Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Language Problem

So I posted last week about how the language barrier often causes me panic and death spirals in the brain (non-scientific term). I thought I'd expound a bit on dealing with the language barrier, especially in a program that didn't require knowledge of said language.

When you're looking at study abroad programs, any good program will tell you what kind of language requirement they have, if there is one. This program specifically stated no knowledge was necessary (although individual courses, like the languages ones, had requirements depending on their level). But the thing to keep in mind is that is just the program.

Lueneburg is a moderately-sized city, I would say, and I rarely have a problem. If I didn't want to put out an effort, I could get through my entire five weeks using minimal German. I've been to all of one place (a small doner kebab joint) that didn't speak English, and as long as you keep your favorite stock phrase handy ("Sprechen Sie Englisch?") and point a lot if they don't, you're good.

But then, why are you here in the first place?
If this blog post were a movie, this would be where the camera gets shots of me from five different angles as the other characters realize what a profound statement I've uttered.

My German sucks. Two of my stock phrases (besides the aforementioned one) are "ich spreche nur ein bisschen Deutsch" and "mein Deutsch is sehr schlekt!" ("I speak only a little German" and "my German is very bad!" and if these are incorrect, well, that just shows how true it is.) These come in handy because when I'm faced with a rapid-fire spiel from a sales clerk, they're usually understanding if I don't respond in kind. And yeah, it's really handy to be able to ask if they speak English, whether you couple that with one of the other phrases or not. Sometimes I'm mentally exhausted and just cannot produce the brain power necessary for translating, and most of the time I don't know any words that would work.

Plus, and I'll admit it, there's a slight feeling of embarrassment when I'm doing the pidgin equivalent of German, fully knowledgeable of the fact that they're fluent in English.

Anyway: people are usually very understanding, though, when you make an effort despite being the worst person to ever try to learn German, ever. While in Celle, I went into a cafe/restaurant, and had a half-English/half-German conversation with the waitress, who told me my German was better than her English--it wasn't, but that was high praise in my book, especially because I was able to do more than just read things off a menu.

Friday morning, I missed the bus I wanted and had to hang around for half an hour until the next one came. Up came a little old lady who called some thing German. After asking her to repeat it, I was able to answer that today was Friday, not Thursday. For the next half hour, we had a conversation that covered everything from where I was from and why and how long I was in Lueneburg to something about how she doesn't (or isn't allowed to?) drive anymore, and she's going to get cat food for her cat (single, not multiple--I clarified. Also age 5), and the story of how she got said cat.

Did I understand all of it? No. I understood maybe a quarter--listening for keywords to get what she's actually saying, and then nonverbal communication makes up the rest of it. I could have used one of the stock phrases, but in the past few weeks I've learned enough that I can almost follow a very simplistic conversation. One of my goals was to improve my German, and so I'm making an effort to use it as much as possible, even though it's usually limited to basics like "yes," "please," and "excuse me."

Has having a tiny bit of German helped me? Definitely. The fact is I'm in another country, so if nothing else having a pocket dictionary to decipher signs would be nice, and having the basics definitely smooths things out. But a lack of language shouldn't deter someone, either. One of the other students in my beginning class knew absolutely NO German before coming here, none at all. Be realistic: it will make things more difficult (see again: being in another country) but it's doable. Learn your stock words and phrases, grab a pocket dictionary*, and get out there.

*Found in stores a lot here, they're about 9 euro and maybe 3 inches big. PERFECT.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Partial City in a Day: Lueneburg

Lueneburg is the city I'm currently living in. I've never heard of it being on the American tourist radar, but there is some stuff to do, as we discovered. Last Saturday, a group of us students had a day trip to Hannover planned. That was killed when this happened:
For reference, the bahnhof is about three times as crowded as it normally is. We have student passes that let us ride some of the trains within the state for free. These are what we were going to take, since train tickets can get expensive. The day before we planned to go, those trains went on strike. We showed up, only to have our train canceled. The next one and hour later? Also canceled. Faced with that, we decided to explore what we already had around us.

So, there's this tower that we kept seeing. It was visible from the walk to the bahnhof, and also from some of the bus routes.
Looks kinda cool, right? All I knew was that we called it the water tower. Well, we walk over, and it's a bit more impressive up close.
Much more impressive.

And yes, it basically looks like a rook from chess, or a tower without a castle. I don't remember the cost off the top of my head, but it wasn't too expensive--2 or 3 euro, I think, and we took an elevator to the top. On the floors immediately below the observation deck there were the remnants of some exhibits about water and ecology/nature, but they'd been mostly dismantled. The observation deck was wonderful, and I could have spent several hours up there.
Click to see bigger size in which details are actually visible.
You can see where the Altstadt stops and the rest of the city begins on the left. On the far right is Johanniskirche, St. John's Church, while behind it in the distance is Nicolaikirche. Middle-left in the distance you can just barely see Michaeliskirche (or just look below). The line of skinny buildings going diagonal across the center is Am Sande--yes, the city center is rectangular, rather than a square. The height also makes everything look much closer together than it is. I found it nigh impossible to pick out individual roads or squares, even big ones.

While you take an elevator up, you take stairs down when you leave the tower, and at one point you're walking (protected by railings) inside the giant metal basin that actually used to hold water. It's not very photogenic, but it is very cool. And slightly dizzying if you don't like heights.

After gathering, we remembered that it was Saturday and the farmer's market would be in front of the Rathouse (town hall), so that's where we went to lunch. Now despite great intentions, I haven't been to a U.S. farmer's market so I can't compare, but here a lot of produce is cheaper than the supermarket.

Michaelis (mee-ka-eh-lis) is the only one of the three big churches that I hadn't been to yet, so we made a pilgrimage. Being on the far side of the Altstadt, it's far away from the hustle and bustle of the shopping center; we wove through cobblestoned residential streets to reach it.
Also, please note that blue sky really does exist in Germany.
It's interesting to note that all three churches have different styles. Wikipedia calls Johanniskirche "Brick Gothic," which is shorthand for "Romanesque-esque and kinda ugly", Nicolaikirche is froo-froo Gothic, and Michaelis is between the two.

Inside is what you'd expect: ribbed vaults, tall pillars, etc. Interestingly, there is another sanctuary beneath the main one, much smaller.
There was a guide and an information desk at the back, but we didn't get time to poke around--they were setting up for an event or concert.
There's more to do, of course. There's a salt museum (salt was a big industry around here), more churches and historical buildings, a park, and undoubtedly more if I'd go to the tourist office and ask for info. The thing about living here, though, is that it feels like you've got it forever.

Monday, July 18, 2011

City in a Day: Celle

Our orientation booklet has a handy section on cities in the state, which we can reach by riding trains for free. One of these was Celle, which it described as a "well-preserved town...that presents a great impression of what the city used to look like in the 16th to 18th" centuries, as well as mentioning a castle. It was barely a hour away, so I hopped on the train to check it out.

The day I went I was running around and didn't have a lot of time to plot out a specific course of action. No problem, I thought. I know that it was a castle, a church, and a very nice old town, all of which should have signs pointing to them. Unfortunately, the signs were few and far between, so I just wandered aimlessly until I spotted steeples over the rooftops.

I did spot this a block away from the train station, though.

I finally found the castle--really, it's not hard to navigate around the town, I just followed the road signs for the "Altstadt" or the "Rathaus" (town hall)--and discovered that it's a more recent building than I was anticipating.

It's been converted into a museum--luckily for me, it was Friday which just happened to be their free day. Very few signs are in English, though. I could get the big picture of what purpose a room held, but smaller explanations of items and things weren't translated. All in all, I was in there for less than an hour.

They were also doing some renovations, thus the crane.

Surrounding the palace is a beautiful park, though. There's a lazy stream that runs through it with some gorgeous weeping willows on the banks, and even a playground. It's the perfect place to have a picnic.

The church looked like your average (pretty) town church from the outside, but inside it was a much more ornate style.
I also just realized I haven't shown any pictures of Germany with actual blue skies. They exist, I promise!
They had paintings of the apostles and all the prophets along the balcony, and some intricate carving heading the columns and around the arches.

Celle's Altstadt is pretty in a different way than Lueneburg. While L-town uses bricks, Celle has a lot of traditional houses in a different style.
A pretty one. Many building have painted decorations in addition.

The Altstadt is laid out mostly in a sensible grid, so it's easy to know where you are without a map. There are tons of cafes, bakeries, and shops. You can pick up a map from the Alteres Rathaus (old town hall, now tourist info),which includes a handy guide of historical places. Some (there are several museums I didn't get a chance to see, mainly because I lacked the desire to spend money) sounded good, but a lot are single places of interest, like this:
 This is the oldest house in Celle, now a clothing store. Most of the historical places in the Altstadt are like this. It's wonderful eye-candy.

Celle was fine for a day trip; I was done in about three hours, though I could've stayed longer if I visited museums or got something to eat (cultural problems: German places close EARLY, like by 6pm). It's close to Lueneburg, and so is easily done after classes. It's probably not the type of place you'd devote a whole day unless you planned out your itinerary ahead of time and knew all the things you wanted to hit.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Panic! At the Bakery

I'm a week and a half into my stay. I haven't been given a strict timeline for it, but our orientation booklet included a handy section on "transition trouble," which is given different names by different  psychologists/travel professionals/study abroad organizers but is generally as follows:
  1. Enchantment ("Everything is so new and charming!")
  2. Disenchantment ("Everything is so annoyingly different!")
  3. Retreat ("Everything I need and want is right here at home, I refuse everything else.")
  4. Adjustment ("I know I can't get everything out of one culture or another, each one has positives and negatives, and it's up to me which I choose to dwell upon.")
I keep waiting for stage 2 to hit me. I'm about a quarter of the way through, there are four stages, shouldn't I be hating everything by now?

Curse you, Germans, and your delicious bread!

Quite honestly, though, I seem to have skipped from Stage One to Stage Four With a Generous Helping of Panic. Which is to say, culturally everything is fine, but without being able to understand things, I tend to panic and then my mind goes into a death spiral.
I want to eat lunch at this cafe. Do I seat myself out here or go inside and order? If I seat myself, do I have a menu somewhere? If I go inside, can I eat here or do they expect me to leave? Can I sit by myself? As a single, am I supposed to share a table? Has my wallet fallen out of my bag since I had it five minutes ago? If I mess this up will I start a major international incident?
Then I took the bus home and got a sandwich from the closest bakery. I still made a fool of myself.

This is on top of the fact that while I actually know enough words to make myself understood (whether said words are gramatically correct or not), unless I have about five minutes beforehand to check every single syllable I want to use all German flees my head the minute someone talks to me, to the extent that I can't remember how to say "I only speak a little German."

Completely accurate representation of my reaction. I'm sorry, random German ladies who probably only wanted to know how late the market was open.

So technically, this might be Stage Three Fueled By a Complete Inability to Communicate Without Looking Idiotic Minus Any Resentment Toward This Culture.

Since I'm blogging this rather than, say, posting angsty Facebook status updates, you might assume I'll end by showing you how to not do this. Unfortunately, I haven't found a way to save my dignity, but a good plan is 1) having someone else with you, because everyone knows that group embarrassment is less embarrassing that individual embarrassment, and if dragging your roommate along with you at all times isn't your favorite idea, 2) just ask someone who knows. If not a local, then a student who's been here longer. So far they've all been good sports about it, probably because they've all been there at some point.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

City in a Day: Bremen

Part of the USAC program includes a few field trips; on Saturday we went to Bremen. If the name sounds familiar to you, it may be because of the old folktale, The Bremen Town Musicians. Indeed, right off the main square of the Altstadt (old town) is a statue in honor of them, and you'll be able to find toys and souvenirs easily in their image. (Below: the official statue, and a lighthearted one near a living museum.)

Since this was a group trip, it had been arranged to meet with a tour guide to show us some of the Altstadt's highlights. We met in the main square in the shadow of this beauty.
St. Peter's Cathedral
Which also had two gorgeous mosaics in the tympana (singular: tympanum), the half-circle spaces above the door.

Have I mentioned that this entire trip is like a dream from my art history class?

Anyway, having a guide was a real treat, and if I go back I'll have to be sure to look things up ahead of time. Wandering around will only get you so far, and I would've missed things this:
The clock is a mosaic!
Every day on the hour from 12-14 (Germany generally goes by 24-hour time) the bells start playing, and the middle section of the round tower turns to reveal woodcuts of explorers and pilots. Apparently in the early 1900s a man purchased the alley, basically renovated it to how it looks now (traditional Hanseatic red bricks) and turned it into what's essentially a giant art gallery.
 Charles Lindbergh and the French welcoming him from his transatlantic flight

Being Europe, there are a fair amount of statues about, and of course you've got to have some in the art place. We were informed earlier that wherever was gold--shiny from rubbing--on statues was okay to touch.
I resisted.

We spent the rest of the day in the Schnoor, the city's oldest living quarters. I'm getting used to small, cobblestone streets, but these took the cake! At some points there was hardly room for two people to pass each other.

People live there, yes, but it's also a bustling hub close to the river and filled with cafes and restaurants, shops selling stuff besides your usual tourist swag, and what they claim is the world's smallest hotel (it fits two people).

Sadly, we had to be back on a train that evening and didn't get to see nearly enough, but since I can ride the trains free with my student card and ID, I'll have to go back at least once. Speaking of trains:
Even the bahnhof is gorgeous!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Settling In

I do apologize for the week of not posting. I'm finally settled in and, better yet, have plenty of pictures to illustrate with.

I am taking two classes, both of which are through USAC (and thus the University of Nevada, Reno) although we use Leuphana University's campus. I'm in the beginning German class with five other students--I'm lucky in that one of the lives right across the hall from me, so I can check with her when I'm confused. Which is often, because quite frankly, grammar was invented by the Devil. I'm good with verbs and nouns, though, and can say such useful things like, "my mother would like to kill a snake" and "where is the chocolate?"
Ich bin ein burrito. Passing the test should be a cinch!

A lot of people, especially in stores or tourist areas, speak English. And while it can be frustrating that they'd prefer to switch to English instead of letting me practice German... my German is apparently so bad that no one can understand me anyway. I wanted to grab something quick at the train station (bahnhof) the other day, and spotted what was essentially a hot dog in a croissant, sort of a giant pig-in-a-blanket.

"Ein Wurst Croissant, bitte," I told the lady behind the counter.
She looked at me blankly. "What?"
No, not the English again. "Wurst Croissant?" I tried again, making the "u" rounder and figuring there can't be that many ways to pronounce "croissant."
Again, a blank look.
I pointed.
"Oh,  Wurst Croissant," she says. "Two-fifty, please."

Same thing happened later. I have the aid of a menu while ordering ice cream, so I don't know if it was me or the writing from which the waiter took my order for the chocolate and melon scoops. You see, though, I could clearly see something marked "MARZIPAN" in the case, and it wasn't on the menu. So I say, "und Marzipan."
He looks at me.
"Um, MARzipan?" I hazard.
I point. He gets it. "Marzipan," he says.

In everyday life, though I have little opportunity to make a fool of myself thusly, because usually I'll be in the market, and except that people speak so fast (fluent people speaking fluently, imagine that), I can get along fine.

On a different topic: the scenery! Definitely not all of Germany, or even Lueneburg* looks like this, but buildings in the "Altstadt" or old town do. It really is just so picturesque, even with modern shops selling everything from books to glasses to cell phones.

*The "u" in "Luneburg" should have an umlaut (those two little dots) over it. Apparently the way to write an umlaut if you can't actually type one is to insert an "e" after the umlaut-ed letter in question.

The rest of the city is much more modern, but the style is still something you wouldn't really find in America. This is a neighborhood close to mine (well, I thought it was mine when I took the picture, but it turns out I was lost).
Here in the city, the houses don't tend to have front yards, but most  have a small garden of sorts. Houses are close together so it's hard to see any backyard. And notice how people park? Places might have room for one car, but lots have to parallel park in the street, at least closer to the city center. Big cars, American-style, are a rarity here. I've counted exactly two SUVs and one Jeep Wrangler since I arrived. There simply isn't the space: parking spaces are much smaller than in America.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Getting Settled

Classes start tomorrow, and I hope within a week I'll settle in so I won't feel quite so new. I gotta say, though, having a "German buddy" (as they're called) has been a wonderful thing (L, you rock). It helps so much to have someone who knows the language/culture/city, like when we went cell phone-shopping yesterday. Yes, the salespeople understood English, but German helped, plus we're a big group of Americans who have no idea what we're doing.

Being in the far north of Germany, I was dismayed but unsurprised to wake up an overcast sky that just keeps drizzling, the kind of water that makes you damp and miserable. Today's high is a nice warm 14 C (~60 F), ugh. At least I have a hoodie and raincoat; being the paranoid person I am I stalked about five different weather websites while packing to get an idea of what I'd be living in. Compare this to the humidity and 80 F+ temps of back home!

So I'm getting a bit more familiar with things. Germany has a law against most stores being open on Sundays, so I decided to take the bus to the city center and walk around, hoping it wouldn't be too crowded. I was right!
 Except for the gray drizzliness, isn't it beautiful?
 Normally, there's a ton more people, walking and riding bikes (everyone rides bikes here), buses are pulling up left and right, and the shops are open.

I met up with a lady from my group and we decided to explore. We were generally looking for any store open, though we knew it wasn't likely, but mostly we just walked down whichever street looked prettiest, using the churches to guide us back to where we started.
They weren't that hard to miss.

The one we tried  to go into was locked, so perhaps they have early services. I think it would be interesting to go to a service, as they're all Protestant, so I'll stop by during the week. The church off of Am Sande (the city center) has a gift shop/information stop with guides who speak English.
Those arch-y things there? Have the Best Name Ever.

Also, I've been corrupted by my art history class. I'm staring at this thing thinking, "Gothic church? Or Romanesque? Where is my textbook? Hey look, flying buttresses!"

You know what I love is that there are a TON of bakeries here. I got a muffin and chai latter in one (note to self: German chai tastes like mocha), and futilely attempted to the the lady behind the counter to tell me the price in German, not English, because I need the practice. Right now my German has consisted of asking the bus driver how much ("wie viel?") before I had my student pass, the lady at the supermarket how much my croissant cost ("fuenf und fuenfzig"), and a whole lot of excuse-mes ("entschuldigung, entschuldigung").

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Honeymoon Phase

Wow. I've just completed my first full day in Deutschland, and I know that I'm in the honeymoon phase of this thing, but that means that I'm totally enjoying myself. 

I will say that I'm ever grateful that the program provided us detailed instructions on how to get here. I never would've figured out which train ticket at the airport to buy, or that the same ticket would also be valid for the train from Hamburg to Lueneburg.

I regret to say that I have no pictures at this time to post; we had a scavenger hunt around the middle of the city today, and I forgot my camera. I'm definitely going back, though. There are several large churches to explore, two dozen bakeries and cafes, a tea shop and the tourist information center, among other things.

Today was an all-day orientation, so after the hunt and a lunch (complete with minor panic of "All this looks only half-familiar what on earth should I eat?"), we had a quick tour of campus and a four-hour orientation (not a good idea. My body, despite sleeping and waking according to this time zone, is still not fully adjusted and I halfway-dozed off several times), which had a lot of valuable information. They addressed cultural differences, transportation, classes (and how to get there), and most everything else we desperately needed to know.

One of which is: bikes. Basically, everyone walks or bikes around here. For one thing, it's a long and expensive (1000< euro according to one professor) to get a driver's license, and in cities like this the public transport is EXCELLENT. They're all on time, and students ride free. Outside of the buses, bikes are here in abundance, and I need to get/rent one while I'm here. It'll make the trip to the university quicker, and provide me an easy way to store groceries.

Speaking of groceries, a lot are cheap compared to home, even when converting from euros to dollars! I bought a tub of strawberries (would run ~$5 in the US) for euro 1.92 (~$2.80). Two kiwis for euro .22, and chocolate pudding (for dessert!) for .19 (on the other hand, my apple cost me about 75 US cents, so it's not across the board). They're a much-needed sweet to my home-diet at the moment, which consists mainly of gouda cheese and meat (German baloney-ish?) sandwiches, because I want to ask my housemates if there are any rules for the kitchen before I actually commit to buying a lot. Suffice to say I'll have to go shopping tomorrow because most shops aren't open on Sundays.

One other thing: recycling. I already knew about Germany's recycling, in which trash goes into one of like five different containers depending on what it it. What's cool, though, is that there are things where you can return bottles for money. Even the cafeteria had one for coke bottles!


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