Thursday, June 14, 2012

That pesky German language

A frighteningly prolific grammarian friend challenged me to write a blog about German language foibles that irritate me.  It's one of the unexpected perils of being a pedantic expat - as I become more proficient in their language, Germans' own abuses of their native tongue start to grate.

We'll skip over, for the purposes of this rant, my neighbors' use of the dative when genitive is clearly called for, or their consistent conversion of subordinate clauses into main clauses through incorrect verb placement (you don't have to know any German:  just trust me that these are big no-no's).  No, what makes me crazy is the ubiquitous use of English in daily German.

You'd think it would make my life easier, right?  Wrong.  When one studies and sweats and strives to build up a vocabulary, only to discover that the sought-after word is, well, borrowed from one's own mother language - it's enough to drive one to giving up all pretenses and just speaking English to the neighbors with some Michael Fassbinder accent.

But you start to get used to seeing it.  First graders in our school suffer a month's worth of phonetics training setbacks when they finally get to the letter 'c', since the kids are given words like 'Cowboy' and 'Clown' to practice with.  Problem is, all the vowels-sounds in those words (ow and oy) aren't spelled that way in German!  So the poor kids first attempts sound like 'Kovboeee' and 'Klovn'.  It must be admitted, however, that German has adopted those concepts, so the kids already know the (spoken) words.

Then there are the cases of words taken from English and proudly touted as such - but with a different meeting.  'Typ', or 'guy', comes from 'type', but that's not the common meaning of the word.  'Mobbing' means harassment - whether by one person or many, all at once or over a period of time.  The sense of a chaotic unthinking mass of people is gone.  And that a cell or mobile is called a 'Handy' is just a complete abuse.

'Sorry' (pronounced with an infuriatingly soft 'r' sound - Sohhhhrhhheee) and 'Ladies and Gen-tle-men' are heard daily.

Probably my biggest peeve revolved around Germans' tendency to adopt English words when it's really not necessary.  I might be inclined to tolerate the obsessive use of English technology terms:  'Keyboard' instead of 'Tastatur', 'Laptop', the respectably germanized 'simsen' (SMS-ing) and 'texten'.  But 'City' and  (movie) 'Star' both are a bit superfluous, oder?

Gerunds are particularly ripe for the picking:  'meeting' (business usage), 'training', 'peeling' (skin care) - it seems to me there could be perfectly cromulant German words for such things - it's not as if these activities and concepts only became poplar in this country since America and England became cool!

Next time maybe I'll public a polemic about the TShirt industry in this country and the silly things Germans uncomprehendingly put on their bodies.  But now it's time for bed.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

The perils of living near family

I have a very crafty mother-in-law - she has everything Martha Stewart has, except a gazillion bucks and a prison record. One side effect of this, as I found when we moved over here to be near them, was that our house has slowly filled with ceramic pieces (onion keepers, wall art and clocks, for example) and fabric crafts (like all the curtains we have) provided by her.

But eventually you get sick of looking at even curtains made with love. So when the husband found me changing out the curtains in our bedroom, he teased me about daring to throw out something made by the monster-in-law. I replied, 'As much as I like your mother, I can't keep everything she made lying around forever'.

To which he replied, big eyed and lip a-trembling, 'Even me?'


Monday, November 15, 2010

School Daze

Ok, now we have 2 Gymnasia (Gymnasiums? Gymnasien?) checked off. The first is our local 'bilingual' Gymnasium. The second is the 'science' themed school in the city (still to follow: the 'classical languages' school and the 'fine arts' school).

Now, to be fair, all of these Gymnasia have to provide the same basic courses, leading to the series of courses and standardized exams that make up the Arbitur after the 12th grade. But in the lower grades (5-9) each has a extra periods a week around which they can build a theme (such as bilingual instruction or 'Science Plus'), and which can be completed in advanced courses in the upper grades (10-12).

But of course, as your local English-speaking expat, I'm drooling over the chance for my boy to attend the bilingual school, where I hope that the classes, starting in 7th grade, which are taught in English, will bring him along as well. He needs that kick-in-the-pants that only a teacher and course work can provide to get him reading and writing in English (and I checked out those textbooks - they don't look dumbed-down).

But the school is clear on the other side of the city, reachable only via a 30 minute 2-bus trip (or a very understanding taxi-driving mother with time for the round trip). And the other school we visited is only a 12 minute bus trip away, is likely to be the choice of many of his friends, has an excellent reputation too, and has (nail-in-the-coffin) a kick-ass Lego robotics after-school program.

So I'm in a bind here. Even the six-sigma school ranking spreadsheet I worked up can't really be tricked into making the bilingual school the absolute winner. That distance issue is really a killer!

What's a desperate ex-pat to do?

One new question brought up on these visits - both schools touted their connection with certification orgs... will my kids need to get a Cambridge certificate or TOEFL exam grade to prove to people that they can speak English? hmm.

Friday, November 5, 2010

School Days

Now that little A.'s firmly settled into 1st grade, it's time to start prep for P.'s transition to his new school. This is a big step - not only will he spend the next 8-9 years there, but in my darker moments I think it will determine his destiny.

First some background: Germany has traditionally divided its post-primary school school system into 3 tracks: Gymnasium, the highest level whose Abitur certificate is required for college entry (and which goes to grade 12 or 13), Realschule, where the focus is on practical training (and which goes to grade 10, with the possibility thereafter to finish at a Gymnasium), and Hauptschule (main school), whose purpose is to get a basic education into the students. Additionally there are special needs schools as well as continuing ed. schools.

The kids are channeled into one of these schools via a recommendation from their teachers in the 4th grade; in NRW these 'recommendations' are still binding - that is, the parents cannot overrule the recommendation and apply to a higher school.

This system strikes many Germans as less than ideal. Reform is remarkably difficult, though, as anyone whose ever been involved in education can tell you. In recent years the trend has been toward a half-way reform: Gesamtschule, which offer 2 or more of the above tracks. Theoretically, the pupils have mixed classes through 6th grade, at which point they are put into one of the traditional tracks (this eval also happens at that point in the other schools). The advantage is, with the Gesamtschule you don't have to change schools, only class.

In our city (of just over 100,00 people) we have 4 Gymnasium, 2 Gesamtschule, 2 Realschule, and 1 Hauptschule. The Hauptschule are falling out of favor as ever higher standards are set by employers for new hires.

Now, this may seem all very complicated. And it is. But that's only half the story. For once we have the recommendation for our son, we have to apply to an appropriate school. How to choose a school? Well, of course you visit them to find out how much of glowing text from the school's homepage is true. To help us out, all the schools will be having open houses over the next 3 months, during which the kids can even take part in sample classes. Somehow we must get past 'the architectural sins of previous decades' (as one newspaper article put it) to figure out if P. fits there.

Of course I'm asking everyone I know why they picked the school their older children attended. The answers seem to fall into a few categories:
  1. It is closest to home
  2. I/my spouse went there and it was a great place
  3. My child felt most comfortable there
  4. It had the best X program (gift children, special needs, technical, music, etc)
  5. It had the best rep.
Since the school 'diplomas' are standardized here, the meaning of a schools' reputation seems to mean more, how many students learn enough to get the diploma with good grades, versus how much the school's name will help you later to get into a university or get a job.

Now that I've given you a nutshell explanation of the entire German secondary school program, I'll leave you all in suspense until after the first visit: Saturday, to the city's bilingual (German/English) gymnasium. The week after comes parent-teacher conference, where we'll get an unofficial, preliminary, we-ain't-promising-anything hint as to perhaps what kind of a theoretical recommendation our son might possibly receive.

Fingers crossed. For what - that he'll get a certain kind of recommendation? No! That I'll stay sane through this process.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


A busy week for your correspondent.

Tuesday night I had German class. It's my weekly opportunity to shed the feeling of being a foreigner among Germans. Instead I go there for the experience of seeing a German (my teacher, Andrea) among foreigners. It's refreshing. This week took an unexpected twist, when we practiced introducing sarcasm to our speech.

Yes, in the hopes of expanding our ability communicate our teacher is trying to impress on us the importance of mastering gestures, exclamations and even intonation. So we had fun the other night expressing irony and irritation with phrases such as 'Thank you very much' and 'So, you will be visiting us in our office then'.

Little did I know that I would have the chance to use it Wednesday, when 1st grader A. and I were almost run down by an inattentive driver at an intersection on the way home from school. Thank goodness it was me, a hyperactively paranoid mother, in the crosswalk, and not some preoccupied chatting 2nd graders, because it was my booming exclamation of 'Scheiße' (shit) that got the accelerating driver's attention in time.

I turned back to him from the relative safety of the other side of the median line and scolded very loudly 'Perhaps you could pay a bit more attention, please' (in perfect German, I might add). He heard me - his window was open and we made eye contact. It was just dripping with the right intonation of sarcasm - I may have left a puddle of it behind me in the middle of the street. An ancient but spry gentleman, who was crossing the street towards us, looked at me with a nod and said, as the car drove off 'Just so'.

I may master this language yet, if I don't get killed by errant drivers first.

Da Bomb

World War II is still, to the people living around here, a Current Event. Not in the way that your more extreme American Southerner refuses to accept that the Confederacy has fallen. No, folks in the Ruhr River and lower Rhine areas constantly find old unexploded bombs during routine excavations (i.e. for roads, new subways, building cellars).

Since the area where we live is pretty much the heart of heavy industry in Germany, it was bombed pretty heavily during the war. Earlier this year a member of a bomb squad was killed during the removal of one 65-year old bomb. So naturally, the guys who defuse and dispose of these bombs are treated with the same respect that Americans would accord to NYC firefighters.

We've had at least 4 or 5 such discoveries in the area so far this year. The latest, in Duisburg, an (American!) 5-zenter munition, was discovered yesterday at the construction site of a new intersection (on a stretch of road I used to travel regularly). It will require the mandatory evacuation of a 250m (approx. 1/8 mile) radius, and the recommended evacuation of all within a 500m (.3 mile) radius. Luckily this one is located in a relatively developed area; one of the rare agricultural areas tucked amidst the conurbation* that is Duisburg and Düsseldorf. Mostly affected are the 4-legged inhabitants of a riding school. But you can see on the map how close it is to real populations centers!

More on how the bomb perhaps got there: The Bombing of Duisburg

* I like to throw in real English words no one uses, but that Germans think everyone would know.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Out of the mouths of babes....

From the 'Embarrassing things your kids say' department....

Kids always ask why some items allowed to grown-ups aren't allowed to them. Coke - caffeine. Cigarettes - bad for the lungs. Why can't they have a sip of Papa's beer or Mama's wine? Because it will stunt their growth.

So today I attended the farewell mass at Anke's kindergarten - all the departing, new first graders sat up front. The theme was personal growth - all the cool things that are going to happen to the kids in 1st grade. The pastoral minister asked the children why children grow, but grown-ups, like her, don't.

Those how know Anke probably already know this is going to end badly.

Anke immediately stuck up her hand and hazarded the guess (clearly audible to the entire assembly) that perhaps the lady didn't grow anymore was that she drank too much alcohol.

I may not be able to go back to this kindergarten ever again!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The economic crisis

Local communities here are, like governments everywhere, viscously cash strapped. A few examples in the press recently:

The harsh winter almost bankrupted municipalities attempting to keep the streets clear. Not only the cost of overtime labor and fuel for the plows were problems, but simply getting salt to strew on the roads. However, a new problem has surfaced: what to do with all the gravel put down on the streets for traction (in lieu of the more commonly used sand in the States). Special uses for this material are being sought (i.e. so it can be sold!) - otherwise, the cities are stuck with it!

Here in our city, there have been several projects underway for a few years - a new library/cultural center, an expansion to the castle (which is now used as a museum), renovations to schools and gyms. However, admidst the closing of swimming pools and sports facilities, curtailment of festivals, etc, the city has confessed that it might not be able to outfit these new factilities when they are finished. So perhaps no new books for the library, exhibitions for the museum, equipment for the gyms....

Monday, April 19, 2010

North Sea Vacation

Germans are determined vacationers. Enter a German bookstore, and there may be more shelf devoted to travel guides than there will be to all other non-fiction combined. While warm, sunny, seaside space places like Mallorca and Italy feature prominently in the selection, you can't underestimate the German desire to get to sea, without traveling all that far.

Thus I found myself visiting the North Sea over the recent Easter vacation, with the kids, husband and mother-in-law in tow. We stayed in what is knows as a vacation village (Feriendorf), which was set aside by the local municipality for the purpose of building vacation homes (but which are not run as a resort).

Vacation Village
The village was built up like a little town, around a central playground, and contained a grocery, bike rentals, and best of all - an indoor playground to which we got free entry (by virtue of having payed the Spa Tax). Paths throughout were nicely paved - providing a palette for little girls who wanted to create life-sized princesses.

Being on the North Sea, we of course had to visit the Seal Aid Station, where they tried to rehabilitate injured or helpless seals for re-release into the wild. We watched them being fed, and even got to pet one - albeit one long since no longer wild (or even living for that matter).

The Dike
Like the more famous Dutch coast, the German coast is also heavily fortified against the sea with dikes. These are 7 or 8 meter high berms of grass-covered stone and earth, usually further protected from the waves and storms by stone covered paths on the sea side (Anke on the left). The beach (for bathing is allowed in some areas) appears at low tide as a very long, very flat expanse of fine sand, reached by descending stairs to the sand (see Anke escaping the quicksand below) . Being by far the highest spot in the area, you can see forever from the tops of them - Peter and Anke are here visible with a wind turbine farm in the background.

We were there over Good Friday, which is normally very strictly observed with almost all businesses and shops closing, but in spa locations (that's apparently an official designation), they are exempt to some extent from this rule. This is because, since most visitors to the area (who are the primary economic drivers!) come over holidays, the businesses must be open then in order to survive.

In fact, the region impressed me with the determination entire communities showed to draw in tourists. This was a positive thing. In the US, such vacation destinations spring up, it's rather a casual thing, with the free market (with maybe a little help from the gov't) determining what amenities show up. Here it seemed different - whether it was the subsidized bus system to whisk you around, or the multitude of cheap indoor attractions (it was March, after all), it just seemed like the entire affair had been organized to keep the tourists showing up year-round. So, for example, you could visit the indoor activity center in Norden, or rent beach chairs to protect you from the wicked wind (both visible behind the shivering Anke).

The Weather
Why is Anke shivering? Because it was COLD. And because I vastly underestimated the wind. March at the 53rd Latitude isn't balmy or especially sunny. Add to that the bracing wind that was almost constant - remember those wind turbines in the picture above - and you have conditions that make you wonder WHY these pictures show so many other tourists besides us.

The reason: Germans are tough, determined vacationers. No, really. They work hard, and so by God, they are going to have a good time even if it kills them.

The climate in these communities on the North Sea has a reputation as healthy (sea air)- there were numerous Spas and Saunas catering to people who just wanted to relax as well as to those there for a Kur (a sort of German health-vacation). So despite the weather, there was a healthy number of visitors; I can only imagine it in summer when even the casual vacationers show up. My mother-in-law contends that it gets quite hot there, but I can't imagine ever being warm there with that wind! And even in front of a beach, there is still the fortified walkway (see the kids balancing on the wave-breaking stones), just to keep the beach there!

But on the day you see in these pictures, it was relatively sunny, so despite the risk of chilblains Uschi (the mother-in-law) & I decided to take the children for ice cream. This is another thing about Germans you must understand: They are tough, determined ice cream eaters. Any time is good for ice cream, and as long as it's sunny, they will risk losing toes in order to enjoy their ice cream outside. I respect this, but Uschi and I still decided to sample a local specialty: Grog. That's the kind of Kur you need in that weather.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Slowing tickets

One aspect of life in Germany that's always fascinated me is their relationship with the automobile.

Americans have this image of Germans as being very conscientious rules-followers. This is definitely not true when it comes to driving, probably as it deals with autos, which are stand high next to beer and soccer in the German pantheon. Speed limits are routinely ignored, especially in areas the driver knows well (and is therefore well acquainted with the permanent speed cameras).

However, the transgressions usually involve SPEEDING.

It's been a tough winter here - for the lower Rhine, that is. One or two 4-inch snow falls, many nasty little dustings, during which you can't decide whether the broom or shovel is called for. They, and the unaccustomed frost-freeze cycle this winter, have left the roads around here full of Peugot-swallowing ruts.

So a local bus driver was very surprised when he was pulled over in his private car, for 'slowing'. Driving 25 kmh (15) in a 50 (30 mph) zone. Because of the pot holes.

After his complaints to the press, the police dropped the fine. But he's not letting it go... after all, the city wouldn't pay for damage to his car, but want to fine him actually helping conserve the roads...

I love this country.