Monday, January 28, 2013

Germany North: Berlin & Hamburg

Editor's note: Do you know the joke with the punchline, "Why the long paws?" Well, if you've been concerned that I've been spending all my time working and that is why there haven't been any more blog posts since I've been in Germany there are two reasons. The first was a prolonged period with intermittent internet access, and the second was that when I wasn't working, I was having fun; and when I wasn't doing either of those two things, I was sleeping--not composing blog posts! Hence the long pause. Here begins the rest of the series on what I've been up to over here.

I was recently in Berlin for the fourth time. It felt…familiar. You know, familiar for being a big city in a foreign country. I am very glad I have been lucky enough to travel internationally as much as I have. I was thinking, if finances allow, every young person should travel—at the very least as a tourist for a few days here and there, at the most living somewhere for at least a month. (That’s barely enough time to get used to a new place, discover its gems, etc.) The idea would be to literally broaden his or her horizons and to help against a certain American exceptionalism and/or provincialism, especially if s/he can feel at home. Of course, the problem with feeling at home in more than one place in the world is that no matter where you are, you feel a little homesick.

Sailing ship on top of a pole in Hamburg Rathausplatz.  I imagine sailors often suffered homesickness.
I had never been in Berlin in the winter before, and unfortunately, I don’t have any photographs from my few days there, because it was rainy. But the shopping district along the Kurfurstendamm was all decorated with lights for Christmas. (I arrived 2. Jan.) This time I was staying in a different apartment and working in a different archive, but otherwise the city was much the same as when I left it at the end of July 2011. The same yellow subway cars rang the same “doors closing” chime. There were friendly faces at my old church in Kreuzberg. There was even the familiar detritus of Sylvester (New Year’s Eve) here and there on the ground. And yet Berlin was not the same. The library where I spent most of my time that summer, the Staatsbibliothek Haus 1 Unter den Linden, is closed for renovations. (It was already a construction zone when I was there.) Friedrichstraβe, where I used to ride my bike from Kreuzberg up to the library past Check Point Charlie, was all torn up for the installation of a subway line. And I noticed the church had a new intern. (The previous one was very friendly with me.) I had been afraid that I would not find the needles in the haystack of the new archive, but it worked out so splendidly that I wished I had scheduled a whole week instead of just three days. There's always next time...

For the weekend I decided to visit a friend with a post-doc in Hamburg, just under two hours by train to the northwest. Hamburg was an entirely new city for me. Probably on account of the weather being so wet, I don’t have any particularly fond memories of it, but R.E. and I managed to have a good time nonetheless. I got in Friday evening in time for dinner, an episode of “Elementary,” and some internet time to plan our sightseeing.

Saturday we headed across town to BallinStadt, a museum about the immigration that happened through Hamburg’s harbor to other parts of the world, especially the United States. Consider it the reverse of Ellis Island. (Which, by the way, opened twice in 1890; it burned down the day after the first opening. Did you know that?) BallinStadt is named for the Hamburger Albert Ballin who worked with HAPAG in Hamburg and Lloyd in Bremen to make immigration more profitable for shipping companies. (A robber-baron type committed to the monarchy, he was so distraught at the November 9, 1918 revolution, that he committed suicide on the same day.)

The museum is set up in the few surviving buildings of what used to be a large complex (the three U-shaped halls with green roofs, above). The special exhibition hall was closed, but that was all right, because I thought that the main exhibit offered more than enough for a two-hour visit, and that the extra little bit of exhibit in the third building was superfluous. It was a pretty good museum with a variety of interesting things to look at, read, and listen to. The organizers took care to pull out representative characters from different points in immigration history, i.e. a democrat and failed revolutionary from 1848, a Jewish girl from a Russian shtetl in the Pale of Settlement in 1890, a boy from a working-class family who came over before WWI, and so one. They also discussed immigration not only to North America but also to South America. And there were activities for kids. We both noted that the translations to English were not 1:1, meaning not every sign in German was also rendered in English; and when they were, often the English version was shorter. Nevertheless, by reading around we were able to get all the information we needed.

We went to lunch in the Portuguese Quarter, at a little restaurant serving big pieces of quiche (see left). Next we walked down Deichstrasse, which has the city's oldest buildings, despite being the place where the great fire of 1842 broke out (Zum Brandanfang, below). The buildings are so old (back to the late 17th century) that some of them are listing, as you can see here. After that we visited the city center, including the Rathaus Square and a“Winter Wunderland” market that was still open on Epiphany weekend. We looked and smelled but did not buy.

Then it was home for a nap and dinner before making our last excursion, to Dialog im Dunkel (Dialog in the Dark). Apparently there are dozens of these museums around the world, but this was the first I had seen of the idea. It is a museum designed by blind individuals to give seeing visitors an experience of interacting with their environment with all of their senses except sight. (Incidentally, there’s a crass sort of joke I could make about how difficult it was to the find the building at the night—they need better signage!) Before the guided tour starts, you have to give up your glasses and watches and turn off your cell phones. They don’t want anything that might accidentally produce some light or a reflection. Everybody gets a white cane to use, and the group follows a guide through rooms that are set up as a park (with bridges!), a warehouse (for touching and smelling), a short “boat ride” in the harbor (complete with splashing water), and a sort of underwater musical adventure that involved lying on the floor to feel the vibrations. We practiced crossing the street to the sound of the clicker on the walk sign, and the whole thing ended an hour and a half later in the Dunkel Bar, where we bought drinks or snacks and realized how difficult it is (without experience) to tell coins apart by touch. Some of the Germans expressed surprise that even the Euro bills are different sizes, although any American who’s been over here probably noticed that fact second (first would have been their different colors). I enjoyed the visit, and we weren't "disabled" by our language skills.

Sunday morning I got up early to make my way to Dresden by way of a long layover in Berlin. I wanted to go to church with my friends, two of whom were celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. I should have made my reservation for a later train, and didn't have time to get from south of the city back to the Hauptbahnhof, but the man in the couple has most of the time tables for the public transit system memorized, so he was able to tell me when my train would likely be coming through Südkreuz, and I caught it in time. Next stop: Dresden!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Frau Doktor Doctor hier"

Editor's note: Since this post was first published, I have added material to the last paragraph. It's true what they say, that when you write something it is never really finished, but this time I think I'm happy with the result.

I managed to discipline myself to bring only two physical books for this month-long research trip. (There’s no telling how many I have in part or in whole on my laptop, of course.) One of the two is an award-winning collection of essays by biologist Lewis Thomas (1913-1993), The Lives of a Cell (1974). I came across a reference to him in my work, probably in teaching prep, and decided these essays, originally published in the New England Journal of Medicine, would make a nice bit of light reading on the tram or before bed. Although I wonder what new scientific knowledge has been gained in the intervening forty years, I nevertheless find his musings interesting. He writes about the implications of non-human biology for our understandings of human biology and society. The other night I read a chapter about language and music. He contends that all kinds of animals, from beetles to fish to birds to whales, not only communicate necessary information—“thrush here”—but also make noises for the pleasure of it—in other words, music. This got me to thinking about the noises we humans make to communicate with one another, specifically our various languages and dialects. 

My father once told me that when I had reached the point that I could look at a fork and think “der Gabel,” instead of first having to translate the thing into an English word and then into the German word, then I had really learned German. For simple objects I have since reached that point. For more complicated concepts, I still have to think carefully how to get from thought to speech most directly and yet with the vocabulary I possess. It’s definitely easier to say things that I’ve repeated over and over: my name, where I’m from, what I’m doing in Germany. And yet I enjoy the few chances I have for real conversation with Germans. (The archive is a pretty quiet place; the papers don’t talk back, you know.) Listening to a conversation this past week when I joined my old Bible study in Dresden to finish the Sermon on the Mount (die Bergpredigt) I was marveling at how there is an entire people that makes a certain set of sounds different from my native tongue, and they all agree these sounds mean those things, and when I make them, they understand I mean them too. (Mostly.) 

I am happy to note that my spoken German at least hasn’t gotten any worse since the last time I was in the country. Since I use it almost every day at home, my reading German is pretty good, a 4 on a scale of 5. But I have few opportunities to practice speaking at home, so that skill still hovers around a 3, depending on the situation and how nervous I am. Unsurprisingly, my ability to express myself clearly is almost always directly proportional to my confidence about what I need (to say). (The exception is the past subjunctive, such that although in English I know exactly what I mean, in German I have to figure out which of the verbs in the pile at the end of the sentence to conjugate and how. I remember one Bible study at which I was trying to express what King David should have expected, and the sentence came out all durcheinander.) 

Although my broad American accent gives me away when I speak, when Germans cannot understand me, the fault usually lies in my word choice; however, when I cannot understand them, it is more often because of their accent! I’m spending most of this month in Saxony, which is notorious for the difficulty in understanding its native pronunciation. Especially my first trip here, in 2006, I had a hard time. For example, the archivist who helped me at the Hygiene Museum—a true font of knowledge about that institution—was going on and on about something. I thought she said “Schue” (shoes) but then I realized she meant “Schule” (school)!

I am less likely to encounter a true Saxon accent while I’m working than I am outside the archive. One of the members of my old Bible study and several of the working-class members of my old church have it. I’m sure there are scholarly articles and books on the subject, but from my own pedestrian observation, I note the change of the sound “ei” (aye) into “ai” (ay) and the dropping of the end sounds “ch” and “cht.” So “oh nein” becomes “oh nay” (oh no) and “keine Ahnung” becomes “kay-nuh Ahnung” (no idea). My favorite saying in Sächsisch is “I(ch) vais au’ nee,” or in Hochdeutsch “Ich weiβ auch nicht” (I don’t know either). Most of my German friends seem also to have borrowed from southern Germany/Austria the phrase “ein bissel” for “ein biβchen” (a little).

One of the suppositions Thomas makes is that animals (including humans) make music because of Harold Morowitz’s (1927- ) theory that the universe has an organizing function that counteracts entropy and that allowed living creatures to come into existence. This contravenes the theory that the universe is expanding under the influence of entropy; but that’s okay. DH would probably say that there are some things that are worth expressing—even existential sentiments—that cannot be communicated in spoken or written language that the language(s) of music can express. Well, my medium is the written/spoken word. Thanks for reading these musings of mine. Maybe you can imagine me speaking the words aloud. They're the shapes and sounds I make to indicate "Frau Doktor Doctor hier." As to where "here" is, I'm still writing those posts. Stay tuned!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Germany: There and Back Again

Editor's note: After I posted this, I couldn't believe I had left out the most obvious similarity between me and hobbits. See * for the corrected paragraph.

Dear Husband’s concert schedule allowed us to have New Year’s Eve 2012 to ourselves, and because I was flying out of Chicago to Berlin already on January 1, we decided to spend the day/night in the Windy City. Amazingly we had no weather problems and arrived in time to catch Charlie Brown and the Great Exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry with some friends. We also visited the trains (see below). The friends bailed on us to go to a NYE party, so we drove forty minutes across town to check into our hotel. I know the point of a city (relative to a rural area) is to concentrate services and amenities, but I don’t think I could live in Chicago. Maybe there are cohesive neighborhoods amid the sprawl, but I’ll probably just cross it off my “potential residencies” list and look for something smaller. DH is relieved! Who knew when we moved from the East Coast to a Midwest college town that we would like it so much?

Suddenly without plans for the evening, I used the slooow hotel internet to find a steakhouse 15 minutes away that would “squeeze [us] in” if we arrived by 6:15, which we did. (They weren’t busy when we arrived, but they were when we left an hour later.) Steak for him, seafood pasta for me—and a Strawberry Blonde that tasted a little less like cough syrup when I squeezed the garnish lemon into it. We justified the pricey meal with the thought of eating our leftovers for lunch the next day, thereby sparing us the cost of lunch at O’Hare.

Chicago! Trains! Nighttime! (Those are airplanes hanging from the ceiling.)
On our way back to the hotel, I noticed a small movie theater offering The Hobbit. On a whim, we parked the car and walked in to check the next showing—7:25pm! To our chagrin, this theater actually begins the feature film at the time stated on the marquee, but we seem to only have missed 15 minutes of back story on Smaug, which we both knew from reading the books and seeing the animated film. It’s been 15 years since I read The Hobbit, so I had a harder time noticing what Peter Jackson changed, but DH had re-read it just a couple years ago and shifted uncomfortably in his seat more and more toward the end of the movie. In the car afterward he listed off the minor and major details that had been altered, some for the sake of creating a more cohesive film, and others that in his opinion altered the tenor of the story. (Ask him if you want to know the specifics; I don't want to spoil it here.)

Me and the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree
I’m feeling a bit like a hobbit.* For one, I am accustomed to eating every two-three hours, including second breakfast almost every day. For two, it would be easiest for me to stay at home, where everything is comfortable and familiar, put my head down, and write. However, I can enjoy an adventure, and this one should even be good for me. In just four and a half weeks, I’m hoping to do necessary follow-up research for two chapters I have already drafted and one I will write this spring that needs better sources. I even left my pocket handkerchief dictionary at home! I didn’t realize it until I was at the airport. Although I frequently read with an internet dictionary open just in case, and I have one on my computer for archives without internet, when I was here on my big research grant I liked having my little yellow Langenscheidt to look words up on the tram or what-not. My German has gotten better, so maybe it is more of a security blanket than a necessity. (By the way, Linus from Peanuts is responsible for introducing the term “security blanket” into our vernacular!)

Despite a lazy morning and having chosen a hotel near the airport, we ended up rushing there, making several wrong turns, and nearly getting me there too late to check my bags. Nevertheless, I had time to eat my leftovers for lunch before waiting in the plane, still at the gate, for an hour for mechanical repairs before we finally took off. The flight was long enough to get uncomfortable but too short to get much sleep. I zombied my way through a day at the archive and am posting this from the apartment of a departmental colleague. I’m staying with friends in three of the four cities I’m visiting on this trip, so like the intrepid band of 14 in J.R.R. Tolkein’s book, I will enjoy a lot of luck on my journey and don’t have to be entirely self-sufficient.

With blessings for the new year,
Frau Doktor Doctor and Dr. Dear Husband

Blurry holiday greetings from us to you!