Thursday, September 23, 2010

Part One, Done.

After four weeks, my first of two intensive courses is done. 15 proud, brave souls withstood the test of time. Though made weak by time and fate, our strong will pushed us to strive, to seek, and to find* our way through what Mark Twain lovingly dubbed "That Awful German Language." We are the few and the proud.

I celebrated by going to the Oktoberfest then having a burger at McDonald's. At almost four in the morning. There's nothing like good Scottish food to buck you up, and it turns out that one of the things I enjoy most about being in Europe is the delightful spin they pit on American fast food.

In America, the Big Mac is the most recognized name in burgers. There's the Big'N'Tasty (I assume it's spelled something like that), and then there's the Whopper. They're pillars of our society, as cherished as american football and national debt. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In Germany, I've eaten the California Whopper (a slice of avocado serves as differentiation), the Big Tasty Bacon (which is a burger and not an oversized strip of pork, as the name would suggest), the Big Spicy (Tabasco sauce) - and in Austria I've savored the Spicy Mexican Whopper, a truly marvelous creation which rightfully earns its name thanks to the liberal sprinkling of cayenne pepper, DIRECTLY ON THE BUN.

Overlooking for the moment the fact that these burgers are a caricature of the continent I call home (sort of), I shall explain the process of ordering said meals. When in Germany, it's best to place your orders for things like Big Macs with as heavy a german accent as possible, because if you say american words like an American, they likely won't understand you. Instead of asking if you want the meal, they ask if it should be menü (think snotty french accent and you'll say it correctly), and at places like Burger King where you can Have It You Way, you don't ask for 'Speck' or 'Käse' on your burger, but rather 'bacon' and 'cheese' (never forgetting to pronounce those words slightly incorrectly so they understand). And at the end of it all, you eat your fries with mayonnaise -- which actually tastes amazing.

My suspicion is that I'm trying to illustrate a cultural point here, and to remove all delicate readerly pretentions, I'll come right out and say that Germans seem to like american stuff (question for readers: does one capitalize countries when used adjectivally?). I wouldn't go so far as to say it parallels Americans' love of german cars, bratwursts and low-cut dirndls, but it's there. And at 3:30 in the morning, when you're wandering a foreign city alone, it's a pleasure seeing those golden arches.

(I'm aware that I've openly admitted in this post to eating at least four fast food burgers while here, which far exceeds dietitians' recommendations of eating one every two thousand years. But I'll get back on my bike this winter and try to earn the forgiveness of my cardiovascular system.)

I now have five days until the next round of classes begin. My cyprusian friend Hector will still be in class with me, but otherwise it's a whole new ball game. We're now a step higher up the germanistics ladder and feel pretty self-important because of that move. The farewell yesterday had all the necessary elements, including an appropriate number of eyes experiencing elevated hydrosic states, and from this experience I have new friends hailing from all over the world. One of these days I'll tell you about how Saudis aren't actually all terrorists, not all Norwegians are blonde, and how I'm pretty sure my friend from Belarus isn't a KGB spy. In the meantime, I'm ready for a relaxing weekend and getting ready for another treacherous cycle of learning and sleeping. I love it.

*My sincerest apologies to Tennyson for using some of the finest words ever penned in a stupid and ironic way.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Salzburg and Zugspitze

On Sunday I spent most of the day doing things that would make my mother cry.

One should expect, when visiting different countries, that the culture there will be different. I've spoken about such overwhelming surprises before. Though very similar to the United States in many ways, Germans tend to be more strict and observant of some things (when trains leave trainstations, for example; I had an experience on Sunday which I MUST tell later), and much more lax about others. Here in Germany, sex and nudity have nowhere near the same taboo as they do in the United States, and the English Gardens that are across the street from my apartment are well known for their Frei Körper Kultur - their free stance on clothing when the sun is out. On Sunday, the weather was perfect and the sun shone warmly down on Germany.

Of course, that has nothing to do with me.

My mother is deathly afraid of heights. Comically so (sorry, mom). It's absolutely hilarious seeing her trying to cope with dizzying heights that I take absolutely for granted. Sidewalks, for example. And as I travelled Sunday to the Zugspitze -- a very high place indeed -- I couldn't help but think of mom and the precarious perch on which I found myself.

The Zugspitze is the tallest mountain in Germany, at 2962 meters - or, as we cowboys like to say, 9718 feet. (We cowboys would also like to take a moment to point out that such a low peak is sissy stuff that can hardly be called a mountain.) It's located in the southernmost section of Germany -- the border with Austria actually crosses THROUGH the station at the top of the mountain -- and is only 35 miles away from Italy. The most amazing thing about the Zugspitze, however, is the gondola from the Eibsee to the top.

My mom's fear of heights is a recessive gene which I have the misfortune of not experiencing as part of my phenotype. I'm quite the opposite, actually, so whenever I see something really tall I want to climb it. It's compulsive, and you'll be pleased to hear that I'll be pursuing psychological help for it back in the States where the doctors are a little less freudian (dear germans: that was a joke). And because of all that, the gondola to the top was this magical, cathartic experience which has changed my life forever, or until I find some taller / more dangerous ride. The car gains 1950 meters of elevation during its ascent up the side of the mountain, and continues to be the highest single-section ascent of any gondola in the world. I rocked that.

Up at the top it was sunny and simply gorgeous, and I enjoyed Rouladen and Spätzle as I looked south across the Tirolian Alps towards northern Italy. We took a different cable car part of the way back down, then I enjoyed the masterpiece of german engineering that is the cog-train that they have running through the mountain almost to the peak. It's incredible, and will definitly make me more appreciative of the german engineering in teutonic luxury cars I plan on owning in the future.

We sauntered over to another one of Germany's tallest peaks (and by sauntered, I mean took the train) and there I experienced one of the more intense "heights" moments of my life: someone decided it would be a good idea to build a 50-foot-long platform there which extends out over absolutely nothing, just to enjoy the view. And when I say absolutely nothing, I mean almost a kilometer of freefall would occur were it to break, and I'd be falling for about 18 seconds (if my maths are about right) before suddenly encountering the ground at nearly terminal velocity. If "I think, therefore I am" is a determiner of being I would, in that moment, cease being very, very quickly. The bottom of the platform is made of grated metal, and it was an...interesting...experience looking through it as I walked to the end of the platform and my certain demise. Gratefully, I haven't been demised yet.

We didn't get back to Munich until almost 11 o'clock at night, and I was ready to crash. One thing I've noticed is how much walking I do here compared to in the states. Even with a spectacular public transportation system, my travelling needs (I know, I don't need to travel somewhere every weekend) dictate that I spend a lot of time on my feet. That, coupled with language classes determined to kill me slowly whilst verbessering my german, mean that I'm sleeping a lot these days. I love it.

I spent the day doing things that would make my mother cry. But I think she still loves me anyway.

PS: I also went to Salzburg this weekend. It was gorgeous. Go there. I'm in love with that city. Best in the world, as far as I'm concerned.

PPS: These pictures aren't mine. Mine are better. And when I have the software again to deal with my camera, I'll prove it.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Bowling and Jazz

On Sunday I went to Salzburg, and it was one of the highlights of my life. I've never seen such a beautiful city - it's enough to make one's heart ache for the joy of it. I walked probably 12 miles while I was there, and one of the best moments was eating lunch (Spätzle noodles with mushrooms and this sauce consisting of a mixture of tomatoes and ambrosia) in Salzburg's mountain castle while looking out over the city. Words fail me.

I've been trying to think about how one would describe Salzburg, and it just doesn't work. I love the place; go there. Done.

What I can say, though, is that all of you have a new goal in life, and it should be at the top of your lists: watching Europeans bowling. Seriously. On Monday evening the Goethe Institut had an evening at the lanes, and I've never seen anything like it. In America it's reasonably common for people to know what bowling is supposed to look like. For europeans, I have discovered that this is not the case*. The sheer breadth in (shoddy) techniques demonstrated was alone worth the price of admission. One girl would stand still at the beginning of the lane, swing her arm (and the ball) at least half a dozen times before letting go. Another guy would walk slowly towards the lane while holding the ball to his side with both hands, then rotate his whole torso as he sort of set the ball down into the lane. Another girl would put the ball on the ground then push really hard to get it rolling. It was wonderful, and now I understand why curling must be such a great spectator sport - because it's absolutely and utterly preposterous watching people do things this way. I *loved* it.

This evening we went to a jazz club that's rated in the top 50 in the world. It was in the cellar of this old building in Munich, and it had this awesome ambiance that made you think Jack Kerouac was just around the corner, putting something interesting in his blood so he'd be ready for another four-page-long sentence. There was a Steinway grand on stage, and off to the side the bar had just the right mixture of old-world character mixed with modern german efficiency. And that's not even the music.

My hat's off to the pianist. His name was Matthias, and that guy could do incredible things with a piano. Everything from interesting chord progressions to perfectly-timed hemiolas you didn't even see coming to some arpeggios he threw in at the end that were possibly the highlight of the show. The percussionist was excellent, the bass player very good, the saxophonist (and leader of the band) was passable, but the singer --- she was amazing.

I've often wondered what it would have been like to experience some of the jazz greats - Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Al Hirt, Red Garland. Well, after hearing the singer tonight I now think I can understand what it would be like to hear the great Ella Fitzgerald singing. With a head cold. And swimmer's ear. Having learned English from cartoon reruns on Nickelodeon and from karaoke bars in Asia. Inebriated. And singing about 4 times closer to the mic than could ever sound good. Like I said, the singer was astonishing. (The rest of the band really was great, though. That pianist. Wow.)

My studies at the institute seem to be going well. Today we were talking about the similarities between Subjunctive 1 and 2 when discussing past events before my brain finally gave out, but that means I lasted most of the day. I'm finding that I still need at least nine hours of sleep a night here, and I'm sure on Friday night I'll again sleep more than 12 - I don't know what it is, just so much about the language that I'm systematically experiencing. I love it.

It's nearly one in the morning and I need to be off to sleep. I didn't even touch on some of the great experiences I've had in the institute; those will need to wait 'til later. Bis dann!

*I love making sweeping generalizations like that. Of course there were a few excellent players; they were just the vanishing minority.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

A Word from the Editor

I've heard from a few sources that there's been some confusion about my last post, i.e., that the Goethe Institut is easy or I'm not taking it seriously or something. Allow me to assure you that that isn't the case.

The "cultural awareness" class to which I was referring was a pre-departure seminar I was required to take at BYU. While it could be helpful in other circumstances, possibly, hypothetically, conceivably, it wasn't in my case. The Goethe Institut itself is brilliant, in its scope and structure and in the highly professional way the classes are taught. There is a methodical order to everything done here which ensures that at the end of each day my brain is DONE. On Friday night I slept 19 hours as part of the recovery process from the prior week. I didn't even know that was possible.

I went to Salzburg on Sunday, and per my norm, I have something to say about that. But that'll have to wait until after classes today. Bis dann!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Problem with Experts.

So I'm sitting in the middle of Munich right now. As we speak. As I'm writing. It's dark outside and the furthest into the night sky I can see is the towering Rathaus (city council building) ahead of me. There are hundreds of people milling in this large square, and a little down the street a performer is playing Tchaikovsky on a marimba. The church bells all around just started ringing because it's now 9 o'clock at night - so considerate of them to remind us.

If you have the opportunity to go to a foreign country through school or work, they're probably going to put you through a program like the one I had to experience. There I learned that different cultures are different, that sometimes they have different foods and sometimes the weather in different parts of the world can be different than Utah. Absolutely mind-blowing stuff. Who knew? Probably the best bit they told me, though, was about stages of acclimation:
1. When you get to a new country it's amazing and charming and beautiful and life-changing. But then,
2. You start to notice differences between where you used to live and where you live now. Sometimes that makes you afraid and you start spending a lot of time with people more similar to you.
3. Something else.
4. Eventually you come to appreciate that the new culture is different, and you'll probably learn to like it about as much as you can - maybe as much as your old culture, if your new one is cool like Germany.

I wish I were the one paid to write that. I'd enjoy it so much, and then to get paid besides would be amazing! Anyway, the point is, that training comes to mind as I sit here and watch and listen and feel german. The people, the food, the culture and history, the smells and sounds. Without such advice, I'd never be here.