It’s been about ten days since I started my office job, and it’s been tough. The constant rushing around trying to memorize fifty different faces on my first day, avoiding strange looks in the canteen for unconventional food choices (in their German eyes, anyway – I find the idea of drenching my salad in walnut sauce and chunks of ham vaguely vomit-inducing), and above all the struggle with my German computer have been really quite stressful.
My colleagues are all very sweet – they are aware that I understand everything they say (almost) but have some kind of block when it comes to actually opening my mouth, and the blurting-out-nonsense syndrome has affected me already on a number of different occasions. Most memorable, so far, has been my introducing myself as ” the new workable” instead of the new intern, the announcing to a roomful of people that I study foreign dogs, and my telling my entire, lovely office, in a moment of nicht-enduced idiocy, that I have “so far not enjoyed it very much” (inserting a negation somewhere it should never have been) and trying to then turn it into a joke which was clearly found funny by no one, bar Ines, my new found friend at the gym. Ines is one of the women who does the evening courses with me, somewhat obsessed with telling me how many vitamins and benefits you can gather from eating beans, but nonetheless a lovely, understanding fellow member who kindly pretends she can understand me and encourages me to go play tennis with her and other sporty pals at the weekends (she clearly has not yet realised that Carolina hates any sport involving a ball, bar, perhaps, football)
The love-hate (mainly hate) relationship with my year abroad continues to flourish. Stuttgart is most definitely not a Carolina-ish place to live : first of all, it’s too big (I can see those aware of my love for London raise their eyebrows), secondly, there are TWO (two…) extremely small bookshops in the entire town – no more lingering in Blackwells-fashion reading rooms for hours an end as far as I can tell – and above all, the magic I found in Munich and Dresden, aware of its literary connections and past history (and in the case of Munich, its headquarter for artistic movements) fizzled out the minute I took my first experimental walk around town. Not living in Stuttgart until October admittedly probably makes it harder for me to also be fully aware of what kind of town it is, as does my Instagram feed, full of photos of my friends returning to Oxford and snapping beautiful panoramas of its different areas. Googling Stuttgart to be greeted with links such as “UGLIEST CITY IN WESTERN EUROPE???” is vaguely disheartening nonetheless.
Esslingen, where I currently live,is very pretty, but also rather small – there’s only so much exploring one can do, and my initial misery was also heightened by the fact I also live so close to the train station that sleep is a luxury and my floor shakes (these days however, the 4:15 Regio has become a comforting dull hum which has me do not much more than shift in my sleep, thankfully).
Dull yet delightful
The One with the German sex ed
When I told Ines about how hard I was finding it to like Stuttgart and above all how hard it was for me, as quite an extrovert, to constantly be either reading alone or wandering streets aimlessly, she came up with the idea of volunteering in the local English library and/or tutoring children at a place her friend managed. “We always need volunteers”, she told me, and explained that this would help me both make friends, mainly German students my age, and discover a different part of town. However, I should give it a go in Esslingen before trying out Stuttgart, she suggested, so that I could see whether it was my kind of thing. I’ve worked with kids before, and have been able to tackle noise, rebellion, and the throwing of shoes (managing to remain almost dead pan when one hit me in the face, on a tantrum-filled afternoon a few years ago. Fifteen year old me had admirable stamina). I’m not scared of a challenge, and I thought it would be ideal to challenge myself in doing something completely new – after all, I didn’t want to do British Council because I was too worried I’d end up lynched by teenagers who were probably all taller than me, not because I couldn’t handle children. I didn’t really think a trial was necessary, but I had yet another empty weekend ahead bar a few bureacracy bores to sort, so I went with it.
A couple of days after I’d agreed to this deal, I therefore headed to Esslingen library. I’ve always loved the classic childrens’ books, and had looked up a couple to see whether they were available to use in the library – I’d tracked down The Very Hungry Caterpillar and my childhood favourite, Mog the forgetful cat
An Oxford reading list essential
Imagine my surprise when, having sauntered in armed with a Mary Poppins smile (and also a really ugly Mary Poppins skirt given I hadn’t done my laundry) I was told the books had already been chosen for me, after I had been told via email I could choose anything that took my fancy to read out. Anne, the woman at the reception, gave me a very dirty look when I explained I had been told differently, and given that she looked like she ate the children attending her library, I went for the easier option- just do what you’re told and stop trying to pretend you can argue in German. You sound like Basil Fawlty in the Germans episode. Shut up.
In this scenario I am Manuel
I’d already acted out the different voices for the various eating stages of the Very Hungry Caterpillar during my lunch break (writing this out is making me start to realise that I’m probably seen not not just as the foreign dog studying, non-ham touching English hermit, but also as a nutty oddball) and was a bit let down that my skills were going to go wasted in having to read some book about a day in the park or how to count sausages.Grinning forcefully, I said it was fine, and asked whether I should wait for her to read out first and then start. Another dirty look. Anne lifts her glass window bit up and snarls “Ich habe nicht die leiseste Ahnung. Es ist Ihre Aufgabe” (I have no idea. It is your job). Now is not the time to come up with a witty answer as to why this is forced labour so to avoid shrivelling up with boredom, not a spontaneous decision, so I nod and tiptoe away from her, following the signs to the main reading room.
I’ve been told my audience is one including kids between the age of four and seven, and can hear a suspicious silence inside the room supposedly holding twenty children. As I enter the room, where the door is already ajar, I can hear a “shhhhh” – excellent, they’re scared of me.
I walk in with my big smile, pratically singing “Halloooo” and twirling at the desk to observe my kiddies. Ahhh. This is a far cry from the evil looking Italian kids I had to deal with, who were an ensemble of Cheshire cat lookalikes and asked me when I walked in why my forehead was so small (a sensitive topic). This is a couple of rows of angelic blond, dungaree clad children who are eagerly looking at me as if I am about to perform a whole series of magic tricks.
As I introduced myself, my smile still glued on, explaining I am an English lady who is reading to them today, I sweep the fifteen or so children with my eyes, trying to pin down how old they are in my mind. They all look about six or seven, there’s no one as young as they had said – I’m starting to worry about whether my attitude towards them is a bit too childish.
Anyway, I’m good at reading out, this can’t be too hard. I smile at them at the end of my introduction – smile a bit longer – there’s a bit of an awkward silence as, eyes glued on them, I reach out for the book next to me.. and find a whole pile of them. “Today is going to be really good!” I hear one of them say as I shift my eyes towards the pile next to me and smile to myself – how sweet that they’ve been encouraged to see language learning as a positive thing, and how fantastic for reading to be encouraged at this age – until I catch sight of the books next to me.
It’s a pile of sex education books. Every book looks dodgier than its predecessor as I look through about ten of them. I am am starting to understand both the excitement lingering in the air and Anne’s disbelief at being included in what will surely be an hour of pain, embarassment, and awkward questions. These are just a few of the books I am faced with.
Great name choice. I would’ve gone for Sam..
“Loving, snuggling, smooching”
NOT the stork
Information overload in that subtitle
I glance up at the kids who are all looking at me expectantly and consider a variety of options. I’m illiterate… .. I am a Russian tourist who has accidently come in here thinking it was a SPA… I must go home because I forgot to wear matching socks… But I am fully aware that I have no choice but to sit in this room and get on with the birds and the bees. I’m not sure what I should be doing with these books. The animal themed ones are vague. Some give far too much information, others delve into kissing being for couples but not much else.
I catch sight of a few photocopied pictures and wonder whether I should use these. I pick them up. This is what greets me
This is very .. erm.. anatomical. But I reason for a second – what is the point in picking something that isn’t? It’s 2015, these kids probably know all this stuff already. I just need to be cool and straight forward. It’ll be fine. Just go for it.
“Ok, everyone” I simper ” today we are going to learn about something very special! How to have babies!”
There is a collective “Jaaaa” in the room. They all look really excited. I can make this fun, I don’t need to use specific terminology, it can be expressed nicely. I’m in the middle of reading the bit about how love is a very special friendship when a little girl with plaits pipes up “How do ants have babies?”. I have no idea why ants would be the most pressing question at this moment in time, but I also don’t know the answer to that question. I pretend I haven’t heard her and carry on reading. “Excuse me! English lady! How do ants have babies?” I scratch my head and keep on reading, supposedly unaware. “My cat had eight babies once” a little boy says ” but two were dead”. Oh God, why is this happening. Plaits girl says that’s a lie, and they start arguing. Right. “If no one listens to me, you won’t get the sweeties at the end!” I offer nervously, which seems to get their attention and quieten them down. Result. I carry on reading, as silence resettles in the room, and internally congratulate myself on my quickly thought of method of bribery.
It all seems to proceed quite nicely, until it gets down to the dirty. The sentence in the book is very much no nonsense – ” A man’s penis then goes into the lady’s vagina”. I decide to just read this out praying that no questions will follow. Of course, this doesn’t happen. Three hands are waving in the air “What’s a vagina??” a ginger girl asks, perplexed, and as I feel myself going a different shade very rapidly and trying to quickly think up a simple explanation, another little boy says “It’s where YOU wee from”. Ginger girl nods in understanding, and smiles at me. That was simple. I continue reading about eggs and sperm – periods are not in the book, I think- and from the corner of my eye I can see another hand waving. Praying it’s not a question about sperm, I smile “yes?” and the same girl with the plaits from earlier – ant girl – stonily stares at me, chin jutted out. “It’s not true!” she says. “Ahhh…what isn’t true?” I say, ready to hear about the stork or the baby fairy or the birds and bees, but her answer surprises me.
“The bit you just read. MY parents had a Rorchen.”
I’m wondering whether she is referring to a special birth that was maybe a water one or a Caeserean when she picks up an Adolfhelzner water bottle and points to it, saying “but it was MUCH smaller than this”. It starts to dawn on me she is talking about test tubes. I start to explain that some mummies and daddies prefer to make babies in a very special way which doesn’t involve “doing a special dance” (which is what one of the kids shouts out after I read the penetration passage) when someone else says they don’t understand the special dance. “Can you draw a picture?” – I really don’t want to have to do this, but I also don’t want to blanket the children with ignorance. I turn the book around and show it to the kids. This is the special dance, I announce, and the kids all widen their eyes and stare. “Why are there two daddies?” one questions – confused, I look at the page I am offering them and realize it’s already turned onto the next one.
They are currently staring at this.
That’s the baby being born! I say, the special dance is mummy and daddy having a cuddle, and this is mummy and daddy saying hello to the new baby, see? “But it’s not coming out of the tummy” one of the kids says, confused, and I try not to laugh, as I remember how many kids assume babies pop out of belly buttons. ” But some children have two daddies or mummies! ” the same boy says, and I nod, smiling. That’s right, everyone has different families. “I have two mummies” ant girl says, with a huge smile on her face, and the kids barely react. I’m in the middle of thinking how great it is that they have such insight onto the fact that there isn’t just one type of family structure as I read the last page, an easy bit about the baby coming home and the parents putting baby in the bath for the first time. I hope they’ll get the same straightforward information about gender identification when they’re a bit older, I think as I finish reading, as this country seems to be fairly on it with teaching them nothing but the facts quite early on, which is fab.
None of this was needed
This was actually relatively painless. I close the book and smile at them and say it’s finished. They really don’t look as though I’ve given them new information, most of them, anyway, I think, and as I prepare to get the godsend that is Haribo from my bag, I get yet another question from ant girl. “You are a lady” she states, to which I nod. “Will you marry a man?”
Now is not the time to talk about the fact that the last time I was interested in someone was when they were bringing my pizza out to me the other day, so I dodge the question by saying I am still only young and there is time. “Will you marry a lady?!” ant girl continues, and I say that lots of people decide to marry different people, and I think I will marry a man.
Things escalate very quickly. “Are you a homophobe?” ant girl pressurises me, staring at me. I am getting the impression she has learned to associate that word with anyone who says their family isn’t organised the same way as hers and I am trying to think about how I can explain that different interests do not mean that you dislike someone, when Anne walks in with a thin, tall woman with horn-rimmed glasses and a blonde bob. They both look in horror at me and Anne spits out “Why are you here?” as I helplessly hold out the books and start to say “I was reading-” “This was Tania’s job” she says, in a dangerously low voice. I can see her eyes taking in the photocopies and the bewildered children, and a horrible feeling is starting to wash over me. Your hour was UPSTAIRS, she hisses, and grabs my books off me as Tania continues to stare at me, as I notice for the first time that she is wearing a Health Minister badge-like thing.
I was meant to read Winnie the Pooh to a group of ten upstairs, it turns out. I want to be swallowed up by the Earth as I slide out of the room, an indignant “but the SWEETIES!!!” echoing behind me. Anne ushers me out and slams the door behind us. “Please don’t come back” she whispers, and I leave.
On Monday, after Zumba, Ines asks me how the trial went. Oh, it was, great, I answer. It was really good.
No trouble? she smiles, you know what kids can be like! No, I say forcing a smile, they were no trouble whatsoever.
MISTAKE OF THE WEEK
Asked whether I could make it to a Saturday grill, I meant to answer “I may be busy!” and out came “I may be naked!”.