Thursday, April 27, 2006

Apart from being what Fulbright likes to call "an American Ambassador," I have become a kind of apologist on behalf of German culinary skills, which I generally admire. Despite what, I don't know, the entire world says, German food can be really damn good, kind of like an entire culture based on comfort food, which is to say starches and sauces derived for rendered fat. I have been a defender, an advocate; I have stood against the tide, yelled into the wind, and rebuked the sea, all for this complex people right of the Rhine, but they just make it so damn hard sometimes, dammit, and I'm tired. Why this sudden wavering of commitment, you ask? OK, I'll tell you. Here's the deal:

Yesterday was one of those Spring days that requires several types of clothing, all depending on the time of day: a jacket for the morning, short sleeve shirt in the early afternoon, and a raincoat for later. I left school during this last and wonderful period, leaning forward against the rain, my face held slightly to the side, as I slid down the cobblestone street toward my house. I hadn't eaten yet, but had decided to enjoy a nice ham and cheese sandwich in my room watching Snooker coverage on TV, when, just around the corner from the bakery, I was struck by a lingering craving for Bratkartoffeln. Literlly translated, it means simply "grilled or roasted potatoes," and they are perhaps one of the greatest foods ever invented by the human race. I love them. I could eat a whole plate of them if you were generous enough to give them to me, and I had noticed the day before that "Das Kartoffelhaus (The Potato House)" offers these wonderfully fat-enriched tubers, together with something else (I didn't really care at the time what it might be) for as little as 5,00 €. Score.

Change of plans. Tschüß, ham sandwich, hallo, Bratkartoffeln. Ordering from a German menu can be a risky business, no matter how well you can translate, but I was confident. After all, I've been here for seven months now and I can understand about 90 % of what I read and hear, plus or minus those special situations that come along every now and then, so a five page menu in a tiny restaurant should be as easy as predicting who dies first in a horror movie. From the mouths of babes. From the mouths of stupid babes.

I chose number 50, "Bratkartoffeln mit hausgemachten Bratheringen (Grilled potatoes with the house-made grilled Herrings)" Yeah, that sounded good; a little plate of grilled fish with a side of hot potatoes is a perfect match for such imperfect weather. Yeah. Perfect. The waitress came over, took my order, and I sat, expectantly awaiting my sizzling fish. The sound of oil popping coming from kitchen was encouraging. My coke arrived and I shivered a bit for the last time before settling into my chair....

It was cold. Stone cold. The fish was STONE COLD! The side of potatoes was hot, but the three gutted and headless Herrings on my plate were stiff and icy under my fingers. They certainly LOOKED grilled; the skin was brown and folded into tight creases, the way things do when water pops through the skin in a pan, but there was no....oh, what's the word? Oh, that's right: steam! Anyone who knows anything about middle and high school boys knows that a "cold fish" is a sudden and vicíous punch in the crotch, and ironically enough, it pretty well describes the soul-crushing feeling that comes with having to eat three cold, grilled, Herrings when that was exactly the opposite of what you thought you were going to get. Oh, did I forget to mention that they were pickled? Yes? Well they were. They where PICKLED grilled Herrings.

Now, I assume the misunderstanding here comes from the fact that I was building off of the English concept of "grilled," which is something grilled in the immediate past, preferably just prior to, or immediately following, the placement of the order. German, it seems, favors a more flexible definition, meaning something grilled during the last year or so, and dunked in vinegar until the skin assumes a silky texture that slides away from the meat with gelatinous ease.

And having thought about it, it certainly has the possibility to make life in general much easier. Imagine trying to sell your old rust bucket of a car through an Ad in the paper. It's a piece of crap that barely runs, but you buy the lines anyway and use phrases like "brand new," and "just off the line" to describe something that is clearly past its prime. Naturally, people come by to see it, and when they look at the rusted paint, dented doors, and cracked windshield and accuse you of false advertising, you can simple reply: "It was new....20 years ago. Man, you should have seen it then. It would have been exactly what you wanted."

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

So Spring Break is over. "The good times is past and gone." Yes, that's right, it's back to work. To be fair, Spring Break ended over a week ago, but I just wasn't into writing anything down, partly because I was tired, and partly because I didn't think that anything would be served by repeating how gray it likes to stay outside. But it does. A lot.

The weather's nice today, though: the sun is out, the birds are doing their thing, chirping and crapping on every flat surface they can find, and it's a balmy 70 degrees. So I've decided to take advantage of the accompanying good mood and dazzle everyone once again with my writing skills.

Like I said before, there wasn't a lot about last week that needed telling, unless people are interested in my sleeping habits. Yes? No? Well, OK. But you're missing out, let me tell you. Seriously.

OK, enough of that. So, Friday. Ah, Friday. Now THAT was a day! It started out normal enough: after rolling around in bed for about four hours, I managed to fall asleep, only be to be awakened by a dream of a green rabbit creature chewing on my toe. I tried to wake up several times, couldn't, and when I finally did, I was thoroughly freaked out. I guess I should say here that waking up to find an animal chewing on me is one of my more neurotic fears, but one that manages to do it to me every time. Goodbye Sleep, hello Staring At The Ceiling.

Don't worry, I fell back to sleep....for about two hours. My phone rang at about 7.45, but of course I didn't KNOW it was my phone at the time: I was having trouble deciding between some kind explosive device or my alarm clock. I picked it up without my glasses, stared at it, and wondered why this thing was making all that noise and vibrating. Do I disconnect the blue or red wire? Hey, I know, just push a button! That always works!

As it turns out, my teacher, Andreas, had messed up his back the day before getting Louis out of the car, and he wanted to know if I could cover the 2nd and 4th periods for him. Ummmm. If you don't know already, moments like this have a tendency to throw me into a kind of moral crisis that eventually crystalizes into two options: be selfish and screw it, or help someone who generally needs it, which translated in this case to telling him "no" and going back to sleep (preferred selfish option), or saying "sure, no problem," and covering the classes (detestable yet ultimately more helpful option). Usually, I just agree and go, but this time I managed to tell him that I couldn't do the 8.45 class, but that I would gladly do the 10.20 hour with his fifth grade. So much for my day off.

The assignment I gave them was simple enough: they were to make up a worksheet themselves covering all the material from units 1 through 6, then switch with a partner and, you know, do it. Easy. Or at least that's what I thought. I came into class, explained the assignment in English, wrote it on the board for good measure, and waited for the magic of learning to happen.

Glassy stares.

The first fifth grade I had a couple of weeks ago before break could understand pretty much everything I said, or at least they were good at acting like they could; this one, not so much. I tried a few more times, but they kind of sqirmed in their seats, looked at the floor, or if they were really ambitious, opened their workbooks to a random page and stared at it. The dispair in the room was palpable. Hmmmm. I was a little torn now, becuase I've been told to say as much as possible in English, but they weren't really understanding the assignment, which does tend to affect a class, or so I've been told. Enter cute little girl in the first row.

"Könntest Du das auf Deutsch sagen (Could you say that in German)?"

Of course! German! I am in Germany, after all!

In German it is, then: "Ja, ihr solltet ein....Worksheet.... auf Englisch selber von Unit eins bis zum Unit sechs machen, und dann tun es mit Partnern.

(Yeah, you should make a worksheet yourselves in English from unit one to unit six, then do it with partners)

Funny thing is, I had no idea what the word "worksheet" was in German, and they had absolutely no idea either. We were all comrades in ignorance, you could say. I put a couple words together in my head, trying to make a word that might be able to function as "worksheet," but making artifical words can be kind of risky; instead of asking for a worksheet, I could stumble across a rare mega-noun and insult someone's grandparents.

So I just kept repeating the word over and over: "You know, a in your workbook. A worksheet. It's a sheet that with." It was fun, let me tell you. A blast. In fact, I liked it so much, that I was content to let that be the rest of the class, but sadly, a boy in the back piped up and said: "Oh, ein Arbeitsbogen!" Uh, sure. Whatever you say. Do that.

And they did, like little beavers, little hyper rodents just beginning to feel the first stirrings of that wonderful time we call Puberty. During my several laps of walking around the room trying to look like I was checking out what they were writing down, a note changed hands. Yes, one of THOSE notes. Well, after a couple minutes of inspiring muted giggles, it was handed over to me (totally without my request, I should add) in what I can only call a distorted mockery of a court room scene. All eyes were on me as I unfolded the torn bit of paper. The air was electric. Holding my breath, I read:

"Do you want to make sex with M---?"

Ja: Nein:

Make sex! Boy howdy! All I need are two pieces of ply wood, four 3/8 inch washers, a claw hammer, and a plumber's friend! Oh, and ear plugs. Always use protection. Who's with me?!

The fact that the note was written in English was impressive, but I wasn't sure if I should correct the grammer or not, seeing as how he had obviously put some thought both into the note, and the accompanying images. Ultimately, I decided against it; someone else can open Pandora's Box if they want to, but I won't be the one doing it. I settled instead with a simple "that's not nice" and "please don't do that again." He wrote another note thirty seconds later, which I ignored. I like to think we understood each other.

Once again, thanks kids.