Our first days in Passau, Refugees, Migration, Cultural Exchange, and Gilmore Girls

6/22, on a bus somewhere in Bavaria

I was hoping to keep up with this much better than I have, but here we are, four days in, and only one blog post written. We’re currently on the bus from Passau to a little town in Bavaria called Neumarkt where we’ll visit an all-girls school. So far, adding photos from a memory card to my iPad seems nearly impossible, so pictures will have to come later, unless I can remember to take a couple on my phone at every stop. For the three of you who are still reading these, I’ll work hard to do that, as the photos really do improve the quality of the posts. 😉 [edit: clearly I didn’t find a sufficient solution to this problem, so here were are, three weeks after the fact.]

Passau, in lower Bavaria, was a lovely, quaint little town, with a large university, a bustling city center, and a large river cruising presence. It’s a very different place when the river cruise ships are present–as most of the people who come off the boats are non-Germans of a certain age, it definitely temporarily changes the demographics of the city, and certainly makes it a bit harder to move around freely. As with any city, I much prefer to stay until the most touristy of tourists head out of town. It’ll be one of my many travel tips, whenever that post comes to fruition. So many of these cities have completely different personalities when they’re more locals than not. Assisi in Umbria, Italy is the best example of this I’ve encountered. It is most definitely worth buying a train ticket, getting there yourself, and staying a night or two rather than cramming on a bus with 50 other tourists for a three hour tour of the city.

Our first afternoon in Germany, we took a boat tour of the Danube, the Ilz, and the Inn rivers, which converge in Passau. The city has dealt  with some serious flooding in the recent past, but the rivers have become an important part of the identity of this city.

The Inn River (left) and the Danube River (right) converging on a city park



The next morning, we took a walking tour of the city, which was just about the perfect thing for a group of 16 jet lagged Americans to do. Starting at Dom St. Stephan, we walked through the city, learning its history, ranging from medieval walls to World War II Allied outposts. We also had a very important cultural experience on our last night in Passau; the Euro Cup is happening, and we had the chance to watch the German National Team play Northern Ireland from a biergarten in Passau. Die Mannschaft, or the Machine, as the team is called, is a pretty big deal, and one of the things EVERYONE in Germany can get behind. I’m sure this won’t be our last experience with futbol while we’re here.

While in Passau, we met with several people who are directly involved in dealing with the refugee situation in Germany. As a border town, Passau has experienced a significant influx of immigrants since 2013. At one point, they had as many as 10,000 refugees coming into this little city of 20,000 every day. One of the people we met with was a lawyer who specializes in refugee and immigration law. She mentioned that in Passau alone, there are over 200 social service organization in the city alone that are working to help refugees assimilate and integrate into German society. I was really interested in what organizations apart from the governments of Bavaria and Germany sought to do to deal with the considerable (and hopefully temporary) strain this puts on resources, education, economic production, and infrastructure of places where immigrants come in large numbers. Many Germans see this as not only a complication, but also as an opportunity, as Germany has an aging population that needs more people to replace workers who are retiring. They also know first-hand the problems and perceptions that can sometimes accompany a diverse and non-integrated immigrant population. The Turkish guest worker programs of the 1960s-1980s gave Germany a bit of experience with integrating a largely non-Christian population into mainstream society, but it has some very clear differences as well. Certainly though, the Syrian push-factors change the way the Germans need to deal with this influx. The most incredible thing I heard while we were talking with her was this:

“We need to help these people because they need help.”

As a strong proponent of, you know, being human, I thought the responsibility some Germans feel for their fellow human was so affirming. Good people exist everywhere, and the idea that if we can help, and there are people who need help, help should be provided, is not revolutionary, but it’s just one that we need to keep working on living out. The Germans are facing a seriously unfair portion of the immigration situation, but it seems that in our first visit with people who work directly with refugees, human-heartedness is the overwhelming sentiment.

After that, we had the chance to meet with locals to talk about life in Passau. We happened to meet with two teachers, Sonya and Eva. They work at two different schools in Passau, but are both high school teachers who are well-traveled, interesting, and unafraid to engage in deep and meaningful conversations with Americans they had just met. We talked politics, terrorism, immigration, education, and of course American TV shows. It surprised me how interested they were in American TV, but Gilmore Girls seems to be an international favorite! It was the perfect beginning of our experience to meet locals who were as genuinely interested in learning about us as we were about them, and definitely reinforced the importance of exchange: ideas, languages, people, culture, TV shows…it all helps us better understand people outside of ourselves. What a good message to leave Passau with!

MC Lean

Me, Derek, our host Sonya, Candace, and Downing on our first full day in Germany

Thoughts from 35,000 feet above the Atlantic

June 18/19, somewhere over the Atlantic

Many people don’t enjoy transatlantic flights, and there are certainly many reasons not to. I, on the other hand, don’t sleep on planes, which usually gives me seven relatively uninterrupted hours to watch movies that I don’t get to watch during the school year. After a late start to Paris, and a questionable timeframe to make our connection to Munich, I settled in for some unremarkable plane food, and three movies. I watched Spotlight, All Roads Lead to Rome, which is a terrible Sarah Jessica Parker movie that I thought would be more about Rome than it was a really awful love story, and The Help. I also attempted to read, but that was at about 1am, when everyone who is normally-wired was trying to sleep, so the light was a little much.

Before I launch into my thoughts on the next two weeks, I should tell you a bit about the organization that is allowing me to participate in this opportunity; The Goethe-Institut is an organization with 159 locations in 98 countries around the world, seeking to increase knowledge of German language and culture, as well as create alliances with local organizations. Its head office is in Munich, and the primary US office is now centered in Washington, DC. One branch of Goethe’s commitment to spreading German culture and language is the Transatlantic Outreach Program, which is “a public/private partnership that promotes education about Germany, fosters intercultural dialogue, and provides the opportunity for North American social studies educators, STEM educators, and decision makers to experience Germany.” This incredible commitment to spreading the importance of modern Germany takes the shape of numerous trips to Germany for educators every summer. This summer, there are six study tours–five with social studies educators, and one with STEM educators. All six groups have different itineraries and focuses, and get to experience a wide variety of Germany cities and areas of study. It’s an incredible opportunity, and one I am happy to answer questions about–so teacher friends, please ask away!

Our group, known as TOP 2, had our orientation with TOP 3, which is a STEM group of educators who have a different itinerary and different focus than we do. They have the chance to go to a town built on completely sustainable, renewable energy, and visit an asparagus farm, which sounds like an incredibly unique experience. I’m really interested in finding out more about Germany’s vocational education system, especially as it relates to educating and caring for the whole person (Cura Personalis has become an important part of my ethos. Thanks Marquette!). I’m excited to talk with both German students and teachers about how they feel the liberal arts and humanities are a part of their education.

I hope it’s clear, even by this point in the blogging process, that I believe people are an essential part of the value of education. Seeking human-heartedness wasn’t just a really neat story I wanted to share with you from Korea, it was and is something that drives my teaching and hopefully my behavior generally. Watching The Help always reminds me of this; if not for the grammar, “You is Kind, You is Smart, You is Important” would be a life motto too. Convincing ourselves and others of that is half the battle.

Our tour, TOP 2, composed of social studies teachers from Maryland to California, and lots of places in between, will be focused on a variety of things, but will also include significant time and energy focused on the refugee situation in Europe, and in Germany in particular. What it means for Germany’s economy, education, healthcare, politics, among many other things, is what we’ll hopefully be investigating for the next two weeks. Along the way, there’ll be ample opportunity to see many beautiful things, eat quite a bit of good food, and get to know teachers who are interested, passionate, and care about making a difference. It’ll be a pretty great way to spend my first full weeks of summer, and will certainly be an inspiring experience.


We learned quite a bit of conversational German yesterday, and though I’m not sure much of it stuck, here goes the granddaughter of a German farmer, into one of her ancestral homelands, hoping for enlightening and engaging conversations, important cross-cultural exchanges, and let’s be honest, some good food and drink along the way.

MC Lean