German word or phrase of the week: vom Regen in die Traufe kommen - out of the frying pan and into the fire (literally to come out of the rain and into the eaves).
Yes, I am still alive and well, and so is the blog - though, due to the length of time that has passed since my last entry, this one will probably be unbearably long, and for that, I beg your forgiveness. I will do my very best to be succinct and to leave out any superfluous events from the past three weeks.
Our story continues, logically enough, from where I last left you: namely, following a very enjoyable trip to Bonn and in anticipation of further excitement with Kari in Hannover and Berlin. At the end of that week, on the 15th October, the half-term holidays began, and two whole weeks without the oh-so-enjoyable 05:30 starts awaited me. On Sunday, I made my way to Hannover, relatively early on in the morning, to stay with Kari and her German family. Before I met up with her, however, I saw someone else first: my no longer so little brother, who was in Germany on his school exchange, and who had told his exchange family that I was also in the country. Once they found out I would be in Hannover on Sunday, they had agreed to travel with him to see me, and we had a lovely day: though Hannover itself does not have the best reputation for being an aesthetically pleasing city, we managed to spent a wonderful day in the Herrenhäuser Gärten, which were frankly stunning, and also around the Marschsee, which was very pleasant, particularly due to the unusually good weather for the time of year that we enjoyed. After an evening meal together, I headed off to see Kari, and Alex headed back to Bielefeld, but not before we had discussed and partially arranged that I would make my way to Werther the following day in order to pop into my old exchange school and see the German and English teachers alike.
I arrived at Kari's place in the early evening, and was greeted by her wonderful German family. We exchanged card tricks over (my second) dinner, and then watched Spiderman 3 on blu-ray on the family's new television - all in all, a perfect evening! The next morning, I woke up early and navigated my way through some of the regional trains and buses in order to eventually arrive at Werther, just in time to gate-crash the group photo for the school exchange. It was great to see my old teachers again, as well as some familiar faces amongst the staff of the school in Werther, and I spent the afternoon with my old German teacher, Jutta Heinen (or simply Frau, as she will forever be known within the grounds of Yarm School) catching up and generally wandering around Bielefeld, which was significantly more pleasant than I remembered. I then made my way back to Hannover, in time to prepare a (rather late) evening meal with Kari for the Ophardts. Kari was responsible for the main course, a delicious paella, and I saw to dessert, lemon sultana and butterscotch pudding. The meal was a success, so we prepared a pretty much identical meal for the next day… We're nothing if not inventive. That evening, on the Monday night, Paul (the son of the family) showed me some magic tricks he had been practising all day, and we filmed some card tricks on one of the family's iPods.
On the Tuesday, we had planned to travel to Berlin, with the intention of staying with Matt and taking a couple of days to soak in some culture. However, due to the fact that Matt was not feeling so well, we decided to stay another day in Hannover, enjoying a family day by walking the dog and generally relaxing. In the evening, we went for a night out in Hannover, with some of Kari's friends that she had got to know in Laatzen/Hannover. The evening was a lot of fun, and for the first time in my life I had drinks bought for me - Kari's friends definitely made a very good impression! I say evening - as is usual here, we did not leave the club until about half three in the morning, if not later, and were not back home until the slightly later early hours of Wednesday morning. So, we slept in for the rest of the morning, and on Wednesday afternoon we finally made our way to Berlin on the train. Matt put us up for the night in his place in the East of the city, and we enjoyed a drink or two and a meal in Berlin that evening. The next day, Matt had to work, so Kari and I made our way into town ourselves, stopping first by the East Side Gallery - a 1.5 Km stretch of the Berlin wall which has been left intact, and is now used by graffiti artists who can take the space to demonstrate their talent. After the wonderful night's sleep I had had, in a state of comfort previously unimaginable by human kind (seriously, hard wooden floors are definitely underrated in terms of suitability for a good night's sleep), I definitely felt fresh and ready for a hectic day of discovery around Berlin. However, just to be sure, Kari and I stopped off first for a hearty breakfast, and came across an Ampelmann shop once we had finished. For those of you unfamiliar with Ampelmann, in East Germany, the Green and Red men on pedestrian crossings were different from those in the West, and have since become something of a sensation, with all sorts of products being sold in the shape of our favourite green man.
After our encounter with Ampelmann, we met up with John, another language assistant who happened to be in Berlin, and we carried on as a threesome (careful) to the Berliner Dom, analysing on the way the various columns and architectural styles we came across (much to Kari's embarrassment). We then had a spot of lunch opposite the Reichstag, met up again with Matt, and made our way to the Holocaust Memorial, which always makes an impression on me. The outdoor memorial consists of massive blocks of what appears to be concrete, with each block representing a community which was wiped out during the holocaust, and the size of the block corresponding to the size of the community. The ground also slops downwards towards the centre of the memorial, so that, as you walk deeper into the blocks, they loom ever more forebodingly over you, and this has the effect of completely taking you aback and unsettling you. Or at least, this is the effect that the memorial has on me; this was the third time I had been to Berlin, and the third time I had seen the memorial, and on this occasion, just as on the two previous ones, many people did not seem to gain the same sense of sobriety from the blocks as I did, with many climbing all over them as if it were a playground, and playing games of hide and seek throughout the area. I do find it a shame that many people do not give the memorial and the historical events it reminds us of the respect and thought it demands.
After this, we continued the sombre tone by continuing to The Topography of Terror, which is another outdoor exhibition, situated on one side of the former Berlin Wall, and documenting the rise to power of the NSDAP in the early 20th-Century. This, again, was a harrowing experience; for me, the newspaper article extracts and personal stories were the most striking, with headlines blatantly and frankly calling upon readers to discriminate against their Jewish neighbours, and individual tragedies involving people being forced into working for the SS after their families were kidnapped and held hostage.
Following these two very interesting, yet also very serious, exhibitions, we headed to the house of a hundred beers, to unwind a little and enjoy some good German beer (as one might expect from an establishment with such a name). We enjoyed a slow beer or two, and then headed back to the Ostbahnhof, in order to make our way back to Hannover (after a tragically unsuccessful hunt for ice cream at the station). The train returned us to Hannover for around eleven o'clock, and we went to bed for a well needed rest after a busy day around Berlin.
The next day was Paul's 13th Birthday, and we joined the family in celebrating his entry into teenagedom - good food, involving chicken nuggets and chips and several cakes, was eaten, and the day was spent with various family activities. A hammock was put up in Sophia's room (Paul's younger sister), I enjoyed a long dog walk with Janett (the Mum), and we all enjoyed a game of Monopoly (my Birthday present to Paul, which we had found in Berlin). Naturally, Sophia and I won (we were on the same team), though Paul came a close second, and would most likely have won, had we not cut the game short for the sake of those we had already mercilessly crushed.
This was on the Friday, the 21st October, and it was unfortunately time for me to return to Oldenburg - unfortunate, because I had very much enjoyed my time with Kari and the family, and we promised we would see each other soon. However, I was also excited to return to Oldenburg, as I knew that my family were arriving on the Sunday, and I was keen to show them my new home (naturally after I had done just a spot of autumn cleaning…).
Saturday was spent relaxing and tidying, and then on Sunday I headed off to rugby training, anticipating that my family would arrive after training had finished. To my surprise, however, they had managed to arrive early, and even found their own way to the training pitches (something I had not successfully managed on my first attempt), and I left training early to see my Mum and Dad for the first time in a fair few months (and my brother too, but for the first time in a week). First of all, I took them to my flat, and showed them my new room and home. They were suitably impressed, and my cleaning job was well appreciated. We then went to their hotel, which was just around the corner, and discussed our plan for the coming week. Monday was to be Oldenburg day, including a trip to my school early in the morning, so that everyone could see my workplace, even if it was closed for the holidays. Tuesday was to be a trip to the coast, so that we could see some of the Ost-Frisian islands, Wednesday a trip to Hamburg, via Bremer-Haven, and Thursday and Friday a bit more time on Oldenburg. On Sunday evening, we had a meal in my favourite pub in Oldenburg - the Franziskaner, a Bavarian pub with good Bavarian food and beer.
As planned, on Monday, we set off early in the morning and took a quick trip to the small village that I work in. My family got to see my school, and were impressed with the building - it is a very modern school, but the style is elegant as well as practical, and we even enjoyed some time looking around Ramsloh itself (although there is, in all honesty, not too much to see). Even so, the church is definitely worth a visit, being much bigger than one would expect for a place as small as Ramsloh, and the Eiscafé was far from disappointing. Eiscafés were something of a theme for the week, and will probably not be mentioned as often as they deserve, but take it from me, the week would not have been quite the same without them - from Spaghetti Eis and Lasagne Eis to Heisse Liebe and Fruchtbecher, nothing was left untried by the Bridges clan. Even Poppa Bridges (OK, I thought I would try it out, but it really does not fit…) managed to join in, with sugar free Eis being offered in many of the Eiscafés.
After our trip to Ramsloh, we returned to Oldenburg, and did a spot of shopping and other touristy things, taking in the beautiful pedestrian zone and the substantial shopping centre. The shopping trip turned out to be particularly enjoyable for your intrepid Year Abroader, dear readers, as my family (including those who were present and many who weren't) had decided that this was a good opportunity to find me Christmas presents, and as such I am now the proud owner of many a new item of clothing, as well as other exciting gadgets and accessories. I love Christmas… Particular highlight has to be my new tweed jacket, completing the teacher look (elbow patches, of course, included).
Tuesday's trip to the coast was an interesting experience. Wilhelmshaven, our first port of call, was from a beautiful place, but it did prove interesting, largely because my Gran had gone to school there, and it was an odd thought that, a few decades before, my Gran had been wandering the same streets as I was. My Dad even rang her up, and she happily informed us that she had enjoyed her first kiss in one of the very streets we were perusing as we spoke. Needless to say, we had a few connection problems shortly afterwards, and unfortunately the conversation had to be left there… The islands themselves looked fairly impressive, at least as far as we could see them - enormous dykes (again, careful) blocked the view from the road of the coast for most of the journey, and the danger with crossing over to the other side of the dyke was that the weather was really rather unpleasant, leaving us exposed to the full force of the North Sea wind. Unfortunately, we mistimed our car journey, as we arrived always just too late to board any of the ferries which travel from the mainland to the island, but it was still very interesting to see more of the German coast.
Our journey to Hamburg the next day was a little longer, and we broke it up a bit by seeing Bremer-Haven on the way. Bremer-Haven was a lovely place, with some fairly modern but very impressive-looking buildings right on the harbour, and generally a pleasant and open atmosphere. From Bremer-Haven, we journeyed on to Hamburg, where we searched (without success) for a Hamburger for a good couple of hours. Quite by accident during our search, we came across the beautiful town hall, as well as some of the city's churches and other beautiful buildings. Hamburg is a very impressive city, with an interesting mix of old and new, and with a town hall which is second only, in my opinion, to the one in Vienna. Having failed in our search for the elusive Hamburger, we settled for some Spanish food instead in a very friendly little place on the way back to the car, and then journeyed back to Oldenburg. We arrived back fairly late, and decided to sleep in a little the next day.
Waking up at around 08:30 (yes, that is a lie in for my family on holiday), we started another day in Oldenburg, finishing off a little bit of shopping and looking more around the town centre. Having spent a few more hours in town, I suggested to all that we have a quick trip into Bremen, which is only half an hour away, to see the Altstadt. It turns out that this was a very good idea, as there was a market on in the centre, selling all sorts of traditional and delicious food and drink. The Altstadt itself is beautiful, with two ancient cathedrals and the old town hall, as well as the new town hall and the main square. A good time was had by all, and we returned to Oldenburg for a good steak, served on a hot stone, requiring a bib and a large appetite - fortunately, I had the latter, and the former was provided for me.
Friday was our last day together as a family, and we spent it looking around the botanical garden and the Schlossmuseum in Oldenburg itself. We then tried to go to a restaurant in a windmill in town, but it was fully booked, and so we ended up at a Greek restaurant nearby, where we managed to order a platter containing most of our meat portion for the year. Being Bridgeses (or whatever the plural is), this proved no problem, and we returned home our bellies full and our carnivorous sides satisfied.
The next morning, we had one last ice cream in town together, and made our farewells, for the time being at least. I look forward to Mum and Grandma coming at the end of November, and we will have to arrange a whole family get-together sooner rather than later. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful week, and I am very grateful to Mum, Dad and Alex for taking the time and effort to come see me.
That weekend, Sarah (another language assistant I had met at Altenberg) came to visit as well, and it was good to catch up after a couple of months of not seeing each other. Unfortunately, Sarah was not too well, but we did manage to pop into Bremen to see Jack and Charlotte on the Monday (Sarah's friends from home, whom I had also met at Altenberg), before Sarah went back home the next day.
My working week this week was a little longer than usual, and worked out slightly differently. Instead of working on Tuesday, due to a parents' evening I swapped for Friday instead, and I also had to "work" on Thursday - Wolfgang and I had to attend an Introduction Day in Osnabrück for Language Assistants and their Contact Teachers. Frankly, the idea of an Introduction Day after two months of working at the school and living in Germany seemed ridiculous to me, especially after the few days we all spent in Altenberg; nevertheless, attendance was compulsory, so we made the journey on Thursday morning, and met some of the other language assistants in the region - this, at least, was interesting, as I knew some already from Altenberg, but some I had not yet met, and there were also assistants there for languages other than English, ranging from French to Japanese and Chinese.
The day itself was, as expected, not all that useful, with many things being repeated from Altenberg, but we did at least have the chance to offer some feedback to the organisers of the assistantship. In the afternoon we went on a guided tour together with the other language assistants and their contact teachers of the Felix Nussbaum museum - Felix Nussbaum was an artist who happened to be Jewish during the rise of the NSDAP, and was killed in Auschwitz in 1944. The museum was certainly very interesting, being largely a collection of his works, but it felt a little odd to be led around as if we were school children. Never mind.
On Friday, I went into school in my school uniform, which my family had brought with them when they came to visit. This went down very well with the pupils, who (fortunately) did not think it was too ridiculous, even if the shirt and tie are now a little comically small for me. I plan on wearing it again to school on Monday, to show some of the other classes I have, and after that I shall put it away again, probably not to be worn for the next five or six years…
That, Ladies and Gentleman, Leser und Leserinnen, Friends, Romans and Countrymen, is that, for the time being. I promise that my next entry will not be so long, and that it will not take so long for me to write it. In the meantime, I shall simply rouse your interest by mentioning the coming rugby match tomorrow, between the Oldenburg Cheetahs and Rastede, a local town. The result of this match, and other exciting events, as well as the new German Word/Phrase of the Week, are all things you can read about in my next blog entry.