Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Chapter 7, In which the ways were parted, and I said a proper farewell

The time has come to bid farewell to Germany, at least for now. My class is drawing to its close – I have a meager 3 lectures more before the end of the course. It seems that much time has passed, for me – and yet it’s really only been 2 months. Now, I’ll grant that these two months have hardly been your typical two months – without excessive details, most people don’t have a serious relationship broken off at the start of an immersion program. But that aside, there is an element which is hard to describe, which makes the time feel almost infinitely long.

I suppose, if I were to be forced into a description, I would say that it feels like I have always been here, and like I could be here forever. I am ever challenged to be concise…so perhaps it is this: it feels like I could make a life here. This is a fundamental realization that I think many people probably go their whole life without reaching – there is a world outside of home, outside of our culture and comfort zone, where life goes on. No matter what life throws at me once I return, I will always have the knowledge that, should push come to shove, I could relocate and (perhaps not immediately) thrive.

It’s perhaps easiest to understand this by thinking about the things that I will miss, once I’m gone. I have grown used to the image of myself as a foreign fish in the pond, if you will. Maybe a brightly colored tropical one, or maybe just a dull goldfish. The point is, it’s not my home habitat, and I expect at this point that whenever I communicate with people, some percentage will be lost. In the US, I do not think about communication. I am most certainly fluent in English, and I do not waste time on the medium – all my attention is focused on the content. This sounds like the German experience would be negative, but at some level it’s extremely refreshing. I feel much like a child, in that I spend every day discovering how to express myself. At home, I am a student, but it’s hardly as if advanced calculus or numerical methods will let me better order my food, or find a book, or buy a fountain pen! There’s a simple pleasure to being able to communicate with people, and the feeling that I’m improving day by day is one I will sorely miss. (My music is now in German, my keyboard is configured German style, my default thinking language is German (you have no idea how hard it is to type/speak English anymore), and even my books are in German! That’s right – I’m reading a German book. Admittedly, only at about 60% comprehension, but that’s enough to start learning words, and recognizing things.)

I’ll also miss some of the smaller things. While here, I’ve developed a set of routines – admittedly, they’ve changed about from start to finish, but I’ll share one with you. My class meets from 13.30 – 18.00, Monday through Friday. Since the class started, more or less, my routine for dinner has been much the same – following my class, I take a train into the Altstadt (old city), and make my way to my favorite Italian restaurant. They have a special there – 1 Pizza to go for 4 €. That’s pretty good, and they have standing tables outside to eat at. So I order my pizza, they cook it in the brick oven, and 10 minutes later I’m eating (olives, mushrooms, and onions, in case you were wondering). After I’m done, I wander a bit through the old city. I make sure to pass a kiosk a friend took me to once – I pick up a beer (usually a fruit mixture: I am particularly partial to the grapefruit mix, although the cactus fruit is also very good. This’d be Schöfferhofer, if you were wondering), and continue my meander. If I need anything, I’ll do a bit of shopping, and then I head home.

Embedded within this routine are all sorts of little things that I don’t even think about anymore, that I’ll be sad to lose. As many of you probably know, there’s this big soccer thing going on right now. And as many of you know, Europe is crazy for soccer. For the past few weeks, the old city has been FILLED to overflowing with people watching soccer during dinner – flat screen TVs everywhere! As I waited, I’d talk to the barkeep (or rather, he’d talk to me – daunting!) I’ll miss that, and even the general passion for soccer (so much better than football, or baseball. Believe me. I used to hate all of them equally. Soccer has grown on me some).

Another example: the process of shopping. It’s a bit different here! Shopping carts/baskets are the same, but at the register it changes. First, you’re expected to have brought your own bag – if you didn’t they’ll provide one, but you can feel the palpable geo(un)friendly disapproval. (Weltfreundlich is the German word for environmentally sound – it translates to ‘World friendly’). Then comes the actual payment. Say, for example, that your total is 21,57€. The expectation is that you will hand over exactly that. Not 25, not 22, exact change. This was a big difference for me at first – I had a lot of trouble with it. I’ve always felt in the US like people are waiting and disapproving if I take the time to count out exact change, so I never do it. Here, it’s the reverse. If you don’t give exact change, the cashier will frequently ask if you have some odd number of cents to make the tendering easier! At this point, I hand over exact change almost without thinking about it – screw the rest of the line! They’ll live. And then, you bag your own groceries. Yep. By yourself. Without help. In the bag you brought. Sweating yet? I was the first time – it was very different, and there was a feeling of ‘who doesn’t know how to go shopping? Foreigner. Jeez.’ But I’m pretty sure that was in my head – the people really are very friendly, and I made it through.

Needless to say, there are also certainly things I will not miss (read: things I am desperate to escape from). The Germans are very ecofriendly, and this has immediate and frequent ramifications. I’d break it down into 3 main categories that affect day to day life: water sparing, electricity sparing, and garbage awareness. The water sparing is probably the hardest for me to deal with, even now. I’ve been informed by my family from the US(in laughing tones) that much of the world actually turns off the water in the shower, while soaping up, so as to avoid fighting the water while doing the soaping. Personally, I find the experience of standing in a shower without water to be a tad cold. Here, that’s doubly (triply [quadruply]) true. The shower is not a proper shower – it’s a bathtub with a place to sit, and a hand held showerhead. There’s a device called a water-clock (which is simply a water meter) which measures your consumption. Water is VERY expensive, as you pay to have it delivered, and then to have the used water cleaned, so I was advised on the first day to please be very sparse in my use. Therefore, the routine is as follows: my shower takes exactly 4 minutes. Because that’s the fastest I can manage it. It takes 20 seconds after turning on the faucet for the water to achieve lukewarm bearable temperature. It takes an additional 40 seconds to get myself wet. Then the water is off! 1 minute to soap, 20 seconds to rinse hands, [water back off!] 30 seconds to shampoo hair. [ok, now I get water again] 1 additional minute to clean soap/shampoo off, and then 10 seconds to convince myself that turning off the faucet will not result in my turning into a block of ice. Even though I’ve been here a while, I’m always not quite convinced. In the end, it’s about two and a half minutes of water usage per shower.

I am an American. I miss my longer showers. A comic comes to mind – it depicts someone standing in the shower with the caption: 30 minute shower. First 2.5 minutes to get clean, then 27.5 minutes to think deep thoughts about the world. The electricity/garbage are not so hard to handle. With electricity, one simply unplugs everything when not in use. This really isn’t that hard to get used to, and is probably something I should continue to do at home. In terms of garbage awareness, one simply makes sure that everything goes into the appropriately colored receptacle. (There are 4 here – various types of glass and plastic, paper/cardboard, regular trash, and bio).

The final ‘not missed at all things’ are quick: the internet is unreliable, and the apartment above mine is being renovated. Translation: my internet dies at random times and I have no control over the router, so I’m forced to go to bed. Then people start banging hammers on the floor of the apartment above me at 8am, when no sensible person is awake! L Grr. Argh.

But the million dollar question is simple: was it worth it? The answer is, quite simply, yes. My personal experience was probably quite unique, in that I’m simultaneously adventurous, and shy. It is indeed an odd combo, I agree. I had some trouble reaching out to the people I was associating with, and the circumstances of my visit didn’t really help. Despite that, I managed to make some meaningful connections – I still have standing invitations to visit friends in Greece and the Ukraine, if I should ever be in those regions of the world! I also managed to tour this region of Europe – I saw Düsseldorf (from the resident’s perspective), Cologne, Essen, Bonn, Amsterdam, and Brussels. I toured the countryside a bit, and saw a large number of the local sites, from castles to museums. I even saw the European Parliament! I experienced a slice of life that was truly, completely different from my own, and I think my eyes were opened a bit for that. Heck, I even tried beer for the first time. (Outcome: I don’t really like dark beers, which is unfortunate, since that’s what this region is known for. Corollary: Discovered that I actually like fruity beers quite a bit. If it’s not so beery, it tastes good!)

Tomorrow, I’ll take an oral exam to finish my certification at the B1 level, and get my Zertifikat Deutsch. The day after, I suspect I’ll take a final oral exam at the B2.1 level, to finish off the course. Thursday I’ll get my documents from the institute office, say farewell to teachers and friends, settle accounts with my host family, and pack. And Friday…I fly home, via Ireland. I am simultaneously calm, sad, and excited. I cannot help but feel that this is not farewell for Germany – not for me. I’ll be back, someday, and maybe even someday in the not too distant future.

And now, dear reader, the time has come for us to part ways. For those who are close enough to talk to me in the real world, we will speak soon. For those who were watching from afar, I hope there was something here for you. And for those who stumbled upon my story by accident…I hope you were entertained.

Farewell, for now.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Chapter 6, In which my language skills made my day

Yesterday was an exciting day for me. It was also extremely taxing, but I suppose that's life. In my last post I talked at length about the Goethe system, and how my studies are being conducted. I said that I was at the B2.1 level, after completing the B1.1 level in the last four week period. Yesterday, I took the first piece of the B1 certification test: this is a certification called the 'Zertifikat Deutsch,' and it certifies that you have mastered German up to the B1 level. It is also, incidentally, the level of certification required to become a German citizen. Fundamentally, it states that one has the German required to live in Germany.

I received a bit of validation of this on my way home from class - I had taken a 3 hour German test in the morning, and sat through 4.5 hours of lecture. I was pretty tired, and listening to my music. At the station before mine, the loudspeaker binged, so I took my headphones out, just in time to hear an announcement from the train operator. You must understand, this is actually quite unusual -- usually, the announcements come at regular points, and are prerecorded. This was actually the driver sitting in the front of the train talking. He greeted us (the passengers), and went on to explain that there was a downed power line in my station (the next one), and the train would not be moving until it was fixed. Sadly, he did not know when that would be. At this point, I looked out the window, noticed a set of buses idling, and made a split-second decision. I lept from my seat and ran through the station to the bus stop. I went to the first bus, and asked rather breathlessly: "Fährt dieses Bus nach Hochdahl?" (Does this bus go to Hochdahl?) The driver told me the bus went to the marketplace (not so useful for me), but that I wanted bus 5, which was at the front of the line. I thanked him, and headed to the aforementioned bus. I got on, and to make a long story short, I arrived home only 10 minutes or so later than I would have otherwise.

The experience left me with the sensation that I could really live here. Before, it's always felt like I was barely making it. But I've started to develop routines -- I know my way around the city, I have places I like to eat, and I can understand most communications, even if they're unscripted. I've discovered German music, and I'm listening to it almost exclusively now. To drive the point home, I'm typing at my normal speed on a German keyboard. What does that mean? Well, the keys are all mixed up! A normal sentence in English (typed like on a normal keyboard) would look like this: Mz goodness but it takes some SERIOUS getting used to to make use of this sillz kezboard )obviouslz z and y are mixed up)! I mean, <i canät even make things work!

You get the point.

Returning to language, it feels like I have arrived at the edge. Prior to now, I was unable to really understand most of what went on around me. Now, it feels like I understand most of it, even if my vocabulary is a bit lacking. But I have the connections to learn vocabulary at a phenomenal rate. All I would need is about 3 or 4 months living here, and I would be totally fluent (Incidentally, the Goethe Institute estimates that after about 6 months of study here, I would speak German better than many Germans). It's an empowering feeling.

I write this in one of my breaks from class, and it will end shortly, so I must here sign off. To all who are reading my blog:

Liebe Grüße, und ich freue mich, eure Achtung gehabt zu haben.
Best regards, and I'm happy to have had your attention.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Chapter 5, In which some reflection occured

It strikes me that I have been here for 6 weeks, and I haven’t really written much about the actual academic experience, e.g. about the Goethe-Institut itself. I’ve spent a fair bit of time traveling around, and I’ve talked about that plenty, so this post will be about that experience.

I arrived in Germany on a Monday. I took a taxi from the airport to the Goethe Institut, and my experience must start there. When I walked in, I was uncertain where I fit into the system, how I’d be placed, and just how much success I might have here. These uncertainties were taken care of, if not in short order, then in a reasonable time frame. I left my luggage in a (locked) side room, and proceeded to testing. I was given a multiple choice test intended to test my control of grammar. Following that, I was asked to write a short passage on a topic of my choice (intended, I believe, to test my ability to formulate logical constructions). Finally, I was given an oral exam – this was pretty straight forward. I was asked a few basic questions, allowed to answer as I saw fit, and then asked a couple of leading follow up questions. At the end, I was placed into my level: B1.1.

A brief interlude to explain what this level system means. There are three levels: A (Beginner), B(Intermediate), and C(Advanced). Each level has two subparts, and each subpart has at least 2 classes, each of which takes 4 weeks of intensive study. Thus, the levels are:


My level is bolded. This means I was placed as if I had spent 4 months studying German 4.5 hours per day, 5 days per week. This is interesting, but only inasmuch as it provides context. When I showed up to the B1.1 level, I was surprised to find that I had already learned at least 50% of the grammar for the level, and that my oral skills were significantly above par. In fact, I was showed my scores, and my grammar/writing placed me squarely in B1.1. But my oral skills were significantly higher, and this deserves some explanation.

When I arrived in Germany, I teleported. It was as if my brain was waiting for the immersion. My vocabulary obviously didn’t change, nor did my grammar. But my speaking changed overnight. It was like hearing other people using German amalgamated my understanding. All of a sudden I found I could formulate real sentences, and communicate. I’ve spent some time thinking about it, and the explanation that I now give is this. In the US I would spend great periods of time thinking about each sentence, they’d generally be planned. The problem with this is that you can get so caught up in correcting your articles, endings, and declensions that you forget where you were actually going, get frustrated, and abandon ship. Here in Germany, my approach changed. I do not plan my sentences in my head – I begin the sentence, and allow it to flow where it will. Thus, the sentences frequently exit my mouth without my actually thinking them inside my head. The result is twofold: (1) I make mistakes. (2) People can understand me. This seems contradictory, but it’s actually not. The mistakes I make are small: I mistake articles, but it’s the type of funny mistake that makes us chuckle without interfering with the understanding of what is actually meant.

So, back to Goethe. I chose to sample the B1.2 level, to see if I might be better placed there. What I found was that the class size, and the individual teacher are both very important. My B1.1 teacher was terrific – she was very nice, and very good at engaging the class. It had the feeling of a very well-rehearsed dance, when she taught (she was in her 60s, and had been teaching for a long time). The B1.2 teacher spoke WAY too fast, and the material just blew me away. By which I mean, on that particular day, she basically gave out tables of verbs and said “Practice!” I knew only about 50% of the verbs, so it was ugly.

I chose to stay at the B1.1 level, and it was a really good choice for me. The small class size (only 10 or so people) meant that I actually got to hear more about them. And that was one of the more interesting things. I felt like it was truly a new experience, in that my peers were people from really tremendously different backgrounds. I sat at a table with an Indian businessman in his early 30s who had immigrated. At the same table was a young Greek pediatrician deciding whether to emigrate, and do her specialization study in Germany. At the end of the month, she went back to Greece. She confided in me before leaving that it was a very hard decision – one would leave behind friends, family, and the familiar. And it’s truly, tremendously difficult to live in country where the language is foreign. Goethe would tell you something pithy (to be clear: Goethe, the author, not the institution) like “He who knows no other languages knows nothing of his own” but I call Goethe’s bluff. Goethe clearly never had to live in Germany without speaking enough German to be able to pay at a restaurant hassle free.

I’ve obviously finished with the B1.1 level, so I can report on how it went. The actual grading for the class was interesting. We took 2 written tests, and had an oral exam at the end of the semester. I found the written tests to be very very short. At first, this seems a blessing, but you quickly realize it’s not. When you have a 33 point test, each point counts a lot. The Goethe Institute also favors a type of question I now despise. True/False questions are my newest archenemy. The problem with the questions is that they’re a nightmare for anyone who trained for the SATs. I read the questions, I read the problems, I read the questions, and I analyze the text. This can get me in trouble. For example, the text tells you that “being able to think from someone else’s point of view improves teamwork.” The question says: “having reflected on one’s own self improves teamwork. T/F?” I read this and think that this might be true, but the text does not clearly support this conclusion – it’s an extrapolation. I reply F. The answer on the key is, of course, T. The answer comes directly from this line, and is the cause of my aggravation – it’s not such a tight system. I can say, “Yes, I saw that it was MENTIONED, but these are different things!” Doesn’t do much good.

This is a bit of culture shock, but nothing too terrible. The oral exam was interesting – always stressful, but not too interesting. In the end, I definitely passed. Here’s my class (I apologize, this is a picture of a picture)!

My B1.1 class

In fact, I passed really, really well. After 2 days in the next level (B1.2), the teacher approached me, and asked me if I might like to try the B2.1 level, as this level seemed too easy for me.  

I agreed, and tried B2.1 for a day. That was June 8th, and I’ve been there ever since. It’s a nice class – we’re 11, including me. It’s a different demographic than the people I saw in B1.1. Here, most of the people are thinking of studying in Germany. For example, I’m sitting at a table with a nice Ukrainian junior studying German and English (she speaks Russian, natively). She’s thinking about living in Germany, and maybe doing her graduate work here. There are also a pair of chemists studying German while they do their master’s work. It’s an interesting change, and I think it reflects the division between B1 and B2. The B1 certification is required to be naturalized as a German citizen. The B2 level, however, is a transitory point on the way to the C1 level (the minimum certification required to study at a German university. Sort of like passing the TOEFL for the US). As such, the B1 level was much more concerned with grammar, and simple construction and understanding. The B2 level is more concerned with abstract texts, and speaking! At this point, I’ll include clips of the level specifications (you all luck out, I photo’d the English versions, so you don’t have to read the German).

I can attest that my German has really noticeably improved since I arrived. My metrics are not very complicated, it’s generally a feeling that I have. For example, I really love Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – especially the choral movement. I’m now able to understand most of the German. Talk about exciting! In the B2 level, I was also introduced to a German band – Wise Guys. They’re an a cappella group, with excellent diction. Point is, I can actually understand them, and I would for sure not have been able to do that even a month ago. (For an example, look up ‘Sorge dich nicht’)

The entire experience has been something that I could not have imagined. The people I’m meeting are totally different from those I’ve met before – they are a different class. In fact, I’ve come up with a theory as to why the age demographic is as it is (generally, students seem to be early 20s to early 30s). I would hypothesize the following: the most people taking these classes are considering emigration or immigration. These are people who have decided that there is a serious problem with their home country or location that only moving can fix. The more precocious of them figure it out by early 20s, but many take somewhat longer. Once they’ve decided, they begin the process of committing, but it’s a long process.

Take home message: one may think that immigration is a quick process. One packs up, moves out, and arrives at a destination. But the truth is something quite different. The actual act of immigration is quick, the process is much longer. To truly immigrate is a process of at least a decade.

Just my thoughts.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Chapter 4, In which so much was accomplished that this blog post was knocked into next week

Last weekend was a long one for me -- Monday was a free day, as the new people for this 4-week session were arriving and classes were cancelled. I took the 3 days to do some sightseeing in the region. I visited Cologne on Saturday, Essen on Sunday, and then did normal mundane things here in Düsseldorf on Monday. But boy were the days packed!

The plan for Cologne came together about a week in advance. I am, you see, an avid Starcraft II player, and it came to my attention that there was a tournament in Cologne. In point of fact, the 16 best 1v1 players in Germany would be competing to represent Germany at the European level. I thought that sounded neat, so I made plans to attend! It was pretty cool -- and I'd never been to one of these before. I encountered a minor snag on the way there, in that I took a train to a little station expecting to purchase a ticket there and switch trains, only to find that the ticket machine was out of order -- it would only take credit cards, and mine didn't cut it. So I had to come back to the main train station, and reroute...long story short, I made it!

SC2 tournament in Cologne
I was awarded an SC2 T-shirt for my trouble, and all in all it was pretty neat. There were lights and music and everything. But the emphasis was of course the players, and they were quite fun to watch. Sort of like watching chess grand masters compete -- very interesting. I did get a picture of all 16 of them on stage:

The best 16 SC2 players in Germany
After a couple of hours of spectating, I left, and made my way to the Chocolate Museum in Cologne. It's within walking distance both of the tournament, and the main train station. Even better, it entailed a brief walk along the Rhine -- (it's worth noting here that I have at this point walked along the Rhine in three different cities here. Cool, right?) and some sightseeing! 

Approaching the Rhine promenade 

Coming up on the museum

Sight from a deck on the museum's roof
The inside of the museum was also fairly cool - I've never really thought that much about chocolate before!
A ... chocolate fountain!? That's right. A chocolate fountain.
I'd say the coolest part of the museum was having my own chocolate bar made: I specified the ingredients, and they made it on the spot. This is best explained with pictures:

Start with the ingredients and some molten chocolate...

Add them by hand!

A little here...

A little there...and done!
At the end of the day, I must say, I took a picture of my loot:

Chocolate. More chocolate. And some other stuff!
The next day (Saturday), it was nowhere near as nice, weather wise. Nonetheless, I headed out to see the Ruhr Museum in Essen. The general concept behind the museum is given in the name: the Ruhr is a river that runs through this region, and the region is therefore known as the 'Ruhrgebiet,' or 'Ruhr region' in German. The Ruhrgebiet has a fairly rich history, but this museum focuses on one particular element: coal. The museum is located in an old coal mining facility that was revamped for use after coal was no longer in. This is actually a trend in this region of Germany -- coal was a big thing a few decades ago, but no longer. They had this problem: what to do with all the old mining equipment and buildings?


Zollverein, Essen

Scale model of the premises
The insides were not particularly photogenic...but there was a LOT to learn. I wandered around a while, then grew tired, and returned home. By Monday I was pretty tired, so I just did bland things and rested. That's going to be all for now, but I'll finish with some uncaptioned pictures I didn't manage to work smoothly into my dialogue from Cologne. Happy viewing!