EUROPE ENDLESS

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 booklet in the vinyl re-issue is superb: sumptuous and arty

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.

* * *

Rockin’ All Over The World, #12

 

31 comments

  1. We studied the lyrics to Paul Simon’s Boy in the Bubble in English once.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a good one.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wiesbaden is about 170 kilometers to the south from where I grew up in the countryside close to Bonn. How long did you live in Germany?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a relationship that drew me there, Christian. I visited three or four times then lived there for a year, mid-1996 to mid-1997. Started in Bielefeld in the north, then moved to Mainz where my partner got a job.
      Although I saw Bap in Kőln, I never made it to Bonn, sadly.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. With BAP, you’ve certainly seen something great, as far as I’m concerned! 🙂

        Oh, well, a relationship…that’s why I ended up in the U.S. Wasn’t exactly the plan when I came here to study in 1993 and 1994. Then I met my future wife…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That l u r v e thing, eh?
          I’ve been thinking that Bap concert might have a post in it, someday.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. 🙂

            BTW, your Pink Floyd post is a cool story. I just left you a comment to that post!

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Thanks Christian!

              Liked by 1 person

    2. Here’s a post from a while back you might enjoy, Christian…
      https://vinylconnection.com.au/2018/07/09/double-lives/

      Like

  3. Interesting story about your time as an English teacher in Germany, Bruce! We also had English lessons from 1965 – 1968 in school in Switzerland. But I really learned the language later through my interests in the literary and musical subculture in the 70s and 80s and during stays in England and the States.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a great story, and tie-in to Kraftwerk! I know folks who went to other countries to teach English, and all have stories like yours, and some far more complicated or worse (even a death, gah!) but it’s an interesting thing. So much of the culture can be flooded with music and movies. My favourites are well-meaning misinterpretations of words.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I had a pretty comfortable run, Aaron. Especially compared to others who bravely taught (English) where no-one has taught before!

      Like

      1. Right on, I’m glad it worked out. It’s a big world out there, lots can happen!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. sometimes I put this on and think electronic music should’ve ended with “Europe Endless”. ok a lotta really good stuff happened since then but come on how absolutely perfect is that track??

    Liked by 1 person

    1. With you on its perfection, cj. It’s a pinnacle, for sure.

      Like

  6. A great story Bruce and Trans Europe Express sounds like a wise investment.
    Anyway, of various things that popped into my mind whilst reading this, the recollection of Albert Yuan Mu tickled me most. AYM was a charming and amusing colleague in my first significant job. He taught himself English before migrating to Au, mainly using old Humphrey Bogart films. He was hilarious, not just because of his choice of argot but because he knew that it cut across the Australian vernacular.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Were you Peter Lorre to his Bogie? 😉

      Like

      1. If only.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Education through music, my favourite kind of lesson!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. High fives, Bro!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I love your “Music and Memoir” posts, VC, and this one is no exception. I laughed imagining the moment of sweet relief when you were handed actual lesson plans! I don’t know Kraftwerk nor much electronic music at all if I’m honest (beyond a couple of Tangerine Dream soundtrack albums I’ve taken in thanks to your influence). Someday maybe…

    I knew a young Peruvian guy once who had taught himself pretty good English by listening, writing down, mimicking, and then translating the Beatles entire catalogue of lyrics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is an English language program I could get behind, Vic. I wonder if it spoke with a Liverpudlian dialect?

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Really enjoyed this Bruce. REALLY enjoyed it. I love Germany, albeit only been there 3 times briefly and once was Oktoberfest in Munich – Mrs 1537 is less keen, so we compromise and go where she wants instead!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A sensible compromise, I’m sure.
      I suspect the trick is not to venture within 200km of Munich or within 20 weeks of Oktoberfest. 🙂
      Hope you get to Berlin sometime. It’s brilliant.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I thought this might lead to a music segue (pretty crafty of me, eh?). The use of Kraftwerk lyrics was a brilliant touch! And so apparently was confiding to Renata to learn where those books were kept. 😉 – Marty

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The right tools always give one a boost, Marty! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. 365musicmusings · · Reply

    Fantastic selection and accompanying story! I spent a summer in Germany myself as part of a foreign exchange program. Loved it there, though I must admit that was the beginning of my turn away from structured education. I very quickly found more to learn out of the classroom, and fortunately I didn’t have a grade riding on my attendance!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a heady combination, 365. Novel setting, no regular responsibilities, new distractions. Bliss!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. What a great story Bruce. Way to use the creative bone. I was going to be a smartass and point out some alternate songs but I wont. Good stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks CB. And go for it; I’m sure Joe would join in.
      Crosby singing “Triad”, for instance? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You have me grinning from ear to ear thinking of the possibilities and then you throw Joe in the mix. My brain eats that kind of stuff up. You know that.

        Liked by 1 person

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