Saturday, May 30, 2009

A post from Aaron

The project team in front of the equipment

Documentation- thousands of pages!

Jackie and I moved to Germany to experience life in here and to travel Europe, but we also came because of my career. I have been working at Atec for one year now and last week came a milestone with a project I started last June. We completed a successful Factory Acceptance Test (FAT) for one of the projects I manage.
Atec manufactures equipment for pharmaceutical companies all over the world. Specifically, we build machines used to wash and sterilize stoppers for medicine bottles. Constructing these machines requires a team that includes engineers, computer programmers, documentation specialists, architects, welders, pipe fitters and electricians- and that is just from Atec! For the FAT last week, seven people from the United States came to inspect the equipment before shipment to Ohio.
My role in this is as project manager. It is my job to make sure the equipment we build meets the specifications of the customer. Every Tuesday for the last year, I have had telephone conferences with the customers in California and Ohio to monitor the progress of the project. Also, at Atec I coordinate the work of all specialties needed to make the machines. In reality, my job includes everything from writing documents to turning wrenches. I haven't had to do any welding yet!
You may wonder how a microbiologist at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals ended up in a job like this. Three years ago I came to Atec as a Pfizer employee to perform the same type of acceptance testing that was completed last week. My experience having been the customer brings a unique perspective to the service Atec provides.
The Factory Acceptance Testing last week included twelve consecutive days of working long hours, but was a success! The customer left happy and the machines will be delivered to Ohio soon. I am exhausted and relieved to have the past two weeks behind me.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Strangest holiday yet

Yesterday was Ascension Day, a holy day 40 days after Easter that celebrates Christ's return to heaven. I was never aware of this day, though I understand that it is observed in the Roman Catholic church. It is a German national holiday. This is interesting for a few reasons- Catholicism is predominant only in certain parts of southern Germany, most Germans do not seem to be overtly devout or religious and Germany generally has strict rules about the separation of religion and government. But none of this is what seems strange.

This is where it starts to get weird. Father's Day in Germany is always celebrated on Ascension Day. Why would this be? Jesus returning to his Father makes us want to honor fathers? But in our area the day is just called Männertag, or Men's Day. And the celebration seems much more about manhood than fatherhood. I finally went to Wikipedia to get a handle on this because I just couldn't quite understand it. Click here to read what others have to say and to see a photo :

I read about it being a day for "men only" to go out and get drunk together but I figured this would be only in cities or at the beach or something. Yesterday morning at 9:45 I hopped on my bike to ride to the home of friends and what did I see? A group of four young men, walking down the sidewalk, pulling a child's wagon (yeah, like Radio Flyer) filled with beer and a portable music system of some sort. And I couldn't imagine where they were going, walking away from town and out into the countryside! As I came to my friends' house, I saw another group of men. These guys were in their 30s and 40s and were pulling a wagon shaped like an airplane! Just walking around drinking beer at ten in the morning.

When I arrived, I wished my friend a Happy Father's Day and asked him about this tradition. I explained that in the U.S., fathers usually spend time with their children on Father's Day, that it is really a family day. He laughed and replied, "Oh no, not here. Every man in Germany is trying to get rid of his family today." Does this seem weird to anyone else?

Monday, May 18, 2009


I may be totally out of my league in my German course, but I love my classroom! It is such a unique place, filled with people who may have nothing in common but being foreigners in this country. I am the only American, and the only native English speaker. There are several people from the Ukraine, a few from Poland and a couple from Turkey. We have someone from Thailand, Peru and Syria. We have people who lived under Communist rule in the former Soviet Union. We are Muslims and Buddhists and Eastern Orthodox Christians and atheists.

Every day it feels like I have as much to learn from them as from our teacher. Their opinions and their experiences and their stories are so different from mine. We debated the importance of individual freedoms versus the good of the collective public. Two people who lived in the same Communist country had quite opposite feelings! A Muslim woman talked about what it's like to wear a head scarf and what she thinks about her own freedom and equality. We discussed international relations and the influence (not always for good) of the U.S. and the European Union. We heard a presentation from a classmate on her country from a tourism perspective.

Because I am the only one, I have an opportunity to represent "Americans." It feels like a big responsibility but exciting too! I didn't realize how little some people know about our country- they only know Hollywood and New York. Most people don't even know Chicago! I was asked specifically whether I would give a presentation on my country. Of course I'm nervous but it is exciting to think about telling people about my home- a country I love and miss and probably never would have appreciated so much if I hadn't left it. Funny how your perspective changes, isn't it?

Friday, May 15, 2009

The prettiest crop I've seen

Canola is an important agricultural crop around here. People have been talking about the "Raps" fields and it was worth the wait! It really is beautiful to look out across a field of swaying yellow blossoms. The bright sunshine in a clear blue sky is nice too!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Back in the classroom

Last Thursday was my first day in German class at the community education center in Flensburg. I take the train from our town, which takes just 15 minutes. I am loving good public transportation! Then I have a 15-minute walk to get to the school. Class meets on Thursdays and Fridays, begininning at 8:15 and and ending at 12:15, with a 20-30 minute break.

I took a placement test to determine which course I should take, and the woman who gave the test just wasn't sure what to do with me. She ended up placing me in the higher of two levels that she was considering- that made me nervous! On Thursday, I nearly had a panic attack because it soon became clear that my classmates have far more knowledge than I do- both with vocabulary and grammar. I could just barely follow what was going on. I looked around and everyone else seemed to be doing just fine. That is SUCH a terrifying feeling! I left after that first session with a sick feeling in my stomach, thinking "Why does everything have to be so hard?"

But of course I went back again on Friday and, lo and behold, it went better! I spent some time talking with the teacher and she was very reassuring. When I was called on in class and struggled with the answer, both my classmates and the teacher helped me through it. And as far as I could tell, no one shot me dirty looks for being so remedial! I have to remember that this is not academia- I will not be graded and there is no final exam. This is just for me. I started to relax and learn. And I think this just might be fun!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The power of one

On the heels of my post about the reticence of people in northern Germany, I have to point out again that the stereotype does not fit everyone. We have received much help and many kind gestures in our time here. And I am so incredibly grateful for my friend Maren.

I met Maren the day after I arrived in Germany, as part of a group who went to a festival. She and her husband (Aaron's colleague) came over the next week with a bottle of champagne as a house-warming gift. Both were really friendly. Jan speaks perfect English but Maren speaks almost none. She offered to take me shopping to look for lights and curtains and mirrors for our house. I was miserable and so stressed the whole time because she was speaking to me and I could not understand one word of it. She persisted in befriending me and we shopped almost every week last summer. In the process I learned my way around the area. I had my birthday after just two weeks of living here and met the day with mixed feelings. Maren and Jan showed up that evening, with gift in hand, to celebrate with me.

Maren invited us over for dinner many times and she was patient when Jan, Aaron and I talked rapidly in English though she could not follow the conversation. They included us in weekend outings and pointed out fun things for us to do on our own. Through all these difficult months when I have been so homesick for my friends she has stopped by to check on me, offered all kinds of practical help and always been quick to smile and laugh. As I cobble together terrible German in hopes of communicating, she helps me with words and listens closely. She speaks slowly, uses easy words and watches my face for understanding. In all this time when I had so little to offer and needed so much, she has been a friend. Sometimes all it takes is one person to make all the difference in the world. And even though I don't have the words to tell her how much that means, I hope she knows.