Tuesday, August 31, 2010

History Lessons

I caused a history lesson today because I'm an american.

Class started today, and I now get to enjoy sitting for five hours a day learning about intricate german language rules for the next two months. I know how exciting that must sound to you, because just writing that sentence was abhorrent enough to me that I wonder why I *chose* to do this. German is good, german is great, german is wonderful. That's better.

There are 14 students in my class, and I'm the single student from the americas, and the single student whose native language is english. I know, I was surprised too. Seven of us are male and seven of us are confusing, a perfect gender mix. Two come from Belarus, one from Russia, two from Italy, one from Romania, one from Hungary, one from Japan, two from Saudi Arabia, a couple of others undoubtedly come from great countries, bless their hearts ----- and I come from America.

Germans like to be in the middle of everything. Maybe the center of everything. I'm german and american AND a college student, and that mixture is potent enough that I feel like I ought to be the center of everyone's universe. (I kid?) In fact, even the very first germans, tribes like the Frankonians and Burgundians and Visigoths and Ostrogoths and Othergoths, decided when they first came down from the north that they wanted to be the center of Europe.

That's all very well and good, but sometimes that means little bits of other cultures slip into german. Now, I'm all for the spreading of german culture (a better word would be dissemination), but I get antsy and fidgity and defensive when people start encroaching on my fatherland's turf. It's the worst with the french.

Back in the 18th century the french were the cool kids on the block* and everyone wanted to be just like them. And by everyone, I mean the germans - who at that point had spent too much time philosophizing on what life actually means and how to be and raise good people and the like to stay in touch with Cosmo's latest trends. Therefore, the germans aristocrats who were important and monied and kept their 18th-century Rolls at their 18th-century summer home in Monaco started copying the cool french sissies in the way they dressed and spoke (Parlez-vous deutsçh?). Dark times, until the Brothers Grimm collected some fairy tales and made a dictionary and snapped zee germans out of it.

Here's where I come in. America's now the big kid with McDonald's and Nike and Bill Gates and t-shirts that say I <3 New York -- all the important things in life -- and it's crept into german. The german word for "downloaded" should be "heruntergeladen," but is sometimes "downgeloaded." I've heard girls say "gebabysitted" for goodness sake - what kind of nonsense is that?!

My teacher's name is Lothar, and is probably a late-50s man who comes across as extremely intelligent and even better spoken. He's good. Probably the best language teacher I've ever seen. And that's just in a day. He paints pictures with words, then expresses emotions with those pictures, and suddenly we all know exactly what a word MEANS. He's good.

Anyway, he asked what it means "jemand auf den neusten Stand bringen" - bringing someone up to date. When I said "jemand aktualisieren," he said 'I had a feeling the american would say that!' Because the word "aktuelisieren" is kind of like the english word "actual," it didn't matter that I gave a correct and concise definition and that I was the first to know the answer. You see, I'm an american. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a Big Mac to attend to before Family Guy comes on.

*And back east, the russians were probably the cool kids on the bloc. Aren't I clever?

Monday, August 30, 2010

My room is a MOMA exhibit.

Well, I'm in Munich. It's raining, the institute classes start tomorrow, and my landlord is slightly crazy. I'm going to love it here. :)

So I cam down from Erlangen to Munich (or, as the germans say, München) this morning with my great aunt and uncle, and we had to spend the whole 120-mile drive in the rain. To give you an idea of just how bad the rain was, we had to drive 75mph most of the way and even had a 60mph rain-induced speed limit at one point. Such things should not be.

After arriving in München I went to the Goethe Institute to take my third and fourth incoming tests respectively. It turns out that the results from my previous test were confusing, because I did really well for the beginner section, pretty badly in the intermediate section, then nailed the expert session. Go figure - I chalk it up to boredom. Anyway, some bureaucratic European Union committee came up with this thing called the Common European Frame of Reference for Languages, or CEFoRfLqsTdf, for short. They split of language abilities into six categories, from A1 to C2 - the former meaning you know how to introduce yourself and gargle mouthwash in the foreign language, and the latter meaning you can write cohesive and beautiful sonnets about the gargling of mouthwash in the foreign language. The first test I took in the states got me a B2+, meaning that I wasn't quite smart enough to be a C1, and today's test for speaking placed me at C1+, which means I must stick to german limericks for now. In a way, it was reassuring doing decently, because I work hard and it was some sort of validation that that's paying off.

My landlord is a modern art painter, and in coming days you shall see photos of my room. Though the walls are white, my bed is red, my entire cupboard has been painted a la Moderné, and the average number of pieces of art on each of my four walls is 4.25. It's awesome. He also strikes me as not entirely sane in a very pleasant and friendly way and I think I'll get along fine here.

I bought a week ticket to use all the transit stuff here in town today because it's not September yet, and I wandered over to the church building, chilled with the elderly couple there, then enjoyed a nice family home evening for people who were neither family nor home. It was very nice.

Non-sequitur awesome quote:

"The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts."
(K. Anders Ericsson in The Making of an Expert)

Tomorrow everything really begins. Should be interesting, I suppose. I'm in a city where I genuinely don't know anyone, aside from a few acquaintances from FHE tonight. It's strange, because I think this is the first time that's happened. I think I'll do just fine -- but write me an email, just in case. :)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Back from Berlin

The problem at the moment is that I can't upload pictures yet. Give me three days.

Succinctly, Berlin is awesome.

Over the course of five days I traveled from Erlangen near Nürnberg to Eisenach. Eisenach is the little medieval town next to the Wartburg Castle where Martin Luther translated the New Testament while he was hiding out from a very angry Catholic church. After Eisenach we drove to Bad Harzburg, which, as I've said, will someday be very famous because the ancestors of Ryan Nelson came from there. From there it was a three hour drive to Berlin.

Do you know what it's like to have a topic in your mind but you're unsure of what to do with it so you'd rather leave it alone? That's how being in Berlin feels to me, because most of the ideas I have presently for writing about it would turn this into a travelogue -- which I emphatically don't want to do.

First, a few facts: there are around 3.5 million people living in Berlin proper, and the metro area is home to a total of a little over 5 million. That's nearly twice as many people as Utah, and roughly the same as the total population of Colorado. Interestingly, there are no skyscrapers taller than about 20 stories in Berlin. Also, Berlin is the capitol of Germany. Besides that, the government buildings look awesome (just stating the facts).

It's a good sign when the first impressions you have after a day wandering a city is that's it's alive and that you could live there. There's simply so much going on.

We first wandered from the enormous train station -- second largest in the world, I believe -- to the Altstadt, the old city where the government functions. Sadly Angela was a bit too busy to see me, but then, as the president of a country she's entitled to being busy. After meandering around the old buildings (I'm bothered I can't do this justice) we came to The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

The Holocaust is one of the most terrible events known to humanity - caused by hatred and xenophobia it wiped out nearly two thirds of the Jews of Europe through state-sponsored, systematic and efficient murder. Adolf Hitler was unequivocally evil and the program of genocide the national socialist party of Germany created is beyond abhorrent. In a book entitled Die Schuldfrage (The Question of Fault) which was published a year after the end of the second world war, the historian and german philosopher Karl Jaspers said that the atrocities wrought by Hitler's regime were a sorrow that germans would have to carry as guilt and shame for generations because those actions of hatred were committed against Germany as well as against the Jews.

In Germany, nearly everything can be dicussed freely, from sex to politics to the idiotic driver in front of you. Germans tend to be quite frank and direct, which I appreciate and understand. However, the second world war and Holocaust can only be discussed carefully in good company. The swastika has been outlawed in Germany (Strafgesetzbuch §86a) and it's a mark of the people's intolerance of the symbol that one doesn't even really see it used in graffiti. There is some sort of background consciousness there that I find both fascinating -- in how it's handled -- and tragic -- in how's it's left an indelible print on this people.

The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (German: Denkmal für die ermorderten Juden Europas) was completed in 2004 and opened in early 2005. It consists of around 2700 rectangular grey pillars that are a little less than 8 feet long and a little more than 3 feet wide - unnervingly close in size to coffins. They take up a city block in neat, even rows, and the pillars are different heights, reminiscent of waves or the ascension of a city from its suburbs to the tall skyscrapers in the middle - indeed, the middle pillars are sometimes up to 16 feet high.

There is no plaque stating what it means. There are no markings or words or names on the pillars. On a sunny day you see people lying atop the pillars or hopping from pillar to pillar as they get higher. When you walk down the rows you eventually get lost in a sea of grey much higher than your head. It feels uneasy, and it feels wrong. And somehow, somewhere in the middle, I couldn't help but weep.

Think of it, 6 million people and all their progeny and possibilities lost to hatred. The chilling word in all of it, to me, must be "systematic." And as I sat in the shade of these pillars I felt like they could represent a huge city of lost souls, an ocean of the dead. I don't know more what to say. When you're in Berlin, visit the memorial.


To turn things around a bit, the rest of my day was glorious. After a tour on a river-boat, we sat at an outdoor café and watched an english firebreather work his magic. We wandered through old streets my aunt knew from living there, and ended up in this artistic shopping quarter where I was forced (against my will, mind you) to buy the coolest italian blazer, shirt and tie that I've ever seen.

Ernst & Young have offices in Berlin, as do Goldman Sachs and others. That gives me hope that there are enough american firms here that I could eventually live there for a while were the opportunity right. And the sun kipped below the horizon and we took the train back to the outskirts of town, I knew I had barely seen the city. The mayor of Berlin once called it the "poor and sexy" city, and, while I don't know if it's necessarily poor, the rest of his statement was right. Like I said, Berlin is awesome.

In a few days I'm driving down to Munich where I start my schooling at the Goethe Institut. I found out last night that I'll be staying with a relatively famous german modern art painter in the best part of Munich, and I hope that turns out as well as it sounds like it should.

I'll post pictures as soon as I can. Bis dann!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Der Blick aus meinem Hotelfenster

There's a river right below my window. It's quiet, maybe 150 feet wide, and moving just fast enough that lights from the other side are twinkling in the eddies and ripples from the current. Directly across from me is a palace, and just upstream the tall clock tower of the Rathaus (city hall) proclaims the time is neither wrong nor right. A single river boat is putting upstream, red light facing me, and other boats are moored safely on the shore below. Adding to this already restful and somehow perfect night view is the full moon, rising to my right above it all.

Berlin is gorgeous.

One thing that's struck me about being here in Germany is how historied everything is. Yesterday I was on the Wartburt castle (pronounced vart-boorg), where Martin Luther translated the New Testament - and where Johann Wolfgang von Goethe loved to visit. Richard Wagner was there and wrote a portion of the opera just for the castle, and Franz Lizst composed several pieces in the upper room there. Some of the greatest minds in history, all during different centuries in one room.

Last night we stayed in a little town called Bad Harzburg. If ever in my life there's a place I would call my pilgrimage, Bad Harzburg is it. It's a little town nestled in the Harz Mountains of northern Germany, and its principal claim to fame is that my german ancestry lived there for hundreds of years. But then who lived a few kilometers away? Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, an amazing philosopher who saw truth as beauty and spent his life following it.

Lessing wrote:
"The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found."

There you have it. The profoundest words to likely ever go on this blog, and I had absolutely nothing to do with them.

People ask me every once in a while why I love Germany so much. The obvious first guess from those who know me would likely be "the Autobahn." And they're not really wrong - automobiles of teutonic excellence whizzing along gloriously beautiful roads do leave me breathless and strangely stammery. The history of the place fascinates me, too; I love finding out about the great thinkers, the enlightened and enlightening men from Germany who have bettered the world. Of course, my family comes from Germany, and heritage plays a large role.

I can't put a finger on the exact answer myself, because the likely answer is a mixture of all three (as well as a heady dose of 95%-flavorful food). "Das alles ist Deutschland, das alles sind wir. Gibt's nirgendwo anders, nur hier, nur hier." (If you didn't catch the reference, don't worry about it.)

The palace across the water has its own story: one day, a man walked in claiming he was the lord of the place. He set up shop and lived there for a while, claiming he was the owner, then made off with all the money in the house. Lessing and Goethe were good, but that's brilliance. I'm glad to be in Germany.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Word on German Food.

"He who eats alone, chokes alone." - Arabic proverb
"I don't like broccoli. And I haven't since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. I am the President of the United States, and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli." - George W. Bush (though he probably said "ain't", per our last discussion)
"One can not think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." - Virginia Woolf

This is a post about a topic near to my heart - just a bit under and to the right. And it's a topic about which the germans are delightfully concerned. I said a word on german food, and I meant it:


In the morning I eat bread with butter and cheese spread copiously atop, with a little salami or wurst on the side or to accompany the (also-butter-smeared) second slice of bread. I drink whole milk, and for breakfast-dessert I eat some sweet yoghurt covered in fruit. There is some fruit and veg that goes with the meal, but that's not the important thing.

Today for lunch I ate a thing called Schweineschäufele, which is a pig's shoulder. And the more I think about it, the more certain I am that I ate the entire shoulder of a very large pig. I have no training in gastronomie or the correct chemistry of food (though I do have a book called "What Einstein Told his Cook), but they say that fat holds or transports the flavor of foods. If that is the case, and there is some sort of linear relation between the fat content and flavor content, I ate the most flavorful food in the world today. I'm not kidding when I say some bites must have been at least 95% flavor, if you know what I mean.

And I absolutely loved it. So good.

The most keen among you must be surely saying: "But wait! Wasn't my dearly beloved, sorely missed, wonderful friend and secret lover (for women) Ryan already in Germany!? Shouldn't he already know what german food tastes like!? Oh, I'm so confused! And because I think of him so often anyway, this will only add to the sleepless nights and worry!" Not to worry, dear reader. The problem is location.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that in northern Germany one eats only cabbage, rice and orange juice, but it's much nearer the truth there as it is here in the south. One still eats meat there, but not in the portions I've experienced in the last two days alone. It turns out that there are even Schweineschäufele clubs here in Bavaria (the state I'm in), which should say something about the food. Not to worry, the clubs are relatively small because others eat smaller portions. Or because the clubs aren't necessarily the wisest life-choice for longevity. I haven't decided.

This evening I ate a very small portion of olive salad (with fresh cheese, like cream cheese, and sundried tomatoes and roasted red peppers) and then fruit salad and a single slice of whole-wheat bread, so I should live to see another german morning. Tomorrow we're beginning our journey to Berlin, which will take us through Bad Harzburg -- my pilgrimage site -- for a night. I now have internet on my phone again so it'll be much easier for me to post updates. Until then, dear reader - bon app
étit, und lasst es euch schmecken!

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Stranger in a Strange Land, or Deutsch and Narcolepsy

Tevye: As Abraham said, "I am a stranger in a strange land... "
Mendel: Moses said that.
Tevye: Ah. Well, as King David said, "I am slow of speech, and slow of tongue."
Mendel: That was also Moses.
Tevye: For a man who was slow of tongue, he talked a lot.

Having been in Germany for a few days, I'm finally starting to sleep normally. My travel took me on Sunday from Salt Lake City to Atlanta, and then on to Munich - and unfortunately, I've grown a little to much to be able to sleep any more in coach seats on airlines. (Note to self: fly first class in the future.) That means that the first night I was here I slept more than 12 hours, and I've averaged 12 hours a night every subsequent evening.

I think part of it comes down to how much there is to see and experience here which is unfamiliar. From silly things like noticing different brands of jeans to different foods and even different facial expressions people wear as they're walking down the street, there are a lot of small social differences between Germany and the US. More importantly, there's that whole language problem.

You see, in America there's english and there's the south, but even silly people who chose to grow up in places like Texas and Alabama use words that the rest of us understand. In Germany, we're not so lucky. I served my mission in Hamburg, and for the most part german in the northern part of the country is very clean and easy to understand. Here in the south I'm running into dialects of german called "Schwabisch" and "Frankisch" that don't even resemble what I know as german when the speakers are too intensely involved in their dialect speaking. Yesterday I went to Legoland with my aunt, uncle and cousins (more on that later, be very excited for pictures) and there were a few times I turned to my aunt and asked if people around me were even speaking german!

There was a study conducted by Harvard* which determined that increased sleep needs are almost directly proportional to the amount of new learning someone is undertaking. And given that I'm now speaking the highest percentage of german I ever have in my life (at least 98% a day is now german) and I'm seeing and experiencing all these new things, it's no wonder that I've been awfully tired. It makes me feel like Moses. But now the sun is shining and we're about to go 'make circuit trainings' at the local Fitness-Centre, and I think things are going to be just fine.

Besides which, Germany freaking rocks.

*I made that up.