A fitting German expression

Written Friday, July 31:

Tomorrow morning we hand over the keys to our apartment here in Berlin. We’ll spend our last night with my conversation partner and her boyfriend, and they will drive us to the airport at the crack of dawn on Sunday. Aaron and I are unable to grasp the massive change that’s charging towards us. I can’t believe I’m giving up my home here and heading back to a totally other life.

Our friends here in Berlin invariably ask us how we feel about leaving Germany. Finally one of them told me a German expression that encapsulates this feeling: Ich habe ein weinendes und ein lachendes Auge. (One eye is crying, one eye is laughing.) I hate moving and I hate leaving behind all the friends and places we’ve grown to love here. Every time I move, I think enviously of people whose lives never take them far beyond their hometown. I imagine pulling together all the people I care about and making a cozy village of them. But for all the pain of leaving and then missing people dear to me, I am grateful that I got to come here and find them all in the first place.


Three things you’ll be happy to know

  1. A new and delightful utensil

The heat ducked into the mid 80s on Tuesday, and I took advantage of the reprieve to meet up with my friend Verity. We ordered Eisschokolade at a sidewalk café. The first lovely development was that Eisschokolade turns out to be a chocolate milkshake! I thought my day was already made, but it got even better. The accompanying utensil to aid in the slurping of the milkshake was a silverware epiphany. It was a spoon with a straw for a handle. You can suck your milkshake right through the handle of your spoon! A bit of internet research showed me that this product is readily available. How have I missed it up to now?

photo courtesy of kitchenniche.ca

2. Special for wordophiles

Recently my M-W Word of the Day was “struthious.” It sounds like something Stephen Colbert would have made up. Instead, it means, “like an ostrich.” I don’t know about you, but I can’t count the times I’ve wanted to describe something as ostrich-like. Aside from its excellent definition, struthious is very fun to say. Beware, all my tall, bulbous, and pea-brained friends. You know what I’m thinking about you….

Bonus interesting ostrich words info. In German, an ostrich is a Strauss, which is also the word for bouquet. And finally, a question. Why struthious instead of struthine? Almost all the animal descriptors I know are –ines. Bovine, ovine, ursine, porcine, canine, feline, vulpine, lupine, leonine, aquiline, cosine. Gotcha!

3. A Belarusian superstition

Yesterday I went to the public pool with my friend Oksana. Oksana comes from Belarus and this week, a friend from home is visiting her. Oksana’s friend’s name is…Oksana. So, Oksana, Oksana, and I went to the pool together. On the stroll from the S-Bahn station, I found myself walking between the two Oksanas. The visiting Oksana said, “Oh, you’re walking between two people with the same name. That means you get to make a wish!”

Bonus interesting German public pool info. In Berlin, you are allowed to run on the pool deck, and even through the baby pool. You are allowed to have chicken fights. You may go off the diving board at will, without waiting for the lifeguard to tell you the way is clear, which is a good thing because the lifeguard is eating his lunch in his chair. There is NO safety break! I waited all afternoon for the rivers of head wound blood that would soon stream into the water from all the incredibly dangerous activities going on. Remarkably not a single person suffered egregious injury. I admired another feature of the German public pool which I think we should import. Entry to the pool area is controlled by fences and bushes and such. There are only a few access points and these are all foot baths. You have to walk through a little pool of water in order to get to the swimming pool. This means that your feet are clean and refreshed when you dive in.

I’ve never been so hot in my entire life

I’m so hot I can’t even appreciate it when my sweet husband responds to my complaint with a leering “I’ll say.” I know you people in the U.S. are suffering your own heat wave, and growing up in humid Nebraska, I’m no stranger to sweltering weather. But I have never grappled with heat as I have here in 100 degree, unairconditioned Berlin. It’s so hot that the ice cubes Aaron traces around my neck don’t even feel cold, and it’s so further hot that such ice cube shenanigans hold not a tinge of romance. When we make salad for dinner (and what else can we eat? We can’t handle anything approaching room temperature, which is at least  85) the best part is washing the lettuce leaves and then shaking them at each other so the droplets spatter cooly on our blazing bodies. We have frozen all our fruit and eat it slowly straight from the freezer. I, who thrive on light, have drawn the curtains with my own hands.

Worst of all is the utter hopelessness. The heat feels all the hotter because there is no escape. We’ve hardly found a single spot with air conditioning. (I bet the movie theatre is an exception and I plan to see whatever is showing over the next few days.) The museums are hot, the cafes are hot, the shops are hot. As we listlessly collect our groceries, we Berliners accumulate around the refrigerated sections. Suddenly the decision on yogurt flavors definitely requires long minutes of consideration.

Even at tae kwon do, we practice in our unairconditioned studio, and we keep the windows shut because the Germans think that wind blowing on sweaty skin will cause chills and lead to sickness. What would I give for chills?

I have been not-too-hot three times in the last two weeks. Once my tae kwon do friend invited me to Wannsee, a big lake south of Berlin, for her birthday swim. The water was warm, but refreshing.

photo by Franzi

Next, I visited the Badeschiff, a swimming pool plunked right into the middle of the Spree River. And I can tell you, in this weather you absolutely do need a pool in a river to insulate yourself from the heat.

Finally, we found air conditioning at the theatre where we attended the long-running Berlin musical Linie 1 with our friends Claudia and Justus. Here’s my favorite song: “Du sitzt mir gegenuber” (You sit across from me), about howwe’re all strangers on the subway wondering about each other’s lives but we never speak to each other. The choreography was also really cute.

And that’s it. Then we walked home through the steaming night to lie sleepless in our sheetless bed, windows flung wide to the breezeless night.

Up, up, up the ziggurat

We have a few hours before the big semi-final against Spain, so I will distract myself from the anticipation hanging heavy in the air over Berlin with a thematic post on our recent trips. Today’s theme is: Things We Climbed.

If I ever come to visit you (a likely infliction for you, since I will happily travel to anywhere) please take me up your nearest climable item – a church, a hill, a tower…. Two things appeal to me about climbing to the top of things: the climbing and the top. Poor Aaron suffers through my mania for striding up and up and up. For inexplicable reasons, I take great pleasure in the physical act of climbing. Sometimes these tall ventures make you take the elevator, but I always choose the stairs where possible. I guess I feel more accomplished and more enmeshed in the experience if I can feel my own leg muscles conquering. Then after the journey, I love to be at the top and look down over wherever I’m visiting and see to the horizon.

Our clambors in Italy began at St. Peter’s Basilica. As in most places in Italy, we were never out of hearing distance of someone’s English, Spanish, or German speaking tour guide, so we always knew more or less the official highlights of wherever we were going. On the trek up to the top of St. Peter’s, I was mesmerized by the exquisite calf muscles of the tour guide in front of us. Clearly she makes this climb regularly. At St. Peter’s you first get a view of the inside of the church from the walkway inside the dome.


We're so high! And the marble floor is incredible!


Then you get to see all of Rome, including the snaking line that somehow grew to incredible, shadeless lengths after you waltzed through security in minutes. We could see the Pope’s private residence, the Tiber river, and the seven hills of Rome.


St. Peter's courtyard. All those tiny dots around the rim are people waiting in the sun.



In Siena, we went straight to the top of the bell tower attached to town hall.


Aaron says, "Climbing stairs is fun!"


Each building has its own idiosyncratic rules about climbing. Here, for instance, you are only allowed to bring your camera, not your backpack, water bottle, or even camera case. Just the camera. Aaron and I got special permission to retain our hats only because they have straps that keep them from blowing off in the wind. The top showed us the lovely central Campo and the full extent of the medieval town.

We got another view from the loge of the town hall. Aside: The vocabulary of travelling in Italy challenged me. Our guidebook said things like: “Do not miss the view from the Loge.” But what is a loge? This word came up again and again. At the cathedral in Siena, the sign at the door said, “Buy your tickets at the Loggia.” What is a loggia, and where might it be? In this case, it was behind the church. Without bothering to look it up, I have decided that a loggia is basically a covered porch. But this vocabulary problem persisted. “Look in the transept for this,” “the brackets Michelangelo designed here are particularly striking,” “Remarkably, there are no vaults supporting this dome.” Transept? Brackets? Vaults? What am I supposed to be appreciating here?

But back to the climbing. We spent a perfect evening eating sandwiches and drinking wine on the hill overlooking Florence.


Ponte Vecchio over the Arno


We climbed the dome of the Florence cathedral, notable for it’s single-file, but two-way traffic pattern. I almost died of claustrophobia on the way down, waiting in the dark, cramped space between the outer and inner domes for the file of upward climbers to end so that we could continue down.


No problem, I can walk like a parenthesis.


In Budapest, we climbed St. Stephen’s church,


Our guidebook photographer also climbed this dome.


and the two hills in Buda allowing us to look back across the Danube to Pest.

Happy Birthday, USA!

But more importantly here in Deutschland, we’re headed for the World Cup semi-final! Yesterday, we crushed Argetina 4-0, thanks largely to the heavy-duty cheering coming from our corner pub. My friend Claudia captured our enthusiastic transformation into true Germans in this masterful collage:

Two delighted Germans

We face Spain on Wednesday. I can hardly wait!

World Cup world

This afternoon, Germany faces Argentina in the Fuβballweltmeisterschaft quarterfinal. I am going native for the occasion. Even though Aaron and I feel very fondly about Argentina after our month-long adventure there years ago, we are committed to rooting for Germany like true Berliners. In the quarterfinals, we routed England 4-1. Aaron and I sat demurely at home, but we could follow the game by the whooping that filled the city with every German goal.

The World Cup has transformed Berlin. Many apartments have put out flags, car owners bedeck their vehicles with black, red, and yellow. Every café has a big tv, preferable outdoors, to screen every game. If I didn’t know better, I’d expect some muting of today’s festivities given the 40+ (100 F) temperatures expected. I will update this evening with the results and photos of Berlin gone World Cup Wild.

A German job

I have stumbled across the best way to learn German yet. Not German classes, Tae Kwon Do classes auf Deutsch, not even speaking German with my conversation partner. No, yesterday I began tutoring a Berliner in beginning English and I certainly learned more German than he did English.

My new job came about accidentally. I never meant to become employed, but one thing led to another, and at each step I thought I should accept a new and interesting German experience. Now, I’m frighteningly far over my head. But, let’s begin at the beginning.

One of our friends here works for an after-school tutoring program, and he referred me to them as a possible English tutor. So, when the head of the program called me and asked to schedule an interview, I thought, “I have nothing to lose. Wow, a German interview. Won’t that be interesting.” I assumed the interview would be in English, because wouldn’t they want to check that I really could teach English?

So, I dug out some presentable clothes and my dictionary and set out for AHA Nachhilfe. To my surprise, the interviewer conducted the whole thing in German, which luckily involved only minimal contributions from me. Because I came recommended, he was ready to sign me up unproven.

We spent most of the interview going over the one-page contract. My interviewer, Olaf (though this was a strictly formal situation. I was Frau Ashley and he was Herr Something-I-didn’t-catch) carefully broke down each of the legalistic points on the contract with examples about the imaginary student Fritzchen. “Say Fritzchen wants to buy more hours of tutoring. He can’t buy them from you directly. You need to refer him back to us first.” “Say you have an appointment with Fritzchen, but when you get to his house, he’s not home. You still get paid because he didn’t cancel with enough notice.” All pretty familiar, logical stuff. Then we got to the penultimate point.

“And you can’t be a Scientologist.”

I must have pulled quite a surprised face because Olaf got sort of nervous.

“Is that a problem?
“Well,” I answered, “I’m not a Scientologist, but that’s a weird thing to put in your contract.” (Tact is beyond my German skill level.)

He told me that several years ago there was a scandal in Germany because a handful of Scientologists working as afterschool tutors had been nefariously incorporating Scientology into their lessons, indoctrinating their defenseless students. So many tutoring programs added this point forbidding Scientologists from working for them. I nodded as if I understood, but I still think that’s odd. Wouldn’t it be more effective and to the point to ban proselytizing, rather than banning people who share a belief system with some other people who once proselytized? Anyway, I was only in this for the interesting experience. I decided to ignore my civil rights qualms.

Contract signed, we proceeded to chit chat. Olaf wanted to known whether I understood and would be able to work with a student learning British English. I explained that while I speak English with an American accent, I still understand British and am familiar with many of the vocabulary differences. I even know that the Brits think collective nouns like “team” or “class” are plural. Crazy.

Then he asked what kind of English Barack Obama spoke.

“He sounds just like me,” I said.

Olaf looked skeptical, and complimented me on my president’s good grasp of his own language. I can’t imagine any of this happening in the U.S. We have such a different sensibility of what is appropriate and what might be offensive. Even after nine months, I haven’t gotten used to this total naivete about what in America would be considered standard sensitivity to diversity.

The interview ended successfully. I was officially hired. But Olaf warned me that I probably wouldn’t get any students because school is out for the summer. So I was surprised to hear from him the next week regarding Pierre, an adult who wanted to prepare himself with “technical English” for going back to school in September.

Yesterday I had my first meeting with Pierre. I attempted to begin our session in English, but Pierre begged me to switch to German. He wasn’t ready for “Hello. How are you?” I had only brought some intermediate lesson books with me, so started with the review section on simple present tense. I needed to translate each sentence in the exercises. Grammar exercises include some very odd word choices. So, I tried to say the sentences in German. Then Pierre got the idea, and he said the sentences in proper German (which was very helpful to me!). Then we attempted the English. This is certainly my most challenging undertaking yet.