Adam Troldahl ’09 spent the spring semester of his junior year in Vienna, and fell in love with all things Austrian. So, after graduating from Macalester with an English and German degree, Troldahl moved to Austria on a two-year Fulbright fellowship.
He spent a year teaching in the mountains west of Innsbruck and a year teaching in Vienna. Reluctant to leave Europe, he is now pursuing a master’s degree in Anglophone Literatures and Cultures at the University of Vienna. “An Austrian University degree provides a path towards permanent work and residency,” he notes. To earn money, Troldahl teaches business English courses at Siemens Austria Headquarters, tutors private clients, and works in a kindergarten teaching ESL.
He feels he’s in the vanguard of an international trend for Mac grads. “I strongly believe that the future for many Macalester graduates will continue to be more and more outside the United States,” he says. After completing his degree he hopes to get a job as a professor at the Vienna teaching college where he formerly worked as a teaching assistant.
Following is a report he wrote about his Fulbright experience for the English Department newsletter, The Waverly.
“My grandpa is always happy after he has a good Speck,” Jonas proudly declared. Jonas, a bold 12-year-old with a knack for English beyond his years and a mild behavioral problem, was a student of mine last year. He and his buddies constituted the rambunctious corner in my favorite class, and he looked much as you’d expect an alpine pre-teen to look—tall, pale, and very blond. His observations and off-hand quips were usually made in a desperate bid for attention. They were, however, always or at least mostly in English, so I couldn’t really knock him for it. Getting my students to speak in English, after all, is sort of my job.
Upon graduating from Macalester I knew I wanted to return to Austria. Fearing that all Fulbright application requests for the big city would be thrown out, I didn’t specify a location. As a result, I spent the first year of my Fulbright in what most Americans would consider “Heidi country,” the alpine crux of the German-speaking world. There, four nations—Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the Costco parking lot-sized Principality of Liechtenstein—come together in a magnificent setting.
Vorarlberg, where I taught, is the westernmost province of Austria, situated on the furthest point of the country’s panhandle. Its connection to the rest of Austria is culturally, linguistically, and geographically tentative, reflective of the previously impassable Arlberg Mountain range that lies between it and the neighboring province of Tirol.
The people of Vorarlberg are largely introverts; their unique dialect is incomprehensible even to other Austrians; consequently, very few ever leave the region. As in many rural communities, the importance of the extended family dominates. As I taught at the local schools and ran my errands I began to feel as if I, too, were part of the larger familial fabric in my town of 30,000. At my favorite café, the Swiss-born waitress knew my order by heart, and always remembered to put extra ice cubes in my white wine spritzers. At the grocery store next to my house they carded me until one cashier finally remembered me as “the American guy.” Just like in a 1950s sitcom or a Sinclair Lewis novel, my students’ parents worked at the bank, held down the reception of the local hotel, or owned the local watering hole. Jonas’s dad owned the hippest downtown clothing store. One day, my students tried to set me up with a girl who worked there. “Has you a girlfriend?” Jonas queried. “No,” I said. “Then I take you to her.” Like an episode of Cheers, I felt as if everybody knew my name.
I moved east for the second year of my fellowship, away from Jonas and the echoing cowbells to the capital city of Vienna. I’d spent most of my study abroad term in this Twin-Cities-sized baroque capital, which sparkles with the grandeur of Paris while maintaining a homey neighborhood feel. Though my classrooms no longer boast sweeping views of snow-capped mountains, I rather enjoy being in the cultural and urban heart of Austria. On any given night there are performances at three major opera houses, numerous classical music venues, and countless publically subsidized theaters. From the formerly royal to the avant-garde, high culture beckons day and night. The ads around town are more likely to feature a Rodin bust or a Picasso pen stroke than the glistening new burger offered at McDonald’s.
Speck, the thing that makes Jonas’s grandfather so happy, means bacon in German. Over the last two years, much of my life has been carried out in this weird hybrid of English and German. If you have a sweet tooth, you are a snacking cat; when you commute, you drive with the bus; and when the conductor asks to see your ticket, you have been controlled. My expat friends and I have even replaced the right? at the end of our uncertain declarations with the German word for or, as in
“We’re going to the movies tonight, or?”
I teach at Vienna’s teacher-training college, where elementary and middle-school teachers are trained. (In Austria, unlike in the United States, only high school-level teachers must earn a university degree.) One of the greatest ironies of my job is that, despite not holding a formal teaching license myself, I earn my living teaching other people how to teach. With some quick on-the-job training and a knack for thinking on my feet, things have gone well. I feel comfortable when beginning something new knowing that, because I went to Macalester College I can pretty much do anything.
Last week I asked a group of my college students to translate Jonas’s infamous sentence. These particular students are studying to become middle school teachers, the people who will one day teach future Jonases. Together we came up with, “My grandpa enjoys quality bacon.”
To be honest, I still like Jonas’s version better. I make a habit now of writing down the most memorable phrases I hear in the classroom. One day last April, after I had schlepped American–style pancakes to school, Jonas emphatically affirmed—mouth full: “Adam, you are our God now!”
And they say teaching is thankless work.
Adam Troldahl ’09 blogs about his adventures at http://unschuldigweisefromm.tumblr.com.