Back to School // zurück zur Schule

Germans have this funny tradition of giving kids a large cone, filled with treats, as a sort of school send-off. Turns out they’re called “Schultüte,” which is effectively school bag or school cone. The primary idea of the gift is to relieve the anxiety that comes with starting school. I recall hearing about the unusually-shaped presents at some time over the past year, and I was delighted to see them in the center aisles of grocery stores this past month. (I almost bought one for myself, but I’m trying to avoid material waste.

After spotting the cardboard cones and assorted stuffers in some shops – sort of assemble-your-own-kit style – you can imagine the joy I felt when I saw a few kids carrying their cones around the neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon in late August. Parents, grandparents, and young kids traveled in little crowds. They were all well-dressed and seemed to be leaving a nearby school. I guess that they were getting comfortable with finding the school, knowing their teacher and classroom, and then the parents wanted to take first day of school photos… (this is where guessing turns to complete speculation)… only before the first day, because I don’t think they started on a Saturday… who knows!

As for me, I’m back to “school,” too. I’ve been taking private German lessons once a week since May, but we paused for all of August and half of September, due to me and my tutor both having vacations. Isabelle assigned me to bring postcards and write short summaries of my travels. I also had to write about my grandparent’s garden in response to a text that we read about “Prinzessinnengärten,” an urban community garden in Berlin. Now that we’re back to class, I’m feeling über-energized to continue practicing speaking and writing. Isabelle says I’m making good progress, and I’m grateful to have colleagues that encourage and challenge me with new words and phrases.

The most challenging aspect of learning German is undoubtedly the fact that there are three possible genders (masculine, feminine, neutral) for each noun. The gender informs the article (respectively: der, die, das for the; ein, eine, ein for a), BUT the articles also change depending on the case: whether the noun functions as a subject, direct object, indirect object, or possessive. In fact, in German you can write “the dog bit the man” (in that order) to also mean “the man bit the dog,” depending on which form of “the” you use. Oh, and the article changes for plural nouns. So, there are something like 32 permutations of an article. (I have a tendency to just guess die – pronounced dee – in most of my writing and speech. Can you imagine my inclination to just guess again when Isabelle asks me to correct myself? I promise, I’m trying!)

I give myself this: I’ve learned a lot of vocabulary and I am growing more comfortable talking to store clerks and friends in German. [NEWS FLASH: I registered myself in my new apartment, and this time I – barelymanaged to follow instructions and close the door before getting yelled at.] I spend a lot time listening to the sounds of the language and reading signs when I’m out and about. Isabelle also gives me speech sounds to practice, such as:

  • zensur (sensor): which is hard for Anglophones, because the z- has a ts- sound and the s- has a z- sound.
  • Ich zeige der Ziege wo sie viel Essen kann, weil sie so die besten Wiesen und Weiden findet, which is basically a memorized tongue twister about showing a goat where to eat. She made this phrase up for me, because I was struggling with the -ie- and -ei-. (From a native English speaker’s perspective: always pronounce the second letter,) I also need to practice my z-, w-, and v- sounds. After a week of cycling to and from work blabbing to myself about a goat, I can now audibly distinguish and read these words accurately!
    • zeige / Ziege
    • viel / weil
    • Wiesen / Weiden

I’ll leave you with some “fun” German words:

  • I write product instructions for work. The word for instructions: die Bedienungsanleitung (6 syllables)
  • The German word for “challenge”: die Herausferdorung (5 syllables)
  • I asked a colleague how to say “finishing steps”: Fertigstellungsschritte

German words are notoriously long, because they often make very rational compound words. For example, Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft. I’m mocking the language, because this makes it digestible for me. I’m sure English is more challenging. German also has short words and pictures, which are easier for me to understand.

For example / zum Beispiel:

im Kino

Last Saturday, I holed myself up to rest before I competed in a triathlon on Sunday morning. My friend/neighbor/colleague Robin and I sat on the couch, eating a hefty pre-triathlon meal of roasted vegetables and salmon, while watching “Aus Dem Nichts / In the Fade,” a German film recognized as the 2018 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film and as the German entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards. Naturally, with my German being still less than elementary, we watched the film with English subtitles. With myself and my instructor both on holiday, I’ve been without German lessons for all of August, so the subtitles were good practice to gain familiarity with words and tones. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll leave you with a recommendation to watch it and a footnote that I walked home a bit paranoid and not as relaxed as I’d hoped to go to bed. I’m glad to get into foreign films, to be the outsider who needs subtitles, and to see true stories reflected on the screen.

With today’s near repeat, maybe Saturday nights will be movie nights for the foreseeable future. The first time is an accident; the second time is a tradition. I spent a good portion of today running 30 kilometers around Berlin. Though my training has been subpar at best, I figured doing one long run two weeks before the event would be a worthwhile endeavor. With tired legs, I wanted relaxation for the afternoon and night, and decided to venture to the cinema – das kino – for the evening. I took the train to Hackescher Markt, a quaint series of connected courtyards in the pseudo-posh Mitte neighborhood and waited in line to buy a ticket for BlacKkKlansman, a 2018 film by Spike Lee and Jordan Peele. I didn’t know of the title before I looked at the movie listings today, but the ratings were high enough to intrigue me.

Scannable Document on 1. Sep 2018 at 23_31_19

Only one part of the cinema experience caught my attention: I bought the ticket at the same stand/counter where the refreshments were sold. There was no separate box office. They offered popcorn, bottled sodas, and beer, though the popcorn machine warned “sweet only!,” which I guess means they have kettle corn, not our beloved, buttered, lick-the-salt-off-your-fingers American movie popcorn. I took a rhubarb lemonade with my ticket, then found a seat in the theater, which was otherwise similar to American movie theaters.

Cut to the chase: this film is not for the faint of feelings. Be ready to feel history. BlacKkKlansman follows the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American member of the Colorado Springs Police Department, as he goes undercover in investigating the Ku-Klux-Klan. It’s a timely and necessary story to bring to the surface, with the present day race conversations in the US. Aside from offering an intriguing historical narrative, the plot elevated my heart rate, my hands were clasped knuckle-to-knuckle, and I had to remind myself to let my head rest against the padded chair. It sounds bad, but I actually enjoy a movie when I am able to fear and feel for the characters.

Yet, these weren’t just characters, they are real people’s stories. I sat and witnessed behaviors – events that actually happened – that go beyond “discrimination” as we often see it. Discrimination is more than a white page with black text describing a company or organization’s commitment to not treat people different on the basis of x, y, and z. Discrimination happens every day in verbal, physical, and subconscious forms. The film brought subconscious realities into my conscience.

The German-language subtitles flickered consistently through each frame, reminding me of the city, the country, the history, the Holocaust that once happened outside of the theater. This awareness scared me. As an audience, we witnessed relentless derogatory comments that positioned people as lesser because of their skin colors and their religions. These atrocities rolled from the mouths of the actors like butter on a biscuit in the heat of summer. Meaning everything, but said like nothing. Let me say again: I’m in Germany. This country knows all too well the realities and effects of ostracizing certain races and certain people. Sitting in a crowd of Germans, I watched America with a different perspective. I saw the word “Führer” – compounded with another word – flash across the screen when describing David Duke’s role in the Ku-Klux-Klan.

The film ends with clips from recent events in the US. The sound of a glass bottle rolling along the theater floor. Otherwise, solemnity and air stale as popcorn from last year. I thought of the one character, a Klansman, whose dumbness, drunken stupor, and lack of common sense brought comic relief to the plot’s tensest moments. I’d heard people in the audience laughing, and suddenly, nothing was funny. This is a true story, and though I watched it on a screen, I watched it in a place where people know worse is possible.