Finding Germany's Soul

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"No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby-so helpless and so ridiculous." 

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 - 1882) US philosopher, poet, essayist 

I should have read Emerson before I moved to Germany. I have never in my life felt the lack of language so profoundly! I spent two years in Mongolia with the tiniest amount of Mongolian (I am ,however, fluent in Mongolian taxi) without feeling the frustration and embarrassment that is and will continue to be my lot in life until I learn German. When you lack the ability to communicate in the native language, you cannot fully participate in day-to-day life, understand the culture, or communicate with the people (obviously!). The language barrier can be anywhere from slightly frustrating to outright causing insanity. When you know the language, you have the comfort of being able to successfully navigate all sorts of situations, such as: ordering meals in restaurants (and knowing what you will get) , reading your own mail and contracts, and talking to the people around you (not to be underestimated!) among many others. 

Language bridges the gap. One of the unfortunate things about being an English speaker (as well as being one of the most convenient) is that I am very rarely the person crossing the bridge. I open my mouth and it seems that people are rushing over it towards me, speaking English to me comfortingly as if to convey the message,” there now, was that so hard? We understand one another perfectly.” I feel as if I am being pushed back into a comfort zone that I am rapidly outgrowing. The problem is that I need to speak German really well, since the Germans seem to like precision and exactness. I don’t feel as if they are going to have a great deal of patience with my learning process and the fact that I am bound to make a ton of mistakes. Furthermore, many Germans speak good English and like to show it off. Unless my German is flawless, they'll switch to English and keep me in my comfort zone. 

I am not sure why learning German seems so much more essential than learning Mongolian did. Maybe because I am much more hidden here. In Mongolia people could see down the road across the street with a blindfold on that I wasn’t going to be a native speaker at best and most likely wouldn’t speak any Mongolian at all. In Germany, I look the same as all the Germans and so it isn’t until I open my mouth that they know and by that time I am already embarrassed for being so inadequate. 

I knew before moving to Germany that learning German was going to be an important part of the experience. There was a distance between me and the people in Mongolia caused because I didn’t learn Mongolian that I didn’t want to repeat the mistake in Germany. I want to be more connected to the country I am living in and less dependent upon the school community. Given my determination the actual process of learning German has been frustratingly slow. 

It started with finding a class. At first it seemed as if they were everywhere. Ads, rumors, sage advice from others who were trying to learn German. Choosing one became a sort of obsession. Some were too expensive, some were intensive classes during the day, some were far away. The possibilities began to look thin and I choose a course in desperation. There are 5 other new teacher this year who would like to learn German as well so we banded together to form a class. Then we decided that it was too expensive and so signed up for a very cheap course downtown. It seemed fairly ideal. We didn’t count on the fact that it didn’t start until 8 at night (we are all teachers and so get up ridiculously early), that it would be taught by an incompetent (teachers are really critical of the people who teach them) or that we would be spending several hours learning the phrase “Guten Tag, Ich bin Tara. Ich komme aus Amerika.” That was the end of that. So here I am having lived two months in Germany and still not speaking much German or having started a class! Not the auspicious beginning I had hoped for. 

Fortunately, the wind seems to have shifted and another class has been found! Close, fairly cheap, only us and we get to dictate what we learn. Fingers crossed that this one is good because I am sticking with it no matter how much it sucks! 

To aid in this noble goal I have been spending a lot of time with a computer German course. I can count, recall colors and some nouns as well as string together some simple declarative sentences. With a limited amount of verbs. (okay, 3). My niece, who is two, can just about manage the same thing in English. Needless to say I am not exactly feeling as if I am an intellectual giant here… 

But still I persevere. My apartment may be in Germany but that fact will never seem more than a superficial moving of all of my things until I speak the language. Then I will truly live here. It is time to cross that bridge. 

"Die Sprache eines Volkes ist seine Seele." ("The language of a people is its soul.") 


Make yourself at home!: Life in Germany

I have come to the conclusion that becoming comfortable living in a new city has a lot to do with where you are living. 

I am living in the top two floors over an Apotheke (which is German for Pharmacy and pronounced something like a-poe-teek- uh) and my landlord. I don‘t think that Germans believe in attics. There are windows on all of the roofs here. My apartment is no exception. I am pretty sure that there isn’t a right angle or a box shaped room in the whole place. My bedroom is shaped like a triangle. To be more accurate it is shaped like a prism. 

I may need to downsize

The more that I change things around and make them my own the more comfortable I am with living in the apartment and for some strange reason in Germany as well. 

My shipment was delivered (by the schools hausmeister and his son) after the HR department of my school did a bit of running around checking for it. I feel as if I should apologize to Bayaraa, the man in charge of Mongolian Express. I had no faith that my shipment would 1. Arrive, 2. Arrive on time, or 3. Be in one piece. I was the first person out of the new hires to receive my shipment. And nothing was broken. This is remarkable, if only for the circumstances under which they were packed… 

Let me take you back to Mongolia… 

On the Wednesday before I flew out Mongolian Express arranged to come to my house to box up my things and take them to storage. They were to arrive at 3:30 and I was going to be done with work at 4:30 so I had Javsun (my awesome housekeeper) let them into my apartment. I had all of the things to go to Germany piled in totes on one wall. Javsun had strict instructions that the movers were not to touch anything else. The packers were gone and so were all of my things when I arrived. That seemed suspicious. How in the world did they pack all of my crap that quickly ? I had been tossing things into the totes haphazardly for the last 3 months. There was no rhyme or reason to the system. Javsun look ed concerned and then told me that the movers had simply taken the totes placed them into cardboard 

boxes and sealed them. Right away my eye started twitching. “You should not have packed in those plastic boxes,” she told me. “It cost you many square meters even though you have little bit weight.” I explained that I didn't care about those boxes and that the company was supposed to have packed up all of my things. I was in a slight state of panic as I envisioned pretty much everything I owned being crushed into dust on the way to Germany. Javsun noticed this and hastened to reassure me, “We will fix. Also you need the carpet.” She then proceeded to roll up the carpet , drag it downstairs and stuff both it and the two of us into a taxi . We then "rushed" to the warehouse of Mongolian Express. 

I don’t know exactly what Javsun said to them. I only know that she sounded authoritative and the staff of Mongolian Express immediately started to repack all of my things in about a ton of bubble wrap and paper. She also handed them the carpet and demanded that they add it to the shipment. We left secure in the knowledge that all of my things had been packed securely. We had to carry the eight totes that my stuff had been in but that wasn't too difficult because they were able to nest inside one another. She and I celebrated by going out for Thai food. 

Getting all of my things was one thing finding a place for them was another. All of the boxes came at the same time and since I had no idea what was in any of them I ended up just dumping all of them out onto the floor. The result was slightly horrifying. When did I become that girl with all these things none of which is expendable? 

My entire kitchen.  It really is that small.

As if that wasn't enough , there was also a couple of major shopping trips to IKEA just to make sure that my place in the world as a consumer was ensured. On the list: pots and pans, dishes, picture frames and a mattress. The bed that I inherited had a mattress that was literally three inches thick. That might work for vacation but when you are going to sleep on it for the next few years things had to change. I am way too young to start having back problems! 

My bedroom is a triangle.

The true joy of shopping at IKEA is not, as you may suspect, following the arrows painted on the ground, or even the hot dog and ice cream that is apparently an essential part of the experience. It was the sheer amount of stuff. Stuff that I could buy and have delivered. Furniture, kitchen and bathroom accessories and the entire range of decorative details. It is a pretty good thing that I don’t live close to IKEA or have a car because I can see how that would become dangerous! “I might not have any money but look at my new chair!” 

But after I had sorted through it all and put it away the place began to feel like mine. True, I hadn't picked out the furniture and the kitchen is the same size as my dining room table but something about it seemed to say, “Tara lives here.” I guess I am home.

Locked out Again!: Starting Life in Germany

Here ' s a tip for all you ladies as you are traveling. Make sure that your bag doesn't have a huge hole in it before you head off for a full day of European adventures. You might just lose your keys. Yes, the curse of Tara being locked out of her apartment has struck Germany as well. Let me just go over both the high and low points of the adventure. 

I was getting ready to leave a friend ' s house (late at night it should be noted) and in the midst of packing up all my things I sensibly decided to check and make sure that I had my keys. I don ' t normally do this but luck was on my side for once . Not because I actually had my keys but because I hadn't ridden on the train for forty minutes gotten to my apartment and then noticed that my keys were missing. After searching my friend ' s house high and low (we searched places I hadn't even seen before) the problem was pretty clear. My bag had a hole in its seam. We had known this before because as we were walking from a Tram to a bus that afternoon my umbrella had fallen out of it. Now my umbrella is pretty small but that still should give you a mental picture of what my bag looked like. I think I handled losing my keys fairly well. I only had a mild freak-out when my friend went to buy me a toothbrush. If the whole world could tell that something was wrong, hey, that couldn't be helped. 

I should mention that I actually had four sets of keys. One was lost to the wilds of Germany and the other three were safely locked behind my door. Still there was a bit of hope. Perhaps my landlord (who lives below me) had a spare key? No, that was not to be. He was gone (I think to France) for the whole weekend. My other neighbor (only three of us live in the building) works in a little store across the street. She was gracious enough to unlock the bottom door but couldn't help with the rest. She did however know a locksmith. My friend (who is German) called and as luck would have it he was in the area. There was still the chance that the whole thing would be very cheap. If the deadbolt wasn't locked , then the whole thing would be very simple. 

It wasn't simple. Not only had I turned the deadbolt but I had turned it twice. In essence "superlocking" my door against my well mannered and completely benign neighbors. The locksmith blew a breath out as if asking for patience and calmly went downstairs to get his heavy duty " I am breaking into this apartment drill " and assorted other tools. I was a little appalled at how quickly he was able to get in actually. So was he , I think , because he assured me that he would be putting a much better lock on my door than the one he ha d just broken. Putting the lock in took forever. Probably because I was staring at him willing him to be finished already. To pass the time I took some pictures. He drilled, he hammered, he measured, he balanced and in the end he made a mess! He also chatted with my friend in German and occasionally with me in English (of course). I found out about his children, wife, and that he had changed my neighbor ' s lock as well. Somehow that made me feel better. 

And in the end? I had a new lock, three new sets of keys and no one to blame but myself. Now come s " the part you do not like so much " , he told me. The bill.