On Broken German Schools and Hellish PTA Meetings

As all of my Twitter followers know, Diva started school here last month and so that means I have had near-weekly parents’ nights since mid-August. I’m already a pro at these from being a part of a parents’-run kindergarten and for some reason I thought I’d get through elementary school without another wasted Wednesday night bickering about whose talented kid isn’t being given enough support. I was wrong. Because in Germany, middle-class parents seem to have nothing else better to do with their time and schools here don’t just run themselves. And based on my recent experiences at these meetings, those two sentiments are severe understatements.

Die Zeit took a frightening, in-depth look at the poor state of German schools and I gotta say, wow. Just wow. I chose to educate Diva in a public school because I believe in public school education. I chose to educate her here in Germany because although they are absolutely opposed to gifted & talented programs (a topic for another day), the students who go through university preparation in Germany are much better educated than most Americans in urban areas. I had never considered the state of the schools.

We pay a lot of taxes here in Germany, with billions of our Euros going to unfinished construction projects — like BER or the Cologne Opera House or the goddamned U-Bahn that was supposed to be open in time for the World Cup held in Germany in 2006 and which is maybe finally going to open in December(!). From the looks of these schools, though, not a penny of those taxes is going to school buildings. Diva’s school, though nice, hasn’t been painted since the 1970s and to get to the bathrooms, the kids have to run outside even in winter to an unheated addition. Talk about freezing your bottom. But she is lucky. At least her gym wasn’t condemned, as two in Cologne were this summer. And her school is too small to be housing refugees, as other gyms in Cologne are doing at the moment.

Because of the sorry state of the school system in Germany, Diva’s school now has a very very active PTA, committed to ensuring that the little school children have everything their little hearts desire. I scoffed at this at first, until I learned that without the PTA, there would be no toilet paper in the bathrooms, nor would a cleaning lady be there all day every day to make sure the kids feel safe enough to freeze their little bottoms off in the unheated outdoor toilets. I mean, it could be worse; she could be in one of the state-of-the-art schools that my former employers, an architecture company, built in Wisconsin with bulletproof doors and an alarm system that allowed teachers to lockdown their kids in the classroom in case a gunman walked in. Pick and choose, I guess.

Thing is, though, that for this cleaning lady to come every day, our PTA feels the need to send home a note every month reminding us that we are not good parents unless we contribute to the fund to pay her; we just got another passive-aggressive note reminding us that because some of us aren’t paying, all the kids may soon suffer the consequences of having no toilet paper in the bathrooms. Really people? Really? Where is the principal or the custodian? Why are we as parents having to handle this?

Well, funny I should ask: on Friday we got a note from the principal saying he’s leaving the school and due to a shortage of headmasters in the area, it’s unlikely he’ll be replaced and so we, as parents, have to step up. We have already had four parents’ nights meetings since mid-August and now we’ll be having more, to see who can pick up what slack while the city thinks about whether or not it can hire a new headmaster. Anybody who has been following the Cologne election fiasco knows just how laughable this idea is. Cologne’s bureaucrats can’t even print a stupid election ballot correctly and have to keep pushing the election date for our mayor back; why would this headmaster of a teeny-tiny school be of any importance to these incompetent beamter?

I could very easily slide into the role of PTA coordinator/headmaster if I wanted to and I could get shit done. Organization and leadership skills are not my competencies. People skills are not my competency. And yet, I could do this.

Except as I am learning from these PTA meetings, my way of doing things is not the preferred way of doing things. Instead of asking a translator to come to speak with the parents of the refugee boy in class who’s having difficulties, the preferred method of the PTA is to shout at the refugee parents in a mix of German and English and hope they get they hint that their kid needs to stop borrowing the other kids’ school supplies without asking (they don’t understand a word).  Instead of asking for the toilet paper fund to be paid in advance for the entire school year, we’d rather have the teachers collect 1.50 Euro from each student once a month and waste everybody’s time by sending obnoxious letters home.

Ok, fine.  I didn’t want to run for PTA President anyway. But when these meetings are not optional, do we really need to waste a half hour of my life getting lectured on how bloody important the Carneval culture is to our school and how we have to positively absolutely immediately get started on our kids’ Carneval costume planning right now?

Man, it’s going to be a long four years. Please tell me the private schools aren’t any better or I might just ship Diva off to one…. at least so I can enjoy my one kid-free evening a week by not thinking about kid things.

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On Being Altruistic vs. Being “American”

A couple weeks ago, I met a friend for lunch who was debating what her next life steps would be. She’s American, having a rough time of it in her life, wondering if she should stay in Germany or move on. And no, there’s no “home” to “go back to.”

I’m not usually one to bash zee Germans … although things are done differently here on this side of the pond than what I am accustomed to from my childhood, I don’t like to think of something as being normal or abnormal. I’m fond of saying Typisch Deutsch and Typisch Ami as a way of getting around the problems of pigeonholing an entire culture based on the actions of some of the people who represent those cultures. Most of the time, I try to keep a sense of humor about it. After all, Germany is my Wahlheimat and it would do no one any good — especially not my daughter who had no choice about having Germany as her home — to hate the place in which I live and bash it because things don’t work as I’d like them to.

That disclaimer in mind, this conversation was not one of bashing but more one that bordered on nostalgia. Friend said, “I just feel like there’s part of me that’s missing when I’m in Germany,” and “There are some parts of my personality that I like that are dying while I’m here.” Lest this sound too melodramatic, she gave me an example that I could fully relate to: the problem of niceties.

For example: a frequent complaint I hear among Americans is that Germans, especially Germen, don’t hold doors open for other people (except train doors, when they see people running to catch the Bahn). I didn’t think much of this until I struggled to get a door open while carrying groceries and pushing a stroller and spilled the food all over the front stairs. Sometimes it’s the little gestures that help make a person’s life easier. And it’s gestures like these that my friend said were failing her, making her day-to-day life less rich. So while life in Germany is okay, it’s not as good as it could be. Not as good as it might be in other places.

I feel this. I really really feel this.

I read an article a few months ago in Brigitte where the author was raving about how wonderful and friendly Americans are and she cited the example of the pay-it-forward coffee movement in Berkeley. Someone at Starbucks paid for her coffee before she’d even bought it. What a lovely gesture, she thought. It made her day so she did the same and before you know it, the entire line had bought each other’s coffees. “Why can’t we be more like this in Germany?” she asked and I nearly lost my shit. Not only because this movement originated in India or Sri Lanka and was adopted by Calis as a form of “karma yoga” but also because have you ever been to Berkeley? Have you seen the way the homeless are treated there? Sure, they’ll buy you a $4 cup of joe but that change the dude out on the streets is begging for is not going to come into his possession anytime soon.

As the bumper stickers say, people in California are fond of these “random acts of kindness.” The problem, however, is one of altruism. What are the intentions behind these gestures? Is it to make someone’s day better? To clear their own conscience? Or to make them look good in front of their peers? Is it the pressure they were feeling because everyone else was doing it? Or was it just meaningless goodwill because really, only one person donated that cup of coffee and everyone else was already planning to be for his or her own and no one wants to be the asshole who says, “Yo, free joe here. Sweeeeeeet.”

I’ll be honest here: I do nice things for people. Sometimes. When I can. And partially this is because I’m altruistic and have good intentions. Partially because I think the kind of place I want to live in is one in which other people help each other. Partially this is because I know how hard it is to be in a place where no one cares about the problems you’re having. And partially because this is how I was raised. If it’s because I’m American, I don’t know. If it’s because of my age or my midwestern upbringing, I’m not sure.

I also do shitty things to people. I can be a real dick. Sometimes. When I want to, and sometimes when I don’t even realize it. Partially this is because my everyday life is tough. Partially this is because I live in a place where no one cares about the problems I’m having. And partially because this is how I was raised.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is intention is everything and although these niceties commonly accepted in the US are missing from our lives in Germany, it’s not necessarily because Germans are “bad” or whatever. That doesn’t make their absence any less difficult for expats to bear but remembering that there are assholes and nice people in every culture is really important to me at the moment for getting through life. And concentrating on the nice ones is the key to well-being. Not paying for somebody’s overpriced coffee. I just wish we could all be a little more altruistic. Doing nice things for the sake of the community and not because it makes us feel good.

I guess what I’m saying is I’m nostalgic for Zizek’s communism — the one in which the Starbucks system, where you can pat yourself on the back for donating 1 cent for every $4 cup of coffee to some poor starving kid in Africa — is replaced by people motivated by a greater love for others than for themselves. Whether that be in Germany or America.

Celebrity Spotting in Germany (no name dropping)

A couple weeks ago I met a few friends at the pole dancing studio to celebrate being 38. Midway through our two-hour class my friend Beth (not really) showed up, flaunted her dance moves and took a few pictures before slipping on her high heels again and treating us all to some cake. Beth, who I’ve known and adored for years, gets up and leaves after cake and as soon as she’s out of sight, one of the women from the class starts fangirling. “Is that Beth Smith? She was on my favorite soap opera. She’s exactly like her character. Oh, she’s just as charming as I’d imagined she’d be.”

Oh, right. Beth’s an actress. I forgot. Or at least, I didn’t really remember. See, Beth and I became really good friends when she moved into my building a couple years ago and I had no idea who she was. The other neighbors were all super shy about introducing themselves because they knew her from tv, but Diva and I, we just walked right in and were like, What’s with all the construction work going on down here? And… blue? You’re painting your kitchen blue? and Beth giggled and plied us with coffee and suddenly we were friends. She dressed up like the Princess from the Princess and the Pea for Diva’s birthday and she referred me to her very nice therapist after I spent too many nights crying in my G&T while watching Der Bachelor with her and even though she sadly doesn’t live in the flat with the blue kitchen anymore, she keeps giving me front row tickets to her theater shows so I guess you could say we’ve become pretty good friends.

She’s not the first celebrity I’ve known well though I guess she is the most publicly recognizable. Still, when I was talking to fangirl, I thanked her profusely for not asking for an autograph. The one thing I’ve realized from being close to people that some people think of as famous is that they think of themselves — if they are not egomaniacs — as normal people who get paid to do art and so fangirling isn’t very pretty. Being your normal self is.

And in Germany, I realize, that’s a lot easier for me as an immigrant to do than it is for Germans. I have no idea who most of these celebrities are. A couple years back at Carneval, a friend of a friend was fangirling about a dude from Lindenstrasse until she remembered reading in Gala that he was married and he started hitting on her anyway. We were unimpressed. A friend of mine from the gym once spent hours trying to point out all the big personalities working up a sweat there until I told her that unless Til Schweiger walked in, I did not care (this is not as off as you might think — he used to be a member and everybody my age in Cologne remembers when he lived in Ehrenfeld before Ehrenfeld was cool; a girl can dream, right?). Last week, at the kids’ Carneval parade, a dad standing next to me pointed out all the local celebs — a tv moderator, a singer in a band I’ve never heard of — who were marching in the parade and all I could do was shrug. I mean, is it a big deal if someone does something creative for a living? Isn’t it a bigger deal if he or she is nice?

For a moment there, I thought it was just me and my Americanness making me oblivious but when I talked to a friend of mine who’s a photographer in Berlin, a man who has to photograph celebrities all the time, is one of the only approved people to photograph Merkel, and because we’ve worked together at Fashion Week, can point out every model and B-List celebrity in Germany, I realized it’s more a matter of just not giving a fuck. At some point you get old and you rub elbows with the chancellor and whatever, it’s just another day’s work (I rubbed Schroeder’s elbow once when he was chancellor and was darned proud I recognized him there on the steps of the Reichstag as I was dressed in my Love Parade costume but Ms. Merkel, for whom I might even put on a decent shirt, has eluded me, unfortunately).

Wondering if this was an exclusively Ami-in-Deutschland phenomenon, I sent out a Tweet asking for your most memorable celebrity sighting. All the answers that came back were from Brits and Americans referring to British or American celebrities. More than one took place in New York (my sister, who lived there, has dozens of these tales), including, like Natalye, hitting on by a punk rocker in a bar (not from Green Day but close) or Mandi’s “Woah, wait a minute, who was it that just walked by?” Phillip Seymour Hoffman moments.

So is it that I’m the only one running into German celebrities? Or are we as expats just not seeing and recognizing them? I’d like to think it’s the latter — that here in Germany, celebrity is different. German celebrities look different; they look fully normal and lead pretty normal lives. (Except Boris Becker, though someone please explain to me why that dude still sells copies of tabloids. Do women really want to look at him?) But I also realize, this likely has to do with my status as outsider. If I tell a German that my colleague just interviewed Manuel Neuer, people lose their shit. If I tell an American that is not my nephew about said interview, they ask who that is. But I wonder if it would be the same for American celebrities here. Do people in Berlin lose their shit every time Brad and Angie come to town?

So tell me, Germans and non, what’s the deal with celebrity here? Are there just not many? Or are they too local? Too normal looking? Are we as expats just blind to them?

** Caveat: unless it’s Flula, no internet personality counts as a celebrity. I could point out every one of Cologne’s fashion bloggers on the streets but those bitches are begging for attention so they don’t count.