Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Just a quick little something I heard on TV a couple days ago that has become my new favorite German word: "Eisprung." It's the native German word for a woman's period, and literally translates to "Egg Jump:" "Ei" (egg) + "Sprung" (Jump). It just sounds so....active, doesn't it? What a beautiful language it can be.

But my favorite saying so far has to be: "Jack und Büx," Plattdeutsch for "Jacket and Pants: "Jack" (Jacket) + "Büx" (Pants). It basically means you're worn out, kind of spent from the day.

"Man, you look kind of sluggish. Are you tired?"

"And how. Jacket and pants, man, jacket and pants."

"That IS bad."

Monday, March 27, 2006

You know, I thought my day couldn't get any better on Friday after my class with the fifth grade, but as usually, I was wrong.

The fifth grade went to Lübeck to see a little play based on a popular children's book, "Tintenherz" (Ink Heart), and since there was a ticket left over, I was invited, and since I'm a sucker for stories involving magic, I went.

We all met outside the school at about 15.10, and as soon as I arrived, all the girls started giggling. That's nothing usual for this age group; over the last seven months, I've noticed that my presence can be a kind of strange social catalyst, a neccesary component to induce the giggling fits that seem to be so vital to the social structure of girls in early puberty. So, I just ignored them, staring at the sea gulls, the bus, pretty much anything except the whispering covey near the bushes. Nice try.

After about a five minute war council, one of the girls walks up to me and says: "Du hast eine Verehrerin (You have an admirer)," then walks off, the giggles of her compatriots providing cover fire. Great. I seem to be a big hit in the 11-14 group, it's just that whole post-puberty crowd that keeps giving me trouble. Who says God doesn't have a sense of humor?

After that, the spectacular fall I managed outside the theater that made my left elbow swell up like a marshmellow, and the bizzare collapse of my plans in Lübeck for the weekend, the rest of the day was pretty uneventful. I was pretty disappointed that I got locked in the bus before I could make my plans for the weekend, but if I had stayed in Lübeck I wouldn't have the rest of this post, so it all works out in the end, I guess.

I started Saturday in one of those odd little "I have things to do" moods, so things were just rosey; one of the walls could have fallen away from my room, and as long as it didn't interfere with my laundry, I would have been pretty happy. Anyway, after running to the grocery store, buying food for dinner, and storing it away in the fridge, I decided to run to the bakery to get a cup of coffee and sit and look at Main Street in the company of fellow human beings.

I guess I should start this by saying that this is the same bakery I met the old lady in a couple of months ago, so the possiblity of a repeat is always in the back of mind everytime I go there, and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't one of the reasons I go in the first place. I wasn't disappointed.

About half way through my cup of coffee, this young guy sees me through the window, smiles, walks in, shakes my hand, and asks me how I'm doing, in English. I tell him I'm doing OK, that I'm just drinking some coffee, and he goes off to order something. He promply disappeared. I have no idea who he was. I still don't. I assume he's a student at school, which is entirely possible since they all seem to know me somehow, while I can barely keep a hand full of names straight, but I'm just not sure. But that's not the story.

After the guy leaves, this other guy across the rooms starts talking in my direction, babbling names of countries seperated by the words "leider (unfortunately)" and "kaputt." It took me a while, but I figured out he was talking to me, and he was naming English-speaking countries, which he clearly didn't like. Here's basically how it went:

MAN: America, England....England, America, New Zealand, Australia, they're all awful. All the English-speaking countries are awful. Everything there is kaputt. Yeah, that's right. Yeah.

ME: So, only Germany is good?

MAN: Yeah, Germany is the best.

ME: Are you from Germany?

I knew he wasn't: a German would never start such a random conversation, or at least like that, and besides, his accent was odd, (Eastern European). But I thought it was a good question to ask.

MAN: No. Tourist. I'm a tourist. (Babbles incoherently about English-speaking world)

Now, at this point I had gone from being solidly creeped out to just curious, so I moved over to a table next to him so I could hear him better. Again, I wasn't disappointed.

MAN: Were those people from East Germany?

ME: What?

MAN: East Germany.

ME: Huh?

MAN (reaching over and tapping table next to mine): There were to people. Two people. Were they from East Germany?

ME: I don't know.

MAN: I don't like East Germany. It's gray and cold. Cold. Gray. And there are no flowers in the windows. No flowers. Not like Schleswig-Holstein, where everything is green.

ME: Well, it's cold and gray outside today, you know.

MAN: Yes, but it's gray in East Germany. Gray! (He liked to look up at the ceiling and repeat the most recent noun or adjective) Cold. There are no flowers in the windows. And the people too. The people are gray too. The people! They just stand around, you know. They have all these problems, all these problems, and I ask myself: where do they have all these problems from?

Well, I had always assumed they come from the rapid and total fall of an entire socio-economic structure, having to adjust to two differnt currencies and the accompanying inflation rates in fifteen years, and the fact that one in four people in former East Germany are unemployed without any prospects for new jobs after all collective industries were privatized. Boy, was I wrong.

MAN: It's the mentality there, you understand. One guy says "I know," then the next one says "I don't know." It's the whole mentality.

Of course! It all makes sense!

MAN: And Brandenburg and Mecklenburg (two Eastern states) are infiltrating Schleswig-Holstein with propaganda. They're infiltrating. Do you understand me?

Nope, can't say I do.

ME: Oh, yeah.

MAN (Shaking head): And Niedersachsen ("Lower Saxony," a state just below Scleswig-Holstein), you don't want to go there.


OK, I'll admit: Bremerhaven is a bit ugly, but personally, I thought Bremen itself was beautiful, but to each his own, I guess.

ME: Well, I have to go shopping. Outside. So, have a good day.

MAN: Oh, you too. Have a good afternoon.

Just one thing: is it a bad thing that I'm writing this way about something who is obviously a bit nuts? You know what, don't answer that.

Friday, March 24, 2006

I've flown solo. That's right, I taught a class all by my lonesome. OK, so I've done it before, but this time, it didn't suck. It was with class 5b, which makes them some of the cutest beings on the planet, (subordinate to a baby Hippo, of course), not to mention very, very, very enthusiastic.

There was one little awkward moment at the beginning of class after they called me Mister Winter and I told them just to call me Brandon. They looked like I had shocked them with a cattle prod and said bad things about thier mothers. It didn't bother me too much, though, since no social situation in German is complete without that generous shot of awkardness that gives life here it's unique tangy flavor. I said it a couple times in English, then brought the point home in German, after which they seemed OK with it. Then again, they don't have a choice: it's either Brandon or nothing, as far as I'm concerned. If I can call them by their first names, they should be able to call me by mine.

I went into class expecting to spend most of the period explaining "this," "that," "these," and "those," the grammar theme of the day, but they had it pretty much wrapped up; they rattled them off sentences like little teutonic machine guns, spitting linguistic gems such as: "this sweater is blue," and "that is a felt tip (pen)" into every corner of the room. So it was pretty clear to me as soon as I started that they already undertstood the subject, but I hammered away at it anyway, a redundant teacher worthy of high schools throughout time. I like to think I helped.

We did work with that for about 15 or twenty minutes until they stopped waving their hands and grunting to get picked, then shifted gears. To Hangman. It was their idea, actually, but one I totally supported, since their intelligence had drastically shortened my lesson plan, and man, were they excited. I didn't have time to ask, but I'm pretty sure this new model of the 10 year old German child comes with an external Endorphin/Andrenalin back-up system in case the power plant goes critical. I think it made their day.

Hangman's done differently here, though. The game itself is the same, but the process of executing the stick man is done with a little more attention to art and mood than in the United States. You all know the drill: draw the gallows frame, maybe a bit of rope, then add body parts for each wrong letter. Landscape rarely, if ever, enters into the picture, and the stick man is executed against a solid black or green background, a kind of artistic purgatory. It's pretty sad when you think about it.

Anyway, Germans always start out with a kind of lump for the first letter, and then build the gallows on top of it, piece by piece. Being a super genius, it took me a while to realize that they were drawing a tall hill and building the gallows on top of that. For some reason, this just seems a little more hardcore than letting the poor thin bastard swing over an undefined landscape "'til dead." Instead, they let him toss in the wind atop a great hill as an example to all the other primative human figures that crime doesn't pay. Or something like that.

The kids loved it. They couldn't wait to have the chance to pick a word, and I even had a girl pout when she was skipped for one turn. Go me, even though it wasn't my idea.

Dunked into this sea of pre-pubescent enthusiasm, my barely-planned lesson not only took up the whole forty-five minutes, but it might even be called "fun." I've never actually had that happen before; it was my first time. And not only that, but I almost didn't have to do anything; if someone got loud, everyone else "shushed" them into oblivion, liberating me from the hated burden of imposing discipline, or in my case, looking like I'm trying to impose discipline. Right on, munchkins, right on.

Thanks, kids. You rock.

Monday, March 20, 2006

You know how I had said I was going to go to Dresden and Leipzig after Berlin? Yeah, totally didn't happen. After three days at the Meeting, the only part of Berlin I had really succeeded in seeing was the World Clock at Alexanderplatz (one of my favorite places), the Wall at the Southside Gallery (pretty damn cool), and the monuments along Unter den Linden, which basically boils down to the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) and the Siegessäule (Column of Victory) with a couple really cool things stuck between. You see, for some reason, I went to Berlin with a friend of mine from Lübeck under the impression that I could "see the city" in three days and then move on to a general tour of former East Germany. Nope. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Why? Because it's huge. Seriously. The city only has about 3.3 million people in it, making it Germany's largest, but there are very few skyscrapers, and most of them are at Potsdamer Platz, the cool, sleek movie/art district of glass and steel. If you ever want to go see a movie in a HUGE theater while feeling like one of the coolest people on earth simply because you're there, Potsdamer Platz has what you need. And behind it all, there's the unsettling knowledge that every building you see is about 30 to 40 years old, 50 at the most. That's pretty much what the whole city feels like actually, an odd yet satisfying place that screams "God, I'm so damn cool" and "War is so freaking stupid" at the same time. And all of it in your face.

Berlin is made mostly of low buildings of about five stories or so, which gives it the feel of several villages and small towns shoved together, while still maintaining the impressive and monolithic "oh, my God" undertone that seems to make it what it is: Cool. It's about 20 times the size of Manhattan, so trying to "see" it ís impossible. Instead, what you need is a kind of Buddhist outlook toward the whole thing, a kind of stoic acceptance of the fact that you haven't, don't, and never will know it, and that's OK. Admitting your problem is the first step to conquering it. It's OK, we're all behind you.

But it's not what you would call a pretty city. Well, unless you like the color gray and the subtle neon hues of graffiti, then you're cool. And I have to say, Berlin graffiti really does stand in a league of its own. Sure, there's the lazy half-assed scribbles on the walls and ceilings of the U Bahn stations, but generally speaking, the graffiti in the capital city is done with a frightening amount of love and devotion. The Wall has the best stuff, of course. I tried to take a few pictures of it, but it was just too huge, so they're a little less than what you could call "good," but let's face it: ambiguous markers of artistic quality is my stamp of production. Lengthy, over-stretched methaphors and tired literary ticks like "so" and "anyway?" That must be a Brandon post. OK, enough of that.

The truth is, Berlin is an amazingly dynamic city, and however poor it might be, you don't sense it: instead you're impressed by how much it's managed to do just in the last 15 years without virtually any outside aid. And despite the fact it's made up of the remains of two countries that were on the verge of war on and off for 40 years, you really get the feeling of being in a city that represents Germany, the good parts and bad. Munich, Cologne, Hamburg, Lübeck, and Bremen, on the other hand, are very much places on their own as far as identity is concerned; they're either nothern, Hasiatic, or Free cities. But Berlin IS Germany, and the whole weight of a place and country that old, that's been through so much, sits heavy on your shoulders when you get there.

I guess if you had to think of a sentence to really capture what the city is like, the Mayor has it right when he calls Berlin "Poor, but Sexy." Yeah, yeah, that's pretty much it.

Oh, and one more thing: A lot of Germans I've met tend to, I don't know, be scared shitless of Berlin because it's teeming with foreigners (gasp). Not that! "Honey, lock the door and but the Kinder in the basement! I think I hear some kind of ETHNIC language outside! I'm not sure, but I think they plan to rob us." Before I left for the city, one of my students told me to watch out for the foreigners, especially the Turks and Russians, because if you insult them, they'll show back up with a gang and beat you up. "And don't underestimate the little ones," he told me, "because they have big brothers." Really?! Dammit! There goes my itinerary of randomly insulting people throughout the city. Fiiiiiine, I guess I'll just have to NOT insult someone just because they aren't German. Later, after I had gotten back, a couple students asked me if I had met any Turks while I was there. Here's how the basic conversation went:

STUDENT I: We didn't see you last week, where were you?

ME: Oh, I was in Berlin.

STUDENT I: Oh, really? What did you think?

ME: It was great. A lot bigger than Fehmarn, so it was a little hard to get used to at first, but it was pretty cool.

STUDENT I (looking over shoulder): Did you meet any Turks while you were there?

ME: Yeah, a couple.

STUDENT I: What did you think of them?

ME: I don't know. They were pretty cool, I guess. I mean, they're people, just like everybody else. They were nice.

STUDENT I: Yeah, but they're pretty stupid.

ME: Ummmmm....Yeah, well everybody can be stupid. Sometimes I can be pretty stupid, you know, so I really don't think that means anything.

STUDENT I: You're not stupid.

STUDENT II: At least they aren't as bad as the Poles.

STUDENT I: Oh, yes they are. They're worse. Believe me, I know.

That's basically it. The conversation ended pretty much there, which is good, because I really didn't have much to say to any of that, or at least nothing that didn't involve calling them stupid. I am new to this whole "professional conduct" thing, but I'm pretty sure that would be bad. And, everyone should be happy to know that I made it through seven days in Berlin without getting beat up by a gang.

Well, OK: there was that incident with the eight year old and the snow ball, but that doesn't really count. Other than being incredibly obnoxious, the moment provided me an opportunity to descend to their level and abandon any maturity I might have managed to collect by accident over the sixteen years that seperated us.

See, it went like this: My friend and I were walking down the street, when I little kid threw a snow ball at her. In one of those moments of divine comedic justice, the snow ball plunged impatently right into the middle of an intersection, its slushy remains disappearing quickly under the wheels of a passing car. We never would have known if we hadn't seen it, but the little gremlins weren't through yet.

They showed up again as we were walking down a dirt path through a park, loosing a projectile that rebounding off a jacket with the force of an asthmatic's spit wad and fell pathetically to the dirt. The main assailant's pig-eyed, chubby companion reached to the ground to reload as my friend pointed and yelled: "Nein! Ich sehe dich! (No! I see you!)," which he answered with an "innocent" "Was (what)?" Thinking they were done, we turned to leave. A snow ball hit me in the ass, followed by the same self-satisfied cackling that had accompanied the first two attacks. Now, at this point, I had two basic choices: 1) Walk Away, and 2) Say/Do Something.

I flipped him off.

I'm not proud of it, and I didn't enjoy it....OK, so I did enjoy it....but the point remains that he was an eight year old kid. A chubby punk, but an eight year old nonetheless. I probably would have been better off giving him a good public "Schimpf (Scolding)," a time-honored and well-wore practice in Germany, but my form isn't as good as die Deutschen, so I wasn't up to it.

Chubby Punk: 1, Brandon: 0.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The movie theater is open! Hot damn!