I’m delighted that my first guest blogger of 2012 is Janet Bianchini, who lives in Abruzzo, Italy.
I’m learning German at the moment, as you will know if you read my last three posts here. This simple fact seems to have jogged a lot of people’s memories about their own learning experiences and their experiences of German and German-speaking countries. In Janet’s case, it made her think about the unique opportunity that was presented to her to live and work in the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany as we used to call it, back in 1981.
Apart from her words, as you will see, she still has a store of great images from the time before the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was re-united.
Living and working behind the Iron Curtain
My name is Janet Bianchini and I’m an EFL teacher originally from Oxford, England, but currently based in Abruzzo, central Italy.
I have been teaching for 33 years and I still enjoy the buzz I get from being in the classroom. I am committed to lifelong learning and also interested in the integration of technology within my lessons, both face-to-face and online. I enjoy presenting at international online conferences, where I am happy to share my teaching ideas and experiences.
In 1981, I was just completing a one-year full-time Post Graduate Certificate in Education at Leicester University, specialising in ESL. At the end of a seminar, my tutor Brian Harrison made the following announcement:
“An opportunity has come up to teach EFL to mature students at the Technical University of Dresden. Would anybody like to apply?”
Dresden was of course in the DDR/GDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik/German Democratic Republic) or East Germany, as we called it in those days.
Silence filled the room. People glanced around to see if anyone had shown interest.
“It would be a fantastic experience to see what life is really like behind the Iron Curtain,” said Brian. “And as a foreign guest teacher, you will be very well looked after by the people at TU Dresden.”
I sat up and paid keen attention. Why not?? These two words kept ringing in my ears. Why not give it a go??? What had I got to lose by at least getting further information? So that is what I did. Out of the class of twelve trainee teachers, I was the only one who felt a true glimmer of excitement at the prospect.
I went for it. I applied and was accepted. There was a LOT of red tape, a lot of forms, a lot of questions, background checks, references, a few visits to the GDR Embassy in London for my visa, and so on.
Throughout this long and drawn-out process, I encountered some resistance from my family and friends who thought I had temporarily taken leave of my senses.
Their words are still etched in my mind:
There’s no decent food in the shops!
Your salary will be ridiculously low!
You have to queue for everything!
There are police on every street corner!
They will try to brainwash you!
You won’t be able to say what you really think!
You will be kicked out of the country if you don’t follow the rules!
There are no discos there!!! This was one thing that really worried me.
People will only want to make friends with you to get access to the west!
You will be monitored, your every movement catalogued!
There will be a Stasi member in your classes watching for what you say!
The Stasi were the notorious East German secret police.
Everyone seemed to be saying the same thing: Don’t go, Janet!!!!
I was relatively young, care-free, full of enthusiasm, fresh from learning all the latest communicative techniques in how to teach EFL, and I wanted to do something different in my life. What was I waiting for? In my usual stubborn fashion, I decided to follow my instincts and not follow the fears and misconceptions of others.
I knew they had my best interests at heart, but only I could make this decision. It was a once-in a-lifetime opportunity to go behind the so-called Iron Curtain as a teacher and to stay for a whole year, to live and connect with the people, the society, the regime. To find out for myself – was it all true?? Were all the fears based on the real truth, or founded on propaganda reeled out by the West against the Communist state?? Or a mixture of both???
I really wanted to find out. So I did.
In September 1981, I set off by train from Oxford with a little bit of fear and trepidation mixed with excitement. I had been assured that I would be met at Dresden Hauptbahnhof (main station) and looked after by one of the senior members of Dresden Technical University team of professors.
A flat had been organised for me, with a very low rent. My teaching schedule seemed very fair and quite light at only twenty contact periods a week. I would work Monday–Thursday and then have three whole days free every week to explore the GDR.
It sounded perfect.
The salary was approximately 1,083 DDR Marks per month, 885 after deductions. This equated to approximately £200 per month. No DDR money could be taken out of the country – nobody wanted it. I HAD to spend all my earnings! This sounded absolutely fine to me.
Crossing the Inner Border between the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) and the German Democratic Republic at Oebisfelde by train was quite nerve-racking the first time.
All the passengers had to get off the train and stand behind a long white line on the platform. Military border guards with guns stood to attention around the station. They were not at all friendly-looking. In fact, they looked really stern, rather imposing and tight-lipped. It was night time, I was on my own and yes, my heart did start sinking and I did begin to wonder what on earth I had let myself in for.
One of the guards stood right in front of me and looked at my passport closely. Then he asked me to show him my teeth! I squirmed with total embarrassment. Without explanation, he then took my passport and disappeared for what seemed like an eternity, leaving me to stand behind the white line in a slight panic.
“They are not going to let me enter! Maybe there’s something wrong with my visa! Oh, no, I’ve had it!!!”
The border guard came back, gave me my passport and ordered me back onto the train. That was it. I was finally going to cross over into the East German territory. My adventure was about to begin.
By the way, I have never worked out why my teeth were checked with my passport on my first border crossing. Did the East German state already have sophisticated digital scanning equipment in 1981 to check dental records with official documents? I will never know.
Living in Dresden was to be a fantastic experience for me. Dresden was a beautiful city, dubbed the “Florence of the Elbe.” It had been heavily bombed at the close of World War Two and parts of the city and its ruined buildings had been left untouched from that period. This was to remind GDR citizens of the futility of war.
It was also a vibrant, cultural city. The Dresden State Art Collections consisted of eleven museums. Raphael’s world famous masterpiece The Sistine Madonna is housed in the Old Masters Picture Gallery, along with other magnificent paintings. I used to spend a lot of my free time happily wandering around the galleries. I have a collection of books to remind me of them.
World-renowned Meissen china also heralds from just outside Dresden. The company produces the most exquisite fine bone china in the world. Alas, I was not able to afford to buy a little souvenir, even in those days.
However, I was fortunate enough to be presented by a group of students with a specially commissioned coin of the Dresden Zwinger Museum with the two famous Meissen swords stamped on it. I have no idea how much this would be worth nowadays.
Despite the fears of my friends back home, Dresden had a fantastic social scene and nightlife. East German people knew how to enjoy themselves, pubs, nightclubs and restaurants were always full, and the customers looked immensely happy, at least while they were out having fun. Beer and the local “Sekt” (champagne) usually flowed. I believe it was a way to forget the strictness and harshness of the state regime.
Learning German in the GDR
During the first three months of my stay leading up to Christmas 1981, I lived a fairly calm and solitary life in between teaching at the TU and interacting with the professors and the students at the campus.
In the evenings, I took to listening to the big DDR radio I was loaned by the university and yes, the only programmes on offer consisted of news items railing against western corruption and the wicked lifestyles in the west. It was pure propaganda aimed at making East German citizens feel proud that their country was not as debased as those Capitalist countries over the border. Every day I heard how wonderful DDR athletes were, and how many scientific & photographic products were exported overseas. I learned a LOT of German and set phrases!!
In addition, I attended German language classes every week for three-hour lessons together with other language students from other East European countries like Romania. There were also some students from Cuba.
Our teacher Herr Doring was extremely strict. He used to get very upset whenever anyone made simple prepositional mistakes in the frequent drills he used to set. We did numerous grammar exercises, which I personally enjoyed. Gap fills, sentence transformations, stem sentences and so on.
Herr Doring started off super strict, and then over the course of the weeks he showed us his gentler side. I knew he really cared about his students and just wanted them to achieve high accuracy. I respected him very much indeed. He was strict but fair. I used to write a comment in my diary after each session. They usually say “Very good lesson!” or “Excellent lesson!” so he was definitely doing something right.
Teaching EFL at The Technical University of Dresden
I taught small classes of maximum six students – all men and all eminent scientists, doctors, professors and experts in the fields of science, medicine and technology. My students were all “mature”, mostly Elementary level leading towards Intermediate Level. I was the youngest member of staff at the TU and my students were all much older than me.
We had a lot of fun in the classes, which were aimed at conversational English. I used lots of homemade flashcards and I loved teaching the groups. I was so lucky to have only six students and the opportunities for maximising communication were excellent and results achieved in a short time were very good. I was often observed by the professors and luckily they seemed very happy with my teaching.
Later, I found out that I did actually have a secret “Stasi” member (East German secret police) in each class whose job it was to report whether my lessons contained any reference to three taboo subjects – religion, the Royal Family and politics. As you can imagine, it was difficult to avoid talking about these subjects, but somehow I managed it.
Life is indeed a circle. The “hot” course book in 1981-1982 in the GDR was the Streamline series by Bernard Hartley and Peter Viney and I used “Streamline Departures” for the whole year with my Beginners/ Elementary students.
I still know the contents inside out.
My biggest achievement was to take part in a “Kolloquium” (Conference) at Dresden University entitled “Teaching English to Adults”. I spoke for twenty minutes on “The role of visual aids at the elementary stage”. The conference was attended by professors and teachers from the whole of the GDR. It was a huge honour. I remember feeling elated and so proud to stand in front of so many distinguished educators talking about my favourite subject.
Were all the fears expressed by family and friends true?
Yes, apart from worries about my social life, they were indeed ALL true, including the fact that some people only wanted to make friends with me because I was from the West. I was wise enough to understand the difference between those that wanted to befriend me for ulterior motives, and those who were genuinely interested in me as a person.
My diary contains a few references to GDR citizens who followed me, citizens who struck up conversations on the tram, who asked me very leading questions indeed, aimed solely at trapping me and revealing my innermost feelings about the regime.
I had the very good fortune to meet some wonderful people from the GDR, who became life-long friends. Thirty years of friendship that survived the Iron Curtain. Amongst them are my best friends Marion, Gitta and Uli, and Ehrhard, my former colleague and TU mentor.
My year in Dresden was brilliant, because of these friendships. Without their constant support and kindness, my stay might not have turned out to be such an enriching and worthwhile experience. I was indeed very happy in Dresden, and the decision to leave after one year was not taken lightly, but my next port of call to teach EFL was to be the volcanic island of Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands.
What a truly incredible year THAT was going to be …..
Keeping Hold of History
I have kept everything from my 1981-82 GDR days. Books, my old passport full of DDR stamps, postcards, letters, pay slips, bank statements, social security book, night club entrance tickets, cinema tickets, stamps, restaurant receipts, tram passes, posters and general ephemera of everyday life. Plus two complete diaries with thoughtful and candid insights.
I also kept all the official DDR telegrams I received. In those days, telegrams were the quickest way to communicate and were very brief, I guess a bit like Twitter is nowadays!
I knew then that I was living in a momentous period in European history.
Here’s a greetings card with the famous hammer and sickle, the symbol of the GDR and one of my boxes full of ephemera, and bits of everyday life from 1981-82.
And here’s a ticket for the “Gondel” Night Club. It cost 2,60 DDR Marks.
I am still waiting to hear whether a “file” was set up on my movements during the year I spent in Dresden. There are thousands of people in Berlin sifting through the old Stasi files. I have submitted all the paperwork, and time after time, the response has been to write again in two years’ time. There is a huge backlog. Writing this post has reminded me to write to the central office again. I refuse to give up!!
My physical memories reside on my bookshelf and in two boxes marked simply “GDR”. My spiritual and innermost memories lie deep within my heart, never to be forgotten.
If you want to see what the GDR was like, watch The Lives of Others, an excellent Oscar-winning film which reflects what was going on at the time I was there. When I saw it for the first time, I felt as if I had been transported back in time.
Thanks very much to Ken for giving me the time and space to write a guest post on his wonderfully entertaining blog, which is one of my favourites. It is a great honour to have this opportunity and I am very grateful to have the chance to revisit memories.
You can visit my blog at: http://civitaquana.blogspot.com to find out what I am getting up to at the moment.