Archive | March 2011

TEFL Lessons Learned – earnings

I know this post is a bit behind the rest of the Lessons Learned series, but I wanted to wait until my February pay and holiday pay came through before posting.

What I earned in eight months of teaching English in France:


BTL –  

Net salary

Other Comments Monthly total
July €694.52 Summer €694.52
August €943.90 Summer, started advertising for private students €943.90
September €1291.63 €225 Patrizio, a private student, started €1516.93
October €1067.58 €110 One week on holiday and Patrizio also went away. Still advertising. €1177.58
November €1199.27 €125 Patrizio was away. Still advertising. €1324.27
December €1106.11 €40 One week on holiday and Patrizio was away. Still advertising. €1146.11
January €701.25 €670 BTL stopped giving me new classes. Patrizio was back and Sebastien, a new private student, started. Also did short term work – 15 hours of admin for American Amanda and two exam prep. sessions with Damien, a private student. €1371.25
February €320.16 €500 32  BTL hours (ouch), and Patrizio and Sebastien continued €850.16
Holiday Pay €990.36 Paid in full at the end of the year/contract €960.36
Total for eight months €9986.08
Average monthly salary €1248.14

Other gifts from students:

  • Drinks (tea, hot chocolate, a pineapple juice, water)
  • Biscuits
  • Various individual chocolates
  • 1 box of chocolates
  • 1 tub of moisturiser wrapped in red paper with gold ribbon
  • 2 French novels
  • 1 book of French idioms
  • A notebook (with horizontal lines!)
  • Countless pencils

If I add my February pay and holiday leave to the money I had when I left Paris, I finished with €2030.52 left for my trip, which works out to €29 a day.

I was hoping to have a little more but, as I’ve already paid for flights, everything I have can go towards trains, shelter, food and fun!











Palace of Culture and Science – the most distinctive building in central Warsaw, and many locals think it’s so ugly it should be torn down

“So, as you can see, Warsaw isn’t the most attractive city . . . and there aren’t that many touristy things to do . . . so what made you decide to come here?” Colin asked me as I dragged my suitcase through the drizzle from the central station to the bus.

Why? Because I was looking into couch surfing at the end of January, and seeing what was available. I knew I would have three weeks before going to Egypt, so was looking for spare couches in Central and Eastern Europe while I planned my trip. Colin, a Scottish guy living in Warsaw, was the only one offering somewhere in Warsaw, and he replied to my email immediately.

To sum up – free accommodation.

I arrived having no idea of what there was to do here, so when Colin asked if I had plans on Saturday night, I said I didn’t.

“Well I’m going to a friend’s birthday party, so you’re welcome to come along to that.”

“Sure,” I agreed and we headed out that evening.

We spent the night with two of Colin’s Polish friends and several beers and vodkas. After reciting all of the random Australian trivia I could remember, and making a Star Wars reference (I knew the word midi-chlorians – thanks dad), I received a marriage proposal and started arranging marriages for my brother and sister so everyone could get a visa to live in Oz (sorry Morgan – there were only guys present so you’ll have to be in a civil partnership for a while). Eventually we started talking about my trip and what I wanted to do in Warsaw.

“I’m not really sure,” I admitted.

These were Michal’s suggestions (also sent to me in a helpful email on Sunday morning):

Places to visit – Old Town, Royal Palace, Library of Warsaw University, Fotoplastikon, the Warsaw Uprising Museum, the Palace of Culture and Science, Praga, the top floor of the Marriott Hotel and the Royal Park.

Where to eat – Bar Mleczny Pod Barkakanem and Folk Gospoda

Somehow Michal’s suggestions turned into an offer to show me around, and on Sunday there were six of us traipsing around Warsaw as the weather cycled between wind, snow and sun (the temperature was freezing, at all times).

One of the new additions to the group was Pierre, a French friend of the boys’ who is living in Warsaw. When I told him that I was heading to Budapest next, he told me that he’d been in Budapest two weeks before and started recommending activities.

“Do you have anywhere to stay?” he asked.

“No, not yet. I was just going to book a hostel.”

“Okay – hang on a minute and I’ll message my friend in Budapest.”

10 minutes later and I had a couch waiting for me in Budapest! Don’t you love it when things just fall into place?

As for Warsaw, it isn’t like Paris or Rome or Berlin, where there are a million things to do. But there are enough – my two favourite being the Warsaw Uprising Museum and the Old Town.

The Warsaw Uprising Museum is incredible – the 2,000m2 space is in a former tram power station and split over several levels. Unlike traditional museums, which can be a bit clinical with rectangular white rooms and exhibitions behind glass, the Warsaw Uprising Museum is a black and grey blend of shapes, sizes and multimedia. It’s what all museums should be.

The first area is shaped like a triangle with replicas of old newspapers and fliers plastered on the walls, and plaques with information about the occupation of Warsaw in WWII. Down the centre of the room is what appears to be a thick, black wall that continuously plays sounds. One of them is a heart beating, which repeats endlessly and which you can hear in most parts of the museum – apparently it’s the recording of the real heart beat of one of the survivors. Other sounds are played intermittently – bombs going off and gunfire, as well as a long, low drone, like the bass note of a didgeridoo.

Going through the museum is an adventure in itself – the rooms are dark, there is a hidden tunnel, a warehouse area with a replica of an B24 allied plane hanging from the ceiling, several film exhibits, more traditional displays of weapons and uniforms in glass cases, and short biographies of hundreds of people who were involved in the uprising. You can even climb onto a BMW bike used in the war, walk through a replica radio station, or watch a demonstration of someone printing fliers on a 90-year-old printing press.

We also watched the 5-minute CGI film City of Ruins, which depicts the city after it was destroyed. The boys found it interesting because they could recognise the areas where they now live. I didn’t have the same context, but the size of the destruction filled me with shock and awe. Large parts of the city were flattened, and just the foundations of other buildings remained. On August 31, 1944, Warsaw had 1.3 million inhabitants. On September 1, it had 900,000. I know that ‘stunning’ is usually used in a positive sense, but I found the utter devastation stunning. It stunned me.

We left after three hours because we were hungry, but I could have easily stayed for longer, and I think this museum is enough of a reason to return to Warsaw.At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Old Town, which is stunning in the positive sense. The snow-globe beauty of the Old Town was enchanting and I greedily drank in the abundance of colour in the bright sun as though I’d been starved of it for too long (the modern part of Warsaw was a little bleak the day before in the sporadic snow storms).

Having been completely demolished in WWII, it isn’t the original 13th century town, but a replica that was built on the foundations of the ruined buildings. When I was talking to Colin about the Old Town, he made a point of telling me that it was just a copy, and I wasn’t sure whether this would lessen its value.

Now that I’ve visited it, I think the opposite. When I think of the strength, sweat and sheer stubbornness that must have gone into recreating the Old Town, it is even more impressive.

Photo courtesy of Colin (his camera’s better than mine)


They have hats!

In other news, I’ve been struggling to write about Berlin. Not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I spent so little time there that I couldn’t get a feel for the city.

I know it isn’t possible to truly know a city until you’ve lived there, but I’ve found that you can taste the spirit of most places in a few days. I’d love to have another couple more days in Berlin, but I’m not sure that would make a difference. Sure, I’d have plenty to see and do, but – maybe due to its size, maybe because it was destroyed and rebuilt so many times, maybe because it was divided for so long – I think this is a place where you would have to stay for months before you could gauge the atmosphere.

As for what I did notice – Berlin is huge! I was shocked by the open spaces – wide sidewalks border 6-lane roads, some with tree-lined promenades down their centres. Large squares abound and the 630 acre Tiergarten, formerly the royal family’s hunting ground, is in the centre of the city. Even the bike lanes are two metres wide! And there are so few people – when I went out at night the city was deserted, the D- and S-Bahn always had seats available and the only time I saw a large group gathered at any of the monuments was when I took the New Berlin free walking tour on Friday, and we were the large group.

Now – things to see and do:

The remains of the Berlin Wall. Enough said.

The Brandenburg Gate was built in the 1730s, and the statue over it was originally supposed to be of the goddess of peace. Unfortunately, she didn’t do her job too well, and Napoleon took the statue to Paris after the 1806 Prussian defeat at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, the statue was restored to Berlin and the goddess’s name was changed to Victoria – the Roman Goddess of Victory. Since then, the square where Brandenburg Gate stands has been named Pariser Platz, so that German victory will always reign over Paris.

Gendarmenmarkt is one of the most beautiful squares in Berlin (the most beautiful that I saw). There are two cathedrals mirroring each other at either end of the square – the French Cathedral, where French protestants could worship, and the German Cathedral, which was built a few years later. If you look at the cathedrals, you can see that although the architecture is very old, the buildings are clean and new. They were actually only built from 1977 to 1981, the originals having been destroyed in WWII.

Alte Nationalgalerie

By contrast, the statues are nearly black with age. The statues are originals – under Hitler’s orders they were kept safe in underground bunkers in the war. Now many of the statues around the city are older than the buildings which they adorn.

Other beautiful sites include the architecture on Museum Island, and the Charlottenburg Palace. The garden in front of the Alte Nationalgalerie on Museum Island is like a sanctuary – incredibly tranquil inside the colonnades in the afternoon sun – and there is a similar atmosphere in the gardens of the Charlottenburg Palace, the largest henzollern palace remaining in Berlin.

Charlottenburg Palace

Bebelplatz, bordered by an opera house, university buildings and the first catholic church constructed in Germany after the protestant reformation, was built to reflect Frederick the Great’s political power. Unfortunately, it is now known as the place where the Nazi’s burned books on May 10 1933. Now there is a small memorial commemorating the event – a glass window in the ground that looks into a room of empty bookshelves – as well as a plaque explaining what happened. Next to the plaque is a quote by Heinrich Heine, ‘where books are burned, in the end people will burn’, which he wrote over a century earlier, in 1820. Ironically, this quote was from one of the books that was burned.

There is also a general monument for all victims of war around the corner from Bebelplatz – in the centre is a statue of a woman cradling her dead or dying son. Over her there is a hole in the roof, so all of the elements can come in. I’d love to come back when it’s raining – the echoes must be unbelievable.

As for WWII monuments, Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial consists of 2711 concrete blocks of varying heights on a 19,000 square metre site one block south of the Brandenburg Gate. The blocks are set on a rippling surface, so the memorial looks like a sea of tombstones. If you walk through it in a straight line, it’s almost like walking through rows of bookshelves in a library. They engulf you as they grow higher and higher, and if you start to twist and turn through the blocks, you can see people appear and disappear.

Around the corner from here is Hitler’s old war bunker, where he killed himself. This is now sealed shut and is under a small car park in front of a block of flats, and its only marker is a small sign in German (this was erected so that visiting tourists would stop bothering the residents to ask them about it in the 2006 World Cup).

I also visited the DDR museum. When I arrived I asked for one ticket.

“€6,” the woman at the ticket desk said.

Poor backpacker that I am, I asked, “is there a special price for young people?”

“Do you have a student card?”

“No, but I have a youth card.”

As I haven’t been a student for a while, I don’t have an ISIC card. However, being under 26, STA Travel gave me a youth card from the same company when I booked my flight to Paris. Never having used it, I still hadn’t attached a passport photo. I’d had some photos taken a few days earlier, but they were too large for the photo space on the card, and I hadn’t gotten around to cutting them to size yet.

Illegal Levis!

I handed her the card and a loose passport photo, and explained the situation.

She looked at the card and looked at me.

I smiled.

She smiled back, “okay, €4.”

Needless to say, I cut the photo to size that night.

The DDR museum was a lot of fun – it describes life under the socialist government in East Berlin. Most of the exhibits are in draws or in cupboards, and there are also replicas of rooms on display. When you open the kitchen cupboards, you can see genuine products of the time. You could also hop into an expensive car, watch a video about housing, or read about the history through a touch-screen desk. It was also a small museum, so it was fairly easy on the brain.

So yes, Berlin is a city with an incredible history and a plethora of things to do; I just wish I’d had more time.

Berlin – Sachsenhausen


Yesterday I intended to go on the New Berlin free walking tour, which started at 11.

Map-less and a little lost, I arrived at 11:05 and could see that separate groups had formed with different tour guides, each with a New Berlin name tag on a red lanyard around his/her neck.

I inconspicuously joined the fringes of one of the groups.

¿Ha estado cualquiera a Berlín antes?”* The tour guide asked.

Hmm . . . not the English tour.

I sidestepped one metre and joined the neighbouring group, where the guide was also speaking in Spanish.

I debated tagging along, and then decided the tour would be wasted on me if I couldn’t understand it. I turned to head back to Alexanderplatz and saw another tour group, and the guide was speaking in English with an American accent!

I sidled up to this group, where the guide was saying that our train left at 11:25, so we still had some time if anyone wanted to grab a coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts. I thought it was a little strange that a walking tour would start with a train ride, but didn’t want to alert anyone to the fact that I hadn’t been there since the beginning, so stayed silent.

We caught the train, and it took us 45minutes from Berlin to Oranienburg, where the remains of Sachsenhausen concentration camp rest. It wasn’t where I’d planned to go, but is definitely worth a visit.

Sachsenhausen was established in 1936 and was the administrative centre of all camps in the area. About 200,000 prisoners passed through Sachsenhausen between 1936 and 1945, and 30,000 of them died here. From 1945-1950 the camp went under Soviet control.

Arbeit Macht Frei

We arrived at Oranienburg train station, the same station where the prisoners would have arrived, and took the same route that they would have taken to the camp. They entered Sachsenhausen at Registrationplatz, where officers would pick out some people and beat them in front of the group to set an example for the others. The prisoners were then stripped, and shaved. From then on, prisoners were identified by numbers painted or sewn into their uniforms, and later by coloured triangles. Jews wore yellow triangles (sometimes two – one upside-down and one upright to form the Star of David), political prisoners wore red, criminals wore green, Jehovah’s witnesses wore purple, foreign forced labourers wore blue, gypsies wore brown, homosexuals wore pink, and undesirables (prostitutes, drunks, drug-addicts, etc.) wore black.


We then entered Sachsenhausen through the main gate, bearing the slogan Arbeit Macht Frei – this roughly translates as work will set you free. The original structure of Sachsenhausen was a thousand-acre triangle where barracks fanned out from the space where roll-call was held, Apelplatz. At the base of the triangle is the main gate and watch tower. This layout meant that only three guards could monitor the entire camp from the watchtower, but more watch towers were added as the camp grew.

Every morning, prisoners had 30 minutes to dress, use the toilet, wash, collect and eat their rations and report for roll-call. Well, that doesn’t sound too difficult. Okay, try it in a barrack of 150 people, which housed up to 400 people when Sachsenhausen was over-capacity.


And if you didn’t get out in time, you would be killed. Often people were trampled to death in the rush to get through the morning ritual.

Then came roll-call, when prisoners were usually made to stand for two to three hours in all weather, and this was repeated in the evenings. Sometimes the roll-call would be extended to fifteen hours, so it wasn’t uncommon for prisoners to drop dead. As the area was barricaded by an electric wire, there were prisoners who would make a suicide run, knowing that if they didn’t make it to the wire, the guards would shoot them dead, and if they did, they could electrocute themselves. Consequently, guards were ordered to shoot the prisoners in the foot or the leg – somewhere that would stop them from running, but not kill them. They would then be tortured.

After roll-call, prisoners started their work details. These included working in the infirmary, in the officers’ mess, building weapons for WWII and boot testing. Boot testing was known as the ‘death detail’ – prisoners were given a pair of soldiers’ boots (size wasn’t important) and a backpack filled with sand, and were expected to run around a track for the entire day. The average life expectancy of someone assigned to this detail was fourteen days.

Sachsenhausen was also the site of the largest counterfeiting operation in history. In two isolation barracks, prisoners were instructed to forge British and American currency, which would them be fed into the allied economies to collapse them. Both currencies were perfected, but not enough were inserted into British circulation to topple the system, and none of the currency ever reached the US.

The tour ended with Station Z and the infirmary.


Remains of Station Z

Station Z was the extermination centre of Sachsenhausen. As Sachsenhausen was not an extermination camp, but one designed for slave labour, this part was added later. The first part is a trench, where prisoners were lined up and shot. Later, prisoners were taken to a building they were told was the infirmary. First they entered a waiting room. One by one, they were then taken for a ‘check-up’, where one of the staff was only really checking whether they had gold teeth. Next they walked into a small room with double walls, where a classical record is playing. The prisoners would stand against a measuring stick that had a small, neck-level gap. On the other side of the gap was a secret room, where an SS officer would be waiting. The officer would shoot each prisoner who stood to be measured. This was designed as a clean and clinical way to eliminate prisoners. A gas chamber was also built, but at a later stage. Afterwards, the dead bodies were sorted, the gold teeth were plucked and the bodies were cremated.

Communist Memorial

Sometimes the SS would contact the families of the dead (usually in the case of POWs) and inform them that their relative had died. They would then offer to conduct a small ceremony and send back their ashes for a small fee. No ceremony was conducted, and the urn was just filled with handfuls of random ashes of the dead. The other thing the SS did with the ashes was sell them so they could be used in asphalt.

The infirmary was where medical experiments were conducted on prisoners, the most common being infecting people with hepatitis B or gangrene and studying the effects. If any children were sent to a concentration camp, this is what they were used for.

In 1956 Sachsenhausen was established as a national memorial. Most of the original buildings were removed and an obelisk was built, commemorating the communist prisoners, reflecting the outlook of the East German government. Now it’s a memorial to all of those who were imprisoned there.

Paintings done by a prisoner who had paints smuggled to him by a guard


* I don’t speak Spanish – this was Googled.