Monday, October 3, 2011
What kind of a bizarre name is Hilmar Stimmler, you ask? It's German. Still kind of on the bizarre side? Yeah, I know. But I also met a guy named Torge (pronounced: Tore-guh), so who knows. Germans, amiright?
Hilmar Stimmler was my boss. I don't have a very good history with bosses. There was the pathological liar (if you haven't read this one, I highly suggest it; it's one of my personal favorites), the tax-evader (who spent time in prison for tax-fraud shortly after I quit working there), another boss who used to have hysterical fits of womanly insanity, and would sob in her office on bad days, but would forget to wipe off the triangles of mascara from under her eyes, so they served as a form of yield-signs to steer clear of her on her "crying-rage-filled-rampage" days, and one who killed himself while I was working for him (it was a very small business with only 3 employees at the time, so that was... interesting).
But Hilmar was my boss during my Fulbright year to German. I worked as an English language teaching assistant at a high school in a small-ish town in central Germany, or at least that's what I was supposed to be doing. In reality, I worked as Hilmar's little American bitch. We weren't supposed to teach the classes ourselves (I spent more than a few nights staying up late while trying to frantically put together a lesson plan for the next day after Hilmar's short notice that I was in charge of the lessons for the next day), we weren't supposed to grade papers (I was handed every paper as soon as the students turned them in, so I could "make the language corrections" for Hilmar - he would then ask what grade I felt the papers each deserved), and we weren't supposed to be translation services (Hilmar frequently called me out in front of a classroom full of students to argue with me over the meaning of a word - usually one that differed between American and British English definitions - I'm sorry, but I'm not going to hire a "solicitor" to represent me in court, and just because you had a routine doctor appointment does not mean you went "to hospital" or had "surgery." Learn the language, Brits.)
Aside from abusing me in a professional setting, Hilmar seemed determined to make my year a memorable one in many other ways, as well. For starters, as a participating teacher in the program, it was his responsibility to find me a place to live in town. Instead of doing that, he offered to let me stay at his apartment until I could find a place to live. He'd only charge me 250€ a month (out of the 703€ we earned). That didn't seem like a bad deal, considering he would also be feeding me. Until he went out of town for two weeks and left me alone with his teenage daughter - and no food. I had no choice but to buy food, for myself and the daughter. Then, when I spent a week away from the house (with Tante Rose - my German grandmother-of-sorts), he didn't see it fit to lower my payment for the month at all. I was also confined to three rooms of the house: my bedroom, the kitchen, and the bathroom. According to Hilmar, he preferred if I stayed out of the other rooms. Including the living room, with the TV.
Okay, so I was over-paying for meager quarters in a semi-hostile environment. It was only for a couple months, right? Not a big deal.
Until he started walking around the house in his short. Biking shorts. Sometimes hot pink, sometimes teal. Skin-tight. Biking shorts. He did love to bike. But that doesn't excuse subjecting my eyes (or those of his innocent daughter) to such a sight for hours every weekend day. Germans are not necessarily known for their sense of fashion, and Hilmar was more than eager to scald that stereotype forever into my retinas.
And the Stimmlers were musical. Oh, so very musical.
Hilmar played the piano. And keyboard. Regularly. He was actually quite talented, but any time you're imprisoned in a small room in a quaint, thin-walled apartment, with no source of noise-creating entertainment (since I wasn't allowed in the TV room), the sounds of another human practicing an instrument ad nauseum can quickly begin to grate your nerves. And his daughter played the clarinet.
Ah, the clarinet. I will always hate the sound of the clarinet. Not that his daughter wasn't equally as talented as Hilmar the Great, but my older brother played clarinet when we were younger, and the tell-tale squeaking honk sounds of a poorly played clarinet are forever engraved in my mind - in the back of my mind, scratching at my brain like fingernails on a chalkboard. Any time I hear a clarinet, it's like a group of fashionable black women with those mesmerizingly long, blindingly colorful fingernails have gathered to relieve the itches of dozens of chalkboards located at the base of my skull. His daughter could play the clarinet for two hours at a time. Or more. Sometimes more.
He briefly showed me around town my first week there. But the first day of school, he got up and went in early, so I had to walk there by myself. When I went to apply for my visa, he set out with me in the morning, walked me to the building, and as soon as we were inside (and to the tricky part of actually dealing with people), he had a "meeting," and he had to run off. I learned quickly that he was not the type of person to rely on for help. Or kind words. Or compassion of any sort.
So the time came (sooner than anticipated) for me to find a place to live. Well, technically, the time came for Hilmar to do his job and find me a place to live. But that wasn't going to happen.
"Do you think you could possibly help me find an apartment or something where I could live in town?" I asked, after drawing up all the courage I could muster.
"No. You'll have to do it on your own. What do I know about finding apartments around here?" Oh, gee, Hilmar, I don't know. For starters, you live in an apartment around here. I'd say that's about as knowledgeable as anyone could ever hope to be!
After interviewing with a dozen renters looking for another roommate in town (and being rejected by all of them, most likely because I would have been leaving in July, and their school-year went through September, so they would have been out a paying roommate for two months, but also quite possibly just because I was an American), I began to get panicky and felt like I'd never find a place to live. But the mother of a student at our school happened to run a dorm (not affiliated with the university in town, although most everyone who lived there was a student at the university), and she had an available room. At the very least, Hilmar was kind enough to drive my belongs and me up to the dorm, so I didn't have to make multiple trips on the town's buses. That was probably the only generous thing he did for me - and he didn't even charge me fare for it!
Once I escaped the clutches of living with Hilmar, things seemed to get slightly better. I only had to see him at work. On a daily basis. Unless he didn't show up for class that day, which, granted, didn't happen very often, but for an unprepared 22 year old with no actual teaching experience, once would have been more than enough.
Other times, he would show up, but his lesson plans wouldn't.
"How about you read from our book today?" he'd ask me, in front of the entire class of 17-18 year olds who also, clearly, had no desire to actually do anything productive that day.
"You mean like this paragraph?"
"Sure, start with that. And then keep reading. Until I tell you to stop. They like to hear a real American accent"
Fifty minutes later, the bell would ring, and my "real American accent" would be starting to crack.
It should be noted that Hilmar was married to an American woman. However, I never met her. She was living in Florida, teaching there for the year (or longer). She'd decided she'd had enough of living in Germany (or with Hilmar?), as she'd been there nearly 20 years, so she found a job "back home," and moved away. He went to visit her several times (including the two weeks he left me to fend for myself - and take care of his hungry daughter), and she came to visit him, too, over her holidays. Most notably, over Thanksgiving break.
For whatever reason, we had a long weekend over Thanksgiving. Surely not because of Thanksgiving, as that's an American holiday, but regardless, I spent the day with a couple good friends in the small town of Stendal. We did our best to make a Germanized version of American Thanksgiving, and, all in all, it was a pleasant holiday.
Back at school on Monday, Hilmar approached me in the teachers' lounge.
"Did you have a nice Thanksgiving?" he asked, and without waiting for a reply, "We had a very traditional one - with the big turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes and everything. Since my wife is American, she went all out and made me a real classic dinner. I didn't even think of inviting you."
"Uh... yeah. I went over to a friend's..."
"Oh, good. Because I realize now I probably should have invited you. Oh well!" In spite of that realization, Hilmar didn't see fit to invite me for any of their Christmas celebrations, either.
Some mornings in the teachers' lounge, he would refuse to acknowledge my existence. I'd say hi or wave, and he'd turn his back as if I weren't there at all. Other mornings, he'd sit down next to me, full of friendly chit-chat and go over our lesson plans for the day. I never knew which Hilmar I was going to encounter on any given day.
And then there was Spring Break. I knew that I needed/wanted to come home for a few days, because Husband would be graduating from Creighton and was going to be Commissioned in the Army (and our good friends were also getting married that weekend - and, as it turned out, so were Husband and I). I asked Hilmar if I could have Thurs-Tuesday off, over two months in advance.
"No. I don't see how that could work." Ahh, he was such a compassionate man.
I went back to the drawing board. I came up with a plan where I could have as little work on those days as possible - finishing what I could before I left, preparing lesson plans for the days I was gone, etc. A week later, I approached him again and asked a second time, giving him my proposal of how, in spite of being physically gone, I wouldn't actually miss any work. Besides, he'd had me work far more than I was ever supposed to in the first place - I was frequently used as a "guest speaker" in random English classes (read: a free period for the students to accuse me of every American stereotype known to Germans while I tried to negate and/or acknowledge them; yes, many Americans are fat, but so are many Germans; no, not all Americans are rich, and I don't even own a gun, etc), and I wasn't technically ever supposed to teach a class on my own, much less alone in the classroom.
"I'll think about it, but you're really not supposed to be able to take any days off," he said.
So I booked my flights anyway. I figured, I'd just call in (very) sick those days. He'd obviously know I was lying, but we were allowed to take sick days.
Two weeks before my scheduled Spring break, Hilmar approached me.
"Do you still want those days off? You can have them. I don't see why it'd be a problem. But it's probably too late to get plane tickets now. Or they'd be really expensive, at best." I honestly don't know if he was trying to be malicious, or if he was truly just that oblivious.
He maintained his "aloof yet unpredictably cruel" demeanor for the rest of my year there. He wrote me a letter of recommendation but refused to let me read it. He asked if I needed help getting my belongings to the train station then told me he already had plans to ride his bike for 12 miles the day I needed to leave town. He made sure I was thanked in the end-of-the-year staff meeting but had a colleague (another teacher I'd worked with throughout the year) give my thank-you speech.
I'd like to end with some kind of moral or witty quip about Hilmar, but the man honestly baffled me. I don't feel like my life is richer for having known him, yet I also don't feel as if he's caused any permanent damage to my psyche. I generally feel indifferently amused when I think back on that year and the bizarre behavior of a man who can't recall having ever had the hiccups in his life. So I'll end with this:
I once knew a man named Hilmar Stimmler (or something close enough to that).
(By the way, sorry for the terrible quality of the picture - I lost the actual copy of it, so all I had to go off of was the little thumbnail version. That's me, before kids (*sigh*), in Hilmar's room with a bottle of champagne on one of the days both he and his daughter were out of town. It was the only time I had friends over at his apartment - so, of course, we snuck into the "forbidden" rooms and snapped some super-fast pictures.)