Saturday, July 10, 2010

Yo kann ein bisschen Español hablar...

Upon learning that I spent a year in Germany and how hard I worked to learn German, a lot of people ask innocently, "What's the value in speaking German? Don't they all speak English anyway?" I give them the usual line about the economic and political importance of the US-Germany relationship, how German is the most spoken native language and second most spoken foreign language in the EU, why being multilingual just makes intercultural communication easier, etc.

But during our long transition back to normality this summer, I quickly realized the limits of German language proficiency and a potential disadvantage of being quasi-multilingual. You see, I've been working every day this summer since returning for my father-in-law's landscaping business. Which means neither my native tongue nor the second one I poured my heart and soul into over the last 18 months helps at all. My mental instinct is still to speak German when stuck in a foreign-language environment, because that has been my reality for the last year. Instead, I have to reach back into the dusty recesses of my brain and dig out the grade school Spanish files because my Mexican coworkers certainly don't speak German and almost no English. This all means that I feel even more inept at work than I did last year and speak the most embarrassingly broken Spanish ever (below in green) accidentally intermixed with German constructions (below in red) and English (in black) when all else fails. And this has some rather hilarious effects:

"Hoy esta das Wetter mucho caliente. " (The weather is hot today.)
"Wir haben already dos shovels. Necesitamos noch zwei más." (We already have two shovels. We need two more.)
"Yo creo that we should start mit digging aquí, oder?" (I think that we should start with digging here, right?)
"A dónde soll ich these tools poner? Aquí oder allí?" (Where should I take these tools? Here or over there?)
"Ja, let's trabajo zusammen!" (Yes, let's work together!)
"Yo kann ein bisschen Español hablar, aber not so bueno." (I can speak a little Spanish, but not so good.)

They just look at me even more confused than my German colleagues ever did. Oh the adventures with languages. At least it all makes sense in my head.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Life Without Umlauts

It's been a while, dear readers. Much has happened since my last post about German words. Namely, we packed up our life in Germany and moved back to the States. But if you happen to be one of our few loyal fans who still continues checking in for an update instead of being productive at work, well, wait no longer.

I have been back in the States for exactly a month now. Culture shock began the moment I was greeted heartily by the "Welcome home" of the smiling, Southern-drawling customs official at the airport. And the culture shock moments have been adding up though ever since. Here are eleven for starters:
-I must drive to the grocery store now rather than walk or ride the subway. Sometimes I need to get back in the car if I want to visit the store... next door.
-Everyone greets me with a big smile and a beautiful tone of informality.
-The check-out ladies at the store gladly bag my groceries, even though they seem shocked if when I present my own canvas bag or decline to use any bag at all.
-Recycling in the US is about a decade behind Europe.
-Air-conditioning exists. Americans don't fear drafts like the Germans do. Thankfully.
-I have two hundred TV channels to choose from rather than twenty. I've quickly realized, however, that more does not equal better.
-Americans wear more colorful clothing and more shorts, and flip-flops seem to be required attire in warm weather months. The very sound of flip-flops is unescapable. I haven't decided how I feel about this yet.
-My pockets are lighter because I lack one- and two-Euro coins.
-A liter of Coke once again costs noticeably less than a liter of beer. I preferred it the other way around.
-I must calculate for tips again at restaurants. This is a royal pain.
-Umlauts no longer adorn signs.

So, our life with umlauts has come to its end, but readjusting to life without umlauts might take a little more time. I will probably still add a few more entries over the next few weeks to wrap up my reflections on the past year. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Answers to German Linguistic Directness Quiz

For all of you anxious to get the answers to last week's quiz on German Directness, you will find them here:

Glühbirne: glowing pear = light bulb

Kühlschrank: cool cabinet = refrigerator

Handschuhe: hand shoes = gloves

Fahrstuhl: riding chair = elevator

Fingerhut: finger hat = thimble

Unkraut: not an herb = a weed

Zahnfleisch: tooth flesh = gums

Blinddarm: blind/dummy intestine = appendix

Gehirnerschütterung: brain jolting/shaking = concussion

Durchfall: fall through = diarrhea

Gelbsucht: yellow addiction (ailment) = jaundice

Nacktschnecke: naked snail = slug

Stinktier: stink animal = skunk

Nashorn: nose horn = rhinoceros

Hundertfüßer: hundred footer = centipede

Waschbär: wash bear = raccoon

Nilpferd/Flusspferd: Nile/River horse = hippopotamus

Vorfreude: pre-joy = anticipation

Muskelkater: muscle hangover = muscle soreness you experience the day after a hard workout

Brustwarze: breast wart = nipple

Staubsauger: dust sucker = vacuum cleaner

Ausweglosigkeit: state of having no way out = hopelessness

Vorstandsvorsitzender: in a company, the one who stands in front of those who sit in front = the chairman of the board

Thanks to everyone who played, and double thanks to everyone who posted their best guesses. Lots of right answers, and many of you seem ready to take the plunge and enroll in a German course of your own.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

German and Me: Linguistic Directness

Germans are known for being direct and straightforward, especially in comparison to us equivocating Americans. I’ve found this to be generally true. They say what they mean. They mean what they say. Punkt. But this cultural directness is also amazingly reflected in the German language. Take, for instance, our word ambulance. If you didn’t know the English word, there’s nothing about it that suggests what it is. Conversely, the German word is Krankenwagen, which just the two words Kranken (“the sick”) + wagen (“car”), or simply “sick car.” I’ve had plenty of “duh” moments this year when I get hung up because I don’t know the word for a concept like “progress” only to be told it’s Fortschritt, meaning literally a “step forth.” But conversely, I feel rather proud when I see a word for the first time like gleichzeitig (literally “same-time-ly”) and correctly guess that it’s the German word for “simultaneous.” Or unumgänglich ("un-go-about-able”), or as we would say, "essential." So really, this linguistic directness is surprisingly quite helpful to the German learner. You also get a sense of that directness from the compound words posted earlier this week. Being the ultimate über-nerd, I have spent much of the year writing down funny examples of this linguistic directness. And now, dear friends, to show you how this plays out on a daily basis here in Deutschland, it’s time for a little game. I’ll give you the German word and its direct translation, and you come up with our convoluted, non-descriptive, English word. C’mon, it’ll be fun and worth a few laughs, I promise! I’ll post the answers in a couple days.

Example: Krankenwagen: sick wagen = ambulance

Glühbirne: glowing pear =

Kühlschrank: cool cabinet =

Handschuhe: hand shoes =

Fahrstuhl: riding chair =

Fingerhut: finger hat =

Unkraut: not an herb =

Zahnfleisch: tooth flesh =

Blindarm: blind/dummy intestine =

Gehirnerschütterung: brain jolting/shaking =

Durchfall: fall through (ailment) =

Gelbsucht: yellow addiction (ailment) =

Nacktschnecke: naked snail =

Stinktier: stink animal =

Nashorn: nose horn =

Hundertfüßer: hundred footer =

Waschbär: wash bear =

Nilpferd/Flusspferd: Nile/River horse =

Vorfreude: pre-joy =

Muskelkater: muscle hangover =

Brustwarze: breast wart =

Staubsauger: dust sucker =

Ausweglosigkeit: state of having no way out =

Vorstandsvorsitzender: in a company, the one who stands in front of those who sit in front =

Viel Spaß!!! (Have fun!!!)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

German and Me: Those Compound Words

Perhaps the one thing that has occupied more of my mental capacity this year than anything else is dealing with the German language. Now that I’m nearing the end of my time here, I want to spend a few posts covering my linguistic odyssey this year.

The other day at work I joined some colleagues for a seminar for employees called Geschlechtersensible Gesundheitsberichterstattung. As I sat looking at this two-word line of text spanning the width of the introductory Powerpoint slide thinking to myself, “this might actually be interesting,” it suddenly dawned on me: Oh no! I’ve become like them! Ok, I’m a long way from being a real German, much less mastering this nutty language. But I do mean that those terribly long German words that intimidated me for so long have suddenly become routine. During conversations at work, I surprise myself less when a mouthful like Konfliktbewältigungsmaßnahmen (conflict resolution measures) escapes my lips. Like Mark Twain, I have kept a particular eye out for these fantastic words “marching majestically across the page” as though accompanied by banners and music, and also like him, whenever I come across a good one I stash it in my notebook for safekeeping like a museum collects artifacts. I’ve already shared a handful earlier this year, but today I thought I’d share some of the most prized gems from my collection for your linguistic entertainment:

Krebsfrüherkennungsuntersuchung: Cancerearlydiagnosisexam
Zusammengehörigkeitsgefühl: Togetherbelongingfeeling, i.e. feeling of solidarity
Fluglärmschutzbeauftragter: Airnoiseprotectionagent, i.e. the bureaucratic office for the protection against air noise in and around German airports
Hochgeschwendigkeitseisenbahnverkehr: highspeedrailwaytransportation, the preferred mode of travel in Germany
Rolltreppenbenutzungshinweise: escalatorusagetips
Leistungsfähigkeitsverstärkung: achievementcapacitystrengthening, or productivity improvement
Fahrtrichtungsanzeiger: drivingdirectionindicator, i.e. turn signal
Adventskranzkerzenanzünder: Adventwreathcandlelighter
Demokratieförderungsreferat: democracypromotionunit, the office I work currently in.
Rüstungsbegrenzungsübereinkunft: armamentlimationaccord
Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher: eggshellshouldbreakpointcauser, or the little hammer some people use to break open their hard-boiled eggs at just the right spot (most normal people just use a spoon)
Fußballweltmeisterschaftsendrundenteilnehmer: soccerworldchampionshipfinalroundparticipant, or World Cup finalist and something the Germans are hoping to achieve next month.

This not to say that I can masterfully comprehend every long compound word in this nutty language. As you can see, if you can successfully break up these jumbles into their composite words and stick an imaginary space in between them, the task isn’t so tough. But there are sometimes words like Erwerbsminderungsrentenzugänge sprinkled into a sentence. What should be like a game of connect-the-dots becomes a linguistic Rubik’s cube requiring about ten minutes of dictionary consultations and other algorithms to decipher. (If my decoding is correct, this word means “reduction in the earning capacity of pension in-flows”. Uggh.)

Sure, it slows down reading. Sure, it's frustrating at times. Nonetheless, like that Rubik’s cube, it’s the simultaneous challenge accompanying that frustration that makes me love these words and thus appreciate the strange beauty of a language that makes such words possible.

PS. Ever wonder what the longest German word is? Check these two out here and here!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

When in Berlin (part 2)

And here are the rest of my suggestions for when (not if) you come to Berlin...

If you’re going to be in Berlin in the warmer months then make time to head out to Britzer Garden. It’s a bit of a ride (an uncomplicated one) but worth the travel. The garden is beautiful, huge and a perfect way to spend a sunny afternoon. There are cafes, a train to ride, a model boat harbor, lovely ponds, and fields for frolicking. The best time to go is in either May or October when the garden puts on celebrations of dahlias and tulips. In October you'd see these lovely dahlias (+ 10,000 more):

and in May, it's the tulips:

As for museums: If you’re only going to make it to one, go to the Pergamon Museum. Get the free audio guide and plan on being there a couple of hours. Everything in the museum seems over-sized. You’ll spend a lot of time looking up and stepping back to take it all in.

If you have time in your schedule, go out to Dahlem and visit the Ethnography museum. This museum is quiet and cheap; the collection is total eye-candy and wildly fascinating. I can’t sing it’s praises enough. Hey, while you’re in Dahlem, walk down the main street to the Botanical Gardens. There are a dizzying number of plant species in the greenhouses and the grounds are lovely.

Eat Eis (gelato). Eat lots of it. Try several different Eis places to find your favorite. If you’re in the neighborhood of Nollendorfplatz, stop by Fredo’s Eis stand - it’ll blow your mind and the service will make you smile.

If you’re in Berlin on a Saturday or Wednesday go east to Hohenschönhausen. It’s a former Stasi prison that provides perhaps the most eye-opening look at what life was like in the DDR. Most tours are led by former prisoners and though it’s a sobering tour, it’s absolutely worth your time. (English tours are only offered on Saturdays and Wednesdays - check the website for times.)

Eat well. Berlin is a great place to eat out because there's a little bit of everything and it's relatively inexpensive. I don’t usually like to recommend food (because inevitably you might not like it) but there are two restaurants we keep going back to and we think they should be added to your list of eateries! For Prussian-style German food go to Der Alte Fritz. It’s authentic, conveniently located at Alexanderplatz, not outrageously priced and there is English on the menu. Portions are huge. You won’t be disappointed. For Turkish food go to Hasir. (There are several locations around the city - I would suggest the one in Schöneberg so that you can stop by Fredo's on the way home for dessert.) These are the folks that invented döner and they do an amazing döner plate. Order a carafe of red wine, get the fried fetta appetizer, and when they offer you tea after your meal, get it! Come hungry and you'll leave full.

Monday, May 10, 2010

When in Berlin (part 1)

In just a few weeks John and I make our return journeys home and thus it feels that the time to be reflective is upon us. My way of managing a farewell to this city I love is to pretend that all of you (and yes, I mean ALL of you) are actively planning trips to my lovely Berlin and as such, are in desperate need of recommendations for when you arrive. Please, come to Berlin. Don't choose Munich, choose Berlin. And if you can - do both.

So here's what I think you should do while you're here:

Go up into the Reichstag. It’s free!!! It’s going to be insanely crowded in the morning and early afternoon, but you can almost be assured of interesting people-watching while you’re in line. To avoid lines it’s a good idea to go in the late afternoon, but the best bet is to go after the sun has gone down. The city is lovely all lit up and during the summer heat, you’ll avoid baking in the glass dome. Get the free audio guide!!!

From the Reichstag, make sure you go around the corner and see the Brandenburg Gate. It’s iconic. It’s picture-worthy and there are always street-performers in front.

Walk around and through the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Get lost among the stones. Visit the free museum that’s under the memorial.

If you’ve got some time on a Sunday head to Mauerpark. There you’ll find a rambling flea market crawling with locals and tourists alike. It’s busy, crowded and full of junk but I also think it offers one of the most honest pictures of Berlin. People of all ilk abound. Food and drinks are sold from little stands. Outside the market (if the weather is good) you’ll find families, couples, musicians, and groups of friends lounging on the grass. On one side of the park you’ll notice a mass of humanity gathered in the outdoor amphitheater. That’s Bear Pit Karaoke - an open air, open to the public songfest that happens every week. Grab a beer and join the crowds; it won’t be the best singing you’ve ever heard but it will be entertaining. (Ampelhead did a wonderful job covering this phenomenon a while back!)

Go to the East Side Gallery. This is so much more than graffiti. My suggestion would be to start on the Ostbahnhof side, walk the length of the wall and then turn right, cross the river by walking the beautiful Oberbaum bridge and follow the U-bahn tracks to the Schlesiches Tor stop. Wander this section of Kreuzberg - you’ll find delicious döner, coffee and eis and lots of interesting shops.

Go to one of the city parks - either the Tiergarten or Volkspark Friedrichshain. Excellent people watching. Excellent paths to wander. Excellent place to ride bikes. (Hey, take a Fat Tire Bike Tour.) Excellent spot to eat and drink. Just excellent.

Visit the Berliner Dom. Yes, it costs a few euros to get in, but you'll never see another Protestant church quite like it. Take the time to go down into the crypt. It's creepy, but interesting. If you can see a concert in the cathedral, that's probably the best way to fully take in the statues, the frescoes, the immensity, the organ, the beauty.

(more tomorrow)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Der Hund in Berlin

It's not a secret: Berlin (as well as Germany) is suffering from a lack of children. It is NOT suffering from a shortage of dogs. Dogs are everywhere in Berlin. There are few places in this city that you can go without encountering them: they accompany their owners on the subways and buses, in restaurants and cafes, and in many stores. Consequently, Lauren and I have spent this year on constant "cute dog alert." Most dogs, it seems, also run around without leashes. That's not a problem because German dogs (or at least Berliner dogs) must be among the best-behaved four-legged friends in the world. I'm not sure if leash laws exist here or are simply disregarded, but dogs are so well-trained that leashes seem largely superfluous. Dogs walk around with their owners without a leash and show no attention to other people, dogs, or passing distractions. And believe me, we've tried to distract them or get them to even glance at us - totally without success. If the dog lags behind sniffing, it will at least keep an eye out for its owner, just in case he or she ventures off around the next corner. If the dog decides to run ahead, it has been trained to stop at the curb and wait for their owners before crossing the street.

If a sign on the door indicates that dogs cannot enter a certain establishment...
...the dog will wait patiently outside, usually off-leash, focusing intently on the shop entrance and intently scanning each exiting face in anticipation of its returning master. These pictures illustrate a scene all too common around town:
They wait patiently even in the presence of other dogs!
This reality prompts society to go to special lengths to accommodate man's best friend. For instance, outside of Karstadt, you can just stash 'em in one of these "Hundebox" pet lockers (you'll get the Euro coin back when you retrieve the little fella).

Other places will provide dog stations where they can be tied up in comfort, as found here outside IKEA (and you don't even have to put it together first with an Allen wrench):
All this leads me to occasionally wonder if Berliners care more for dogs than they do for children. But, my real question: how can I entice a Berliner to come back to the States to train my dog?!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

May Day

Today was May Day (aka International Workers' Day/Labor Day) around the world. While Bavarians might be busy erecting May Poles, many Berliners seem more ready to grab their placards and Molotov cocktails and hit the streets to partake in political celebrations, demonstrations, and even riots organized by unions, anarchists, and socialist groups. This being the first time I have experienced a truly celebrated May Day, I was thankful that EXBERLINER published a May Day for Dummies - and a Dummy on this subject I certainly am. From what I understand, things apparently get even more out of hand than a Franklin Street celebration after a UNC victory over Duke.

What made this May Day a bit more unique is the fact that Neo-Nazis planned a march in our neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg (having lived here long enough now, the idea of Nazi extremist rallies is sadly no longer new to me over here). As pre-registration for public demonstrations is required by law, they registered themselves and their intended location with the police. Of course, the very idea of Nazis marching - even being given the right to march - evokes strong emotions in Germany (as you might well expect and even ponder yourself). But marching through a left-wing district of Berlin on such a socialist-inspired day evokes even stronger emotions. Thus, in the true spirit of May Day, Berlin's left-wing contingent planned an Anti-Fascist demonstration to stop the Nazis in their tracks. The Berlin air was palpably politically charged and the scene was set for violent pandemonium.

We were repeatedly warned (even got a note from the US Embassy) not to venture out into specific neighborhoods today for safety reasons, although I must admit a part of me really wanted to go out and watch the chaos erupt. But don't worry, Mom! Lauren and I went to the May Day market at Kollwitzplatz instead, where the only chaos we saw was caused by children on a moon-bounce and fresh asparagus being sold with wild abandon. Besides, one of Berlin's newspapers, Der Tagesspiegel, provided live blog coverage and pictures of the demonstration, so we didn't have to risk anything to get an insider peek.

The night is still young, and the worst may be yet to come. But rest assured, we are hunkered down for the evening. Happy May Day!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

That's weird.

Our recent adventures into non-German speaking lands produced a number of moments to which I could only respond " The (fill-in-the-blank people group) are weird!" I know there was a time when I thought Germans were a bit strange (wait, no I still think that every once in a while) but taking me out of Germany seemed to reinforce a creeping suspicion that on some things, the Germans aren't total weirdos and that maybe it's the rest of Europe that's a wee bit kooky.

zum Beispiel:
Obviously this McDonalds has had a problem with hooligans lollygagging about (sp?). But this sign elicited a number of questions as we sat sipping our shared Coke, killing time before a dinner reservation (which it should be noted is absolutely NOT lollygagging about). Question #1: Why is the sign in English? Do English-speaking teenagers regularly just sit in McDonalds while in Amsterdam? #2: When they say "no trading" what exactly do they mean? Because I have a lovely set of Lion King cards I've been looking to trade in...

I bear no ill will towards fast food. In fact, I applaud its contributions to society. But this, this has gone too far. Poptarts and Bugles are allowed to come out vending machines. I'll even allow Jerky and coffee. But burgers, fries, and the Dutch equivalent of a Hot Pocket-too far!!! Not okay, Holland. Not okay.

I'm a fan of the tiny vehicles one can find in Europe. Yes, there are SmartCars everywhere. Yes, there are three-wheeled cars. And I adore coming across Minis, especially the vintage ones. But this little Dutch bugger was a new discovery. It has four wheels. It was parked on the sidewalk for safe-keeping. It came up to John's chest and apparently needed to be chained to a pole. One word...