Coming Home from Dresden


Photo submitted by Pete Grapentien.

Pete Grapentien

Kummerspeck is a term that Germans use for the weight gained when a person eats because of emotional longing. Literally translated, it means “grief bacon.”

Pinching the bottom of my stomach, I check for any trace amounts of kummerspeck leftover from the three months spent immersed in a country of currywurst and 50 cent beer. Three months spent longing for a language I understood. But now that I’m reunited with that language, I just want to go back. Back to a country of reliable public transportation and, yes, government subsidized 50 cent white ales.

Eighteen credit hours in the Teaching English as a Foreign Language, also known as TEFL, program prepared me for a lot. It prepared me to teach, adapt to new situations and make quick decisions. But what it didn’t prepare me for was the “goodbye forevers,” the day dreams of the Elbe River, the feeling of absence when looking at photographs of old students, the grief bacon.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing easy about the program. Eighteen credit hours doesn’t fully convey the amount of time spent working outside the classroom. Lesson plans must be written. Classes must be taught. Deadlines must be met.

But now and then you have a free day which can trigger an almost crippling wave of relief. Germans don’t say “a weight has been lifted from my shoulders,” they say “a stone has fallen from my heart.”

The free days, oh, the free days! These are the nights spent bar hopping with Italians and New Zealanders you met minutes prior, spent at rooftop parties in Berlin, spent dodging that Canadian lesbian who you thought asked to see your shwantz.

There is however the occasional desire to hear your native language. That certain feeling of deficiency when separated from something as internal as your native tongue. This is the real genius of studying TEFL abroad: the appreciation you develop for the power of language and its importance in the development of a person’s identity.

And then there’s the beauty.

There’s a condition called Stendhal syndrome which occurs when a person is exposed to overwhelming beauty. This condition is characterized by dizziness and rapid heartbeat, all common characteristics of walking along the bank of the river Elbe. Across the river is Old City, 500 year old Baroque buildings, beer gardens, restaurants and glass ponds that reflect the evening sun like silver. Pictures are nice, but they don’t capture the taste of morning air while en route to a bazaar on the Elbe.

The point of the whole program though, and the most-rewarding part, is the student-run classes. The hardest part of leaving was knowing that I probably wouldn’t see my class again. A class comprised of middle-aged and older East Germans. It’s very sobering to have conversations with people who have lived through a communist regime, people who had to get their news from pirate radio stations, who lost their life savings during the unification, who were victimized, deceived, and patronized once rescued.

As I sit here writing this article, way past its deadline, the way the rain hits the window reminds me of train rides back from the school in Bärnsdorf, and the obvious detail I overlooked while teaching the class: that I’d have to leave. My life is in the United States, and maybe it was my “absurd amount of American positivity” (as one Irish professor put it,) but I thought when I left that nothing would change, like somehow I would bring the students and Dresden with me.

It wasn’t until I was back in the U.S. that I realized how important the experience was to me and how much I would miss my students: yet another addition of kummerspeck to my already-full load of grief bacon.