2013-09-13 / People

Student immerses herself in culture

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

Alexis Mantis Alexis Mantis When American tourists visit Germany, most are able to get by – at least in the urban areas – without learning much German.

A 2011 study by international education company EF Education First showed that 60 percent of Germans are proficient in English, a statistic aided by the fact that many German children learn English in school. Therefore, if an American asks for directions in Berlin or orders lunch in Munich in English, chances are the locals will have enough language skill to make the brief conversations work.

However, that was not the experience South Portland resident Alexis Mantis had when she traveled to Germany for a one-year fellowship program funded by the German and American federal governments.

Mantis left for Germany in July 2012 as one of 75 Americans participating in the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals. The program offers a chance for students from 18 to 24 in any career field from both Germany and the U.S. to spend time in each others’ countries with host families, learning about the opposite culture.

Mantis, 24, participated in the program upon the recommendation of a chef at the Culinary Institute of America, where she received her associate’s degree in baking and pastry arts in 2011. Mantis did not always have a career interest in baking bread, however. In fact, she arrived in Hyde Park, N.Y., at the Culinary Institute of America thinking she would be a pastry chef. Mantis said when she got her hands into ryes and sourdoughs in school, she recognized a desire to move forward in her career as a baker.

The German/American program began with two months of intensive language courses in Saarbrücken, a city of about 175,000 located near the French border. Mantis, one of just 14 students with no prior German experience, said she was initially nervous about speaking a new language in a new culture.

“I didn’t speak German and didn’t know much about the German culture. I kind of went in blind, didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I ended up falling in love with it, both the culture and the country,” Mantis said.

The host family Mantis stayed with helped her through the learning process during the first two months, but Mantis said she really started picking up the language after she left Saarbrücken for Ruderting, a tiny village of 3,000 in southeast Germany where she stayed with the Wagner family, owners of a bakery in the village.

“It was like a scene from ‘The Sound of Music’ every day. I lived right next to the bakery and my host family was the owner,” Mantis said. “I worked 3 a.m. to noon every day Monday through Friday.”

No one spoke English in Ruderting, but nearly everyone knew the Wagners, Mantis said. The family was prominent in the small village, which in turn meant the residents knew who Mantis was, where she was from, and what she was doing in town, which made hurdling the language barrier an easier experience.

“They took me to this wine festival and the mayor stood up and welcomed me to the town. Everyone turned to our table and knew where I was sitting. It was the little things like that were nice,” Mantis said.

Since she has been back, Mantis said she has spoken with other students from the program who stayed in larger cities, and in many cases chose to speak English because they did not have to speak German.

“It seemed from talking to those students we had much different experiences; English is more widely used in bigger cities, so I was grateful I was able to live in such a small town,” Mantis said.

After Mantis returned from Germany in July, she left South Portland for the University of Maine in Orono to pursue a bachelor’s degree in sustainable agriculture. She said she hopes to combine her two passions into a career baking and cooking, using sustainable foods. As part of that career path, Mantis hopes to return to Germany – this time as an expert in the language – to pursue her master’s degree in sustainable food.

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