Life Must Be Better in Germany

Teenager Anne-Stephanie benefits from prosperity and traditional values

IN Germany," says Anne-Stephanie Guck, "everything has to be better" - better roads, better cars, better houses. "There's a constant striving for improvement" that is just too much for her sometimes. On the other hand, she adds with a little laugh, "I'm no exception to this."

Anne is an ambitious 15-year-old (15 and 3/4ths, she reminds) who won't go out with friends until she's finished her homework. And her family, living in their own three-story house with all the conveniences of modern living, enjoys the prosperity that comes with hard work.

But there's nothing hard-edged or sharp about Anne, nothing that shows exaggerated ambition. She's an outgoing, perky teenager who is a bit of a kidder as well.

On the telephone, for example, she described her home town of Oberweier as "a cow town," as if she, her 18-year-old sister, Betina, her parents, and Oma (grandmother) all lived in the middle of nowhere with only barns and pasture around.

Oberweier is indeed a tiny, one-steeple village nestled on the edge of the Black Forest. And it does have two small farms, where the G 159>cks get fresh milk. But it's also only a stone's throw from a major city, Karlsruhe, where Anne goes with her family to the theater or with friends to the movies. (Her current favorite is the Hollywood hit "Pretty Woman," which she's seen twice.)

Anne's father, Klaus-Peter Guck, works in Karlsruhe as head of the regional office of a nationwide construction company. The job has enabled him to provide his family with a comfortable lifestyle: two cars for their two-car garage, one half of which is occupied by bicycles and skis; a balcony off each bedroom; and a large, fenced-in yard, complete with a stone barbecue grill, goldfish pond, and lovingly tended garden - her father's specialty.

Mr. Guck describes his family as "upper middle class," and this may make Anne a bit atypical compared with other German teenagers. Before reunification, West Germany was the second-wealthiest country in the European Community. Luxembourg is still first, though Germany may have slipped a bit with the addition of East Germany last year.

"Money is no problem," says Anne, who spends her allowance and baby-sitting money on personal extras like movies, cassette tapes, or "the blouse of the century." It's unusual for high school students in Germany to have after-school jobs. In a country where university study is paid by the state, there's no need to save for college. And parents who experienced the hardships of war and reconstruction tend to be generous with their children.

The economic well-being of western Germany was driven home, says Anne, by her first visit to former East Germany during New Year's 1990, just after the Berlin Wall was breached. Her father, taking advantage of a special travel package, took the family for a week to Berlin.

As was the case for a large part of West German youth before the historic events of 1989 and 1990, East Germany was simply not a part of Anne's consciousness. At first, she says, when she watched the beginning of the East German revolution on the family television, "I couldn't understand how people could be so happy about it.... But then, after we were there, I realized, 'Wow, this is a big step in German history.' "

Like her classmates, Anne's world revolves around school, friends, and family.

She's currently in the 9th grade at the Anne-Frank Realschule in Ettlingen, a medium-sized town between Oberweier and Karlsruhe, reached - in typical German fashion - on her bike. If there's no head wind, Anne can make it in 10 to 15 minutes. "Eight minutes is my record," she says with pride.

After the first four years in grammar school, German students in the state of Baden-Wurtenberg, where Anne lives, have a choice of three types of schools: Hauptschule, Realschule, or Gymnasium. The Hauptschule, which goes from fifth to ninth grade, is vocationally oriented, and the least demanding. Gymnasium, the most difficult, goes through the 13th grade and provides an education in the classical sense. It ends with the Abitur, the exam required for university.

Realschule, Anne's school, goes through the 10th grade and lies between the other two schools in terms of difficulty. For instance, she is taking English and French (one of her favorite subjects), just as a Gymnasium student would. On the other hand, last fall, in keeping with the school's goal of practical preparation for the job market, Anne spent three days working in a nearby hospital. The experience was useful because it taught her that her long-held goal of becoming a midwife didn't really suit he r.

When Anne finished grammar school at age 10, her teachers recommended that she go on to Gymnasium because her grades were good. But she rejected the idea as too much theory and not enough real life. "I'm a person who needs results," a hands-on type, she says, sitting at her pine desk in her bedroom. She's kept company by her pet parakeet, Bobby, and puppy dogs pictured in a poster above her bed. Meanwhile, however, she's decided to go on to Gymnasium after she finishes Realschule next year, just as her sister is doing.

Anne is also a dynamo outside the classroom, where most hobby-type activities take place in Germany. She takes piano lessons, sings in her church choir, swims on a local team, and is taking First Aid with the German Red Cross. The latter serves a double purpose in that it is a required course for all Germans who want to get a driver's license, for which one has to be 18 years old, take a special training course, and pay DM 2,000 ($1,260).

"I could go cross-country skiing in the morning, take a sauna in the afternoon, go to the movies at night, and I'd still be going strong while my parents would be shot! [exhausted]," says Anne with a grin.

Anne gets along well with her parents and appreciates the way in which she has been brought up, which is fairly traditional. When school is over at 12:50 (Monday through Friday, plus every other Saturday), she begins her home life like most other German pupils with a big lunch cooked by her mother.

Southern Germany is mostly Roman Catholic, and Anne goes weekly to mass with her mother (Ingrid), sister, and Oma. Many of Anne's friends go to church, too, she says, but she doesn't think they are truly religious, the way she considers herself to be. "If my school comrades knew that I pray as I lie in bed at night, they'd laugh at me," she says.

Just what her schoolmates think of her is one of Anne's major worries. "I'm in good with the teachers; that's not cool," she says. Other concerns are that she doesn't have a boyfriend yet and that her parents don't let her stay out late enough on weekends - all typical teenage worries, as Anne readily admits. When asked during a pizza dinner if there's anything in her life she'd like to change, Anne doesn't hesitate.

"Not a thing," she says.

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