Tag Archives: Commentary

Day 41: Dresden to Frankfurt

A full luxurious day on the train, on the beautiful Deusche Bahn system. These are to me the best trains in the world: fast, efficient and reliable. All the best in German engineering. As I sit on this five-hour ride, I can’t help but ponder what’s ahead for me in the future.

I am pretty happy. I decided that happiness is relative, and of course a process, not a place. It’s those endorphins you get planning something and thinking about where you WILL be, and not so much about when you are there. I have to say the German class exceeded my expectations. Little did I expect or know whom I would meet or learn from them. But that was just a bonus.

I used to watch the happiness programs on PBS and based on their advice, make the lists of what I was grateful for. Maybe it was needed when you are inundated with stressful days at work to maintain perspective. I definitely have had a full and satisfying life so far. But will that get me through the next third of my life? Who knows?

Part of this trip is about seeking inspiration. And my quest in Germany is fulfilling that. Learning about Goethe gave me a big shot in the arm and a reading list. At the top is going to be Thomas Mann’s Lotte in Weimar. The movie I saw about Goethe helped me to see inside the German culture. Then get an annotated guide for Magic Mountain. (The train just went through Weimar, and I wanted to get off!) Before, during or after that, maybe more on Weimar.

Currently the book given to me from the Krasnos has entertained and consumed me. “the Orientalist” is NY Times best seller and the author, Tom Reiss, won a Pulitzer Prize. It’s the story about a journalist Lev Nussibaum aka Essad Bey. It takes place in pre-war Germany, but traces Bey’s life from Lake Baku, where he was born, to a saga of escape from crumbling regimes through Turkey to France, and then to a private high school on an island in the North Sea. He ends up in Berlin writing books about Germany.

The author casts a lot of historical information as the backdrop for this audacious character, whose true identity was challenged multiple times. He was married to a socialite for a short time and operated in and was followed by high literary circles. I haven’t finished the book yet but am savoring and parceling out every last word as I am running out of something to read on my way to Tashkent.

Without getting into detail, this has been the best book for my trip. I’m really glad I have it and hope to use this as my springboard to learning more about German history, and its complicated relationship to Russia. The book in part tries to tackle the prickly question of how Hitler comes to power.

I decided that you could customize your own academic degree. When you have the time, you don’t need to find a program, apply for it, get credits, take exams and prove yourself with a degree–you just do it!

Targeting Tashkent…lets hope the Internet works there.

Day 36: Mme Mallory & der Duft von Curry


On Sunday afternoon I almost felt like a local going to the neighborhood movie theater (a famous one apparently, the Schauburg, in my neighborhood off Bischofsweg) to see a film that caught my eye: Mme Mallory & Der Duft von Curry. I’m sure you can figure out the gist of the movie as well as I can so I won’t elaborate. I thought it would make a good afternoon for improving my German, so I invited my friends Hanne and Jens to go along with me.

The story line starts with a family moving from India after their restaurant was burned down from civil strife. They manage to move from an initial try in London to France. As they are all packed into a car headed into the countryside, it breaks down in a small town. They decide to put their stakes down in a run down house that happens to be directly across from a Michelin-star quality restaurant.

The son of the restauranteur always had a talent for cooking, and he wanted to pursue his passion. It was natural when the father needed a means of livelihood that the son would lead his family in creating a quality Indian restaurant for the area.

Through a series of twists and turns, the family encounters battles with the puffy Mme. Mallory, who owns the restaurant across from them. This light comedy has great music that manages to pull at the emotions. It also succeeds at getting a few subtle messages across. One is how difficult it is for immigrants to arrive and survive in a new country. Combined with the stuffiness of French society, it can be overwhelming if not tragic.

Without conveying the outcome, this is a movie that is well worth seeing. It can certainly be included in the few and far between movies about food. It shows the ups and downs in the food business and the passion it takes to stay in it.

Overall, the dialog in German was easy enough to follow, thanks to gorgeous visual and audio support. It is unlikely to be a native German film, especially with credits to Spielberg and Winfrey. I guess globalization makes Hollywood inescapable, even for a Sunday afternoon walk in the cinema.

Access to the trailer here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Wd2uDfDFia8

You may have trouble recognizing this famous actress on the poster, but you will want to see this when you realize who she is.

Foot forward: I am two days past the halfway mark for my trip and will be starting Segment III at the end of this week. I will be traveling to Tashkent, Samarkand and Bokhara. If you are interested in this segment, be sure to look out for my posts next week. Access to the internet is unpredictable, so there may be some delays.

Day 32: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Ok, so my pieces have been pretty light and general, just to keep things flowing from both ends (my brains to those who are receptors of this material). But today I feel compelled to write about an encounter of the Third Kind.

Picture this: I’m standing at a tram station with one of my fellow students and starting up a conversation.

“Do you know how to get back to the Goethe Institute from the VW Factory?” I innocently ask.

“Oh yes, it’s the same way we came”.

Not being very good with directions, I squint my eyes at the sun breaking through the clouds and determine that we are facing west. Well, it seemed like we were going in the opposite direction. I scan the stop and see a few locals huddling nearby.

“Excuse me, but do you know how to get to Albertsplatz?” A few garbled answers, but generally confirming that we were headed in the right direction.

“Why didn’t you trust me?!?” retorted the student back to me, as soon as I returned.

“Oh, I’m sure you knew how to get back, I just wasn’t sure. Besides, I like trying to engage with Germans to practice speaking and listening.”


In an earlier conversation, this young man had told me that he was a week late getting to the course. At his parents’ insistence, he tried transferring to the GI in Munich. The thought was that it would spare this young individual’s fertile mind from any possibility of Communist East German influence. Who know, maybe there are vestiges of the Russian military still lurking around these parts. Our guesthouse was only just converted and maybe I could inhale the fumes from the bed sheets that naughty Russians slept on and catch the fever.

Anyway, he came back to Dresden after he realized what a deal he was getting in the city that had the cheapest courses in Germany. And so what, the Reds in E. Germany may not be so bad after all even if they are swarming in his own country. And yeah, the risk he took to transfer to Munich cost him a week, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Those Munchkiners take learning German too seriously and made hppim feel stupid. So back to the sidelines.

Meanwhile, he did the usual number on me.

“Where are you from?”

“Oh, do you speak Chinese?”

“Oh, ABC!!!” (“I knew it! I knew it! I could hear him cackling in the back of his mind. His glee was hard to hide”.)

He turns to our fellow GI companion on the tour. He compliments her when he learns that she is a Double E from IIT. “Oh, you are smart”, says he, definitively.

Day 22: Goetting Goethe


Okay, so what’s the fuss about Goethe anyway? Yeah, he wrote a book about dealing with the devil, and the Goethe Institute I attend is named after the dude. And of all things there’s a statue of him and his buddy Schiller of all things at Golden Gate Park. Being an architect and not a writer or a scholar, I have an excuse for not knowing about German writers and philosophers. So for you literary types out there, please give me a break, OK?

Tonite I went to a film night at the GI (not Gastro Intestinal, but Goethe Institute as I will henceforth refer to fondly as “GI”). The name of the film, Surprise! surprise! was “Goethe!”.  Despite getting there 15 minutes late (is this a pattern of mine?) I was quickly subsumed into the story line, despite the fact that the language AND the subtitles were in German. What is this anyway, a German class?

In the genre of the “Amadeus” movie by the Czech director Milos Forman or the other period piece “Beloved” about Beethoven, this story portrays Goethe as a frisky young guy who falls in love with a soon to be married young woman, Lotte. The twist to this story is that she sticks by her man and marries him (Kestner). Goethe is put in prison after a failed duel with Kestner. During the duel Goethe purportedly shot first, but missed. When it was the turn for Kestner, he shot into the air, saving Goethe.

But he got sent to prison anyway. Goethe did, for 6 months. During which time he used his time wisely and wrote the “Sorrows of Young Werther”.   Lotte pays a visit to Goethe in prison. Hurtfully, she tells him that she intends to marry Kestner after Goethe makes a last ditch pitch.  He writes feverishly as the wedding bells can be heard clanging outside his window. Heartbroken, he sends the finished manuscript to Lotte.

The final scene is Goethe’s release from prison and as he is going through the streets,  the throng of the crowds are heralding this fantastic new novel that has just been published. Guess what! It turns out to be the acclamation of his “Sorrows  of Young Werther”, that recounted is own story of Lotte, or the real life Charlotte.

I’m going to attach the Wikipedia (this is the first Wiki that has ever excited me) content at the bottom of this post so you can read accurate information for yourself and connect it with what you may already know about Goethe.

But three things for me:

1. He didn’t like “bugs, tobacco smoke, garlic, and the cross”.
2. He spearheaded the movement in Weimar, a city that I would love to visit more. Goethe foresaw the potential doom of the German people, that tragically played out in WWII. The Nazi shutdown of the Weimar Republic must have been related in part to Goethe’s writings. The Bauhaus movement began there too.
3. The opera “Werther” by Massenet is one of the most beautiful and passionate operas I have seen. (and the main singer Jonas Kaufmann, is an amazing new German opera singer–worth getting the DVD on the Met Opera movie). Tis was a takeoff on Goethe. No surprise that many writers such as Thomas Mann and composers pay homage to Goethe’s originality.
4. In 1774, Goethe was writing this novel  in the midst of the revolutions unfolding next door, in France, and in the US! Just imagine what a world that must have been. Of course no internet or Twitter, no Arab Spring, so news may not have even impacted Germany much at that time.
5. I am noticing a distinct similarity of the Goethanum mentioned in the Wiki article and the Goethe Institute here. Compare the photos.

That was more than 3. But I got inspired and couldn’t resist. Check this guy out. He’s worth it!

By the way, it looks like this movie is on YouTube. In English it is called Goethe in Love, produced in 2010 by a German director Philipp Stolzl.


Photos, below:

1. Hypothetical design for Goetheanum

2. Goethe Institute, Dresden

3. Statue of Goethe and his literary buddy Schiller resident in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco


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

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!


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.”


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.”


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.”


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.”


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.


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!


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.”


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.”


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.


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.”


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.”

Destination 2 of 10: London


1. Revisit the places where I lived in London for five months when I was awarded the Branner Traveling Fellowship from UC Berkeley. I studied the Chinese in London and how ethnic minority communities were formed. (Update: done)
2. Make a stop at the British Museum to see if there are any relics of the Silk Road trade when Bokhara, Tashkent and Samarkand were major settlements. (Update: missed due to time used to sort out a problem with accommodation in Paris)
3. Do as much walking as possible to savor the new sights and sounds of a city once known and now much more mellowed. (Update: done)