Pandemic perspectives: Volkswagen city brought to a halt

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A typical day for me usually starts at 6 am. I work as an English language assistant in a comprehensive school. Quickly get dressed, look half decent, run to the kitchen to grab something to eat for breakfast, and I’m out of the door by exactly 6:55 am. If I’m not at the bus stop by 6:57 am, I miss the chance of catching the only direct school bus from the village that runs through the city of Wolfsburg to my school. The city (known by locals as the “Autostadt”) was interestingly originally founded in 1938 by Adolf Hitler with the purpose of establishing the Volkswagen factory and homing its workers, to which the plant still stands today.

Back when I first started my placement, this bus would have been filled with over 40 school kids commuting with masks of all shapes, fabrics and colours. It was out of the question even finding a seat. Nowadays, it’s rare to see more than three kids at a time and “Mutti Merkel” (as the German nation likes to call her) has only given us the choice between the early pandemic blue surgical masks or the hot trending “FFP2” masks, which promise to offer more protection. From this week, they are now required in all public buildings, on the streets, in supermarkets, public transport and schools. So to put it simply, everywhere.

This isn’t the year I imagined but it’s been a wonderful insight into German culture and everyday life

By 7:20 am you can count I will have reached my destination, probably accompanied with my first dose of caffeine for the morning in my right hand. As I walk in the staff room, the teachers are already preparing for a busy week, hunching over their laptops wearing masks, socially distanced from one another. I can only imagine in my head what a pre-pandemic staff room would have looked like. My timetable for the day consists only of year 13 and year 10 classes, as we are currently in what the government calls “Scenario B”. This means that only essential year groups are allowed on-site for classes while the rest of the school learn online. In the past, my timetable would have consisted of an array of classes from Year 5 upwards. My lessons currently focus on preparing the students for the equivalent of GCSE and A-level speaking exams. Since I started my placement, it has been quite normal to expect a change of timetable almost every month due to the federal state’s constant adjustments for schools.

Now, it is required to wear a mask at all times, even during classes. When I first started it was only required when moving around the school building. Working up to two hours at a time with the new FFP2 masks can get very stuffy and every so often when the windows are wide open, I allow myself a mask-free breath of fresh air. The students are now required to sit in fixed seating plans as a way to “track and trace”, in the case anyone tests positive for the virus. Sometimes I think about the other pupils I’ve taught and my concerns about their learning environment at home or whether they have all the resources at disposal needed to learn online.

One of the advantages of being a language assistant is having only twelve hours of timetabled work. Usually, many assistants take advantage of this to travel and meet up with other assistants across different regions. However, since the hard lockdown was imposed, it’s made any previous travel plans and meet-ups seem like a far-off dream. On top of that, there’s now a curfew time of 8 pm. Not that any Germans would dare not to follow an order. So, for now, it means after work, it’s straight home for me.

On my way back home at around noon, the normal hustle and bustle of the Autostadt have been brought to a halt. From the bus window, it seems like a ghost town, as all unessential shops are now closed until at least 14th February. All museums, galleries and theatres are shut, and we don’t know until when. Earlier last year, one could venture into the many designer outlet stores and retail stores the city had to offer. If you were a bit peckish, you could even pop into a cute little café for a cheeky “Kaffee und Kuchen Zeit” (coffee and cake time). But at least Angela didn’t shut the bakeries, that would have been catastrophic. Who would supply the Germans with their essential daily stockpile of fresh rolls and bread?

My German host family have been incredibly supportive throughout my time here

I usually get back home just in time to eat lunch with my German host family. I would say one of the main reasons this hard lockdown has been bearable is because of them. They have been incredibly supportive throughout my time here and I have been fortunate enough to have them as my host family. Back in November, it seemed unlikely I would be able to go back to the UK for the Christmas holidays and decided it would be best to stay in Germany, which in retrospect was a very good decision. However, luckily, I had the chance to spend Christmas with my host family and they made sure it was an equally special experience for me.

After lunch, everyone is free to do what they want. Since everything is shut, you have to be very open-minded about how you spend your free time. I’ve tried to view this whole lockdown as a blessing in disguise by using my time to do things that when I go back to Durham for my final year, I won’t get to do often. I find myself nowadays taking my bike across the countryside landscapes, soaking up the icy cold air as it bites at my fingers. Or reading for pleasure, something that I haven’t been able to do for a while due to constant reading lists at uni. Just taking time to reflect and figure out what makes me happy, what interests me and what I might want to do post-grad wise. My evenings conclude with me watching the thinking: “What move will Mutti Merkel make next?”.

This definitely isn’t the year abroad any of my fellow MLAC students imagined but for me, it’s still been a wonderful insight into German culture and everyday life here.

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