Learning From Antje

In Berlin, The Art of Travel, 13. Strangers by Gillian1 Comment

If you and your German teacher aren’t wearing matching hats, then why are you even taking German?

My German teacher is amazing. True, I would describe every German teacher I’ve had (all two) as amazing, but Antje has been such a source of joy and support in my everyday routine here, and I can’t imagine my Berlin experience without her. Originally from Hamburg, a beautiful harbor city in northern Germany, Antje lives in Berlin with her Italian husband and two sons in Berlin. She is, as we would say in German, engelgleich: angel-like.

Don’t believe me? Believe that she’s the only professor I’ve ever had–in elementary school, middle school, high school, or college–who brings us candy or baked goods when we have a test. It’s really such a small gesture, but it says so much about Antje; that she understands our stress, that she genuinely wants to encourage us to learn from and focus on the sweeter aspects of language learning and cultural immersion despite the challenges.

Her favorite words in English are: “bumble-bee” and “sugar daddy,” because neither really has a German equivalent.

She always supplies the vocabulary we need when we ask, even when we don’t. She is endlessly patient and sunny and bubbly, and keeps conversation alive and well for the mid-morning discussions on texts we sometimes only pretend to have understood or are too exhausted to unpack.

Most importantly, she shows an empathy I have rarely encountered in my time at NYU, or in academia generally. In class we had read several short stories by Yoko Tawada, a Japanese author who moved to Germany, in preparation for her highly-anticipated book reading as hosted by NYU Berlin. We even had to prepare questions to ask her for homework. Antje was really excited, as were the rest of us. The evening she was scheduled to come, however, I found myself completely overwhelmed; I had fallen behind on work and sleep, both of which had taken an emotional toll on me. I felt so lost, anxious, and stressed (any of my friends could tell you that I almost never get worked up over stress, thanks yoga), all of these intense emotions heightened by virtue of being abroad, in a city I’m supposed to be enjoying and having the time of my life in. I just couldn’t do it that day. I frantically emailed Antje to tell her I needed time to recollect myself and I couldn’t come to the reading, feebly trying to put into words what I felt, which included guilt for missing the guest for whom we had prepared for so long. Dreading the chastisement I thought I was bound to receive, I felt all the worse for feeling disappointment in myself for having let Antje down.

But then I read her email (roughly translated):

Thank you for your message. I am so sorry to hear that you are so stressed out and it is of course a pity that you missed Yoko Tawada. I’m sorry you weren’t there.
The most important thing now is that you take care of yourself and that your loss of sleep and the feeling of being overwhelmed does not last for a long time.
If you ever have concerns also about our German course or feel stressed, just let me know and we can talk about it. So far, I find your active participation in the classroom very positive and I am very happy to have you in my class! I wish you a good and above all quiet, relaxing weekend.

Antje didn’t say she would deduct points for my absence, or remind me that participation is a key component to our grade makeup–she just cared about me, and wanted to know I was doing well and getting the support I needed, and that tells you everything you need to know about Antje.

That, and the fact that, thanks to the knitting of the program director’s mother, we have matching hats.

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(Image: Antje and I in our matching hats; Source: Gillian)

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