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Chuck Johanningsmeier
Johanningsmeier and family in Wolfenbuttel Germany

In His Own Words: My Fulbright Year in Leipzig

by Chuck Johanningsmeier

When I began planning my application for a Fulbright Fellowship about two years ago, I knew that teaching and living abroad for an entire year would be a great experience, not only for myself but for my wife and three children as well. As the year has unfolded and we are now past the halfway point (we arrived in early August 2006), though, I can say that it is turning out even better than we ever imagined!

At the core of my experience is my work in the Institute for American Studies at the University of Leipzig (the latter will be celebrating its 600th anniversary in 2009). This Institute is dedicated to teaching all about various aspects of American culture (politics, history, literature) to students who are very eager to learn more about our country. All of the students in my courses (American Regionalist Literature, The Pursuit of the American Dream, American Literary Realism and Naturalism, and American Immigrant Voices) have been highly proficient or nearly fluent in English, and over half have studied, worked, or traveled in the United States for an extended period of time. While I have taught my students a great deal about the United States, though, I can say that I have also learned so much from them, especially when we compare cultural phenomena in the U.S. and in Germany. My acquisition of some basic German skills during the past five months has facilitated this exchange of ideas, because by being able to read various advertisements, etc. and speak to German people, I have learned enough to be able to highlight specific German terms and cultural concepts for discussion in class. In these ways, I believe I am carrying out the objectives of the Fulbright Program, which is dedicated to fostering mutual understanding between Americans and their host countries.

In addition to teaching at the University, I have been invited to deliver a number of lectures at other German universities on my research interests (which range from American newspapers to American public libraries) and make presentations to groups of high school teachers and to individual high school classes on the importance of America's regions, American immigrant cultures in the past, present, and future, and even Willa Cather (who is almost unknown in Germany). All of these experiences have given me the opportunity to exchange ideas with Germans from a variety of ages, backgrounds, and locations across the country.

Of course, much of my and my family's time "fostering mutual understanding" is spent here in Leipzig outside the classroom and office. We all interact with the community in a variety of ways, and in doing so we have had the opportunity to learn a great deal about Germans' perspectives on all kinds of subjects. What has been especially fascinating to us has been learning what life was like during the years before 1989 when this part of Germany was part of the Deutsche Demokratik Republik (Communist East Germany). In addition, we feel that in our daily lives we are also serving as positive American cultural ambassadors. My oldest children, Emma (11) and Grace (7) attend a German Grundschule (elementary school), where they have learned German much more quickly than I have. (Even though I do quite well in German now, it's a bit humbling to have to occasionally ask Emma to translate for me!) My wife, Gina, has been building on her already proficient German skills (she studied German in college and worked in Germany many years ago), not only by taking classes at the Volkhochschule (like a community college) but also by arranging concert tickets (Leipzig is a fantastically musical city!), figuring out the when, where, and what of school events, making appointments for us, helping out in the kids' classrooms, shopping, attending lectures, and just speaking every day with Germans from all walks of life. I envy her for her ability to engage in much more substantial conversations than I can! And finally, even Andrew (5), who goes to a pre-school only part time, has started picking up some German. Everywhere we go, the children serve as our "entrée" with people,  including the time when an older woman that we met on a train in November taught them how to sing some traditional songs for the "Lantern Festival" for "St. Martin's Day"; my wife overheard this woman tell a friend as she was getting off the train, "Imagine -- I was singing on a train!" (This is something that Germans would normally never do.)

When time (and money!) have allowed, we've also done some traveling as a family. In January, for instance, we went to Prague, which was exceptionally beautiful in its fresh mantle of snow. One of the highlights of this trip (at least for the adults!) was the chance to see two of Franz Kafka's childhood homes, to wander the streets where he walked, and to visit the Kafka Museum. On a number of other occasions, too, we have visited sites of interest to literary-minded travelers. One was the Starnberger See (See = Lake), south of Munich, which T. S. Eliot immortalized in the opening lines of The Waste Land. In addition, my wife and I greatly enjoyed a semi-"pilgrimage" to Vevey, Switzerland, on the north side of Lake Geneva. It was here, at the Hôtel des Trois Couronnes, and Château de Chillon, that Henry James set his famous novelette Daisy Miller (1878), a text that I often teach at UNO. The Château de Chillon, incidentally, is also the place where a young woman named Mary Wollstonecraft (Shelley), stranded by a horrible thunderstorm, first spun the tale of what would later become Frankenstein. Closer to "home," I could also mention that I have eaten two times in the Auerbach's Keller restaurant here in Leipzig, where Goethe, as a student at the university, first came up with his idea for Faust, and in which he set some scenes of that classic work.

To sum it all up: We're having an exciting, adventurous, and enriching experience of a lifetime! Currently we are enjoying our final months here, but we are also looking forward to our return to Omaha and, for me, teaching at UNO again beginning in August. For those of you who want to know more about our year in Germany or possibly how you, too, could study or teach abroad, feel free to just ask me when I return to Omaha in August!

Note: A version of this essay originally appeared in Signatures, the newsletter of the UNO English Department.  Past issues of Signatures are online at www.unomaha.edu/english/newsletter.php.

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