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.

On Raising a Third Culture Kid in a Xenophobic World

A few weeks back, while waiting in line with Diva for a boat ride on a sweltering hot day, a man cut in front of me and when I complained he told me to go back to where I came from.

“Verstehst du kein Deutsch?” he said, even though I had vocalized my complaint in German. I continued to argue with him, telling him how appalling I found his behavior, arguing loudly enough that two gentlemen nearby understood what was going on and stepped in to tell him he was out of line. But he didn’t relent. “Verstehst du kein Deutsch?” he spit at me again before bullying his way through to the front.

And I had to wonder: was it my accent? Or was he saying that I clearly didn’t understand what it means to be Deutsch? That even if I could understand the words I would never truly versteh Deutsch because if I did, I would understand that people here can act like entitled pricks and I should just bite my tongue and look away.

I tried not to take it personally. After all, everyone was cranky and so I thought maybe I was overreacting, thinking that he was singling me out for my accent when really he was just a jackass. It wasn’t about Germans and foreigners but about two jerks arguing over proper behavior in public. He clearly thinks he was right because he was old and white and middle-class and should be allowed to do whatever the fuck he wants and me, a jerk for thinking there is a modicum of politeness that people should show each other in public by queuing properly.

Instead, I caught myself really questioning his comments. Do I look that foreign? Will I ever fit in here? And how can I teach Diva to do right in the world when she is surrounded by shit like this? Because the thing is, I do take comments about my accent personally and after six weeks of nearly nonstop travel, I was very sensitive to my otherness. In every town I visited, I was introduced as “the American” and although people often fawned over me and my daughter, I was also told numerous times that the person I was talking to in German could “versteh kein Wort” before they’d ask if I spoke German.

If I wasn’t introduced but instead introduced myself, the literal second question out of the other person’s mouth was “Where you from?” Buying petrol in a gas station, the clerk told me I must’ve been on vacation because I didn’t look like I was from around there. A tour guide said she knew who I was immediately upon hearing my accent because she’d heard there was a New Yorker in town. When I picked up concert tickets, a guy offered to meet up with me because he loves Finland and could show me around (Finland? that’s a new one).

You may think it’s cute but imagine that every day both strangers and friends alike remind you that you’re a foreigner. They do it with laughs and joking or they do it with repeated requests for you to say that one word that you pronounce funny or they do it by cursing you out or talking more slowly. Worse: they switch straight to English after you’ve you just opened your mouth to speak and then ask where you’re from. I’ve written about my disdain for this small talk before. No, I don’t want to be chatted up with the line “Where you from?” when I only just met you. I don’t want to be singled out as an outsider every goddamned time I open my mouth. I have been in Germany for ten years and it doesn’t look like I’m leaving any time soon and these daily — sometimes multiple times a day — reminders that I’m different are not harmless. Why should I have to explain myself to you? After ten years here, can I say I’m from Cologne? Why do you assume I can’t speak or understand German because I have a slight accent?

Imagine if I weren’t blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Or an English speaker. Imagine how much more frequently people would ask me where I’m from if I had a Muslim name, as my daughter does (and literally anyone who has ever known her name is Muslim has asked me if I am — none of your business people, none).

A friend of mine who shares my daughter’s surname told me I should consider myself lucky that people are nice and friendly when they ask me where I’m from. “Imagine being the daughter of a Palestinian refugee,” she said, and then she said, “At least when my dad arrived in the 70s, Palestinians were still acceptable. At least he wasn’t Turkish.”

I’m really curious about this sorting out that is done in Germany, this trying to put each person into a particular drawer. The Bavarians in one drawer, the Amis in another, and all of those stereotypes that come along with those labels are applied in advance. Diva, she’s been introduced by some well-meaning people lately as being American as if that says something about her; though she doesn’t correct them, she has learned on her own that this means they think she can’t speak German and so she tells them she speaks German just fine. She’s six and people are already trying to sort her into one or the other category and she understands this. Although she’s proud to be a dual national, she has very little idea of what it means to be American except that it’s a word and people use it when talking about her. But she doesn’t want to be different than the other kids and so I wonder about what this does and will do to her. Kids don’t make these distinctive identifications on their own. They learn these identities as they are given them. Does this happen in the US? Are immigrant children singled out upon introduction as “My Afghani friend Amir”? At what point can we safely assume Germans will stop introducing Diva and I as the Americans?

Of course it’s not as if I want her to choose one identity over the other. But as she grows up in a world filled with xenophobes and xenophobia, I don’t want her to feel the repercussions of this othering. She didn’t choose to be born in a country different from my country of birth. And since you really can’t call her an immigrant anymore, I’m very curious at what point she’ll be accepted as German. Would it be different if she didn’t have a Muslim name? Will it be different for her in the world if she isn’t with me and doesn’t tell people of her American heritage?

My acquaintance with the Palestinian father tells me I shouldn’t deny her the chance to learn about “my” culture. She tells me that I should not try to fully conform her to the German ways and I agree. But as the debate rages on in Germany about refugees and migrants, where xenophobia is not only omnipresent, it’s deeply ingrained, I wonder if I’m not doing her a disservice by raising her with both nationalities and expecting tolerance.

I’m told I’m not. I’m told that I have nothing to worry about — that because I am American, this tolerance is there. I’m told that I’m a “good” immigrant because I pay taxes, because I learned the language, because I’m well educated. And though those last three things are true, I know many other immigrants who do those things as well  but who would still not be classified as “good,” for whatever inane reason the classifier can conjure. But I’ve also experienced that tolerance differently. I came to Germany right after George W Bush had invaded Iraq and people wanted to argue with me about “my” politics. They tried to shame me in classrooms and in bars and in university staff meetings for having elected such a president (I didn’t vote for Bush but that didn’t matter, only my passport did). Right now America is “good.” Right now I am working and therefore “good.” It’s a distinction I’d prefer not to have made, to be honest, although I’m not sure the alternative, brutal intolerance, is any better.

The day after the boat ride, Diva and I stood in line once again, queuing for another nearby attraction that would cool us off on a hot day when suddenly we realized that the woman ahead of us in line was on a diatribe. The people she was talking to were slowly backing away, giving her space, lowering their heads and so she used the opportunity to speak loudly, more clearly, address the others in the line more directly and so Diva and I caught wind of her speech.

“They had it right. Deport them. Deport them all. We don’t need any foreigners here. Foreigners should go back to where they came from.”

I put my hands over Diva’s ears but it was too late. She looked up at me and asked what the lady was so mad about. And then the lady turned to me and, in German, said “Isn’t that right?”

And though normally I would’ve snapped up the chance to tell her off — and honestly, I was waiting for the dozen other people in line who’d heard to do just such — I found myself wondering instead just how to stop this conversation from happening in front of Diva because she’s too young to have to understand or know hate and I want to protect her from that harsh reality as long as I can. And so I just said, in my perfect English. “I don’t understand. I’m a foreigner. Maybe you should deport me?”

These conversations are, unfortunately, going to be more frequent in the next few months and I know it’s not long before Diva starts asking about these things. We’ve already had talks about not labeling people as stupid or dumb and so I’m sure the slurs will come into play soon, too, unfortunately. And so I’m curious and I’m turning this over to you: how do you, as foreigners or as parents or as foreign parents work with your kids on topics of xenophobia? How are you addressing the current atmosphere of hate with them?

My Kidneys Warm Themselves Just Fine, Thanks

A couple years ago, Diva came home from a visit to her dad, bragged to me that he’d let her eat Leberwurst for breakfast and then promptly puked all over the place. It’s a bad habit she has, this puking whenever she eats lunch meat or too many hot dogs and so I sent him a very unhappy text message asking him, a vegetarian, to get his girlfriend to refrain from feeding the kid Leberwurst unless she’d be around to clean the puke up. “She doesn’t need to be a vegetarian,” I told him. “But if she’s going to eat meat, at least make it something she can digest.”

His reply? “It’s not my fault she’s sick. You dress her too thinly. Her kidneys get cold.”

Her kidneys get cold?

Clearly, this was not my ex speaking, it was his girlfriend. A German. Because only Germans believe in the nonsensical notion that it is not viruses or bacteria or digestive issues that make people ill. Germans, an otherwise intelligent people (for the most part, anyway), believe that it is the kalte that makes people sick.

Kalte Fusse, kalte Kopf, Kalte Nieren. Cold feet, cold head, cold kidneys. The German trifecta of illness causes. Forget Ebola or flu or whatever. It’s the cold. That and the draft. The way many people here think, we should all be sick whenever it dips below 20 degrees Celsius and the wind blows. If we’re not, it must be all the precautions we take by dressing appropriately (you know the old saying, “there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing” is HUGE here).

And by appropriately, I mean that we are wearing socks at all times. Height of summer, you bet we’ve got black socks beneath the Birkenstocks, no peeptoes allowed. Even in houses with in-floor heating, socks must remain on at all times (except when doing yoga, for whatever reason). Your underwear do not have to be clean (Germans have several times taken the prize for dirtiest skivvies in the annual “Which European country’s people shower the least frequently?” survey with a record-breaking average underwear change coming only every 3 days… alarming stuff, I tell you), but your socks cannot have holes in them and they must go above your ankle bones.

Also required: undershirts. I always thought that those Hanes white ribbed tank tops sewn by 6-year-olds in The Honduras and sold 3 for $10 were only used by suit-wearing dudes to wick away sweat whilst tucked underneath an Oxford or for dudes hanging outside on the porch in the summertime who want to look tough and since I don’t dress like a prep nor a gangster, I have never owned shirtsleeves in my life. Tank tops, yes. Camisoles, yes. Things without sleeves that are loose and made to be seen and not covered up? Yes, yes, yes. But undershirts? I guess this is a thing that German kids and adults alike are required to wear in order to keep their kidneys from getting cold. There’s even a very very popular women’s clothing brand called Kidney Karen whose entire line of products is dedicated to keeping your kidneys warm in an attractive way (see photo):

kidneykarenNever mind that my kidneys are on the inside of my body, which, last I checked, was a balmy 98.6 degrees. And never mind that whenever I do get a cold, it’s my head that hurts and my nose that runs, not my kidneys. I guess here in Germany, bodies are different.

I mean, I get the old wives’ tale that going outside in winter without a hat might make you sick (it doesn’t, but I get it). I also see now the relationship between cold feet and feeling ill (thanks to circulation, cold feet are a symptom of a fever since they don’t feel as hot as soon as the rest of the body does once a fever sets in. So not a cause but co-relation). But when was the last time you were like, woops, there’s that old flu again, hitting me right in the kidneys? I once put on a mini-skirt before going out with a friend for the night and when I asked her what she thought, she said, “I think my kidneys would be too cold in a skirt like that.” Not my legs would’ve been cold (they would’ve been because we all know tights are not *that* warm). And I wasn’t wearing a bauch-frei shirt, either. What in the ever-loving fuck is this belief in cold kidneys?

Anyway, to accommodate Diva’s dad’s girlfriend and her stupid belief in the perils of having cold kidneys, I bought Diva a couple of undershirts and asked her to start wearing them. She refused. She was only three at the time, but she has never been an idiot. “You don’t wear them,” she told me, after noting that her princess dresses didn’t look so pretty with shirt sleeves hanging out underneath. Now, however, two years on, she insists on wearing them every day. And not just wearing them. She has to tuck them into her tights, which she pulls up over her belly button because Papa’s girlfriend told her she’ll get sick otherwise.

So there go all of my efforts to raise a non-nerdy American little girl in the Vaterland. I now have a princess who wears ergonomically correct shoes instead of pink sparkly cowboy boots. A girl with undershirts to match every pair of underwear she owns (which she changes at least once a day because although she may be half-German, I will NOT let her be that Deutsch). But so help me she starts mumbling on about cold kidneys or wearing black socks with her Birkenstocks, I am sending her to the States for some style reformation. Some of these Germanisms I just cannot abide.

America, a 4-year-old’s Perspective

The diva’s been to the States many, many times, but our most recent visit back to my hometown is the first in which she actually started to make observations about the place. Someone asked me once what it’s like to fly back and forth so often and after this trip, I was like, “You know, it’d be nice to land somewhere new and interesting after all the hassle that comes with a transatlantic flight. But it’s just the same as always.”

For her, though, being in the midwest was like being in a whole new world. It didn’t help that she got to meet nearly a hundred members of my extended family so there were all these new, strange people around. She also got to see and do a bunch of new stuff. Like kayaking. And hiking through a real forest. And sit in the car for hours. She talked her way through a lot of this strangeness, and it was fun to listen to a four-year-old’s thoughts on this place that’s so familiar to me, yet so alien and new to her. So without further ado, a few random observations on America, courtesy of DiT:

1. Toilets there flush too loudly and are super scary. Sometimes they even flush while you’re sitting on them. More scary.

2. It’s weird that people can a) look through a crack in the toilet stall and see you pee, and b) that when you’re done using the toilet, you can just crawl out beneath the door without unlocking it.

3. There are too many cows to count.

4. Tractors are huge. HUGE. Much bigger than this one.

tractor5. Random strangers talk to you and it is not okay.

6. Choices. So.many.choices. (Discovered in the Barbie aisle at Target. Fuck that store.)

7. You can buy noodles at just about any restaurant, but they call it macaroni and that name makes it taste bad.

8. Adults go swimming in their clothes, not in bathing suits, which is strange.

Along with these hawk-eyed observations also came a bit of new vocabulary auf Englisch that was kind of fun to hear. All those sayings I’d tried my darnedest to eliminate so that people would never know where I was from are now popping out of Diva’s mouth. Sometimes when she speaks now, I think, oh wow, that’s my mother coming out right there. Like when she said, “Oh my garsh.” Or even better (and not from my mom), “Oh, what the hell?!?”

It’s kind of cute and sweet, but as I’m all Americaed-out, I’m really looking forward to the days when I can send her on over to visit the grandparents all by herself — then we’ll see what new vocabulary comes back with her.