Tschüss!

Wow, where did eight weeks go? As I write this, I’m sitting in my backyard back in San Diego, California. Instead of the sounds of pedestrians, cyclists, and the Straßenbahn (street trolley) down the block, I hear crickets, the pool pump, and the occasional car going down the street.

Leaving Germany

I was surprisingly sad to leave Germany. Not that I didn’t enjoy my time there, but I’d thought that eight weeks would last a lot longer than they did. The sudden arrival of my last day took me by surprise.

On my last day, I took the U-bahn and Straßenbahns as often as I could, knowing I’d miss them. I visited the five-story bookstore on Königsallee one last time. I grabbed a final ice cream at a street cafe with a few friends.

I gave crocheted presents to my classmates. Maybe I was going home, but these small works of my hands would stay with my friends – and later travel with them back to their homelands.

Finally, I went to a German-Japanese Stammtisch with one of my Japanese classmates. We gathered at the Japanese Garden in the Nordpark for a picnic and view of the lunar eclipse. I met a very interesting German gentleman who spoke inspiringly proficient Japanese, but with a very distinct Kansai accent. まだ足りない, he said. “Still not [good] enough.” Coming from someone much more proficient than I, his words were both comforting and discouraging.

We also met the same German gentleman I’d spoken with at the cat cafe. My classmate and I chatted with him about Germany, Japan, America, and many other topics as we waited for the lunar eclipse.

Finally we found the moon. It was red and incredibly dim. It looked kind of sad, just as I was to be leaving Germany and so many newfound friends.

Coming Home

On Saturday morning, I turned in my keys and lugged my suitcase down the four flights of stairs. I took my last U-bahn to the Hauptbahnhof and said goodbye to Düsseldorf from Platform 15 as I waited for my ICE train to arrive.

I took the train to the Frankfurt Airport, where I had a hectic time getting through all the extra (literal) steps required to check in, find the correct security checkpoint, and reach my gate. Next was a nine-hour flight to Portland, Oregon. The in-flight meal was a last nod to Germany: a sausage and a mini pretzel with a generous amount of mustard.

Finally I arrived in Portland. I was back in the USA! As sad as I’d been to leave Germany, it felt like a huge breath of fresh air to be back in my home country. The people at passport control aren’t asking me to prove why I am here and how long I will stay. I am a citizen, I belong here. The airport staff expect to speak English, and will not look down on me for speaking in English. They are mostly friendly, but even the grumpy ones are grumpy in my mother tongue, and if they choose to be snarky with me I know how to respond. (I am not at all trying to imply that customer service in Germany is usually condescending or grumpy. But when it is, it’s twice as stressful because it’s unfamiliar.)

A four-hour layover and three-hour flight later, I was back in San Diego. I walked down the same hallway and went down the same escalator as always to the baggage claim in Terminal 2. And as per tradition, when my family picked me up we went straight to In-N-Out for protein-style Double-Double cheeseburgers with whole-grilled onions and no tomato.

How’s my Deutsch?

I’d been thinking for a while about how I could directly show my progress in German. I’d considered writing a blog post in German, but that isn’t really edifying for non-speakers of German. Instead, I made a video with some last thoughts about Germany in order to record me speaking German somewhat spontaneously. It’s not an incredibly cohesive or comprehensive conclusion, and it’s full of mistakes, but it also shows how far I’ve come from the beginning of my eight weeks in D’dorf. When you only learn a little bit day-by-day, it’s often hard to see progress. But hopefully someday I’ll be able to come back to this video and think, “Wow, my German has gotten a lot better since then.”

(Click the CC button in the lower right-hand corner to turn on English subtitles.)

Thanks for following my German learning adventures! Hopefully it won’t be too long until my next visit there.

Tschüss!

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HighLights from High Places

I spent a lot of time this week far off the ground.

Rheinturm

On Monday I visited the Rheinturm, the tallest building in Düsseldorf at around 170 meters. At the top was a 360 degree observation deck, from which I enjoyed the beautiful view of Düsseldorf from above at sunset.

Düsseldorf Kirmes

On Friday I experienced a jam-packed train for the first time on the way to the Düsseldorf carnival on the Rhein. A classmate and I treated ourselves to some fleeting aerial views of the city from the high spinning carousel and one of the pendulum rides. Our other two companions enjoyed some more leisurely views from the Ferris wheel. Not long after dark we sat down together to watch the big firework show marking the end of the carnival’s run.

The Unforgettable Kölner Lichter

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Saturday’s adventure was perhaps my most memorable in Germany so far.

I went on an IIK-excursion to Köln, Düsseldorf’s rival city to the south. After taking in the city from above from the Köln Triangle Panorama, we split into groups of four to play a sort of tourist scavenger hunt around the city. The hints, of course, were all in German. For the most part, we relied on our reading and inference abilities, but when we got stuck we asked passerby for guidance. After the game, we relaxed in one of Köln’s many bars as some students tried Kölsch, the city’s famous beer. Then we had some free time to explore the city.

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“Linner”. This is about the size of a whole pizza at the UAH cafeteria.

My teammates consisted of a friendly curly-haired teacher from Spain, a young cardiologist from Turkey, and an enthusiastic gentleman from Finland with a deep booming voice. After touring the famous city cathedral, we conversed over pizza in a sidewalk cafe. It was quite interesting hearing the differences in communication style between German learners with very different mother tongues. For example, the lady from Turkey sometimes sprinkled in English verbs, conjugated as if they were German. Our Spanish teammate had a relatively strong accent and made frequent grammatical errors, but she got her point across every single time and understood everything that other people said to her. In contrast, Carry, our Finlander, spoke quickly but frequently backtracked in the middle of his sentences to correct small errors. And me? Like Carry, I tend to be a little bit perfectionistic with my grammar. Unlike Carry, however, I tend to wait until a sentence – or at least a full phrase – is fully articulated in my brain before I speak, resulting in the occasional long pause.  Since these pauses aren’t as conducive to a flowing conversation, I’ve been striving to be a little bit more like Carry and let the words flow knowing I can correct them if needed.

At about 8:00 we claimed seats on the grass near the river before it grew too packed. People from all over Germany had come to see the famous Kölner Lichter.

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Then we waited for over three hours, since the show wasn’t until 11:30. I finished crocheting the cowl that I’d started on the train. By this time, I was tired from rushing around and being on my feet all day, and it wasn’t very comfortable sitting in the grass. Was this firework show going to be worth it? I’d seen fireworks yesterday.

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Usually I’m not even a huge fan of fireworks. A bunch of noisy red and blue splatters that leave behind giant trails of smoke like scars in the sky. But once the show finally started, I’d forgotten all my tiredness and aching and was happy I’d come.

There were five rounds of fireworks, each representing a different era and style of painting. There was a narrated introduction for each.

As the narrator said over the booming speakers, the fireworks were like paintings in the sky. Dynamic, transient paintings, with vivid brushstrokes sweeping across the sky, bursting, swirling, falling, and finally fading.

This show wasn’t some extravagant splashing of colors across the sky; there was intention behind every detail. Each color earned its place, and each little spark of fire rose, bloomed, and faded in a different way. The music was not simply an amplification of the rhythm of explosive sound but a beautiful auditory accompaniment that complemented and supported the imagery of the fireworks.

I didn’t get any good pictures of the fireworks. The packed sea of people and my dying phone battery made taking photos rather infeasible. But even if I had, I don’t think photos or even videos could do the lights justice.

Südpark Pictures and Goals Update

Finally, some of my favorite pictures from Düsseldorf’s Südpark! It’s a generous piece of land with everything one could want from a park: open space for picnics and lawn games, paved paths for cycling and jogging, plenty of shade trees, luscious green paths, assorted mini-gardens, a lily pond, and even a petting zoo and an ice cream stand. Who could ask for more?

A quick update on my goals:

3 random interactions in German per day: success

I can’t say whether I’ve been hitting three per day or not, but I definitely got in lots of German conversation time this week. Here are some of the more notable ones:

  • On an IIK outing to the Schiffahrtsmuseum, I chatted with the German guide while waiting outside and also with fellow German students during the tour.
  • I went to a weekly Tuesday language cafe for students of German and Spanish and chatted more afterwards while watching the France vs. Belgium soccer game.
  • On Thursday I went to a different speaking practice meeting.
  • Google Maps lied to me and I could not find the entrance to the doctor’s office, so I asked someone on the street. We had a 2-3 minute conversation, admittedly short, but I spoke smoothly without hesitation, answered her questions coherently without long pauses, and successfully maintained the formal register throughout the conversation. I didn’t need to ask her to repeat herself, she didn’t ask me to repeat myself, and she didn’t ask me if it would be better to speak in English. It was one of my best successes in spontaneous conversation so far. And yes, I found the doctor’s office!
  • I chatted with a German teacher and her boyfriend at the IIK party on Friday night.

Read 15 minutes a day in German: fail

I must confess that I haven’t picked up my German book once since I made this goal. Since my July class has been very vocabulary-focused, I’ve been a little bit overwhelmed with new words lately. But reading more would definitely help me cement more of the new vocabulary into my brain, so I’d like to focus on this goal more this week. Since just saying “15 minutes a day” didn’t work, I’ll set aside a specific time: every day right before lunchtime, I’ll read for at least fifteen minutes in German.

I also need to remind myself that I don’t have to limit myself to the one book I have on hand at the moment. I can also go to the giant bookstore and read in one of the comfy lounge chairs for a while, or I can read articles, news, and web comics online.

New goal: journal in German

In my weekly Thursday German practice, the organizers always start off with an open-ended question such as “What do you consider art? What kind of art do you like to consume? What kinds of art, if any, do you produce?” My limited vocabulary usually prevents me from answering these questions as thoroughly as I’d like, which often leaves me a little bit frustrated. It’s a good frustration though, since it’s pushing me to improve my ability to speak on these kinds of subjects.

In order to do so, I’d like to start writing a little bit every day in German. Instead of just writing letters and fictional stories for class assignments, I think I need to also write about more personal subjects. This will arm me with personally relevant vocabulary and  prepare me to better express myself in conversation.

To make things concrete: I’d like to write at least one page a day on a personal topic in German. Topics can include personal experiences, plans, thoughts on a book/television show/news article, etc.

I’ve got two weeks left in Düsseldorf. Let’s see how they go!

はい、いや、 ja: the juggling of words

You might have noticed that my latest post (here) doesn’t feature much German. In fact, it’s more about Japanese. What’s up with that? After coming all this way to Germany to learn German, why do I find myself talking Japanese so often?

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself lately. I’ve been going out with Japanese classmates and chatting with them in Japanese. Last Saturday, the highlight of my day was finding a pair of Japanese books. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these things, but shouldn’t I be absorbing as much German as possible while I have the opportunity?

I was feeling guilty about this last week.

Then I realized something. A big part of the reason I’ve attained some level of proficiency in Japanese is the fact that I incorporated the language into my daily life. Even when I’m not actively studying it, I still use it when I read novels or listen to music in my free time. So it’s natural that I’m continuing to use the language. And why would I regret making friends with classmates from Japan? Connecting with people from around the world is one of my greatest motivations for learning languages. The opportunity to use both German and Japanese to do so is a bonus, not a drawback.

After thinking about it some more, I also realized that I do use a fair amount of German in my daily routine. I use much of my time outside of class exploring the city, which includes the occasional interaction with strangers on the bus or in the park. I’ve been reading a German graphic novel and watching German television in my down time. And I’ve been attending meetings for German speaking practice multiple times per week. Perhaps I don’t need to be so hard on myself.

On Friday, I was given another reminder that time spent on one language need not exclude my interest in the other. I went to a Japanese-German Stammtisch, or common table, at a cat cafe just a few blocks away from my residence. I had a pleasant conversation – all in German – with a Japanese expat and an older German gentleman who used to live in Japan. We spoke about language learning, Japanese novels, and compared notes on our perceived difficulty levels of English, German, and Japanese. It was especially enjoyable because I wasn’t speaking German just for the sake of practicing. I was having a conversation with people who shared similar interests, and the communication just happened to be in German.

The Halfway Mark

It’s been four weeks in Germany, which means I’m halfway through my stay! I think now is a good time to assess my progress and write down some new goals.

Things I can do that I couldn’t four weeks ago:

  • produce the different declensions of articles and adjectives almost automatically
  • converse more smoothly in German using conversational filler words
  • understand the meaning of certain new-to-me words by understanding their parts
  • read and understand a German graphic novel without a dictionary
  • watch German television and understand a significant amount without a dictionary
  • bag my groceries at Aldi within seconds before the very efficient cashier starts glaring at me
  • use the tram/u-bahn maps and schedules
  • know which side of the road has the correct bus stop
  • transition quickly from speaking German to Japanese and vice versa
  • think/talk to myself spontaneously in German (sometimes)

Goals for the time remaining:

  • read at least half an hour per day in German outside of class
  • 3 or more spontaneous interactions/mini conversations per day in German

Tomorrow I begin my second four-week course at the language school and my last four weeks of summer in Düsseldorf. Here’s to more adventures and language progress!