People I meet here often ask me things like:
-"Which cars do they drive in America?"
-"Do people in America like George Bush?"
-"What is school like in America?"
-"Which sports are popular in America?"

My response usually starts with, "Well, it depends where you live, but where I'm from..."

But the situation is often too complicated to be explained with one sentence. Obviously there are going to be many more hybrid cars on the environmentally friendly West Coast than in sparsely populated Montana. Of course the residents of liberal New England aren't going to be quite the fans of Bush that some in his home state of Texas are. Clearly the school system in Fairfax County isn't going to be exactly like the school system in Colorado or even that of neighboring Loudon County. Naturally there are more NASCAR fans than ice hockey fans in the South. But in America, in general? I have no idea.

A couple of weeks ago, this issue of Stern came out.

Picture from www.stern.de

The cover reads "California: the Better America". Of course I was immediately offended that a German magazine called the America I live in the worse America, but I thought I'd give it a read anyway. The article was actually pretty good; it focused on innovation in Silicon Valley and environmentalism all over California.

The article portrays a part of America with which many Europeans can more easily identify. Some Europeans might also find the health care system in Massachusetts or bans on the death penalty in more liberal states great.

These are more examples of the small differences that make it really difficult to describe "what it's like in America", and even more so difficult to give a concise answer to any such question. But in the Cultural Studies class that I helped teach in the first semester, we spent a fair amount of time on this topic, so I had the chance to try to develop some sort of general answer.

We divided the United States up into five regions loosely following the divisions of the US Census Bureau: the South, the Northeast, the Midwest, the West, and the Pacific. Then, the class was divided into five groups, and each group made a presentation about the economic, social, and political characteristics of the region. Of course there are lots of differences within these regions: Northern Virginia, for example, could be considered an island of the Northeast at the edge of the South. But at some point you have to give up detail in order to keep the project doable.

One thing that occurred to me during the activity--apart from the diversity of the nation--is how little I know about how life in other parts of America really is. I've lived my whole live in Northern Virginia, and the only other place I know fairly well is the Midwest because I have so many relatives in Wisconsin. I don't think that life in Texas is really all that different, but I don't have much to judge that on.

The project turned out very well. One of the highlights was a group of German students' mock slang dialog(which actually wasn't all that appropriate for school, but hey, "it's all good").

I guess the most important point to this is to take the diversity that we can see in our own country and realize that this applies to other countries, as well. Of course the political views in Catholic Bavaria are going to differ from those of the industrial Ruhrgebiet in Nordrhein-Westfalen. So, the question, "What is it like in Germany?" is just as difficult.

What are the first things that come to mind when you think of the answer to that question? If the answer is a jovial man holding liter mugs of beer, wearing Lederhosen, and eating pretzels the size of a steering wheel, then you've got a stereotypical picture of a specific part of Germany called Bayern, or Bavaria in English. The truth is, I haven't seen a one pair of Lederhosen in my 8 months here. I suppose this stereotypical image comes from Oktoberfest, the most well-known festival in Germany, but it's not at all an accurate image of Germans in general.

Speaking of Bavaria, also known as the Texas of Germany, I'm taking a train there on Saturday for the first week of spring break. I'll be visiting a friend in Augsburg and then traveling with him to Munich. Hope you all have a relaxing week off! Comments, questions, and discussion are always welcome.


Klassenfahrten und Kurstreffen

Just thought I'd stop by and write a little bit about two features of German schools that I've learned about this year--Klassenfahrten (class trips) and Kurstreffen (course get-togethers).

I already wrote about the class trip to Spain, which is called a Klassenfahrt in German. The whole class travels together generally every two or three years starting in the 5th or 6th grade. Popular destinations include Spain, France, Berlin, and Prague. Students experience culture and history during the day and the teachers have their hands full with mischevious students at night.

A get-together of all of the students and the teacher of a specific course, called a Kurstreffen, takes place in the higher grades of the schools. A course, for example the music course in the 12th grade, will meet up at someone's house or a bar, drink a beer, and converse. I was at my first Kurstreffen last Wednesday. It was held at a friend's house and turned out well.

The Kurstreffen illustrates a few differences between Germany and America that I've noticed all year. Germans and Americans deal with alcohol completely differently. In Germany, beer and wine are legal at age 16, spirits at age 18. It's not unusual for teenagers to have a few drinks with adults, and above all, alcohol is not nearly as taboo.

The result: a teacher drinking alcohol with students is a customary occurence in the higher grades once a school year at the Kurstreffen. I feel like something like that could get a teacher fired at an American school. It's really just a matter of different perspectives.

What do you think of Klassenfahrten and Kurstreffen? Would it be good for classes at American schools to travel for a week, or is it unfair to expect that all of the students pay so much to travel? Do course get-togethers blur the line between school life and personal life too much? Do these two activities contribute to a better school community?