Gacek, Elena


egacek headshot

Name: Elena Gacek
Location of Study: Freiburg, Germany
Program of Study: Goethe Institut
Sponsors: Innsbruk Fund


A brief personal bio:

After exploring several different academic paths, I’ve decided to double major in Art History and International Economics with a focus in German. Extracurricularly, I have participated in the ND Symphony Orchestra as a cellist, and the ND/SMC Equestrian Team, with which I’m beginning my second year as Treasurer. I’m not quite certain what career path I’m headed towards, possibly law, but I’m also passionate about volunteering with equine-assisted therapy, and since a large part of the history and development of that field is linked to Germany, I’m extremely excited about visiting and working toward fluency.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

As a student of Art History and International Economics, fluency in German is critical to my future success and opportunities. Due to Germany’s rich cultural history, many primary and contextual background sources for artworks exist in German, along with critical scholarship. Additionally, many MA and most PhD programs require fluency in two foreign languages, including German. Regarding International Economics, it’s no secret that the German economy is currently one of the most successful in Europe, and has a recent history of relative stability while others have faltered. German fluency would be an asset for employment at a German-based company, but also at any American business, since German companies are increasingly popular and profitable business partners. Thus, in addition to fulfilling a personal goal, attaining German fluency would be an incredible asset for my future academic career and employment prospects. Furthermore, I am at the point in my German education where foreign study would be most impactful – as a rising junior, I have mastered rudimentary communication. Now, I am beginning to piece together different aspects of language to express ideas comfortably in spoken German, and there is no better way to accelerate this process than studying and speaking in a German-speaking environment.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

More than anything, I hope that this grant will enable me to speak basic German with accurate pronunciation and confidence. I studied Spanish in high school and can read with a high level of comprehension, but I don’t feel totally comfortable speaking in front of native speakers. Even though my hometown has a large and thriving Spanish-speaking community, I’ve never been to a Spanish-speaking country, which I think would be necessary for me to gain true fluency. With German, I am just now at the point where I feel comfortable with my “survival German,” getting around and surviving among German speakers. However, I still feel almost awkward about speaking German, because I know my pronunciation and grammar are far from perfect. By living in Germany for 4 weeks, being wholly immersed in the language and culture, I’m sure my shyness will gradually evaporate, and that my pronunciation will definitely improve.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

1. At the end of the summer, I will have acquired basic specialized vocabulary in academic and recreational fields, such as art history/architecture and gardening.

2. At the end of the summer, I will be able to describe the features of Freiburg’s tourism industry, and compare it with that of my hometown, San Clemente, CA.

3. At the end of the summer, I will be able to communicate in German with native speakers about issues of culture and society, such as soccer/Fußball, politics, and environmental conservation/awareness.

4. At the end of the summer, I will be able to speak, read, write and listen at a level of proficiency at least one semester beyond my current German coursework placement at Notre Dame.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

The Goethe Institut offers an extensive “guided cultural and recreational program” including various walking tours, day trips, hikes, and local arts exhibitions/performances. One hike explores the local countryside, including the famous Black Forest and Rhine River, which blends beautiful scenery with extended German discussion about natural landscape and rural German life. Within Freiburg itself, there is the Münster Cathedral, a towering construction that combines multiple architectural styles – this is particularly exciting, because it would allow me to begin acquiring art-history-specific German vocabulary, in a captivating environment that would encourage me to think critically in German. I also hope to attend Mass while in Freiburg – due to the relative uniformity of Catholic Masses, a Mass in German would not only help my language acquisition and speech in a comfortable environment, but also equip me with yet another layer of specialized. I’m also interested in exploring local business and the local government structure – after recently attending a city council meeting in my hometown, I’m extremely curious about the ways in which local governments vary with the characteristics of their cities.


Reflective Journal Entry 1:

As I write this, I’m sitting in my bed after my first full day in Deutschland.  Considering all the trials and tribulations of yesterday, I’m surprised at how overall successful today was.

Yesterday, after 15 hours of flying, a trying 2 hour train ride, and about 45 min of wandering around Freiburg with my luggage in the afternoon heat, I found my way to the Goethe-Institut.  After checking in, I managed to catch my breath, and was happy with how I did on my oral and written placement tests.  When I went to pay for my housing deposit but didn’t have any Euros, I felt fine because we had talked everything over with my credit union before, so I headed towards the bank with confidence.  BUT, after repeated attempts my card was rejected, and when I asked a teller for assistance, it turns out that when my bank at home put travel alerts on my card, they neglected to tell me IT DIDN’T WORK IN GERMANY. I changed all my American cash, save $2, to euros, then needed to withdraw some extra euros with my secondary bank card, which thankfully did go through, but with which I accidentally overdrew.  After paying for the housing deposit and WiFi to contact my parents, I had 3 euro and $2 in a strange faraway country and I was pretty panicked.  Thankfully, after Facetiming home, my mom was able to transfer all of the money from my primary bank to my secondary, and I was able to see they transfer online and pick up the money this morning.

After exhaustion of the previous day, I was nervous about how the first day of class would pan out, and worried I might be late for my morning class time —  but, thanks to jet lag, I woke up an hour before my alarm, which was both frustrating and helpful since I wouldn’t have to rush.

My class at the Institut seems to be right about the level at which I currently function in German, so I’m excited to see how my language skills progress.  My professor speaks all in German, but like many of the people I’ve encountered so far, also speaks English, and very fluently.   My class only has about 12 students, which is nice since that’s similar to the sizes of the German classes I’ve taken at ND.  In addition to some basic exercises and first-day stuff, my professor shared an interesting anecdote with us about America (2 of my classmates are also American, but from the east coast).

Back in the day, a famous cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller, living at Freiburg and working at the Freiburg University, put together a new map, since many geographic advances had been made without equally speedy cartography adaptations.  This cartographer received much of his information about Africa and an unnamed continent from fellow cartographer Amerigo Vespucci; looking at the map, he had Africa and Europa, then added America.  1000 of these maps were printed, but only 1 survives today.  It now resides in the Library of Congress in the US, but the story of how it came to be there struck me as particularly interesting.

My professor said that for the longest time, this map was kept in a museum in Germany, since it was printed and therefore probably preserved in this country.  The Americans desperately wanted to buy it, because it is such a huge part of our history — the giving of the name that now binds together all the different people across the fifty United States.  Unsurprisingly, I agreed with this statement, and was outraged that Germany refused to sell. However, their argument was that if was also an important historical document in their history as well.  While this is certainly true, it wasn’t until I heard it that I realized it actually seemed, to me at that moment, to belong more to Germany than to the US: yes, it’s our name,  but the man represented by the work was German, the map was printed in Germany, and probably had spent its entire existence in Germany or the immediate surrounding area.

After class, two of my classmates and I went to buy meal cards and lunch at die Mensa der Üniversität Freiburg, then wandered for a couple of hours.  Along the way, we went into a store that was kind of like Walmart in selection, but a hybrid drugstore/cosmetics counter in style and price: I can’t think of a store at home that sells Dior perfume, cat food, and specialty cooking supplies all at the same locale.  We also briefly visited the Münster Cathedral in the historic section of Freiburg. On Friday, I’ll be able to tour this historic site! I can’t wait for what the rest of my trip will bring!

Reflective Journal Entry 2:

After being here for only a week, I’m genuinely surprised by how much my German has improved. For the most part, my pronunciation and vocabulary are similar to when I arrived, but my thought process is much more up to speed. Since I’ve studied Spanish for 6 years and German for only about 1.5, I’ve typically had a problem with small connecting words, like “and” or “because,” in German. It’s like when I tell my brain “not English” it automatically assumes “Spanish,” and so speaking German has generally required more effort than I expected. For the past several days, though, I haven’t had this problem at all. In fact, while I’m out and about or performing simple tasks, most of my interior monologue is in German. (Admittedly, German with imperfect grammar and plenty of “Wie sagt man auf Deutsch?” but German nonetheless.) Moreover, as I continue exploring Freiburg, I’m building a store of new experiences that occur in German, rather than requiring translation.

Last Saturday, I went to a farmers’ market outside of das Münster Cathedral, where I picked up some produce and a couple handmade gift items. The market was crowded and loud and overwhelming, especially since it was raining, which meant umbrellas. At first I was timid, and it was kind of hard to see who worked at the stands and who was shopping, but after a couple of laps I felt comfortable enough to make my purchases. At the fruit stands, there were large lines, and the service was all about speed; at the craft tables, the pace was much slower and more friendly, so maybe it was easier to spot me as a foreigner — one craftswoman spoke to me in German, then repeated herself in English, and another just spoke English. I tried to use my German, and I did to an extent, but I was thankful for the English interpretation, since everything was still so new. The next day, though, I resolved not to rely so much upon English.

English was definitely not an issue when I went to Mass at “das Münster,” Freiburg’s medieval cathedral, on Sunday. The congregation was mostly older folks, and there weren’t any obvious tourists in attendance. Although I had looked up prayers beforehand, the pace of the Mass was slightly different from what I’m used to, so it was a truly challenging language experience. I did comprehend most of the homily though, which may have been easier to hear since the priest spoke with a more conversational cadence than that of prayer. I’m not sure if it’s a German thing, or a larger European trend, or maybe even because it was in a cathedral, but I did observe two main differences in the Mass. During the “Vater Unser,” nobody held hands, and for the sign of peace even family members exchanged handshakes; some people just nodded at one another. More strikingly, when it came time to receive Communion, there was no orderly filing out of pews and into two or three lines. Instead, there was a mad scramble towards the altar, and everyone crowded around the altar steps. Instead of staying in one place, the priest and two eucharistic ministers moved back and forth giving out the Host, like the way a inkjet printer passes ink back and forth across the page. I didn’t see any wine at the Mass, but there’s a chance I just missed it in the chaos. I don’t know if I’ll have a chance to go back to the Cathedral for another Mass, but even once was good practice for my German listening skills — the priest spoke a little slower and more deliberately than conversational speech, but still with the accent and grammar structures that are common in authentic spoken German, so it was a nice sort of “in-between” difficulty level.

These sorts of mini-encounters with natural German speakers nicely complement what I’ve been learning in the course so far. For the class I placed into, most of the curriculum is technically review. However, and especially in an intensive environment like this, I think that it’s wonderful for helping me to master things I’ve “seen” but not quite taken into my daily arsenal of German. My professor has suggested that we write a small text every day, about a theme of our choice, and so far I’ve found this very helpful. Even though writing about a topic not necessarily in the book requires quite a bit of new vocabulary, I think it will help me to learn the sorts of words I would want to use on a daily basis, say discussing books or movies with a friend. I’m also using this opportunity to reinforce the grammar we cover in class, so that I get a feel for using it in context.

I’m only now beginning to feel at ease here — Germany in general, Freiburg in particular — and so, coupled with my usual shyness, I haven’t interacted with very many people beyond my classmates, and one or two shopkeepers. Today, after class I went back to das Münster, to explore the Cathedral as well as climb up into the Turm, the west Cathedral tower. I grabbed an informational pamphlet in German rather than English, and as I toured I could (mostly) understand German tourists discussing the works of art. When I got to the top of the tower, after a treacherous 329-step staircase (fittingly called a “Treppe” in German), someone asked me how tall the cathedral was, and I answered, in German. I’m sure they noticed my accent, but they still seemed to understand me clearly, which I took as a victory. Still, my Cathedral exploration was mostly reverent silence, rather than active conversation.

For this coming week, I’m definitely feeling more ready to use my German outside of the classroom. Beyond the broader goals I enumerated above, at this point my goal is to use a little bit more German each day, whether that be speaking to a salesperson, ordering food at a restaurant, or eavesdropping on passersby and listening for words, phrases, and grammar structures I recognize.

The nervousness and deer-in-the-headlights feeling of a week ago has gradually given way to a subtle confidence that I can make this a successful and enriching experience, and I’m looking forward to completing some of the specific journaling tasks as I continue to explore Germany and the German language.

Reflective Journal Entry 3:

Blog 3, 18/7/2014:

I can’t believe this is my last weekend in Germany – this week absolutely FLEW past, and suddenly it’s almost time to head back home. So much German and so many experiences have been packed into this past week, that I only just now have the time to sit down and try and describe as many as I can.

Last Saturday, I traveled with classmates to Heidelberg, a beautiful and historic university town on the Neckar River. After the trek up to the castle, we wandered through the surrounding park area, before going on a tour of the castle itself (in German, of course). As an art history major, the tour was particularly interesting, because of its many different facades, and the way the castle’s history through religious conflict is represented in its architecture. I was surprised that although I couldn’t fully understand our tourguide, when she spoke about the features of the different buildings, I understood much more. I think this might have been because when I was more excited about the subject matter, I was listening more carefully – and also maybe because I had some sort of idea what she might be saying, which may (or may not have) facilitated my understanding. After the tour, we wandered around the castle and down into the town, and I listened to two of my friends discussing philosophy in a mix of German and English – I followed their conversation, but didn’t want to chime in since they were both more well-read than I. I did notice, though, that in German and English they would say a word, then describe it using examples to facilitate understanding, which I’ve found myself doing increasingly to overcome the language barriers between me and my classmates. Even though it can be kind of tedious during conversation, I think it’s a good way to practice speaking with complex sentence structures.

Sunday was the big day: the World Cup Championship. Before the ‘match,’ we went to Schauinsland, a local mountain in Freiburg accessible by extensive hiking – or via cable car, which is naturally the route we chose. During the ascent, it was incredible to see so many trees, and to be able to see the countryside so far into the distance, and mountains on the horizon. Even though it had been raining and storming intermittently for the past week, the sky was clear and it was mostly sunny, although the top was definitely colder than down below. After a brief walk around the area, we sat down at a café to try some famous “Schwarzwälder kirschtorte,” aka “Black Forest cake.” The cake consists of layers of light chocolate cake and cream with various amounts of alcohol, as well as some alcohol-drenched cherries, and topped with whipped cream and bittersweet chocolate shavings. Even though the cake layers themselves were pretty airy, I found the whole to be extremely rich and decadent – even with the motivation of having paid a pretty penny for the tourist-y cake, there was no way I could finish my slice (although to my surprise my friends seemed to work through theirs pretty quickly).

That night was absolutely INSANE. We had planned to go to a bar or the massive (13,000+ people) public viewing near Freiburg’s train station. We left the guesthouse at 7:30, an hour and a half before the game, but as soon as we were in town we realized we were CRAZY to think we’d find somewhere with enough room that close to kickoff. Every single street was alive with black, red, and yellow, in every conceivable form, from jerseys, flags, and face paint, to wigs, hats, and even false eyelashes. Beer and stronger drinks were flowing freely (definitely no open-container laws here), and the excitement in the air was palpable. Bar after bar was packed wall to wall (except for one that seemed to cater exclusively to creepy old men), and the public viewing area was already overflowing – clearly, the entire city had decided to watch the game in public, and we were too late to find a place. Defeated, we headed back to the guesthouse, and ended up watching the match at a sleepy little Greek restaurant directly across the way. Play by play, everyone watched and waited and hoped and prayed for victory: at every close call, good or bad, the entire country sighed or cheered as one. After the victory, we thought about heading into town to join in the celebrations, but it was just too crazy for me; besides, with the sounds of the music thumping, people cheering, and glasses clinking that I could hear from my window, I may as well have been out in the frenzy. I can only imagine what it would have felt like had Germany lost, but I (and I think at least 80% of the people I came across) expected nothing less than a German victory, even if we did have to go into overtime.

Monday, it rained and thunderstormed fiercely nonstop, like Deutschland itself was resenting the start of the workweek while still trying to recover from World Cup celebrations.

Tuesday, though, the weather finally broke: sunshine, heat, and the slightest of breezes made for a beautiful day. I’m sure the Goethe Institut was as happy as all of the students, because Tuesday night was their “International Sommerfest:” the best way my friends and I could think to describe this was like a cross between family barbecue and awkward wedding reception, with the students, teachers, and various community members as guests. In addition to (slightly expensive) drinks and food, there were a couple of projects by a local arts-centered high school on display. One project was a video of different interviews with more advanced Goethe Institut students, about why they were studying German, and how they were getting on with it. The most intriguing project was the night’s playlist: I’m not entirely sure, but I believe the students of the art school had compiled different ‘international’ music, from which a “DJ” chose songs, but everyone I spoke to (in German of course) was puzzled: one minute it was the Jackson Five, the next purely instrumental tango music, then Pharrell and Russian folk music. Strange, yes, but also ‘international’ I suppose.

I’ve found that speaking German with fellow classmates is, as you’d expect, more difficult with fellow English-speakers than with non-English speakers. Since we can express ourselves so much more fluently in English, it’s tempting to just do so. However, even when there’s a group with several native English speakers and several non-native or non-English speakers, German is much easier since it’s a common ground. One thing in particular that I’ve found to be especially helpful at the Goethe Institut, is speaking with my classmates, and using the grammar structures we went over in the course earlier in the day. Especially when we’re learning the same material, we’re all pretty motivated to practice with each other, and completely comfortable correcting each other and asking for help. Plus, when we learn something in the morning, then use it in conversation later that same day, I think it really helps to not only better our understanding, but also cement that concept into our ‘arsenal’ for everyday communication.

Reflective Journal Entry 4:

Blog 4, 18/7/2014 (and 2/3 of Task 6):

After class on Wednesday, I got a chance to go to a tasting of some regional wines – in addition to an enjoyable cultural experience, I also relished the opportunity to practice my German listening skills in another setting, specifically one more unfamiliar than the classroom or a Mass. The atmosphere was casual and relaxed, and I took a moment to ask the Goethe-Institut intern also in attendance about her opinions of Americans. At first she was purely complimentary, saying that most of the Americans she’d met were extremely hardworking and pleasant individuals. After a bit of pressing, though, she eventually admitted that in Americans more so than in other foreign nationals, she’d observed a lack of interest in other cultures, German and foreign culture more broadly. Tourists especially tend to expect everything in English, and expect everyone to speak English; even language students, or American students at her university, tend to focus more on the language as a means of communication, rather than a gateway to understanding another culture, history, and people. Even so, she was quick to emphasize that all the Americans she’s met and gotten to know as individuals were lovely people. She didn’t really have more specific opinions on American individuals or politics, other than to comment that she thinks young people in America seem slightly less interested in political affairs and events than the students she goes to school with.

On Thursday, I attended a production of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” at a small outdoor theatre next to the Institut. The play was naturally in German, and thus impossible (for me) to understand word for word, but I was pleasantly surprised to notice that I recognized many separate words and grammar structures, and could piece them together well enough to figure out the plot, and even some of the wordplay. As the play went on and I had more of an idea of the plot (I’d never seen or read “Twelfth Night” before), I found that my understanding improved as well. I did find it comical, though, that the play ended with about 7 seconds of English song (“I love you baby, da da da da da da da”) and jazz hands, then darkness. I’m not quite sure how it fit in with the rest of the performance, which was mostly a traditional interpretation, and the rest of the audience seemed equally surprised. Afterwards, I went with some friends to a local beer garden, and along the way we passed through a plaza where university students often congregate to drink, chat, and enjoy the night. There was a man doing fire-twirling; it was a little odd, but fit in well with the casual end-of-week atmosphere.

On Friday, I went for a brewery tour, which would have been more enjoyable if the weather hadn’t been quite so hot – the combination of a walking-based city and the German antipathy for air conditioning made for a rather uncomfortable outing, but it was interesting all the same. For me, the most interesting part of the tour wasn’t about the beer, but about the brewery itself: at one point, the tour guide showed us a photograph from the late 1930s, in which the brewery had been completely destroyed by a bomb. Whenever the topic of either World War (especially the second) comes up, I feel really awkward – in the US, it’s easy to simply villainize Germany and the German people, and to discuss the conflict in terms of the Allies against the Nazis. In Germany though, it’s difficult for me to pinpoint the general atmosphere around the topic: I think it’s a mixture of acknowledging the tragedy of the war, with a commitment never to forget, but at the same time there’s a disconnect between German history and the modern German populace. I think maybe it’s similar to discussing slavery in the US: a grave wrongdoing that should be acknowledged, but simultaneously a past that is far removed from the individual women and men of today. At the end of the tour, we all got complimentary beer and pretzels, and I was able to chat with an older woman (the mother of the Goethe-Institut employee who led the excursion) about her views on America. Like the intern I had interviewed at the wine-tasting, she was initially reluctant to say anything negative: all the Americans she had come across were extremely polite and interesting, genuinely nice people. She then said that when she thought of America in general, she thought of an attitude of “bigger is always better,” of nonstop working, bad traffic, and giant farms. In her experience of Americans in Germany, she noticed that especially in large groups, they tended to talk extremely loudly in public together, and to be overly friendly with strangers: for example, sharing personal information about their day and their lives with someone sitting next to them on a bus. This fit in with what I had seen of Germans, even German tourists at some of the locations I had visited: they seemed to be more quiet than Americans, and public transportation was almost always silent, eerily so. That being said, since I live in California I don’t really have a feel for American public transportation.

Especially speaking with native German-speakers, I’ve noticed that my skills aren’t as much of an issue as my confidence – maybe there’s a certain pressure to speak more correctly, or to use more detailed grammar, or something. When I speak with fellow students who are either English or other non-German speakers, I feel much more comfortable speaking quickly and in a more detailed manner, since I know that they are also students, and understand that I don’t have a perfect accent or command of grammar. Even so, when I do speak with German-speakers, they are incredibly patient and willing to speak more slowly or more simply, and seem pleased that I’m trying to speak German, rather than relying upon English. I think being in Germany is building my confidence with spoken German, but I also believe that it’s a long-term process to feel comfortable using the language around people who know it so much better than I.

Reflective Journal Entry 5:

Blog 5, 21/7/2014 (Task 5):

I’m so sad that my last weekend in Germany has come and gone, but it truly was a beautiful one. On Saturday I went to the Rheinfall and the Bodensee, and later got to enjoy a beautiful night with my friends from the institute, who are some of the most interesting people I have ever met. Sunday I went to the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, and in addition to an extensive exhibition on Gerard Richter, got to see an entire room full of Paul Klees, as well as a Barnett Newman (I was a touch surprised to see it there, but nonetheless it was incredible to experience)! I also walked around Basel (sleepy since the shops were all closed, but relaxing and scenic), before heading back to the guesthouse to re-charge for the final week.

Earlier today, two of the Goethe Institute employees led us in making Flammkuchen, which was… an experience. Flammkuchen is a sort of “German pizza” that is popular and omnipresent in Freiburg and the surrounding areas. Typically, it consists of a paper-thin crisp crust and a cream-based sauce, topped with sliced sautéed onions and finely chopped salami/similar meat, but the variations are endless. I think that perhaps neither of the girls who were leading the “class” had ever made it before, as the crust turned out way too thick, and baked rubbery on the edges and raw in the center. The flavors were okay, but the overall preparation was definitely lacking.

Over the weekend, some friends and I had gone out to eat Flammkuchen at a restaurant, and had discussed it with our server. Essentially, he explained the dish as “German pizza” (about which my Italian friends were a bit skeptical). Like pizza, it comes in endless variations, though the ‘classic’ is like the one we attempted to create. Also like pizza, it’s available almost everywhere, at sit-down restaurants and for take-away. Unlike pizza, though, the crust is unleavened, and the dish doesn’t rely so heavily upon cheese. Attempting to make it was definitely something else, but I think I gained more cultural experience from eating and observing Flammkuchen out and about, which was somewhat contrary to what I had first expected.

More interesting, for me at least, than the actual conversation with our server, was the conversational experience itself. Although we initiated conversation in German, and asked follow-up questions in German, the server spoke mostly English, with just a sprinkling of German. While it was obvious that we weren’t native speakers, we were surprised that he continually reverted to English – I’m thinking maybe it was due to context: as a server, speed is equally important as service, and by speaking in English, he was able to communicate with us more quickly than if he spoke to us in German, and we only understood partially, or asked repeated questions for clarification.

It sort of reminds me of another phenomenon I’ve witnessed here in Germany: in the supermarket and the drugstore, the cashiers scan all of the merchandise EXTREMELY quickly, and expect you to load it into your bag as they scan – which wouldn’t be too much of an issue, except that at the same time you need to get out your money to pay. It makes checking out extremely stressful, because as soon as they hand you your change they start tossing the next customer’s merchandise down towards the ‘bagging’ area, while you’re left scrambling to grab your items and vacate as quickly as possible without forgetting anything or accidentally taking someone else’s item. At the grocery store at home, the cashier either bags the goods or moves slowly enough that you can bag them yourself without difficulty – I suppose the German way is more efficient, but I think if I were to live in Germany for an extended period of time, I would have to exactly add up the cost of my purchases and get the money out before I even got in line, so that I could then sit down the money and proceed to bag my goods with speed. It’s a silly little sort of cultural difference, but I think it would probably be the most difficult thing for me to adjust to – not simply because I’m a slow-moving creature by nature, but also because it’s not something you can really practice (like language) or learn about (like customs) to increase comfort and familiarity – you just need to experience it, I think.

Reflective Journal Entry 6:

Blog 6, 22/7/2014 (Task 4):

Today, I woke up with one main goal: after the closing exam, I would go out into town, and complete one of the SLA journaling tasks. For me, I’ve found these tasks to be challenging not so much due to my language skills (or uncertainty thereof), but rather because they are activities that I would almost certainly never do even in America; I’m shy and rather softspoken around people I don’t know, so it’s a real challenge for me to approach total strangers on the street and engage them in conversation, communication difficulties totally aside. Still, I was determined, so I headed towards the historic downtown area of Freiburg, and began searching for people I could talk to. I planned on completing Task 4, conversing with minority groups about their minority status in Germany.
My first thoughts on the matter were the Turkish Germans – “Döner” and “Kebap” stands are around every corner, typically run by Turkish families and employees. Even though I was trying to complete the task, I found myself passing several possible food stands, even going into one then hurriedly leaving – I felt like an intruder. Although I know that the Turkish population in Germany is a significant minority, and that this fact is universally acknowledged, I felt like it would be rude of me to say “hello, thank you for the food, what can you tell me about the experience of being Turkish in Germany?” Instead of a food cart, I decided to head to a sort of flea-market area where several Turkish vendors sold clothing and accessories. Again, though, I felt awkward about discussing the topic, and couldn’t bring it up. For me, I realized I would only feel comfortable discussing matters of race or ethnicity with someone I was close with. Then, I thought perhaps I could start up a conversation with an economic minority, one of the homeless/unemployed people I regularly saw on the street in the main shopping district.

Again, though, I felt unable to step across the boundary: here I was, a foreigner privileged enough to travel across the world as part of my university education, seeking to speak with a person who had fallen on extremely hard times, or maybe even had only ever known hard times. I felt truly terrible that I couldn’t begin a conversation, but I just felt at a total loss about how to go about it.

Although I didn’t technically complete the task, I feel like the experience of attempting to do so taught me an incredible amount about my own cultural biases, as well as allowing me some insight into the cultural status of minorities in Germany. I think part of my inability to initiate conversation with members of minority groups is because of my own personal lack of bravery: a nervousness to try and speak to strangers, because I expect that they will only be irritated by my attempting to strike up a conversation. Also, though, I think my American “political correctness,” jokingly referenced fairly regularly by my instructor at the Institut, made me so reluctant to offend, that I felt it safer not to speak at all. I felt that by discussing the minority status of someone I just met, I would have been automatically “othering” them, as if I were saying “I don’t know you but I know you are different,” and that this would be offensive. In my head I know that this is absurd: it’s OBVIOUS that a difference exists, and it’s something interesting and new and beautiful, not shameful or awkward. The differences between me and, say, a Turkish street vendor, are small in comparison to our similarities as human beings.

Furthermore, starting a conversation with someone who works in service (like a food cart) or someone who lives on the street could, more often than not, be a positive experience, because it makes visible those people in society who too often go unseen. Every day I walked down the main shopping street, I saw the same five or six homeless people, often with dogs, but in all my time in Freiburg I only ever saw one or two engaged in conversation with a passerby. Here, there’s definitely similarities and differences with the treatment of homeless individuals in my hometown.

Just before I came to Germany, my local city council had a meeting about re-zoning part of the business park to allow for a homeless shelter to be built at some point in the future. The assembly room was packed, and opinions varied from strongly supportive to firmly against. Discussion treated the homeless alternately as individuals in need of assistance, and as a group of others who threaten the safety and well-being of “us,” of community members and small businesses. However, I always see people stopping to give a ten dollar bill or a sandwich to someone standing near the off-ramp of the freeway, or donating clothing to the Salvation Army, small acts of charity. In Germany, I don’t know what the exact legislation is, but it seemed to me like the overall attitude toward the homeless, at least in Freiburg, is more tolerant than in my home community. At the same time, I think the same problem of invisibility is present in both situations. The same goes for other minority groups, such as the Turkish in Germany, or the Mexicans in my hometown – the communities seem to be insular, definitively accepted but still somewhat distanced from the “community” at large.

This has turned into kind of a lengthy ramble, but I think a big consequence of the time I’ve spent in Germany is that I find myself thinking more and more about broad human issues, as well as politics as a potential solution to them. To the extent that cultural differences shape politics, I have little experience of anything outside the United States, but every day I’m feeling more and more strongly that in order to effect any sort of change, I need to consider issues from a much more sweeping perspective than I have in the past.


Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

I’m confident that my speaking ability has improved, especially since my attitude towards speaking German has fundamentally changed. Before I traveled to Germany, I was hesitant to speak German in front of, well, everyone: I was constantly worrying about my pronunciation, my grammar, my vocabulary, my intonation… Now, though, I can’t wait until I get back into the classroom, so that I have other people to practice speaking with (most of my friends/family do not speak German). I think my accent has also improved, and I’m more excited than ever to keep learning. More than anything, traveling to Germany has made “German” real to me: instead of another subject in school, or another set of cheesy audio recordings, I now see the German language as a gateway to an entirely new world of people and culture and history, in a way that’s just so much more vivid than before.
My time in Germany also introduced me to a bit of national culture that I (previously) had no ideas about – now that I think about it, the only Germans I’d met before were German professors, which gave me a very limited perception of what Germany is actually like. For the most part, it seemed to me that Germany has less of a culture of “political correctness,” but much more of a conscious about environmental issues: all the different sorts of recycling, huge amounts of bike and pedestrian traffic, with limited car travel. Within the month, I think everything was still so “new and exciting” that I can’t really tell what I would find difficult to adjust to, if I were to be in Germany for a longer period of time – that is, except for one thing. The fact that almost everything is closed on Sundays just puzzles me. Maybe it’s a remnant of tradition from a time when the country was more religious, and I’ve heard that it’s similar in other European cultures, but I just can’t understand why business owners would willingly forgo an entire day, when more customers would be free of work and able to make purchases. (I’ll also admit, that as a consumer rather than a business owner, I find it to be a little bit of an inconvenience not to be able to shop on Sundays, even though I know it’s a silly thing.)

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

I’ve been home for a little over a week now, and honestly it still feels kind of surreal. I feel like I’ve been waiting for my time in Germany to “wear off,” but I’m starting to realize that that won’t ever happen, really. For me, this past July was more than just an incredible opportunity to practice German and explore a new culture: I definitely grew as an individual, in more ways than I can even say. I’m not sure exactly where it came from – maybe the novelty of the experience, my incredible classmates at the Goethe Institut, or the general hospitality of Germany – but I found that by the time I came home, my entire outlook on things had shifted. I’m much more optimistic about my future, and the future in general, and I’m eager to tackle challenges and changes rather than shy away.

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

I’ve only just finalized the path I want my Notre Dame education to take, so I still have a lot of planning to do for the years beyond that. Right now, though, I’m hoping to continue to build my language skills to the point of fluency, so that I can pursue a post-graduate degree in Europe, maybe Germany or Switzerland. I’ve also thought about trying to teach English in Germany or another German-speaking country, or maybe even working for a German firm – basically, I’m determined to spend a couple of years in Germany before I settle down and start a family.