Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Catch-Up...Second Week or "Happy Birthday to Me"

Unfortunately, I don't really know many other people outside of work and my roommate (don’t worry-I’m working on that party). I was pretty bummed to learn that a.) my roommate is a very diligent student and b.) has finals this Friday and would be spending most of the time studying. You see, dear Reader, this was inconvenient at best, because my 21st birthday was on June 24th.

So I reviewed my options. See a play? Star Trek was playing, could go see that. I mentioned my birthday to my supervisor, who asked what I was doing. I told her I had no plans in particular, and she insisted that I do something for my birthday and suggested that she celebrate my birthday with me. It just so happened that a local bar was having a free salsa lesson and open dance after and my supervisor and her husband just happen to be avid ballroom dancers. This was starting to look like the beginnings of a pretty fun birthday.

The day before my birthday, I spent my time at home making brownies (I have no baking pans at my apartment and brownie mix was the only thing I could find with a fold-out baking pan included!), which I brought to work the next day. I didn’t think my coworkers would do anything special, but I was surprised to see streamers and a "Happy Birthday" banner decorating my desk! Birgit, who was unfortunately on a business trip in France, baked a delicious cheesecake the night before and everyone pitched in for a gift certificate for me for Stadtbekannt & Co., a company that offers interesting tours of Aachen and the surrounding area. Simone (my supervisor) even opened some bubbly-no, no real champagne (alcohol isn’t allowed at work), but rather non-alcoholic sekt.

But I would have to say the two best birthday presents I got was amazing sunny weather (normally the weather changes on a dime, and not for the better) and being able to call my parents from work (my supervisor said it was a special occasion and let it slide)! For lunch, I had a fabulously unhealthy lunch of fries and a Schnitzel in a pepper-crème sauce. Yummy! I worked on translations of press releases for the rest of the day, then I headed home, checked e-mail and such, then it was time to head out!

I took the bus to the center of town. Since I was 20 minutes early (wanted to make sure I wouldn’t get lost…which thankfully didn’t happen), I treated myself to a scoop of melon ice cream, which tasted just like a cantaloupe jelly belly jellybean, in ice cream form. Soo refreshing! I met Simone and her husband in front of the City Hall building and we headed to El Sencillito, where I had my first legal drink-a mojito. Of course, turning 21 is no big deal in Germany because the legal drinking age for beer and wine is 16 and the age for everything else is 18. I thought it fit well with the salsa evening we were about to have. After dancing, Simone, Pavel and I headed outside to get some fresh air. I hobbled along the cobblestone streets in my heels until we found the nearest outdoor café for a lovely cup of hot chocolate. A relaxing end to a wonderful birthday.

Now this blog entry has two objectives-first, to tell you about a surely eventful 21st birthday, and second, to tell you how this changed my perception of Germans at the workplace. You see, before I left for Germany, I imagined that the people at work wouldn’t want to become friends with me-more specifically; the relationship would simply be professional. However, this birthday turned this perception upside down. It has been thus far truly a pleasure to work with the people at Saint-Gobain and thankfully, those pre-departure nightmares of being fired and deported from Germany couldn’t be further from the truth!

And remember my entry about that filmed Saint-Gobain experiment? Well, I was on TV!!!!!!!!! It's only three seconds long, but you can see it at www.daserste.de/plusminus. The specific program, "Bessere Wärme-Isolierung im Auto spart Energie" is available in the Mediathek.

Catch-Up...The First Week or "A day in the life"

My day normally begins at 6:15 with a bowl of yogurt and muesli, a granola cereal. I have to be out the door by 7:25 to make the number 21 bus at 7:33. On the bus, I have to fight with a bunch of school children for a seat, because instead of a big yellow bus, most kids take public transportation to school. However, they normally exit in one big herd about a quarter through my commute, and then I can settle into a seat. The commute lasts about forty-five minutes, during which time I listen to "pump up" music-typically auf Deutsch, to a.) wake up and b.) get ready to start speaking German. After the bus ride to Herzogenrath Train Station, it takes about fifteen minutes to walk to the office, but I can normally shave about two minutes off the trek with comfy shoes and a faster pace. The commute lasts a full hour from my apartment to the office.

Once I arrive, I put the nose to the proverbial grindstone. I work with three other women in one large office and have a desk for myself. There is Simone, my supervisor, who is a Marketing Director, and Birgit and Britta are both responsible for more of the communications side of marketing and managing the Intranet. Dr. Offermann is our boss, and Mr. Gambhir (who actually doesn't speak German) is the head of Marketing here in Herogenrath.

Saint-Gobain is a French company and at one time, it was impossible to get a job here if you didn’t know French. Lucky for me, this is no longer the case, however, even at the site in Herzogenrath there is a very international feel, with workers from all over the world. Still, it appears that I am the sole representative of America.

My responsibilities here mostly involve updating information on Saint-Gobain’s competition. I also have been translating and correcting numerous articles for the Intranet site, being a native speaker of English. One day was particularly interesting. Last Wednesday, Saint-Gobain Sekurit did an experiment in cooperation with the public TV station WGR testing the performance of their anti-heat glazing. I got to tag along and take pictures for the Intranet site and wrote an article in German and English presenting the results. Did I mention I might be on TV? I was in a few scenes when the results were reported on camera! The program airs on June 30, so I’ll have to check it out.

Lunch normally happens around noon and I eat in the cafeteria with the department. I normally by my lunch here, because they can cook better than I can and are not limited to two burners and a tiny fridge. This actually works well, because the prices are low and the food is much better than the caf at Eau Claire, even though my co-workers often complain about the food. How can I complain, I ask you, when every Wednesday is Schnitzel day at Saint-Gobain??? The main meal for most Germans is lunch, so don’t worry Mom and Dad-I am getting enough to eat and also get a salad when I can. Now you might be thinking that my clothes might be a bit tight with all this eating. On the contrary, I’ve lost about five pounds since I arrived in Aachen! Must be all that walking to and from work!

I normally work until 3 or 4, and then head back to my apartment either by bus, or train and bus, depending on whether or not I miss the number 21 bus. Once back at the apartment, I spend my time writing in my journal, planning trips or updating my blog site. About once a week I go grocery shopping at the supermarket located next to my apartment building. For dinner I normally have fruit, cherry tomatoes, a sandwich and soup (the fruit and cherry tomatoes are easy to prepare and sometimes I’m pretty lazy when it comes to my meals…). Then to bed around 9-10, rinse and repeat!

Playing Catch-Up...The First Day

I must admit, I was a little late starting this blog, so as the title states, I am playing catch up. Fortunately, I have been regularly keeping a journal, so I will be relaying my records here.

Once I arrived in Aachen, there were some bureaucratic measures to take care of. So after trips to the district office (two visits actually, to register with Aachen, then to get my income card, with which I can get paid-woot woot!), bureau of non-German citizens (to register as a foreign resident), open a bank German bank account (which I did all in German!) and to the bus station to get a monthly bus pass to get to work, I was ready to start makin' da monies!

I woke up promptly at 6:30 am, to give me enough time to get ready and make it to the bus on time. I even had a chance to take a "First Day of Work" picture. So with paperwork and lunch money in hand, I set off. The bus ride went smoothly, but once I arrived at the train station in Herzogenrath, I had no idea how to get to my internship. Asking inside the train station didn't prove helpful at all, so I walked in the direction the train attendant pointed me to. I did not heed her warning that Saint-Gobain had many separate buildings in town...After 10 minutes I arrived at what I presumed to be the building where I was working. I was wrong. It turned out this was a separate branch of Saint-Gobain. The building I was looking for was 15 minutes away-on the other side of the train tracks! I started running, but my heels weren't optimal for long-distance sprinting, so I made it to the train station and hopped a taxi to the building. During the agonizing trip, I kept thinking about punctuality, so valued in the German people and what a terrible first impression I was presenting by my foolishness. Considering there was nothing I could do about my situation, there was nothing else to do but take a deep breath and press on.

Four Euros and a near panic attack later, I arrived at the entrance to the complex. And let me tell you-the complex was complex. After getting my handy-dandy visitors badge, I had to navigate narrow roads lined with cars and cargo. My family can testify how bad my sense of direction is in my own hometown-it was no better at Saint-Gobain Sekurit. Fortunately, I found someone headed for the HR department who I followed to my destination.

An intern working in the HR department greeted me. Although I was 15 minutes late, she assured me it wasn't a problem after my explanation of all that happened and began to lead me through more bureaucratic procedures necessary for the job. Once the paperwork was filled out and signed by the X, I got to meet the personnel in the marketing department-Britta and Birgit, responsible for the communications aspect of marketing-press releases and e-business, and Mr. Offenmann, the boss, along with the other groups that work with auto manufacturers like Audi, Ford and BMW. My supervisor is on a business trip, so I will meet her and get my first assignment on Monday.

The German business world is filled with different rituals, one of which involves the word "you." Such a simple word is quite different in German, which has both formal and informal versions of the pronoun. The trick is, to figure out when to use what. Ready for your German lesson?

Let's begin-Jetzt fangen wir an.

Sie-You, Formal. Normally used with professors, superiors at work and people older than you.

Du-You, Informal. Used with friends, people younger than you or in same age group.

However, if you get to know someone well enough, you can go from "Sie" to "Du." There is a specific ritual involved-namely, the person in question will either introduce themselves with their first name or say "Wir koennen uns duzen," which basically means "We can call each other du." In the Transatlantic Program intercultural seminar, it was emphasized that it may take some time before you can be on "Du" terms with your co-workers. Therefore, I was very surprised when my co-workers jumped to "Du" terms, right off the bat. I gather that the relationship between co-workers is more relaxed at Saint-Gobain, even though I am operating on "Sie" terms with Herr Offenmann, the boss.

The rest of the day was spent learning all I can about Saint-Gobain and struggling with learning names, along with a meeting with Herr Offenmann who explained what the marketing department does, which was surprisingly a low key ordeal.

Saint-Gobain is the main body, separated in different divisions. One Chinese branch deals with abrasives, another in Russia makes glass for groceries, yet another plant is producing solar panels and Saint-Gobain Glasswork in Herzogenrath produces glass for car windshields. This glass is then transported to Saint-Gobain Sekurit in Herzogenrath (across the train tracks), where I work! It is actually this diversity that lessened the impact of the financial situation on Saint-Gobain.

I left at 3:30 so I could catch the bus. This was where my adventure would end...or so I thought. My terrible sense of direction kicked in and sent me in the opposite direction of the train station. I ran into a couple taking their two infants to the train station and said I could accompany them, after they asked if I had a lighter to smoke. We finally arrived at the station, but I had missed my bus by 8 minutes. The next one would arrive in 53 minutes, but I was able to hop a train to the Aachen train station after waiting. After more waiting, I was able to hop a bus to home sweet Haaren. What should have been an hour trip took an hour...and forty-five minutes. I was relieved to be home, settled into some comfy clothes and flopped onto my bed, knowing I sure am getting practice on pressing on!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Let's start at the very beginning...

As I pack, it seems like I'm packing for a very long speech tournament. Inside my suitcase I pack heels, nylons, a makeup bag and gingerly place two skirt suits. Skirt suits just happen to be my favorite outfit. When I don a skirt suit it is similar to Superman donning his cape-I feel like a hot-shot CEO of a Fortune 500 Company, out to take on the world. And in a way, I will be taking on the world again-the working world, that is. If I haven't been within proximity to talk your ear off about this opportunity, let me fill you in about who I am and what brings me "across the big pond".

I just finished my junior year at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire and study German for Business as my major and International Business as my minor. I'm also a member of the UWEC Forensics team (don't worry-it's not anything like CSI. The forensics we do is more like public speaking competitions) and ballroom dance in my spare time. German is really a great passion of mine (but occasionally can be a love/hate relationship) and I've been studying the language ever since I was in seventh grade. My sophomore year I studied abroad for a year in Graz, Austria and to be honest, I didn't think I would find myself in Europe again. Thankfully, this assumption was wrong!

Through the recommendation of my German for Business professor, I applied to the Transatlantic Program, which supplies American students with knowledge of German and an applicable major with an internship in Germany. After submitting my application, I was contacted about a phone interview in German and English. Apparently my German is pretty good and I was one of 20 students nationwide to be selected!

So I had an internship. The only questions that remained were-where would I be working and with what company? I was incredibly fortunate to get a position in the marketing department of Saint-Gobain Sekurit in Aachen, Germany. Saint-Gobain is a French corporation (founded in 1665 in France, it is the oldest surviving corporation) that started out making mirrors, but today is a huge corporation. They produce everything from windshields for cars to building materials to glass bottles for wine and groceries. An interesting factoid: the sky walk at the Grand Canyon, which allows you to take a look into "the belly of the canyon" so to speak, without having to fall to a sure and rocky death, was produced by Saint-Gobain Sekurit.

My internship lasts from June 4th until August 15th, but before the work begins, I will be staying in Berlin for a pre-internship seminar, filled with daily language lessons, briefings on the German business and political climates, as well as day trips to Hamburg and Dresden. Also, if you want to see the official website, go to www.transatlanticprogram.org.

As I finish packing, I realize I will not be headed for a long speech tournament and pack up my travel bible, the "Europe on a Shoestring, Vol. 4" from LonelyPlanet, and my internship bible, "Living and Working in Germany," amoung other things. I'm really excited for this internship-we'll see how it goes and I know this will for sure be an adventure of a lifetime!