Wednesday, January 23, 2008

This week in German class…

We have some new students in class: a Spanish graphic designer and electronic musician, a Bosnian and a Thai woman (professions unknown). The Bosnian sat next to the Serbian and they seemed to get along fine. Another student asked them about their languages and if they could understand each other and they said yes, that in most of the former Yugoslavian countries they spoke the same language, although sometimes they are differentiated for political reasons. The exceptions were Macedonia and Slovenia.

The last vestiges of the former Yugoslavia finally disappeared only last year, when Serbia and Montenegro broke into two different countries. Probably, Kosovo will break off from Serbia as well. This will make a total of seven countries out of the former Yugoslavia. If things keep going like this, we’ll probably eventually have another four new countries: Ser, Bia, Monte, and Negro. Not to mention the little-known Republics of Ko, So, and Vo.

All kidding aside, I wish I could converse with my classmates, as I find this area of the world very interesting, having had so little contact with it (other than a 3-day visit in 1990). I wonder what they think about all the war and political changes they have lived through, and all the ethnic tensions that led to the wars, especially when we now have representatives of several of the different warring groups all studying together in this class. For example, I would like to ask Elvira, a Serb, why she always introduces herself to new classmates as “from Yugoslavia,” or more rarely, “from the former Yugoslavia,” only admitting she’s from Serbia when pressed for more information.

I think the books we use in class are really quite good. The authors came up with many clever ways of getting around the problem of having to make a language book for students with no other language in common. However, there are some cultural barriers we have come up against which I think may never have occurred to the authors. Yesterday, we had to explain Mozart to the Thai student, who had never encountered the cultural icon mentioned in a story in our book. Then, I was partnered with the Iraqi to work on an exercise in using prepositions and the dative case. The dative was no problem for this Arabic-speaker, it was the drawing that got him.

The activity went like this. Mohammed was given a stick-figure drawing of a room with a few things in it, and I got a drawing of an empty room, consisted of a box in the center representing the back wall and four lines coming out of its corners, creating ceiling, floor, and two more walls. He was supposed to describe the contents of the room to me in relation to one another (e.g., the table is next to the wall, the glass is on the table, etc.) so that I could draw it. This started out fine, but then he started looking over at my drawing and saying in great consternation, “but the table goes in the middle of the room! On the floor!” “It is in the middle of the floor,” I would explain. And then “I said the key is under the table and behind the chair!” “It is under and behind,” I would point out, getting a little annoyed. But then the problem revealed itself: “That’s the floor, there,” he tried to explain to me, pointing at what was quite clearly the back wall of the drawing of the room. “That’s the middle wall,” I corrected him. “Aaaaaaaahhhh,” he said, in a moment of possible enlightenment. So then we switched roles. All of his objects were drawn two-dimensionally in a pile on what he now knew was the floor, so that it looked like some terrible accent involving a stampeding giant dinosaur might have occurred, but everything was in the right order, at least.

Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

My new friends

2 Turks (1 male, 1 female)
1 Moroccan (female)
1 Algerian (female)
1 Frenchman
1 Bulgarian (male)
1 Pole (male)
1 Brazilian (female)
1 Paraguayan (male)
1 Sudanese (female)
2 Serbs (both female, 1 Rom)
1 Iraqi (male)
1 Lebanese (male)
1 Malaysian (male)
1 Macedonian Albanian-speaker (female)

1 American (me)

This is how my German course breaks down.

I started a daily German class at the Volkshochschule on Monday. These schools are half Parks & Rec and half INS: they offer classes in arts, dance, theater, cooking, exercise, etc for the general public, as well as the language courses required of immigrants and supported by state funds. Most of my classmates, then, are immigrants who must learn German; since I’m not, I have to pay 20 Euro more, but it’s still quite a deal.

We are not allowed to speak anything other than German for the 3 hours and 15 minutes a day we are in class, but sometimes we do. I can speak Spanish with the Paraguayan and the Brazilian; French with the Moroccan and the Algerian; or English with the Bulgarian and the Lebanese; I can speak all three with the Frenchman. Other than that, we only have German in common, which is great for practice but limits what we can discuss. Some of our usual topics are: who was late to class and why; our homework and who did it the fastest; and whose language has the most difficult grammar (probably Arabic).

In spite of the language barrier, we have a great time together and spend much of our time laughing hysterically about any old thing and annoying our teachers. To me it is kind of an idealized little EU world in room 308 (303 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays).

We are already known to each other by various personality traits:
Hanifi is always laughing and always in possession of chocolate bars
Ikram is always talking in languages not allowed in class
Krzystof is always late
I am always hungry

But we are all equal... at least when it comes to our German grammar. Schlecht!

Monday, January 7, 2008


part II: Recklinghausen
The train ride over, about 4 ½ hours with two changes, was quite beautiful as everything was covered with a shimmering layer of frost. Maurice predicted it would have melted off by the time we got to Recklinghausen, but instead we were greeted with a fresh layer of snow. Maurice’s mother Susanne picked us up at the station and told us it hadn’t snowed at any other towns in the area, so it was clearly meant just to welcome us. I appreciated it, as it made the town look quite charming.

The area around the train station was composed mainly of new buildings, as everything old had been bombed out in WWII. In fact, the town has been settled since the middle ages, but the oldest thing still standing in this area was a concrete bunker, now converted into a gallery space called the “art bunker,” where Susanne told us a friend of hers had been born as bombs fell. From there it was just a five-minute drive home through a neighborhood of neat houses originally built for mine workers and middle-management. (Recklinghausen was a coal-mining town until recently.)

The house Maurice grew up in was one of these, built in 1956 but since renovated several times and consisting of two main living floors, an attic room and bathroom where we stayed, and a basement where laundry supplies, baskets of potatoes and apples, and Maurice’s teenage leftovers (guitars, books, and wood paneling he installed himself) might be found. The yard, however, was a fairyland of snow and ice – and a newly installed gate leading to the garage. Strangely, this had no wall around it, meaning it had no use other than a symbolic one. Apparently, Susanne and her boyfriend Helmut had disagreed over how it should be installed. He did it his way, which she found annoying, so she decided to protest by leaving it suspended in air.

I wanted to see the sights of Recklinghausen, but Maurice claimed not to know what they were. So we went to a bookstore and looked at a book about the sights of Recklinghausen. Thus prepared, Maurice showed me around town. There is a segment of the old medieval wall with one whole tower and half of another one, sliced vertically straight down the middle and therefore fitted with a wooden back. Next to it is an 18th-century manor house belonging to the now departed local nobility. There is a 17th-century stone church with an iron cannonball embedded in one wall, still visible 25 feet about the ground. There is a museum of religious iconography, mind-numbingly boring to locals but well-known among scholars. And there is a nice downtown area in classic German village style, its narrow streets closed to all vehicular traffic and lined with shops.

The center of this downtown area, just a 15-minute walk from the Mengel home, held another Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) where at last we found the latkes we’d been searching for, although here they are called kartoffelpuffer or reibeplatzchen. The rest was a typical assortment of gift items, sausages, and Gluhwein, the mulled wine so welcome on a cold winter’s day. A two-storey Christmas tree marked one corner, and to add even more atmosphere, the trashcans were actually Santas holding sacks for you to drop your trash in (apparently their gifts had already all been delivered, so these Santas were on garbage duty).

We also found a little stage with a strange sort of performance in progress. Several apparently South American men wearing enormous North American Plains Indian headdresses were playing a variety of panpipes and cane flutes along with a recording of drippy, synthesizer-heavy music, all while singing in the classic meaningless vocables of “hey-yo.” You could buy their CDs for 15 euro. I found this show quite mystifying, as I had never seen the likes of it. But Maurice tells me it is the new fashion in world music at European street fairs. About ten years ago, all the guys who used to play pan-Andean music while wearing ponchos switched over to this new, flashier schlock. The Germans seemed to like it fine – especially after several glasses of Gluhwein and Eierlikor (egg nog).

After this, most of our time in Recklinghausen seemed to be spent eating and playing with computers. It was a relief to have internet at home again – Maurice felt we had finally reentered civilization, rather ironically for he who thinks of this small town as only barely civilized. In order to get in the Christmas spirit, though, we made Christmas cookies in the shapes of angels, stars, ducks, pigs, and the classic Christmas mushroom. Then I played Christmas carols on the piano (the only ones I recognized were Silent Night and O Tannenbaum, but I played the rest anyhow). After I stopped, the notoriously grumpy neighbor came over to complain about the noise. The grumpy neighbor’s grumpier father once called the police on the Mengels for daring to hire a piano tuner. I guess the son had enough of the Christmas spirit to refrain from getting the police involved, but felt compelled to keep up tradition in some form.

Here all things Christmas take place on the 24th. The day prior, we’d gone to a Christmas tree farm, still beautiful with its sprinkling of snow, where Maurice sawed down our tree of choice himself. On Christmas Eve we decorated it, opened our presents, and had a dinner made of fish caught by a less grumpy neighbor. Susanne was slated to sing in the church choir that night but had come down with the cold the rest of us had already had, so had to stay in bed instead. I wanted to hear the music anyway and see what this small-town German Christmas thing might be like, so Maurice and I bravely set out into the freezing streets for the 11:00 service.

The bells of the cannonball-embedded church, our destination, were audible from quite some distance away, and no wonder! As we approached within a few blocks of the place we had to stop talking, as we could no longer understand each other. The huge bells’ minor thirds made a big and eerie in the night. We arrived just in time – only a few minutes after we took our seats with our candles in the back o f the church, they ceased ringing.

The church décor was pretty Spartan, in a Protestant way, but it was a nice, airy, white space inside, filled up in one end by a thirty-foot tree hung in white lights. I didn’t understand all that German sermonizing, but didn’t really need to, as it was the same stuff they always read in Protestant Christmas services in the US, too. I sung along with the German carols as if I knew them, with the help of the lyrics printed in our programs. The choir sounded good and we particularly enjoyed music played on the organ accompanied by flute. Still, I was glad it only lasted an hour. The quietly uplifting music was a nice end to the evening, but my German quotient had been reached for the day.

After a week in Recklinghausen, I was actually surprised at how much German I was able to understand, although I could still only respond in simple yes or no fashion most of the time. Still, with Maurice’s mom’s newly acquired English words – she’s taking a class in a nearby university – we did pretty well at communication. Maurice took charge of the more complicated translations, of course, such as instructions on how to use the washing machine.

We did make some small effort at getting out, looking around, and having a bit of exercises. On Christmas Day, all our presents opened and cookies already baked, we went to Die Haard, the comically named nearby forest. There was a dirt road lined with trees labeled in scientific and German names on one side, piles of cut logs on the others, along which we strolled for a couple of kilometers, until the sun was nearly down. At the crossroads where we eventually turned around stood a tall wooden cross in a stone base, near a statue of St Johannes Nepomuk (whoever that is) – these marked the point where the Germanic tribes held their court in medieval times.

On another day, we met with Maurice’s father. I had been very curious to see what would happen at this meeting – he recently married a Thai woman the same age as Maurice, who on their last get-together, read Thai beauty magazines throughout the whole dinner. We wondered if I could find anything to talk to her about, but we needn’t have worried – she declined to join us either for the afternoon tea and cakes we had at their home or at dinner afterwards. Actually, we had a nice time in spite of – or because of – this. And I was able to assuage Maurice’s fears that he was like his father. If anything, I think he’s the opposite of this polite yet extremely quiet and distant man.

On the way out to the village of Borken near the Netherlands border, we stopped to buy the cakes in town, directed by the well-mannered village punks with their spiked hair hanging out in front of the village bar. One bakery on the classic village square by the church was all that was open on these “dead days” between Christmas and New Year’s, and it was packed. We quietly consumed our purchases with Maurice’s father afterwards, and then took a quick “field trip” across the border to the Netherlands to buy gas. There’s no border control now that everything’s EU, and the Dutch charge less for gas taxes. Unfortunately it was already dark, so I couldn’t see and scenic views of Holland, but we did see an awful lot of Dutch on bikes.

Later, since I mentioned I’d hardly seen any German culture since arriving, and that we had a hard time finding German food in Berlin, Maurice’s father took us to a German restaurant. When we entered, salsa music was playing over the speaker system, and we were served by a Thai waitress. The menu did feature goose, duck, and wild boar, but it also had a number of vegetarian options. I guess it wasn’t quite what I expected from a German restaurant in a little village, although there was indeed plenty of beer on hand.

The next day’s field trip was to a more unusual monument in Recklinghausen. Hohe Mark is a tall hill just outside town, made entirely of rubble removed from the mine. It’s quite big and must have taken a century to pile up to its current height. The city got the idea of turning it into a kind of park, and construction is still in progress. Currently, some paths lead around the hill at various levels and aluminum staircases lead straight up through a couple of viewing platforms. The top offered a strange view, and looked a bit like a lunar landscape. The flat, triangular area was scattered with construction equipment. At one end was a large and perfectly round hole, while in the middle stood a temporary viewing tower. From the top you can see factory smoke stacks all around, which were lit up rather eerily at twilight.

We decided Berlin would offer more options for New Year’s revelry than little Recklinghausen, so made our train travel plans accordingly. On our last day in town we still had some more visits to pay. While at Maurice’s father’s dining room table a few days before, Maurice received a phone call with unhappy news: his dissertation advisor, who had been sick for some time, had passed away. All former advisees were naturally now feeling distressed. One of them, Patrick, was in the country only briefly before returning to his fieldwork in India, and he rode in to Recklinghausen to talk things over at lunch. After that, we went to see a high school friend, Lars, who had also played together with Maurice in the immortal Recklinghausen blues band, Mojo Turner.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

First Dispatch from Berlin


Here we are at the end of another year. I’ve been in Germany for three weeks already and most of you have not yet heard from me. I am sure you are wondering what exciting and amazing things I’ve been doing here. The answer: not so much – yet.

I arrived in Berlin on Dec 10 after a very stressful trip. I had four flights on three different airlines, and three of the four were very, very late. My bags had been checked in via some antique system with very sketchy-looking handwritten tags, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever see them again. Then there was the notorious Chicago connection: yes, it was snowing; yes, it was icy; yes, the flights were four hours late. In three airports I found myself running through several terminals dragging my heavy carry-ons behind, sweating in my down coat. Somehow, I made all the connections and got to Berlin on time (but only because I had a long layover in Dublin to begin with). My bags did not.

Maurice was not concerned – we were happy just to see each other – and it turned out he was right anyway; my luggage showed up intact two days later. In the meantime, I bought a few things to wear at H&M and settled into the new apartment. Maurice just moved a few days before my arrival to a larger place. It is conveniently located next to two subway (U-bahn) lines and one S-bahn (above-ground train), as well as a big shopping center. We have a balcony and a wall full of windows in our living room. From there we can see a small park, the trains pass by behind it, and beyond those, the huge TV tower in the center of former East Berlin.

The weather was very Decemberish – cold, dim, a creepy kind of mist at night, sun down at 4 PM. In such conditions I found it impossible to recover from jet lag and spent the first few days sleeping away most of the scanty daylight hours. I did pull myself away from the pillow on the evening of my first full day to join Maurice and his mother Susanne in a jaunt to the movie theater at Potsdamer Platz to see The Golden Compass. On the way we passed the Brandenburg Gate, imposing under its bright lights; the tree-lined boulevard Unter den Linden; a Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market) complete with a svelte-looking St. Nicholas and ice skating; and an ornate and gilded old café where we had some dinner. Then there was Potsdamer Platz, an area that had been empty and deserted during the time of the wall, as it passed right througt, but which has since been subject to some urban revitalization planning. The big new Sony Center fills up the space with a movie theater and restaurants around a dome-topped courtyard, bringing life back to what is once again the center of the city.

We still don’t have internet at the new apartment so we spent the next day – well, afternoon really – searching out internet cafes and brunch along the Kastanien Allee, an area full of hip youngsters. I made my first acquaintance of Ampelmann, the hat-wearing green crosswalk signal guy who is a symbol of old East Berlin. No one knows why in the East he was dressed so conservatively, but there is a movement to bring back the Ampelmann. He is certainly more stylish than the hatless, international-style green man of West Berlin. Along this street we saw Ampelmann painted on the side of a building in such a way that he appeared to be walking along the fire escape. After brunch, it was practically time for dinner already and to meet my friend Juniper, who is in town studying German as a post-doc. We ate at a Mexican restaurant with a German waitress who had clearly studied English in Ireland. The salsa was surprisingly good but because it is hard to get pinto beans over here they had used kidneys instead, thereby creating a new dish that might be termed Chili Tacos.

Once Maurice went back to work, I was left to explore our neighborhood on my own. I mostly just had to figure out how to go grocery shopping and use the internet shop. This was challenging in German. Most of the neighborhood here is Turkish, but since I don’t speak Turkish either this is not very helpful to me. Grocery shopping took about twice as long as usual because I didn’t understand the words on the packages and had to poke and shake them instead to guess their contents when the picture alone didn’t help. Then apparently I did not deal correctly with the produce. At least I managed to find some beans at the health food store, and to explore Prenslauer Berg a bit – the next neighborhood over from ours, where Maurice used to live, and a happening kind of an area for young Berliners.

One day I went in to work with Maurice to check out the Ethnographic Museum where the Berlin Phonogram Archive (his place of employment) is located. It’s a big place and I’ll have to go again to see all of it, but in the first visit I managed to take in the Mesoamerican collection as well as a new temporary exhibit on Peruvian mummies.

Then I got sick. This was expected, but still sucked. My sightseeing activities were at a temporary end, and I spent a few more days in bed. I emerged in time to attend part of an ethnomusicology conference on music notation, hearing the sole paper in English and one in German, in which I only understood the Hindi words used. In the evening, an Italian woman gave a lecture-demonstration on north Indian dhrupad singing. I found her ungrammatical German – apparently a combination of German vocabulary and Italian syntax – to be strangely intelligible and quite enjoyed it, except for my copiously running nose. Afterwards Juniper joined us again for dinner, this time some really excellent Thai. I saw many of the same people again the next day back at the museum for the Archive’s Christmas party. Aside from my nose, again, it was enjoyable, featuring German bread and cookies, champagne, and a funny movie about African anthropologists studying the strange Austrian customs of drinking beer, polka dancing, beer drinking, yodeling, and beer.

Time for the holidays at last! I, Maurice, and a heap of Kleenex hopped on a train heading west on the 21st, going to his hometown of Recklinghausen. Located in far western Germany, approaching the Netherlands border, it is in an industrial area formerly known for coal mining, although the mines closed down a few years ago.