one weekend I got so wrapped up in my work that I forgot to meet up with a friend who was passing through Bremen in her travels. That’s when you know you’re working too hard.
Both presentations went relatively well. It helped that in both cases I had really great partners who were supportive and understanding about my lingual shortcomings. And of course we get separate grades. But what is most important to me is that the presentations are over with.
Both of these classes are fulfilling my Dickinson “German class outside of the German department” requirements. That means not only am I studying in another language, but I’m studying outside my comfort zone. My immigration class is classified under political science. I have never taken a poli-sci class (with the exception of American Government AP in high school) and when it comes to legal jargon, I’m clueless even when it’s in English. The Kaliningrad class falls under history, and though I thought I knew a decent amount of European history (again, I haven’t taken a history course since high school), next to the German students in the class I feel like an idiot. The liberal arts approach is something quite foreign to many German universities, which makes studying quite frustrating for us Dickinsonians at times. Besides only understanding half of the lectures, I also know perhaps five percent of the background knowledge I’m supposed to for each course. I had always thought that a Dickinson education was a hard one to beat, but since coming here I’ve started questioning whether I’ve learned anything at all.
But of course, I have. When I was originally composing this entry, I went off into a horrible tangent of how uninformed and under-prepared I am. Plus, I think most college students rapidly approaching graduation start second-guessing everything, realizing that a few more semesters won’t teach them everything they need to know about their discipline. But in the few days since I began this entry, I’ve realized that I have, in fact, learned quite a lot and that what I’ve learned the best is closely tied to my goals and interests. My goals in choosing Russian and German as my majors (even directly out of high school) were to speak and understand the two languages as well as possible. I never wanted to be a political analyst or literary critic. Of course I enjoy learning about all fields and take as much from it as I can (as any good liberal arts student would do), but my interest and therefore strength lie in the languages themselves—in being able to communicate relatively freely with people of a different culture. Since beginning the last entry, I made two new acquaintances, one German- and one Russian-speaking. I was able to jump into conversation with both of them without having to stop and think so much. I was confident in what I was saying. And miracle of miracles, I was even able to switch between the two without too much of a problem—something I was completely incapable of doing a year ago. Sure, my grammar’s still not perfect, I have much vocabulary to learn, and I will always have some sort of accent, but I have made major steps in the areas that I’ve wanted to. And the liberal arts approach has helped me realize that I personally am more cut out for linguistics than for political science or even literature studies, but that a background knowledge in all fields is essential to understanding the one field that I am interested in.
And this year abroad has also confirmed that my true passion (as far as studies are concerned) is Russian. In my last entry I wrote fondly of my Russian professor and the enthusiasm she has in teaching, regardless of the topic. My excitement in her class has only escalated as the semester has gone on, which is strange; usually it goes in the other direction. Not only do I love hearing the language itself, but I realize now how necessary the language is to understanding other cultures and personalities as well. Every time I try to explain how great my class was, or how excited Alla Nikolaevna was about something, it’s completely lost in the translation. Even the best translation/description of a lesson would make it appear that the professor is crazily proud and patriotic, and perhaps she is, but in an entirely different sense than what proud patriotism means for America this day in age. And these are the things I’ve been wanting to learn; I’m finally at a lingual level where I can say, I get it. Not just what they’re saying, but how and why they’re saying it—the feeling and meaning behind the words. Of course this isn’t true of every sentence I hear, but it gets a bit better every day. And it’s really quite exciting.
Though May primarily was spent studying, I also had time to go to a few museums. My host mom and I visited the Focke Museum here in Bremen to see a special exhibit on the lost city of Herculanium, also destroyed by the same eruption of Vesuvius that covered Pompeii. This city, however, was scorched by a huge fire ball, so hot that it killed instantly, but so lacking in oxygen that a lot of things didn’t burn up—including a wooden baby cradle, loaves of bread and eggs at a breakfast table, and of course the human remains as well. Archeologists were even able to identify lice in the people’s hair. A huge library was also discovered in the city’s premiere villa. There are many “new” works in Latin and ancient Greek, meaning ones that up until now have never been read/translated. Because of their age and condition, the scrolls can be better preserved unopened; therefore the Italian government, wisely, is not allowing the Latin texts to be touched until the ancient Greek ones are deciphered, and those are only opened a few at a time as well. This provides job security for classical historians for years to come. What was most exciting for me about the tour, was that I understood nearly everything our guide had to say. I’ve been to many museums and taken many non-English tours in the last nine months, and the sheer volume of what I understood provided such a feeling of success. Then, of course, my host mom noted how slow and clearly our guide was speaking and that had the tour been done similarly in English, she could have understood almost everything too. And the balloon of pride is deflated.
I also traveled to Bremer Hafen to the Auswandererhaus (emigrant museum) with one of my host mom’s friends. I strongly recommend this place to Bremen visitors. It really is a walk through the emigration process—from boarding the ship, to the cabins, to the immigration offices of Ellis Island, to the greater settlement of America. I was only a bit disappointed because at the end there’s a genealogy search section, and I had been hoping to find records that said my own great-grandparents had gone through Bremer-Hafen. I know that they left from Germany—my great-grandmother and great-grandfather meeting for the first time on the boat ride to America…how romantic. But I wasn’t able to find anything. The records from Bremer Hafen were only from the 1920s and 30s, and my family had all left around the turn of the century or slightly before. Regardless, I did feel a bit closer to my family standing at the mouth of the river looking out towards the sea and thinking, this could very well have been the last view they had of the “Old World.” Would they have ever thought that their great-granddaughter would come back? That she would have the opportunity or even want to return? It might sound kind of cheesy, but what would have happened if they hadn’t stepped on that ship? Well, to start with, I wouldn’t exist. But they also saved their descendants from the brunt of two world wars. They left home with next to nothing, working hard to learn a new language and lifestyle while eventually raising nine children in a three bedroom household. 100 years and four generations later (though not without significant student loans) I have the opportunity to study, travel and relearn the language that never even made it past the second generation of American Mihoks. I really wonder what my great-grandparents would think of my studies. I’m never quite sure if they’d think I’m crazy for going back to the country they worked so hard to leave, or if they’d have a bit of gratitude—that their past and their struggles haven’t been forgotten. I certainly am much more grateful and aware of their sacrifice having spent this year abroad. But it’s not just them I’m thankful for. My own parents and grandparents have always worked incredibly hard to give their children the best. And here I sit reaping the benefits. Perhaps that’s why college students are really scared about facing the “real world.” It’s not so much that we’re afraid we won’t be able to fend for ourselves, but that it won’t be long until we’re expected to give something back, or (even scarier) pass something on. But as Dad always says, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. I think this entry has been pensive enough, so I’ll leave you with some pictures of Bremer Hafen and of the beautiful flowers in my host mom’s garden.
Harbor in Bremer Hafen
Looking out towards the North Sea
By the way, that’s me. All better!