Jena Says Adé to the ICE Train

Photo courtesy of Bahn Ansage

The last ICE high speed train leaves Jena at 9:00pm on December 9th. Regio-Trains to pass through after December 10th. Future of Long-Distance Train Service Questionable.

JENA, GERMANY-  It has been in the making for over 25 years, the same time as the introduction of the ICE Train along the Saale River Rail Line through Jena, Saalfeld and Lichtenfels connecting Munich and Berlin. Come December 10th, the new ICE Line connecting Erfurt with Bamberg will be open to traffic, and thus the completion of the multi-billion Euro project which features high-speed trains going up to 350 km/hrs. from Berlin to Munich via Leipzig, Erfurt and Coburg.

And with that, a bitter farewell to the service going through Jena. Despite protests and events designed to convince the Deutsche Bahn (DB) Rail Service to continue with the train service once the new ICE-line opens, the train service provider has decided to pull the plug on long-distance train services, which provided passengers with service to both major cities without having to change trains.

From December 2017 onwards, only regional trains will be passing through Jena on both the N-S and W-E axes, thus providing longer travel times to the nearest train stations that serve ICE-trains. To provide a pair of examples: With Regio-Service to Leipzig, it takes up to 90 minutes due to stops at every single station. With the ICE-train, it would have taken less than an hour. Going to Nuremberg, one needs three hours with the ICE. With Regio, it would be an additional two hours. Even if one takes a Regio-train to Erfurt to catch the ICE-train, one needs a half hour just to get to Erfurt.  Reports have indicated that Jena will get the worst end of the bargain in the history of the city’s rail lines and some have compared the service to that of 80 years ago.

IC trains to debut in Jena come 2019

But there is a silver lining to the deal. DB has not completely abandoned long-distance train services, and the state government under Prime Minister Bodo Ramelow is stepping in to provide support for the people in Jena affected by the new ICE rail line. There will be one ICE-train going to Berlin, which leaves at 5:30am every weekday morning and arriving back in Jena at 9:30pm. An Inter-City (IC) train connecting Leipzig with Karlsruhe will pass through Jena on a daily basis, but mainly in the afternoon. Come 2019, InterCity trains will pass through Jena, on the W-E axis, providing service to Gera (east) and Cologne via Erfurt and Kassel (west). This will be a first since 2002, the last time an IC train has passed through. By 2023, it is planned that IC-trains will pass through Jena on a two-hour basis going on the N-S axis between Leipzig and Karlsruhe.  Yet this will not be enough to soften the blow of residents who had been used to travelling with long-distance trains from Jena and need better services.

This is where Prime Minister Bodo Ramelow stepped in, during a conference in Jena on 29 November. The state will provide over 33.9 million Euros between the end of 2018 and 2024 for long-distance trains connecting Jena and Leipzig to ensure that passengers can reach their destinations faster than what is expected. In addition to that, a brand new Central Station in Jena is being planned in the southern suburb of Burgau, where all trains can stop for passengers. Alone with the second proposal came a massive amount of criticism from opponents who claim that with six train stations in Jena it was not necessary to construct another train station. Furthermore, Jena has a long-distance train station in Jena-Paradies, which was built in 2003. Work is already in the making to convert another station, Jena-Göschwitz, into a long-distance train station. Already the train station building is being renovated so that people can wait inside or pick up their food. In addition, the platforms are being rebuilt to include elevators and other handicap-accesses.

Older version of the IC, most of which are owned by Locomore

With the Bahn not committed to long-distance trains along the N-S axis before 2023 and the small number of IC-trains passing through on the W-E axis daily (three in each direction), all using the stops currently used by Regio-Express trains, Ramelow will have to look at private train providers to fulfill the promises of the residents of having long-distance trains between the end of 2018 and 2024. Already on the radar include Locomore, which is owned by Czech provider Leo Express and German bus provider Flixbus. Despite having gone through bankruptcy last year, train services are being reintroduced for lines connecting Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Berlin, competing with DB’s long distance lines in terms of pricing and services. It is very likely that Locomore could take over the former ICE line between Bamberg and Leipzig, thus providing residents in Jena and neighboring Saalfeld, Lichtenfels and Naumburg rail service until 2024.

Also in the running is Mitteldeutsche Regiobahn (MRB), which has expanded services in Saxony and could even reintroduce the Inter-Regio train connecting Leipzig with Jena, with an option of going to Bamberg. The Inter-Regio was last used in 2002 and functions as an Inter-City train with a snack bar and compartments for bikes.  Unlike the IC, college students could use the train with their student ticket, which is a big plus. Currently one Regio-Express line serves the Nuremberg-Hof-Chemnitz-Dresden Magistrate, starting in Hof.

Then there is the ALEX Rail, which serves lines connecting Munich with Landau, as well as Regensburg and Hof, mostly operated using diesel trains. If extended from Nuremberg to Leipzig it would provide passengers with direct service to Nuremberg and could thus switch onto the ICE-train to Munich, Frankfurt (via Wurzburg) or Vienna.

All options are currently open, but one variable is certain, due to the adjustment period with the new ICE-line, especially with regards to the pricing and the train access, as well as construction along the N-S axis both south and north of Jena and the planned electrification of the line along the W-E axis which will connect Weimar and Jena first before heading eastward towards Gera and Glauchau, residents of Jena and areas along the N-S axis will have to face the inevitable: the DB is committed to Regio-services in the short and middle terms. Already planned is more Regio trains connecting Jena with Erfurt as well as Jena with Halle(Saale) to provide more access to the ICE-stations. In addition, Erfurt Bahn is seeking to extend its Peppermint Line to Jena, enroute to Possneck via Orlamünde. Currently, the line connects Sommerda (north of Erfurt) with Grossheringen (near Naumburg). Should the plan to realize long-distance train services be in the cards, chances are most likely Jena will have to face prospects of either hand-me-down ICs from DB or Locomores in order to accommodate services.

And this may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for many who are reliant on the train services. Instead of dealing with multiple train changes and delays while waiting at small train stations with little or no services, many are thinking of investing in a set of wheels and calculating traffic jams on Germany’s Autobahn. Given Jena’s proximity to two of the busiest Autobahns (M9 between Berlin and Munich and M4 between Cologne and Dresden), this would make sense and would even fulfil the prediction once made by OTZ Newspaper Columnist Tino Zippel: In the end, DB will have invested billions for the new ICE-rail line……. and for the automobile.

On the map below, you can see the illustrations based on the information in the article.

 

Jena has six rail stations on both axes. On the N-S we have Jena-Zwätzen, Jena Saalbahnhof and Jena Paradies, the last being the ICE stop. On the W-E, we have Jena-West and Neue Schenke. Both lines cross at Jena-Göschwitz, which is currently being remodeled to become the new Jena Central Station, where all long-distance trains are scheduled to stop. Each station is heavily connected by city bus and street car services, which stops an average of every 10 minutes on a daily basis; 20 minutes on weekends.

 

A farewell ceremony to the ICE-train is scheduled for 9 December beginning at 7:00pm. A flashmob similar to people saying farewell to AirBerlin (when it ceased operations in October) will take place at 9:00pm, when the last ICE stops in Jena Paradies. Details here.

For information on the new train schedule, especially for those wishing to visit Jena can be found via DB here.

Panoramic view of Jena Paradies ICE Station. Built in 2003, this station will soon lose its ICE-stop after 9 December. Photo taken by Michael Sander

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500 Years of the 95 Theses Celebrated in Germany

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Magdeburg Cathedral, one of the places where Martin Luther spread his influence. Photo taken in 2011

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BERLIN/ERFURT/ LUTHERSTADT-WITTENBERG- You see me, and we see you. The slogan for the 36th annual Day of Christianity (Kirchentag), which ended yesterday with an open-air church service on the field along the Elbe River in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg.  Located between Leipzig and Berlin, Wittenberg was the central stage for Martin Luther, who was a professor of theology 500 years ago- a revolutionary who posted the 95 Theses on the doors of the church in the city with its present-day population of over 30,000 inhabitants. It is this city, where the two-day event commemorated the historic event, which reshaped Christianity and created the church that still bears its name.  Over 400,000 visitors participated in the four-day event, which started in Berlin, but also featured regional events in cities where Luther had its strongest influence: Leipzig, Erfurt, Weimar, Jena, Eisleben, Halle and even Magdeburg had festivities from Thursday to Saturday for Christians, tourists, families and people wanting to know more about Luther and his interpretation of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In Wittenberg alone, roughly 120,000 visitors converged onto the field along the Elbe River and at the city center, to take part in the evening light show and open air reflections on Saturday, followed by an open-air church service on Sunday. Despite the sweltering heat, people had an opportunity to listen to the sermons as well as the discussion forum, one of which involved newly-elected German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who took over for Joachim Gauck in February this year.

In Berlin, where over 245,000 visitors took part in the festivities, especially at Brandenburg Gate, the events marked the welcoming back of former US President Barack Obama, who, together with Chancellor Angela Merkel, criticized Donald Trump’s policy of isolation with his plan for building the Wall to Mexico and isolating the country from its international obligations.

And as for the regional places, according to reports by MDR, the numbers were much lower than expected. In Erfurt, Jena and Weimar alone, only 42,000 visitors attended the events from Thursday to Saturday. However, the events were overshadowed by warm, summer weather, the Handel festival that began in Halle, the relegation soccer game between Jena and Cologne, where the former won the first of two games, and lastly, the Luther events at the aforementioned places in Berlin and Wittenberg.

This was noticeable during my visit in Erfurt on Friday with my wife and daughter. There, despite having over a dozen booths, podium discussions in several churches, tours of the churchs’ chapels and steeples as well as several plays and concerts and a pilgrimage from Stotternheim to the city center, the majority of the visitors took advantage of the beautiful weather for other activities.  It had nothing to do with attempts to recruit and convert people to become Lutheran on the spot. One should not interpret Luther and his teachings like this. In fact at a few sites that feature plays and musicals for children, such as Luther and Katharina as well as the Luther Express where children learned about Jesus during each of the four seasons, the layout and preparations were simple but well thought out with no glorifying features and some informative facts presented, which attracted a sizable number of people in the audience (between 50 and 60).

The lack of numbers might have to do with the fact that despite Christianity dominating Germany at 59%, only 28% consists of Lutherans in general. In the US, over 46% consists of Protestants, of which 26% are Evangelicals. 71% of the population are Christians. Given the low number of people belonging to the church, the United Lutheran Church Association of Germany (EKD) and other organizations worked together to make the Luther festival informative, attracting people from different denominations so that they know about Luther’s legacy both in Germany as well as above. It doesn’t necessarily mean that membership is obligatory. Much of the population are sceptical about the beliefs in Jesus, which is one of the reasons of why a quarter of the 41% are aethesists or agnostics. This leads to the question of why Christ is not important to them while at the same time why people in Germany elect to join the church. This question I had touched on in a conversation with one of the pastors of a local church, which will be brought up in a later article.

Nevertheless, when summarizing the events of this weekend, it was deemed a success in many ways. It provided visitors with a glimpse of Luther’s legacy, especially in Wittenberg, where his 95 Thesis was the spark that started the fire and spread to many cities in the region. It also brought together friends and strangers alike, Christian and non-Christian to remember the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Lutheran Church we know today, branches included. Exhibits on Luther can be found in Wittenberg but also at the places where Luther played a key role. For more, please click here to see where you can visit the sites.

You can also read up on the pilgrimage of six people, who marched on Lutherstadt-Wittenberg for the events by foot, bike or even boat, camping along the way. Each pair started their tour from Erfurt, Eisleben and Dessau-Rosslau, respectively. Here you can find their stories.

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The Use of Time Markers in English Part II: Present Simple versus Present Continuous

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After taking a tour through the world of time markers for the past verb tenses- namely simple versus perfect, our next article looks at time markers in the present. And what more fun it is than to examine two different forms of the present verb tense, while looking at a typical commmodity one should neither live without nor leave Germany without it- pottery! When one looks at pottery, three main features come to mind, which we will look at in our exercises: Different types of clay and rock used for pottery, Pottery markets (in German: Töpfermarkt), and Polterabend-a rare, textbook style event that occurs before an important event in the lives of a loving couple. 🙂

The Files created a quiz based on this topic, which you can try. Click here.

Before we look at time markers however, let’s have a look at the difference between present simple and present continuous and which time markers belong to which verb tense.

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Present simple is a verb tense that deal with things that are done on a regular basis. In other words, no matter how it is treated- as a statement, a schedule, a habit or a future form, the key word to describe present simple verbs is routine. Here are some examples:

The pottery markets in Thuringia take place between July and September. 

Here, the phrasal verb take place, and in particular, take, is the present simple term describing when the markets take place in many cities in Thuringia. It is written in future tense based on an annual schedule.

The pottery market in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg is considered, by many in the industry, the largest market in Germany. 

Written in passive voice as a statement, the present simple form is consider because many dealers and pottery-makers believe that the market is Germany’s largest.

Apart from its use to make a statement and focus on schedules that are routine or etched in stone, the present simple tense can be used for headlines in newspapers but also for sports commentaries when an event just occurred, such as:

He shoots! He scores!!! And the ball game is over!!!!

Check out this excerpt below, when Michigan was upended by Michigan State in American college football, with only a few seconds left in the game in 2015. Can you identify the sentences in the clip?

BTW: Michigan State won 27-23, despite losing their hero, Jalen Watts-Jackson to a season-ending hip injury on that heroic return to save the team from its first losing game of the season.

The sentence construction of present simple is easy:

subject+ verb+ object?- Statement

To do+ subject+ verb+ object?-  Question with yes/no

Wh+ to do+ subject+ verb?- Questions with Wh

Interestingly enough, this form of present simple is closely related to the perfect form in this context, as the latter also functions for events occurring just now as well as for events that occurred but without a given date of when it started.

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Present continuous has several functions but they all follow the grammatical construction:

 to be+ (verb+ -ing).- Statement

to be+ subject+ (verb+ -ing) + object? – Question with Yes/No

Wh+ to be + subject+ (verb+ -ing)? Question with Wh

The verb tense is used for an event that is occurring either instantly or at the present time despite the length of the time frame. Here are a couple examples:

Mary: What is he doing?

Jon: He is putting wood chips into the kiln.

Mary: But isn’t it hot enough as is?

Jon: He needs more heat as he’s burning our ceramic pot. 

To sum up the conversation, the first deals with what the potter is doing right now, the second is the process of heating up the kiln with wood, and the last sentence has to do with what he is about to do. Also keep in mind the question forms that Mary uses and the difference between the two in terms of construction and how they are answered. The first is a W-question, explaining what the person is doing. The second is a question requiring a yes/ no answer, which Jon indirectly answers no in the last sentence.

Present continuous also functions as a future tense, yet that section is to be discussed further in Part III. Present continuous also focuses on the development and progress of a project a person is involved with or an event in a person’s life which he is going through stages from point A to point B. Take for instance this example:

Several football players are recovering from their season-ending injuries and are becoming more active.

In reference to the Michigan State football team, apart from Watts-Jackson, several key players, who suffered from season-ending injuries during the 2015 football season, are progressing in their recovery efforts that they are in shape and ready for the 2016 football season. This one is true as you can see in the article here.

TIME MARKERS:

While we see a difference in the way present simple and present continuous function, the key factor that makes the two verb tenses different is the usage of time markers. While the prepositional phrases of at, in and on in the sense of time are the same, and both sets feature mostly adverbial phrases, the difference between the two sets of time markers have to do with the frequency (which is found in present simple) versus those dealing with time frames and anything that has to do with instant progress. In other words, most of the time markers deal with frequency versus progress.

For the time markers in present simple, we have the following we use most often:

always, mostly, mainly, often, never, sometime, occasionally, (un-)usually, normally, traditionally, frequently, seldom, rarely, hardly (ever), certain days, weeks,, months and years, each/every (day, week, month, year,….), daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, annually, bi-annually, regularly, and the numerical frequency (once, twice, three times, etc.)

For present continuous, we mainly see the following time markers:

(right) now, currently, at the moment, momentarily, these days, nowadays, at present/ at the present time/ presently, today, this (week, month, year), in this era/period….

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Activity 1: Identify the time marker in the following ten sentences and determine whether they are present simple or present continuous:

  1. Helen and Martin are planning their Polterabend event at this moment.
  2. Polterabend always takes place the night before the wedding.
  3. Traditionally, friends, neighbors and some relatives come to their place, eat food and drink a good beer.
  4. They often bring old ceramic plates, pots and statues to break, whose shards bring good luck.
  5. These days, Polterabend is not as popular as they were 40 years ago.
  6. Even Martin rarely knows people in his circle of friends who have celebrated Polterabend.
  7. Right now, Helen and her family are planning the event because it is strong in their family tradition.
  8. At the moment, they are inviting all of her friends and relatives, but Martin has a better idea.
  9. Martin is currently planning a Bachelor’s party, which is not typical of German wedding traditions.
  10. But Martin is never a traditionalist. He always loves events that are non-conventional.

Activity 2: Complete each sentence using the correct verb tense. Please pay attention to the time markers and note that some of them have to be constructed in passive voice as indicated)

  1. Pottery markets ___________ (hold- passive) annually in the eastern half of Germany.
  2. In the past, only a handful of cities in Germany hosted these markets, nowadays dozens of cities ___________ (sell) pottery at these markets
  3. Usually, ceramics ___________(make-passive) with limestone and sandstone clay.
  4. Hardly anyone ____________ (produce) pottery with quartzite.
  5. Currently, ceramic glasses ___________ (buy-passive) by many people.
  6. While kilns ___________(use- passive) traditionally, these days, potters ________(heat) their ceramics with furnaces.
  7. We _________ (visit) the ceramic market in Bürgel today.
  8. Tens of thousands __________ (attend) the Bürgel market east of Jena annually.
  9. People always ____________ (color) their pots with navy blue with beige dots.
  10. At the moment, I __________(look) for a gift for my grandma for her collection.

Activity 3: Correct the following sentences. Each one has one error.

  1. Right now, the Michigan State football team always prepare for their upcoming football season.
  2. Despite a rough season in 2015, each and every player are rarely shaping up to face some tough teams.
  3. Each week they are practicing on the football field from dawn to dusk.  (Hint: they always do)
  4. Presently they shop for ceramics for their girlfriends. They always are ordering from Meissen Ceramics. (Hint: Think Christmas)
  5. They usually are getting their pep talk from their coach, but today they date their girlfriends and book their post-Bowl game flights to Europe.

Author’s Confession: OK, OK, so not all of the activities deal with ceramics and German traditions, but I bet some Michigan State football players are eyeing for some pottery, even if they go through the exercise and a dose of tradition that is outside their football stadium in East Lansing. 😉  In either case, the purpose of this section is to give you a brief description of the difference between present simple and present continuous through the use of time markers. This is important because some of the time markers and the functions of the two verb tenses apply for the future time form, which is a bit more complicated than what has been taught so far.

If you are still not convinced, you can check out another article written about the Christmas markets in Germany. There you have additional activities you can use to better understand present continuous and how it is different from present simple. This includes a quiz and a group project, all in connection with a German past time. Click here for details. 🙂

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Year of the Beer Day 35: Ur-Saalfelder Dark Beer

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Day 35 of the German beer marathon, and I’ve decided to open this entry up for forum, especially with regards to this candidate, the Ur-saalfelder.  This beer is produced by the brewery located in the southern Thuringian city of Saalfeld, located 40 kilometers south of Jena along the Saale River. There is a unique history behind this brewery, but there is another beer produced by the same brewery that will be tasted later on, and I intend to play the mosquito and suck the information out of the people at the brewery about that and this beer! 😉

The Ur-saalfelder represents an example of a typical “Märzenbier” which if translated, means strong dark beer. This terminology is cloudy because it can be mistaken for a “Schwarzbier,” which also means dark beer, but with a black color and in most cases, with a strong alcohol content. So the translation and definition alone are rather confusing. In the case of the Ur-saalfelder, the beer is not as dark as it is described, for the beer has a copper-like color, a decent clearness, a persistent head, very lively carbonation and a thick full body. The alcohol content is between 5.7 and 6%, and when drinking it, it has a slickness to it, coating the mouth, and leaving an everlasting taste to it.

However, as far as aroma is concerned, despite its rather sweet smell thanks to bread malt and floral hops, the aroma levels are rather low, meaning one can hardly smell it when opening it up. The flavor on the other hand is a bit different. When tasting it, the Ur-saalfelder has at least four different malt flavors (grain, bread, sweet and toast) and is quite hoppy with herbal and floral dominating. The end result is a clash between sweet and bitter, creating a strong intensity where it is unknown what exactly is in there and what ingredients outdo the other. Nevertheless its excellent craftmanship combined with its balance between neutral and bitter has this beer becoming a tasting experience one should try, and one where a lot of questions are open and need to be answered, such as:

  1. What is the real difference between a Schwarzbier and a Märzenbier, when both mean dark beer?
  2. What are the exact ingredients in the beer? Are they what was sensed while drinking or are there different/additional ones ?
  3. Is having too many hops and malt flavors really that good for the beer?

To our German and/or beer experts, this one is for you to answer, even if it means trying the Märzenbier like the Ur-saalfelder to figure it out. So go for it and let the author know what you think. 🙂

And as for the people at the Saalfelder Brewery, I’ll be back! 😉

Grade: 1,7/ A-

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Americans in Germany 2: Hometown Locals Part II

The family photo. Left to right: The Sutton Family (Andrew, Camden & Amanda), The Smith Family (Jason & Birgit), and the Krahmer Family (Kristin, Alexis and Brian). Missing from the photo was Clara. Daphne was born a year after this photo was taken.

Picking up where we left off in Part I, the Files’ Steve Schorr takes a look at the four locals from a small Minnesota town of Jackson, who found their place here in Germany. Here are some more questions and some interesting answers from the four:

Question 7a. What are the benefits of living in Germany?

Brian- Another one of the main reasons I wanted to move to Germany are the views on politics, social issues, economic and ecological issues.  I feel life is a lot more calm, safe, and time with family is encouraged.  Very few people work more than 40 hours, and I started this job with 27 days of vacation per year.

Kristin- The benefits for us of living here is quality of life. We find life to be at a more relaxed pace here. The ability to travel and explore is endless. Germany has less violence, better education, healthcare and just all around a better social system. Some people view the high taxes here as a drawback. We don’t really mind the higher taxes knowing that it benefits us directly in healthcare, retirement, education, environment, roads and etc.

Amanda- The biggest benefits that I have enjoyed are ease of travel without a car, wonderful healthcare, and excellent and affordable childcare.  There is a huge network of buses, trams, and trains all around Germany, so it is very possible to live without a car here.  Healthcare is stress free.  Of course it is paid for in our taxes, but if you are sick, you go to the doctor or have whatever medical procedure that you need and do not have to worry about how much it costs because it is either covered completely or very reasonable in cost.  You won’t go bankrupt or have to take out a loan to cover medical expenses in Germany.  Childcare is also very good and affordable.  Finally the bread, so many delicious options baked fresh daily.  Some bakeries are even open on Sunday.  Germans take their bread seriously. If we ever do have to leave, this will be something we will miss the most, after all the friends we have made of course.

Jason- The biggest benefit for me and my family is the possibilities of hiking in the nature and doing sports at places that are conveniently located. We have many bike trails and hiking paths, as well as parks where children can climb up jungle gyms made of wood, etc. There are beaches and other natural places for families to enjoy.

7b. What are the drawbacks?

Jason- My biggest drawback so far has been the job opportunities. Almost every job requires certain qualifications which through training at an accredited institution, takes 2-3 years; at the university, even longer. As Brian and Kristin both mentioned earlier, Germany  is in dire need of skilled workers in many branches, including in my case, teaching as many baby boomers are leaving for retirement in droves. The problem is having to go through the educational training, which in my case means 4-5 years of college, plus a semester practical training, plus an additional two-years of student teaching (Referendariat) and two state exams in order to become a fully licensed teacher. And this despite the very high demand for native speakers of English to teach in school.

It’s the same in other fields, including medicine, law and engineering. In the US, you need only four years and a test for teaching, up to five or six for becoming a lawyer, engineer or doctor. It has created a paradox for in many regions, the shortage is acute and severe, and there are not enough people to fill in the posts left empty by outgoing personnel because of the painful process for the younger people to fill in. While some states are laxing their guidelines, like reducing the two-year Referendariat to only one, as is being practiced in Saxony for teaching, there is still a long ways to go in order for the job market to become flexible like the US and other countries and the empty positions to be filled again.

Kristin- Drawbacks are being far away from family and friends. Learning German hasn’t been a piece of cake either.

Amanda- The drawback to childcare is it can be difficult to find a spot for a child in kindergarten.  Another challenge, more than a drawback, is learning the documentation and paperwork system.  Nearly everything needs some form of documentation and most things also need to be stamped by an authority.  Germans love to stamp documents.  We now find this more charming than a nuisance.

Question 8.- Have you done some traveling since coming to Germany? If so, which places have you visited and which ones would you recommend?

Amanda- Unfortunately we have not really done much traveling.  However, we have been fortunate in the places we have lived.  There is a lot to do and see in both Jena and Potsdam.  We miss the hills and hiking in Jena, but are enjoying the massive Parks and water around Potsdam.

Brian- Since we got here last year, we have visited 7 countries, and while most people have never even heard of Slovenia, it’s really cool and pretty special.

Jason- Since 1999, I’ve been all over the place, both on my own as well as with family and friends. I’ve visited 17 European States and a total of 13 German states, counting the city-states of Berlin and Hamburg, as well as my current home state of Thuringia. My favorite place in Germany has been Schleswig-Holstein because of its rural setting, and the people there are really open and friendly. Plus half of my mom’s ancestry originates from there (near Kiel). In particular, Flensburg (with its rum and handball team), Lübeck (with its marzipan), Kiel (with its historic ships), Fehmarn (with its diverse culture) and Friedrichstadt (with its taste of Dutch culture) are highly recommended.  But one should look at Saxony for its landscapes and Dresden for its architecture. Also recommended are the cities of Halle (Saale), Quedlinburg, Bamberg, and the Rhine Valley corridor between Cologne and Frankfurt. I’ve yet to see more of Baden Wurttemberg, Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia, but I hope to do that someday.

Kristin- We’ve traveled over the years around Germany and 15 other countries in Europe. I have loved every place we’ve visited but some of my top favorites are Barcelona, Paris, Ljubljana, Bern, Innsbruck and Amsterdam. We spent some time north of Amsterdam in the spring and enjoyed the quaint country side with all it’s windmills and canals. Eastern Europe is also a wonderful place to visit. We enjoyed our time in Slovakia and Croatia. It’s like stepping back in time a little bit in those old Communist countries.

Question 9. Name one memorable and one not so memorable experience that you had since coming here.
Kristin- At the moment I am still in awe that I am actually living here so for me everything tends to be a memorable experience. I suppose the not so memorable moments have involved silly situations when the language barrier comes into play.

Brian- Test-driving cars on the Autobahn at 125mph (legally!) is pretty exhilarating.  Going 300kmh on a train while having a beer and enjoying the scenery was also pretty memorable.

Jason- I’ve had my share of memorable experiences as far as biking is concerned. But I have to agree with Brian with the driving part. I had to take my driver’s training in 2002 in order to convert my driver’s license in the States to that of Germany. There I was amazed at the amount of space I had to maneuver while driving, which is half of what it is in the States. The fun part was parking on the hill while putting on the hand brake, which I practiced many times. Yet I also learned how to cuss while driving because German drivers are very impatient and they love to complain about other people driving. In one instance, on my first day at the wheel, my driver’s trainer had to roll down his window to cuss at the taxi driver for cutting in front of me at an intersection even though I had the right of way. I still remember his comment to this day: “Er hat Vorfahrt, du Heinie!”

But one sad experience was that I had to stand trial as an eyewitness to a car-bike accident in 2005. There I learned firsthand how the judicial system in Germany works in comparison with the US: one judge, several jurors asking questions, but very few people in the court room. Discreet but better that than a frenzy of media hoarding the courtroom, as we see many times in the States.

Amanda- One of the best things that has happened here in Germany other than making new friends, was having our second child born here.  Often feeling lost and alone in the beginning is something I wish I could help others who are new here avoid.  Germany is a wonderful place to live, but the initial steep learning curve to learn the processes for getting settled in a language that was initially foreign to us was a bit overwhelming to say the least.

Question 10.      Many people are of the opinion that making friends with Germans is very difficult because of the different perception of friendship. Was that the case with you? Did you make friends with foreigners more than with Germans?

Amanda- This can be true to some extent.  I think Germans are very friendly, but it can be a case of ‘once you get to know them’ and it just depends on the individual person and circumstance.  As a mom to a young child and having just had a baby here, I’ve made friends with other parents in similar situations through the kindergarten, birth classes, and just seeing the same people around town.  I made two really good Germany mom friends, as well as another foreigner friend from my German class in Jena.  Here in Potsdam, I’m starting to make some new German friends as well.  At the moment it is other moms in similar situations.  We all have the same kinds of questions and concerns with our children.

Jason- Actually if looking at it from an American perspective, I’ve made as many friends with Germans as with foreigners, and they come from different areas of interest, which is a lot. Part of that has to do with the willingness to speak their language and exchange some interests and thoughts on things. However, the friendship process with Germans varies based on personality, age and the willingness to open up. I’ve discovered that the younger the generation, the more likely you will connect with them more quickly than with the older generation. However, there are still quite a few coconuts who are not willing to be open and flexible, which bucks the current trend. I had one instance with a student colleague, who was so stiff as a board when communicating with her, that we actually got into conflicts because of different perceptions of even working together. And this with everybody in a project we were working on, who were also German, which is not typical of the stereotype. After finishing the project, we stopped talking to her because of such an impasse, but I learned a very valuable lesson which I can give to anyone living in Germany: The Germans are the hosts, you are their guest. They will open up to you when they feel ready. If not, leave it. Either they will move on or they will open up when the coconut ripens. And while Germans are really willing to help you, even if you are a stranger, beware that you need to spend time with them before you can befriend them; that is if they are willing to befriend you. In that perspective, I’ve long since gotten accustomed to that and have made many friends with Germans and foreigners alike.

Kristin- This is one of the stereotypes of Germans I dislike. While typically Germans don’t bother with every day small talk with strangers, they are very nice and love to laugh. I have met some very wonderful German friends and a German friend is a friend for life. I have also become friends with people from all over while being in my language class. It’s taught me a lot about other cultures and also how those other cultures perceive the U.S.  I have had many laughs at how without even speaking, I have been asked if I am American. They tell me it’s because I am smiling or look happy.

Brian- While I have got to know a lot of people that I currently work with really well, none of them are from Germany.  They are from Romania, Ukraine, Poland, Austria, Russia, etc.  I think the stereotype about making friends with Germans is correct.  I don’t find Germans rude at all, but it can take a long time to make friends with them.  But what they call a friendship is much more than what Americans call friendships.  We’re talking going to the end of the earth to help a friend type of deal.

Question 11.   Are there any aspects that you miss about the US? If so, which ones?

Brian-  I miss some of the foods, cheap fuel, and my Colorado sunshine.

Kristin- What I miss most are my family and friends. I also miss certain foods a lot. I miss not being able to talk to everyone in English. I am not fluent yet so if I need to speak with someone, I must always stop and think about how to speak in German and if I make sense.

Jason- Apart from family and friends, I miss the road trips going cross-country with a good camera in the hand, and some historic bridges of iron and steel, many of them are dwindling in numbers every year. Otherwise,  there are really no good plausible reasons to even think about moving back to the US, not after all these years here.

Amanda- We miss our family and friends, as well as specific places we’ve been in the US, but otherwise things here are just as good, and sometimes better.

Question 12. Do you still follow the events in the US from Germany, both news and sports? What are your impressions compared to Germany?

Brian-  Unfortunately, I still thoroughly follow news in the US, mainly involving finance and politics.  One important thing I would note about Germany’s politics is that we have about 6 major political parties that make up our ‘congress’, and the system forces the parties to work together.  There’s no massive money involved, and it’s a lot less about popularity or beauty contests.  I really wish the people would push for massive reforms.  While middle-class wages have been flat in the US for the last 30 years, they’ve more than doubled in Germany.

Jason- I have to say, I’ve also followed the events in the US via internet and public radio, and picking up where Brian left off, I have to say that German news sources are much more neutral and thought provoking than those in the US, where networks tend to lean either to the far left or the far right. It was never like that when we grew up in the 1980s and 90s. However, since the four key networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox) have been taken over by corporations in 2001, public television has been manipulated through funding by big corporations, and NPR is constantly being put on the chopping block for funding cuts and begging for money from listeners, there’s really no real news network that has taken a neutral stance. In fact you will never find this with German news media, like ARD, NDR, ZDF and others, but this is because we have to pay annual fees (the GEZ) to fund them. Although it is a pain, but better that than to have the corporations put their thick greasy hands into a well-designed wedding cake.

Kristin- I still follow U.S. news via the TV and will watch CNN. I also check in on various websites. Germany has many news stations on the TV from small area news from different states of Germany and then big network news channels such as CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and Deutsche Welle. I find American news stations to be comical and annoying at times. It’s so full of half hour opinion pieces and every little thing is blown out of proportion to make it seem news worthy.

Amanda- We do follow events in the US a bit.  Andrew reads the news and keeps up on things more than I do, but we both listen to National Public Radio (NPR) when we have the time.  I can’t really compare properly, as I listen to radio for US news and watch Deutsche Welle (DW) videos on YouTube for German news.  Both seem to do a good job for the stories that they cover.  At the moment, with an 8 week old, I can’t properly keep up with either.

And lastly, Question 13.  If you have some advice to give to someone wanting to relocate, what would you give them?

Amanda- Learn the language and documentation process, including what original documents to bring with you, before you arrive for a more seamless move.

Brian- I wish every person could choose whatever place in the world that they wanted to be.  However, if one is relocating, I highly suggest doing extensive research about every aspect, and thoroughly understand the culture before moving.  I pretty much did that, and have had nearly no surprises or bad experiences.

Jason- Apart from language and research, sometimes connections with people over there are useful. It makes the transition to a new environment go much smoother. This was the advantage that Brian, Kristin, Amanda and Andrew had with us when they moved here and I had with Birgit and her family when I first came to Germany.

Kristin- Reach that goal! It won’t be easy but it’s worth it. Life is too short for regrets! Do your research to learn as much as you can about the place and the culture. Learn the language!! Whether relocating is temporary or for the long haul it will be an experience to last a life time. You will learn so much about people and yourself.

FAZIT:

The last sentence mentioned by Kristin is what sums up this interview. How will one know himself if the person is not abroad? A chance like this is once in a lifetime. While leaving friends and family behind is tough, it is a way of life and they will all envy the person taking that step. And while having four people from Jackson, Minnesota collect their experiences for their families and friends back home (let alone the local newspaper) is an unusual phenomenon right now, as globalization continues to progress, more and more people will take that chance and spend at least a large portion of their lives abroad, exploring new worlds and learning the culture, thus making the world become one and smaller. That is why it would not be surprising if just as many people from a small German town, like Glauchau, Husum, Tängermünde, Bingen or even Heringsdorf were to explore the US and even such a small town like Jackson, Minnesota. It’s for the experience, one of which will most likely be shared with others beyond the media perspective.

Can you imagine such a scenario like the one here? 🙂

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Author’s Note: Steve Schorr is a freelance writer, working for several newspapers in northern Germany, including the ones for SHZ, based in Kiel. He was asked by the author to write this as a guest columnist for the Files’ to be granted the spotlight for one article, at least. He resides in Rostock. 

Americans in Germany 2: Hometown Locals Part I

Left to right: Jason D. Smith, Amanda (Draine) Sutton, Kristin (Svoboda) Krahmer, Brian Krahmer. Photo taken by Birgit Smith in 2014 in Jena.

There is an idiomatic expression that best describes a well-travelled and open-minded person:  Being a hometown person is good, travelling around is better, being abroad gives you the best.   During the author’s time in Germany, one of the observations that is definitely noticeable in the past decade is that the world is getting much smaller. It has nothing to do with the increase of goods from Germany that can be bought in the US and vice versa, but more to do with meeting people from your college town or even your hometown. During a trip to Flensburg in 2010, the author encountered a person, whose daughter went to high school in Windom, Minnesota as an exchange student! Located 40 km northeast of Worthington, which has an exchange program with Crailsheim, as well as 110 km west of New Ulm, a predominantly German city, it would be considered unusual to have a German visit a small town of 4500 inhabitants for a full year, a third as many as the two aforementioned communities.

However, what would be a reaction of the readers when they found out that four people from an even smaller community- namely Jackson, located 30 km south of Windom- are living in Germany. And all of them have an age difference of only four years?  This is what Jason Smith, Brian Krahmer, Kristin Krahmer (née Svoboda) and Amanda Sutton (née Draine) are doing.  Since 2014, the four people have been living in Germany, and albeit they live far apart, they have one thing in common: Germany is considered home to them. In this series on Americans living in Germany, the Files’ Steve Schorr asked the four people individually about their motives behind moving to Germany and comparing life there to that of their hometown. This will be divided up into two parts due to length and content. This is part I, with part II to follow.  Before moving to the questions, a brief profile of the four people:

Jason D. Smith-  Jason has lived in Germany the longest, having resided there since 1999. He graduated from Jackson High School in 1996. After three years at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, he came to Germany as a foreign exchange student at the Friedrich-Schiller-University in Jena and since graduating in 2001, has been teaching English at various institutions in and around Jena and Erfurt, with the exception of a two-year stint in Bayreuth at the university. He’s currently pursuing his teaching license to teach English, Social Studies and History at a German high school (Gymnasium) and is expected to obtain his 1st state exam in 2016 and his 2nd by 2018. Since 2010 he is also a writer and photographer of two blogs: The Flensburg Files and The Bridgehunter’s Chronicles. With the exception of two years in Bayreuth and another two in Erfurt, Jason has been living in Jena with his wife Birgit and their seven year old daughter, Clara.

Brian and Kristin Krahmer- Brian and Kristin are the adventurous type when it comes to travelling, having lived in six different American states before moving to Germany in 2014. Kristin graduated from high school in 1996, Brian three years earlier. Married since 2000 (the same time as Jason and Birgit), the couple have done many jobs in the areas including some self-employment opportunities as carpenter, while Kristin acquired a profession as a massage therapist and Brian has 20+ years’ experience as a software developer. Since coming to Germany in 2014, they have lived in two different places in Bavaria: in Pegnitz (between Bayreuth and Nuremberg) and in their current town of Markt Rettenbach, located between Ulm and Munich near the city of Memmingen. They have a 10-year old daughter, Alexis.

Amanda (Draine) Sutton- Amanda graduated from high school, together with Jason and Kristin, in 1996 and since earned a Bachelor’s of Science in Environmental Health in 2007 and a Master’s in Radiological Health Sciences in 2009.  Both degrees were earned at Colorado State University.  After college, she spent one year working on the Hanford Site with Washington Closure Hanford as a Radiological Engineer in Washington state, followed by approximately two years working with SENES/ARCADIS as a Health Physicist out of their Denver office in Colorado before she started her family.  Her husband Andrew completed his PhD in Computer Science in 2011, also from Colorado State University.  Andrew has held post-docs in the Computer Science Departments at University of Adelaide, Colorado State University, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, and Hasso Plattner Institut/Universität Potsdam.  Amanda has lived in Minnesota, Illinois, Wyoming, Colorado, and Washington.  Since meeting Andrew, who grew up in New Mexico, they have also lived in Adelaide, South Australia and Jena, Germany.  They currently reside in Potsdam, Germany with their two children, Camden who will be three years old in November, and Daphne who is two months old.

And now, the questions:

Question 1: What motivated you to move to Germany?

Brian-  I had been to Germany 7 times before moving here.  I have always loved the culture, architecture, the autobahn, cars, transport system, the food, and of course, the beer!  The location makes it very easy to travel to dozens of countries as well.

Kristin- For over a decade Brian and I have wanted to live in Europe and we fell in love with Germany the most. I like the German architecture, food, lifestyle, varying landscapes and I admire how strongly Germans hold on to tradition. I feel Germany is a very progressive country when it comes to politics, the environment and education. I think our daughter will have some great options for education here in Germany. Brian and I have always loved exploring new places and Germany is a great starting point for exploring many other countries in Europe.

Jason- There are two people in my life who got me convinced that I should go to Germany: my German teacher in high school, who introduced me to German culture and the language in class, and my wife, who is originally from Germany in the state of Thuringia. Before meeting Birgit, I had thought about spending time in Germany but was hesitant because it was at the latter part of my studies at Concordia. When Birgit came to my alma mater in 1998, my attitude changed and after learning about the exchange program, I took advantage of it and “followed” her back to Germany to Jena. Actually she got me convinced that living abroad does give a person a grand opportunity to learn the language and the culture, and since coming here in 1999, she was right. Otherwise I would not be here today.

Amanda- My husband, Andrew, secured a post doc position as a Researcher in Computer Science with Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena.  We moved to Jena in March of 2014.  However the project relocated to Hasso Plattner Institut/Universität Potsdam and so we moved with in May 2015.  He is now a Researcher and Teacher in Algorithm Engineering here in Potsdam.

Question 2. How did you get a place of residency and work in Germany?

Brian-    I probably had an easier time than many, as I work in IT, where Germany has a shortage of workers.  I initially got a freelance visa for one year, and then renewed it for a 4-year Blue Card, which is a bit similar to a Green Card in the US.

Kristin- My permit falls under Brian’s Blue Card as a family reunification visa. Now that Brian has a Blue Card, I am now able to work. When we first arrived in Germany, Brian had a self-employment visa and I was not permitted to work. I did have to complete a 10 month language course to obtain a B1 certificate of German language and take an integration course.

Jason- Being married to a German made it really easy to get a residency and worker’s permit. During the first three years of marriage, I had a temporary residency visa which was converted to a permanent one in the fall of 2003. The reason for that is to avoid “green-card” marriages in Germany, which was common at that time. When I received my temporary visa, I also received my worker’s visa at the same time, enabling me to find a job anywhere.  While obtaining a permanent visa allows you to stay in Germany permanently, the catch is when you are absent from Germany for longer than six months and are either single or divorced. Then you run into a lot of problems getting back in, as many foreigners I know have gone through. The lone exception of course is when you trade in your citizenship with a German/ European one, which can be very expensive but one many expats have risked doing, especially because of tax issues from the US.

Amanda- It took us two months to find our first apartment in Jena because we had to learn both the language and rental process at the same time.  This combined with getting our bearings, figuring out how to properly apply for our residency and work permits, Andrew starting his new job, taking care of a toddler, and a tight rental market made it a challenging experience.  We had to learn very quickly all the necessary steps and hurdles of settling in Germany. Work was through my husband Andrew as mentioned.

Question 3. Was it difficult to get a residency and work permit?

Brian and Kristin- (Brian)- I didn’t find it that difficult to get a work permit or residency, but found it much harder than I expected to actually find a job.  I thought that IT would be an exception to most jobs and that I would be okay without being fluent in German.  The fact I am not keeps me out of most companies.

Author’s note: Both were of the opinion that skills shortage was (and still is) high in Germany, which explains the logic behind hiring refugees in Germany at the moment.

Amanda- Yes and no.  It was not difficult because Andrew had already secured work here, so it was just a matter of going through the process.  However, it was very challenging to understand this process and complete the necessary steps and documentation all in a language we were new to.  All the websites, documentation, and conversations were in German.  The beginning of our life in Germany was therefore quite difficult, as our German was very poor and we had little help in the beginning.  It was a very emotional time.

Jason- Not really as mentioned in the previous question. Yet learning the language is key to navigate through the bureaucratic mess like this one. I was lucky that the process went as smoothly as it did.

Question 4. What jobs have you worked since coming to Germany?

Kristin- I have not worked yet in Germany. I do plan on looking for some type of work in the near future. There are a few things that work against you as a foreigner. Germans have an obligation to fill jobs first to German natives. If they can not find a suitable candidate then they can fill that job with someone else. My career has mostly been a mix of Massage Therapy and odd jobs here and there for extra income. That is what I will most likely end up working here in Germany also. I am also looking into various options to put my English skills to work.

Brian- I’m a software engineer, currently working in the payment processing area.

Jason- Since 2001 I’ve been an English teacher, and with the exception of 2008-12 (when I worked full time), I’ve been working on a freelancer basis, teaching everyone of all ages, regardless of social and cultural background as well as language level. If there was one item that would be mentioned in a retirement party to take place when I turn 75, it would be this: I’ve been around the block, teaching at every type of educational institution, including the Volkshochschule (Institute of Continuing Education), German companies, Gemeinschaftsschule (community private school), Gymnasium (high school), private institutions (some funded by the Job Service Agency (Agentur für Arbeit)), private persons, the German military,  translation offices, and the university. I still have yet to teach the kids in a kindergarten or elementary school, but that will come soon enough. Yet as most institutions have limited contracts and I’m searching for something more permanent, I’m back at the university to fulfill that purpose.  Aside that, I’ve done editing and translating work, plus I’m a columnist for two blogs- a side gig but one I can imagine doing for a newspaper or publisher.

Amanda- Andrew is a Researcher and now also a Teacher in the Computer Science field.  He worked at Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena for just over a year and is now working with the Hasso Plattner Institut/Universität Potsdam.  His job has not changed, only the location.  As for me, I am allowed to work in Germany, but at the moment I stay home and take care of our two children, both under three years of age.  My job here is called a Hausfrau.  When I return to work I have interest in utilizing my degree in Environmental Health and/or learning more about Passive Housing and getting into this field.  I would enjoy working in Germany.

Question 5. Many Germans love to stay in one place, yet the trend has pointed to becoming more mobile. Have you stayed in one place since coming to Germany and if not, where have you lived?

Jason- With the exception of two years in Bayreuth and another two in Erfurt (both because of jobs) I have stayed put in Jena because of the small town environment and the beautiful forested hills along the Saale River. Whether we will stay longer in Jena will depend on where my teaching job will be, for regions in the north and east are desperately looking for licensed teachers to fill in the ranks at the schools.

Amanda- As mentioned, we have lived in Jena and now Potsdam.  We only moved because my husband’s job moved.  We would have loved to have stayed in Jena and we miss it.  That being said, we are starting to get settled in Potsdam and are meeting new people all the time.

Kristin- When we first came we lived in a small town called Pegnitz located between Nuremberg and Bayreuth. We chose this area because in Bayreuth there is a great international school in which our daughter to attended the 3rd grade. As parents, we worried about making our daughter’s transition into a new country as easy as possible. This school was very small and most of the teachers knew English so our daughter had support in English when she needed. Pegnitz also fell along a decent train connection for Brian to work in Nuremberg.

We have just recently moved further south to be closer to Munich where Brian is now working. Munich has many more job options for Brian so we want to live as close to Munich as we can but still be in a smaller city. Munich is a great city but we prefer the peacefulness of smaller towns. The area we now live in is closer to the German Alps as well so we are excited to get out and explore. It’s hard to say if this area is where we will plant our feet for the long haul. Anyone who knows the Krahmers knows that we tend to move around a lot.

 Brian- Adding on to what Kristin said, we would like to build a house and settle down somewhere, but land is extremely expensive over here, and you can’t build just anywhere, unlike a few wild places we’ve lived in the US.

Question 6.  In the time you’ve been living here in Germany, what similarities and differences have you seen in comparison with the US, in terms of culture, mentality and the environment?

Kristin-  Some similarities I see are the popularity of supermarkets and other big department stores. While many Germans will also stop by their local butcher or bakery for the best product, many Germans enjoy the convenience of one stop shopping which supermarkets provide. Germans love American entertainment so we hear many of the same music as in the States as well as blockbuster movies. Germany has many American television stations that such as Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, Discovery and TLC. It is just translated into German. Germany has become ‘Americanized’ in a sense that many American phrases works it’s way into common every day language. Another similarity is Germans have great pride in their cars just as Americans do theirs. Germans also admire the American ‘Muscle Car’ a lot.

The differences I see are that people here know the value of fun and family time. Germans work less hours but are more efficient. They have many more vacation days and are always out enjoying themselves. Cafes, restaurants, soccer fields, bike trails and swimming pools are always full of people out spending time with friends and family. Stores being closed on Sundays was something for me to get used to and I love it. It forces everyone to just relax and recharge before the start of a new week.

Another difference is driving. Germans have much tougher drivers education and penalties for breaking driving laws are much more severe. Although they drive fast they tend to drive well. It is illegal to pass on the right so it forces people get over after passing immediately. I love the Autobahn not only because you can drive fast but because it is very efficient when everyone follows the rules.

Also housing here is different. For many Germans they will never live in or own a house their entire lives. They will instead rent or own an apartment. What may look like a normal size house to an American will actually house maybe two or three families inside, each living on a different level. Out in the countryside you still see the old barns still connected to the family home as they were hundreds of years ago. They’ve done this for several reasons. One is that their animals are easier to tend to when they are nearby. I have also heard that the heat generated by the animals helps keep their own houses warmer when attached to the barn. We live in an area with many dairy farms and we see milk trucks making daily rounds to collect the milk. Farmers here will still put bells on some of their cows and call them home with Alpenhorns just as their ancestors did.

Views on the environment I find much different. Recycling is serious business over here. We recycle just about everything and packaging is made so that it can be easily recycled. We even have a compost bin that gets picked up every other week as well. When you look out across a typical German city big or small you will see hundreds of solar panels on homes, apartments and even barns. Many people walk, bike or have a fuel efficient car here. The trend for local or organic ‘Bio’ foods is very strong here as it is in the U.S. right now.

Amanda- Culturally, it is different in many ways.  Germans have more social benefits like time off, maternity/paternity benefits, pay, healthcare, and childcare.  They therefore are able to take more holiday time, go on holiday more often, and in general I feel are able to relax more and have quality time either alone or with their families should they choose.  They take time off seriously.  Everything except restaurants and a few shops with permits are closed on Sundays, so no grocery or clothes shopping.  Some places, such as the post office and doctors offices are even closed for the lunch hour every day.  Germans also tend to keep their work life and private life separate.  As a parent however, I see many cultural similarities as well. We all want good healthcare, childcare, education, and overall quality of life for our children and all people.

Germans are very environmental.  Germans love organic foods and recycling.  Organic foods are reasonably priced and can be found everywhere.  Recycling and trash have separate bins for paper, glass, organic waste, plastics, etc., and trash.  Germans take great pride in separating their trash and in particular, glass items are either returned to the store for a cash refund or placed in bins located in the area by color.  They also often walk, ride their bikes, or take public transportation as a means of travel to work, drop the kids off at school, go grocery shopping, go to appointments, etc.  This is more of a cultural than environmental difference, but it is still wonderful for the environment.  Unfortunately, many American cities are designed primarily for auto use, making foot and bike travel sub-optimal or even dangerous.

Jason- Another factor worth mentioning is that Germans love to talk politics without having to bash or even “unfriend” someone for having an opinion. This is something that disturbs me when I encounter Americans and they try to impose their views and ways onto others. Germany has long been known for having a freedom of expression and opinion that is independent of what the media and other people have to say.

Additionally, Germans love to travel- not just to places inside Germany, but also to places within Europe or even America. It’s amazing to hear stories from other Germans of places they’ve visited and seen- not just the popular places like the Leaning Tower of Pisa or Hamburg, but also smaller places, like the Rum-Sugar Mile in Flensburg or many tall historic bridges in Saxony. Sometimes visiting smaller places can help you to have a bigger vocabulary as far as culture is concerned.

Brian-  I’ve said for quite some time now: “There’s hardly anything in Germany that’s drastically different, yet almost everything is a little bit different.”  I think that sums it up well, because I could go on for hours about the small differences.

The rest of the interview to be continued in Part II……..

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Germany at 25: The Zuckertüte Festival

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This article is part of the series on Germany at 25: The 25 things that makes Germany, the country celebrating 25 years, special.

School time is the right time. When the children reach six or seven years of age, the time is ripe to leave the bird’s nest, known as the Kindergarten, and enter the first grade of elementary school (in German: Grundschule). There are many ways of making that transition for the children. In the United States, many schools have introduced graduation ceremonies for children leaving Kindergarten, using the structural format similar to a typical graduation ceremony in high school and college: children dressing up in gown and cap, teachers making speeches about the successes of kindergarten and the joys of entering the first grade, and lastly, children lining up to receive their diploma. This trend is becoming the norm, even though it is considered overexaggerated and more to the benefits of the parents than their own children. From my own past growing up in rural Minnesota, such a ceremony never existed and it was not necessary to have these extravaganzas, especially given the fact that Kindergarten is integrated into the school system, and the concept of a Kindergarten is different in the US than in Germany (as you can see in this article).

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Keeping this in mind, how do the children celebrate the transition into the Grundschule in Germany?  Easy peasy: children have their own festival which combines fairy tales with a concert and features a tree full of gifts. The Zuckertütenfest (translated into English as the School Cone festival), takes place at the end of the school year, and children entering the first grade at the Grundschule are treated to a cone full of sweets, picked off the cone tree (Zuckertütenbaum) when they are ripe enough for that. Legend has it that when the tree is full of cones that are fully grown and ripe, it means that the children are ready to go to school. It is unknown who was behind this festival, but records have indicated the states of Thuringia and Saxony were the origins of this festival, with Jena being the first known place to introduce it in 1817, followed by Dresden in 1820 and Leipzig in 1836. Although the concept of the school cone (or Schultüte) was only common in the eastern half of Germany during the 19th century, it eventually spread to the rest of Germany in the 1950s, and has since become a part of the new German tradition. Even Erich Kästner in his book “Als Ich ein kleiner Junge war,” (When I was a young boy), mentioned about how he received his cone- and dropped it, spilling all the contents on the floor: candies, dates, figs, and the like. His childhood days were spent in Dresden, where one can still see his place of birth as a historic site to this day. Today these cones are filled with less sweets but with more practical items, such as writing utensils, erasers, markers, calculators and even writing pads, just to name a few. Some small toys can also be included in the cone, whose standards range up to 85 cm in length- big enough to fit everything in there! 🙂

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Going back to the question, how is the festival celebrated? I had a chance to check it out at a Kindergarten in Jena, where my daughter is graduating and moving onto elementary school. Unlike graduation ceremonies, this event is informal and private. That means only the parents, siblings and close relatives of the child “graduating” are allowed to participate and watch the event. While the event varies from Kindergarten to Kindergarten in terms of structure, most of the activities take place outside, which is logical because of the Zuckertütenbaum. At the one I was at, we had a potluck dinner (where everyone brought food and/or drink to share with others) combined with the tradition of the Thuringian bratwurst. But we started off with a concert lasting 30 minutes and featuring some soloists, like my daughter and her best friend. After the ceremony, each graduating child receives a small folder with a poem and best wishes from the teacher. In my daughter’s case, as she is bilingual, the teacher tried out her school time English, which ended with “Did I get this right, Mr. Smith?” 🙂 Then it was time to pick the school cones off the tree and give them to the kids. The trees come in different shapes and sizes, like the picture below (By the way, Charlie Brown would approve this concept, as it would not kill the tree):

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Dinner, cake, teacher appreciation and entertainment usually follows the picking of the cone. As a general rule, children receive as many as over a half dozen cones prior to entering school, which usually begins in August, some through the festival and the rest through another celebration, the Schuleinführung (entry into elementary school), the largest of which comes from the parents. The size of the cones received through the Zuckertütenfest varies but are normally smaller than the big ones. In either case, the cones provide the children with enough tools and sweets to last through the first year in school- that is if the parents can get them to go sparingly on sweets and use the practical things instead. 😉

Zuckertütenfest and the cones are still common today as Kindergartens are using these festivals not as a way of graduating the children, like in the US, but as a way of saying farewell and thanks for all the years of learning together and being a family. After all, the teacher has the same group for five years, beginning at the age of one and ending when they leave to enter school at six. Unlike in school or even in college, these teachers are the most attached, as the kids rely on them for love and support while their parents are away. They are also called to duty to teach them the bare basics of friendship, fairness, working together, creativity and other key talents, which they can utilize in school. And when they are honored with a scrap book containing the pictures of the kids they taught, along with their drawings, together with other gifts that are typical of the events that happened over the years, then it is a sign that these teachers received what they deserved: honor, love, respect, and appreciation. And for the kids, they will leave the Kindergarten one by one, thanking them for what they did, yet the memories of their time there will remain for others to learn about.  This is something that graduation ceremonies from Kindergartens cannot hold true. Sometimes, less is more. And when they can learn to be creative with the fewest items, they can go a long way as they enter school, then high school and lastly beyond.

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This takes me to the end of the article on this unique festival, but not before making this quote:  It takes kids to make a difference in our lives, yet it takes the teachers to make the difference in the lives of these kids.

If the teacher gets honored for his/her work, then it is because the kids leaving for the future, with a school cone in the hand, have learned a lot from him/her, already using what was taught for future purposes. When the Grundschule teacher welcomes the kids this fall, they will be amazed at what they have learned so far and what they can achieve even further in the future.

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