Language Classes are the Mirror of the Soul

When I came home this afternoon, instead of continuing my crochet project, I started thinking: “I totally want to take Italian classes when I get back to Berlin”. I was somewhat taken with the sound of the word scrittrice, meaning “writer”, when I came across an Instagram post of a book café in Milan I have always wanted to visit but have never come around to doing.

My next thought was that my best bet when it came to actually getting into an Italian class was what in German is known as Volkshochschule, a general term used for institutions or “schools” in every district of Berlin that are probably the closest this country has to the American equivalent to a community college.  Although a source of various learning opportunities, the German community college model is often frequented by people  who are at least old enough to remember  how the Cold War ended; not because the Soviet Union ran out of money but because Mr. Hasselhoff tore down this wall with his bare voice. That’s historically inaccurate sarcasm in its purest form right there but you see what I am getting at, right?

For a number of  reasons, my quest for learning a new language will probably end in a place where I am surrounded by people who take their retirement as a second chance at life. Many  of my peers may find my choice of learning environment a rather weird one. However, the fact that I started this post by talking about a crochet project at the age of 22, says more than enough about my personal level of weirdness which is what I love most about my character, if you really want to know.

I think learning a new language is a fascinating business. One may follow a similar pattern at any new language they learn but every tongue has its own curiosities in grammar and vocabulary so at the end of the day, with the same old learning mechanisms you gain a tiny bit of new knowledge every time. So even though I have yet no intentions of using my Italian knowledge, I’ll sure as hell love listening to how it works.

I remember writing a blog post with a bucket list of things to do, a few days before I turned 20. In there I mentioned that a person should, at least once in their life, spend time with people who are older than oneself. In the light of the classes I took in the company of well accomplished adults on their journey to retirement, I noticed how beneficial this experience could be all strange feelings aside. In that sense, language classes provide a very interesting environment.

Finally, my Italian learning fantasy lead me to the thought that language classes are like a mirror of the soul, especially the kind that focuses on conversation. Right before I moved to Mexico, I took a course with a Spanish gentleman in his 70’s. In our talking sessions, his words about his life experiences in Spain and then Germany over the past decades painted the most colorful paintings of a life well lived, not to be found in any history textbook.  I couldn’t fail to take note of how most of the time when people are asked to use their language skills to talk about themselves,  they can open up about what drives them on the inside without even intending to do so. All of a sudden you know about what they do for a living, what makes them feel tired at the end of the day, what they wished they would have done when they were still young, what their favorite places in the world are or how they prepare a delicious chocolate cake whose recipe they have inherited from their Polish great grandmother. As a young person I felt like I could especially learn from the way how these people did things to apply them to my own life.

I remember a Spanish class spread over the course of a weekend during which, among other things, we were learning about expressing wishes in the form I would like to, but… In the ten minutes that followed the explanation of the grammar rules, I listened to a group of mostly over worked adults whose only chance at learning a new language was a 20 hour weekend course, talk about their wishes. They all had great visions. One gentleman with a special interest in finance wanted to write a book about economics, another woman wished to play the piano. Even activities like dedicating oneself more to reading or listening to classical music seemed like great aspirations. While the ideas of these people were different, they all had one answer in common. Their but part of the sentence consisted of the phrase “I don’t have time.” A plain, almost cliché like answer and yet one that left me in deep thought. Indeed, once working life begins there is little time for anything else. Many people get accused of being head over heels in their work but how can they not be if it takes up most of their day, five days a week in the best case scenario?

I walked out of that class that day, not only having refreshed my Spanish vocabulary and with some knowledge of what was going on in the heads of people twice my age but also with the realization that dreams are there to be followed while there’s still time.

 

The Movies and Books That Inspire My Travels

As I grow older I realize how difficult it becomes for me to find a book that really fascinates me. One that I would read while waiting for the train instead of listening to music or that I would secretly get lost in,  the pages hidden under the desk, instead of listening to a lecture I find rather shallow in content.

With time it also becomes difficult to sit through a movie when watching it at home, which is one of the reasons I started learning how to crochet to keep myself in one spot while watching something.

But sometimes there are books and movies or sometimes even songs that just get to you and keep you captivated to the last page or the last scene. In my case books and movies, as early as since 2009, have inspired me to travel to certain places or at least put them on my “To- Do in a Lifetime” list. This is not to say that books and movies always describe places as they really are but at least they have the power to make us curious, which is what I love about them.

So today I have thought of putting together a list of these books and movies. I am not so great with content descriptions so I hope the links will be enough and that you might find something interesting for yourself among these.

Frida (Mexico City): I stumbled upon this film while looking for something autobiographical and based on a true story. I loved the portrayal of this artist’s life so much that at the age of 19, I had decided that one day I must save enough money to go to Mexico City and have a look at her paintings.  I even remember searching for an exhibition of Frida Kahlo art in Germany, only to discover that the last exhibit was in 2010. As it so happens, I seem to have won the lottery of destiny since I now get to live in Mexico City for the next 6 months.

The Fault in Our Stars (Amsterdam): The books of John Green became popular around my peers during my last year while studying in Kosovo. I was touched by this book so much that I felt affected by the events described in the book for the next few days after finishing  it. Since part of this book takes place in Amsterdam, it was an easy decision to choose between the capital of the Netherlands and the city of Prague for my first ever solo trip in Europe at the age of 18 (which has started a series of other solo trips around the world from then on). Too bad some of the places mentioned in the book were fictional. 🙂

The Millenium Trilogy (Stockholm):  Have you ever read a book whose content is actually kind of disgusting but it is that exact detailed description of gruesome things that makes it so irresistible (which is kind of how I feel about Game of Thrones)? I am not a fan of thriller literature by nature but Stieg Larsson definitely convinced me. Since I read this book in 2010, Sweden is on my list of places to visit, so I can follow the steps of my favorite protagonist Lisbeth Salander.

My Beautiful Country (Kosovo): I had seen this movie almost two years after I had left Pristina to return to Germany but I feel like having lived there and with the basic knowledge I had about this place’s history, I enjoyed this movie even more. This is the only movie about Kosovo I know of so far, so dear friends from the region, if you know another movie worth seeing, please let me know in the comments below!

Travels in Blood and Honey: Becoming a Beekeeper in Kosovo (Pristina, Kosovo): If dramatic war movies as mentioned above are not really your thing to get you interested in a place, try this memoir by Elizabeth Gowing. There is something about this writing style and the love of detail that makes me love this book, especially since the author writes about her encounters with the locals and her trips in the region. It’s such a shame I didn’t buy a  signed hard copy of this book when Mrs. Gowing was presenting her work at our school.

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books Trilogy (Barcelona): I have never read a book so vivid with such a variety of characters as the books of this series by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. This way of writing actually made me overthrow and start anew my own book writing project at the time. It tells a very beautiful story and once Barcelone ceases to be either too expensive or too hot for me, I am definitely off to see it!

Eat, Pray, Love (Italy): By the time I read this book and saw the movie, I had actually already been to Rome once. Especially since this seems to be a memoir sort of book, I found it to be very exciting to read about a woman starting life anew abroad and while this book mentions India and Indonesia as well, I was more inspired to get back to Rome once more especially since all of my photos from my first visit are gone. I wonder how much longer until I have the savings to take a language course in Italy!

My Life in France (Paris):  I have started reading this book just yesterday after watching the movie Julie & Julia but by the looks of it, the writing style of Julia Child might get me even closer to my plans of re-visiting Paris. Likewise, The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris by John Baxter should be equally inspiring although I must admit that I have not read it yet.

The Museum of Innocence (Istanbul): I have read that book only months after I had already visited Istanbul and this long, tedious and yet captivating novel by Orhan Pamuk made me regret that I had not read it sooner. Had I read it before going to Istanbul, I may have known to visit the actual museum of innocence. What’s most interesting about it is that the museum was based on the book and not the other way around.

Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution (Havana): While the “sequel” to Dirty Dancing gave me a visual inspiration to visit Havana, the memoir by Alma Guillermoprieto gave me something to imagine and think about so I am very excited that Cuba is only three hours by plane from here.

 

If there are any books or movies that have inspired you to travel, feel free to share them with me in the comments. I am always happy to receive suggestions and make new discoveries.

 

A Berliner in Mexico

Two hours before my high school graduation ceremony on Saudi Arabian soil, I met Catherine. I have never been good at talking to random strangers but when constantly traveling from one place to another you eventually realise that, in the big picture, making a fool of yourself is really no big deal. So during my very last hours in the air-conditioned hallway of the science department, the photographs of the past students of the month on the wall being our only listeners, I asked Catherine to tell me her story.

The part of it that I remember until today makes me think of her as an adventurous, spontaneous person. How else would you describe someone who, 24 hours before starting a new life in Oxford in the company of an old friend, has not even started packing yet and feels totally relaxed about it?

Today, almost three years later, just like Catherine, I am standing in front of an empty suitcase and don’t feel a thing. I must have wasted all of my nervous emotions on the previous months, filled with getting additional travel documents, several health check ups and paying a fortune for health insurance.

What I love most about life is that you have the chance to be defined by the people you meet over the years. I like to think of myself as a product of all the stories and observed behaviors of those who have crossed my path of life so far. I like to think that a little bit of every friend of mine stays alive within me, even if said friends have left my life a long time ago.

Between university term papers, Spanish vocabulary exercises and  E-Mails replacing actual office hours with professors , came all the farewell dinners with friends and family that I have eventually lost count of. This is not my first new beginning as I have come to call it. In a way it feels very familiar, almost nostalgically welcoming. However, it is the first new beginning that I am responsible for largely by myself. Each journey is so different and yet the process of getting there is all the same.

Such things are worth writing about as much as they are worth experiencing. Maybe this is one of those moments one may look back upon and say that this is where an old life ended and a new one took its course. It is one of those turning points when you begin to understand that between now and the following  months you will become a new person with new memories, new friends and maybe even new world views. I am curious to see how much I will recognize my old self once this is over.

So from now on, because this blog is already somewhat known to a couple of readers, I’ll document my journey to and through Mexico City on here, happily inviting you to read along!

Germans and Small Talk

I started watching a vlog by a charming American woman who lives in Munich with her German husband. In her cheerful voice full of positive energy, she talks about living in Germany, explaining different aspects of the daily life here to those from abroad while also addressing habits and the lifestyle in the United States.

In one of her  videos she talked about how small talk is not really a thing here in Germany compared to the U.S. and that got me thinking.

I thought to have noticed that difference, too especially after having met some Americans and Canadians during my time at international schools but until now I somehow thought that maybe this had something to do with my own attitude untl I heard other Americans share the same thoughts with me.

I don’t want to generalize. Berlin is such a multicultural place that it is often impossible for me to tell if someone is German or maybe has foreign roots just by plain first sight. What I did notice by living here is that strangers don’t talk to each other very much, especially not spontaneously, unless the situation requires it; with some exceptions of course.

I used to have the urge to have random conversations just to be nice and maybe make new friends but as time passed I noticed that whenever I approached someone spontaneously to have small talk, people wondered what I actually needed from them. In Germany, so I felt, you talk to people with a particular purpose, at least most of the time. If you talk just for the hell of it, the other person might feel like you are wasting their time or be generally surprised about why you are talking to them.

I have also noticed that over the past years, if I actually ever had engaged in small talk, then it was with middle-aged or elderly people. It is more likely that you will spontaneously be discussing the surprisingly low price of strawberries at the Turkish store with a middle-aged customer who just happens to be standing near you, than with someone in their 20s.

I remember how I stood in an immense crowd on the 25 year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall a few years back, watching as the balloon barrier was released into the night sky. There was an older lady next to me and somehow we started talking and she told me all about where she was on that historical date 25 years ago. How her family and her were sitting in front of the TV, not able to believe what was happening. Of course she was obviously able to relate to the historical situation but I guess that if I were to chat up a person my age at lets say the yearly gay pride parade, my chances of engaging in a conversation would be lower in Germany than maybe somewhere else.

And somehow that anti small talk attitude got me, too. Not that I don’t like it but the few times it did actually happen to me with people my own age, I was very much taken by surprise.

I was doing groceries one night and got in line behind a group of young people who were definitely travelers. One of them turned around, looked at me and smiled. He asked me something. I don’t exactly know what he said. Maybe something like how I was doing and what I was up to. Whatever it was,  I felt as if the situation was just like I would imagine it in a grocery store in America after all that I have heard. I was so surprised. I was standing there thinking: “Are you talking to me? Just like that?Out of nowhere?  Why?” I needed too long to say anything back and just smiled. He didn’t expect that response I guess and asked me if I did not understand English. 🙂

It does not stop at travellers though. I have met an exception to the rule only a few months ago. I was reading a book by a bus stop when a young woman with blonde hair sat next to me. She looked at the cover of the book I was reading (Fabian- The Story of a Moralist by Erich Kästner) and asked whether it was a war book. I looked up in surprise. Was she talking to me? Just like that? Without knowing me or wanting anything specific like asking what time it was or when the next bus was coming? Why was that? I told her it was a historical novel set shortly before WWII. She asked if it was okay if she smoked, lighted a cigarette and started talking about this one book she was reading, too and how this actor who played Walter White in Breaking Bad was playing in a new movie based on some other book (maybe even the one she was reading. I can’t remember today).

So maybe attitudes are slowly coming to a change but in general small talk is not such a big thing here in Germany. People like to mind their own business but who knows when you will meet an exception to the rule?

Have a Problem With the ‘Burqa’? Then Read This!

I have been living in Berlin for most of my life now and as I got older, I heard more and more from those around me about how they were bothered by Muslim women. By that they mostly referred to those who choose to wear a face veil additionally to their black coats and headscarves.

Before I proceed with today’s post, there is one thing that I would like to point out about the dress code for women in Islam, for the sake of information.

Burqa and abaya in Berlin

I think it is time to point out that a burqa is, based on my research and my own awkward confusion of the two while living in Riyadh, a cover for women that is made of one single piece and covers a woman from head to toe, with a net in the eyes area. It is mostly worn in Afghanistan. The abaya on the other hand, is a coat or dress like garment that is usually black. The headscarf (hijab) and the face veil (niqab) that has a slit for the eyes are two separate pieces that are worn with it. In my 16 years of living in Berlin I have never seen an Afghan burqa. Those women that you see here, wearing a black coat and a black face cover, are wearing an abaya, not a burqa.

—————- end of info section—————

Although there can be as many different reasons as there are people for why some are against the full cover, most people have pointed out to me that “they were simply bothered by the sight of women wearing all black with no face to be seen. They did not like to look at something like that.”

I have spent many months thinking about this and now that the conservative AfD party has become a member of the Landtag in three states recently , I would like, with this post, to address those people who are bothered by the sight of women in full cover.

I would like to point out to you all the things that for example I  (and maybe some others) “don’t like the sight of” in Germany although for some reason the majority of people doesn’t care. Oh, and before you start criticizing me, which you are welcome to do in the comments, keep in mind that I am NOT Muslim myself so please go find another argument.

I don’t like to see men walking around shirtless in the summer with their enormous beer guts showing. They don’t just walk around here. They also take the train and the bus and sometimes other people have to sit next to them. I think shirtless people belong to the beach, not the city. I think having to look at a shirtless man who is not even in good shape, in a public place is somewhat disgusting and yet no one else seems bothered and I see it every year again.

I don’t like it when I have to watch  (young) people showing off how much they like each other in public. Here, if you look closely, young people kiss and hug passionately on trains, in busses, parks, in the corners of supermarkets, public swimming pools and not to mention saunas.

In fact, I have come across and article today which gives suggestions for the best places where one can have undisturbed sex in public. I am still trying to figure out if maybe this was just a joke.

It bothers me to see how some 12 year olds dress today. Nowadays they show off more than is good for the human eye. I am bothered by how in the middle of the night some guys like to get drunk around Alexanderplatz, turn on the music and get (all) their pants down. People just keep walking. No one says anything. No one calls the police or tells them to stop. Like nothing ever happened.

Yes, I know that in theory indecent public behavior is against the law in Germany and yet I have never seen that law being enforced. While growing up, I was never made to believe by society that doing the things mentioned above is not okay. I have never seen any political or other discussions about how such behavior should be stopped like I see discussions on banning conservative Islamic clothing because people consider it “indecent”. Instead, it has constantly come to my attention how unacceptable it is if a woman decides to dress according to her religious believes.

I like the freedom I have here. I like my short skirts and my strapless dresses. I like to go out with my friends no matter what gender they are. I appreciate the fact that I can write this post and many others without having to fear for the police to come and get me at any moment for what I have just said. Yet I think that before we start criticizing other people from other cultures, we should get some order into our own. I don’t see why we should tolerate indecency and punish modesty.

Yes, I  believe that in a democratic country everyone should be able to do whatever the hell he or she wants to do as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone but if we want to play this card of freedom and tolerance, then this concept should work both ways.

If we consider it okay to be half-naked in public, we should then (even more) consider it okay if someone chooses to dress modestly. Those people who are demanding an actual ban on the face veil should demand an equally strong ban on indecent behavior.

Those women walking around all in black do so because it matters to them. It makes them feel like they are doing the right thing. It makes them feel closer to God and comfortable about themselves (among other things I presume) and as long as they don’t make other people follow their example (which I have never seen happening), we should absolutely leave them alone and mind our own business!

In comparison to that, there is NOTHING fulfilling, meaningful or right about making out in public or showing off your muscles which aren’t even there. Learn the difference before you decide what bothers your eye-sight and why.

————- ——end of rant—————–

Mind the Fine Print, Know Your Grammar: The Odds of German Pricing

One day a lady came into a beauty salon in Berlin and said: “I’d like to get some highlights in my hair please.” The hairdresser asked her to take a seat and started to work with the lady’s full long hair. When asked how many highlights she wanted, the young woman told the hairdresser to spread them out evenly over all of her head.

When told the price of her new hairstyle, the woman thought she must have been hearing things. “Wasn’t it only one Euro for the whole thing?”, she asked, thinking of the small advertisement she saw in the elevator of her house.  “No, ma’am”, the hairdresser said and explained that it was one Euro per strand, not one Euro for the whole service.

Even though this story might sound rather absurd to most of you, (I know, why would someone charge you by hair strand and not just give a price for the whole thing?) it is nevertheless a true story I was told a couple of years ago in Berlin and I chose it as an intro example because it illustrates a confusion that many people who are new (or old) in Germany have: the confusion with the local pricing strategies.

So before you find yourself in an awkward and surprising situation like the one above, let me guide you through some aspects of German pricing strategies that I have noticed so far (continuation may follow later).

Know the language, know the grammar

What gets most people into the pricing trap is the way that prices for goods and services here are being advertised. You may see a nice colorful ad on the train, like a bus company that offers trips from Berlin to many places in Germany in Europe. So you sit there, look up to the poster and see in large print Berlin- Paris ab 33 Euro! The first thought that is most likely to cross your mind at this point is: Awesome! I get to go to Paris for only 33 Euros! But let me tell you that no, you are most likely not going to Paris for only 33 Euros.

The trick is in the little word ab, which is German for starting from but because this little ab is printed so small, many people either don’t notice it, or the internationals who end up here have no idea what that word means.

So if you see a price X on an advertisement and it has the word ab in front of it, it means that price X is the lowest where you can start but normally the prices will be higher than what you see now. Especially for things like train or bus tickets you can pay that price only if you book several days or weeks ahead also, that price will be for a one way ticket and not a trip back and forth.

Hidden costs

Even though budget airlines have to state their ticket prices with taxes and extra costs included, which is why they also switched to the ab strategy, this rule still does not apply to all businesses in Germany. There is such a thing as a ‘hidden price’ that you will not know about from the start.

The best example for that are nail studios. When I went to one for the first time, the text on the window said: complete modeling 20 Euros, refill 15 Euros. I thought that was quite a good offer and went in to get my nails done. In the end, I did not pay 20 Euros like I thought I would but 27 Euros total.

That is because when nail studios state prices, they only tell you about the actual price of the refill or complete modelling alone. Depending on what it is you want to have done with your nails after that, be it French manicure in white or in different colors, with plastic gems or glitter, air brush motives etc., the price will vary. Since I wanted to get simple French manicure, which costs 7 Euros, I had to pay 27 Euros in total. Twenty for the actual service and seven for the design. By the way, each plastic gem costs about 50 cents to a Euro, so be careful when choosing to have one on each finger.

The same applies when you buy event tickets at a booking office. These offices are meant for people who buy the tickets in advance and who don’t buy them from the actual organizer of the event, which makes sense if you don’t have a credit card or don’t want to go all the way to the theater just to be told that tickets are out. In that case you just go to the booking office aka Theaterkasse near you.

Tickets bought at a booking office have an extra cost of 1- 2 Euros. So don’t be surprised if instead of 11,90 Euros you have to pay € 13,90. That is not necessarily something everyone knows and it is not always mentioned when you look up the prices online.

The last thing I can think of are taxis. Though I am convinced that this is more or less common knowledge, when you get in a cab, the taximeter will not start counting from zero but from € 3,40. So basically, getting into the cab alone will cost you over three Euros. That is done probably so that if you get in and choose to get out immediately without driving anywhere, the driver won’t end up empty-handed.

Dandelion Skeletons High in the Trees

My café au lait came in a big white bowl. Finally things start being worth their money, I thought and happily took it from the waitress. My first serving of coffee in about two months and in such a big portion. It must have been a good day, even though I had to learn that the office hours of the enrollment center of my university were listed wrong on their website, meaning two more spare hours to kill for me.

My tea-spoon cut slowly through the foamy image of a leaf. How do you even drink from such a big bowl?, I thought and helped myself with the spoon, as if I was having soup and not coffee.

Though soup may have been a good idea, too. The café was getting fuller and fuller. The bar table which was empty when I sat down was occupied within minutes. Mostly students because the Free University campus in the district of Dahlem is just a few meters away.

With the gray sky and cold wind outside the cosy room, most people at the tables were having soup and fresh bread. I let myself go, let my thoughts wander, as the scent of pumpkin soup and spices teased my nose and appetite.

I realize how surprised I am about the fact that there is not much that I know about the café culture in Germany. In Kosovo people go out for a coffee on a regular basis. Cafés are always well visited and you can discuss pretty much anything over a cup of makiato. In Germany I never really noticed such a trend. Young people usually prefer bars or they spend time in Berlin’s parks with a six-pack of beer nearby when the weather is good. Everything I know about café visits comes from the vacations I have been on with the German part of my big patchwork family. The people who go to cafés here are usually somewhat middle-aged or older and have coffee and cake as an in between thing. After breakfast and before proper lunch. But then there are always the university students who appear at the one or the other table. When I was a child and visited my (German) grandparents for the first time, it was around noon and we were expected by a table set ready for coffee and cake. Something sweet before lunch? I was definitely taught otherwise when I was little. Maybe that was the one and only culture shock I have experienced during my early years. You actually are allowed something sweet before lunch or dinner? My whole life was a lie, I thought.

The lady in front of me seemed to have ordered soup as well. Her bony fingers coated in wrinkly skin flicked through the pages of one of the magazines on the table. That is also a reason why you go out for coffee here. Because you don’t feel like spending so much money on the newest issue of Der Spiegel magazine when you know that you will read only a few of the articles anyway. So why not just read while having a drink?

Lulled by the sounds of people chatting, spoons hitting against ceramic and the rustle of newspapers I disappeared inside the world of the book I was reading. I would come back to the real world every now and again, take a sip of my gigantic coffee and check the watch on my wrist. Then I would dedicate a moment or two to watching the people around me.

The couple next to me was sharing a pair of headphones while apparently studying something together. The man at the table across the room picked up his phone and a secret smile came across his face. He touched the screen a few times and smiled, put the phone away again, returned to the bowl of soup and fresh bread in front of him. Still a smile on his face. Good news maybe?

To my right the trees were swinging in the wind. The bird nests in the bare branches looked incredibly spherical. They reminded me of dandelions joined with the branches as they were. They looked like dandelion skeletons to be exact. I know that doesn’t make sense biologically speaking but we have an imagination, so why not use it?

P.S.:

Dear stranger who found my lost student ID and brought it to the ‘lost and found office’, I know you will probably never come across this because I don’t know who you are and neither how to contact you otherwise, but nevertheless, thank you very much for sending it back my way. Today the thought crossed my mind that maybe not all people in this world are ignorant and egocentric. Some of them take the time to get an item back to its owner. Thanks for restoring a little bit of my faith in humanity. 🙂