Day 20: Konigstein

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The Goethe Institute offered a weekend day excursion to one of the beautiful nature areas outside Dresden, near Bad Schandau, a resort, and near the Czech border. We hiked to the top of the fortress from the train station located at the river’s edge.

Water was pumped up to the fortress and it was a fully functioning camp during the early 18th century. Until recently, it was used as a prison.

Photos are taken from the top of the Konigstein Fortress:

1. Breathtaking views of the Elbe River below.
2. Butte on the other side of the river
3. View of the town below where the train station and start of climb is located.

For additional Reading, refer to:

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Festung_Königstein

Day 18: Internet Access!!

This was somewhat a curse and a blessing. I had just acclimated myself to no Internet. I began to like the idea of writing letters, reading a book, taking walks and sleeping more. The funny thing is that we had this very discussion in our class and spoke (in German) about the pros and cons.

However, as soon as class was out, I made my way to the office that supplies the modems for our guesthouse. You pay a 100€ deposit to get the device, then install it in your room. The problem after having done that once a couple of days ago, is that you need a computer to hook it up in order to get Internet access. Without one, no deal, and I didn’t bring a computer.

Nicholas, a Ukrainian student, was in the office asking about the same problem I had. Apparently, with only an Ipad, a wireless device is also required. We learned this from Jose, a student from Mexico who had a bad headache on the day we called on him in the room next door to Nick’s. Jose had offered to help me connect my Ipad “with a cable” (he didn’t mention it was a MODEM that we needed to buy at Saturn, a store like Best Buy).

We finally straightened out the communication issue, and within the afternoon and schlepping to the mall downtown for the wireless port for another 25€, we were both connected in our rooms. That took a bit of teamwork, as I knew where the Galleria was and Nick knew how to connect the pieces together. Not that it was hard, just communication.

Whew! Now that I’m fully connected, I feel a little sad. It was fun being off the grid. But after being spanked I guess I have to go back to being good (or bad?) again.

A more interesting afterthought: Nicholas just arrived on the scene, with a scholarship to study in Germany. The language course was part of his offer to study Neurosciences here. He obviously was very bright and he was very resourceful from the get go. He worked out what needed to be done in a very short time for both of us.

On the train, we chatted and he told me about the situation in Kiev, where he lived. He said it was safe there, and everyone just goes about doing their daily activities without too much concern. Most of the disturbance is in the Eastern part of the country. He eventually expressed his disdain for the corrupted officials and explained how everyone had to be paid off for any favor or task.

No one pays taxes or wage earners pay a very token amount. There are very limited public services, so nothing works as a result. The average salary in the lab is $300 a month. It’s not enough to live on, so everyone is forced to leave if they want to get a decent salary. This sounded a lot like the story from the Bulgarian student in my class.

Day 16: First Day of Deutsch

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So off I go to the first day of Class. We met our teacher Herr Albert, a very orderly gentleman. We learned quickly the meaning of “duzen” and “Siesen” and which form of address is apropriate. He was fine with all students using the “du” or familiar version with him even if he was older than the students. We laughed about how he technically was supposed to refer to me in the “Sie” form, since I was a few years older than him but he technically pulls rank as the master teacher.

The 15 students in the class are an array of Deutsche Welle watchers: Korea, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, India; Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, France and Portugal; Mexico and U.S. I was pleased to be the only native from the U.S.  Most of the 20-30 something male students are studying German because it is job related and banking on their future in Germany; (most of the girls are studying for cultural or social reasons based on their statements); one or two are business related and are slightly older.

A few vignettes: a floor layer from Bulgaria who works in Meissen is taking the class to improve his grammar. He is largely self-taught, is reasonably fluent, and left his country due to lack of work. He installs carpet, wood, and other flooring materials in private residences. He says the retirees speak too fast for him to understand them.

A girl from Mexico is here for cultural purposes. She’s also fairly fluent, a very good contributor to the class, helps everyone, and is very outgoing. She even tutored students to pass into the next class!

My teacher is an old hand around the Goethe Institute and speaks multiple languages. He studied in England for a year. One of our assignments was for us to introduce each other and I was assigned to him. He has kept us from getting bored by varying each day, playing a lot of games and role-playing.

Photos, from top:

1. Exterior of the Goethe Institut, conveniently located at a tram stop that identifies the Institute in the Neustadt district where many students live and study music, art, engineering and language

2. Inside dining area

3. First day sign up for how to get work in Germany

4. More student interaction in the lobby

Day 17: Why learn German?

OK, this might seem a bit far-fetched, trying to learn an obscure language as German. I could take a French food course to make better use of my French or a course in Italian opera to be able to learn Italian, so what’s with the German? Many have asked this basic question, and why I am investing so much time in what may be considered a not very relevant language to many.

First of all, I took German for two years in high school, so I at least have a familiarity with the structure and vocabulary. Then, more recently, I became interested in music through a book Julianne gave me on Schumann. It was a fascinating biography. He lived in Leipzig and Dresden, and well, those names intrigued me and I had a desire to go there. In the back of my mind, I remembered there were art treasures in Dresden that never made sense to me at the time I was taking art history courses. It pre-dated the Iron Curtain and the reunification of Germany turned the clock back in these cities.

My interest in opera and classical music appreciation led me to study German. While many Italian operas are melodic and easier to follow, the German operas are dense and contain more dialog. I’d love to tackle Wagnerian operas but feel that the language is essential to understanding them.

Somehow I always admired the technical precision of the German culture. Its Bauhaus design and influence on industrial production, simplicity and clarity of functionality are significant factors in why I became a design major, although it was a much less obvious factor to me at the time I studied it. It’s only now that I find myself gravitating to it regardless of other design trends or developments.

Fast forward to today’s emphasis on high technology. I am fascinated by Berlin’s ability to capture a world-wide stake, and while not overnight in actual fact, it seems to be suddenly in the spotlight. At least in Europe thanks to Angela Merkel’s successes. I’m interested in comparing and contrasting the Bay Area’s Silicon Valley-SF developments against those strides that Berlin and Germany are pursuing.

Studying German can help me to better understand Germans and Germany. They have a deep and complex history. I’d love to share this interest with others once I am informed. So while it seems crazy for me to be doing this, it’s become justifiable with the above reasons (among others). But mostly it is a load of fun!

As for learning a language, here’s an article from SF Gate that I encountered on recovering my Internet surfing access. It is timely from the standpoint of being in the midst of explaining why I am learning German. I can personally vouch for and agree with most of these suggestions.

–from SF Gate–

Matthew Youlden speaks nine languages fluently and understands more than a dozen more. We work in the same office in Berlin, so I constantly hear him using his skills, switching from language to language like a chameleon changing colors. In fact, for the longest time I didn’t even know he was British.

When I told Matthew how I’ve been struggling to merely pick up a second language, he had the following advice for me. If you believe that you can never become bilingual, take note!

1. KNOW WHY YOU’RE DOING IT

This might sound obvious, but if you don’t have a good reason to learn a language, you are less likely to stay motivated over the long-run. Wanting to impress English-speakers with your French is not a very good reason; wanting to get to know a French person in his or her own language is another matter entirely. No matter your reason, once you’ve decided on a language, it’s crucial to commit:

“OK, I want to learn this and I’m therefore going to do as much as I can in this language, with this language and for this language.”

2. DIVE IN

So you’ve made the pledge. How to proceed? Is there a proper way to go about learning? Matthew recommends the 360° maximalist approach: no matter which learning tools you use, it’s crucial to practice your new language every single day:

“I tend to want to absorb as much as possible right from the start. So if I learn something I really, really go for it and try to use it throughout the day. As the week progresses I try to think in it, try to write in it, try to speak to myself even in that language. For me it’s about actually putting what you’re learning into practice – be that writing an email, speaking to yourself, listening to music, listening to the radio. Surrounding yourself, submerging yourself in the new language culture is extremely important.”

Remember, the best possible outcome of speaking a language is for people to speak back to you. Being able to have a simple conversation is a huge reward in itself. Reaching milestones like that early on will make it easier to stay motivated and keep practicing:

“I always have at the back of my mind that it’s adapting your way of thinking to the way of thinking in that language. Obviously there’s not only one way a Spanish-speaker or a Hebrew-speaker or a Dutch-speaker thinks, but it’s about using the language as your tool to build your own language world.”

3. FIND A PARTNER

Matthew learned several languages together with his twin brother Michael (they tackled their first foreign language, Greek, when they were only eight years old!). Matthew and Michael, or the Super Polyglot Bros. as I’d like to now refer to them, gained their superpowers from good-ol’, healthy sibling rivalry:

“We were very motivated, and we still are. We push each other to really go for it. So if he realizes that I’m doing more than he is he’ll get a bit jealous and then try and outdo me (maybe because he’s my twin) – and the other way round.”

Even if you can’t get a sibling to join you on your language adventure, having any kind of partner will push both of you to always try just a little bit harder and stay with it:

“I think it’s a really great way of actually going about it. You have someone with whom you can speak, and that’s the idea behind learning a language.”

4. KEEP IT RELEVANT

If you make conversation a goal from the beginning, you are less likely to get lost in textbooks. Talking to people will keep the learning process relevant to you:

“You’re learning a language to be able to use it. You’re not going to speak it to yourself. The creative side is really being able to put the language that you’re learning into a more useful, general, everyday setting – be that through writing songs, generally wanting to speak to people, or using it when you go abroad. You don’t necessarily have to go abroad; you can go to the Greek restaurant down the road and order in Greek.”

5. HAVE FUN WITH IT

Using your new language in any way is a creative act. The Super Polyglot Bros. practiced their Greek by writing and recording songs. Think of some fun ways to practice your new language: make a radio play with a friend, draw a comic strip, write a poem, or simply talk to whomever you can. If you can’t find a way to have fun with the new language, chances are you aren’t following step four.

6. ACT LIKE A CHILD

This is not to say you should throw a tantrum or get food in your hair when you go out to a restaurant, but try learning the way kids do. The idea that children are inherently better learners than adults is proving to be a myth. New research cannot find a direct link between age and the ability to learn. The key to learning as quickly as a child may be to simply take on certain childlike attitudes: for instance, lack of self-consciousness, a desire to play in the language and willingness to make mistakes.

We learn by making mistakes. As kids, we are expected to make mistakes, but as adults mistakes become taboo. Think how an adult is more likely to say, “I can’t”, rather than, “I haven’t learned that yet” (I can’t swim, I can’t drive, I can’t speak Spanish). To be seen failing (or merely struggling) is a social taboo that doesn’t burden children. When it comes to learning a language, admitting that you don’t know everything (and being okay with that) is the key to growth and freedom. Let go of your grown-up inhibitions!

7. LEAVE YOUR COMFORT ZONE

Willingness to make mistakes means being ready to put yourself in potentially embarrassing situations. This can be scary, but it’s the only way to develop and improve. No matter how much you learn, you won’t ever speak a language without putting yourself out there: talk to strangers in the language, ask for directions, order food, try to tell a joke. The more often you do this, the bigger your comfort zone becomes and the more at ease you can be in new situations:

“At the beginning you’re going to encounter difficulties: maybe the pronunciation, maybe the grammar, the syntax, or you don’t really get the sayings. But I think the most important thing is to always develop this feel. Every native speaker has a feel for his or her own language, and that’s basically what makes a native-speaker – whether you can make the language your own.”

8. LISTEN

You must learn to look before you can draw. In the same way, you must learn to listen before you can speak. Every language sounds strange the first time you hear it, but the more you expose yourself to it the more familiar it becomes, and the easier it is to speak it properly:

“We’re able to pronounce anything, it’s just we’re not used to doing it. For example the rolled r doesn’t exist in my form of English. When I was learning Spanish there were words with the hard r in them like perro and reunión. For me, the best way to go about mastering that is actually to hear it constantly, to listen to it and to kind of visualize or imagine how that is supposed to be pronounced, because for every sound there is a specific part of the mouth or throat that we use in order to achieve that sound.”

9. WATCH PEOPLE TALK

Different languages make different demands on your tongue, lips and throat. Pronunciation is just as much physical as it is mental:

“One way – it might sound a bit strange – is to really look at someone while they’re saying words that use that sound, and then to try to imitate that sound as much as possible. Believe me, it might be difficult at the beginning, but you will. It’s something that is actually quite easily done; you just need to practice it.”

If you can’t watch and imitate a native-speaker in person, watching foreign-language films and TV is a good substitute.

10. TALK TO YOURSELF

When you have no one else to speak to, there’s nothing wrong with talking to yourself:

“It might sound really weird, but actually speaking to yourself in a language is a great way to practice if you’re not able to use it all the time.”

This can keep new words and phrases fresh in your mind and build up your confidence for the next time you speak with someone.

(Bonus tip) RELAX!

You are not going to annoy people by speaking their language poorly. If you preface any interaction with, “I’m learning and I’d like to practice…” most people will be patient, encouraging and happy to oblige. Even though there are approximately a billion non-native English-speakers around the world, most of them would rather speak their own language if given a choice. Taking the initiative to step into someone else’s language world can also put them at ease and promote good feelings all around:

“Sure, you can travel abroad speaking your own language, but you’ll get so much more out of it being able to actually feel at ease in the place you are – being able to communicate, to understand, to interact in every situation you could possibly imagine.”

BUT WHAT’S THE POINT?

We’ve gone into HOW to start learning a language, but are you still on the fence about WHY to learn? Matthew has one last point to make:

“I think each language has a certain way of seeing the world. If you speak one language then you have a different way of analyzing and interpreting the world than the speaker of another language does. Even if they’re really closely-related languages such as Spanish and Portuguese, which are to a certain extent mutually intelligible, they are at the same time two different worlds – two different mindsets.

“Therefore, having learned other languages and been surrounded by other languages, I couldn’t possibly choose only one language because it would mean really renouncing the possibility to be able to see the world in a different way. Not in one way, but in many different ways. So the monolingual lifestyle, for me, is the saddest, the loneliest, the most boring way of seeing the world. There are so many advantages of learning a language; I really can’t think of any reason not to.”

Day 15: Getting Settled in Dresden

The Goethe Institute is located two tram stops from my designated guesthouse in the Neustadt district of Dresden. After I got my key to the “dorm”, the shock set in: possibility of no Internet. Doing without Internet access is non-negotiable in my mind (especially with my expectations of staying in touch through my blog)!

After numerous inquiries about how to get it and not getting any results, I decided to let it go, for awhile at least. I completed the orientation by attending a cultural events and activities session and duly paying my deposit for the room. I also met with an instructor who interviewed me for placement in the appropriate class level.

The activities offered by the GI were extensive, including dining out with other students to practice German, city and museum tours, and day-long excursions to nearby cities.

Photos below: views of dorm room, in former Russian military quarters.

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Day 14: Trekkin’ from Trier (to Dresden)


Photos above showing steep terrain of Mosel Valley taken from inside of train (white spots are reflections)

A full day of trains and transfers occupied us initially from Trier train station through the beautiful, vineyard-laden Mosel Valley. The terroir is obviously full of character and struggles, with rows of vines carefully oriented to capture the sun. It was incomprehensible how the very steep rows prevented erosion between the vines; some plants clung vicariously in lone stems at the tip of ancient stone walls and look very tired and agonized. We tried a number of Rieslings and White Burgundies at the Olewig Wine Festival and attested to the very delicious and flavorful variations produced in this area. We progressed from Koblenz to Mainz, then Leipzig, then to our final destination in Dresden at the end of a trainful day.

We ended up at my favorite accommodations at the Aparthotel Neumarkt, a stone’s throw from the famous Frauenkirche Church that was bombed in WWII and completely rebuilt with help from the British. The apartment is fully equipped and is very reasonable. My pick and recommendation for anyone coming to Dresden for a visit.

Photos below show Aparthotel Living, Kitchen, and Separate Dining areas

 

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Day 13: Trier, Germany’s Oldest City

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Trier’s history is one of the most fascinating stories in Europe. Beginning with the rule of Julius Caesar in 50 BC when he ordered Roman walls to be erected to protect its soldiers and citizens to destruction in World War II, it transcended the presence of Constantine, who held court in the reception hall in 300 AD; the monk who lived in medieval times in the Porte Negra; the rape, pillage and trading of the Vikings; and the arrival of Napoleon.

The major buildings include the Porte Negra, the only remaining Roman wall today; the Basilica, where it served as a pilgrimage church during the Crusades; and the Reception Hall where Constantine met his guests.

Photos from top:

1. Map of Trier, with the Moselle River inning through it;
2. The Basilica
3. The Konigstherme

Day 11: Reconstruction of Reims

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The magnificent Reims Cathedral is still under construction and funds continue to be raised to complete the portions that were destroyed in WW 1. The Rockefellers were big donors in the past.

Having just visited Westminster Abbey and the exterior of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on this trip, I can appreciate the scale and proportion of this Gothic cathedral.  The community of Reims must have been extremely proud and passionate about this monument. It is no wonder that any destruction of such an iconic value to a community is devastating and unrecoverable unless it is rebuilt in its entirety.

Being a champagne producing  area certainly fueled the economy of Reims and therefore its ability to fund such an elaborate structure. Walking through town, I noticed many fine patrician buildings dating from 1889 and earlier.

We did take a champagne tour at Casanova-Martell. Champagne is made from three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunière. The juice provides the sugar and the skin provides the yeast. We had a delicious tasting of three champagnes.

Photos, from top:

1. The exterior of Reims cathedral, still under construction.

2. The Nave of the cathedral

3.  The vaulted ceiling, of which portions were bombed in 1914-1918

4. The Rose Window at the South end

5. The Marc Chagall windows at the apse

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