A Much Needed Update More Than a Year Too Late

Where have I been you ask? I’m absolutely terrible about keeping up with my blogs and journals, always have been and always will be. You will have this entry and I might bring myself to write a handful more; thereafter I may disappear into the abyss again for some unknown amount of time.

In case you have missed out, here are the highlights of the last year and a half of my life. Up to the point I had stopped writing, I was in the middle of my first year as an English teaching assistant. I applied to extend for a second year, was accepted and returned to Mistelbach, the same town I had been in, for a second year. I spent the summer in the US with my family as my base camp, went to Disney World to see one of my best friends, went on a road trip to New Orleans with another best friend and eventually went back to Austria.

I spent my second year much as my first, teaching the same kinds of lessons and having the same interesting interactions with students. As before, the work load was light and I had a lot of free time, a lot of which I spent in Vienna. I made more friends in Vienna and spent more time with English teaching assistants. Overall it was a really fantastic year! After my second and final year as a teaching assistant came to a close, I flew back to the US to spend the summer with my family. That’s where I am now.

In the last two years I have grown really happy in Austria and really fell in love with Vienna. I decided to apply to a master’s degree program in international relations at the branch campus of an American university, Webster University, in Vienna. I was accepted, will receive the massive amount of loans I need to pay for tuition and living expenses, and already have my flight back booked and a room in a shared apartment to live in. I’ll fly back to Austria in just five short weeks.

I think that should suffice for a general update. I have a lot of free time in the next few weeks and hope to write some entries about my experiences in Austria, maybe one entry about the things I love and another about the things I do not love so much. Stay tuned!

American Films Dubbed in German: Why are we doing this? Why am I watching this?

When I was first learning German, it was obvious why I strongly preferred movies to be in English. To watch a film in a foreign language that you don’t know well is frustrating. Movies in your native language are the best because you can just sit back and enjoy the story. If they’re in a foreign language you aren’t so comfortable with, you have more work to do.

 I’ve learned German now for four and a half years. The point at which someone can call themselves fluent is not really perfectly clear. When I speak of knowing German, I usually do not volunteer the information of being fluent or not. If I were asked though, I would have to say I am. Certainly I do not have the vocabulary of a native speaker and when speak I speak it is with a noticeable accent. Although, on a side note, many Austrians ask me if I am German, so my accent can’t be all that bad. In any case I can read, write, and carry on half decent conversations. If someone speaks to me in clear standard German, I would say I can understand 70-80%. My point with all this is simply that I do know German and my dislike of dubbed films is not based on my inability to understand them.

 Granted, it is more comfortable for me to watch a film in English. I am a native English speaker and as such can just sit back and enjoy. That being said though, I am actually more than happy to see German-language films. Sure, I have to concentrate a little harder, but sometimes they are really good. It helps a lot to watch them with German subtitles. I never watch German films with English subtitles. Having knowledge of both languages and then trying to listen to one and read the other really makes my brain feel like it’s splitting down the middle. My German professor got me hooked on Fatih Akin actually. He’s an amazing Turkish-German director and most of his films have to do with the blend of Turkish and German culture.

 So I know German fairly well and I do enjoy seeing films made in German. What’s my problem? Why do I seem to really hate American films (or any English-language films or television really) dubbed into German? The answer really has many layers. Firstly, I really detest watching the lips of the actors not moving in sync with the audio. It just looks ridiculous and I find it distracting. In fact it’s the same kind of distraction as when you actually are watching a film in the original language and the audio is just slightly out of sync. Secondly, there are certain things lost in translation, especially cultural jokes. Witty rhymes and puns among other things are completely messed up most of the time. To me, film is art. To change this aspect of it is like tampering with art. Lastly, I want to enjoy everything about a character. The actor who plays this character has certain movements, certain expressions and with it, a certain voice. No matter how hard they try to pick an actor with an appropriate voice, it just isn’t right. Furthermore, even in the event that the voice is appropriate, these are just voice actors. They are not in the scene in that moment the way the actors on screen are. It just seems completely wrong to me.

 I would say that easily 95% of the films in Austrian cinemas are American. The German and Austrian film industries are quite small. Actually, even calling them quite small might be generous. Most people seem to agree the best films are American, but most of my students tell them they watch them only in German. I think it’s ridiculous. I feel like they are missing out on a very important aspect of these films.

 Now I know what you’re thinking, “Ryan, aren’t you being a little harsh? What about people who really have only very basic knowledge of English?” My answer is to watch them with German subtitles. There are certainly times when I also want to watch movies that are made in a language I do not know at all. Some good examples are the Dragon Tattoo trilogy (Swedish), Amelie (French), L’Auberge espagnole (French and Spanish), and Pan’s Labyrinth (Spanish). Foreign films are rarely dubbed into English, presumably because our own film industry is so vast. I watched all these movies with subtitles and to be perfectly honest, I would not have enjoyed them dubbed. The aforementioned reasoning applies here as well.

 There are many countries, mostly those with languages that are not so widespread, where subtitling films, rather than dubbing, is the standard. I do so wish it were the standard here. The artistic integrity would not be lost and I dare say people might have a better knowledge of the English language.

Being Catholic in Austria: It’s Complicated

The predominate faith in Austria is Catholicism, but like much of western and northern Europe, religiousness and going to church regularly are relics of the past. Occasionally they dig these traditions back up on Christmas and Easter, but otherwise, church-going seems rather rare. There are some 8 million people in Austria and of these 8 million, some 5 million are registered members of the Catholic church. Most of them were inducted as members of the church with their christening as an infant. Even though there are this many official Catholics, only about 660,000 go to church on a regular basis. That is not to say the rest are not faithful at all, but it seems that especially for Catholics, going to church is an important sign of your faith and devotion.

 So why are all these people staying members of the Catholic church? My initial thought was that they just didn’t want to be bothered with officially leaving. It’s a bit of a chore. However, upon finding out that all those officially registered with the church must pay church taxes, I was beyond curious. You don’t are not religious, yet you stay a member of the church and pay this tax? Why?

 The answers I got were surprising. Several people told me that they do not want to leave the church because then they cannot marry in the church or have their funeral in the church. One person told me they employers prefer to see on you resume that you have some religious confession, even if you are not Catholic. Religious confession on your resume? Apparently so. There are several government documents that ask for it as well. I saw the question at least twice when filling out my application for my visa and then again when I registered as a resident in my town. I just left it blank. The best answer I got was probably that even though most people aren’t very religious today, they have some hope in the back of their mind that if there is a heaven and a hell, being an official member of the church with save them from eternal damnation.

 Catholicism seems to permeate so many aspects of life in Austria. Not only are you always being asked about it on official forms, but even public schools are filled with crosses and religion classes. Most public schools even have mass at least once a year. It is not required that students participate in religious activities or classes, but it really is everywhere. It’s in the churches in even the smallest villages, the old buildings and monuments, and perhaps most significantly, it’s a part of Austrian history. This may be one reason I have overlooked for why people do not want leave the church. Being Catholic is a part of their heritage.

 Religion is a part of life in a very different way in the Bible belt back home. No government official will ask you about your faith, no public school will have symbols of religion and no church I know of will force you to pay for your membership. Religion is important and going to church is still a very common practice. If I had to sum up the difference very simply, I would say that Catholicism is very noticeable even though the religious aspect doesn’t play a huge role in the lives of individuals and Christianity is maybe less noticeable (except on Sunday) in the Bible belt, even though it is still a very integral part of the lives of many.

 In case you have some outraged comment about this entry on religion, please keep in mind these are based on my limited personal experiences. I am not trying to definitively say that all of Austria is entirely one way and all of the southeastern US is another way.

The Life of a Teaching Assistant: What I Do and Why I Love It

There are certain enjoyable aspects of being a teacher and certain irritating aspects. The enjoyable parts are passing on new knowledge and information. It’s really fun to get students excited about learning. More than anything else, it’s a pleasure when students look forward to seeing you and you can see the light of new understanding in their eyes. The aspects of being a teacher that are less than enjoyable include making tests and assignments, grading and being a disciplinarian. Fortunately for me, I only have to do the fun parts. I never make assignments or grade and my teachers deal with disciplinary issues, which usually only amount to my students who don’t know how to shut up while I am teaching. I don’t even have to teach grammar. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind grammar, but most students detest it. I can only imagine how miserable it is to teach.

 So what do I do with my classes? Overall, it seems my main goals are speaking and listening. I speak so that these students can get a better sense of how a native speaker sounds. Hopefully after hearing me, they will imitate my pronunciation and as a result, improve their own English pronunciation. It’s also my goal to make them comfortable speaking English. I show videos, do questionnaires, read articles, play games and maybe most importantly, I act as a cultural liaison of sorts. I find I am often talking about stereotypes, discussing where they come from, and why they are or are not entirely true. Lesson planning can be a challenge at times; it is a sort of chore after all. Even so, sometimes I really enjoy planning them and I enjoy teaching them even more.

 If it’s not enough that I have a job that is basically pretty fun, I only have to work 13 hours. That is to say, the maximum number of hours I work in a given week is 13. It’s actually often less. There are a slew of Catholic holidays. It seemed for a while I never had less than 4 days off in a row. Furthermore, certain times of the year, like right before the winter break, are filled with tests. Reviewing for tests and administering tests isn’t really what I do, so I have been less than needed recently. At least I hope it’s because of tests and not because I am a poor language assistant.

 So, basically, being an English language assistant is a blast generally. For me though, I think I really got the sweetest deal because not only do all the classrooms I work in have to equipment I need, namely computers and a projector, but also, all the teachers I work with are incredible people. Even though being a language assistant is a great opportunity, I have heard from other language assistants who lack the equipment they need or work with teachers they don’t like. That can make the job much less fun. I was fortunate though, very fortunate.

 I know what you must be thinking, what’s the downside?! Well, there are occasionally some dull or bothersome aspects of what I do. Occasionally I have to plan lessons that are on topics that are rather boring or I get a fun topic, but find myself hard pressed to come up with an interesting activity for my students. Luckily I get help from other teaching assistants in most cases. The other challenge I sometimes face is a noisy class. I have still yet to find a perfectly effective way of dealing with it. I need a bell or whistle. I refuse to yell over a class. Most of the time I just stand there and say in a normal tone of voice that I will not yell and they need to be quiet. Surprisingly it actually does work a lot of the time. Other times, my teachers yell at the class. I do think a bell or whistle would help.

 To be fair, these are minor issues and do not stop me from enjoying my job. With that in mind, I think I really do want to apply to extend my contract for a second year. Two years is the maximum of course. I am just not ready to move on. The question that faces me though is whether or not I will ask to be moved to a new position in another city. From what I understand, second year teaching assistants get preference for location. I think I could easily work in Vienna next year if I wanted to. The benefits of living in Vienna are obvious. There would be more people, more sites to see, more clubs, bars and cafes and a number of other exciting aspects of life. There are benefits to staying in Mistelbach though. I’ve made friends there. I work with teachers who I genuinely like, have the equipment I need to teach more easily, and living in Mistelbach is very cheap. I don’t pay much for housing. I don’t need a ticket for the public transportation like I would if I lived in Vienna. Furthermore, one of the great things about a small town like Mistelbach is that the people are not so used to speaking English that if they hear my accent they will just switch to English. They speak German with me and I speak German with them and a big part of why I am here is to improve my German. I am really not sure which way I will go when I apply for my extension, but I really am leaning toward staying in Mistelbach at my current schools.

The First Three Weeks: Introductions, Lessons on Politics, and Being Broke as a Joke

After getting back from Graz, I was quite nervous for my first day. I woke up early, got myself ready and headed over to the first of my two schools, the BORG. It was a bit of a disappointment, though. All I did that day was turn in my information so I could get paid. I also finally picked up my residence permit. Other than that, not much else happened that day.

The rest of the first week and much of the second week, I introduced myself a lot. After a few times doing it, my introduction became quite simple and to the point:

Hi guys, my name is Ryan. I am going to be your language assistant this year. I’m from the southeastern United States, from a state called Tennessee. You probably know Tennessee best as the place where my buddy Jack Daniels comes from. I studied one state east of there in the state of North Carolina. I studied German and international studies.

After that, I basically told them I would be glad to answer any questions they might have about American culture, especially in the south, which is what I know best. I told them they were free to ask me personal question as well. Looking back the most common questions, in no particular order, have been:

What is McDonald’s like in America?

Do you own a gun?

Do you drive a big car?

Are you for Obama or Romney?

What do Americans think of Austria?

I also answered many questions about American drinking culture. The drinking age in Austria is 16, so that means that parties for young people are much more in the open.

Another question I’ve been asked a few times, though not as often as other teaching assistants, has been whether or not I have a girlfriend. Well, that’s an easy answer of course: no. In one class though, the questions kept coming. Do you want a girlfriend: nope. Why not? I paused just for half a moment and decided I wasn’t going to bother being vague. It’s just too much work. My answer? I don’t like girls. They giggled for about 10 seconds and then we moved on with more questions completely unrelated to me not liking girls. I was pleased with how well that went.

With the upcoming presidential election, I have also spent many lessons talking about how these two candidates differ and what it will mean for the US if they are elected president. I’ve explained the three branches of government. I’ve shown political ads. Honestly, I think most people have been really relieved to hear that I support Obama. Thinking about it through, I would somehow be really surprised to find many of the other US teaching assistants to be republicans. It just doesn’t seem very republican to go spend a year teaching English in a “socialist” country. I could be wrong though. As you might imagine, I am quite biased. Most of my teachers think it’s really good though. They say the students will appreciate hearing my perspective on American issues.

I’ve taught a variety of other lessons though. The American school system is a lesson I have taught many times now and each time it gets better. I’ve also taught lessons on environmentalism, smoking, beauty pageants, terrorism and several other topics. I usually spend an hour or two preparing these lessons, but it depends on how much the teacher has planned. Sometimes all the work is done for me and I just go in and teacher. Other times I have to start from scratch and sometimes it’s a mix.

Truthfully, I’m wondering if this might be the best job in the world. I only work 13 hours a week. The way it usually works out is that I go in early, usually for the first or second lesson of the day, and I am finished with my work by 12:00 or so. Every now and again I have had an afternoon lesson, but there is usually enough time for me to get lunch. It’s a very relaxing schedule. Also, I don’t have to do any of the grunt work associated with teaching. I don’t have to give assignments or tests. I don’t really have to deal with discipline. I don’t have to grade. I just get to teach! Sometimes I think the teachers I work with are quite jealous of me, especially because I have to ability to get the students really excited and involved, in ways most of my teachers can’t. It may have something to do with my personality, but I think it might also be largely to do with the fact that I am from someplace else and I am not really their teacher. They enjoy that and that makes it even easier and more fun for me.

Other exciting events of the past few weeks include meeting a pack of young Austrians in Mistelbach. One of my teachers who is almost my age invited me out with her and her friends the Thursday before last. I went to two bars and was out until 3:00 A.M. drinking and talking. I had a great time. They get together every Thursday, but I skipped out this week because I was dead tired, still had a lesson to plan and had to be at work by 8:00 A.M. the next day. I hope to join them again this coming week though.

All and all I have been having a pretty good time, but I am seriously low on funds. I was really upset to find out that several teaching assistants did get paid for the month of October while the rest of us have to wait until November for a double paycheck. This is something I knew about all along and they told us months ago that it would take until November. My question is though: if it is in fact possible for some to get paid, why not all of us? I really, really could have used my money this month. It’s frustrating. According to the calendar, there are 25 more days until I get paid. It seems like an eternity.

Other than my money worries, I am having a great time though. I will try to write more often than every three weeks, but sometimes that’s just how it may go.

Orientation in Graz: Preparing to Teach, Meeting New People and Learning about the British Isles

Early Monday morning I got out of bed, had a quick showered, packed and headed to the train station. I was off to Graz and could not be more excited about it. I had found myself getting quite bored in Mistelbach and was ready to do something new.

My train ride to Graz was enjoyable. I had snacks and lots of movies on my laptop to entertain me. The trip from Mistelbach to Graz is about 4 hours, but time always seems to fly when traveling by train. By the time I had gone far enough south, the view from the widow was entertainment enough. The low rolling mountains covered in tress and almost no bare rock reminded me of home in the Appalachian Mountains. It was positively beautiful.

When I arrived in Graz, it was just a short walk from the train station to check-in. Along the way I ran into someone else who was trying to find the same building as me. After getting there and talking to lots of new people, someone had the bright idea to ring the bell. After getting in, we all signed in, paid our fees and found out that half of us would be staying in a castle for the week while the other half would be in some sort of convent. To tell the truth I don’t know what it was, but there were nuns there. I was to stay in the castle, which I thought was really cool. Most people seemed to agree until they realized what a walk it was from the castle into the city. There was always transportation provided when necessary, but getting into the city for nighttime adventures was not easy. Personally, I never went. I didn’t feel much like paying for a taxi and since the adventures seemed to be mostly about finding alcohol, it wasn’t really for me.

Overall it was a really interesting week for me. We had seminars everyday about how to work with the kids, good activities, the pitfalls and what our main goals should be. It seems like we teaching assistants really have it easy. Our main goal seems to get them to speak and listen. We don’t have to deal much with discipline. We don’t have to grade or even give assignments. We just have to be creative, interesting and fun enough to get them out of their shells enough to talk and listen carefully. Aside from the seminars, we also taught our first lessons at schools in Graz in groups. This really helped me ease into things. All the wisdom imparted to me along with the fact that I have already taught a lesson that went fairly well really makes me feel better about starting work.

Another big part of the week was meeting other English teaching assistants. The orientation in Graz had teaching assistants from not only the US, but also the UK and a handful from Ireland. For whatever reason, perhaps my interest in other cultures, sheer dumb luck or something else, I spent most of my downtime with people from the British Isles. It wasn’t that I refused to sit with or speak to other Americans, it just didn’t happen nearly as much and in general I just really enjoy being with people who were from somewhere else. It was really fun to compare aspects of university life, politics and more so than anything else, linguistic differences. My favorite Britishism of the week was definitely “camp as a row of tents.” Camp basically means effeminate or gay-acting and so “camp as a row of tents” means that someone is acting quite gay. I think the Americanism I passed on that got the biggest reaction overall was “throwing down.” I actually didn’t know it can be used to mean “fighting” as well. I’ve always used it to mean “party.” You throw down when you party and you have a throw down when you have a party. One guy in particular really enjoyed this phrase.

As it turns out, being overly enthusiastic is a stereotype for Americans, which is funny because I didn’t really consider the people I met under enthusiastic. Anyway, I think it might have been hard for people to not mistake my genuine enthusiasm, friendliness and cheerfulness as false or sarcastic. I guess it became clearer though as the week went on though.

There were so many interesting events during the week. To describe them all in detail would be too much, but the seminars, friendly gatherings in the courtyard, a city tour of Graz and a couple lectures on life in Austria all got me well prepared for the job I face. Essentially all the new friends I made are living and working Vienna, so I am quite excited about getting there when I have money again. Another throw down is definitely in order.

Eventually I did make it back to Mistelbach and the four days in Graz felt more like a week and a half. Tomorrow I go into my main school to get some final paperwork taken care of and hopefully go to my first lesson.

Keep any eye out for my next entry. I’ll try to commit to updating about once a week.

Bureaucracy, a trip to Vienna and Meeting the Teachers

The day after I arrived in Mistelbach, I had to deal with a bit more bureaucracy. The first building I went to has several names. My instructions called it the “Gemeindeamt,” the map called it the “Stadtgemeindeamt” and the door simply read “Rathaus.” Basically, it’s just the town hall. Whenever anyone, even Austrian citizens, move to a new place, they must register or “anmelden.” Before they leave to go to a new place, they have to de-register or “abmelden.” I know what you’re thinking: big brother is watching! Well, I don’t know about anywhere else, but I know the US government always knew where I lived either from my driver’s license, voter registration or taxes. So, this really isn’t all that strange or different. I just had to fill out a single form with some basic information and have my landlord sign it. I took it to town hall, walked in, handed it over along with my passport and in just ten minutes, I had my “Meldezettel,” certificate of registration.

My next task for that day was to visit the “Bezirkshauptmannschaft,” district commission, to finalize my the processing of my “Aufenthaltstitel,” residence permit. Unfortunately, there was a line. I sat and listened to my iPod for about thirty minutes before I was able to go in. Basically all I had to do was be fingerprinted. I’ve never been fingerprinted before, but in case you were wondering, the days of ink are gone. They use a machine to scan your fingers. My residence permit will be ready to be picked up in just a week. All in all the bureaucracy of both these stops was not bad at all, especially since the buildings were literally side by side.

The following day I needed to open a bank account. My payments for work are direct deposits. Admittedly, I was quite nervous about opening a bank account. I’ve never had to do something like that before in a German-speaking region and honestly my bank vocabulary is rather limited. I first stopped at Erste Bank and found out that I could get exactly what I needed for free for the first year. That sounded pretty good, but the woman was speaking quite quickly and I was confused and wanted to check out some other banks. I was on the main strip of businesses in Mistelbach and could see four banks. After Erste Bank I went to Volksbank and it would not be free ever and he gave me less information. I then walked over to Bank Austria. The door was locked at 10:30 A.M. on a weekday. It was also about to rain, so I decided my best bet was to just go back to Erste Bank. I talked to the same woman, who was really very friendly, and she sat me down to help me start my account. I told her that I was not very familiar with banking vocabulary and asked if we might speak English. My experience is that most people do know English pretty well, but she said that she didn’t speak English very well at all, so we agreed that I would just ask a lot of questions and she would answer slowly and simply for me. Basically, it is much like your average American bank account except for a couple key differences. The first one is really positive. I can withdraw money from ANY ATM in a region where the euro is used and I am not charged any fee at all. I thought that was really cool. I also found out though that my bank card only kind of doubles as a credit card, like most American debit cards. I can use it at ATMs and in stores, restaurants and other businesses (although I think in general cards are still less widely accepted here than in the US), but I cannot use it to make online purchases. I almost never buy stuff online but if I needed to get a plane ticket, I actually have no idea how you go about doing that other than using a credit card. Fortunately, I think I can get one of those prepaid credit cards and just add money to it if I need to. In short, setting up a bank account was successful!

After a day of travel and two days of tedious tasks, I was ready for some fun. I decided it was time to spend a day in Vienna. On Thursday morning, I got on a train and headed to Vienna to meet up with my buddy Thomas. He played my tour guide for the day. First and foremost we went to Stephansdom, the cathedral in the center of Vienna.

Me trying to be the Godzilla of Vienna. This is a model of Stephansdom. It’s right beside the real one.

After Stephansdom, we wandered around the center of Vienna, saw a cool old clock and several statues and fountains. After that, we headed to the Habsbug summer palace, Schönbrunn. It was the very definition of neoclassical. We wandered around then expansive gardens for several hours. Everything was in perfect lines. The flowers from summer were still in bloom and gorgeous. There was a magnificent fountain with the god Neptune and above it a breathtaking gloriette. I should have taken pictures, but I was too absorbed in the experience. I will go back again, no doubt.

Afterwards, Thomas and I decided we needed food, so we went to this great restaurant. Anyone who knows me pretty well knows that I only take being a vegan so seriously. I try to make good food choices 80-90% of the time, but my first day in Wien (Vienna), I was going to have Wiener Schnitzel and that was just that. That along with a big plate of fries made for an excellent dinner. By the time we finished eating it was getting dark, so I decided it was time to make the trip back to Mistelbach. I bid my new friend farewell and headed back. All in all my day in Vienna was super.

In an email earlier in the summer, I told one of the teachers with whom I will be working that I would be happy to meet up the week that I arrived. On Friday I met up with her and she walked with me to the school where she used to work, but is not longer a teacher. There we planned out my schedule (between the two schools where I will be working) for the week after next, which is when I start, since next week I have an orientation with the other new English teaching assistants. As it turns out, one of my schools has a branch in a village outside of Mistelbach. I didn’t quite catch the name of the village, but apparently I can go with my teacher in her car, so, that should be fine. One of the schools is a very short walk from where I live. It may be a full five minute walk. The other is about a twenty minute walk, which is not as convenient, though it is totally manageable.

After setting up my schedule with two teachers (though it will change week to week), I sat and talked for at least thirty minutes with another two English teachers and talked about the school system, what their lessons are like, and what my role will be. We also got sidetracked into talking about travel, experiences abroad and politics. I think they were all relieved to know that I’m a democrat.

After meeting so many of them, though not all of them, I am incredibly excited to start my new job! It will be cool to get the students excited and engaged. I know it won’t always be a walk in the park, but I think I am going to enjoy it overall. Plus, it’s just thirteen hours of work a week so I will have a lot of free time to bounce around with day trips to Vienna and other close places. It’s going to be an amazing year.

Next week I am getting together with all the English teaching assistants from the eastern part of Austria. Our orientation is in Graz. Keep an eye out for my next entry which will be after I get back.