Living in small-town Germany: Part 2
TAKING UP AN INTENSIVE GERMAN COURSE
It has been three weeks since I started my first German lesson at the VHS.
During the day, Chris is at the office while I’m left to my own devices. I am trying to set up a freelance writing career so I usually write, blog, read or loiter around the Internet for ideas.
My phone buzzes, demanding my attention.
I am in still in my comfortable pajamas, editing some photos and writing a pitch at the same time. I swipe the screen to check: it was Chris on WhatsApp. To help me out, he has called the IIK Language School to get more information for me. It was shut for Christmas holidays and the office had only resumed yesterday.
He reports that the only way for me to have my questions answered is, do the placement test. And then find out what IIK can do for me. And today, is the only day of the week that I could do a placement test at the IIK. Anything later would be too late. I have too many questions. Is it possible to do it only for 6 months instead of a year? How far will I get and how much will I learn? What kind of visa will I receive if I join this intensive course? It costs 250 Euros a month, a hefty sum to pay if I were to do a full-time course for a year.
“You mean like today?” I text back, flustered. I’m not prepared–at all.
The test is scheduled at 2.00 pm. To get there, I will need 20 minutes on the train, 15 minutes of walking and additional 15 minutes if I get lost. I look at the time: 10.15 am. According to the Deutsche Bahn app, if I want to make it there on time, I either have to take the 12.18 pm train or the 1.18 pm.
Chris warns that the train might be late. It’s a risk if I were to take the latter. But if I take the former, I will have to find a way to occupy myself for an hour in the cold. Jena isn’t Singapore–you can’t just window-shop endlessly like you can in Singapore.
I roll my eyes. He’s German; tardiness for Germans may only mean an extra 2 minutes. I prefer to live life on the edge.
I have to 2 hours to wrap my work up and prepare for the unexpected journey.
Sigh. There goes another day of writing. Who says freelancers are…well, free?
THE UNEXPECTED ADVENTURE INTO JENA BEGINS
I am excited because I’ve never travelled on my own to Jena before. Chris took me to my first four lessons at the Volkshochschule. There was nothing over Christmas holidays. Now that the new year has started and Chris is back at work, I am completely on my own.
Thankfully, we live a mere 2-minutes walk away from the Bahnhof. I hurry down to the ticketing machine 15 minutes before the timed arrival of the train. I’ve watched Chris dealing with this ticketing machine before and I knew I have a insurmountable task at hand.
When you think about Germans, efficiency comes to mind. But somehow, it doesn’t extend to the train ticketing system. The big clunky machine in front of me has a screen with the most convoluted instructions. It doesn’t allow you to just choose options from the beginning like a one-way ticket, your destination, etc. Instead, it offers you 8 different options at the start– The kind of tickets: leisure tickets, VMT tickets, discount tickets, etc.
What happen to just a good old regular, one-way ticket?
After spending some time hemming and hawing, I found myself inputting a few details that took me to: Where would I like to go? I key in my destination and then it spit out further options on the screen:
Would you like to go to Jena West via X and Y? Or via Y and Z? And perhaps via ABC if you fancy a joy ride? I swear this system is a maze of codes, designed by a German geek to confuse the hell out of you.
The train meanders through the local woodlands, offering passing scenic landscapes before calling at the other towns. I arrive promptly (perhaps one or two minutes later) and then fished out my smartphone for directions.
It seems like IIK, the language school, isn’t too far from VHS, where I’m currently attending. Now, if only I paid more attention while walking with Chris.
I walk quickly. A brisk walk can warm me up. The weather that was initially sunny, has now dimmed. Tiny, soft flakes are falling lazily and sparsely. The air is growing chilly. I adjust my snow hat and tighten the grip of my gloves. Along the cobblestones and next to a line of shops, I keep walking till I reach a familiar sign. A gleaming McDonalds sign loom ahead of me. I know I am on the right track, but after this signpost, do I turn right or left?
Erm…maybe that way. I check my GPS. I take a few steps to the left but it turns out that I was deviating from my route.
Thank you technology.
TAKING THE GERMAN PLACEMENT TEST AT IIK, JENA
I push the door and it moves heavily to a side. I walk up to the first floor and along the corridor, in search of the office. I pass rows and rows of mid-sized classrooms with wooden tables and chairs.
I find the office. It’s a tight squeeze with so many people. People are enquiring, explaining, discussing. I catch languages like Arabic, German and Vietnamese spoken. I poke my head in and ask for the Language Placement Test.
A lady in a shimmery floral veil pointed me down the stairs. I spot a class with a sign that says ‘Language Placement Test’ on its door and inside, I meekly take a seat. There are already five others waiting. I can’t tell where they are from except for an Asian girl and an African-looking man.
Someone shuffles in and takes a seat, near me, with a chair in between us. She is pale and slight, with mousy brown hair, limp and plastered to her scalp. The wind and sleet must have done that to her hair. She looks around, catches my eye and smiles. I beam. More people stream in. Dragging of chairs, clattering of pens, but generally rather hushed, once people get settled in.
A cheery older lady with glasses, comes in and plonks down some documents on the table. She addresses the class in German. She explains the instructions, what needs to be done and then starts going around to pass the papers.
We have 30 minutes to finish the test, she says. And don’t worry if you don’t know anything, or if you don’t write anything. Just treat it like a lotto; where you guess the answer and darken the right answers. Have fun!
In front of me, are three pages of paper. On them are about 50 questions in a variety of forms. Some answers are meant to be circled; some are meant to be arranged in a right order; some are meant to be filled in those blank spaces; some are to be written.
After reading the first question, a short comprehension text, my head starts to pound. All the German that I’ve learned, from the few lessons I’ve attended to the YouTube videos that I’ve watched, I will them out from the dungeons of my mind and onto the paper. I understand approximately 3 words in every sentence. The others, I have to make contextual conclusions. I pick up my pen and then I put it down again. I rub my temples. By the time I got to the second page, I am exhausted.
Somehow, I soldier on and reach till the end of the 50th question. By then, I’ve honed my Lotto skills. The last page was a game of guessing and claiming private victories against myself.
Game over, the lady says. Times up. I hand in my papers along with those in the first and second rows. The lady takes our hastily scribbled papers and then goes back to her table to mark them quickly. Within 5 minutes, she hands our exams back to us and instructs us to go back to the office for an oral test.
WHILE WAITING FOR THE ORAL TEST
There is a line for the oral test, outside the office. After shuffling for a few seconds, a vacant seat appears next to a Middle-Eastern looking guy and I take it. The guy looks away from the office and to me, prattling in German.
I venture: Urm, Englische sprache bitte?
He shakes his head but then slowly says, “My English. Bad. No good.”
I shrug. “Kein Problem.” He then looks at my test papers and points to my level that was marked in red ink. It seems like despite my sheer fatigue and my obvious ignorance of the language, I’ve managed to get more than a few questions right, which rightfully puts me on an A2 Level.
I take a peek at his. Despite his seemingly well-spoken German, his tests say otherwise: A1.
After some hand gestures and broken German, I find out that he’s Syrian. He’s going to start his studies soon and he’s been here for a week now. Every other information is beyond us–it’s too difficult to communicate when you don’t share the same words.
By then, as the Syrian guy and I waited in comfortable silence, the girl who had sat next to me in the Placement Test turned up at the line.
She starts speaking in halting English. Her life unfolds in short sentences. She’s Ukrainian and she has been in Germany for two years now. Her German is still so lala (average) despite having worked with a private German tutor online. She’s married to a Doctor and has a two-year old daughter whom she loves to bits.
This rare and raw moment, of connecting with strangers, just because we’re all placed awkwardly into similar present circumstances, still never ceases to amaze me. We each have different histories, way of lives, cultural notions, and native languages, but they are all washed away because at this very moment, we are all prospective German-course students, piling each other with stories, and in very broken German-English.
Here, living in a country where I don’t speak the language and am still struggling to understand many of its cultural nuances, I discover that there are still many things that I take for granted. Here, I’m pushed to relearn everything.
Today, I’m all signed up for a year’s worth of Intensive German at IIK Jena. Hopefully by mastering the language, I’ll manage to trundle on with less culture faux pas and looking a lot less like an idiot.
Have you embarked on an unexpected journeys? Did you meet anyone interesting? Share with me your stories at the comments section below.