“Misuse of the lavatories will be punished” heard on Deutsche Bahn train from Austria

Stuff you don’t want to hear as a visitor on a foreign train:

Misuse of the lavatories will be punished!

img_7012This was heard aboard the Intercity (IC 118) train from Austria to Germany.

Further statements by the conductor made it clear his admonition was regarding violations of the smoking policy on board the train (i.e., No Smoking, not even while hiding in the WC.)

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Intercity First Class compartment on IC118 train from Austria to Germany in 2018

I will admit that I was a bit nervous before he clarified. One assumes one’s restroom behavior is similar to that of others, but, after all, it isn’t something easily brought up in conversation with one’s compartment mates whose native language and culture differs from one’s own.

Though the finer nuances of European international relations are beyond me, it seemed clear that the German conductor, upon taking over after the border crossing, was speaking specifically to Austrians on board.

I’m guessing he did so because Austria’s national attitude toward public smoking lags so far behind that of most modern states, but it might just be because the Germans are more strict about rule enforcement than the smaller nation sharing its language and a border to the south. Or maybe Germans just have a thing about bossing Austrians around?
As a tourist, I simply followed every rule as carefully as I could and took special care not to get up to any hijinks in the lavatories. One thing I definitely don’t want to experience of another culture is how they punish people on trains!

Prevalent smoking should, perhaps, keep you from visiting Austria

Austria is a lovely place to visit. It has gorgeous scenery, world class art and architecture to enjoy, and a population that generally struck me as warm and welcoming.

img_0895Bilingual acquaintances from the German language learning camp in Minnesota we attended told us that we would be given more opportunity to practice our speaking skills in Austria when compared with Germany. I found this to be true.

Austrians were, as a rule, friendly and helpful. They really didn’t immediately switch to English when they heard my attempts to speak deutsch. (Germans generally do, in my experience. And, yes, their English is better than my German, almost to the man, and woman, and very small child...)

 

Perhaps the one overriding negative experienced by an American tourist in Österreich—if the language barrier is a benefit to you as it is to me, as opposed to a real barrier—is the constant exposure to second hand smoke.

img_1055.jpgI’m old enough to remember the bad old days of smoking sections in the closed compartment of an airplane, though, thankfully, those disappeared before I began flying several times per year to attend college. Smoky bars and restaurants where I wouldn’t go with my friends due to air pollution were a real issue well into my young adulthood.

Being in Austria is like being transported into the past in this regard. It took me several days to adjust. Young people in the USA today probably don’t have the adaptive response to scope out a cafe before taking a seat lest one inadvertently land in the stinking smoking section.

Though there was some Austrian legislation enacted in recent years to create separate smoking and non-smoking sections in restaurants, I still experienced unpleasantly smoky interiors several times during my trip.

Worse yet, it seems that Austrians don’t feel a need to segregate outdoor space for both smokers and non-smokers in any way. Some of us are sensitive enough that, no, even being seated the great outdoors is not enough to make it okay to sit at a table adjacent to or downwind from an active smoker.

My eyes water, and I start to cough. It’s not posturing; the smoke simply does affect me that quickly. My tearing eyes swelling shut and the irritation in my throat make me look around for the source, not the other way around.

Worse yet, because smoking is taken so much for granted in Austria, newcomers into a restaurant or onto a terrace who plan to smoke don’t think to take seats at a maximum distance from non-smokers who are already there. Try though I did to sit “far away” from all the smokers in otherwise lovely cafes, I was constantly being smoked out by new arrivals in Austria.

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These polite Austrian smokers sat at the stern of our pleasure cruise ship on the Danube, but the entire open top deck stank of cigar smoke from one man sitting forward at the bow

I gather that the xenophobic right wing government* currently in power is working to defend the rights of smokers even more violently valiantly in Austria. What a tragedy for the health of Austria’s citizens. Because, while I am easily swayed by libertarian arguments on many issues, smoking is simply not the same as free thought or speech.

The smoker has at least the option of a filter between himself and the known carcinogen he opts to ignite and inhale; standing nearby, my right to breathe freely is stolen from me.

Smoking in public places fundamentally infringes on the health and safety of others in the space. There are few other vices so directly malevolent to the public good.

Heavy drinker? While you could overindulge and vomit onto my shoes, you may be a quiet, maudlin drunk and not affect me at all. There is no equivalent for smokers. Anyone in the presence of a lit cigarette is being affected; the only remedy is to leave.

When someone invents the “smoker’s spacesuit” that operates with complete isolation of its user’s air supply and exhaust, there will be room to discuss the rights of smokers to light up in crowded public spaces.

I acknowledge your right to smoke, but I’d say the responsibility you shoulder when exercising that right is to maintain a great distance between yourself and others while you do so. The fact that you can no longer smell smoke from a few feet away is a part of the burden you’ve elected to carry with your habit; healthy people can be negatively affected at a dozen feet or more.

I was charmed by many kind, witty, thoughtful Austrians whom I encountered there. It was otherwise a wonderful place to visit, and there are many sights around the country I’d love to come back to see. Until a more modern and health-conscious public smoking policy has been enacted, however, I will probably stay away, and I would most certainly never take my asthmatic child to such a dangerous place.

Schade. What a shame.

*Self styled as the “Freedom Party,” though formed by former Nazi party members after WWII. Once again, do we see the same party harming others to grant themselves more freedom to enjoy their own lives?

A NY Times article I read while writing this post goes into more details of the political situation.

Just enough German to be paranoid: hören vs. gehören

Sometimes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

I’ve “been studyingGerman for over 20 years!

But, of course, that misleading statement represents one academic year of university courses in the language, then a decade’s gap, and eventually picking it up again as an autodidactic hobby when one of my kids started to study German in school.

Ich verstehe nur ein biβchen Deutsch.I don’t know where I stand as far as the state sanctioned “level” of my ability to understand the language, but I am almost finished with the Pimsleur Level II audio course.

PimsleurI think my official designation is probably something like “rank amateur,” or “what’s lower than A1?”

Case in point: I was researching a future trip and using the Wiener Linien website to download a PDF map of the public transit system. I found this tag line printed on the bottom of each map:

Die Stadt gehört Dir.

Die Stadt gehoert DirThis gave me pause. The more learned amongst you can chuckle knowledgeably while reading through my thought processes in the rest of this post.

I’m quite clear on what “Die Stadt” means. Die Stadt*is “the city.”

FlashSticks German deployed1

Die Lego Stadt, or Lego City

“Dir” is the second person informalpronoun for “you.” It’s used when the word “you” is the indirect object in a sentence.

I frequently make mistakes about when to use the accusative and dative cases as I create (i.e., speak) my own sentences, but I always know who we’re taking about when I hear du, dich, or dir.

German pronounsIt was the verb that confused my weak grasp of the German language.

I know the verb hören pretty well. It means “to hear.”

verb conjugation hoeren

Naturally, I leapt to the conclusion that the Vienna transit authority was telling me:

The city hears you.

Or, giving it a creepier meaning, because I’m a bit paranoid:

The city is listening to you.

Even that might be a well-intentioned statement. My son also misread the sentencemaking the same mistake that I did. He thought Wiener Linien was indicating a customer service orientation with the same language I associated with eavesdropping.

Perhaps I’m the only one whose thoughts turn immediately to Big Brother in 1984 and “his” perpetual observation of the hapless citizens in that dystopian classic?

Google translateMy friend, Google translate, taught me the error of my ways. In fact, Wiener Linien would like me to know that:

The city belongs to you.

That’s so much better, right? Especially if I’m just visiting as a tourist. I mean, how generous, but, really, Vienna, you needn’t go to so much trouble!…

The verb that is actually being used in this sentence is gehören. I should probably learn it. “To belong to [someone]” is an incredibly helpful thing to be able to say when traveling.

I recognize that I am easily tricked by German verbs that begin, in the present tense, with “ge-“ because of how the past perfect (Perfekt) tense is formed. I.e., usually, by adding “ge—” and doing some other stuff to the end based upon rules I’ve read but not memorized.

Please consult someone who actually knows German instead of trying to learn any grammar specifics here. Otherwise, you, too, could frighten yourself as to the actually well meaning intentions of public transit authorities in German speaking countries.

A little knowledge clearly is a dangerous thing. Which somehow forces me to conclude with “the rest is commentarynow go study!

*Stadt being a false friend for the English word “state,” but clearly a related word in the sense of historical precedents such as the Greek “city-state” concept.

My apologies to Maimonides.

Books by my bedside 2018/04/18

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least make a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

books library German Europe - 1

library shelf 2018 April

Non-Fiction

Culture & Geography

The Alps: a human history from Hannibal to Heidi and beyond by O’Shea, Stephen

Austria (juvenile non-fiction) by Sheehan, Sean

Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands (juvenile non-fiction) by Needham, Ed

Europe by Eurail 2018 by Ferguson-Kosinski, LaVerne

Germany (juvenile non-fiction) by Coddington, Andrew

Let’s Visit Liechtenstein by Carrick, Noel

Switzerland (juvenile non-fiction) by Rogers Seavey, Lura

The White Stallions: the story of the dancing horses of Lipizza by Van der Linde, Laurel

History

Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century (Kindle book) by Graham, Peter

The Orient Express: the history of the Orient Express service from 1883 to 1950 by Burton, Anthony

Language

Pimsleur

Pimsleur German

Pimsleur French I (audio CD)

Pimsleur German II (audio CD)

Memoir

Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass (Vintage International Kindle edition) by Dinesen, Isak

Plays (Theatre)

The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, Volumes I – IV by Simon, Neil

50 Best Plays of the American Theatre.selected by Barnes, Clive

The Glass Menagerie by Williams, Tennessee

book 50 Best Plays of the American Theatre - 1

Fiction

Heidi by Spyri, Johanna (also film directed by Alain Gsponer)

New Zealand Stories: Mansfield Selections (Kindle book) by Mansfield, Katherine

The Star of Kazan by Ibbotson, Eva

books library Alps Vienna Europe Kazan - 1

Reading Notes:

Rumination on women authors sojourning in strange lands

Though my trip to New Zealand is in the past, I’ve continued to dwell there just a little by reading more of its authors’ works. Specifically, I’ve become enamored with Dame Ngaio Marsh’s Detective Alleyn mysteries, and with the short fiction of Katharine Mansfield.

Both were born in New Zealand, but also spent significant portions of their lives in Britain. I find their work tantalizing as it relates to both the work of women in a different, less egalitarian era, and also for the way it reflects the effects of colonization, sometimes explicitly, but always in the shadows.

The other, the outsider, by sex or by accident of birth. Hmm…

Reading about an infamous murder in Christchurch, New Zealand committed in part by a teenage girl who would grow up to write bestselling mystery novels under a new name, Anne Perry, belongs to this thread, too. She was born in England, but clearly her sojourn in the colony was consequential.

See Peter Jackson’s film, “Heavenly Creatures,” to get the story without cracking a book. Make it a double feature with sweet family film “Her Majesty” and see if you find them as weirdly complementary as I do. Girlhood, good & grim; Christchurch, paradise or perdition?

My mind hitches these works by this insider/outsider woman/writer kind of thinking to the copy of Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass that I’ve been reading, s-l-o-w-l-y, for the past couple of months.

It was a “take in small doses and mull it over” read for me; a not-every-night to-lull-me-to-sleep read, but a can’t-sleep carry-me-away type of thing. I was also compelled to research Dinesen online for biographical information from a less biased than herself source when I was done with her memoir.

Though flawed like the rest of us and a product of her age and station as a European aristocrat, she sure strung together some beautiful words. I’ve enjoyed many of her short stories, too. Recommended for those who like some literary with their fiction.

The Alps, the Orient Express, Vienna, and European micro states

It may be a surprise to see a stack of children’s non-fiction books on my library shelf. I could just attribute them to my boys, or the younger son in particular, but they’re really for my edification.

It’s true that I always hope my kids will pick up one of my enthusiasms and/or delve into a similar self-directed unit study of something else, but I find these slim volumes a handy way to grab a quick overview of a place I’ve never been.

This time, the big boy and I were thinking about European micro states, and particularly the several who use German as an official language. It ties in with his studies, and my attention got grabbed. I requested half the books in the library, and in we dove.

Yes, I’ve heard of Wikipedia, but I have a thing about big maps and full color photos on heavyweight gloss. If I don’t have to spread a map out on a table in front of me, it doesn’t delight half as much. Most of my adventures begin with the unfolding of a paper map. Opening a book and flipping through pages of pictures offers me the same kind of thrill.

The Europe by Eurail book made a nice start for trip planning, but that work really is better done online these days, even if you have Luddite tendencies… but only if you also have that all important large map showing major railway lines to help you get your bearings. Maybe you won’t need this if your grasp of European geography is stronger than mine, but I suspect a map will always be vital for me regardless of how well I’ve studied.
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Find up to the minute train information and all the basic “how to’s” for rail riding neophytes on the incredibly helpful and shockingly complete site The Man in Seat 61. Borrow Europe by Eurail from your local library instead and save the $23 for a simpler, lighter weight folding map and a few more cups of espresso.
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Both Rick Steves Europe and Streetwise Europe were well under $10 on Amazon.Though nothing I’m even considering planning approaches the Orient Express for grandeur and romance, I found the history book of the same name wildly inspirational. There may be a night in a modern NightJet sleeper car compartment in my future just because I read this.
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Well, that, and because I love trains…

My favorite bits of this photograph- and fact- filled tome had to do with the preposterous pomposity of Kings Ferdinand and Boris of Bulgaria. Each exercised abused the royal authority by demanding the right to drive the train personally as it passed through his demesne. The latter crazy bastard actually killed someone through his recklessness and arrogance. How, though, does a railway company argue with a hereditary sovereign monarch?
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Another trivial tidbit I liked: that most famous train became embroiled in European politics over and over again as it rolled across so many national boundaries during tumultuous decades.
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The Germans seized the prize plums that were Orient Express carriages during WWI. Restaurant car #2419 served up helpings of crow when the French accepted German surrender therein at Compiègne in 1918, but Hitler made the French do the same in the same car in 1940. He ordered #2419 blown up when it became clear that he would lose his war lest he receive the same treatment.
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Warmongering and atrocities aside, it seems clear today that the Germans also lacked a feeling for foreign tourist marketing when they changed the famous name of the luxurious Orient Express sleepers from “Wagon-Lits” to “Mitteleuropäischeschlafwagengesellschaft.” I speak a little German, and I can’t get my lips to form that mouthful of a compound noun. Eventually, even they saw sense and shortened the name of their stolen cars to “Mitropa.” Phew!
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And, for the record, there is an “Orient Express” service one can take from London to Venice today for ≅£3500 per passenger. A crop of murderous fellows in adjacent compartments not guaranteed.
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Still thinking historically, the family friendly audiobook, The Star of Kazan, should inspire any reader/listener to wish to visit Vienna, Austria. Set around 1900, the young heroine and her friends do some international traveling by train, but certainly not enjoying a standard such as the Orient Express came to offer. I wasn’t tempted to visit the Spanish Riding School in Vienna to see the famous Lippitzaner stallions until I got into this story with my little guy.

And, when speaking now of Austria, how can one avoid pondering The Alps?.Though one could be forgiven for never having heard of the book by the same name. O’Shea’s cultural history/travel narrative is an easy to read, enjoyable road trip through a series of the storied mountain range’s high passes.

I haven’t finished sharing this journey with O’Shea yet, but here’s the best bit so far: Musée de l’horlogerie et du décolletage. I and my infinitesimal iota of French translated it just like he did, but, if you want to know what it means without reading his book, you’ll have to ask me in the comments!

If we’re in the Alps, how can we fail to recall the classic by Joanna Spyri, Heidi. While I didn’t re-read it this month and he’s a bit old for it, I made DS1 acquaint himself with the book. I can’t imagine a childhood without it. As a family, we watched a lovely modern (2015) film adaptation available to us in the USA in its native German. Don’t worry: there are English subtitles, and I think its offered dubbed as well.

It was awesome, though, for a chance to hear some spoken Swiss German. Even a beginning level student of the language like me could recognize obvious differences between Swiss and Standard or Hoch German.
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The live action film was a lot closer to the charming original narrative than the Hanna Barbera animated version, “Heidi’s Song,” that came out when I was a little girl.
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Preparing to host a theatrical reading at home

Now we’ll skip from the cinema to the theatre. I’ve spent a huge amount of time since I finished preparing and filing my taxes reading plays.
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Why, you ask?
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I’m planning to host a party or two.
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While it’s not even unusual for me to jump up and grab a book from the shelves to entertain a guest with something I find fascinating, this time, I’m inviting them over on notice: we’re going to read a play. Yes, all of us. Together!
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But which one? Approaching a script as an evening’s pastime for a group forces me to evaluate it differently. I’m sure it’s a wonderful mental exercise, but it has been time consuming.
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I’ve attended a few of these events hosted by friends, but never with my husband. He’s mildly horrified, but a good sport. He doubts everyone will share my enthusiasm. Pooh-pooh! I think if there is wine, and perhaps cake, people won’t mind participating.
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This started out as an idea for a home school assignment for DS1, and I’m working on that teen-oriented gathering, too. But, it quickly became apparent that I should also schedule a more mature work to read with my own favorite grown up friends. Why should the kids get to have all the fun?
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I had a few friends over for a short notice “Ladies’ Lit” night just yesterday, and one person opted to bring an excerpt from Lysistrata to share. I loved it. Perhaps I also over-acted a bit more than the others. It has been far too long since I’ve gotten enough attention on the stage! I did receive a hostess gift of these beautiful flowers, granting me a moment of rêverie for my youth in the spotlight.
Flower bouquet floral - 1
Even this mere taste was every bit as much fun as I thought it would be. Also, now, at least those lucky participants are forewarned as to what to expect next time I send an invitation.

Books by my bedside 2017/09/14

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least have a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

books-2017-08-2x-1-e1503620159745.jpg

Non-Fiction

History, Politics & Social Science

Anti-Education by Nietzsche, Friedrich

The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Gracián, Baltasar

Churchill & Orwell: The fight for freedom by Ricks, Thomas E.

College Disrupted:The great unbundling of higher education by Craig , Ryan

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s history-making race around the world by Goodman, Matthew

Grand Hotel Abyss: The lives of the Frankfurt School by Jeffries, Stuart

Margaret Fuller: Bluestocking, romantic, revolutionary by Wilson, Ellen

Walden by Thoreau, Henry D.

Language

Pimsleur German I (audio CD)

Pimsleur Spanish I (audio CD)

Mathematics

Life of Fred: Pre-Algebra 0 with Physics by Schmidt, Stanley F.

 Books Math Life of Fred Prealgebra

Fiction

Anecdotes of Destiny by Isak Dinesen

Edge of Evil by Jance, J.A.

Finding Her Way (YA title) by Faigen, Anne

M.C. Higgins the Great by (YA title) by Hamilton, Virginia

The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland (YA title) by Rebekah Crane*

Reading Notes:

I’ve been reading a fair amount for two disparate reasons. Continue reading

6 more German pop songs for learning Deutsches Vokabular und Grammatik

Because my children haven’t been embarrassed enough by my enthusiastic sing-alongs, here are six more pop songs that I’m using to improve my German language skills.

Added to my playlist, Deutsche Popmusik:

I found lyrics for all of these songs online in the original Deutsch and in English translation. Try MetroLyrics.

1) Leider Geil

By Deichkind; I had to pay $12 from Amazon USA for the CD as it wasn’t on iTunes, but you can easily find and view the video online to check it out for free.

Possibly explicit. Anyone fluent in German care to enlighten me about this song’s degree of rudeness? Please share in the comments if you know.

If you’ve ever seen America’s Funniest Home Videos, you’re well on your way to imagining the music video for Leider Geil. Familiarity with the “watching people do moronic stuff” genre will also help you understand why my young teen son found this song so appealing. This is the only foreign language track he asks to hear.

This song definitely has some mature content (coarse language and references to a one night stand), but, if my translation is accurate, I would allow my teen to listen to an equivalent track in English after some commentary from me about content.

Leider geil translates as “unfortunately awesome,” but geil also means “horny.” My German isn’t good enough to know just how risqué the language is, but it’s awfully catchy. It has a modern, slacker-esque, rhythmic edge that reminds me of the relationship between the Beastie Boys and pop music back when I was a teen. As far as I can tell, the wordplay seems clever in translation.

Are these guys cool? Are they male chauvinists? I have no idea, but I’m enjoying the tune.

I won’t ever forget how to say “unfortunately awesome” now that this song is in my head. I might accidentally deploy the phrase in polite company and embarrass myself. Oops! Leider geil!

2) Männer

From iTunes, I bought a cover version by “Partysingers” of this Herbert Grönemeyer hit.

Here’s an anthem for the men’s movement. Musically, this song is so retro 1980’s, which makes sense since it came out in 1984. It isn’t my favorite track in the playlist, but it’s a good resource for opposite adjectives with lyrics like:

Men have it hard, take it easy,
Outwardly hard, but inside all soft…

3) Tage wie diese

Available on iTunes, by Die Toten Hosen (yup, that means The Dead Pants.)

4) Wir trafen uns in einem Garten

Available on iTunes, by 2raunwohnung.

I’m listing these two songs together because both fall under the umbrella of “songs that sound like the kind of music I might listen to casually in my own language.” Neither has an unforgettable hook of the sort I can’t get out of my mind. Both fit reasonably well into my music library of alternative music, most of it from the late 1990’s and early aughts.

With lyrics in hand, a language learner can easily follow along with the words. The trick, for me at least, is to keep concentrating on them for the purpose of studying; I tend to get distracted by other things because these songs are a little too easy for my mind to transform into background music.

Comfort and familiarity may not be such a good thing when trying to pay close attention and learn.

5) Die Gedanken Sind Frei

Available on iTunes, by the Brazilian Girls.

The Brazilian Girls are apparently not Brazilian, and there’s only one female member in the band. She’s the one singing this pop interpretation of a classic German folk song that translates as Thoughts are Free.

And I am locked in a dark dungeon
I scorn the pain and human works
For my thoughts break the bounds and the walls,
Thoughts are free!

I learned of these lyrics from the lovely children’s book, From Anna, which I’ve previously reviewed. Searching for the full text—which brought me to tears reading the excerpt in the novel—led me to this quirky modern interpretation. I quite like its combination of funky rhythm, lightly overlaid electronics, a pretty, feminine vocal sound, and the traditional protest/progressive lyrics.

6) Da Da Da

As with 99 Luftballons in my first post about catchy German pop songs, this one was already in my music library. Unlike Nena’s really obvious hit, I had forgotten completely that there were German lyrics in Da Da Da. After all, da is the Russian word for yes.

You might remember this song from an old Volkswagen commercial (circa 1997.) If you do recall it, you might hate it. It’s a fairly goofy, very repetitive song with minimal lyrics, but some of them are in German. If you like this kind of electronic sound, you can learn to say “I do not love you, you do not love me” auf Deutsch. I hope that doesn’t come in handy!

If you enjoy Da Da Da, you’ll definitely want to check out Eisbär from my earlier German song post.

Happy listening!

Play your way to foreign language learning with puzzles and games

Even the most dedicated autodidact has an off day when she doesn’t feel like cracking a book or applying herself to her chosen course of study. These are days for a more creative approach. Consider it stealth education; it’s the scholarly equivalent of hiding puréed vegetables in the kids’ pasta sauce.

Equate it those school days when your teacher played a film instead of giving a lecture. You probably enjoyed the change of pace as much as he did.

To this day, when I hear the word superlative, my mind snaps right to The Superlative Horse. My class watched this movie in elementary school. I think it was based upon this book. I can’t recall the storyline, or whether we even read the book, but my memory clings fast to this particular title. I’ve relished the artful deployment of the vocabulary word ever since!

On a grumpy day—maybe due to too little sleep, aching joints, or a general case of the blahs—I could skip my scheduled 30 minutes of language practice. Sometimes, to be honest, I do. But, like most good habits, the trick is commitment, and the solution to malaise can be a lightening of the load without a free pass.

I’ve already posted about adding foreign language pop songs to my study routine. Typically, I read along with the lyrics while I listen to the songs. I sing along, too.

Is it a hardcore intellectual workout? No!

Is this a task I can fit into the busiest day, or prod myself into undertaking at my laziest? Yes!

Along similar lines, consider adding puzzles and games to your own self-guided study routine. It matters less what kind of material you introduce and more that you are tempted by the format.

I’m a fan of jigsaw puzzles. The trick is to find one that has legible text in your target language. A world map puzzle was a good choice to meet this condition, and also provided an introduction to vocabulary (country names) I might otherwise not see in German.

German world puzzle deutsch

I found this Schmidt Spiele jigsaw puzzle for $10 on Amazon

It helps that, culturally speaking, Germany is a country known for high quality games and puzzles. They are exported worldwide, and brands like Ravensburger are readily available in many countries and languages, including English for the US market.

The trickiest part, when choosing games, is finding one that uses enough of the target language to be a challenge, but not so much that there’s no fun in the playing. The difficulty of picking a suitable game increases exponentially when you introduce more players with differing levels of language acquisition.

For example, German Scrabble requires significantly more language skill than German Monopoly. In the former, you’re forced to dredge up and correctly spell words from memory. Allowing free access to a target language dictionary can bring the level of difficulty back to manageable for beginners.

As a parent educating my child at home, I go out of my way to provide varied learning resources for my son. Enjoyable activities that complement or duplicate subject matter increase the odds that knowledge will be retained. It seems obvious that, by reinforcing a subject through different media, the learning will also be deeper as we experience it through more of our senses and engage different parts of the brain.

Why not provide myself with the same advantages?

It’s easy for geographically isolated Americans to forget that there’s more to learning a foreign language than books and instructional CDs, videos and lessons. The reality of language acquisition is that it must reflect multiplicities of experience to be meaningful.

What else is our language ability for, if not for use as a tool in living a full life?

Have you used any less-conventional tools for learning a language? Please share in the comments.

5 German pop songs for learning Deutsches Vokabular. Bonus: Embarrasses the kids!

Hopefully this won’t get me reported to the authorities for my abusive behavior, but I’ve been casting about for something new to enliven my study of German. I decided on pop songs. I’m specifically aiming to reduce my inhibitions when speaking this summer in a German language immersion environment. I think my best bet is conducting my learning in the most playful manner I can devise.

There has been a lot of acting out dialogs from German Readers and the Pimsleur CDs*. DS2 is not clear on why I keep involving him in my shenanigans, but melodramatic German dialogues conducted with yourself are just crazy. When done with your child, they’re home schooling!

Just when your teen thinks you can’t get any more embarrassing, you add singing out loud in German to your repertoire. I even do it in the car in the school parking lot when I’m waiting to pick up DS2.

Yeah, I’m that kind of mom.

My new playlist, Deutsche Popmusik:

I found lyrics for all of these songs online in the original Deutsch and in English translation. Try MetroLyrics.

1) So ein schöner Tag (Fliegerlied)

I chose a version performed by Zillertaler Dirndljäger found on iTunes.

We have to begin with Fliegerlied. More properly titled, “So ein schöner Tag (Fliegerlied)“, the name translates to Such a Nice Day (Aviator’s Song.) I played the song previews on iTunes to choose the one I liked best of the many covers of this song. Be sure you search for both “So ein schöner Tag” and “Fliegerlied” to see every version of this track.

I first heard this song at Waldsee family week where my son and I went to learn German in 2015. They played this song. They played it a lot. There are coordinating hand motions, too. And I liked it all! Any time a party atmosphere could be conjured in the Waldsee “Village,” it was, and the disco music flowed.

Personally, I find Fliegerlied charming and catchy. I couldn’t figure out all the words properly by ear, not even with a teaching session by the music leader early in the week. I got the gist of the lesson that we were singing about something that flies and having a good day.

Fliegerlied turns out to mean “aviator” or “airman.” Obviously not the easiest word to guess via mime. This bouncy ditty is great for picking up quickly as it repeats… and repeats… and repeats a few lyrics. Just try not to get this one stuck in your head.

I have a very high tolerance for song repetition, so proceed cautiously if you don’t. Fliegerlied is an Ohrwurm (ear worm; a song that gets stuck in your head) for sure. Waldsee gets full credit for this song being on my list. It’s the first one I’d recommend for a cheerful student of German.

2) 99 Luftballons

Performed by Nena; more than 99 versions found on iTunes!

You thought this one would be first, right?

99 Luftballons was an international hit in 1984, and it doesn’t need any more introduction or description from me. They play this one regularly at Waldsee, too. Unless you’re Captain Kirk or ein Kriegsminister, what’s not to like? You’ll be able to discuss war, balloons, and UFOs with the new vocabulary.

3) Eisbär

Original version by Grauzone is on iTunes; search both Eisbär and Eisbaer to find every cover.

I believe this will be the first song I memorize completely in German. I’ve had it two days and I can almost recite it by heart. I just looked at the lyrics I downloaded and did a quick count, and I think there are only 20 unique words in Eisbär, most of which are obvious (Eisbär=”ice bear”=polar bear) or easy beginner words (mussen=have to, but sounds conveniently like “must”; kalt=cold.) Learn two verbs: schreien (screaming) and weinen (crying) and you’ll understand the whole song.

Admittedly, this song is my least favorite on the playlist from a musical perspective. The music is repetitive, too electronic for my taste, and the song feels longer than it should be.

4) Wir Sind Wir

By Paul van Dyk featuring vocals by Peter Heppner; ordered CD single from Amazon.CD Wir Sind Wir Musik

I saw the video of this song online as I searched for my German pop songs. This one has slower tempo and more complex lyrics. We Are Who We Are is the title in English. The lyrics poetically describe lingering societal issues from the reunification of east and west Germany and how the people are responding. I’d describe its temper as somber but hopeful. Since I’m an optimist, I like it on principle for noble subject matter. The singer also enunciates very clearly—super helpful for the language learner. It’s really easy to follow along with his vocalized lyrics, which isn’t true of all these songs.

5) Ich Will

Available on iTunes; performed by Rammstein.

I’m not even checking to see if anyone has covered this song. I think you must listen to the original or give it a pass. This is heavy metal music, quite different than everything else on the playlist. The video I viewed online was downright creepy and not my cup of tea, but the song translates as cruel but not vulgar. I study around my kids, so really salty language would eliminate a song for my situation.

If  you enjoy metal—or can get past the growling intensity here to memorize the lyrics—you’ll be rewarded with several useful additions to your vocabulary. This guy WANTS (wollen, to want, to intend; Ich Will translates to I Want) a lot of stuff from the audience. He states that emphatically in the present tense (plural du– form.)

I might be growling it rudely at people, but I will never forget how to say “I want” auf Deutsch after hearing this song a few times.

Useful vocabulary includes “I want to disturb the peace;” ich will die Ruhe stören. And, in case I am robbing a small group of you, “I want to see your hands!”

“Ich will eure Hände sehen!”

Actually, I’ve just realized, this will come in handy with the kids, too. Now how do I say, “I want to see your beds made!”…

* Can’t imagine the Pimsleur lesson dialogues acted out dramatically? Try pretending you’re interrogating a suspected spy while repeatedly asking each other:

  • “Do you speak German?”
  • “Do you speak English?”
  • “Are you an American?”

Yeah, the kids LOVE it. Ha!

Why I study 6 foreign languages recreationally

I must begin by admitting that I’m not really a polyglot. I’ve only mastered English. I’m not even brave about using my foreign language skills with friends or strangers. My brain is piping up with answers, but my cowardly lips remain zipped.

I have been a passionate fan of the very idea of language study since childhood, however, and I dabble in a few world languages. I wish, in a theoretical way, that I could speak with every person in the world. I know. I can be a little sentimental.

In high school, I studied Spanish (four years.)

In college, I took classes in Spanish (one more year), German (one year), and Japanese (one semester.)

Outside of academia, I’ve studied Russian (6 weeks at the Boston Language Institute) and Biblical Hebrew (synagogue based adult class), plus I’ve self-studied most of the above and also French. I’ve worked to learn at least a few common and helpful phrases in both Icelandic and Catalan before specific trips. I like to be a polite visitor.

I also avoid traveling without the ability to speak sentences I’d be too embarrassed to mime. I usually begin by memorizing, “Where is the toilet?” I’ve never visited any country without at least learning please, thank you, and hello. I also try to keep at least one exclamation of delight on the tip of my tongue: ¡Qué maravilloso!

Buy why else have I spent so many hours over so many years on this exercise when I have nothing concrete to show for it since good grades on a transcript decades ago?

I can feel my brain stretching

I’m a full-time, stay at home parent, so there’s no monetary gain. Then again, I’m a full-time, stay at home parent, so the intellectual workout ranks right up there as its own reward. Especially when my children were very young, and their care was so mind-numbingly boring, even listening to nursery rhymes in another language offered mental relief from feed, burp, change, repeat (and, occasionally, sleep…)

When I’m really working at integrating  new language into my working vocabulary, I can feel my brain stretching. I’m probably not the only nerd who thrills from the act of intense learning. Like the high that comes after aerobic exercise, there’s an emotional payoff to brain fitness. It’s also nice to imagine your brain looking better in a swimsuit getting healthier after each session.

Languages are inherently interesting, complex structures

Studying a romance language, for me, at least, was fun and interesting, but nothing like the kind of mind-blowing revelation that Japanese presented. I’m no linguist, either, so I can’t explain this deeply, but everything from sentence structure to word classes was, frankly, foreign. Learning even a little Japanese was like re-learning how to think.

Never in my life have I taken a more difficult, more stimulating, more thrilling class than my one semester of Japanese immersion at Cornell University. At the end of every session, I felt like the hero(ine) walking into the sunset behind the credits of an action movie. Victorious, and exhausted.

I’m forced to reconsider things I thought were obvious

Even when studying languages much more familiar—the short words in German, and the long words in the Latin-based romance languages—I find it delightful to make connections across cultures. Some modern words are obvious candidates for cognates. The world is so small and interconnected now, it’s hard to imagine new words like “computer” not carrying over into languages other than English.

But I loved discovering the word for “furniture” was so similar between Spanish (mueble), German (Möbel), and Russian (мебель)—they all use consonant sounds M-B-L with vowels appropriate to the target language. Most Russian vocabulary up to that point had been so strange. It made me reflect that the very notion of owning enough household stuff to require a collective name for it could be modern. Or perhaps the idea to name that stuff came from western Europe, or the people with better stuff adopted a name from the west so the word caught on with social climbers… I’m not sure. I don’t even know if the word is older in Russian as opposed to western Europe. I sure enjoy pondering the possibilities.

And, in Japanese, the color ao means all color shades of blue to green.* That stopped me in my tracks. Color is a spectrum, isn’t it, and at some point, we decide where the stopping point is between one shade and another. But I hadn’t thought of that before. Japanese taught me that.

I could go on and on about compound nouns and meanings within my own language that only became obvious to me after I recognized some interesting facet of a word in a foreign tongue, but the point is made and my zeal for this topic probably exceeds the bounds of decency.

Making an effort is the only way to combat entropy

There’s a running joke in our family that my husband’s most hated nemesis is entropy.

I think it is accepted knowledge that mental acuity is a use it or lose it thing. That’s the exercise analogy I used earlier. I believe the battle against entropy goes even deeper than that.

Making an effort, struggling to do better, learning something new, improving communication in the smallest way… every one of these things is a creative act. Creation is the opposite of entropy. Creation is an inherently positive act.

I learn in order to make the world a better place

I learn to make the world a better place, though my small efforts may have only infinitesimal effects.

I can live with that.

*There is a modern Japanese color word for green, which I believe was introduced only after World War II when Western influence became significant during the Occupation. There are also extra color words for various shades, including some of blue and green, like we have navy and royal (blues) or spring vs. hunter (greens.) You’ll want to follow up with someone much more knowledgeable than I to get the full story on Japanese color words.

Learning German: foreign language tools for adults

As a child, I might have been offended at the very idea: I’m studying to prepare for summer camp? See my post here about attending German language immersion camp with the kids in a couple of months.

But who could have imagined an adult attending summer camp at all? I like to think my younger self would be excited at the opportunity to travel to a “foreign land,” even if it’s only as foreign as Bemidji, MN.

Here are the tools I’m using right now to brush up on my German before camp. I find that mixing and matching different products has a multiplying effect on my progress, both by keeping up my interest and by coming at the same vocabulary from a different angle.

  • At every glance, I’m bombarded with FlashSticks® German Flash Cards for Beginners, conveniently printed on Post-it® notes for the speediest possible deployment all over the house. I might have learned more by making my own tags, but I also might have stopped after far fewer terms when I got tired of “arts and crafts” time.

  • A retired GE Aerospace manager’s re-thinking of the entire “language education” genre called The Little German Notebook: a breakthrough in early speaking (Charles Merlin Long) suggests a radically different approach to language acquisition that I find fascinating. If nothing else, thinking about the structure of the language in a new way makes studying its lists of vocabulary somewhat more novel. Analytical types studying German should definitely give this book at least a quick look.

  • Living Language‘s all audio set, Starting out in German, is what I’m using on the go in the car. None of it has been new vocabulary yet, but it’s tuning my ear back to the language and has clear, crisp dialogue compared to some. I like the Pimsleur audio series, too, and have used both German I and French I, but this is my first time through the Living Language set, so the content feels fresher.

  • Finally, I’m using Visual Education Think German I flash cards when I have a few down time to flip cards as well as listen. The audio quality on the included CDs is abysmal, however. It sounds like it was dubbed off the old cassettes, and maybe in a wind tunnel…

    Book cover Visual Ed Think German I

    You still get a cassette as well as CDs with Visual Ed’s Think German I

Have you had success with any particular tools for self-studying a foreign language?