Tuesday, November 2, 2010

It was going really well until the Germans danced to Achy Breaky Heart...

Right now, I'm at a conference in Bonn about quality management in international voluntary services, specifically volunteers from Germany going to the Global South.  Although this doesn't have tons to do with my job (most of my interactions are with volunteers serving in western Europe and North America), I'm really glad I came.  It's so rejuvenating to be somewhere where the discussions are about theory and studies, as opposed to my usual bureaucratic office work.  Most of the conference proceedings are in English, but it's in the free time conversations I have with (other?) young academics about questions of power and privilege and how these things affect international development work where I notice that my German is slowly getting better and I'm getting to the point where I can have conversations and construct sentences and thoughts almost as well as the Germans with whom I'm talking.

And that's exciting, and... I almost feel like I've found a new excitement for what I'm doing.  Only almost, though, because I ultimately know that most of my time is going to be spent sending Abmeldungen and Anmeldungen and Dienstbescheinigungen and whatever else to different places (and filing.  I HATE FILING)... but maybe I'll be able to bring what I learn here and my analysis and everything else into the jobs I have.

There have been times at EIRENE when I've been surprised by statements made by volunteers that have gone unchallenged -- for example, one (White, male, middle class) volunteer, when talking about his time spent serving in a homeless shelter in the southern US, said, "I had seen on TV that Black people laugh a lot and are happy all the time, and in my time in the US, I saw that it really is so."  I didn't say anything, and probably should have -- ultimately, the goal of international volunteer service isn't to reinforce preexisting racist stereotypes.  And it's also true that most people (myself in cluded) aren't aware of how problematic many things they take for granted are until someone calls them out on it.

I'm not telling this story in order to somehow damn EIRENE and the work they're doing -- I will stand up in support of study abroad and long-term volunteer service opportunities at a moment's notice, and my teenaged and young adult years have been greatly influenced by time spent abroad.  There are also a lot of times when you notice that this volunteer service accomplished really good things... right before I watched the presentation I mentioned earlier, I read in a volunteer evaluation that although "I had always been taught and had always believed that all people were equal, it wasn't until my volunteer service that I realized what believing this really meant."

I used to beat myself up every time I had the chance to call someone out on a racist/sexist/homophobic/classist/whatever else statement, but didn't.  I'm still not okay with the fact that I don't do it all the time... but the weight of the world doesn't rest only in my hands.  A UU friend of mine (and, incidentally, a former BVSer) once gave me a piece of advice for which I am extremely grateful: Let yourself make one mistake every day.  Don't beat yourself up about it, don't spend hours thinking about how you could have handled the situation better.  Just let yourself be fallible.  This isn't meant to be an excuse for letting problematic assumptions and actions go unchallenged.

And now, slowly but surely, I'm getting to the point where I realize that by trying to do everything and save the world and dismantle every single oppressive institution before I turn 30, I'm overworking myself to the point of total unproductivity.  The weight of the world doesn't rest only in my hands.  (Can you tell I'm having to tell myself that over and over again?)  Changing gears, though, is really challenging.  Ever since I was 13, a huge part of my life has been defined by my involvement with church committees -- to the point where, in my first year of college, I was flying to Boston (or somewhere else) about once a month.  The fact that I was able to focus a lot of my attention on things other than UU youth ministry (like tech theatre!  oh, right, and maybe my studies) for the rest of my college career is probably of the few reasons why I can thank the UUA administration for systematically dismantling the continental youth leadership structures.  For the first time since I was 13, I am not on any committees.  I am a member of a congregation, but my formal commitments end there.  And so now, I have to learn how to be a religious person in a way that isn't defined by committee memberships and institutional commitments.  I am currently working on the intentional process of BEING.

By the way, in one of my workshops today, we watched a video from TED (awesome, by the way) in which Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian author, talks about the importance of stories and relationship, as well as the danger of a single narrative.  It's about 20 minutes long and SO WORTH YOUR TIME.

Oh, and welcome to my brain, by the way.  This is what goes on inside it most of the time.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

scribbling on napkins in foreign ports...

Hello, blogosphere!

I guess I should probably update this here blog thing sometime... anyways, I've been in my project for almost two months now, and am probably about as settled in as I'm going to get.  Church bells have slowly become part of the normal rhythm of my life -- since I'm right next to a Moravian Brethren congregation, there are bells every half hour and sometimes (like just now, since it's 10am on Sunday) lots of bells.  I want to go to a Sunday service over there at some point, but I'm rarely awake enough on a Sunday morning to make it there... plus, I don't want to go alone, because I feel weird enough in a lot of church services as is.  Although since the Moravian Brethren expressly believe in not converting people, at least it probably won't lead to awkward attempted conversion situations.

When I'm at work (which is just downstairs from where I live), I mostly spend my time sitting at a desk, listening to music or NPR podcasts, and trying to convince myself that I should actually get my work done.  I'm mostly sitting and doing office droney work things, and I didn't realize how much  I needed intellectual stimulation and challenging work until I didn't have any.  I expressed it really well when talking to one of my coworkers over dinner on Friday night -- "I need to be challenged to really stay engaged, and I'm not challenged by my job anymore.  I've learned most of what I need to learn and can do it all.  Now I'm bored and want new things."  So we'll see.  My most direct supervisor is almost not sick anymore, so he'll hopefully be working part-time again in about a month.  Maybe then I can get more exciting things to do.  Also, I get to go on a business trip to Bonn in about two weeks to go to a conference about volunteer service and international development.  I am really excited.

Another important facet of my life here is the regularity of my library visits... I go 2-3 times a week, mostly to bring back movies and get more.  Although I still read quickly in German, I read more slowly than I do in English... and I'm usually reading multiple books at once, so it sometimes takes a bit for me to get through something.  My main book lately is Cornelia Funke's Tintenherz, which was published in English translation as Inkheart.  I read a lot of German young adult literature, which has confused the librarians in the past -- I'll be checking out non-mainstream films, random non-fiction history/politics/sociology books, and a YA book or two, and they're like "WE HAVE NO IDEA HOW OLD YOU ARE AND WHAT KIND OF THINGS YOU DO." 

When not at work, I'm probably reading, watching a movie, wasting time on the Internet, or knitting -- or playing Ligretto with assorted coworkers and flatmates.  I also enjoy going for walks along the Rhine, but the weather has been getting less pretty and more German-winter-like.  I've also joined a choir, but I'm still feeling kind of lukewarm about it.  It's half an hour uphill by bike, and it's kind of your typical German church choir filled with people over 55 who have all been in the choir for, like, 30 years.  They feel different than my demographically similar choir in Bargteheide, but maybe that's a regional thing.  I'm definitely more Norddeutsch than Rheinisch.  But we do get to sing some music I really like, like Heinrich Schütz!  (I love me some Schütz, seriously.)

Sometimes I get lucky, and have the whole flat to myself for a weekend (like this weekend!), so I can spread out a bit more and spend lots of time in the kitchen without worrying I'm keeping other people from doing stuff.  Yesterday, I baked Nutella biscotti and a batch of ginger spice cookies, and I have dough sitting in the fridge to bake some more this afternoon.

Also, I'm sort of starting to consider getting my Masters here in Germany after I'm done with my volunteer service here, but we'll see.  I'd have to get a lot better at writing things in German, but I don't really know how to improve my German academic writing skills (which I've never really been taught anyways) without, well, studying in Germany.  But since I already have a BA and a fulltime job, I'm not really sure how I would fit academic work into that.  We'll see.  I still have a bit of time to decide.  And fortunately, a lot of my coworkers/friends (I'm stating it that way because I don't really have any friends who aren't my coworkers) have the German equivalent of Master's degrees, so I can talk to them about things.

And, as seems to be usual for me, the title of my post is from a song.  This one is Ani DiFranco (it was only a matter of time!)... the quality in the video is really bad because she recorded these songs onto answering machine tapes when she was, like, 18.  She never re-recorded this song, but I quite like it.

And, as usual, I'm reachable via e-mail, Facebook, assorted messengers, and the good old postal service at
Ellen Zemlin
Postfach 13 22
56503 Neuwied

If you send me mail, you'll get mail back!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

home! (for the next two years)

Hello, world!

Well, I made it to Neuwied (although not without incident) via a few days in Geneva, where the BVS Europe coordinator lives.  Geneva was beautiful and the weather was nice (thankfully), although a bit warm some days.  High points include taking a tour of the UN, seeing the place where Michael Servetus was burned, and walking to France.

And now, some photos:

jet d'eau and mont blanc
the Jet d'Eau, some buildings, and Mont Blanc

flags at the united nations office
Flags and such at the UNO

buildings and boats
Geneva at sunset

After a few days in Geneva, I took the train up to Neuwied, which is in southwestern Germany.  It's about 50 miles south of Köln.  I'm living in a three-bedroom apartment (with two other volunteers/interns) that takes up about half of the third floor (US counting).  My room is pretty big -- I have a bed, a few shelf-y type units, a built-in closet (really uncommon), a large desk, a couch, and a stereo system that may or may not function.  I'll post photos at some point, but I'm still kind of moving in and don't feel like taking any photos now.

I'm living in the same building where I work, and it's definitely a situation in which you have to make a conscious effort to a) get out of the house regularly and b) stay away from your office on evenings and weekends, unless you're actually supposed to be working at those times.  Now that the weather is reasonably nice and it stays light until 8:30-9ish, that's easy to do, but it'll be harder in the winter.

Anyways, I can't really think of much else to write, and I want to go out and sit in the sun and read for a bit.

If you want to contact me, e-mail, Facebook, IM, and such are always options.  I'm also reachable via mail:
Ellen Zemlin
Postfach 13 22
56503 Neuwied

Friday, August 6, 2010

the power of truth is the fuel for the flame...

While on vacation in Minnesota earlier this summer, I read Marcelo in the Real World.  The story is about a 17-year-old autistic boy who spends the summer working in his dad's law firm, although that's really secondary to what's relevant for this post.  Here's a conversation between Marcelo and one of his coworkers:
"I have a CD of the Goldberg Variations at home.  It is by a pianist named Glenn Gould, and I think Glenn Gould plays the Goldberg Variations more correctly than Keith Jarrett."
"More correctly?  More correctly?  Is there such a thing as more correctly?"

"Yes," I say.  But in fact, I'm not sure "more correctly" is grammatically correct.

"Okay, fine.  I'm going to skip the 'more correctly' discussion for the time being.  I can't believe you said that.  You are so, so wrong.  But let's leave that aside for now.  I want you to answer me this: Who is the better artist, who has the most talent?  Your Glenn Gould interpreting Bach's Goldberg Variations 'more correctly,' as you put it, or my Keith Jarrett improvising, creating on the spot?  Answer that for me."
Ever since I read that, this question has been rolling around in my head, and it came to mind again while sitting in the van in Beltway traffic today.  I'm not entirely sure what brought it about, but I think it was a combination of gardening, Crime and Punishment, and thinking about my tendency to look at institutions and systems and processes and very quickly start thinking about ways in which they could be improved or done more efficiently or done in a way that makes more sense to me.  This is both a curse and a blessing.

But like Marcelo, "I can't.  I am unable to answer her question.  I am at a total loss.  I see the skills and talents required for both types of playing, and I am stuck."  I am unsure whether this aspect of myself is more of a curse or more of a blessing.  I imagine that my time at EIRENE, where a large amount of my time will be spent doing "routine office work," will make that clear rather quickly... and I sure hope that it'll turn out to be... well, not a hindrance at least.  Perhaps my perception of office work is slightly skewed, but I feel like as long as everything gets done on time and ends up in the right place, it shouldn't really matter what my method is.  I'm probably wrong.

As with my last post, the title comes from an Indigo Girls song that's been on heavy rotation lately -- Let It Be Me, which is from Rites of Passage.  (I think.  I can't be bothered to actually look it up.)

Lots of Indigo Girls love going on 'round these parts.  Not that that's particularly uncommon, I guess.  (Also, this live version seems way faster than the album version.  Who knows.)

Anyways, I should get to bed.  I'm in Delaware right now staying at a fellow BVSer's house as part of an extended journey home -- I get to sleep in(!) and then we're probably going to the beach tomorrow afternoon.  Good times.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

you've gotta tend the earth if you want a rose...

Over the past few weeks at orientation, I've rediscovered the (for me) necessity of blending work with my head with work with my hands. While in college, I had tech theatre, so when I didn't feel like reading or analyzing or theorizing or whatever, I could go and do stuff with lights or build random stuff or (as it usually turned out), go throw things at my boss. In that light, I've had a few... awakenings, if you will, here at orientation.

1) I'm going to go spend the next two years doing office work. I am okay with this, and can handle it, and am excited about starting my work with EIRENE soon. I'm just going to have to make sure that I make a conscious effort to get involved and do stuff outside of the office building where I'll be working and living. I'd love to be able to start a garden on-site (square foot garden on a balcony, perhaps?), but there's a lot upon which that depends, obviously.

2) At this point, I don't want to spend two years working in an office and then launch right into a 5-7(+?) year Ph.D. program. A year or two of working-with-my-hands volunteering between EIRENE and grad school sound wonderful at this point -- and then I can probably still be ABD by the time I'm 30.

3) I'm really going to need to get a bike when I'm in Neuwied, and preferably this'll be a non-crap bike that's good for riding distances. Ideally, I'd find an abandoned-but-still-in-nice-shape old road bike that I could adopt and turn into my very own, but this is kind of a pipe dream.

Today we're talking about the death penalty at orientation, and although I think that this topic is really important and that many issues within the prison industrial complex desperately need to be addressed, I'm not sure if I think that the direction it's taking is one that I agree with. I guess there are a few reasons, including the fact that it's focusing a lot on the personal stories and emotional appeals of a few people, and I (thus far) haven't seen it as compelling reason to abolish the death penalty in general... even though I already think that it should be abolished.

Tomorrow is to be spent cleaning, packing, and spending our last day of intentional community together... and apparently it will include footwashing, something common to the Church of the Brethren, but which I haven't experienced, as a participant or as an observer.  My biggest worry about it is that someone will tickle me and I'll kick them in the face.  This is a legitimate worry.

Oh, also, my flights to Europe have been booked!  On August 23rd, I'll be flying Indianapolis-New York City (JFK)-Paris-Geneva.  I'll be in Geneva for a few days before heading off to Neuwied.  I can't believe it's this imminent.

Well, I need to leave the Artful Dodger and head back for lunch pretty soon -- for those of you wondering about the origin of this post title, it's from an Indigo Girls song that I've been listening to a lot lately.  Here's a video of them performing it.

Well, goodbye, everyone!  I'll be home starting around the 9th, and will be around Indy (and hopefully Fort Wayne) for most/all of the two weeks after that.  So call me/text me/Facebook me/send me a carrier pigeon and we can work something out.  :-D

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Hey, everyone! (Although I haven't actually told anyone about this blog yet, so I don't have any readers...)

Anyways, I'm at orientation and it's going well. Right now, we have a break between a session on culture shock and such and dinner, so some of the German volunteers (many of whom are from EIRENE, where I'll probably be volunteering), another American, and I all walked to a really neat locally owned coffee shop in downtown Harrisburg called the Artful Dodger. Their chai is excellent, and the atmosphere is really neat.

Thus far, we've biked a lot (I got a nice old road bike to use) and have been to some really neat places -- a Brethren and Mennonite heritage center and a local urban organic gardening collective so far, and we're going to go see more places in the community in the next two and a half weeks. On Saturday (I think), I'll find out officially that I'm going to EIRENE, even though it's almost a definite at this point -- I'm excited. Also, I did some more reading about the organization in the BVS files, and they're even more awesome than I thought -- all of the meals served at their functions are vegetarian because of the non-sustainability of the meat industry, and every employee there gets paid the same wages.

Anyways, I can't really think of much else to write. Oh! Send me mail. My address is
Ellen Zemlin (duh)
c/o BVS Orientation
110 S. High Street
Harrisonburg VA 22801

I'm here until August 6th, and mail doesn't get fowarded.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010