Sunday, May 17, 2015

On DT trips, from my own perspective.

This is the 15th trip I have organized and led students on. There were four students on the first two trips I led--both were over Michigan's Spring break. And this is the first time to travel with only 4 students again. It is delightful and a luxury to lead a small group. Automatically, it is less complicated than any trip with more students, though "big" trips have their sense of wonder, momentum, and group growth. Most trips that I have led have had between 11-17 students on them. There was another faculty member involved (usually someone local) on most of the trips with over 12 students.

I am enjoying reflecting on the nature of group travel and enjoying reflecting on where and how my own expectations match up with given groups. Each group establishes its own rhythm and dynamic, which is interesting to observe. For me, it is most rewarding to see what individuals bring to the table and what they take away from a trip. It is a successful trip if students grow in their appreciation of art and theater, learn to care less about whether they "like" something or not and to care more about what ideas are shared, what makes them worthwhile, etc. It is a successful learning experience if I see students finding their way into the culture, trying to blend in with local patterns of life, becoming less judgmental of every little thing that is different. My job is to open some doors for the students or to just point to them, provide a few tips on how locals do things and view things, and then let the students explore. At the beginning of each trip, we run around like crazy (it helps students not dwell on jet lag); in the final days, I give students much more free time to explore places and activities that interest them the most. My hope is that they will strike out more and more on their own, feel increasingly comfortable talking to Germans, and start to appreciate their own identity and growth, find some of their own retreats in Germany, places they hope to return to. I also hope that the additional time will allow them to reflect on where they've been and where they are now (physically, mentally, spiritually).

A German colleague in Germany pointed out to the group on this trip, there is a major difference between Germans and Americans. When Americans first learn of something or are invited to do something, there is often a quick and enthusiastic response of "yes" but as the activity ensues, the response turns more to "no", whereas Germans often respond "no" to things but gradually warm up to "yes."  I think that this observation is quite true in general.  As I reflect on my own responses to things I encounter in Germany, I am aware of a way that I relax here. Everything here (with the exception of cars) seems to take a little more time. Americans I've traveled with have often found it frustrating that they had to wait in line, wait at an intersection, wait for food, wait for a bill (often never even seeing a waiter again once food has been served), wait for internet connections. And waiting is probably a good lesson for Americans, in general. Yes, that statement was an over-generalization, and I believe yes, it is okay to make this type of generalization in my own reflection.  : )  We have so many luxuries and freedoms that lead to expectations. The patience I develop in Germany on each trip is one I hope to continue cultivating when I am back in the States.

One thing I am aware of (certainly somewhat about myself, though I observe it in the general population each year in the US), is that there is a sense of (false?) urgency that has become a way of doing things at home in the US. There is a sense that things must be changing quickly, an awareness during multi-tasking that one is already planning for the next event, eager for the present to pass. Getting back to the "no" vs. "yes" I wonder if I am sometimes disappointed in America that activities sometimes start out with lots of vim and vigor ("yes"), but that they tire out or don't realize their potential as enthusiasm fades. In Germany, the response to everything seems more tempered, more suitably paced, less urgent and more natural.

I notice here that when people are at the theater, they are really at the theater. No checking cell phones even during long shows, no eagerness to dash out of the theater to do the next activity. I'm thinking of an odd performance I went to in Berlin, with the audience seated at tables, witnessing and being part of a live recording of a radio show. The night had great potential, but with all that was going on, the show just didn't really work. I looked around, bored, thinking that I needed sleep, etc. and I was struck by the fact that I saw not one person looking at his/her cell phone even though the show was not very entertaining.

Audiences take their time to show appreciation for the artists, who have poured themselves into a show. I like that. And I dislike, how routine movements and actions can easily become in the US sometimes. There is a sincerity or honesty about my life and about presence when I am in Germany that I wish I could just instill into life in the US. There is less of a sense that each individual is trying to prove him- or herself or become the center of attention here. There is less of a sense in Germany that the day is filled with people telling "their" story. On trains, people are often quiet and look out the window, take in what is part of the present. Certainly, not everywhere is quiet, but often I can take a few steps and find quiet here. And often, when Americans (not my group) are around, they are the loudest. It seems people in Germany go about their lives in a sensible manner without making a big deal about everything.

I have lost count of how many times I've been to Germany, but it must be over 70 times. And I continue to be struck by how different Germany has become (for me) in the last 10-15 years. It is a comfortable place to be. And it is so different from how most Americans I have talked to about Germany think Germany is. I am so glad that the University of Michigan (RC, CGIS, the International Institute, RC Alumni) keep supporting our trips. The trips not only provide memories for my students (and me), but they also help us find ourselves, learn about ourselves, learn about other places and learn that there are other ways to live.

I don't like a day to go by without a post on our blog and I apologize if I have dominated the space here. I have no idea if anyone is following us or reading, but if so, I hope that you are enjoying our posts. It is always strange to write for an anonymous audience without getting any feedback. But we have committed to doing a blog here and maybe it will reach just one person and make a difference. With so much to do here and less regular internet use, I can't expect my four students to fill a blog with as many insights as my bigger groups do, but I hope that anyone reading this will still see the growth and experiences we are having here.  And I encourage anyone who is feeling comfortable with their life, to consider striking out on their own, going someplace where they feel challenged (by the language or ways of doing things) and to consider the value of growth and confidence outside of your own four walls and your routine. I ask my students to draw, paint, write, and see lots of theater and art. I ask them to stop only doing and thinking about things that they like. I do this because I think it ultimately lets us give up the notion that we are already very complete, perfect beings. I ask it because it doesn't hurt to do something that we need to improve at. Instead, it exposes us one more time to a new way of thinking.

Some pictures from yesterday.
Points. 1) When you toast someone, look them in the eyes and mean it!
2) When you go to the theater or look at art, stop trying to find what you already know. Enjoy what the artists are doing and stop feeling like you need to understand everything.
3) If you go to the Nationaltheater, even sitting in the Gallerie at the top you will enjoy an amazing performance with live music and the most impressive retractable chandelier on the planet. I tried to feature that chandelier in a couple of shots here. Also, there is a magical quality of ballet performed at the Nationaltheater.


  1. I just caught up on the blog. You've put together an amazing trip yet again. And keep the blogging coming! It's great seeing the everyone's reflections and thinking back to my own experiences in Germany. These trips are so valuable and eye-opening, and it's clear everyone's getting just as much out of it as I did.

    Love the reflections on the false sense of urgency in the US. It's definitely something that makes me want to get back in touch with the German approach to life. Hoping to get back soon!

    1. Having a little trouble replying so this may appear twice! Thanks cking! Had so much fun with you on both trips. And I'm headed to Andechser am Dom for a meal--that brings back memories, too. Hope you make it back this way.

  2. The German "quiet" that you touched on is one of the things I love most about Germany. In the states, if I try to sit in public and quietly observe, I end up accosted by either by well-meaning (but obtrusive) people trying to chit-chat or creepers telling me to smile. It's like people are bothered by someone who isn't multitasking. In Germany, I can sit, observe and think in public. Maybe it's that initial "no" of hesitance that gives Germans the time to actually observe cues and (gasp) realize that I'm happy not talking!

    I'm so happy for your students every time I see you're on another Munich trip. :)