Name: Kristen M. Drahos
Location of Study: Schwäbisch, Germany
Program of Study: Goethe Institute
A brief personal bio:
I am a fourth year doctoral candidate studying systematic theology. My academic interests include the intersection of continental philosophy and theology in relation to three main areas: theological aesthetics, reconfigurations of Christian narrative and doctrine, and theological ethics. The working title of my dissertation is: “Dark Beauty: Toward a Catholic Theological Aesthetic.”
Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:
The study of immersive German is critical for my professional advancement as a graduate student working on the intersection of philosophy and theology. As I write a dissertation proposal on the topic of “dark aesthetics” and apocalyptic theology, I will need to engage thoroughly with the work of three German authors: Hans Urs von Balthasar, Walter Benjamin, and Immanuel Kant. While much of their work exists in translation, some crucial materials – such as Balthasar’s lengthy three volume Apokalypse der deutschen Seele – remain untranslated. And here not only is the task of translation a literal reconfiguration of complex texts, but the nuance of the philosophical undertones of these authors requires an exceptionally advanced knowledge of the original language.
What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:
This two-month immersive experience will allow me to make rapid progress in overall German proficiency, facilitating advanced research with an increased ease and familiarity with German and its uses. I hope to advance my competency and comfort with increased complexity in reading and language comprehension, and I will apply the vocabulary specific to my research interests while in Germany and upon my return. I plan to hone my verbal skills with the hope of one day being able to present papers in German and to field questions accordingly. I look forward to maintaining the rapid progress with German sources relevant to my dissertation after the summer.
My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:
1. By the end of the summer, I will advance in reading competency with overall vocabulary acquisition and targeted vocabulary lists specific to my dissertation topic in sublimed aesthetics.
2. I will increase my facility with spoken German such that answering questions specific to my area of interest will be a possibility.
3. I will improve my conversational German such that interactions with German and Austrian colleagues can extend my network of scholarly activity and personal interaction.
4. I will be able to competently correspond in email with German and Austrian colleagues.
My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:
I plan to apply my reading skills to advance the speed of my reading comprehension, with the specific goal of working through large sections of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Apokalypse der deutschen Seele, which is significant for the first and fifth chapters of my dissertation. I also plan to continue skype conversations with a native Austrian friend and colleague, working to advance my facility and comfort with research discussions.
Week 1: Fremd und Freund
I could not help but smile as I headed down to the S-Bahn in Stuttgart’s airport, once again hearing the automated recording announcing arrivals and departures of various trains and feeling myself immediately pulled back to the month I spent in Munich three years ago. I smiled; this would be a different trip, but I was not as foreign as I once was, and German, instead of making me quake with apprehension at airport passport control, was sending shivers of excitement through my body and bringing a smile to my lips.
I spent my first week in Europe with a friend at her home in Innsbruck, Austria. I could not have planned a better warm-up for my German before my two intensive months at the Goethe Institut; not only did my rust start to wear off but I began to pick up new phrases as well. I was surprised at how fast my previous work at speaking came back, and while there were certainly moments where everything was too fast or the vocabulary beyond me, I felt much more comfortable with the daily struggle to listen and work with what I knew and to not worry about what I didn’t, using the more difficult times as opportunities to absorb native accents and, on occasion, to ask pointed questions about vocabulary or grammar.
As a result, my first week at the Goethe Institut in Schwäbisch Hall began with excitement rather than trepidation, and while it took most of the week to place me in the appropriate course, I am finally finding myself challenged by the work and even more in love with this medieval city that, although klein, is incredibly schön. I have a wonderful roommate here from Slovenia, and we have made a pact only to speak in German together. Although her German is not as advanced as mine, it is wonderful to avoid English and to work together in expanding our vocabulary and practicing what we learn in our classrooms. I am at home here while being foreign, and it is a good feeling.
Week 2: Extravagant Hospitality
Having posted one picture from a recent fantastic hike during my first week in Austria, I received a most welcome and unexpected message from a friend from Iran, whom I met through my German course three years ago. As it just so happened, we were both in Germany this summer for the same two months, and we quickly made a plan for me to travel to Munich for a reunion. Kourosh’s German is excellent, and we spent the entire weekend laughing and filling each other in on the details of the last three years. While the weekend was certainly a great success in terms of language practice, I hold this weekend very dear in my memory as a lesson in hospitality. Although I come from a very warm and giving Virginia family, I have never experienced such wildly extravagant hospitality as Kourosh showed me this weekend. I was treated with the highest respect and cared for like a beloved sibling. Not only was I constantly plied with a new juice or water bottle to replace its recently depleted cousin (Kourosh was very concerned that I not become dehydrated in the exceedingly warm weather), but my friend was ever concerned that I enjoy every moment of my time in Munich. I was humbled by such loving concern and could only blink in wonder as time and time again I saw such pleasure shine from his eyes as I genuinely assured him that I was having an amazing weekend. I found it incredibly wonderful that my Muslim friend was demonstrating the clearest example of Christ-like hospitality and love. The purity of the immaterial aspect of this gift is something that I know I will be meditating on for many more weeks to come, thinking through the ways I might imitate this generosity, not simply giving to another but rejoicing in the opportunity of giving.
Week 3: The Eeriness of History
In addition to classes, the Goethe Institut here provides many afternoon activities that we can choose to partake of, such as sport excursions, museum visits, or city tours. After a historical city tour, I was intrigued to learn more about Schwäbisch Hall in the second world war, since the majority of our tour consisted in Reformation-era explanations. I was disturbed, even if not entirely surprised, to discover that Hall was an Ally target as well as home to a small Lager, and that 40 of the small town’s own occupants were killed in various camps in Eastern Europe. While this number is perhaps not large in comparison with others, given the intimacy of this place I could only shake my head in disbelief at the thought that most of the community would have known these people and participated, even if only negatively through inaction, in the horrors that these camps brought.
One day later in the week, as I was waling home from a quick grocery trip, I stopped by a local cemetery, which for me usually inspires a sense of curiosity for the dead and prayers on their behalf as I, in my own small way, participate in history as a time not merely of those who are living but in continuity with those who have gone before. Looking at the dates here, however, I found myself feeling incredibly uneasy, seeing how many there were who had lived through one if not both world wars.
Unlike a confrontation with the victims of history (which, done properly, is an incredibly complex undertaking in itself), standing in this cemetery I struggled with a different confrontation – namely, how I could interact with a generation who not merely had turned their backs to atrocity on a national level, but who mostly likely had a very personal experience of these horrors in their own community. In the place of the peace I usually find with the dead my skin started to crawl, and my normally effortless prayers stuck in my throat. How could I interact with the dead here? How could I confront history with the eyes of justice and the heart of love as it ceased to be simply the rehearsal of events and, instead, through these dead, stood “living” before me?
I hope that I will have the opportunity to investigate how the Germans experience this history – do places like Berlin with the most public examples of war-time memory still function as poignant reminders of this history? Do smaller cities like Hall have the same kind of mentality? Where and how is the history of the war still living here? But even more, I find myself challenged to rethink my own experience and confrontation with history, existentially embracing my standing in this time and in relation to all those who have gone before me without “othering” myself in the distance of a third-party observer who risks nothing with a confrontation of horror and who can give nothing with only sympathetic feelings that cannot bear the weight that true sympathy entails.
Week 4: Transition…wie immer
The last week of my first German course brings me to reflections on the nature of transition and change. The first and dominant emotion is again anticipation and excitement; I will take the few days of pause between my months to return to Austria and put the skills I have worked so hard to improve to good use. I will go on new adventures with my friend and make more memories as we head to a family castle in Italy’s Südtirol. But, unsurprisingly, I am also rather traurig as I say goodbye to friends who are finished with their time in Schwäbisch Hall. Like most periods in life, it felt like no time was passing and yet still the weeks sped by. I cannot help but wonder, what will next month bring? Who will I learn to cherish and to whom will I have to bid goodbye? I can only hope that once again the challenge of working to learn German will not only have rewards with linguistic advancement, but that our similar efforts will be as productive in forging friendships next month as well.
Week 5: Entspannt
In the life of a graduate student, the idea of being entspannt, or relaxed, is generally perceived as the counterproductive opposite of our ideally fleißig (industrious) activity. I have found here, however, that the two together promote my learning better than the more traditional graduate student approach of strict periods of industrious Arbeit that terminates when one is too exhausted to continue, requiring a time of relaxation with a minimum of content or challenge in order to revive rather than to further deplete one’s energies. While we are all challenged in my new class, the language learning activities vary from hour to hour and flip between individual learning and group effort. We laugh at our mistakes as much as we work hard to correct them, smiling broadly when we conquer a previously habitual Fehler. With this energy we carry on with our German practice in conversations in breaks and after our morning classes, finding that in making the form of the work a relaxed one we are able to make the form of our relaxation a productive learning experience as well. I am eager to bring this happy symbiosis back with me to the States, not only for application toward my continued language work but in my doctoral process as well.
Week 6: Language of the Heart
The past weekend I had the amazing opportunity to catch up with an old friend from Berlin, who I had the pleasure of first meeting when he came to Notre Dame to complete a doctorate in engineering. As soon as I arrived I was greeted on the train platform by my friend’s enthusiastic smile, hug, and German greeting. I of course responded in kind, laughing at his delight as our conversation and warmth of reunion continued in German. Even though, as always with a native speaker, there were some parts of the conversation that I missed, I could feel how far I had come in six weeks, and I reveled in the fun of the full weekend of practicing (and developing even more vocabulary!) with my friend. It was such a pleasure to be able to talk to him in German, finally communicating in his native language rather than mine. While my friend is highly fluent in English, I knew that he loved speaking with me in the language with which he grew up and daily communicated and expressed himself. I was reminded on this trip that not only is fluency a goal for proper communication, but it is a way to give of oneself by being receptive to the “other” precisely as other – the other “untranslated.” While once again in Berlin I had received an abundance of hospitality that I could never properly repay, it was nice to know that at least in some small way, I was doing my part in working to know and welcome the gift that my friend had so generously shared with me.
Week 7: A Theologian, an Atheist, and an Engineer Walk Into a Bar…
The Goethe Institut prides itself on bringing together and fostering community between people from all over the world through the common endeavor of language study, and from my personal experience I can attest that the Institut is wildly successful at its mission. This month in particular, however, I find myself increasingly thrilled to develop two friendships in particular that expand my horizons not merely geographically, but that engage and challenge me ideologically as well. Through wonderful conversations that started with friendships from the Goethe classroom experience, I found myself immersed in a new pool of diverse viewpoints and values as our conversations and friendship carried well beyond the typical points of polite acquaintance. While it is certainly not true that such experiences of diversity could not be had at home, it is often the case that in the intensive community that is the collection of graduate students in a particular discipline, often what is considered wildly “diverse” and multi-spectral depends on the microscopic and detailed view that the specialization of graduate work brings. While expert in navigating the intricacies of our field, we can all too easily forget how much larger and more pluriform other perspectives can be, differing not merely in the “what” that one believes, but also in the how of discovery and fidelity to such opinions. With the groundwork that Goethe lays for openness, friendship, and communication, it is little wonder that our discovery of and engagement with other points of view flourish and have solid roots for continued growth long past the always too-short time of our collective experience in Germany.
Week 8: Departure
I conclude this experience feeling proud of my work and progress here, both in the classroom and beyond, and with the sadness that saying goodbye always brings. Looking back at my first entry, I am proud to say that I feel increasingly at home in this still foreign country, and I can only hope that the next time I have an opportunity to return, an even bigger smile will cross my lips as I step onto my first train and find myself back in the mix of German language and culture. While it is now time to say Tschüss to my program and all the friends of the summer, I know that I am carrying so much back with me from this experience, making the parting at least a little easier and the thought of unknown in the future an opportunity to maintain and expand all that has developed.
Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains, my summer language abroad experience overall, and how I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:
I have only been back in the States for a few days, but I am already surprised at how much I am finding the summer impacted me. I did not expect to find myself dealing with a kind of culture shock upon my return, but I find myself constantly remarking on my experience and what I discovered this summer, feeling very much that I did not leave a part of me behind in Germany but that a part of Germany came back with me to my life here. I would love to tell you the specifics of what this transference means, but unfortunately I am only just beginning to unpack what it means myself as I re-enter my life here. Skill-wise, I am more determined than ever to use this summer as a springboard to advance the goals I set out to accomplish in the beginning, and to that end I have already had a phone conversation in German with one of my friends (with more skype plans in the future) and have been reading at least a German news article a day from an online paper. I will conclude this blog, then, with incredible gratitude of this opportunity, saying thank you for the immediate results of advancement in language acquisition and the still-unfolding fruit of an interiorized experience of Germany.