Teaching English In The Stony-Faced City: Hamburg, Germany
The weather in Hamburg is seemingly unpredictable. Each morning I wake up, stare out of the window, check my phone, as if there is any comprehension in understanding what 80 degrees with thunderstorms mean.
My friend sends me a link to an English news site; a tornado warning. How do you dress for tornado weather?
I check the time. I give myself ample amounts of time for the Hochbahn, a subway system that is meticulously on time throughout Hamburg. During rush hour, every train comes at exactly four minutes apart from each other, with only a few seconds of leniency. If you’re not there right when the Hochbahn arrives, you miss it. Some how people know when it’s coming, an every-4-minute schedule memorized, but I give myself plenty of wiggle room. My morning routine is not down to the minute (Yet. Give me time, Hamburg, give me time.)
I step on the train. If I get on at 7:52, there is a huge crowd of people. Standing room only. You are forced against someone else (And oh, deodorant is often only a suggestion here), or huddling in the corner away from making eye contact. At 7:56 there is no one. A deserted landscape of dark red or dark blue fabric patterns.
Alas, I made it to the earlier train. People everywhere. Some are tired, they are closing their eyes while placing their heads on the window. Some are alert. They are staring intensely at each person for 3–5 seconds. Sizing them up, taking them in.
Oh, the staring. When first arriving here, the staring was a slap to the face. What is wrong with me? Why won’t they smile when I smile? My American habits of smiling while feeling self conscious gets immediately put to bed. People watching has now become an Olympic sport!
I make it to the English school 30 minutes early. This is common. Lesson planning is a never-ending process. If you planned your lessons the night before, you must make copies. If you didn’t plan anything, you better hurry up. A grammar lesson is first thing.
If you’re aiming to be an English teacher in Hamburg, unless you’re fluent in German, you’re teaching adults. Adults want full integration. The whole enchilada of mannerisms, curse words, slang and more. I am put in a room with 3–7 adults. Most are older than me, and come from all over Europe and beyond. 2/3rds are of German descent, and 1/3rd encompasses people usually from other countries near by. Turkey. Russia. Bavaria. A beautiful and funny kaleidoscope of accents and pronunciations.
A Russian woman with puffed up lips and a bedazzled dress robustly says, “YOU GO TO THE MOVIES?”, interviewing her partner. A 50-something German man with a round belly and half moon glasses at the end of his nose replies, “Yes, I’m going to see an action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.”
It’s nearing afternoon. I have a company class outside of Hamburg city proper, maybe 30 minutes if I’m lucky, 50 minutes if I’m not. Again, I need to give myself ample time to not get lost. I also need to eat something, desperately. The sliced lunch meats I grew accustomed to in the states taste different here and I can’t stomach them. I’m often at Dat Backhus, a chain bakery with assorted sandwiches and unknown desserts, which I partake in more often than not.
“Sprichst du Englisch?”
Over and over I ask. Do you speak English? 82% of the time it’s a yes, particularly with the younger crowd, but less common with the older crowd. This time it’s a no. I enthusiastically point at a fresh looking mozzarella sandwich with sliced tomatoes. I then smile and nod at a white chocolate chip cookie. They love white chocolate here. Coffee (or Kaffee) is the same word, and is much needed. Standing in front of a crowd of students, adult students very eager to correct you — presenting yourself and your persona over and over again is exhausting.
The company class has 2 out of 5 people absent. One is at a meeting, another is on holiday. British English is more common here, and I find myself saying “holiday” instead of vacation and “colleague” instead of co-worker more and more often. I give them a spiel about Donald Trump.
“The number one question people ask me is: why do Americans like Donald Trump?”
Which is true. Germans are seemingly fascinated with a character such as Trump. Because they are B2 level (not beginners, not fluent, yet) I hand them a fairly engaging article about the reasoning behind why certain groups of people support the president. They seem interested, and a discussion ensues.
A student shows of his vocabulary skills, “You are charismatic!” he exclaims, and then points at the article, “Like Donald Trump!”
It’s already late afternoon. My phone is running low on data (Monthly, pre-paid plans can do that to you, especially if you’re continuously lost.), and I have to try and find the bus that will take me back to the subway. Confusion sets in, and I just start walking towards the general direction of the Hochbahn station. It’s a mile in a half away. The app that tells you what bus to take but does not tell you how to get to said bus. Thank God for comfortable clogs I bought before leaving for Germany. Comfort of standing on your feet all day out trumps fashion.
I get home and the sun is thinking about calling it a night. She’s looking at me through hazy clouds, squinting and rubbing her eyes. I feel the same. She pulls the cloud covers over her head and a sudden downpour showers the streets. I forgot my umbrella.
When I finally get to my apartment (or is it flat?), my roommate, a 50-something glamorous woman is home, chatting with someone in German on the phone. It’s only 6:30, but I’m slipping into my pajamas, and disappointed I didn’t pick up something for dinner too. The European championships are on, and she is squealing and yelling at the TV. Germany is known for their exceptional Fußball team.
She is a friendly woman, though perturbed that a late-20s girl isn’t out drinking with her friends, discovering the night life, or doing something more proactive than watching another series on Netflix. She seemingly, at 25+years my senior, has infinite more energy than I do. Walking around in her underwear, animatedly chatting on the phone, curlers in her hair. She and I have had many conversations in her underwear now, her body hardly shows signs of age, and my delicate American sensibilities have been constantly questioned.
Though I have lived alone for 7 years or so, it is seemingly impossible to get your own flat once you first move to Germany. The paperwork is never ending, and I found myself using an American Idiom more than once.
“What came first: the chicken or the egg?”
One cannot get a job without two letters of intent from prospective companies — that you have to meet in person. One cannot get a flat without a residence permit that can easily take 2–3 months to get. One cannot get a bank account without a place to live. Everything hinges on something else, and often I find myself asking, how did I get here? Where am I going? Will this ever end?
And then, gradually, it does.
The paperwork gets sorted. The clouds start to part. And the sun starts to set over Hamburg in an egg yolk yellow hue. The old ladies look out on their balconies and stare the long German stare.
Tomorrow is a new day, and I have to plan on how to teach Present Perfect Continuous.