Teaching English at the Volkshochschule Wiesbaden was one of the highlights of my time in Germany. The Head of the Language Department seemed delighted to have someone who actually had a teaching qualification. Though this was correct in principal (I did indeed have a Bachelor of Education) I’d never actually taught in schools nor practiced the fine art of introducing students to English As Foreign Language. Still, the Head may have perceived me as a step up from hopeful Arkansas gap-year engineers, so I got the gig.
The bus trip from Weisenau to downtown Wiesbaden was a thrice-weekly pleasure. The apartment was in a district of Mainz nestled next to the mighty Rhein, just a short walk from the confluence with the Main River. In the other direction it was an even shorter walk to the cement factory, but I didn’t go that way often. Just before the bridge over the Rhein you could, if you sat on the left, glance across a cobbled square towards the medieval Dom, one of the oldest churches in Europe. Then across the wide expanse of muttering water towards Mainz’s sister-city. A coffee in a small cafe, then a short walk to the polytechnic. After a while I began to feel, if not German, then at least a touch more European.
At the beginning the most challenging moments were in the elderly Rentner class on a Friday morning. Not, I hasten to add, because the students were difficult. Quite the reverse. They sat, several rows of white haired grandparents, neatly dressed and politely expectant, in a high-ceilinged classroom filled with natural light and motes of post-war dust. I stood in front of them, tense and uncertain. What do I actually do with these Senior Citizens? I had no resources and not a clue. After ten minutes I wanted to crawl out of the room and find a cupboard in which to hide, after fifteen the first floor widow looked like the best escape route. Meanwhile the fifteen or so mature-aged ladies (and one gentleman) were torn between pity at my floundering performance and frustration that their new Australian Lehrer seemed to have absolutely no idea what he was doing. It was the longest 90 minutes I’ve ever spent in a classroom.
Afterwards, shaking slightly, I sought consolation with one of the two teachers I knew. It was they who had put me forward for the work at the ‘People’s High School’. Having battled against my persistent incompetence as a student of Deutsch for a term, they’d worked out I had more potential as an english teacher than a student of their native tongue. So I confessed all to Renata, not without a slight tremor in my voice, and wondered as her look of collegial concern slowly dissolved into wonder, then horror. ‘You didn’t have the books?’ she gasped, ‘Oh Mein Liebe Gott, how awful! Come, I will show you where they are housed.’ There was a class set, you see, with a detailed Teachers’ Manual that stepped through each lesson at a pace so gentle a dim Schnauzer (or none-too-bright Australian) began straining against the leash. After that, we got on famously, the Rentners and I, although there was another uncomfortable moment late in the term; an experience of embarrassment communicated non-verbally yet profoundly.
The other class was doddle by comparison. This group comprised mostly twenty-something students who enrolled in a late-afternoon ‘Conversation Class’ to help maintain English skills learned at High School. For starters, unlike the older students, they had a good basic level of English and, for the most part, were keen to participate. (The one exception was a young lady who always sat at the front, to my right, but did not once participate throughout the entire semester. The only response I elicited—and this was frequent—was a blush that glowed like a two-bar radiator. Yet she never missed a class. That’s dedicated shyness, that is.) With this group the challenge was to find ways to engage them in conversations that did not entirely channel through the bloke at the front of the room. Easier said than done.
Eventually I realised that what was needed was stimulus material. I bought a few British newspapers and a couple of magazines and extracted items I hoped might be interesting. I collected a bundle of the free postcards that abounded in European shops and venues in the late 1990s and used them as conversation starters. I got them to bring in a short piece of text in English and share it with the class. But probably the most lively response was when I typed up song lyrics and took in CDs, inviting the class to read the words as they listened to a song. The first of these was actually the highlight; I chose “Hall of mirrors” from Trans Europe Express by Kraftwerk.
The young man stepped into the hall of mirrors where he discovered a reflection of himself Even the greatest stars discover themselves in the looking glass Sometimes he saw his real face and sometimes a stranger at his place Even the greatest stars find their face in the looking glass He fell in love with the image of himself and suddenly the picture was distorted Even the greatest stars dislike themselves in the looking glass He made up the person he wants to be and changed into a new personality Even the greatest stars change themselves in the looking glass The artist is living in the mirror with the echoes of himself Even the greatest stars live their lives in the looking glass Even the greatest stars fix their face in the looking glass
It is a fabulous lyric, delivered in the deadpan Kraftwerk style but here, even more so. The first line of each pair is simply spoken while the second, the refrain, is (kind of) sung. It’s a stunning performance from what is perhaps the German pioneers’ most satisfying album. The Conversation group liked it too and a lively discussion ensued. I wondered later whether they were aware of the irony of an Aussie English teacher introducing them to one of electronic music’s greatest artists—a group from their own country. Whatever they made of the subtext (or not), I did note that perhaps I’d set the bar too high, as no later iteration of that idea—song + lyrics—generated the same engagement. When I brought in a richly crafted Crowded House song, for instance, one of the young men was dismissive; ‘It is just a love song’. Sorry mate, pithy existential lyrics are sprinkled lightly on the rock ground.
When I discovered this confident chap was the son of the Editor-in-Chief of Wiesbaden’s major newspaper it kind of made more sense. It was a connection that ultimately led to the soul-sinking moment alluded to earlier, but that’s another story.
For now, I’ll drop in another advertisement for the Trans Europe Express.
The ultimate case for electronic music embracing romanticism, Trans Europe Express is often my favourite Kraftwerk album. It is certainly amongst their most accessible. The suite giving the album its name begins with “Europe Endless” and continues on side two with the title track, “Metal on Metal” (plus “Abzug” on later re-issues) then eventually “Endless Endless”, evoking a train journey through the elegance and decadence of a Western Europe caught in the sepia bubble of pre-war complacency. Rhythms gently rock and roll with the movement of a plush first-class railway carriage… Kraftwerk’s proto-dancefloor beats are only hinted at here. There are memorable, hummable melodies and a couple of pointed songs about authenticity and image (“The Hall of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies”). If there is such a thing as lush minimalism, then TEE is it. The train was well ahead of schedule in 1977 and is still imminently capable of transporting passengers today. Buying a ticket is thoroughly recommended.
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