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I am a medievalist and an adjunct college instructor in the humanities at Union College. My research includes medieval theologies of history, text/image relationships in visionary and mystical texts, and the writings of the twelfth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen. I am also a translator of medieval Latin and German texts, especially as relate to my research. I completed a Master's in Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame in 2010, a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany in 2008, and a B.A. in Classics and German at Boston College in 2007.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Two Thanksgivings in Germany

I hope that all my friends and family back home had a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend; I had the great fortune to be able to attend not one but two Thanksgiving dinners this past weekend. The first, organized by the German-American Society of Münster, was held on Thursday evening at Henry's Poltertenne, a wonderful, rustic event center on the outskirts of the city. I went with Jennifer Burkart, the former Boston College Fulbrighter, and her husband, Jörg (and had I known that the other American students walked (!) to the dinner, I would have asked Jennifer and Jörg to give them a ride!). The dinner was well-attended both by members of the society, Americans living, working, or studying in Münster, as well as many other friends of the States--including the Mayor of Münster himself, Hans Varnhagen!

All of the food except the turkey was provided potluck-style, and while--alas!--there were no mashed potatoes or gravy, there was an abundance of many different kinds of salads and casseroles and other side dishes that were just as delicious, if not quite as "traditional" to the Thanksgiving feast. Desserts also abounded, with various brownies and cookies and cakes and puddings and custards, all laid out in fine fashion. The crowning achievement was, however, the turkeys--I saw at least two, but there may have been more kept in the hotbox by the master carver beneath the table. Since I couldn't figure out how to say "dark meat" in German, I used the "grunt and point" method to indicate my choice, and when it became clear to me that I might just be able to have it, I asked "Darf ich das ganze haben?", and with a flourish, one of the great turkey legs graced my plate!

The conversation at our table was mainly focused on the goings on both past and present of the English classes taught at the Katholishe Fachhochschule (the equivalent of a community college), where Jennifer teaches, as we were joined by one of her current colleagues, as well as a former teacher there who splits his time now between Münster and his farm in upstate New York. A long focus of the discussion was his lament concerning the skills of German students in writing coherent, well-organized expository essays. It is not, he claimed, a fault of the German students that, when they arrive in his English classes, they cannot seem to write what in America would be the standard "5-paragraph essay" on which we are schooled from 6th grade on, nor that, given an essay, they seem unable to answer the question, "What is this essay about it? What is its topic sentence?" Indeed, he has found that 95% of his students, who were hopeless at the beginning, can after a few months of his instruction, construct a perfectly well-organized expository essay. The problem, he claims, is that the German teachers don't seem to think that such a skill should be (or can be) taught; indeed, his lament extended to the whole German philosophy of education, which he believes eschews the traditional rhetorical tradition, and therefore finds itself incapable of construction well-organized arguments. Though I thought that he went perhaps too far in his criticism, I have found in my experience in classes that German teachers do have tendency to wander from topic to topic in their lectures.

Though the evening came to an end far too soon (I would have liked to kibitz much longer, as is my wont), I had the opportunity for more lively discussion yesterday when I attended my second Thanksgiving dinner, this time hosted by the Fulbright Alumni Association of Nordrhein-Westfalen, in the house of Sigrid and Rainer Martin in Bochum, a city about 75 kilometers southwest of Münster. Most of the attendees were Fulbright alumni, i.e. Germans who had studied as Fulbrighters in the United States, but there was another current American Fulbrighter in attendance, Emily, a teaching assistant from Dallas, teaching English at a school about 30 kilometers south of Münster. Together, we engaged the Germans in a long evening of wonderful conversation. The evening began with snacks in the kitchen and a long and involved discussion with Roy Schuster, a delightful middle-aged German, covering the relationship between faith and reason, philosophy, science, and theology in the modern world. I tried as best I could in German (with a surprisingly large amount of success) to explain my own belief, founded in my Catholicism, in the inherent and necessary compatibility of faith and reason, and the ultimate mystery that even reason must admit exists at the end of the philosopher's search for truth. It was at this point that Emily joined the conversation, and for the rest of the evening we were engaged together in a spirited attempt to understand each other (Emily considers herself quite the skeptic when it comes to religion and quite the liberal when it comes to politics).

The discussion continued in this vein during the soup course (a wonderful pumpkin soup with the best attempt I've so far met in Germany at cornbread), now branching out into a discussion of the nature of art, music, genius, and the scientific explanations of the human genome (for the gist of my thoughts, see my post from last October). The conversation, which by now had been joined by several other Germans, passed into politics after we reseated ourselves in front of plates laden with turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, and, for the German touch, red cabbage, and on then to the war in Iraq and the greater war on terror as we enjoyed pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Alas, by the end of the evening however, my wits dulled by a belly full of good food and good wine, the discussion began to slacken, and when with a shock Emily and I realized it was already 9:00 (both of us with about an hour's train ride home before us and both having classes this morning), we were regrettably obliged to take our leave. It was, nevertheless, a most wonderful evening, full of excellent food, good company, and most interesting interaction, and I shall look long upon the evening in Bochum with good and pleasant memories.

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