Learning the German word
for 'howdy, y'all!'
Local students return from trip to Germany
By Richard Zowie
Times Guardian Staff Writer
Jennifer Heimbecker, a senior this year at Smithson Valley High School, got a recent taste of a different culture. While visiting Germany, she and her group went to a high waterfall and were given peanuts.
"They didn't tell me what it was for," said Heimbecker, who's 85 percent German and has grandparents who speak German. "I started eating [the peanuts] and they looked at me funny."
As it turned out, the peanuts were actually for squirrels that were at the waterfall. The awkwardness soon disappeared as those around Heimbecker felt bad for her and started eating their own peanuts to make her feel better, much to the possible chagrin of the squirrels (if they feel chagrin).
Pam Zaiontz, a Smithson Valley alumnus who now studies criminal justice at San Antonio's St. Mary's University, went on the trip also. She recalled a moment when she and a group of students got lost while walking back to their youth hostel in Rüdesheim.
"Two students split off into one way and four of us went another way," recalled Zaiontz. "The vineyards there were steep and almost straight up. We walked up to the top and were a mile away from where we were supposed to be. It was great getting lost in Germany."
The two young ladies were part of a group of mostly Smithson Valley students, led by school German teacher Donna Hickl, that returned to Comal County June 29 after a month-long visit in Germany (or Deutschland, as the Germans call it). This trip marked the seventh year that Comal County students have been making summer trips to Germany.
"We did a few new things this year," said Hickl. "The group this year was very active in the school, and the teachers really raved about how wonderful [our students] were and participated in class. They even taught the German students how to line dance."
Hickl was thankful for organizations like the Hochheim Insurance Group and Sam's Club for helping to finance the trip, the cost of which she described as "quite astronomical" compared to last year due to the dollar doing weakly against the euro. Given the chance to put their German language skills to practice and become familiar with German culture, Hickl feels the trip was very beneficial for the students.
"I think the kids learned so much about not just Germany but about experience in opening their eyes and vision to how globally things are now," she said. "It's very important to be tolerant and know that just because something is different doesn't make it wrong or make us better."
The students visited many cities that would make an English-language computer spell checker wave a white flag in surrender. Among the cities were Dachau, Munich, Zugspitze, Neuschwanstein, Trier and Frankfurt. They also took a boat ride on the Rhein River.
Besides those cities Hickl's students got a historical look at Comal County as they visited Braunfels-namesake of New Braunfels. There, they toured a castle and learned the history if it and the surrounding town.
One of the German guides, whom Hickl called Herr Adam, also talked to the students about the history of catapults and how they were actually used in-for lack of a better term-medieval biological warfare. The carcasses of dead cats and dogs would be loaded into the catapults and would be fired into a castle in hopes that the rotting corpses would land in the castle and spread disease. This, Herr Adam explained, is where the English idiom "It's raining cats and dogs" came from.
Hickl recalled that one of her students decided to try on a medieval-era armor helmet only to find it almost caused him a permanent headache.
"When he put took it off, his ears almost came off since we're much bigger than those guys used to be in medieval times," she said.
Besides spending two weeks in their host students' classes, the students also got to spend two weeks living with German families. For Heimbecker, some of the customs took getting used to.
"I was amazed at the cultural differences and how different it is between Americans and Germans," she said. "[Germans] use forks and knives for everything. I'd eat with my hands and feel embarrassed. They also take off their shoes before entering a house. It took me a week to learn that."
Hickl noted that despite the cultural differences, most Germans can speak English to varying degrees since it's taught from fifth through tenth grade in German schools.
"Germans appreciate it when tourists try to speak German," Hickl explained. "They're gracious even if you don't pronounce it well, and they're not overly critical."
In fact, as Heimbecker pointed out, some Germans actually enjoy hearing Americans sprechen Deutsch. She recalled that while they were in school, the English-language teachers would ask them to go into classes and talk to the students there. In German.
"The little kids would love to hear us speak German with Texas accents," she recalled."
This, one might conclude, means that the students told the kids, "Grüß dich, Sie aller!" which translates loosely as "Howdy, y'all!"
Among the souvenirs the students brought back were coo-coo clocks, t-shirts from various Hard Rock Cafes in Germany, post cards, shot glasses, steins, silverware and chocolate. During this time of being out, whether in restaurants or in a shop, the students put their German skills to practice. The ones who spoke it better would help out the others.
"The kids would say to me, 'How do you say this in German?'" Hickl said. "They wanted to find out so they could say it themselves instead of having me say it for them."