Friday, October 7, 2011

A Guide to Surviving the Austrian School System

The school where I work has the best reputation in all of Klagenfurt and families from all over Kaernten send their children to Europagymnasium. What is so special? 1. It is known as a language school. By the time students graduate they are expected to have intimate knowledge of German, French, and English. They are also given a healthy dose of Latin. In their final three years students have the choice to add yet another language…choosing between Italian, Russian, Spanish, or Slovenian. 2. There are special tracks of classes, known as the EU classes, where all of the subjects with the exception of Math and German are taught in English. Students are given a test before entering the school and those that score a certain percentage are assigned to these special tracks. 3. As one of my colleagues, cheerfully informed me, most of the well-to-do students end up at this school…any aristocracy, future princes, extremely wealthy…odds are they go to Europagymnasium.

Now, how does one go about surviving in such an institution?
Rule 1: Always address your teacher as “Frau Professor, “ or “Herr Professor,” accordingly
Rule 2: Stand when the teacher enters the room and remain standing until the teacher allows you to return to your seats.
Rule 3a: Always do your homework
Rule 3b: Keep all materials for class in your backpack and never forget to bring your materials to class.
Rule 4: Hausschuhepflicht! Always wear your slippers inside the school
Rule 5: Erase the chalkboard before the next class
Rule 6: Eat and drink in between classes, while waiting for the next teacher to arrive.
Rule 7:Take advantage of any longer break to go outside, run to the store around the corner to buy some cigarettes and then stand around on street corners.
Rule 8: Forget rules number 3-5. They were more like guidelines anyway.

Rule 1: Find your assigned spot in the teacher’s lounge, which is filled with long tables. Each person is assigned a certain chair at the table, that is your “teacher’s desk.” Never take someone else’s spot.
Rule 2: Always assign students homework, the more, the better.
Rule 3: Switch classes, but don’t hurry from class to class. Stop to chat to someone on the way.
Rule 4: If you are sick, then the class will A. be combined with another class of the same subject, B. another teacher will step in to teach the lesson, C. another subject will be taught in place of your subject, or D. the class is given a study hall
Rule 5: Don’t check on noisy classes. If no teacher appears it is the students’ responsibility to knock on the door of the teacher’s lounge and let the other teachers know.
Rule 6: Go out on the secret balcony during breaks to enjoy a smoke.

The Austrian Way!

Our trek to the orientation began with an early morning of running around, finishing last minute preparations, and Riannon running Niels to the train.
Soon, we were chugging between gorgeous mountains, some boasting snow dusting their stony mountain tops, and along rushing blue-green rivers. Over three hours later, after switching trains, we arrived at Zell am See. Exit the station in one direction and you hit the See (lake) with mountain pyramids majestically adorning the background. Exit the other direction and you hit the town itself. The two of us were lured to the See and the mountains, which we admired at length before walking back through the station to the bus stop.
Me "am See"

Waiting around for the bus to arrive, we eyed anyone else who looked remotely young and might also be heading to the same orientation. A young man broke the silence and asked us in German if we were heading to the orientation and if we knew which stop would be ours. His question brought another young lady into our conversation and soon we were 4 heading to an unknown location in the mountains.
The bus arrived late and as we were boarding and searching for bus fare, men began coming up to us with signs written in German, begging for money. When anyone would refuse, they would thrust the sign in their faces and point to the bus money in their hands. The rest of our rag-tag group of penniless students tried to hide our bus money or board the bus as quickly as possible.

At last, we were on our way, the bus stopping swiftly at each pre-determined location, picking up and dropping off school children.

An hour later, we were standing at the foot of a mountain, watching the bus become smaller in the distance as cars rushed back and forth on the road. Crossing, our group of about 10 people headed towards any sign of civilization and came across an elderly couple taking a walk. They pointed us in the right direction and we arrived at the Bundesschullandheim, where a man in Lederhosen and a woman in a dirndl greeted us and then immediately went in search of the program director.

After forking over 70 Euros for the program costs, we were handed a room key and released until dinner. When exactly that would begin was unclear, but we headed upstairs to drop our things and discovered Riannon and I were in two different rooms. I would be sharing a room with Nicole, whom we had met at the bus stop, and 2 addition guests who had yet to arrive by the looks of the empty beds. Nicole and I collected Riannon, Kathy, a young lost-looking Brit, and Jimmy, who was the young man from the bus stop and headed off to walk and wander amidst the closing-down ski town nestled between the mountains. Turns out, Nicole is from Arizona, but studied abroad in Heidelberg, while Jimmy hails from Pennsylvania, studied abroad in Marburg, and can speak Norwegian and Icelandic. He seemed to have friends all over Europe. Kathy attended Newcastle University for linguistics, hasn’t had German in ages, graduated and wanted to try living in another country, so here she is in Austria.

At dinner, we were finally officially welcomed and then split apart into our region groups, where we met our Julie Andrews-type instructor, Sally, for the next week. Already a grandmother when we met her, Sally had come to Austria, like many of the Brits in the program in her 3rd year of University studies from England. She, however, came to improve her German by working as a maid at a hotel, rather than as an English teacher. At the hotel, she met her husband, who was leading a tour through Austria. She never went home and ended up studying English at the University of Graz, so that she would legally be able to become an English teacher in Austria.
The week progressed, filled with Sally’s drama exercises, Roland (another teacher at this orientation) roaming around in Lederhosen, fake Lederhosen, and Lederhosen swim trunks, and all of us, American and British alike, adjusting to the “Austrian Way.”

Beate, another instructor, was in charge of explaining the Austrian school system and the Austrian Way in which they truly function.

Some of my favorites:
1. “Alcohol is not permitted on school premises and you are not allowed to drink at school.” We all exchanged looks, of course this was an obvious rule. Beate, however, continued with, “well, the refrigerator may be stuffed with alcohol if someone is celebrating something, which seems to be frequently. Mostly, they will drink wine or champagne during the breaks to congratulate that someone. That’s normal.” After another slight pause, she amended her original rule to “you just can’t get drunk at school, very drunk”.
2. “There is no smoking allowed in school.” We all nodded sagely, accepting the rule. Beate followed with, “However if you are nice to the right teachers they may show you the secret smoking room.”
3. “You are not allowed to have relations with students.” Confused, we all nodded again. Beate just smiled and added, “Not very many. To be in a club with students outside of school is ok, but do not date your students or become romantically involved.” She eyed us, “It has happened in the past.”
4. “You are not allowed to substitute teach for a different teacher.” She then said, “It could be allowed if it only happens sometimes, or if you are in the mood, or if you know something about the topic.”
Beate explained that Austrians love rules, but also make an Olympic sport out of evading, bending, or just going around the rules. The word, “No,” almost always comes with a wink and an under the table deal. Beate reasoned that because Austria borders Germany, the people love rules, but because Austria also borders Italy, and Italy is…

Well, you get the idea.

Wednesday, was pre-scheduled work-on-your-practice-lesson-to-present-to-the-class-time, but instead, in true Austrian fashion, we climbed a mountain. Following Sally, a long line of future English teachers charged up the mountain. After winding up the steep path for a bit, I had to slow down the charging and fall to a steady walking. My other roommate for the Orientation, Kathryn, fell into step beside me and the two of us brought up the beginning of the rear. Half way up, there was no one else in sight, except for our little group. We had managed to loose everyone else. Luckily, a visiting instructor appeared with Kara, another future Kärnten teacher, and we discovered a tiny path leading further up the mountain to a restaurant, which was now populated by about 100 Americans and Brits. We arrived at last, a bit out of breath, but delighted by the view and the amazing flowers dripping down from the building.

Me on the mountain

Even the Austrian cows can hike better than I can...jeez!

Riannon and Me in front of the half-way up, flower-covered hut

Only minutes later, Sally approached and announced that whomever wanted to continue onwards with her to the very pinnacle of the mountain, could. She charged straight up the mountain side, ignoring trails and the danger of slipping. The rest of us pulled ourselves up using tufts of grass and continually attempted to keep up with her speed and energy.

Passing through fields of Preiselbeeren (berries similar to cranberries, but much smaller),

we at last reached the very top of Reiterkogel, standing at 1,818 meters high. The native Austrians laughed at our delight at our massive accomplishment, joking that a "real" mountain was 2,000 meters or more.
(Sally and all the of Kärnten Group that made it up. A few of the boys made it up later.)

Returning to the restaurant, where the majority of the group remained, we discovered a group downing Buttermilk and local cheese. Herbert, the director of the program, offered cheese to those of us singing and quickly passed out lyric sheets. We sang Edelweiss in German and battled between British patriotic songs and American ones. The Brits won with the charismatic performance of "Rule Britannia," complete with wave splashing action by their lead singer.

We began our descent, not wanting to be late for dinner. The larger group quickly divided, as various sections ventured down various paths. Our small group ended up at last at the bottom of the mountain, half an hour late to dinner. Luckily, there was still plenty of Kaiser Schmarrn and Gulaschsuppe left, and we tiredly tucked in.

After many a lesson presentation Thursday, followed by learning a Schuhplattler dance in the evening during the Bunter Abend (talent show night), Friday morning arrived bright and early. We packed up, bid farewell to our new-found friends that were disbursing throughout Austria, and headed for the bus. It left punctually at 10 minutes past the time it was set to leave with people standing in the aisles, as the bus careened through the valley back towards Zell am See. The Austrian Way!

At the train station, we swarmed out of the buses, all hurrying towards the ticket machines. I had the bright idea for 5 of us in the Kärnten-group to buy an Einfach-Raus-Ticket, which is essentially a group ticket for 28 euros, good for anywhere in Austria on regional trains.

Our group hopped on the next train and only then discovered that we were on an ICE train and not a regional train—different markings and symbols from Germany. Oh, Austria, why must you be so confusing? We decided that if a conductor came to check our tickets, we would pretend we didn’t speak German, and try to talk our way out of any fines. It was already too late to get off the train. Sure enough, a conductor came, so I feigned sleep and my group then had to “wake” me up. I sleepily produced the ticket. The conductor inspected it, as we all held our breaths. She began to shake her head and Elisabeth began to reason with her in English.

Confused, the conductor sought out someone with whom she could speak German and happened upon a girl, who also had been at our orientation. The girl announced in German with a heavy American accent, “We all speak German. Even if we are American or English, we can all speak German.” The conductor came back to our little group and we continued answering in English, pretending our German was not yet very well developed. She began entering data in her portable, electronic ticket machine, saying we would have to pay an additional fee. Then, she marched away. Our stop was announced and we began gathering our things. In the midst of out attempted exit, the conductor appeared, demanding 67 additional euros, issuing us a new ticket and informing us to keep the old one.

Out on the platform, we inspected our new ticket, which only took us to Villach—fine for Elisabeth, who was going to live there, but the rest of us had further to go. We would all have to disembark in Villach and then continue onwards with the regional trains to our respective destinations. I asked Elisabeth for the original ticket back, so we could pair it with our new one, but she couldn’t find it. We all began frantically searching through her backpack. At last, we spied a crumpled ball of paper on the platform. Just as we reached for it, the wind began blowing it towards the track and the oncoming train. Three of us dove for it at once, crying out in frustration, and Grant, who was also traveling with us, caught it. I collected both tickets and tucked them away for safe-keeping.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. We all arrive safely in Villach, bid farewell to Elisabeth and the remaining 4 of us continued onwards to Klagenfurt on an hour long train journey, which would have only been 10 extra minutes had we illegally remained on the fast train.

Back in Klagenfurt, Lora and I bid farewell to Catherine and Chris, both of whom had to continue onwards for another 1 ½ hours to Wolfsberg, and began our respective walks home.

A Walk Around Klagenfurt

Last year, dancing goats....this year the LINDWURM! The Lindwurm is a giant dragon, who use to live under the lake (Wörthersee), but was defeated by a local, thus allowing the town of Klagenfurt to be founded, rather than remain a shaky settlement forming at the trade crossroads between Italy and Germany.

Turn, and at the end of the square you will see Maria Theresa. Created in 1764, this was the first statue of impressive empress in all of Austria.

Turn again, put the Lindwurm to your back and you will find yourself walking down the oldest street in Klagenfurt, connecting Neuer Platz (new square) and Alter Platz (old square)...once, this street connected the old town and new town of Klagenfurt. Today, fancy shops line this cobblestone pedestrian street.

Just before reaching Alter Platz, stop to admire the Wörthersee Mandel. See, lots of evil people use to live where Wörthersee now sits. God became so angry at the actions of these people, that he called on his Mandel to open his giant beer barrel and let the waters flow, drowning all of the villagers. Today, those waters still remain in the form of Wörthersee and the lake is still a bit warm because of all the evil people trapped deep down beneath the waters.

Alter Platz, complete with Dreifaltigkeitssäule (column of Holy Trinity), which in the 1600s used to stand around the corner in Heiligengeistplatz (now the main bus terminal). It commemorates the victory over the invading Turks, emphasized by the half moon and the cross on top of the column...or, as others say, it is an anchor commemorating the brave sailor-traders that brought goods through Wörthersee to Klagenfurt through a system of canals, including the Lendkanal.

At the end of the Alter Platz is the Landeshaus,the seat of government. This plaque in front commemorates the vote when Kärntners voted to be part of Austria instead of Slovenia. See, in 1920, there were quite a few little border issues between countries that the Allied powers decided to end the border debate once and for all by drawing official boundaries. Southern Austria, particularly Kärnten had a large population of Slovene speakers. They gathered information on how many speakers of Slovenian were in each town, held a large debate, and eventually allowed Kärnten to vote--Austria or Slovenia. 59% voted for Austria and the rest is history.

Head back towards Alter Platz and past Napoleon's house (where he spent one night with one of the local townswomen, who claimed for the rest of her life she had had all of her happiness in one night, whereas everyone else spread their happiness across several years) and you will come to the Stadttheater, always displaying a fine floral planter.

Continue up Radetzkystrasse, where famous Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann used to live, and you come to the Kreuzbergl, the baby mountain/large hill in town. Austrians are fond of adding a "l" to the end of everything to make it seem small, or cute.

Atop the Kreuzbergl sits the Kreuzbergl Kirche, famous for its mosaic stations of the cross that mark the holy path to the church. From the top, you can see the Karawanken (the mountains that now mark the border between Slovenia and Austria. Helllloooo Sloveeeeniiia!

Continue onwards for a good 40 minutes, and you come to Wöthersee, the pride of Klagenfurt, the former home of the Lindwurm and an evil village, and a favorite vacation retreat for many Austrians.