TEDxFulbright Laura Skandera Trombley

Pitzer College President Laura Skandera Trombley spoke at TEDxFulbright Saturday, April 5 at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington DC.

Servus: Breaking Bad in Bavaria

The best preparation I ever had for becoming a college president wasn’t the Harvard IEM seminar or the administrative program at Cornell.

It was breaking my ankle.

Now breaking an ankle isn’t particularly illuminating on its own.

But I’m actually something of a connoisseur of broken ankles. I’ve broken one ankle in the United States and one in Bavaria.

The US broken ankle is interesting only as a case study in perspective.

I broke my ankle by running over myself with my Chevy S10 pickup—don’t ask—So, I spent a great deal of time arguing with both car and medical insurers trying to figure out who was going to pay for my medical expenses: was this a car accident, resulting in a broken ankle? Or was this a broken ankle that just happened to occur by being in close proximity to a car?

The American ankle was just an annoyance; the Bavarian ankle was an education.

My winding up in Eichstaett, West Germany as it was called at the time, population 13,000, came entirely by chance. One afternoon in the mid-1980s, I was sitting in my professor’s lovely Irvine, California home–along with the rest of my fellow graduate students–in our Depression literature seminar, and noticed he had the same cheap reproduction of a stained glass window from the Chartres cathedral as me. I pointed it out and he asked if I enjoyed Europe and would I like to teach in Germany; I quickly warmed to the idea, having studied in Heidelberg as an undergraduate, and voilà a short time later I left my apartment and–many flight miles and hours later–finally stepped off the train late at night onto a cement platform dragging my suitcases behind me.

The institution where I would be teaching was the only private university in Germany, the Katholische University Eichstaett. I had an inkling that this was a different playing field than what I was used to when the university sent a telegram prior to my departure asking me about my religion. It felt like a loaded question and despite being an agnostic, it seemed more appropriate somehow to respond Lutheran, as that was what I had been baptized. I found out later that my answer put the university in a bit of a bind as they had never before had a Protestant American woman teach there and weren’t sure they wanted to start. In the end, the Amerikanistik department sent my nomination through their administrative labyrinth where it wound up with the president who then met with the Bishop. Bravely going where no Bishop had ever gone before, he gave his consent.

My first week consisted of being processed by the university and the city. The more unusual aspects of my settling in as an American Literature Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiterin and non-permanent resident included mandatory AIDS and tuberculosis testing, which reduced me to tears; writing my Labenslauf, which directly translated means résumé, but in Bavaria was more an ancestry or genealogy record that I was required to deposit with city hall; and finally, swearing to the city clerk that I would register my address whenever I might move, which meant that my whereabouts would be known at all times (for reasons that were never quite clear to me, this information was vital to Bavarian State security).

After I began teaching my American literature seminar, students appeared to be unusually interested in me. They finally shared that I was the first Protestant they had ever known and they considered my religion to be far more exotic than my nationality. Taken aback, I initially tried to smooth over the awkwardness I felt and joked, “If you prick us, do we not bleed.” Admittedly, perhaps, maybe not the best literary allusion here. Having grown up in Los Angeles, where you can easily be anonymous and I was part of the dominant majority crowd, I was incredibly uncomfortable about so obviously standing out. I had never undergone such scrutiny before. As I would walk across the town square, little old ladies would elbow each other and gawk at me, the tall American. After hearing the word Auslander (foreigner) used incessantly in reference to myself, as though that summed up the totality of my existence, I began to question why I had volunteered to come.

Now the town of Eichstaett, in addition to being a bishop’s city also boasts three saints: Saint Willibald, his brother Saint Winibald, and his sister Saint Walburga. Clearly sainthood was the family business. It was and remains today one of the most religious and conservative places in Germany. Eichstaett is a destination for religious pilgrims and there are a number of convents and seminaries. A fascinating fact I learned about St. Walburga, whose relics reside in a local convent, is that since the 9th century her bones have secreted a clear liquid, which people use to treat illness. Her “oil” flows from mid-October to the end of February. I took my son and his best friend Robbie to visit Eichstaett two years ago and we visited the site where we were gifted by the nuns with a vial of her oil. I also bought a lovely bottle of schnapps, homemade by the nuns themselves. The boys were as incredulous, as I was, at the mysterious phenomena of what they called “bone juice” seeping from the thick slab of stone.

Back to the 1980s: now let’s just take a moment to envision my new home, keeping in mind that I had just moved there from Venice Beach, California, arguably one of the most irreligious and liberal places in America. Much of the time it felt like I was living in a National Geographic documentary and felt no connection at all to this place with its strange language and odd customs. My cultural anxiety was profound. After I returned to the States, I realized that what I had experienced was, to borrow a term used in anthropology, complete cultural dislocation.

With great ceremony I was shown my new office by the building Hausmaster–the university had created an office especially for me located in the former Bishop’s residence, circa 17th-18th century, with walls a foot thick and a giant wooden carriage door entrance. Well away from the other faculty offices, my office could only be reached by walking through a classroom that had formerly been a storage space. I was able to gather from the Hausmaster that its location had a special significance because it was over the president’s garage. I’m still unclear why that seemed noteworthy.

In the corner stood an enormous oven that looked straight out of the early episodes of Downton Abbey. I had never seen anything like it before, and tried to nod knowingly as the Hausmaster gave me extensive directions on how to light a fire in it–for all I knew he could have been giving me instructions about how to create cold fusion. No surprise here: I rarely used my new office. I was too self-conscious to walk through a class that was in session and it was too cold to use at night. The only time I would venture there was to call home. At the end of my first week around 4:30 p.m., I was preparing to call when the Hausmaster poked his head in and talked for a while. He then waited expectantly. Not understanding a word, I nodded, saying my usual yes and thank you and he departed. I then called the special number for the Eichstaett University operator, Herr Strauss, who picked up and merrily cried out, “Hallo Frau Stambera.” I used to be terrified of speaking over the phone so I would write out my sentences beforehand. I told him I was calling home. After I said each number, he would repeat it and finally, with tremendous effort, the call would be placed. I chatted with my mother for a while and after I hung up I noticed that there was a stillness in the air. The building was incredibly quiet and all the lights had been turned off. I walked along to the giant wooden door, the only exit, and turned the handle. It was locked. I then realized I was alone in the building.

I tried to remain calm. All of a sudden I had a horrible moment of comprehension. The Hausmaster was telling me he was leaving and locking up and wanted to know if I had a key to the building. Of course! And I had smiled and agreed. I didn’t have a key. I began counting off the problems with this situation: it was Friday, no one would be back until Monday. I had no food. There was no heat. It was winter. Herr Strauss had gone home. I had no one to call. Even if I randomly dialed and by some miracle called someone in West Germany, I didn’t have the linguistic capability to explain that I was locked in a repurposed Bishop’s residence in a university town in Bavaria without a key and needed to be rescued. I didn’t even know the address. I figured there was no Eichstaett 911. I was now beginning to panic. I already appeared an odd enough creature to the locals and I didn’t want to become a town laughingstock. Looking out the window onto the courtyard, I realized that my only chance was to bust out. I opened the second story window, scooted out on the ledge, turned around, hung full length against the building and dropped onto the cobblestones below. For those of you who think this calls for a spoiler alert, you would be mistaken. No, this isn’t when I broke my ankle. That comes later. I desperately hoped no one saw me as I scurried away in the darkness.

Now a fascinating linguistic fact about this area is that it is known as the place where three dialects come together to form the unique Eichstaetter dialect. What this meant is that I could not understand anyone. The only people who spoke Hoch Deutsch, high German, what I had learned in school, were the professors in the classroom. Outside it was a language mélange or, in my darker moments, playing off Fredric Jameson, a prison-house of language. Unable to understand I just retreated to responding “yes” or “thank you” to anything anyone said to me. As a desperate measure I joined the town’s “Sprache fuer Auslander” “German for Foreigners” course in hopes that I might learn enough of the local language to at least be able to comprehend what the grocer was asking me when I tried to buy Wurst. It was in this class that I became part of a wonderful, vibrant international community. There was the lovely Genevieve, who had accompanied her French boyfriend, Ben, a journalism student from Kenya who would become one of my great friends; Yugoslavians studying to become priests; and stylish, chain-smoking Italians.

I would show up to my language class every day for a 90-minute session and by the end our instructor had absolutely convinced all of us that we would never, ever be able to understand or speak Bavarian or Bayerische. We would nod and thank her and then exit the door into an unintelligible country. We then would all pile into a local cafe, order Kaffee und Kuchen to drown our language sorrows and converse for hours in our only common language–Bayerische. We created our own version of Bayerische accompanied by arm gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. We created a safe place where we felt secure and accepted, so crucial at a time when we all felt so utterly vulnerable.

We became a happy, hip, funny group despite being branded as hopelessly unteachable. We refused to feel embarrassed by our inability to learn. Instead we relied upon our common strength as a group. I remember with crystal clarity the day Genevieve showed up with bandages on her knees and road rash on her face. “Was ist passiert?” I asked. With magnificent intensity she told us her tale auf Bayerische. Loosely translated it went something like this: “On bike I go ride. I have a rock seen. I rock hit. I fall. My bike goes no more. Bike dead. My face not good is. Owa, owa. I must in hospital go.” We were hysterical with the drama of the moment and hung on every present-tense word. What was happening in that moment, I realized later, is that vocabulary, verb agreement, proper preposition placement, even past tense wasn’t needed for the story to have dramatic effect. We were all too caught up in her story to notice those irrelevant details. We were friends talking. Communication, empathy and compassion have a grammar all their own.

For the next few months I managed to keep myself and my wits together in those pre-web days, learning the various kinds of salutations one has to use depending upon whom you might meet along the way, Servus, Grussti, Grüß Gott, Guten Tag, Guten, Grüße dich, Hallo–seriously this was a language land mine that I had to safely cross before I had even arrived at work, and I picked up bits and pieces of Landeskunde or local customs along the way. I was even beginning to occasionally make out the local grocer’s questions.

Then came Fasching. Fasching is Bavaria’s version of Mardi Gras on steroids. It has been observed in Germany since the 13th century and is a time during which for six days the rules and order of daily life are subverted. Great, just when I started to figure out the place, everything changed. In other words during what is called the fifth season, this most conservative and religious place gets its freak on. There are parades, excessive drinking, masquerade balls. Pretty much life goes crazy during the last days before Lent. I attended my first and only Fasching’s ball at a seminary dressed as an American tourist and was fascinated by the multitude of young seminarians dressed as Tina Turner. They looked fabulous. While I was dancing to a Bruce Springsteen song, my most pious student, under normal circumstances, walked up behind me and well-fortified by the excellent Eichstaett Hofmühl beer and filled with Fasching joie de vivre, tossed me into the air without warning. When I landed, snap went my ankle.

I tried to convince myself it was just a bad sprain, however, by the next morning my world was one giant ball of hurt. Driven to the local hospital by one of my language class friends, a jolly doctor wearing a white coat and clogs solemnly informed me in English that I had broken my “jumping bone.” A very strong nurse placed my foot into the middle of her stomach and leaned forward until the right angle had been achieved in order to set the bone. At that point everything just became too much, this had to be a surreal nightmare, and I remember screaming. My cast was a study in Germany thoroughness and ended above my knee, making walking almost impossible. In order to walk I had to swing my right leg around in a half circle. When I tired, I would just drag it behind me. Upon exiting, I was given two aspirin to help with the pain. Bavarians do not share Americans’ affinity for self-medication. When I arrived back at my apartment my landlady took one look at me and pronounced with complete certainty, “and now you will go home.” Yet as soon as she said that I became absolutely determined that no, I would not go home. Bavaria was not going to beat me. Not only would I remain, but I would stay and prosper. I had my friends and I had my students. And so I did. After two months the cast came off, followed by a month of agonized walking with a cane over cobblestones. Finally the pain and swelling subsided and I ultimately joined the town’s women’s basketball team.

Why didn’t I hop on a plane and fly back to sunny California? Like my broken “jumping bone,” my cultural dislocation began to mend. After all the anguish and angst of being an auslander, of flying from the home of Muscle Beach to the city of Saint Willibald, I began to enjoy the challenge of being among the minority in a place that wasn’t used to or even immediately friendly to outsiders. It became fascinating to live where you constantly had to strategize to find your way. Every moment I was conscious of the fact that I was an outsider, yet rather than letting that overwhelm and defeat me I overcame it. By the time I left, in addition to my Bavarian language class friends, I had made many more and, nearly thirty years later, we remain in touch. Today I still speak pretty decent Bayerische and keep close to me the personal yet universal lessons I have learned.

As president of Pitzer College, I think carefully about how to make students from all corners of the world and all walks of life feel at home on campus. In my decade plus as president, we have created a very special cafe on campus—it doesn’t serve Wurst but you can get a respectable Kaffee und Kuchen. We established an orientation adventure program for all new students with the sole purpose of having fun and bonding with fellow first-year undergraduates. We pair students with friendly upper-class mentors so they will have a “safe” person to help them figure out their new environment. Students are welcome in my office and I invite them to my home.

But I also encourage all our students to travel into different cultures and distant lands where they will initially, profoundly, not feel at home. Where they will live with families who don’t share their language or religion or love of cold pizza. The number of students at Pitzer who study abroad has increased by 36 percent over the last dozen years and we stand at approximately 80 percent. Nearly 10 percent of last year’s graduating class won Fulbright Fellowships and spread out across the globe—to Armenia, to Malaysia, to Turkmenistan. Even without being tossed in the air during Fasching, these experiences reset something in their bones, and change their perspective for the rest of their lives.

I returned to California—the sunny land of secular pleasures, personal freedom, and its own life-affirming brand of hedonistic worship—still an agnostic, still fabulously skeptical. But I’ll have to admit that I took something from this land of martyrs and saints. In the Christian, medieval tradition, God touches you violently so that grace can enter the wound. And in that exchange, the human being is transformed, transmuted, empowered.

Now, I don’t think God broke my ankle; I’m pretty sure it was that drunken seminarian. But I will say that my Bavarian broken ankle—as awkward and embarrassing as it was–led me to embrace a larger feeling of fragmentation and dislocation; it brought me to a community that felt as shattered and out of place as I was. And between us all we pieced together words and phrases. And that was enough; in and through this little band of outsiders, I mended my breaks and my bones.

And so today I wish you all have the awful, wonderful experience of being dislocated and discomforted, and I bid you all a hearty, “Servus.”

About Pitzer College

Pitzer College is a nationally top-ranked undergraduate liberal arts and sciences institution. A member of The Claremont Colleges, Pitzer offers a distinctive approach to a liberal arts education by linking intellectual inquiry with interdisciplinary studies, cultural immersion, social responsibility and community involvement. For more information, please visit www.pitzer.edu.