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Watch out, Bremen – I’ve got wheels.
A charming, second-hand old lady bike with two baskets.

With its spacious bike lanes lining every street, Bremen is probably one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world. Biking is really ingrained in the Bremen culture as a primary mode of transportation – a huge number of residents ride to and from school, work, grocery store, ect. every day.

I had been toying with the idea of buying a bike since October. But seeing as how I hadn’t riden in a bike in oh, 7 years, I seriously doubted my abilities to join swarms of bikers in synchonized traffic with cars, trams, and pedestrians (especially those with baby-strollers or dogs). The man at the bike shop thought my anxiety was strange. I was lurred to this bike store by yesterday’s surprising sunshine and 24 grad (70 degree) weather that promised tons of summer fun riding to the lake and icecream stands with friends. The bike store man assured me that this bike was sturdy, adjusted the seat and handle bars, threw in a free bike lock, and sent me away peddaling. So far, I’m doing well – though I did break the lock about 15 minutes after leaving the store, so I had to go back and get the nice man to free my bike from a bike rack with giant industrial plyers…

biz Internship

Greetings from Bremen! – more specifically, from my desk at the Bremer Informationszentrum für Menschenrechte und Entwicklung (Bremen Information Center for Human Rights and Development, or simply “biz”).

I’m into the homestretch of my last week of a 6 week internship at biz. Technically it’s Semesterferien (“semester break”) for the German university system, but this month and a half has been anything but a vacation for me. From 10am-6pm Monday through Friday I work to further education in sustainable development (meaning the bettering of both human lives and the environment through the institution of respectful, healthy, and justly-profitable social and business practices). biz is an NGO that supports local interest groups, holds seminars and letures, designs and distributes museum exhibitions, organizes interactive speakers to give presentations in local schools, and maintains a library specific to research and pedagogic work in human rights and development issues – with a focus on Fairtrade, Campaign for Clean Clothes, sustainable tourism, and water.

Interning in a foriegn country comes with a unique set of challenges. My responsiblities range from those involving complex skills, like helping teachers and students find research materials in our library, translating the biz website from German into English, and sitting in on planning committee meetings for upcoming sustainable development events in Bremen to more traditional “intern”-labeled assignments like making photo copies, answering the telephone, and mailing programs and flyers to the community. Acting as a librarian for, say, university faculty researching blue jean manufacturing processes and implications in China is tough, but, as I’ve learned, even a mundane task like data entry carries new weight and offers unexpected learning opportunities in a second language. In both situations, I was held accountable for accurate comprehension and articulation. And in both I was pulled outside of my comfort zone, but eventually met with success – rewarded with new vocabulary words and a sense of confidence.

Working with German colleagues has also been incredibly valuable. From the start I was much more hesitant to interact with these new acquaintances then my vocal, outgoing self has ever been. My coworkers, however, were understanding and very welcoming, so eventually I figured out biz’s office norms – the tone used between colleagues, team meetings, packing organic lunches, standard dress (this level of casual actually took me some time to get in synch with), ect – and adjusted to my environment. It does help that everyone in the office is sensitive to cultural differences, as they work for a human rights organization, after all! Though they are interested in hearing my american interpretations of things, their support of my German is also hugely appreciated. In addition to an increase in my vocabulary, I have noticed my sentences flowing more smoothly and incorporating more creative structures and idioms. Even my thoughts are thought more frequently in German.

The biggest impact of my coworkers on me is their enthusiasm in explaining their individual projects to me and encouraging me to investigate these topics with further research in our library. In this way I have learned so much about human rights and environmental issues – issues that transcend cultures – and how educational organizations like biz can effect changes in attitudes that in turn lead to definte changes in government and business policies. So, all in all, it looks like I had a pretty worthwhile Semesterferien.

Kölle Alaaf!

Today is Rosenmontag (Rose Monday), the high-point of Karneval celebrations in Köln (Cologne, Germany). Hundreds of thousands are marching in parades, wearing colorful costumes, singing and tossing candy through the crowds. I experienced just 14-hours of warm-up festivities in Köln this Saturday when Gaven, Mel, Anne, and I joined forces with the city to throw Sam a birthday party! Ok, so it wasn’t an official event – but we couldn’t have picked a better place to have dinner together and dance the night away.

Vienna

Vienna is the city of the Habsburgs, Mozart, Freud, Klimt, and Falco. Walking through the streets you get a sense of these personalities and others in a vibrant mix of the regal, the rough, the traditional, the modern, and the eccentric. Click each of the pictures below to read more about my group trip to Vienna with the Dickinson in Bremen program:

And here are a few more links (in English!):
Austrian National Library
 http://www.onb.ac.at/ev/index.php

Demel
 http://www.demel.at/en/index_en_flash.ht…

Belvedere
 http://www.belvedere.at/jart/prj3/belved…

Austrian Parliament
 http://www.parlament.gv.at/ENGL/index.sh…

Misunderstandings


As much take pride in my independent nature and eagerness for adventure, I have to admit that these qualities don’t always lead me in quite right direction. (In fact, the wrong train has at times taken me in the false direction.) Lucky for me, though, being abroad means I can write my blunders off as “cultural learning experiences”… and here are my top 4:

4. FORRELLE
Specific animal species haven’t really ever been a focus of my German curriculum while studying in the States. In the classroom of Life, however, I’ve picked up a few useful vocabulary words – notably, “Forrelle,” which means “Trout” or, for my restaurant-ordering purposes, “FULLY INTACT FISH WITH EYES. GROSS. RUN AWAY. DO NOT ORDER THIS!” Unfortunately, I had to order it first to find out… and since I ordered it, I had to eat it – to the great amusement of Jens – who took pictures while crying out “Ouch. Ouch. No. My fin!”
*Note: Jens is our Dickinson in Bremen Program Coordinator and, as you’ll notice, the most frequent witness/casualty to my mishaps.

3. SPORT CLASS SIGN UPS
At the beginning of the semester, Julie and I signed up for an Ultimate-Frisbee gym class run through the University of Bremen. Since gym classes are part of the Dickinson in Bremen program, Jens instructed us to fill out the online form using the Dickinson bank account information for payment. At some point during the registration process we got a little confused and ended up paying for the Uni Bremen course with the Uni Bremen account number! Jens just laughed and made some joke about “socialism at its best” before sending us to the sport office to correct our mistake. The sport office secretary was also amused.

2. SWEDISH ALMOND CAKE
Julie and I decide to go all out for our friend Ben’s birthday and bake his favorite cake. Little did we know, swedish almond cake is the most comlicated dessert known to man. It did not help that we were using German instructions. At one point we got really stuck on the word “Einschubleistung,” which, according to our online dictionary source, translates to “thrust performance.” Immediate shared thought: “We’re supposed to do WHAT with this cake?!” (Later we were told by Ben that it obviously means “to put in the oven.” Yeah, ok.) We also ended up baking the part that was meant to be non-baked icing. On our cake, though, that supposed-be-icing when “einschubleist-ed” turned first into a puddle of butter and then into a greasy, flakey crust. Our cake was a mess.

1. WERDER TREASON
Fußball (soccer) is a critical piece of German culture. For the residents of Bremen, their team Werder Bremen is Life. This is especially true for Jens. I thought of this while out shopping in late November, just as the Advent calendars hit the stores. Starting an Advents calendar on December 1st is a wildly popular tradition with Germans of all ages and I was excited to find what I considered the perfect one for Jens in the Fußball fan section of a department store. Jens, however, did not think it was the perfect gift…he actually couldn’t have recieved a worse calendar – I had mistakenly bought a Wolfsburg calendar, one of Werder’s biggest rivals. THE SHAME!! To be fair though, both teams are green and white with a “W” emblem…

Spätzle

Lately I have been spending my Sundays as an English tutor for a soon-to-be-graduating High School (Gymnasium/Abitur) student. Marie lives in a small town just a short train ride outside of Bremen, so I travel to her house compliments of the “Semester ticket” provided by the Dickinson program for use of city transportation. Our meetings are fun – we exchange stories from week, talk about cultural differences, and work on writing assignments for Marie’s English class.

This Sunday Marie and her very sweet family invited me to stay for dinner. We cooked homemade Spätzle, a favorite noodle-like dish regional to southern Germany from where the family originally hails. It was delicious! And even better with such nice company. I think my favorite part of the evening was listening to Marie talk about her plans to spend a service year abroad…followed by her parent’s partially teasing, partially distraught, but in the end still supportive reaction. It was like being home at my kitchen table in Blandon, PA!

“Die Seuche”

Julie overheard Jens (our wonderful Program-coordinator and resident Grandmother-figure) bragging about us on the phone again, saying, “the kids learned a new word!” Well, folks, that new word is “die Seuche” and it’s German for the “plague”…and we learned this, unfortunately, because I fell awfully sick Sunday night and Insa and Jan followed shortly after.

I spent most of Monday in bed and was able to sleep off my fever overnight, but the coughing and crumby flu-feeling continued into Tuesday – providing me with a silver-lining “cultural experience” opportunity. After insisting to Jens that my sickness did not warrant a visit to the doctor, I did heed his advice to get some non-perscription medicine from the Apotheke. An Apotheke is a pharmacy, like CVS, but with ONLY the over-the-counter medicine/perscription pharmacy department. (To get tissues or makeup products or anything else, you have to go to a drugstore…that’s exactly like CVS, but without any medicine whatsoever. Convenient, right?)

There is also a very limited number of customer-accessible shelves in your average Apotheke, so, unsure of which medicine to ask for or even which medicine brands Germany has, I described my “Seuche” to the pharmacist. The pharmacist turned out to be a very sweet lady who gave me a student discount AND a free pack of cough-drops. But the medicine…

At this point I need to explain my licorice qualms. Licorice is disgusting. To my despair, it is also very popular in Germany – and the Germans are very deceitful about, too. Everytime I dip my hand into a candy dish filled with an assortment of colorful, unfamiliar-shaped treats – WHAM they got me, again. Licorice. You would not believe the variety of disguises. There’s no avoiding the licorice.

So back to the story… the pharmacist sold me licorice-flavored medicine. UGh.
Luckily the licorice extract cough syrup only came in a 20ml dose (how does that even help?) so no more worries about THAT.

I also got these little white tablets (that don’t taste like anything) with the directions to take 1 every hour until I feel better. I think those might be working. Should be healthy as a horse within the next few days :)

Christmas, Part II

After helping Santa Claus deliver Christmas cheer in Bremen, I ventured the next day to the small Friesland town of Varel to spend the 25th with Insa’s family. We all went out to a nice restaurant for a delicious lunch, followed by an epic snowball fight in the parking lot, and then returned to the cozy living room to sing Christmas songs (I can’t get enough of those!) and exchange gifts (which was extra fun with adorable 5 year-old cousin Martje). Afterwards we enjoyed traditional German Kaffee and Kuchen (coffee and cake) and then threw away the civilities for an aggressive game of “Scheiße!” (a dice game from Ostfriesland). What a family! I felt so at home – even with the gaping height difference between us (Insa’s grandparents joked about me spending Christmas with giraffes). They also laughed when I asked them about the widely-known German “tradition” of hiding a glass pickle ornament in a tree for the kids to find (it’s apparently a ridiculous and amusing myth) or later attempted to speak a little Platt Deutsch (the northern German dialect that her grandparents speak with their neighbors). But even though I’m a short, silly American girl, we had a wonderful day together and I can’t wait to visit Insa’s family again soon!

Christmas in Bremen

In Germany, much like in the US, the entire month of December is spent in a frenzy of holiday cheer and preperation. Cookies are baked, music is played, gifts are bought, and streets are decorated, though I did not (thankfully) see one giant blow-up/animatronic snowglobe in Bremen.

The most important day for celebrating is the 24th, when families decorate the Tannenbaum (Christmas tree), exchange presents, and have a large dinner, usually with duck as the main entree. At home my family celebrates my Dad’s birthday on the 24th, so we just eat pizza and cake. This year, needless to say, was very different for me.

I actually spent most of the day with my friend from class, Marius, at an elementary school in the outskirts of Bremen helping with a community organized dinner for low-income families and those without families to celebrate with. Being without my own family and so far away from the comforts of home or even a home-cooked meal, I felt very much connected to the individuals I met there. We chatted (sometimes in German, sometimes in English – as in the case with a student eager to practice his language skills) about favorite desserts, dream travel destinations, politics (nicely), wishes for the future, and the unbelievable amount of snow that accumulated over the past few days. We sang dozens of Christmas songs, watched a lovely nativity scene skit performed by the favorite local Pastor and his wife, listened to warm remarks from Tittipo (a well-loved figure in the community and key organizer of the dinner), and enjoyed eachother’s company. Just before the evening ended, I had the honor of joining Titipo and my young dinner companion, Phillip, in giving a beautifully wrapped, red-bowed gift to each of the children and guests. What a wonderful experience.

*Note: It’s important to remember that families or individuals may certainly have unique traditions or ways of celebrating Christmas (if they chose to do so at all) and so this post details only the impressions I’ve gathered from my own acquaintances.

In my last post I admited that my 4 classes all fall on either Tuesday or Wednesday, leaving me with a much coveted long weekend. Of course I use part of the weekend to read and prepare for my courses, and I have taken up a few obligations in the Bremen community – a UNICEF student group, “FAIRbundet” (a student group campaigning for Fair Trade coffee options in the University & Hochschule), tutoring, Frisbee, and a “Studdy-Buddy” program run through the Uni Bremen International Office.

So far I’ve found all of these activities to enrich my experience abroad by providing a outlet to build friendships, to learn about different faucets of German society, and to create some sort of purpose for myself that resembles what I strive for in my leadership roles at Dickinson.

Balancing out these more structured commitments, I’m dedicated to exploring bremen, accepting party invitations, traveling on whim, and generally living fully. Examples? (Click on a picture to read more)

Not on camera: Dinner parties, Thursday nights at the Lila Eule (“purple owl”) dance club, 2nd-hand shopping in the Viertel (a hipster cool neighborhood in Bremen), afternoons at museums like the Paula Modersohn Becher museum, ect.

Coming up this week: A speaking engagement as a Dickinson representative for Uni Bremen’s “US Day,” an MGMT concert in Hamburg, and a trip to London/Norwich.

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