FEG Mühlheim am Main

A Snapshot of Germany

An American grantee expounds on her experiences with cultural exchange in a foreign land. That sounds like a fascinating premise for a personal essay, at least in theory, but writing this type of narrative is like trying to photograph the EiffelTower. What angle can I take that hasn't already been shot?

Sometimes the most interesting approach is to zoom in, to ignore the big picture for a moment in favor of details and impressions. Therefore, my intention is to present my perspective as if through a macro lens, with my subjective experiences as a recent college graduate hailing from Texas who has taken on a teaching assistantship in Mühlheim, Germany.


When I arrived in Hessen, I was first struck by the persistence of green in my surroundings. This Bundesland seems to have a different tint from my sun-browned Texas. The natural foliage is saturated; it pops against the sometimes-overwhelming predominance of gray in the sky and the concrete. I was also initially thrown off by those thick, blocky lines on the highway-- in principle, the same as their counterparts on my home country's highways, but just different enough to be unsettling.


As my landlady welcomed me into her family's vacant Hinterhaus, I found myself surrounded by a bold celebration of the color pink, totally unlike the toned-down palette I would have imagined in a German home. Bubbly and passionate, she also defied my expectations of how German people typically present themselves, and it's been a pleasure to chat with her while we sip Turkish tea.         


The teachers and students at Friedrich-Ebert-Gymnasium have welcomed me warmly. My coworkers seem eternally patient while I fumble with the German language, and have assisted me at least three different times with operating the coffee machine. Pupils in their early teens stop to ask me questions in the hall. "Do you know about this band? Have you met any stars?" Their faces light up when I recognize a movie or musician they love. I react with just as much delight when they blurt out the most unexpected phrases to each other-- "Das ist total kacke!" and other peculiar expressions.


The older students are harder to read. Some are visibly uncomfortable when I peer at their notebooks in class. They pretend not to notice me awkwardly sidling around the rows of occupied desks. Many of these Oberstufe are hesitant to ask me questions and when they do, the communication is often inexact, blurry. Several show enthusiasm when I offer essay critiques, and a handful show up for the writing workshop I run two days of the week. One constant in their behavior is an eagerness to open and shut windows in order to maintain the best air quality.


Off campus, my German friends and I eagerly exchange recipes. They are brave enough to taste the things I cook, despite knowing that my palate is adjusted to the spicy cuisines of Southeast Asia and the southwestern United States (both places I've previously called home), so extra-scharf curries tend to appear where I linger. Meanwhile, I feel almost spoiled by the constant availability of fizzy water. It's a beverage that I never had much exposure to before traveling to Germany.


Hardly a week goes by that someone in town doesn't invite me on a trip or to a family dinner. And if I want to venture out alone, I just walk fifteen minutes to the train station and a vending machine will spit out a ticket to, say, Frankfurt, where I can eat lunch by the antiquated city hall, surrounded by clanging bells. Here the freedom to travel does not depend on car ownership. And each city has a special texture, but only Mühlheim can boast the wild New Year's party where some coworkers and I performed disco moves while a tree caught on fire, and then we all stared as the Feuerwehr doused the flames. It was a true bonding experience.


These interactions with the individuals in the Mühlheim community have drastically shaped my perspective on Germany. Even so, I've learned not to see one small town south of the Main as a microcosm of the entire country. Rather, it's a fine detail in a snapshot. It has its own unique character that will continue to develop as time passes and I'm once again sweating in the Texas heat. 


Emily Rothbauer

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