Archive for November, 2009

I’m so cool, too bad I’m a loser…

November 30, 2009

That’s the first line of the Barenaked Ladies song, “Falling for the First Time.”  I’m normally not into popular music.  My iPod is filled with what Harvey Reid calls un-pop:  a mixture of classical, folk and musical soundtracks, with a few other oddities thrown in here and there.  But while working at Bath & Body Works and being forced to listen to the same annoying CD on a repeating loop every day until the next one arrived, I fell in love with “Falling for the First Time.”  The lyrics of that particular song just really struck a chord (har!) with me.  After hearing it maybe half a dozen times, I had the whole thing memorized and had worked out a harmony part for myself.  Every time it came on, I sang along, provided there were no customers in the store (which in the Logansport Mall was usually the case).  I eventually wound up buying the CD.  I just love the lyrics; they’re a perfect metaphor for how I’ve felt most of my life, which is to say out of place, out of touch, and utterly misunderstood within the realm of my peer group.  It’s a wistful song of contradictions and confusion:  of sometimes feeling helplessly out of control.  But in some strange way that’s difficult to pinpoint, it’s also a little hopeful.  Just like me.

We learned a charming little concept in 7th grade science:  “Diversity is normal.”  It’s a nice thought, and when asked, anyone would tell you they agree.  Das stimmt.  But in reality, I fear most people rarely think on such terms.  They believe they do, but they don’t.  Everyone, to some degree, has personal biases and opinions that they define as “normal.”  If you don’t conform, you’re weird.  Crazy.  Abnormal.

I bring all this up because these thoughts and feelings I’ve always mulled over to myself were prominent in my mind this past weekend.  Fabiana took a long weekend and went home.  She invited me to go, but I would’ve had to miss school for a couple of days, so I decided to wait and visit her over Christmas break.  I was so desperate for companionship after my lonely Thanksgiving that I wound up spending both Friday and Saturday night with large groups of other students.  I tried to like the smoky bars.  I tried to like the music so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think, let alone converse with anyone.  I really did try, but I just couldn’t.  The other students may well think I’m nuts (or anti-social), but I simply can’t enjoy myself in that kind of environment.  Everyone is so kind; they always make every effort to include me.  I genuinely  appreciate their thoughtfulness, but I just can’t get into it.  Every time someone invites me somewhere along those lines, I think, “How bad could it be?”  And every time, I wind up sitting quietly and miserably with my own thoughts, which are usually along the lines of “I’d so much rather be in bed with a good book right now.”  I’m just going to have to stick to quieter activities; that’s all there is to it.  Or maybe I should have my head examined.  Think any of Freud’s descendents are still practicing?

All-American: Thanksgiving and Peanut Butter

November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!  I am so thankful to have all of you in my life, and I wish we could be together today, but I’m also very thankful for the opportunity to learn German, and I’m deeply grateful to everyone who played a part in making this trip possible, especially my family.

Last night I did a little baking in the school kitchen (I don’t have an oven in my apartment, unfortunately).  I made peanut butter cookies and lemon bars to share with my class, and today we talked a little bit about the origins and traditions associated with Thanksgiving while we ate them.  We always have fun talking together.  I couldn’t have hand-picked a better group or teacher for myself; that’s such a huge blessing.

Shopping for my baking project was a little stressful.  Everything I needed was in the store; the problem was recognizing it.  I’ve always taken for granted how very easy it is to shop for groceries when I’m home.  I don’t have to stare at each item for ages, reading every word (sometimes consulting a dictionary), and wishing the manufacturer had thought to put pictures of the contents on the package.  I recognize what I want immediately, usually by the logo of whatever my preferred brand happens to be (the marketers got me, Dr. R!), and I just grab it and go.  In and out.  Not so Tuesday night.  I spent about an hour and a half shopping for 15-20 items.

The only product I had no trouble  identifying was the peanut butter.  I’ve bought peanut butter twice now (in Germany, that is), and I find it endlessly amusing that the German marketers/manufacturers go to so much trouble to make the packaging scream “American!”  It’s as though they want to be absolutely certain everyone knows they bear no responsibility for the creation of such a product.  The labels are invariably some combination of red, white and blue, and sport a U.S. map, or flag, or both.  One jar had the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline on it.  As far as I know, New York has no more to do with peanut butter than any other city  (George Washington Carver certainly wasn’t from anywhere near there, and while he didn’t actually “invent” peanut butter, he is certainly responsible for improving the recipe and popularizing it), but for some reason Europeans seem to associate all things American with New York.  Whenever I tell someone I’m from the U.S., they’ll say, “Ah; New York!” and ask me how far away I live, and whether I’ve been there.  Fabiana is dying to go.  New York was a nice place to visit, I grant, but there are many other places I would visit before I’d go back.  I’m not sure what all the fuss is about.  Certainly not the peanut butter.

A Tragedy

November 23, 2009

When I arrived at school today, I was informed that a student here was killed in an accident Friday night.  I wasn’t well acquainted with him; we’d only met once on the school trip to Salzburg, but he’d been studying here for several months, and it’s been a shocking blow to the whole school.  Please remember the students, teachers, and his friends and family in your prayers.  Rest in peace, Carlos.

Students in Salzburg. Carlos is the second from the right, next to me.

Cultural (Con)Fusion

November 22, 2009

As I may have mentioned previously, I’m having a great time now that I’ve gotten used to being here.  My teacher is fantastic.  He’s always patient and thorough, and has a great sense of humor.  Class is always fun, and I’m learning a great deal.

One of the most interesting things about studying abroad (obviously) is the opportunity to learn about different cultures:  in my case, not only German culture, but so many others.  There are students in my class from Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, Albania, France, Brazil, Mexico and New Zealand (I think), and whenever we discuss a topic, we get to hear different perspectives and learn how things are thought about/done/said in other countries.  It’s really fascinating.

I’ve become fast friends with another student from Italy named Fabiana.  She was so sweet and helpful to me my first few days, and now we might as well be joined at the hip.  We go almost everywhere together, and we always have a great time.  Our friendship is full of laughter, partly because an Italian and an American speaking German together creates so many opportunities for comical mistakes and misunderstandings, and partly because we often find different aspects of each others’ cultures so amusing.

Our friendship is a cultural exchange program unto itself.  We correct each others’ pronunciation of Italian and English words, and we entice each other to try things we normally wouldn’t have.  Fabiana taught me that I’ve been pronouncing the vast majority of pasta types wrong my whole life, especially gnocchi.  She also got me to try heisse maroni (roasted chestnuts) for the first time.  I’m sorry to say I wasn’t impressed.  When I bit into one, the texture reminded me strongly of Lima beans, which I hate.  Oh well.  As for American culture, Fabiana is eternally amused at the correct pronunciations of various American things and places, especially Cincinnati.  I also introduced her to peanut butter and banana sandwiches, which she loved.

Next week I’m going to hunt up some cottage cheese so she can try it with canned peaches (a favorite snack of mine; thanks, mom!), and Fabiana is bound and determined to see to it that I’ve eaten “real” Spaghetti Carbonara (one of my all-time favorite meals) before I return home.  Cultural exchange rocks.

A Few More Photos

November 22, 2009

I’ve got over 500 now; it’s getting harder to narrow them down!  These pictures were taken in Regensburg, Dachau, and Salzburg, and there are also a couple from Neuschwanstein Castle.  They’re out of order for some reason; I haven’t yet learned to bend WordPress to my will.

The Hunt for the Perfect Yogurt

November 19, 2009

Grocery shopping in a new place is a bit of an adventure.  Many of the products (and nearly all of the brand names) with which I’m familiar are not to be found in German grocery stores, so it takes time to try new things and figure out what foods are similar to those I normally eat, and what foods I like and don’t like.  Thus began my quest for the perfect yogurt.  I’ll confess; I’m a yogurt snob.  When I’m home, I only buy Yoplait.  I’m not a fan of Dannon, and I’ve never bothered to try other brands, but I love Yoplait.  It is soooo good.  Alas, Germany has not yet realized this fact, so I’ve been systematically trying out all the brands stocked by the three grocery stores within walking distance of my apartment (Penny Markt, Tengelmann, and Aldi).  To date I have tried four different brands in three different flavors, but none of them really impressed me.  One even tasted much too sour, even though it was nowhere near the expiration date.  Then, at last, I visited Tengelmann one evening and came upon the Holy Grail of yogurts, the only one able to meet my high standards.  Drumroll, please.  The brand, Ehrmann Almighurt. The flavor, Birne mit Schokoraspeln. That’s pear with chocolate shavings in English.  Now, before those of you who know me altogether too well assume that my liking for this flavor is due to the word “chocolate,” let me clarify:  the chocolate isn’t sweet, but it’s not bitter either.  It’s just solid, smooth and soft.  It adds texture, but no flavor to speak of.  It’s the sweet, creamy flavor of the pear yogurt that I love.  I’d only had pear-flavored yogurt once before (Yoplait, of course).  It’s not a common flavor in the states, but trust me, it’s delicious.  So, if you ever have the opportunity to try pear yogurt, be sure that you do.  Thus endeth my quest.  Fair thee well, my friends, ere we meet again.

A Very Full Weekend

November 16, 2009

Friday

Friday night I went to Hofbräuhaus, a very famous brewery and restaurant, with a couple of friends.  I ate a pretzel bigger than my head, among other things, and had the following conversation (half in German and half in English) with a man at our table who was from Denmark, but had lived in Australia, and was currently working in Munich.

International Man:  Are you having fun in Munich?

Me:  Yes; it’s fantastic!

International Man:  But where is your beer?

Me:  I don’t drink alcohol.

International Man:  I’ll ask you again: Are you having fun in Munich?

And later…

International Man:  What languages do you speak?

Me:  Only English fluently, but I’m here to learn German.

International Man (pointing to his stein and speaking very slowly):  Das ist ein Bier (That is a beer).  Would you like to stay in Germany?

Me:  Maybe, if I can learn German.

International Man:  Noch einmal; Bier! (Once more; beer!)

Me:  Yes, I’m well aware that beer is important in Munich.

International Man:  Well, you’re halfway there.

A math teacher in high school once told me I only needed to know two words in German:  Bier und brötchen (beer and bread-roll).  Take my word for it:  he was wrong.

Saturday

Saturday I took the train to Dachau with a couple of friends from school.  I was a sobering experience; there aren’t words to describe it.  I’d researched the Holocaust a little for school in the past, but to walk through the museum and read the personal accounts and descriptions of what occurred…  It’s almost unfathomable that such things can happen.  Psychology tells us we all have the potential for violence and cruelty, but what is equally important to remember is our capacity for decency and integrity, and the fact that we all have a choice between the two.  Because amidst all the horrors I read about were other stories.  There were also examples of pure goodness in the face of pure evil:  prisoners who reached out to help those around them, often at great risk to themselves.  I remember reading one in particular about a doctor who was imprisoned.  The camp had a doctor and an infirmary, but in reality did nothing to help the sick and injured, and often made them worse.  During an outbreak of typhus, if I remember correctly, the imprisoned doctor remained day and night with the sick, helping them in any way he could, and eventually succumbed to the disease himself.

My senior year of high school, our term paper was based on William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.”  The assignment was to decide whether mankind was basically good or basically evil, and defend your position.  I chose good.  For once in my life, I didn’t get a very good grade, and someone told me later that my whole premise was flawed (thanks, mom), but I still believe that.  Right and wrong is a choice, and I believe that the majority of society makes the right choice when it really counts.  I can only hope my belief is justified.

Sunday

Sunday I went to Salzburg with a teacher from the school and a few other students.  It’s a beautiful city.  It has a lovely cathedral (just like every other reasonable-sized city in Europe), and a very old fortress that sits atop a hill.  We walked about halfway up the hill and got a good look at it, plus we had a panoramic view of the whole city spread out below us.

It was good that I had to exercise so much climbing that hill, because I had a very ample lunch.  I had potato cream soup to start (it was fantastic), followed by beef goulash with a knödel (dumpling).  The goulash was quite different from anything I’d had before.  It consisted of a peppery reddish-brown sauce that tasted a bit like chili, and in it were beef pieces akin to pot roast.  It was very good.  To finish up, we all shared a nockerl, a traditional Salzburg dessert.  It’s a bit like a meringue, but the texture is thinner and more liquid underneath.  It also tastes sweeter, and it has berries in it.   It was good, but I agreed with the teacher when she said you only need to try nockerl once in your life, and after that you don’t have any particular desire for it anymore.

I may go back to Salzburg another weekend.  I’m interested in touring the salt mine, and I also want to see the Silent Night chapel and museum, which is in the area, although not in Salzburg itself.  We’ll see.  I spent about half of the two-hour train ride back to Munich doing my homework so I could go straight to bed when I got home.  It was an exhausting weekend, but it was worth it.  Tschüß!

Deutsch Hilarity

November 11, 2009

Last night a fellow commenter on Dave Barry’s Blog asked me, “Bumble, is it true, what Mark Twain said about German?”  I had no idea what he was talking about, so I googled Mark Twain and German, and I found this. I read about half of it last night, and I was laughing so hard that my sides hurt and I had tears in my eyes.  It probably won’t seem as funny to those of you who haven’t studied German, but Anwyn, Dad and Meanie the Blue should enjoy it, if they haven’t already read it.  As I assured my acquaintance last night, it is absolutely true.  Twain was brilliant.

Snapshots of the Week

November 9, 2009

I must be starting to look like a local.  Two people asked me for directions on Friday.  One I was able to help (he wanted to get to the Munich Hauptbahnhof), but I had to tell the other that I had no idea.

All the walking is working.  My tight slacks aren’t so tight anymore.  In the words of my darling nephew, “Woo-yay!”

I went to see a ballet, Die Kameliendame, on Thursday.  It’s based on the book The Lady with the Camellias by Dumas.  The school has some kind of affiliation with the theaters that allows us to purchase tickets for a very low price, but the seats are still great.  I’d never seen a ballet live before, and it was incredible.  The dancers were so skilled and precise.  I took ballet classes briefly when I was younger (didn’t every little girl want to be a ballerina a some point?), so I have a limited understanding of how difficult it is.  Amazing.

I’d thought I might be able to keep up with one or two TV shows while I was here by watching them online.  That’s not going to happen.  First of all, I’ve been too busy to care about TV since I arrived, and second, when I actually had some time and tried to do it, all the networks’ websites told me a variation of the same thing:  these videos are only available for viewing by Americans.  The computer is convinced I’m German.  At least someone is.

I went on an outing to Regensburg with a teacher and some other students on Saturday.  It was really cold (we actually got a little bit of freezing rain here last night!), but it was fun.  We saw an 800-year-old bridge, and a huge cathedral.  There was some kind of induction ceremony going on for the boys choir in the cathedral, and we got to hear them sing.  The music echoing off those vaulted ceilings sounded incredible.  I took a couple of videos, but unfortunately the quality was pretty bad.

My classes are going well, although at the rate I’m learning, 8 weeks seems like a lot less time than it did before I left.  I feel like I’ll still barely have scratched the surface of German when I come back home.  My teacher is a great guy, and I liked him very much… until today.  At the end of class he told us we’re each going to have to make a 10-15 minute presentation this month.  I had fervently hoped I was done with presentations when I left the IUK School of Business, whose philosophy on education seemed to be that one must make a presentation every dang week in order to learn.  I hate public speaking.  I’ll write papers, take tests, whatever, but please don’t make me do a speech.  It’s bad enough in English, but in German?  Between the horrific grammar and my limited vocabulary, I’d consider myself lucky to be able to talk about something for 1 or 2 minutes, let alone 10 or 15.  *sigh*  Would anyone care to suggest a topic for me?

Lastly, I have a request for all the good cooks I know, seeing as I’m so inexperienced at cooking.  My diet has had too many carbs and not enough protein since I arrived, because carb-based meals are easier to prepare in my tiny kitchenette.  Most of the easy proteins I would normally make for myself at home (popcorn shrimp, frozen pre-breaded chicken breasts, etc.) require an oven, and I don’t have an oven or a microwave, just two (very slow) burners and a toaster.  Can anyone suggest some simple methods/recipes for preparing meat on the stove in a skillet or pot?  Extra points if you come up with one for the toaster.

How to Throw Money Away

November 3, 2009

Buy traveler’s checks, then come to Germany.

I bought $1500 worth of traveler’s checks, thinking it would be a safe and cheap way to spend.  A nominal fee up front on the American end (instead of the constant fees on both ends from using my credit or debit card), and cash them in over here when I need money.  It hasn’t worked out the way I thought.  I’ve only found one bank that will cash them, and they charge outrageous fees to do it.  I got back Euro 111 for $200.  I thought there was something fishy about that based on my knowledge of current exchange rates, and I couldn’t decode my receipt, so I asked my teacher to help me understand where the discrepancy was.  He explained the enormous fees I had paid, and also said that traveler’s checks are extremely unpopular here.  No kidding.  *sigh*  I emailed my bank to ask if I can bring the dang things back and have the money credited to my account, but since I had to “buy” them from the bank, I kind of doubt it.

Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention last time I was here (spring of ’07), but it seemed to me that traveler’s checks were pretty widely accepted.  I remember cashing them in a couple different banks and stores, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t charge much to do it.  I realize the economy has gotten worse since then, but the exchange rate really hasn’t changed that much, so I don’t understand why this has become such an ordeal!