I learned in July that I would be spending my year in a town called Damme (pronounced “Dah-muh” and rhymes with “llama”) in the state of Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony). My next step was to do what any normal American my age or younger would do: I Google-d it and went directly to Damme’s Wikipedia page. There stood a single line: “Damme is a town in the district of Vechta, in Lower Saxony, Germany. It is situated approx. 25 km south of Vechta, and 36 km northeast of Osnabrück.”[i] There was also a picture of the coat of arms, some basic numerical data, and 2 photos of the church and a Carneval parade. OK, so I was headed to a small town. No big deal. I could easily travel when I felt things were getting to be too sleepy. A quick check of Google maps and the German-language Wikipedia site confirmed that I was not far from some interesting places, including Hamburg, Bremen and Amsterdam.
As I was arranging my arrival plans a few weeks later, I got some interesting news: there was no train station in Damme. Alright. Well then, surely there was a bus from Osnabrück, right? Yes, but it takes 90 minutes to go 36km and doesn’t run very often. Someone will pick you up at the train station in Osnabrück. Most of the teachers live there and commute to work in a car, so it should be no problem.
Commuting to work in a car? In Germany? Where the hell was I going, Bizarro-Germany?
Apparently, there used to be a train station, but it was torn down for some reason. All of the tracks had been converted to bike trails. On a map of the railroad, you can literally see the two main lines of the Nordwest-Bahn (the Northwest Railroad) split into a Y around Damme and head off towards really cool places. This was obviously devastating to me, but it took me a few days to put my finger on exactly why.
The root of the problem really was how I had imagined this year would be. I saw myself working 15 or so hours per week, biking through old streets to the market, having coffee and drinks with my new German friends, buying cheap clothing at H&M, and flitting off on the weekends to explore neighboring towns. In short, I wanted to repeat my first experience abroad as a working adult and in a new setting. This was probably irrational, and I never would have admitted it to myself before I left, but it’s the truth. My undergrad years were not awesome, but the year in Freiburg was life-changing: I was in a great town and forged wonderful and long-lasting friendships. These were my glory days. I felt I was an alumna of Germany, so to speak. For me, returning to Germany was the equivalent of making my whole family buy the $6 Orange Effect T-shirt, and then dragging them through Blacksburg on a game day, commenting that “it didn’t look like this when I was here!” We’d then go to Mike’s for a burger while I regaled them with tales of debauchery past. My kids would roll their eyes and wish I’d leave so they could party with the tailgaters. But I digress….
Actually arriving in Damme and seeing the town assuaged my fears somewhat. It’s easy to forget that even in rural Germany, you still get a town. There are cafes, bookstores, shops, a gym, a museum and a church. There is even a Turkish grocery store that sells phone cards. It’s still true that most of the young teachers at my school live in Osnabrück, so we won’t be drinking and dancing here in town… also, there’s nowhere to do those things. This all means that I will have to adjust my expectations for the year. Instead of clubs, I have a really beautiful running trail through the woods right behind my house. There a bike trails to all of the neighboring villages, and a museum in town, where I hope to volunteer. An added bonus is that everyone I’ve met so far is warm and friendly, which was unexpected, but has been great.
I wanted to be as involved as one possibly can hope to be in only one year, and Damme will be the perfect setting for that. Instead of the non-stop party that was Freiburg, this will be the year I finally relax and re-focus before [finally] seriously jumping into the job market. Travelling will still be an issue, but I can work that out. One teacher told me today “Just ask someone who lives in Osnabrück for a ride. If they don’t want to, they’ll say ‘no’.” Thank goodness for German directness.
Author’s Note: I should clarify my transportation situation. My colleagues drive to Damme from more happening places, but I actually live in Damme. I commute by bicycle or on foot.