Wednesday, November 11, 2009

wiederaufgebaut

[ Rebuilt ]

Trumping my hasty first impressions of Dresden, as I walked within the center of Dresden – with the Theaterplatz, the Theater Square, grandly hugging the River Elbe – I quickly was being introduced to the reason why Dresden was once considered The Florence of the North.

At least this used to be the nickname of the city before its devastating destruction during WW2, but what may be equally incredible is the fact that this city has rebuilt itself, and the churches, palaces, opera and theater houses have all been reinstated, and the city can now reclaim its prestige of being a historical and cultural center within Germany.

There were not many people out and about, and there didn’t seem to be a lively atmosphere in the market squares [which would completely change come Saturday ], but nonetheless, I became in awe of the incredible sandstone wonders that surrounded me.

On our guided tour I was able to grasp a little more of the history of the city – albeit not all, it WAS in German – but I did my best. The tour was half in a bus and half on foot, and normally I enjoy seeing a city inside and out on my own terms, but every once and a while, a tourist experience can be a refreshing change of pace.

[ I met up once again with my friend Maria from Turku, Finland! ]

Outside the center of the city, we drove for several minutes through forests with beautiful colors carpeting the forest floor reminding us that the first days of chilly November were upon us. The forests weren’t just a detour however – Dresden claims to be one of the greenest cities in Germany boasting over 63% of the city being covered in forests. From the pedestrian street crossings of the downtown area, Dresden drastically changes only minutes from the city center, as the forests overwhelm the scene and the other landmarks spread in the outskirts of the city are seemingly hidden amongst the multi-colored fall woods.

Along the Elbe river and peering through the dense forest, villa quarters can be found along the river. These huge estates, some even castles, are true spectacles and from a distance, one can only imagine their vastness inside since the building tiers itself up the hills edge along the river’s edge.

Schloβ Albrechtsberg, a Castle within the Dresden quarters of Loschwitz, was one of these huge estates, and truly proved why Loschwitz was one of the most expensive and extravagant places to live in all of Europe in the early 1900’s.

Returning to the city center to complete the tour on foot, I was able to get a much closer perspective of the Dresden Castle, the Zwinger Palace and the Theaterplatz.

Similar to Wawel in Kraków, Dresdner Schloβ had different construction periods, and the completed building had attributes of Renaissance, Baroque and Classicist styles.

Dresden’s history actually is directly involved with Polish history as well, since one of the leading figures in building Dresden up to become a cultural center King of Poland, August II – or August II der Starke [the Strong]

Through personal union – a governance when one monarch rules over more than one land as a combined group – August II der Starke was both the ruler of Saxony, Frederick Augustus I as well as August II King of Poland. He commissioned many of the large, grand architectural projects in Dresden including the Hofkirche – the church of the royal household, which was a catholic church. At the time, Dresden was predominantly a Protestant city, however, Polish monarchs needed to be Catholic, so August the strong therefore built the impressive Catholic Hofkirche across from the Zwinger Palace and on the Theaterplatz.

[ A fascinating glass dome over the rebuilt castle [ giving a feeling of being in a bubble frozen in time ] that preserves the courtyard with the stones appearance of newness which won't oxidate over the years from outside weather - one of the many details within the city that subtly remind that it has been rebuilt giving opportunities to address the atrocities of war, but also the perspective of what these great architectural models would have looked like in their prime. ]

This incredible church was only the beginning of the architectural marvels – part for their historical significance, and also for their reconstructed states – since a few other historical ties to August II der Starke involved other incredible buildings within Dresden as well.

Foyer-Reise nach Dresden

[ International Foyer trip to Dresden ]

Normally when I am abroad, I am extremely frugal, and I really budget my money strictly and think twice before making purchases. This wasn’t the case a few weeks ago during the Einfuhrungswochenende when there was information about an international student trip to Dresden in November. On the registration day, within the first few hours – almost on a whim – I just signed up, knowing that whatever happened on the trip, it would be a great way to meet new people regardless of what turned out with the trip.

It was a good thing I did too, since the trip booked fast, and handing over my 50 Euros for the weekend, my place was reserved.

As I have mentioned before, October completely flew by, and before I knew it my first weeks of class were over and I was well into the winter semester at my new university. The travel weekend had arrived too, and I realized that I never even looked at the agenda for the weekend. In three days we really were going to do a lot – travel together by bus, stay in a pre-booked hostel, see many sights, have dinner together and even visit a museum. Early on the Friday morning of the trip I had to wake up before 5 am since I lazily waited until the day of to pack my bag, and throw some clothes together for the weekend.

It was on the roughly 5 hour bus trip - where I recognized a few faces, but noticed that many were new – that I realized that this was really my first time truly seeing a city that was part of the former German Democratic Republic [GDR / East Germany]. The timing of the weekend was very appropriate, since lately in the news there has been much discussion over the history of the divided decades of Germany, especially since Monday the 9th would commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall.

Hearing Merkel’s speech a week before, and also familiarizing myself with the history of divided Germany through many news articles, I knew that I was going to be able to grasp a lot more from Dresden than “Just seeing another Germany city”. The city represents a lot of Germany, and that is what I was going to be able to truly learn.

I realized that other than knowing that Dresden was in former East Germany, there was not much I knew about the city other than the descriptions I had from reading Kurt Vonnegut’s very excentric anti-war science-fiction novel Slaughterhouse Five where the protagonist was involved in the 1945 Bombings in the city of Dresden.

Between February 13 -15th of 1945, British and American naval forces performed one of the most controversial actions of the Allied Powers during WW2 when they fire bombed the city of Dresden [ “approximately 1 bomb for every two civilians” ] and the central part of the city was completely destroyed.

Understanding this history, as we arrived into Dresden, I had expectations to witness a city that had completely rebuilt itself, but what exactly that meant was what I had to still find out for myself.

Dropped off in what seemed to be a random corner of the city, I followed some of the others, still learning names and nationalities with some as we went along, and walked a few streets while we had a few free hours to just explore before our formal tour.

On my first impression – not in the center of the city yet, only walking some of the outskirt streets – I was not finding any outstanding impressions. The city seemed kind of hollow – a lot of space, a lot of construction, a lot of buildings… yet still seemingly empty – from what? I could not exactly pin-point it – the commercial center wasn’t immensely dense, and there weren’t really people out and about – it was eerily silent.

[ The beauty of Dresden finally peering over the "hollow" first impression ]

Unfortunately I “read the book by its cover” and perhaps a Friday afternoon isn’t the liveliest of days in Dresden. A corner or two later, and grand towers of churches and a palace loomed over this “hollow” skyline, and then I realized that I was really entering the city of Dresden, and from there, the city only captured my awe more as the weekend progressed.

“Typical American” Part 3 / 3

[ - continued from part 2/3 ]

Now maybe jumping from a simple dinner conversation question to quoting political scientist Robert Singh or referring to “Common Sense” from the American Revolution is a bit of a stretch, but it is all part of my own personal exploration to properly address the stereotypes and loaded questions I am faced with everyday as an American.

Many times the misunderstandings are from outspoken opinions and preconceived notions, and the differences between us are subtle, but in everyday life living abroad they have some impact on me.

Referring to Americans being so prude, at another meal with my host parents, when I was talking about my brother going to university, and his girlfriend, also a very good friend of mine, was also was studying there, they started asking more questions. “Did my brother live with Louise?” – My answer was obviously no, since that would be very disrespectful to all of our parents – living with a significant other, especially as a teenager is largely unheard of in America - but this only started more questions leading to relationships and sex, and how teenagers in Germany are generally free to be in close [ and knowingly consummated] relationships as young as 14 or 15.

First I was probably blushing, since talking about sex with parents, especially at dinner of all places is not something I am used to – but quoting Stefan from Saarbrücken, Germans love talking about Sex, Politics and sports. And still in our first week together – a time that I would consider still for first impressions - we hit up the topics the Germans loved, but also ones that Americans consider taboo [we all hear to never talk about religion, sex or politics on a date… well this was like a date with my host family getting to know each other, and we just talked about all three].

[ Remember in Saarbrücken? - Lady GaGa has a penis ... ]

A sharp difference like this was one that made me realize that I was a bit out of my comfort zone, but also made my host parents realize that small talk is very different in America [“what do you mean you don’t know who your dad votes for?” – “that is just how he was raised… we don’t really talk about money, politics or sex too openly with our parents… especially at dinner."]. The other thing to note is that, being the foreigner in these situations majority of the time, naturally it is the way I see things that is strange.

I learned very quickly through conversations and our family weekend together that my host parents were a little more open about these topics to say the least. When we were showing photos of our families during the weekend, Inge had great photo albums of their trips to Corsica, an island of France in the Mediterranean. I was a bit shocked since many of the photos were from afternoon lounges on the beaches, however, often topless and with full nudes of the family members.

I don’t know what was more shocking to me – the fact that these photos were there, or the fact that NOTHING was said about them and we continued flipping through the pages without even one awkward hesitation – it was completely natural to them, and I think would have only been proven otherwise if I had made a comment.

In terms of Politics, of course I have been pressed, and even razed as the representative American, because of European's sharp animosity towards President George W. Bush, but I have been very challenged at walking the line of understanding, and also rationalizing and even defending America and our former president when comments were a little to opinionated – I am not in Europe to bash America, even if I don’t agree with some things. That is one of the biggest challenges.

One professor in the university, actually an American ex-pat in Göttingen dealt with a similar situation better than I had ever seen before. In a great, heated debate about the ideals of the American Dream when we discussed the basis of American politics, one German student contested how we as Americans could possibly respect our freedoms when we “could reelect a past drunkard and international criminal to be president”. A very loaded opinion, indeed, and something that is hard for me to react and respond to when I hear this myself, since I can only really say “I wasn’t old enough to vote then.”

The professor, a little nerved by the frankness of the statement shot back – “tell me one of Bush’s policies” and the German student began to hesitate and then mentioned something about Iraq. “No, tell me one of Bush’s domestic policies.” This caught the student completely off guard – nothing…

The professor continued – “I may have not voted for Bush myself, but I know that my reasons for disliking him are a little different than yours. It is important for anyone to know the policies of any international figure, international and domestic, before throwing off misleading comments.” The professor, even after admitting that he didn’t support Bush, still defended some of the positive policies of President Bush including those about national parks, and proved that it is ok to disagree, but you have to get your facts straight first – or at least know some facts before making such direct opinions.

It is situations such as these, addressing our shyness to discuss sex or opinionated politics with people we don’t know too well [even though I am well reminded that we have “so much sex on TV and a huge porn industry”… that still doesn’t change the topics that I discuss with my parents and Babcia at dinner time…] as well as topics that are very difficult to walk the line of expressing personal opinion while promoting at least understanding for why Americans do the crazy things we do. This is why I went back into some older photos from this year and brought some back from the international night at the language school - representing how I was the Michigander of the group, but also as a reminder of the challenges we had to represent our own group and define America for our presentation.

These connections may be diverse, and very wide spread on my posts, but they represent the spontaneity of life in Germany, the awkward dinner chats that one never knows what will be said, the loaded questions at any time, as well as more lectures and seminars to help me put everything in order and jot down some ideas of what I really represent here as a 19 year old student from America [Midwest] [Michigan] [Metro Detroit] [east side of Troy].


[ This personal reflection on the first completed 1/4th of my year in Germany was a bit long. It will be in 3 parts. To see them all together, click the pink link below for "Typical American". These links group blog posts together with topics that I write about and cluster as a group. ]

“Typical American” Part 2 / 3

[ - continued from part 1/3 ]

I must stress that Inge and Andreas weren’t picking on me or intentionally offending me, but their comments were a clear reminder to me that America really did have some heavy stereotypes attributed to it in Europe, and it was my little personal project to shed some light on to which stereotypes I may fit, which are completely false, and ultimately a positive light to share about my home country [deeper than the shallow assumptions that we are all morbidly obese, unilingual inhabitants of our own ignorant, secluded continent]

The following days after these questions had me thinking and finding interesting connections in some of my classes at the University that related to these internal debates I was having within myself of what is an American.

I am taking an American government and politics course [which may seem like a blow off], but the class is a great opportunity to sit alongside German and European students and hear different opinions in our discussions that take place in both German and English.

The opening paragraphs of our textbook really opened my eyes to the importance of the course, since the author, Robert Singh, introduced his topic by addressing 9/11. He referred to a part of the world that was largely misunderstood by other countries, one where “the public image of the diverse people of the region was distorted and partial, a reflection of simple stereotypes and brute prejudices all too easily gleaned from popular-culture.”

Discussing 9/11 and a culture of people largely shrowded in mystery would make a reader assume that Singh was referring to the Middle East, but turn the page, and you would realize that he was talking about the United States.

I actually really enjoyed this approach, since it made me realize that, in the huge expanse of the United States, there are so many places and people that are misconstrued, or more so, unheard of in the Global community. I have learned quickly living in foreign countries that the overwhelming image of America is New York, California and Florida, and beyond this – maybe a trip to Las Vegas or the Grand Canyon to diversify things – America is largely unknown.

[ break to reality, America is not New York - and it isn't a fairy tale either- but there ARE still good people there and good things to learn about the nation. ]

I was comforted by this idea since it related to my challenge of just having to defend my background of coming from Metro Detroit, Michigan. To many Germans, they know a few things – Eminem, a lackluster auto industry, “Most Dangerous City in the US” [very old statistic from the 80’s I should add, things have drastically changed!], but that is about all.

Singh follows his introduction that after 9/11 the importance of really understanding American – meaning the entire country, and not just the major cities, Wall Street and some foreign policy – is crucial to really understand modern international politics.

In another class over literature, some American literature was discussed including Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” which has been read by every student in America during history class. In the pamphlet, Paine argues the unique culture in the American colonies vs. the notion that the people were still British, and he notes how many group themselves with like-minded people when he is away from his home.

"

It is pleasant to observe by what regular gradations we surmount the force of local prejudice, as we enlarge our acquaintance with the world. A man born in any town in England divided into parishes, will naturally associate most with his fellow parishioners (because their interests in many cases will be common) and distinguish him by the name of neighbour; if he meet him but a few miles from home, he drops the narrow idea of a street, and salutes him by the name of townsman; if he travel out of the county, and meet him in any other; he forgers the minor divisions of street and town, and calls him countryman, i. e. countyman; but if in their foreign excursions they should associate in France or any other part of Europe, their local remembrance would be enlarged into that of Englishmen.

And by a just parity of reasoning, all Europeans meeting in America, or any other quarter of the globe, are countrymen; for England, Holland, Germany, or Sweden, when compared with the whole, stand in the same places on the larger scale, which the divisions of street, town, and county do on the smaller ones; distinctions too limited for continental minds.

"

Excerpt from Thomas Paine's "Common Sense"

Putting into a modern perspective, when someone is outside of their city, they refer to their group of their metropolitan area [metro Detroit], after this, the state [“I am from Michigan”], from this a region [“I am a Midwesterner”], and when abroad, with his nation [“I am an American”].

This thought really had me thinking, even though Paine’s “Common Sense” was over 300 years old. This train of thought is really how I group myself with people too – I referred to myself in my German class with Americans as the Michigander, but a few weeks prior in DC, when I met others from around Michigan, we found our differences and similarities by referring to ourselves with our cities or metro areas.

Now in Germany, I am “The American”, but as I have already noted from the breakdown of where I come from in America, this can get as specific as the unique community and culture that I have in my square mile suburb amongst many in Troy, Michigan. This begins to reveal the difficulties and the limitations of how I can represent myself as an American, and also a reason why the notion of “Typical American” is so convoluted and unknown abroad, like here in Germany.

[ This personal reflection on the first completed 1/4th of my year in Germany was a bit long. It will be in 3 parts. To see them all together, click the pink link below for "Typical American". These links group blog posts together with topics that I write about and cluster as a group. ]

“Typical American” Part 1 / 3


There have been so many incredible experiences that I have had so far in Germany, and I have really learned so much in a short amount of time, but there are also times that provide unique challenges, and some parts of the day that become another struggle in the experience of living abroad as an exchange student.

Here in Germany I am not just a student however, since I am also an employee, a volunteer, a representative American, and a member of a family – and whereas these all give me great opportunities to learn, I put them in order of how challenging they are as well.

As I have addressed, the month of October was very hectic for me and full of many changes. I was very fortunate however to have the Sebode family graciously open their doors to me and invite me to be a part of their family.

The first few days were very pleasant and full of smiles, but there were a few instances that caught me off guard – after all, any situation that you move in with a host family is a little awkward at first.

I briefly mentioned it when I was living with the Weber family in Saarbrücken, but my host family, especially Stefan, would throw me some pretty difficult questions surrounding politics or my opinions on certain aspects of German or American culture.

From Washington DC when we had some seminars with professors discussing some cultural differences, we were all warned about our sensitivity as Americans, and how this clashes with the directness of many Europeans, notably Germans.

I think over the past few weeks, I can definitely attest that in some aspects, I am definitely a sensitive American – there were some things that just ‘pushed my buttons’ and caused me to guard myself a little defensively.

I think it was my second meal with my host family where Inge and Andreas were naturally asking me questions to get to know me better. This is when Inge made the comment that “I wasn’t really a typical American”

To this I kind of laughed since I, myself, don’t even know what a “typical” American is – exemplified by my very diverse group in my CDC language school group. Two of her reasons were some that I have heard before – “I am not fat like they would expect” [one that would sound rude if said in America, but every other country I have been in, including Japan and Finland, talking about weight is just as normal as the weather – and of course is something that whether I like it or not, will always be a stigma with my nation- the inventor of McDonald’s].

The other was “you are actually learning foreign languages” which was also pressed on me in Finland, because it is mostly true that Europeans are much more proficient and diligent in learning foreign languages than Americans are – something I wish could change, but quite honestly we don’t have the great opportunities like Europeans do – we can’t drive 4 hours in any direction and be submersed in a different dialect or completely different language].

Since I didn’t really fit this particular stereotypical mold they had in their heads, I was then asked to summarize myself what made ME American. This question was incredibly difficult to answer, let alone in German. Coming back recently from Poland, and very impacted from the trip, my answer was along the lines of the fact that my ancestors came from Poland and Italy, my family is more culturally Polish but my last name is from that quarter of Italian. My family had to start over a new life in America, and now I am the result as a mix of different cultures.

Inge didn’t buy it. “Just because your family is from Poland and Italy doesn’t make you American.”

I was stumped. Yes, I thought, that is precisely what makes me American – the fact that I had family that dealt with different struggles in their homelands, came to America for new opportunities, learned English, and now in my generation I am working hard to uncover this part of myself, discover my ancestors’ language, and refer to myself as a hyphenated American – Polish/Italian-American ; that is my idea of America, how my story is just as different from my neighbors' and their neighbors' and so on. On top of this I expressed how proud I was to have such diverse friends from many nations, cultural backgrounds, and religions - but this didn't seem to help my case much more.

This is what was difficult. My idea of myself as an American was not what my host family was expecting to hear – I think they had their own ideas of what America was and what they thought my answer should be.

Inge said, with a smile, that we would have a lot of time to learn about America since they didn’t really know too many Americans.

I knew that my host parents had never been to America, let alone outside of Europe, but I asked why they didn’t know too many Americans [since maybe there was more than just the fact that we are rare visitors here in Göttingen].

“We enjoy traveling, culture, music and being with friends. We just don’t find American people interesting.”

And that comment – said perfectly with a smile – couldn’t have felt more like an icy dagger.

This proved to me where I stood as their new American son. They weren’t being rude – most likely far from it – they were just being honest. My host parents are older, and they haven’t been outside of Europe, so I knew they would have some preconceived notions about Americans, but it was me that was naive to think that they really had a deeper understanding of the people in America outside of the media onslaught that reaches the entire world of who we are [clumping us Americans as one big group].

I had my work cut out for me. Not only was the question of why I am an American going to be lingering in my mind, but also the entire idea of why Americans can be and are cultured and interesting.

[ This personal reflection on the first completed 1/4th of my year in Germany was a bit long. It will be in 3 parts. To see them all together, click the pink link below for "Typical American". These links group blog posts together with topics that I write about and cluster as a group. ]