Wednesday, May 13, 2009

"Dancing Lessons From God", Part 19

Head Start

While I was getting to know life in the barracks pretty well, I still hadn’t even started my job because I was still inprocessing. So while I would hang out with the guys in the evening or on weekends, my days were spent in Head Start with the people I had arrived to Germany with. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed Head Start. I had come to Europe because I wanted to experience different cultures. I actually wanted to do more than experience them; I wanted to engross myself in them, learn some of the local languages and customs, find out what made them different than what I grew up with. Most people back home were content to take a two week vacation and consider that traveling. Not me. I wasn’t satisfied with a couple weeks in a foreign place, I wanted more. What can you really learn in two weeks? Sure, you can go and look at a lot of famous monuments and statues and museums and such but you’re just seeing things that millions of other people in the world have already seen. Then you’ll go home and show people pictures of your vacation and all the cool stuff you saw but deep inside you’ll still be the same person. That’s why, despite being able to take a few trips to places like Montreal or Las Vegas, I was so unhappy back home. I just knew that I would never be satisfied by a yearly vacation somewhere because when I traveled I found myself more interested in meeting and talking with the local people than going to see the usual tourist attractions. I was in Germany now and I couldn’t wait to start traveling around and exploring my new country but first I wanted to learn some basic things that would make it easier to get around. Before we got to Head Start, there was a ton of other inprocessing activities that had to be completed. These included things like going to the Central Issuing Facility (CIF) to get issued all your army gear. All your uniforms and military clothing get issued when you first come in and you take them with you as you move around but all your army gear belongs to the army. It gets issued to you when you arrive and when you leave you have to clean it and turn it all in. If anything is missing or in unserviceable condition, you have to pay for it. I got in line with my shopping cart and waited for my turn. When it came I stepped up to the counter and watched them fill my cart with things like a flak vest, a Kevlar helmet, a couple of canteens, cold weather boots, laundry bags, a sleeping bag, a pistol belt, a load bearing vest to carry your ammunition, a chemical suit, all kinds of Rambo type stuff. We also had to go to all the different offices on base and get a briefing for each one. We had to go to the education center so they could brief us on what education benefits we were entitled to while on active duty. We got briefed on what our medical benefits were and where all the medical and dental clinics were. Then there was the drivers testing. For those of us who were new to Europe, we had to sit though a very long class and learn about the rules of driving in Germany and Europe. The driving laws in Europe are very different than in the US and if we wanted to be able to drive there, we would have to pass the written German drivers test. I found out that there a lot of things different about driving in Germany such as, they have the “good Samaritan” law which mandates that if you are the first person on the scene of an accident you are required by law to render first aid to anyone who needs it until the paramedics arrive. You are also required to carry a first aid kit and warning triangles in your vehicle at all times. If you don’t have these items in your vehicle during inspection, your vehicle will fail. For the written test, you have to learn all the German road signs as well. This is difficult for a lot of people because they are obviously all in German. I didn’t have much of a problem with the test and passed it on the first try although several people in my class failed on their first try. I didn’t own a vehicle and had no intention of buying one while I was in Germany since all my money would be used for traveling but I did want to have my license in case I ever needed to drive anywhere. Besides, most of the units required you to get your license, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to drive your military vehicle. What you receive when you pass the test is called your USAREUR (US Army Europe) license, which although technically not a German driving license, acts as a permit to drive legally in Germany. Most other European countries recognize it as a valid driving license as well. With all the briefings and other nonsense finished, it was time for Head Start. Our Head Start instructor was a local German woman named Frau Winkler. In German, the letter W is pronounced as a V so her name was pronounced “Vinkler”. She was in her late 50’s and had been teaching Head Start for years so her English was pretty good. We each had to write our name on a little card and tape it to our desk so she could call us by our first names and if any of us had a name that had a German translation we had to use that. So if someone’s name was Fred, he would have to write “Freidrich” on his card. Although I usually go by Rik, my full name is Richard so for the duration of Head Start I became known as “Ricard”. We spent day after day learning things like how to count in German, how to ask directions in German, how to order food in German, how to say the days of the week in German, how to greet people in German, how to make phone calls to and from Germany. We learned all about the Deutschmark (DM), which was the currency used in Germany at the time. We learned a little bit about our city, Kitzingen, during which I found out the interesting history behind the strange tower with the crooked top I’d seen downtown. Frau Winkler told us that, although the truth is probably that faulty engineering is responsible for the crooked top part, the locals have, over the years, invented a few more colorful explanations. My favorite was this; Kitzingen has always been a big wine town and during the time when they were building the tower, there was a severe drought. Because of the drought, there was no water to use to mix the cement so they were forced to use the wine instead to finish the top part, which explains why it leaned – because it was drunk. It was this kind of local flavor that I loved. We learned about the kinds of food that were typical in Germany like schnitzel and bratwurst. We also learned how to use the German train system, the Deutsche Bahn. This part especially interested me as I planned on using the train A LOT. I’d never taken a train before but I’d ridden the subway often in a few different cities so I figured it wouldn’t be too different. Of course, it is much different but I was determined to learn.

An interesting thing I learned in Head Start is that German is the language that is most closely related to English. I found this hard to believe, especially when you walk around and see words like “Spielwarengeschaft” and “Einzelzimmer” but apparently English has many of its roots in the German language. Several words bear this out such as “grun” (green), “nummer” (number), and “gut” (good). Although obvious to seemingly everyone but me, I never had considered that the word “kindergarten” is a combination of two German words; “kinder”, meaning child, and “garten”, meaning garden. So the word kindergarten actually refers to a garden where children grow and learn. This was the kind of stuff that fascinated me, why I wanted to come live in a foreign country. I probably could have learned a lot of it by taking a German language course back home but learning it while actually living in Germany was so much more enjoyable. Plus, the best thing about learning the language and customs of a foreign country is being able to put them to use. For example, one of the things I learned in Head Start was that, in Germany (and most of Europe) when you go to the market to buy fruit, you are not supposed to actually handle the fruit before you buy it. This is contrary to how it’s done in the US, where you pick up the fruit and inspect it until you find a piece that meets your quality standards. In Germany, you must point to the fruit you want and then the owner of the fruit stand will pick up the fruit and bag it for you. This has always baffled me as I have often bought fruit that I would not have picked out had I been allowed to inspect it myself. As you can imagine, this has caused problems for a lot of Americans who are used to picking out their own fruit. Many of them will ignore the custom and start handling the fruit which always leads to the owner yelling at them. There are a lot of customs like this that we, as Americans, don’t agree with or can’t make sense out of. And though I don’t always like them I do always try to respect them because it’s not my country. After all, if a foreigner went to the US, I would expect them to obey the laws and customs there whether or not he disagreed with them. And speaking of strange customs or laws, here is another one that I learned which always made me chuckle; let’s say you’re driving a tank through the German countryside and you lose control and go off the road into a farmer’s field and wipe out a portion of his crops. Not only will you have to pay for the crops that you ruined but you may also have to pay him for any future crops that would have grown on the land you ruined. Or, if you’re driving and you run over the farmer’s chicken by accident, not only will you have to pay for that chicken, but you will also have to pay for all the chickens that that chicken would have had. And perhaps even all the chickens that those chickens would have had. I’ve never actually seen the law so I can’t verify it but several Germans have told me that this is true. One story that certainly isn’t true but that has been told for years is that Dracula is buried in Kitzingen. There is a graveyard in downtown Kitzingen that has a very unique grave in it, although it looks like more of a shrine than a tomb. There are carvings of skulls on it as well as paintings of demons and hellfire and all kinds of other evil looking decorations. According to Frau Winkler, the grave site has been there for many years and nobody is really sure who is buried there. After World War II, when the Americans arrived, it became sort of a joke to the locals to tell them that the grave was actually that of Count Dracula himself. The skulls, demons and all around evil look of it, combined with the gullibility of some American soldiers gave the rumor a life of its own apparently and many people have actually passed the story along as being real. Regardless, it is one creepy looking grave.

(Stay tuned for Part 20...)

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