The Tone in Dresden, Part I

The traffic had pretty much ground to a halt and through our lightly frosted car windows, the view of the empty and snow dusted wheat fields was flat and unremarkable. We had been driving now for several hours and the traffic jam, still several kilometers out side of our destination, was a bit disheartening. The cause of for my chagrin wasn’t based in the company I had in the car. Far from it. It was rooted more to the realization that I was having a blast and that these days spent in adventure after adventure were finite. Eventually, I’d have to go home. I was in Germany with my friend, Mountain Man, his friend and co-worker Carla and we were heading to her hometown, Dresden.

We were heading there very, very slowly.

I love visiting Germany, and doing so with Mountain Man and his preposterously perfect German makes it that much better. His own reason for being here started several years previous when he was signing up for classes at university. Apparently, he had struck up a conversation with (was hitting on) a cute girl as the two of them waited in line to register for classes. When she got her chance to pick her classes, she turned out to be a German Major. Not wanting to miss his chance, Mountain Man decided on the spot that English could take a poetic leap and changed his classes to match hers. That’s his style. Oddly enough, it seems to work for him, too. This man fears nothing and is aggravatingly good at surviving his spur of the moment, whacked-out decisions. Fast forward some years and now you have Mountain Man living and teaching in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship and inviting his friends to drop by for a visit. The girl who stated him on this road is long gone, but that hardly matters now. What it meant is that I had a friend in Deutschland!

The trip to Dresden was not one that I had expected to make but this opportunity was far too amazing to miss. Carla was a teacher at the school where Mountain Man was placed. The Wall had only been down for a few years and there was still a lot of DDR infrastructure that needed to be set light to. Trabants, the East German version of what a car would look like if it were built by a toy company, were still fairly plentiful, as were a lot of the old institutional buildings, like schools. Not this one though! This school was brand-new and everyone in the village, especially the kids, was very proud of it.

Mountain Man had been placed there to help expand the English program. Carla had been teaching Art as well as English and Russian for years at the old DDR school. With the move to the brand new building and with out much cause for students to take Russian anymore, she was working hard at polishing her English. Specifically, she wanted to learn American English. Much of what was being taught at the time was British English, but that is not what the former East Germans wanted to learn. They wanted to sound like they were from Hollywood. Mountain Man, being from New Hampshire, did his best as a stand in.

When I arrived, as a newly minted art teacher in my own right, I was informed by my friend that he had secured permission for me to teach at his school as well. I’d be in the upper level, conversational language classes teaching the students and faculty alike to say things like, “trunk” rather than “boot” and, “flashlight” rather than “torch”. It sounded like fun! That night, Mountain Man made me some dinner with his patented, “Salty As All Get Out, Baking Soda Flavored Biscuits” and I tried my best to gather my jet lagged brain for the next day.

The next day I was introduced to the director and some of the other teachers and given a cup of coffee that could have fueled a small city for a day. Hardly anyone spoke English and I spoke hardly any German at this point. A project I have been working hard on ever since. Once the handshakes were done and we found our way to the classroom, I was quickly greeted by about twenty-five intensely interested teenagers. It felt a bit like being an exhibit in a zoo.

As you can imagine, not speaking the language of the land and supposedly being there to teach, can make a guy a bit… freaked out. I put on my best, “I’m a teacher” look and let Mountain Man explain to the students that what they had right there in the class room was a bone fide, clueless American and to go to it. The questions began…

“Where are you from?”
“What do you do for work?”
“Are you married?”
“Do you like American TV?”

These were the softball questions and simple to work with. After a few minutes, they started to dry up and they needed to actually come up with some more difficult and hopefully embarrassing questions. They did not disappoint. The first question that made me pause and feel like an idiot was, “What German bands do you like?” Teenagers often define themselves by what groups they are into and they were all obviously interested in what I had to say.

“German groups? Ahhh… Hmmm.” I swear, all I could think of was Falco of, “Rock me, Amadeus” fame or Daft Punk. The problem being that, A: Falco was Austrian and, B: I didn’t like Daft Punk. The only other name that came to mind was Marlene Dietrich, and I don’t think that would have made my position any better. I punted and talked instead about how German music doesn’t get over to the States much and how I’d love to hear what they like. Phew. Break down averted.

The next question was one that really caught me off guard. “Are their any Indians left in America?” The idea of the native tribes of my homeland being wiped out entirely was a thought that, though dreamed about and drooled over by some of my ancestors, had never occurred to me. “Yes! There are quite a lot of Indians still living in America.” Then the follow up: “Have you ever seen one?”

I was still a bit off balance from the previous question, so had I been more cool headed, I might have relished the theater of the moment a bit. As it was, I simply blurted out, “You’re looking at one right now.” That stopped them cold! The room was full of parted lips and eyeballs, all pointed at me. I had to clarify things quickly. There was more to it than that.

“Well, I’m not just Indian. I’m also English, French, Irish, Scottish, and Sicilian as well as two different Indian tribes.” The eyeballs got bigger and the quiet of the room was practically tactile. In the back of a row of seats, a lone hand went up followed by a single voice. “My mother is Danish.”

Stay tuned for the next thrilling installment of “Clueless Man Goes on Holiday!”

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Walk to School or Carry your Lunch?

It’s dark out side this morning and the rain is falling in uneven bunches across the front yard. Fog still clings doggedly to the tree tops and refuses to give up the fight and simply fade away. The sun will finish it off when it makes it’s appearance later on. Action Girl is already off to work, doing noisy things with sea going vessels and carrying people and cargo to the surrounding islands. As I sit alone on the couch, typing and drinking my quickly cooling coffee, all is quiet in the house. A novelty brought on only by the merciful sleeping of our two kids. Naturally, this won’t last. It never does for long.

Today though, is a special day, though Short Stack might not remember that it is. Lulu Belle most assuredly doesn’t. Today marks the beginning of our son’s ordered life. Today… he starts pre-school. Well, not pre-school exactly. He is, after all, only two and a half but he will be going some place very, very special later this morning and barring catastrophe and calamity, he will be attending three times a week, all day, for the rest of the school year. I, for one, am pensive.

Prior to this, we have always had babysitters watching the kids. Action Girl’s and my work schedules are off set enough that we ever really needed a lot of child care. One of us could be home with the kids much of the time and though it means that I don’t get to see a whole heck of a lot of my wife, it has sure saved us a bundle of money. The times that we couldn’t be home were filled with college girls looking to make a few extra bucks or local moms with broods of their own who somehow manage to keep their sanity when you double their work load by leaving your own kids with them. Weekends have fallen heavily on Grandma and Grandpa, giving me time to attempt work on the pile of construction materials that I’ve been cunningly arranging into the vague shape of a house.

Today is different, however. On our island there is a place build for the kids of the community. A place that is not quite a day care and not quite a pre-school. It’s a fun little hybrid and you need to be at least two and a half to be admitted. Guess who just turned two and a half? Short Stack has been there many times before and likes it. Action Girl is a volunteer on the board and both Short Stack and Lulu Belle have accompanied her there for meetings and functions. Happily, he won’t feel like he’s someplace scary. To make the transition that much easier (we hope), I shall be accompanying him today and stay the whole morning. It might be a bit of a zoo, but Dad will be there for reassurance.

Boy, do I hope this works.

The one thing that Short Stack hasn’t had a lot of experience with is big groups mad up of his peers. He’s become completely comfortable wandering through a forrest of adult legs or spending time happily pushing toy trains around and lost in his own imagination. He has a few friends his age who he enjoys playing NEAR but not usually WITH. This will be an eye opening day for him. He will be part of a class. One in the group. Another fuzzy head amongst all the other short folk.

The reason I’m a little worried is because I know my self pretty well. I’m a loner and always have been. That’s not to say that I’m stand-offish. I’m not! I’ve just never been a schmoozer and tend to drift off and away from the party. Action Girl is the same way and actually, it’s how we met in the first place. Both of us drifting on the periphery of a big group, noisily having fun. I guess wall flowers can spot each other a mile away. Unfortunately, Short Stack had inherited that gene. I say that it’s unfortunate because it can make life a little more difficult at times. I can vividly remember my first day at pre-school. It was only one of two that I ever spent there. I wasn’t bad or difficult. I didn’t cause trouble or upset the other kids. I was quiet and essentially, made the teachers sad. While the other kids played their games and did their activities, I had quietly sat in the back and simply observed. When the others all funneled outside to play on the swing sets and slides, I had asked if I could just stay in and color. I don’t know how the conversation between the pre-school and my parents went, but the upshot was that two days into it, my folks found a different place for me to go where I would be watched by a new mom and her kids. Essentially, people who didn’t mind the quiet kid, coloring in the corner.

Actually, I really enjoyed where I went after my two days in self imposed confinement. The little boy whose home I went to became a good friend and I had a blast. The difference was that it was just a little boy and his sister who I had to deal with. No rowdy group or established cliques. I liked the smaller groups much better, and so does Short Stack.

The difference, I’m hoping, will be that he knows a lot of these kids already. Where we live has a pretty tight knit community and the young families tend to seek each other out. The faces with be ones that he has seen before, many of whom he’s played with one-on-one with not very long ago. Here’s hoping that will help things along.

In the mean time, I need to pack up a miniature lunchbox and get an extra set of clothes ready for him. The activities they have planned for the day can get messy and fun and the food requirements are pretty darned strict. No juice boxes, no candy, no pre-packaged food of any kind. I’ll go cut up some fruit and other good to eat stuff and hopefully have it all done before he’s up. I can hear him coughing, so I doubt I’ll succeed, but that’s okay. It’s a big day, after all and I’m happy to have him give me his version of “help” to get us both prepared for this next step in our lives.

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