This article was written by a U-32 alumni, Ella Bradley, who has been working on this article for a while now; it’s about her exchange year in Germany.
On Friday, the sixth of May in Beesenstedt, Germany, I woke up at 6:00. I rubbed my eyes, got out of bed and slowly made my way to the kitchen. I prepared myself a cup of coffee and Brötchen, the traditional German bread roll eaten for breakfast.
On the other side of the kitchen there is a sign that reads:
Sei Vorsichtig! Feind hört mit.
or Be cautious! The enemy is listening.
The sign dates back to 1938, and it warns of the danger of American spies living in the area. Today it serves as a talking piece, and a reminder for me of the massive change that took place in order for me, as an American, to live here. Until 30 years ago, Germany was separated into two states: the Federal Republic of Germany controlled by the United States, Britain, and France in the West and the German Democratic Republic (or GDR) controlled by the Soviet Union in the East. I live in the former GDR. The rhetoric and stigma against Americans alongside the strict travel restrictions made an American traveling into the GDR a rare if not impossible occurrence.
My name is Ella Bradley. I am a senior at U-32, live and attend school in Germany as an exchange student. I have been in Germany for eight months now.
That morning, after a quick breakfast, I bid my host parents goodbye and ran to the bus stop. The buses, which are regular public buses that anyone can ride, were packed to the brim with students.
After 20 minutes we arrived at a ferry landing and lined up to get on the ferry. I saw swans crossing the water as the ferry chugged across the river. I walked up about a half mile of stairs to my destination, Burggymnasium Wettin.
My school is a castle. It was built in the middle ages in part of the Ostsiedlung, or eastern settlement, where ethnic Germans migrated beyond the Roman Empire. The castle was ruled by a dynasty of several royal families until the 1800s, when it was used as a brewery and distillery until 1930, when it was used as a school for the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. It was then transformed into a school with a focus in economics and then into a school specialized in shepherding before being turned into a Gymnasium in 1991.
I joined my classmates at the door. Our first class was German, starting promptly at 8:00. I listened along to the lecture style class over the German novel Im Krebsgang and wrote out a character analysis until 9:30.
My friends and I enjoyed our half hour long break outside while discussing our weekend plans, which mostly involve various soccer games, cooking and baking, and day trips to the local cities of Halle or Leipzig. We then walked to English class, where we had a discussion about Queen Victoria and her expansion of the British Empire. The English language we speak and write at schools follows the British rules, and colloquialisms are frowned upon. Our teacher, a firm but enthusiastic woman, wrote down mistakes on the chalkboard. I felt a pang of embarrassment when my teacher corrected my sentence “Where I’m from I guess we don’t speak very proper English” to “Where I’m from I guess we don’t speak English very properly.”
After the discussion everyone pulled out two sheets of paper and wrote 200 words on Queen Victoria, no more no less. There are no computers and no WiFi in the school. All notes and tests are handwritten.
After English I walked with my friends to the local bakery and got some pastries. My classmates lined the streets around the school, chattering and smoking, sometimes alongside the teachers. Smoking, which is seen as fashionable here, is sometimes condemned by parents and teachers and sometimes simply accepted as a freedom one can enjoy from the age of 16 on. This difference in perception of drugs is also reflected in the use of alcohol, with most kids here having their first drink before 14.
The next class was ethics,with discussion about Germany’s greatest philosophers, and then for the fourth and final class I had my third language of the day, Spanish.
My classmates and I trekked back to the river, crossed it and waited for our buses. I arrived home at 4:30. After chugging coffee and finishing the day’s homework I sat down for dinner with my host parents.
The dinner table discussion pretty much always ends with the same topic: the German Democratic Republic (former East Germany) and its strong points in comparison to Germany today.
“Fruher war alles besser.” or “everything was better back then” is thrown around in this community so often it has become somewhat of a joke. The remarkably cheap cost of living, tight knit community, and lack of unemployment of the former GDR and how strongly these attributes are still valued here today makes me reflect on what I value as an American, and why. It’s a nice reminder that the sign on the wall is now just a decoration and not an actual warning of the dangers of exchange between Americans and Germans.