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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Camp Happenings

It's a bit difficult to get online, as I think I've mentioned, with the kids around, because I'm basically on from the time they get up until they get to bed. But, finally, I'm getting around to uploading some of the photos I took and recounting some of the happenings at summer camp.

Hundertwasser statue in Zell am See
On my day off, I went to Zell am See, which is very beautiful and very touristy. I've been getting pangs of nostalgia here, which is curious as I've never been to this part of Austria before. I think my brain is compartmentalizing my new experiences into spots it previously reserved for summers of my childhood, which is where I'm getting this "deja vu."

My childhood summers often consisted of going to Door County (nature + tourist trap shops) and visiting my grandparents (who owned a farm just outside a resort town in Minnesota). The main difference I suppose is the geography (more mountains), the type of tourist frequenting the tourist trap (Arabs as opposed to Chicagoans) and the culture of the locals (Austrian as opposed to Norwegian-Minnesotan). You can see where my brain would draw similarities, I hope?

Guys in Trachten playing
traditional Alpine instruments 

Overall, I've really enjoyed my time at camp. It was hectic at first, draining, but now I feel like I've finally got into the swing of things and now I have to leave?! 

I expected certain things, which did not happen. Certain things just happened, which I was glad about, upset about, and just went with eventually. Some of the things working at a summer camp has taught me: be punctual; be flexible; start your day with a smile. And if you can't, fake it.

The things the kids loved to do sort of surprised me, not necessarily being the things I'd love to do at summer camp. The experience sort of made me revert to middle my surprise at first. I kind of hated middle school as a big nerd with no friends. But the majority of the kids at camp were between 13-14 and that's where they'd be at. Middle school, I mean. Not nerds with no friends. Well, some of them to be fair. But most of the kids (seeing as they applied to a sports camp) are jocks, or at least sporty types. Some are easy-going, some are pampered brats; some have traveled around the world, some had never left their home country before 2 weeks ago. Almost all of the kids loved the pool (check) but hated going to the lake (what?!?). They liked biking, kayaking and tubing (they should!) but hated hiking. I came to the conclusion that they either tolerated nature, or liked it, but in moderation. Any strenuous exercise that was not 1) a game or 2) confined to a man-made structure was a no-go. Whatever. They'll learn.

snow in July
kids at the mountain hut

 The one thing the kids LOVE across the board, though, is Secret Friends, which is basically like leaving an anonymous note to someone you like, someone who did something nice for you, etc., to make them feel good/know your feelings/whatever. They are read during the all camp meeting by the counselors and then the note is given to the camper to keep. Sometimes there's dress-up involved. Sometimes there are meaner notes which need to be disposed of (positive attitudes = secret friends). I've gotten a few...and I keep them. My favorite was: "Vanessa, you're awesome! You care about us so much!!" Because I do.

waiting for Secret Friends

Friday, July 22, 2011

Summer Camp Update: Halfway into the Second Session

Last weekend, I said goodbye to the first round of campers at the Munich airport on Saturday and said hello to the new round on Sunday. The dynamic is completely different already. These kids seem more chilled out and relaxed, although I've already got a bit of homesickness cropping up.

I was assigned to the youngest kids (10-12). They are designated by color groups: yellow, red, or blue. I've had some experience with this age group, but not as much as with teenagers and high schoolers. I like the age group well enough, and I've had some less than stellar experiences with the 13-14 year old age range. Teenagers can be tough critics and quite...irresolute? Unsympathetic? Egocentric? Well, I won't sling mud. But seriously, it's a stage we all go through.

Sigmund Thun Klamm (gorge)
The camp is situated right in the mountains - really a paradise! Here are some photos: 

view from my room at camp

Here are some pictures from the Counselor Hunt in Zell am See. The game is basically a mega game of hide-and-seek where the campers look for the counselors dressed in ridiculous costumes and collect signatures to prove they found them. Below? Some of my colleagues!
getting ready for the Counselor Hunt in Zell

the kids look for the counselors in costumes

The kids have been doing some remarkable things: climbing the Krimml Wasserfall (the largest waterfall in Austria). tramping through the Hohe Tauern National Park, swimming in beautiful glacial lakes, climbing Alpine mountains, hiking to mountain huts, playing sports and doing camp-type activities like egg drops, costume contests, arts and crafts (I led a papier-mâché session last week) and all sorts of other wonderful things. It's been quite rainy since the second set came, which is unfortunate because it limits the amount of time the kids can spend in the great outdoors. I feel a bit cooped up myself, seeing as I have to teach German every morning Monday through Friday. But, c'est la vie.

kids in gondola

view from our gondola to the mountain hut

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Post 100: Is it a Milestone?

Checking my Blogger dashboard the other day, I realized that I had 99 posts published on Wo meine Rösen blüh’n...which means in turn that this is my 100th blog post! Pretty exciting stuff.

Not that I rely on chintzy gimmicks like 100th blog posts to gather readers...or legitimacy as a blogger. I just thought it would be fun to mention.

I've thought a lot recently about what this blog does mean to me - what sorts of relevant issues can I bring up? How does blogging affect my "real" life? I've realized that, despite what I thought nearly a year ago when I began this blog, I actually enjoy blogging, and I actively search for things to blog about. My entire perspective has changed. I feel a lot more interested in the world around me, perhaps because I have a productive (or, "productive") outlet for my random and scattered thoughts. It's really nice, actually.

I probably mentioned at some point that I never liked diary writing as a kid. I always thought it sounded forced, or boring, or both. I admired great writers, biographers, etc., who could pen the entire lives (in excruciating detail) of famous persons. Or people like Anne Frank, who wrote her most private desires, hopes, musings, and expected them to be published. I always though my musings paled in comparison, so I quit writing them down. For the sake of posterity, and the sake of a glimpse of myself as a 12-year-old, this was not the best idea, but it happens to the best of us. Maybe I could have come up with precocious brainstorms, beguiled the page...but then again, what I remember of my diary entries was who liked whom in the 7th grade, and what the cafeteria served for lunch. Not the makings of the next Great American Novel. Oh well.

I'm getting a bit worried that no one reads my blog except my mom (who, by the way, did say it was brilliant). I don't get a lot of feedback aside from that, though I would like it made clear that I don't need a lot of feedback or encouragement to continue. I did, however get a disparaging remark from a fellow teaching assistant, who was interested in starting his own blog. I told him Blogger was what I used, to which he retorted, "I wasn't really asking you. I want to start a good blog."

He should speak to the guys at Google.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Famous Austrians V: Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr
Considered by some to be the most beautiful woman to ever work in Hollywood, Hedy Lamarr led an interesting life. Born Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler in Vienna in 1913, she studied ballet, piano and acting, becoming an actress in Germany as a teenager. In 1933, she starred in the Czech film Ecstasy which was a cinematographic rarity (especially for the 1930s) because it had nude scenes of her in the woods on a horse. The film itself is masterful - not just for the nude scenes (just kidding!) but the story, the long shots portraying longing, ennui...another example of Expressionist art!

Later that same year, the Jewish Hedy married a  purportedly Nazi arms dealer who tried to control her in every way, going so far as to buy all the copies of Ecstasy he could find and destroy them. At some point, she escaped and filed for divorce, from where she made it to Hollywood. In 1938, she starred in Algiers (another one of my faves!) opposite Charles Boyer. Other of her films include Boom Town, Samson and Delilah and My Favorite Spy, to name a few. She had multiple husbands (like many a Hollywood starlet) but most of them were not famous, so they're not really worth mentioning.

Not just a pretty face, Hedy Lamarr was also an inventor. Along with composer George Antheil, she was the co-inventor of frequency hopping, or what is known today as spread-spectrum communication technology, which is basically the technology used in your cell phones, broadban internet, and other wireless communication devices, which is allowing me to write this blog post right now! The original Lamarr(Kiesler)-Antheil technology was developed in 1941-1942 and intended to make radio-guided torpedoes less detectable by enemy forces.

I will skip the unflattering gossip about Hedy Lamarr, such as her shoplifting escapades and the multiple times she sued people like Mel Brooks for infringement of her personality rights (you can learn about it on Wikipedia or other) because I think she was great...and who needs to dwell on the negatives?

Also, for your entertainment pleasures, follow this link to watch Algiers (Pepe le Moko is the inspiration for Pepe le Pew, by the way)! And I am pretty sure the film is in the public domain, so no copyright infringement necessary...

Monday, July 11, 2011

Summer Camp: Week One Down...

It has been a crazy first week of camp! I hardly know where to begin. Being sleep deprived and out of sorts, I think I will start from the beginning.

view from my room at camp

The week before last, we had orientation week for the counselors. I met a lot of very cool world travelers (my colleagues) and this week am meeting a group of very international kids (my campers)! Some of these 12-year-olds have been to more places than I have! Many of the kids are bilingual or trilingual and have parents who are diplomats, in international business, or some other such amazing professions. It's a complete 180 from the summer camp I taught at last year, which catered to scholarship kids and focused on creative writing, French language and math & science*...

This year I will be teaching German (which was quite a surprise to me - I came to the orientation convinced I would be teaching English). It's been fine so far - none of the campers are native German speakers. There are a lot of Russian kids, Lebanese and Saudi/UAE kids, Franco-Swiss kids, French kids, some Americans, some British, and several from other European countries. I'm amazed at the level of English most of the kids have - they all go to international schools, though, so perhaps that's normal.

I was also appointed airport manager for the Munich airport. The kids get to camp one of three ways: they fly in to Munich or Salzburg, or their parents drive them to camp. Those are the two closest airports, Salzburg being 1 1/2 hours away, Munich being 3 hours. My job as airport manager is to pick up the kids, sign their Unaccompanied Minor forms and escort them back to camp. Having never before been to the Munich airport before last Sunday, and having to pick up roughly 40 kids, it was more than a bit stressful. But, there was no lost luggage and no missing kids! Go me.

The kids also get to do some amazing things, like hike through a gorge, a waterfall, go to a mountain hut 2,000 m in elevation and do all sorts of sports, like tennis, football, mountain biking, rugby, basketball, sailing, swimming, etc. I got to do some of these things during orientation week, but unfortunately I'm confined to the classroom most mornings.

Despite all this activity, the kids have an incredible level of energy, and, unfortunately, I feel pooped already! One week down, three to go!

*Upward Bound, for those who are familiar.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Dreams from My Father

2004 UK-published book cover
Typically, I try to avoid memoirs written by politicians. To me, most of what's out there seems doctored, another bid at election or reelection, a way to color the past in an attempt to keep reputations intact, or prove no wrongdoing while in office. As Winston Churchill once said, "History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." That's all the proof I need.

I balked originally at reading Barack Obama's memoir Dreams From My Father for these reasons. A copy sat on a shelf in my apartment all year, and I decided, only after getting favorable reviews from one of the teachers at school, that - as an American - I might as well read about my president and his past. In any case, I knew it would be better than Arnold Hautnah ("Arnold: Close-up"), a biography of the former "Governator" Schwarzenegger... It appears the former inhabitant of my flat had a penchant for biographies, which I do not possess.

I was surprised, in a way, and pleasantly so, with the story. President Obama's experiences as a boy, his situation growing up, were not only unique from any other US president to date, they were also unique for the time in which he was young (1960s in Hawaii) and for most Americans. Here's and example. For one of my classes this year, I dug up the statistic that  only 37% of Americans (114,464,041 people out of 307,006,550 from the latest census data) have passports, and only 25% of Americans have valid passports. In addition, only 9% of Americans speak a second (non-native) language fluently. Half of Europeans, according to a recent EU survey, speak two languages. I found these statistics (and more) at The Expeditioner, an online travel magazine.

Despite many dissenters who've recently popped up in the media (Mr. Donald Trump being just one of many examples), I find it refreshing that the current American president spent part of his youth in Indonesia, and had one immigrant parent. This shows that he has perspective that reaches beyond the United States, and an understanding of global affairs. I may be biased as an American living abroad, who got her degree in languages, but it seems to me that a global perspective in today's world is a very, very good thing. It doesn't mean being less patriotic, or less American, to have an understanding (if ever so slight), appreciation and respect for other cultures. Half of the problems in the United States come from a lack of respect for those different from ourselves - a lack of experience with foreign cultures, a disinterest in even trying to get to know anyone who is not just like you.

And here is where I found Dreams From My Father particularly moving. Not only do we get stories of the president's childhood, but as he grows, so do his reflections about race, culture, identity, belonging, the American Dream, his father. What it means to be a black man in America. His reflections become less about him and more philosophical, even spiritual. He talks about his quest to belong, from elementary school days in Honolulu where he looks for acceptance from his father in their one and only encounter, to confused party-monster evenings at Occidental where he admits dabbling in drugs (a phase he quickly grew out of), to community organizing in Chicago's South Side, to going back to his roots in Kenya. 

W.E.B. DuBois in 1946

In a class I took on diversity in the classroom, as part of teacher training, we read W.E.B. DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk which, although dated, was a particularly enlightening read on race relations in the 1900s. In particular, the interviews of former slaves struck me as particularly pertinent. This is part of American history which is less discussed. Of course, everyone knows what Slavery was, but in your average American history classroom, far more attention is paid to the intricacies of the Battles of Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg, to Lincoln's speeches and Grant's horse, than to the end of slavery in the 1860s. In fact, your average American history classroom mentions slaves all of twice: the first slaves who come from Africa in the 1700s and the Emancipation Proclamation. In short, much of this part of history is never explained. Americans ignore the shameful bits of history, hoping they will just go away if no one talks about them.

This is quite the opposite in Austria. Nowadays (though this used not to be the case) the Holocaust, Nazism and World War II are openly discussed in classrooms, as a way to enlighten students, to explain the perils and stupidity of prejudice, which is still rife in many parts of Europe, unfortunately - mostly toward newer immigrants from Africa, Turkey and Southern Europe (the former Yugoslavia particularly). How can a nation as a whole relate such atrocities to its people? Ignorance and blatant honesty are two options, but there must be more, with integrating acceptance into the cultural pathos the end result.

As I followed the story of Barack Obama's return to his roots in Kenya, meeting his family, discovering ever more pieces to the puzzle that was his father, I came to realize that many Americans who travel abroad are looking for this same thing: a place to belong, culturally. A place to call home. A return to the homeland, to the ancestors. Not everyone needs this, of course. I suppose I'm getting this from a number of other American teaching assistants who learned German in the first place because their ancestors immigrated however long ago from Central Europe, be it Austro-Hungary, Germany, Bohemia, Switzerland.

I guess that was part of my idea, too. But after living in Austria for nine months, I don't feel any real need to find my family roots, to explore genealogical pasts, retrieve distant cousins from Bavaria or East Prussia, as I probably could if I looked hard enough. It does make me a bit sad when some of  my students ask, "What is the American national costume?" The Austrian one, of course, is the Tracht consisting of Lederhosen or a Dirndl, Alpine hats and sturdy shoes, varying by region in slight ways. I find the question funny - of course, I could always answer "Jeans and a T-shirt" which seems to be the American national dress code. But I always reply that we don't have one. Some people wear the national costume of their ancestors, but since over 90% of Americans stem from immigrant backgrounds (at one point or another, be it one or seven generations removed), and the USA has such a huge population compared to Austria, it would be impossible to categorize us all as one thing or another.

Going back to DuBois: mixed-raced himself of almost equal parts European and African descent, even he found solace in Europe where none could be found in America, saying at one point that he was treated with more respect as a scholar in Nazi Germany than from white American colleagues. Such remarks today are inflammatory, one of the reasons DuBois has fallen out of favor, even to an extend with the NAACP, which he helped found. However, I think this shows the fervent human need to belong. To be accepted, respected, and acknowledged. President Obama, in his travelling to Kenya to confront his father's ghost, recognized his need to unite the bifurcated parts of his being: his white American half, and his black African half.

The true power of the memoir is the acknowledgement that with an understanding of one's self, of identity and one's place in the world, fulfillment and happiness are more easily attained. I'm not going to go into politics or anything, or conjecture that Barack Obama feels fulfilled. That's really not my place - I've never even met the guy. But his ability to take something so personal and apply it broadly is the real power of the memoir.

As the oracle at Delphi said, "Know thyself." Sometimes more easily said than done.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Summer Camp Austria: the Beginning

Starting on the 26th of July, I have been hired to teach German at an international sleep away summer camp in Zell am See. After a week of orientation with all of the staff members, the campers arrived yesterday. It's been pretty hectic getting all of the kids situated and dealing with parents, regulations, etc. I'm a bit afraid the kids are going to be spoiled brats from what I've heard about the socioeconomic standing of some of them...

The kids come from all over, but mostly Russia, the Middle East, Switzerland and other parts of Europe. I was on airport duty picking up the kids from Munich, which was incredibly stressful. I never realized how hard it can be to try to wrangle 60+ kids around an airport!!

All of my co-workers seem pretty cool, though. I met two on the train ride from Salzburg to Zell am See and the rest when I got to the camp. They've traveled all over the place, and many of them are from New Zeeland, though there are also a number of Americans, a couple of Canadians, an Australian, and various Europeans. Our orientation was a bit less hands-on than I had imagined, but I guess it did the trick.

I will stop here, being absolutely pooped. Hopefully more news will pop up soon...and pictures, too!

Friday, July 1, 2011


On June 21, I was invited to attend the graduation ceremony at the HLW.

This was, in many ways, quite different from an American high school graduation ceremony. I got to hear the Austrian national anthem for the very first time, Land der Berge. The melody was composed by Mozart. There was a full Catholic mass (with communion and everything, officiated by a priest) and a buffet with champagne, hors d'oeuvres and everything. No gowns. No caps. Lots of alcohol consumed, by teachers, parents and students! The students invited me to the dance club in town and, for the first time since before Christmas, I drank with my students...something that would most likely have gotten me fired if I worked in the USA.

However, Austria (and Europe in general) is different from North America and American norms. There is perhaps not more drinking (Wisconsin is - or used to be - the beer brewing capital of the country) but more open consumption of alcohol. I remember at my high school graduation, my grandmother came from Minnesota. The night I graduated, I went rollerskating with all of my closest friends from high school. Aside from a handful of seven-year-olds grabbing my butt, it was a blast.

Best of luck to the class of 2011~ 
Viel Erfolg und alles Gute für die Zukunft!!!