Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Situations you might find yourself in: Americans in Germany

Just an observation after a year of living here.

1. Someone, at some point, will probably ask you if you own a gun.
By someone I mean probably a stranger on the subway who hears you speaking English, and by at some point I mean all the time. Non-Americans (and lets be real here- even some Americans) are both disgusted and enticed by all the moral questions and death rates surrounding our Wild West style white knuckle grip on the 2nd amendment.

2. You will probably be entertained and mortified by  how inescapable all the worst dregs of American pop culture are here.
 I mean the same exact top 20s songs were playing in clubs/on tv here that were playing in the u.s. when I left. And there was a weird trend for a long time where all these adult germans were wearing letterman jackets. Also the gentrification of McDonalds, Burger King and Pizza Hut gets kind of hilarious... I mean most of them here are downright classy. And super expensive.

3. Some people might think you are stupid American. Please make us proud and prove them wrong.
I don't know how many geography or political pop quizzes I've gotten from acquaintances. We kind of get the reputation of being so caught up in upholding the image of our country that we never take time to properly educate ourselves about it, let alone learn beyond stereotype and fear-mongering of any other ones. This goes for only believing stereotypes from the get go. No all Germans don't celebrate Oktoberfest, it is a Southern Germany thing and in Munich (you should go though, it is really fun!). No all Germans are not 6 foot tall blondes (even though in Aachen I saw a crazy high Twilight zone level of extremely tall people). Also please for the love of god do not accuse a German person of being a Nazi just because they are German. Yes Neo-Nazis are alive & well but that doesn't mean everyone is one.

4. People are really into recycling here (which is great) but it will be a pain at first and then you'll get over it.
You have to pay for every single grocery bag you use here.10-25 euro cents each depending on how big/what store. So everyone brings their own bags (or old boxes?) to the grocery store. And IF you do have to buy a bag, the cashier will carefully look over the amount of groceries you bought and ask you to not buy more than the absolute necessary amount. As a 6 year old in the German class I help teach at said" If you use too much paper,we can't breathe." I guess that's what it comes down to. Also all plastic bottles have a 25 cent tax (Pfand) that you get backwhen you recycle the bottle at the grocery store. Timing grocery visits with back carrying & bottle carrying got tiring, but then routine with the added bonus of feeling awesome for recycling. I mean think of how many plastic bags you use in a year.

5. "Uh, excuse you." you say, as the person who nearly knocked you over keeps going like they don't give a damn.

(hint: it's because they don't. )

Ok. While I am not "from" Alabama or the south in the traditional sense... I have lived there for the past 11ish years. Meaning that I have gotten used to a certain level of physical and social politeness. Cultural expectations. If I am bumped into, I expect an I'm sorry. If I knock into someone or even brush up against them to much, I say the same. If I am trying to get past someone, I say excuse me and more often than not doors are opened. Now my German friends have told me how sad the "Germans are rude" stereotype is. But the fact is we all have different definitions of what rude are, and you have to redefine that while living in Germany or you will get extremely bitter. Just like when I lived in Brazil and I had to redefine what personal space means. Traveling is a constant reminder of where you came from. Also, this rule is not only for on feet... I have almost been ran over by people on bikes (both in & out of the bike line.pro tip: stay the heck out of the red part of the sidewalk, bitte.) and sometimes this is accompanied by a warning bell if they are feeling friendly. And this closed off-ness from displays of superficial and expected politeness (or common courtesy as we so polyannaishly call it back home) extends to definitions of friendship as well. In German the word for friend is reserved for people you are close to and know very well and is a serious thing while the word for acquaintance is thrown around more freely. This kind of honesty and lack of putting on expected friendliness can be refreshing...if you stay away from that getting bitter thing I talked about earlier.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Here we go again!

So, this week I started my 2nd semester at Dortmund. A year ago...well actually a few months ago... I had no idea I'd actually be living here for a year instead of 6 months. My flight back home February 26th left without me, but just barely. I didn't have the resolve to actually cancel the plane ticket until 2 days before.

I haven't updated since the end of January. A lot can happen in two and a half months!
 In January I went to see Henry Rollins in Cologne for my Birthday (it's January 26! Aquarius whoop whoop!). I'm a huge fan, and the show was as great as I had expected! I was right next to the stage. He came to Germany for the first time on his birthday, and I saw him for the first time on my birthday my first time in Germany. It was nice to be able to just buy a show ticket and take a train (for free- thanks semesterticket!)and then the subway to a show. So much freedom. In the states it would have been a complicated carpool situation and along drive. At his show I laughed, I cried, I agreed, I disagreed... and it was amazing.

He really embodies my philosophy on being American, and further, being an American who loves to travel:
'I want something that will educate me. I want to out into the world and learn a thing or two. I think we as a species; we need to travel more. All of you need to leave your country on a regular basis. Trust me your country will still be here when you get back. I just think it’s important for people to go to countries where they’re not familiar, where they definitely look like they’re not from there, they need to eat food that they cannot pronounce the name of, listen to music that they can’t understand, and shake the hands of everyone and say crazy things like, “Hey! What’s going on?” I think we need to do this more often, thus we become xenophobic, living a boring, flat-lined, fucked up life. This is why I travel.'
-Henry Rollins

Or, a story he told in Cologne about his Black Flag tour days about a spun out disgruntelled fan who got shanked in front of him' Go, go have a picnic in your blood'. Lol. Henry.

February was stressful, finals and then a break where I stressed myself out wondering if I would actually stay for a second semester and also worrying about my last semester back home (graduation!). Homesickness on a month long school break is the worst, there were much fewer distractions (oh, besides the whole living in amazing Germany thing which should have been enough!). And then I spent March in a Mon-Fri German language intensive course, and actually passed it this time with a hard earned B-, or in German terms a 2,3. So many new students!! Last semester there were maybe 9 Americans, and now there are a couple dozen if not more. It's like when I go to Dusseldorf and here English being spoken randomly. Tt feels so out of place. But it has been fun getting to know new people.

Also in March, I moved dorms from Studentdorf to Ostenbergstrasse. Since I had unexpectedly extended my stay there I had to move since my subleaser was coming back. I live 8 floors up(luckily with an elevator, it has only broken once so far. Walking. Stairs. Welcome to Germany lol), and have a great view of the sunrise and sunset as well as birds EVERY DAY! It's my favorite part of living here. Yes, It's a little further away than my old dorm but my roommates are extremely nice and so it's a fair trade I'd prefer any day. My new roommate Lily took this gorgeous picture.

There is a big field I walk through to get to the dorm. I keep seeing people walk their dogs, and also their are a couple house cats constantly on the prey or perched in a tree. It makes me miss my pets so much(Fun fact: you can take your dog, any size, into stores here. AND on the train!)! I have been joking since I got here that Dortmund should have a loan pet program for exchange students, but I'm serious. I mean there must be some pound kittens who need some love until they get adopted? Some kind of student run foster care? I can't wait to get back home to Baby Ray & Luna. I will probably look like this every day*:

*Except Ranger 'baby ray' Jones is way cuter. And more obese.

So, I'm glad the last semester is over but I still don't know how anything transfers here or what half my final grades were. Here, they use the 2 months of holidays to do final portfolios, exams, and papers. I could never go to college 4-5 years straight here without a break. Also the credit system is strange, and I'm faced with the dilema or transfering credits or not and how they will affect my GPA. even if I transfer a B, since I have an A GPA it will still hurt it. This is refering to LAST semester, this semester is 100% free tuition, Germany style :).

This first week of class has gone ok. They had to make a second A2 level German class last minute and I'm not sure the professor fits my learning style as much as the class I actually signed up for...but it is Monday & Wednesday instea dof MOnday & Friday which frees up my weekend betetr to travel. My A2 German conversation teacher is Amazing, however! She is so upbeat and instead of telling you what a word means in English she draws a picture or mimes it so her class is in 100% german... I'm going to learn so much! Of Course I like complex grammar to be explained in English, but other than that it needs to be 100% in German so I can figure out some of this dang language before I leave. Now I ask 'Sprechen Sie Englische?' Far less than I did the first semester. I may not get it all right, but I at least understand more or less and can get my point across, however gramatically poor (except I did accidentally say a student was stuck in a 4th floor broke elevator to someone when I meant to just say the elevator was broken...but you can't win them all!). I also am taking a two times a week free Italian class (the language center here is free. Take note, largely monolingual America cough cough ) because I am going to a family friend's wedding in Sicily in June. Mi chiamo Mercedes! Sono di Montevallo, I am from Montevallo! (how do you say Sono di Ex-navy brat\no home town? Close enough.). And on top of that, I am taking a drawing class which looks to be mostly independent study, and also will be volunteering again at an elementary school helping with English. I couldn't volunteer there over the break because my German class tookup all the school day, and I kind of miss those crazy kids. Even after having to untie them from crudely wrought rope bindings fastened to soccer goal posts they MacGyver during PE and reminding them to not cut their neighbor's hair with safety scissors. And that I'm not British. Or married.

Hopefully I think the words 'What the hell is going on??' at least just a couple times a day instead of all the time this semester.Or maybe not I guess what's the whole point of doing so many new things without it turning your world upside down. Complacency and normalcy are pretty big factors in my wanderlust, anyways... that's hwo I ended up here. Bored, looking for some newness. Whenever I skype my parents I strike a thoughtful pose and ask them if I look like a 'seasoned world traveller' yet... and they laugh...and then I start asking them to bring Ray Ray up to the webcam one more time.

Well here I go again, another semester abroad as an undergrad art student! My third. I don't know how I got so lucky.

Next post: Someone requested a Dortmund bunnies post! Wish granted.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A McNair Scholar on The Road

Being a McNair Scholar is something that has been a huge part of my life the past couple years. McNairscholars.com describes the program as:

Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program:
The McNair Scholars Program is a federal TRIO program funded at 194 institutions across the United States and Puerto Rico by the U.S. Department of Education. It is designed to prepare undergraduate students for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities. McNair participants are either first-generation college students with financial need, or members of a group that is traditionally underrepresented in graduate education and have demonstrated strong academic potential. The goal of the McNair Scholars Program is to increase graduate degree awards for students from underrepresented segments of society.

But for me, it has been so much more than that. It has been a program that has given me support to push myself academically with like-minded students and faculty who have become family. Before I came to study at TU Dortmund I completed a McNair Summer Research Internship and used my grant money to travel to Munich, Spain, and France. I also used it for grocery money and cellphone bill money until my scholarship with the Global Scholars Foundation came through in November! And so when I was asked to write an article for the TRIO newsletter on being a McNair scholar and studying in Germany, it was the least I could do for a program that has given so much to me. I encourage anyone who is an undegrraduate to look into applying (I can't promise you it will be as fun as the McNair Scholar program at the University of Montevallo though).:)

Here's a photo of me with the McNair Scholars who started the same time I did at the SAEOPP McNair  Research conference in Atlanta last summer:

And here is what I wrote on being a McNair scholar on the road:

My name is Mercedes Jones and I am a McNair Scholar and art major at the University of Montevallo in Montevallo, Alabama and am now studying art in Dortmund, Germany at TU Dortmund. Being accepted into the McNair program was an honor that has since affected my life both academically, professionally, and personally in more ways that I could have imagined since turning in that application and sitting down for my interview with Dr. Tracy Payne and Ms. Tonya Giddens. 
I completed my McNair Summer Research Internship art installation and research project titled “Being Multiracial in America” in the summer of 2011. This project pushed me further than I have ever pushed myself. We learned together that you get out of something what you put into it, and were putting into practice valuable lessons we had learned from seminars all year long and through practicing at conferences. I learned strength and self confidence in my capability to be a scholar and research what I love through unending support and guidance from the other McNair Scholars, McNair staff, and my faculty mentor Dr. Kelly Wacker. And when I say unending it is not a figure of speech! At one point when I was installing my project in the gallery I needed a staple gun. It was 1 am and my faculty mentor came to campus to give me a staple gun so I could keep working. And at any given point, I think every McNair scholar has showed up in the McNair office distressed or on the verge of tears and we knew that was a place we could go to calm down, get advice, regroup, and pick up a snack before we got back to work. Pushing myself to these lengths and completing a successful project gave me confidence that I have applied in so many ways since moving to Germany. 
After completing my project, I used a majority of the grant money to fund traveling to Munich, Paris, and Barcelona before I got to Dortmund to study. As an art major, seeing the contents of my art history textbook up on a wall two feet away from me was definitely a surreal experience. Having that extra funding gave me the ability to not only read about the importance of The Louvre Museum, but to walk it’s halls and experience the history myself. I marveled at the gothic architecture of the Notre Dame and was overwhelmed by how beautiful it was. I climbed the steps of many of Gaudi’s most famous architectural works in Barcelona, and walked the Japanese bridge in Monet’s gardens while watching the reflections in the water lily pond change from morning to noon. After seeing one of Monet’s water lily paintings at 5 years old I remember pointing to the book saying “Mommy, I want to go there” so being able to go was a dream come true. I could have done none of this without the funding from my McNair Research Summer Internship.
And the scope of my long lasting benefit from being a McNair scholar is by no means just monetary. When faced with difficult situations, I now more than ever have the self confidence in my intellectual ability and strength to say “Yes, I can do that.”I took that lesson as well as how to behave in a professional and academic environment to go on a job interview and get employed as an English tutor at a local college here in Germany. I also am in a constantly changing and new environment since I am living and studying in an unknown country where I do not know the language. As a McNair scholar we are constantly told to work as hard as we can, but to be ready for change and to adapt accordingly. That is probably the best advice to anyone participating in a study abroad program, or for life in general. The lesson we learn as McNair Scholars isn’t that we wouldn’t be afraid of our summer research project, or the GRE, or graduate school. And it was never promised that it wouldn’t be difficult. The lesson was that we are scholars, and capable. We are taught repeatedly in many ways as a McNair Scholar that plans may change or situations may be unfamiliar but prepare and educate yourself using all your previous experiences, resources and mentors. 
Studying abroad, being a McNair scholar is still a large part of my life. Living in Germany and traveling has given a new dimension to my on-going studio project that was the result of my McNair Summer Research Internship. This project included me internalizing and questioning the role of race and multiracial identity in myself in the context of American cultural history and my community and translating that into an audiovisual art installation. I have added a new element to this project by experiencing race relations in Germany and the other countries I visit. And an added benefit of taking this time to be an exchange student in Dortmund is that I have time to take the tools I have learned through McNair and re-examine graduate school programs in art history, museum studies and studio art and see where I will apply when I return to America. 
These experiences and travels have been vital to my academic career and personal development. Much like when I started the McNair program, I cannot imagine how many ways this year in Germany will affect the rest of life. I feel the hard earned title “McNair Scholar” is one that I am proud to have, and proud to share with so many hardworking intelligent people past and present. 

 I Love you guys!

More About the program:
The McNair Program at the University of Montevallo: