Sunday, 29 November 2009

German Advent Faux Pas!

A "normal" German Advent's wreath

"The layers of meaning in a new society are never explained explicitly to newcomers and sometimes I wish that I had been handed my bible of In Germany thou shalts and thou shalt nots as I crossed the border.

Our first Christmas was one case in point. Christmas is a serious, more contemplative time here and full of old traditions. During the season of Advent, every German family has a pine wreath with four candles on it. On each of the four Sundays in Advent, the family sits down for afternoon tea and Stollen—the traditional fruit loaf, eaten only at Christmas time—and another candle gets lit, until all four are burning on Christmas Eve. It is a wonderful tradition but not mine, and my children have suffered from their non-German mother’s inability to “bastel”—to make things with one’s hands—and to make an Advent wreath ourselves.

Our first Christmas here, my husband decided, as the German contingent in our marriage, that he would make an Advent wreath with Louise, thinking it couldn’t be that difficult. He and Louise sat down on a Sunday with some wire and pliers and pine branches taken from the neighbour’s trees. After much intense work, I was called to admire our very own and first Advent wreath. I had to bite my sharp tongue and suppress a chuckle, while hypocritically telling them how great it looked.

On the table was a rather South African, rugby-ball-shaped advent wreath—it was after all 1995 and the year of the Rugby World Cup in South Africa. MM looked at me apologetically, “I’m sorry! The wire frame just did not want to bend round.”

I was despatched the next day to get some candles for our very own wreath. I was lost. Germans love to burn candles in their houses during the dark months and one gets them in all shapes and colours and designs.

There is nothing I love more than to put on candles for atmosphere in the winter months and there I have adapted to my new home. MM, on the other hand, cannot read with dimmed lights and will always walk in and switch on the brightest light.

The other fear MM has is that his house will burn down because of us burning candles. So there I was standing in the DIY shop, trying to make my choice. Finally I found some sturdy, if not the most attractive, long- burning candles in a thick red plastic cylinder shape form, with white wax inside. Red is the colour of Christmas and the form looked ideal to me as the candle was protected. The dry pine needles could not catch fire and that would shut my husband up. As it was my first Christmas here, long-burning looked like a good additional feature—the candles had to last a month after all. Proudly I put them on the Advent wreath as a surprise for MM and Louise when they got home.

MM was rather horrified. “Those are grave candles!” It was still November, the month of remembrance in Germany. Inadvertently, I had bought candles that people put on the graves on All Saint’s Day. They are long-lasting and extremely safe candles, as they are supposed to last through the winter on the graves.

That first year we had the only rugby-ball-shaped Advent wreath with grave candles on it in the whole of Germany! Germans can sometimes be incredibly polite to bumbling foreigners: no one who came to our house that Advent commented on our unique wreath."

(C) Anli Serfontein 2008 - Extract "From Rock to Kraut" Chapter 5 Faux Pas!

To my family's horror: my idea of an Advent's wreath - no needles, no mess, no sweat!

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Intercultural Relations Repaired

Seldom before in my life have I experienced how from the depths of despair, life can suddenly turn around into pure joy and pleasure and fresh experiences completely wiping away all bad memories that have gone before.

The mayor of Florange and our daughter (in white) laying a wreath in France on Remembrance Day 2009

An ordinary November week started with A., the French exchange pupil we hosted in September, writing to our daughter, saying she would refuse to have anything to do with our daughter Rose once she came to France. It was only days before Rose had to go and stay with this family. The visit was part of a regional Schumann exchange organised by the Education Departments in the four bordering countries and is meant to foster inter-regional understanding.

We were aghast by the turn of events. Even more hurtful was watching the toll it took on our daughter. Both we and her French teacher kept on telling her, not all French are like that. So while all her close friends were packing for France, my daughter (and I) had sleepless nights and teary evenings.

My husband had the task of informing the German and French authorities and we were resigned to her staying here. Then suddenly out of the blue, two days after the bad news, we got an unexpected email from the German teacher at the French school in Florange. She had read my husband’s correspondence with the authorities, read my blogs and the rude email of one of her pupils. She was totally dismayed. Beyond the call of duty, she then offered to find Rose another family. This was now Thursday afternoon. And from there on things moved at breakneck speed.

When by Friday afternoon that did not work out, she offered to put her up herself. Events were changing rapidly. Friday morning Rose had still told her teachers she would probably see them on Monday. Saturday, we rushed to town to do last-minute shopping - winter boots, a new jacket. When we got back there was a welcoming email with pictures waiting from the teacher’s ten-year old daughter describing the family members, their house and their pets.

On a sunny autumn Sunday afternoon, we drove the 85 kilometres to Florange, passing through Luxembourg. Three countries in less than an hour. After the drama of the last week, we were all feeling upbeat.

Walking into their welcoming home we knew instinctively this was going to work out. Over home-made apple cake we spent some time with this lovely family. We were given her French timetable, asked what she ate. That evening my husband and I drove back to Germany with not a worry in the world.

Tuesday Rose called to say she would probably move to another family on Wednesday where there were two girls her age, but that she could always move back to Madame. We then got an email from Madame saying how wonderfully Rose had fitted into her family but that she also did not sleep the night before moving her to another family. She was having second thoughts, asking herself if the move was right for our daughter. So much care and love moved me to tears. But we did not have to worry.

On her first day in the new family, she phoned to say that at the 11 November remembrance ceremony on the local cemetery, a public holiday in France, she was asked to lay the wreath with a French girl. I told her that Chancellor Angela Merkel on that day became the first German Chancellor to be at a Remembrance Day ceremony in Paris. Merkel laid a wreath with President Sarkozy at the Arc d’Triomphe.

A few evenings later, my daughter phoned out of breath “I have no time to talk. I am so lucky, I am happy, France is great.” And she put the phone down again. What more does a mother want to hear?

After 13 days we drove to fetch her from the French family we have never met. We were met by a smiling, happy daughter, conversing in French with the other girls. Their granny and aunt had come to join us for coffee and cakes and to say goodbye to our daughter. This was final proof of how completely she had been integrated into the family.

Their Daddy came home and there was more laughter. Then Monsieur announced that they had invited our daughter to go along on their summer holiday to Brittany. We in turn invited their girls to come and stay with us during the Christmas holidays.

As we drove away Rose rolled down the car window and shouted "Salut", like a real French girl to her friends who were running alongside the car. She dared her German father to hoot (unheard of in Germany). He did; but without the gusto of a South African or French HOOOOT

We drove on to the teacher’s house to thank her too. They repeated our daughter can come over any time she wishes to visit them.

We are in for a busy Advent. We will be showing both families around Trier and our wonderful Christmas market. My daughter has her address book filled with French pupils wanting to visit her. One French father wanted advice on buying DIY in Trier. As my husband said quite pleased with himself, as we drove back that evening, “It looks like we are going to become the place to stay and the place to get advise about Trier, for the French from Lorraine”

Driving back through three countries again, our daughter was bubbling and could not stop talking about life in France, her experiences at school and on outings, while mixing some French into her German and English. She was definitely going to live there one day, she warned us!

In one week in early November, our lives went from absolute horror, depression and tears into the most touching experience, we never in all our dreams envisaged! Thank you Madame K. Thank you Famille C!! Merci! Vive la France!

(c) Anli Serfontein, 2009

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Intercultural Mis-Communication

We as a family had to this week painfully experience how an intercultural, inter-regional pupil exchange between our daughter and a pupil in the northern French region of Lorraine, barely 60 kilometres from Trier completely collapsed.

For 12 days in September, we played hosts to a homesick 12-year old French pupil from a migrant family in Loraine. We thought we did our best: investing time, energy and money to make her time in Germany special. Every day there was an activity: an outing with French and German pupils or visiting some of our eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. One day they had a home-made pizza and film party with 12 French and German girls here in our house. On the Saturday we did a day-trip to Eltz Castle, 100 kilometres away.

(c) Anli Serfontein 2009 Eltz Castle

After receiving no thank you note from her, she deemed it fit to write my daughter an email this week, less than a week before my daughter was to go to France to tell her how she hated her time with us, that my daughter did not suggest any activities, undertook nothing with her, and made no effort to give her a good time in Germany. Therefore she refuses to undertake any activities with my daughter when she comes to France. All blatant lies as our French pupil probably did and saw more than any of the other exchange pupils.

An intercultural exchange is taxing on all involved - also on the parents. And I, as a former exchange pupil always take great care that pupils see and experience Germany in a wide range of ways – language; food; history; music and culture.

We were all reeling under the shock of her email. My husband was philosophical saying her sojourn did improve our French, as she refused to even say the simplest of sentences in German. Bitte and danke never crossed her lips. My older daughter now a student who had to keep her busy the last two days when her younger sister got sick, was wondering why as a third generation migrant she did not want to break out of the mould. Normally, in her experience of Germans with a migrant background, she said, the first generation comes for the money; the second try and adapt and the third generation break loose.

With so much intellectual analysis going on all around, I had to think positive too: Her stay with us did give me an insight into an Algerian migrant extended family in France, that I would normally not have had. She has 32 cousins in France alone and we lost count how many in Algeria. She was texting them all the time. What amazed me was how they are content to only have social relations within this extended family and are quite insular. It reminded me of my mother’s childhood in a rural South African family in the 1930’s and 1940’s. But these were third generation migrants to France in the 21st century.

After we received the email, my husband called the fairly hostile mother, who told us she absolutely supported her daughter’s decision not to have anything to do with our daughter when she visited. However, as an afterthought our daughter may still come if she wishes so. Fearing that she will be treated like a leper we decided to keep her here.

We have had exchange pupils before and we did have contact with the parents when there were minor hiccups, which invariably in a long intercultural exchange can pop up. We had to conclude this time it was not the language that hampered communication, but the cultural communication framework.

To put it bluntly, the educated bourgeoisie communicate within a certain globally accepted framework, no matter what the language is, that is understood among each other. We reflect, we analyse and we set certain values for our kids. This week my husband and I were incapable to reach a common language with people whose horizon is a small village in northern France and a small village in Algeria. People who do not reflect. Having had their daughter in our house we could read that it was people for whom books have little value. People for whom the normal polite phrases like thanking your hosts have little value.

As all her friends are packing for a fortnight in France, my daughter is staying and that is the hardest part. It breaks my heart, knowing how she made such a huge effort to make A’s stay pleasant, especially when she was sad all the time. Now she is sadly the duped one. A. cried from the first day because she did not want to be here but was forced by her parents to go to Germany.

(c) Anli Serfontein 2009. My husband, daughter and the French pupil at Eltz Castle. According to her we did not undertake anything with her

My daughter wanted to go to France to experience school life there. She had organised who would send her homework; what books to take along; what magazines she would like to buy in France, what television she would like to watch. In hindsight we should not have put all our efforts and energy into trying to make a spoilt French pupil stay and only pandering to her needs in order to keep her happy; we should have let her go home after two days! We have wasted our energies completely. Unfortunately our daughter will now not benefit at all!

Read my blow by blow account of our Intercultural Nightmare