Bist du behindert??

January 11, 2008

It has been difficult these past few days to find the time to update my blog; my apologies. I suppose that I’ll begin this entry with short biographical sketches (including editorials and impressions) about those that I have been in contact with most.

Claudia Blut – I haven’t yet summoned the courage to ask my complaisant (not to be confused with “complacent!”) guest mother for her age, so I will venture a guess of 48 or so. Her long, wavy, fashionably unkempt hair has an equal mixture of blond and grey, and she is usually wearing equally fashionable thin-framed glasses. She is well-educated and works as an artist in the home, which has been tastefully decorated with many of her pieces. Her English is not particularly good by German standards, and she speaks it with a thick British accent. Very attractive, very intelligent and inquisitive, and very generous. Her husband, Wolfgang, is a very luck man.

Wolfgang Blut – My host father is an engineering teacher at a vocational school (“vocational” has a slightly different meaning here) here in Berlin, and fancies himself a blues guru. He plays bass and sings in a local blues band (I have forgotten the name) and gives himself completely to all that he meets. I caught a nice insiders glimpse at his unselfish ways the other night during our dinner party; he ate before everyone arrived and prepared each course for his guests directly in front of our eyes. He also secured a generous amount of top-shelf beer and booze for our enjoyment. I have had many conversations with both Bluts, mostly about politics and literature.

Jacob “Per” Blut – Claudia and Wolfgang’s 18 year old son and undisputed viceroy of the household. I have spent more time with him than anyone else during my stay, and he, like his parents, has proven to be very generous and friendly. He is famous here in Germany for playing drums in a band called Empty Trash, and has been recognized several times on the streets when we’ve gone out to bars and the like. He is a senior in high school and stands around 6’3” or 6’4”, dwarfing his parents. Through him I have met Karim (his vociferous best friend), Jula (his girlfriend), Elif (another friend), and a couple of others. They get a kick out of teaching me offensive words and phrases.

Dr. Marianna Pankova – My Moscow-born Deutsch Professorin. She obtained her PhD in German from Georgetown University and now teaches several classes at George Mason University. Although I love her company and everyone generally likes her, she has earned a reputation for being indecisive and wasting a lot of time when trying to get from point A to point B. It is impossible to remonstrate with her, and most of us avoid her (sub rosa) for this reason.

Dr. Hans Jacobsen – A German History professor here in Berlin. He has taught at Stanford and other prestigious American universities, and is the coordinator for Studienforum, an outfit run by Hans and his wife Gisela that places abroad students in language programs, and provides them with tours and lectures that are appropriate for their respective needs. As I have mentioned before, he suffers from a touch of logorrhea but is otherwise witty and pleasant to be around. I owe him a beer for undisclosed reasons. I imagine that he will be accompanying us to Leipzig and Dresden this weekend, but that is not yet confirmed.

Erik – A 28 year old Swedish sports journalist on a six-month sabbatical. He lives here in Berlin with his girlfriend and has shown me around a bit. He doesn’t move any of his joints when he is using his hands to demonstrate something, giving the impression that he has prosthetic arms. He is very Swedish, indeed; tall, lanky, with small eyes set far apart, and has a very introspective and winsome disposition.

My German classes, though comprising three hours and fifteen minutes of my day, are not particularly worth mentioning. The teacher, Jasmin, is jovial with a perpetual rictus, exposing teeth that haven’t seen a dentist’s office since before the wall fell and allowing her otherworldly and putrid halitosis to secrete from the walls of her full-lipped masticating and tasting apparatus. She has a tendency to dwell too long on prepositions and to forget to wear a bra.

On Tuesday I met up with Erik after class and we moseyed over to the Zoologische Garten to purchase tickets for the hockey game in East Berlin that evening. I don’t follow hockey in the states, but Erik’s description of the Sportforum, the crowd, and the electric atmosphere of the game made it seem worth part of my evening (and 17€). I will describe my hockey game experience later in the post. I had to meet my group at the Brandenburger Tor at 2:00 for a walking tour so I said goodbye to Erik and caught a bus down Unter den Linden. I didn’t catch the tourguide’s name, but I can assure you that a more flamboyant character does not exist in either Europe or the States. He is from St. Paul, Minnesota but has lived in Berlin for 20 years. He didn’t so much lecture and educate as he did perform. He accentuated nearly every syllable with extravagant hand gestures and bombastic eye movements. If nothing else he managed to hold our attention. I discreetly filmed a brief portion of the tour, but I haven’t yet reviewed it to see if it accurately represents his dynamism. He primarily focused on showing us architecture that reflected the German desire for a rebirth through peace, progression, and unity. After two and a half hours of the walking tour I was ready for dinner, so I trucked it back to Rathaus Steglitz and took a bus to the house for an early dinner. At 6:15 I met Erik at the Osloerstraße U-Bahn, and we took a tram (they only exist in East Berlin, not West) to the stadium where the game was to be held.

It’s important to note here, especially for those without any knowledge about Berlin’s history, the difference between East and West. After WWII, Berlin was divided into four sectors: three in the west occupied by France, America, and Britain respectively, with the Soviets occupying all of East Berlin (they were granted a larger portion because they were the ones that fought and won the Battle of Berlin after Eisenhower instructed Patton to remain south of the city). West Berlin had all of the money and had a capitalist economic engine, while the East became destitute due to socialism and the DDR. You can see how the onslaught of the Cold War has its roots in Berlin… At any rate, even though the wall dividing the two halves of the city fell on November 9, 1989, there is still a huge dichotomy both socially and economially between East and West, with the West being far more developed.

I immediately noticed a difference in the architecture and general mood upon arriving at the sports arena. The scene was reminiscent of Joyce. Everything added up to a cyclical mindset, a history repeated without end. The very tram I rode in. The blue collars. The absence of handrails. Persistent eye contact because you’re too lazy to divert your eyes. No eye contact because there isn’t anything to see or learn anyway. Mundane and unforgiving apartment buildings built by the socialists that stretch for miles. The workboots. The haircuts. A lesson in mediocrity.

From the wreckage arose the Ost-Berliner Eisbären, the last stronghold of prosperity and vitality. The Araby of Dublin! East Berlin clung to its Eisbären (polarbears) and with its last dying breath shouted “Auf gehts, Eisbären! Schieße ein tor!” In the stadium people were back-slapping and gabbing and eating and drinking…with FERVOR. This scene seemed an anomaly in East Berlin, one to be savored. There were only a handful of seats in the stands; the majority stood side by side, shoulder to shoulder. The game was completely sold out to 6,000 fans, most of whom sported (multiple) scarves, hats, and jerseys. Banners on the walls prominently displayed Eisbären dominance during the 70’s and 80’s, ironically up until 1989 when the wall fell. There were no banners post-1989. Erik and I found a spot in front of an obese family of three that must have had 20 scarves between them (no joke). The mother had purple hair and a red face. The father had the opposite and talked out of the corner of his mouth. The daughter gave Erik the eye.

Everyone has been to a sporting event and is aware of the deafening noise a crowd can make, so I won’t go into details about celebration methods, but I would like to note the rather unsportsmanlike way that the crowd supported their team. It was hysterical. From time to time the scoreboard changed to show the scores of the other games going on that night. When this happened, drums boomed three times and everyone shouted “Alles ausser Eisbären ist scheiße!” (Everyone but Eisbären is shit). Similarly, when the Eisbären would lose a player for two minutes due to a penalty, the drums would boom three times and everyone yelled “POWER PLAY? SCHEIßEGAL!” (Power play? I don’t give a shit!) There were others that were equally offensive.

The main point I want to make is that watching the comatose get out of bed and waltz, so to speak, gave me further insight into the Berliner mentality. It is not difficult to draw comparisons between a hockey game and Nazi ardor. You have lost a war, prospects are slim, and you hold tightly to a successful entity that all at the same time represents who you are, where you’re from, and where you want to go. The Eisbären were playing Köln (Cologne), another city in Germany. While I’m sure most of the crowd had nothing personal against Köln prior to the game, defeating them was a means to an end, a tangible obstacle to overcome. Being a winner is defined by someone else losing.

Other highlights of the week include a dinner party at the house with several friends of the family, going out drinking with Per almost every night, meeting dozens of ex-pats in bars and clubs, Karim yelling at a homeless guy that asked him for money, learning about Berlin being built on a swamp, and a trip to the Reichstag which I may or may not go into greater detail about in my next post. I have been completely inundated with new experiences and am exasperated trying to describe them all to those that will listen (i.e. you, the reader). Clearly I am leaving a lot out and that frustrates me. Clearly I am not describing everything as accurately and detailed as I could if I had more time, and that frustrates me too. This weekend my group is going to Leipzig and Dresden, so I will not be able to update again until Monday at the earliest. Comments are always appreciated, especially from those that I have not specifcally sent a link to. That way I can keep tabs on who is reading! Also, if you have any questions I will try to address those as well on Monday. Bis dann!

Don’t Tase Me, Bro!

January 7, 2008

This is appalling.

I awoke at 6am on my second day in Berlin. After breakfast, a smörgäsbord of fruits, cheeses, breads and meats, I met Flannery at the Köhlerstraße bus stop down the street around 9. We took a series of double-decker public busses to the Studentenforum, where Dr. Jacobsen gave us a lecture about the Berliner Mauer (Berlin wall) and the dichotomy that still exists between the inhabitants of east and west Berlin. We watched a video (Modern Marvels: The Berlin Wall!!), most likely chosen not for its academic strength, but because Dr. Jacobsen himself is interviewed several times. We boarded a Mercedes van and took a not-so-brief and not-so-entertaining tour of the city. The voluble Dr. J performed tourguide duties, which would have been fine had he held the microphone just an extra inch or so away from his mouth. His thirst for the spotlight and subsequent logorrhea resulted in snores from the back of the bus about an hour into the tour. We were dropped off at the Brandenburger Tor around 3. I hadn’t really thought about what I was going to do the rest of the evening, so I was relieved (and flattered) that Marianna (my professor) invited me to accompany her to lunch and to purchase theater tickets for later that evening. Ever the professor, she obdurately made me ask for directions and navigate to the theater without her intercedence while we chatted about our respective travel experiences. We managed to secure two tickets to Emilia Galotti for that evening and Marianna even paid for mine.

The theater was gorgeous; the ceiling must have been five stories tall, with paintings of famous German dramatists surrounding a chandelier bigger than my car. The play, though an 18th century play by Lessing, was performed in a very modern style, making it much easier for me to follow. High-brow physical comedy helped keep me awake. Translations were whispered to me during the lacunae of each act. I took the S-Bahn from Oranienburgerstraße back to Lichterfelde West and went to bed early.

I was supposed to meet my group at 9:30 yesterday morning at the Wannsee S-Bahn station to go to Potsdam, but I 1.) set my alarm for PM rather than AM, and 2.) sprained my ankle so I didn’t feel like running to try to make it on time. Instead, Claudia and I traversed to Oranienburger Tor and Auguststraße to check out some of the modern galleries that they have to offer. Claudia, an artist herself, asked many questions of the artists and gallery owners that we met. We had brunch, then creeped through the miasma of freezing rain, arm-in-arm at times, while I struggled to follow her narrations and monologues (full of malapropisms) about the neighborhood’s history. It gets dark here so early that I was shocked to learn it was only 8 when we returned home. I made party plans with Jacob for the evening, instructed him to wake me when he was ready to leave, and napped.

I awoke at 11 to an empty house. Had Jacob left without me? I was a little miffed that nobody had informed me of anything, it being Saturday night and all. The last thing I wanted to hear was an apology, but I called Jacob to see what the deal was. He was indeed at a birthday party, but suggested that we go out later. I agreed to meet him at Schöneberg at 1:45 (which was still early as bars and clubs do not close until 8 or 9am). We took a train and a bus to a club called Havanna. Jacob was in the middle of a dispute with his girlfriend, making it twice as awkard for me because I was already nervous about being the new guy that isn’t fluent in German. The club was lame, the music was lame, the beer selection was lame, and Jacob’s querulous pouting was lame. We didn’t stay long. Highlights included dancing to J5’s “I Want You Back” and talking politics with two germans both named Phil in the smoking section of the club.

I had no intentions of returning home so early, and despite the emotional malaise of the group was still feeling invigorated from my nap. I suggested a remedy of more beer; the German panacea! Karim was the only one that took me up on the offer, and took me to Schwarze Cafe near the Zoologische Garten. They had Augustiner Helles! My favorite beer! The sole brewery is in München and was founded in 1328. I had a liter of the stuff and waxed philosophical with Karim about politics, poetry, the German education system, and eastern Europe. Two gentlemen at the table next to us were “hacke” (piss drunk) and begging for raillery. We acquiesced and toyed with them auf Deutsch und auf Englisch. They were a mess. I footed the bill and got home around 7am.

I’m terribly excited for classes to start tomorrow morning so that I can improve my speaking ability. Although I’ve only been here a few days, I’ve noticed drastic improvements in my reading and listening comprehension, but I’m still a little self-conscious about my accent and grammar mistakes. This week should see a huge improvement in both my vocabulary and sentence-building.

Willkommen in Berlin

January 4, 2008

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Den Ersten Tag:

Lufthansa flight 8826 from Washington Dulles to Frankfurt, DE was dreadfully uneventful. I was sandwiched (no window seat for neck support, no aisle seat for bladder support) between Flannery and Jill. Having been out of practice for a considerable amount of time, I had secretly hoped to have the opportunity to sprechen Deutsch with a native speaker for the duration of the flight. We were served dinner at an altitude of 36,000 feet (10.972,8 m). I enjoyed warm turkey, fruit, cheese, chocolate pudding with white chocolate shavings, several glasses of wine and Bailey’s, Kaffee, Orangenzaft, green beans, and a dark-orange substance later identified (by Brian) as mashed squash. There was a two-hour layover in Frankfurt, followed by an hour-long flight to Berlin, which of course “flew by” after the 7h40m spent on the other plane. This time, I was seated by das Fenster next to a little girl and her brother. They must have been in between the ages of five and eight. I am not a good judge of things like that. I tried to speak with the little girl, knowing full well that at less than a third of my age, her Deutsch was infinitely more advanced. I inquired about her flight experience, where she was from, and whether or not she got along with her brother, receiving mostly mumbles and shrugs for my efforts. I finally resorted to staring silently out the window, noting somewhat rancorously the fields of white covering the patchwork below, when I was made aware of a cold, wet sensation along the left outline of my body. That Chatty Kathy had spilled apfelzaft on me! What a cruel act of ignominious proportions! She feigned naivety and offered up a feeble apology, but I saw right through her wiley crocodile tears and recognized the incident for what it really was; a despicable, deplorable, dastardly, and deliberate deed of doddery and desperation.

The first thing I noticed when stepping off of the plane in Berlin was that the luggage carousel was 20 feet in front of me instead of being on a separate floor with others. The baggage appeared almost immediately on the conveyor (which had a sensor that stopped the flow so that bags didn’t slide into each other…GENIUS! why don’t we have those???) and all 10 of us had our bags in minutes. We were met by Gisela und Hans, two of the program coordinators. After brief introductions we were divided up between their two vehicles and a VW van taxi. Probably due to my rugged good looks and high level of alertness, I was placed in charge of the taxi caravan and given cab fare. The driver not only failed to acknowledge that he understood my directions, but also failed to speak during the entire drive, even when directly asked several questions.  From his driving I surmised that he was too focused on speeding and tailgating to meddle with the trifling interrogations of Amerikaner Studenten. Nevertheless, we arrived at Hauptstraße 74, the site of our orientation, in one piece. I whoofed down zwei Tassen Kaffee and a fistful of sugar cookies, listened semi-attentively to Hans’ spiel, and ached for fresh air and less confined quarters.

Mercifully, orientation was brief and once again we were divided and shipped to our respective Gastfamilien. I was the first to leave and the first to get dropped off. As we weaved in and out of traffic, making seemingly arbitrary turns down cobblestone streets lined with trees obviously absent of foliage, I had the impression of being escorted as a consulate by military personnel. “The main thoroughfares aren’t safe, your excellency. Our team has secured a route through a more suburban neighborhood,” I heard Hans say through clenched teeth as he white-knuckled the steering wheel. His eyes darted with vicious determination. After parking he guided me to the proper address. I was warmly greeted by Claudia, meine Gastmutter. Hans left and I was offered a tour of the house. I don’t have the time here to adequately describe it, so I will only state that it is absolutely one of the most beautiful and warm homes I’ve ever had the privilege of being in, and will try to supplement this bold claim with pictures at a later date. I also met mein Gastvater, Wolfgang, and we chatted over Kaffee und Apfelkuchen. They are both friendly, accommodating, generous, amiable, and engaging. I admitted a certain amount of anxiety regarding my level of Deutsch fluency, and despite their smiles and patience got very overwhelmed and frustrated trying to express myself. My ears burned with embarrassment as I was forced to ask them to repeat themselves time and time again. They were enviably understanding and patient, and even complimentary of my vocabulary and pronounciation. Though convinced of their sincerity, I was overall very displeased with my speaking ability. I did, however, manage to understand them better than I give myself credit for. Their questions, posed auf Deutsch, were generally answered in up to 80% Englisch. It makes me even more determined to learn, though. Other highlights of the day include grocery shopping with Claudia and Videokamera shopping mit Wolfgang und Jakob, their 18 year old son. I have taken a liking to him as well (sein Englisch ist near-perfekt). He invited me to go clubbing with him, but I retired to bed early after an outstanding meal of pork, potatoes, and seasoned vegetables. I feel great.