Sharing Our Journeys: Ellen Burke, Germany

Chorus pro Musica singer Ellen Burke

Ellen M. Burke


When I was granted a Sabbatical Year in Germany, I began a journey that has significantly impacted my life. Although I had never studied it before, I loved it from the start. My mind was alive.

Each day before dawn, I waited for the bus with some villagers and schoolchildren, satchels strapped to their backs, traveling to their jobs and classes. As the bus circled the hills, I watched the sun rise, often through mist that drifted over the Neckar Valley. As we approached Heidelberg’s Alte Brüke, I always anticipated the dramatic moment when the castle would suddenly appear: a magnificent ruin, besieged, bombarded, and burned over the years yet still standing proudly in the hills above Heidelberg.

During the autumn, rain fell almost every day, and after sunset the streets glistened in reflected light. I enjoyed time in the city, walking cobbled streets without any deliberate route, stopping for dinner at student taverns, which still bear the marks of their ancient history in the names and messages carved on wooden tables.

Weekends I walked through the hills of the Odenwald, a magical place for me because I associated it with the Siegfried legend. Sometimes I imagined that I heard Siegfried ‘s forest bird or the roar of a fire-breathing dragon. Usually I ended my journey into the hills with an order of Zwiiebelkuchen and new wine, sipping slowly.

As I walked down the Hauptstrasse, every day I recognized new faces in the crowd; by year’s end I had many new friends in Heidelberg. When spring came, we would walk along Philosophenweg or sit along the banks of the Neckar, watching swans glide along the river’s dark surface. We would talk until the sun sank beneath the bridge, setting the bricks of the castle and the houses in the Old Town ablaze.

During this year my most intense experience was learning the German language. I listened to German radio, attended German films, plays, and operas, and talked with anyone who had the patience to follow the meanderings of my wayward sentences.

My Sabbatical Year gave me a richness of experience that exceeded what I had imagined. When I returned to teaching, I was changed. Each day opened to new discoveries. The journey, not the destination, was the point after all. And I had begun a journey with the German language that I knew would never end.

Ruins in Germany