A Book Nerd’s Heaven

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“I have spent way too much money this month”, my friend Aidah said thoughtfully. I agreed with a nod she couldn’t see and we both crossed the street in the Prenzlauer Berg district, not sure where exactly we were headed.

“Look!”, she exclaimed out of nowhere, “a book store! Let’s go in.”

In front of the large window stood a row of tables with books that looked as if they had already been read at least once, laying there in neat rows. A board above the door read “Antiquarian”. We went inside, partly because we were curious whether we could find a new companion in the form of a book for sleepless nights and boring hours and partly because we wanted to escape the cold breeze outside. It was one of those moments when you tell yourself that you will just have a quick look and end up spending the rest of your life in there instead.

About a year ago I wrote about where to find cheap books in Berlin. I remember mentioning antiquarian bookshops but deep down I have never been sure whether I myself would ever find anything in there that would spark my interest. I have always imagined that second hand bookshops would mostly have classical works which, although I very much appreciate, I have trouble reading swiftly.

Now here we were in this little shop on Raumer Straße in Prenzlauer Berg and I felt as if I had found a piece of heaven on earth. In the middle of the room and to the right stood boxes full of LPs. The rest of the walls were behind old, wooden, full bookshelves that seemed to touch the ceiling. Aidah was already fully immersed in the contents of the first row of books she saw while I still paid attention to the smell of dust and age around us. The place seemed cozy and nostalgic. Like something I would love to own one day myself.

The place was full of various books. To my relief, not only classics. The owner had written the prices on the first page in pencil. Most were sold for € 4 a copy. A hard cover of Erich Kästner’s Fabian- The Story of a Moralist that I got my hands on cost 50 cents more. Plastic boxes on the ground were full of books for € 1 a copy.

Most books were in German but one small shelf was full of English titles.

“Do you have a catalogue system for all of these?” Aidah was looking for a particular book by a Turkish author and decided to try her luck.

“No, but I know them all here. Just ask”, said the vender. He claimed to have read all of them and smiled. The shop was his and consisted of books and LPs he bought from people whose shelves at home couldn’t hold any more of them.

My eyes kept scanning the shelves, coming past an illustrated volume of the works of Dalí, the collected diaries of Sylvia Plath and the collected works of Erich Maria Remarque. I was now sure that one could find anything in a store where people left their old books. Someone out there has definitely read a book once that you are now interested in!

 

It did not seem like this place was suited to accept debit cards and maybe that was for our own good.

 

What is Education in University?

The first semester is officially over but now that I think about it, I don’t really know if I have learned anything entirely new. I am not so sure about whether there has ever been a moment when I said to myself: “Wow, there is no way I would have known this or that about the German government system or the Cold War or research methodology. had I not been in university.”

I have noticed that there is a bit of talk about how education in high school is not real education but just a waste of time and that university is the real thing while school is just something you have to drag yourself through.

I agree that university is a much greater chapter in one’s life but what is the meaning of education in this context? Is it really education by the books that makes the difference between high school and university?

I have been thinking about this and although I have no idea how university works outside of Germany, (therefore, consider this post just my way of thinking out loud) I have noticed that this isn’t so much about academic education and textbooks as it is about what YOU make of your time there.

In Germany, I am rarely obligated to attend classes because there is no attendance list or anything as such (except for seminars). If I do go to a lecture, the information I receive is not necessarily the latest scientific breakthrough. University here is supposed to be designed in such a way that students can obtain the knowledge they need by themselves if they can’t make it to class. Because there is so much independence involved, university classes strike me as rather dry and impersonal compared to what I had in high school.

So really, if we are talking about plain academic knowledge here, I could have learned everything I have learned so far completely on my own, even if I were still in high school. The textbooks used in German universities are not some rare copies. They can be found pretty much anywhere from the public libraries, to regular bookshops and ebay and often they cost as much as the newest bestselling novel.  Most of the time professors base the content of their lectures on these books because guess what…they took part in bringing them out there.

What does make university a special place for me, are the opportunities and options it opens up.  Here is to what I think about when I think about education:

For me, this semester has been all about taking the classes I am actually interested in. It has been about designing my day the way I wanted it to go. About strengthening my self- discipline because no one would check whether I had done my reading. It was all up to me now and university taught me how to deal with that sort of responsibility.

It has been about freedom. In high school you sometimes have teachers who maybe don’t know how to teach or maybe teach something that you think is not worth listening to. The exact same thing exists in university, too. The difference is however, that in university I have the freedom to get up and leave if I think the lecture is not helping me learn. Professors themselves encourage students to try alternative ways to obtain the information they need to pass the class if they don’t like the lecture. As my professor said at the very beginning: “Attending every single lecture won’t make you a top student, so don’t force yourself if you don’t want to.”

It has been about trying new things. We have a great sports department here where all students can sign up for things like Latin American dance, fencing, yoga, gliding, horse riding, skiing, belly dance, karate…you name it. While I have been rather shy in my teens, in university I have the chance to discover new interests (for a much lower price, too, since students get discounts). Furthermore, once you are approaching your post graduate studies , you can have the chance to teach a class. When I first got to the Free University, I was encouraged to take a class given by fellow students, most of whom I believe must have started their Masters degrees this semester.

It has been about learning new languages. Where else can you learn French or Arabic for free or even find a tandem partner plus all the resources you need?

It has been about exchanging ideas and expanding horizons. There is always a workshop coming up that students are encouraged to attend and that are not limited to those who are part of a specific faculty. You can visit lectures and workshops on how to write résumés in different languages, on the history of written communication, on alternative interpretations of the teachings of religions, on the psychology of certain (political) movements and so on and so forth.

It has been about using time wisely. University vacations are longer than regular school vacations. That put together with the absence of a mandatory class attendance, this may be the best time for travel before you get stuck with a 9-5 job and a family that will take most of your time.

It has been about meeting people from all over the world. The bigger the university, the more international students there are likely to be, especially since universities tend to be more popular among exchange students than high schools. I also liked the opportunity to meet people who are older than myself (I have always been the oldest student during high school so that is quite a new experience for me).

University is not so much about education by the books. There are good and bad teachers, good and bad curriculums in high schools and universities alike. Higher education should be about completing yourself. Discovering your new sides and interests, triggering your intellectual growth, opening your mind, making yourself bigger and better than you were before, making friends for life.

 

Faith in Humanity

This Saturday, I have miraculously managed to get out of bed despite the thick snowflakes out of my window and a sky so dark, my bed seemed more comfortable than ever.

Yet, I decided to try and do something for my future by attending a career fair at the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the hope that my Political Science major is, after all, not as useless as all the economists and accountants around me think it is.

And while I was standing on the platform of the next train station, I witnessed what in today’s world seems like a great act of kindness, at least to me.

A few meters away from me stood a young man with what obviously looked like a blind man’s stick. The speakers above our heads had just announced that the next train would arrive on the opposite side instead of the one that all of us were facing. In that moment I watched as a woman came up to the blind gentleman and said in a soft voice: “I think the next train might have to change tracks, too. You should probably turn around to the other side. There might be no train on this one.”

The two of them exchanged a few words. I remember the woman telling the blind gentleman that he should let her know if he needed any help getting on the train.

When the train arrived (the young man decided to try and get along on his own) another passenger was so kind to make sure he wouldn’t hurt his hands when the door opened (he was trying to make out the doors by groping for it and was off to the side quite a bit when they were about to open). As we got on, another person got off her seat and led him to it carefully so he could sit down.

Most of you may think that doing something like this is common sense and in a way I do agree with you. However, in a daily life full of frustrated bureaucracy staff on the other end of the phone, of people who sometimes take your own kindness for bribery, of political crises and of people who are so tired they can only think about themselves, I found this so remarkable that it filled me with optimism for the rest of the day.

It was not too long ago after all, that I witnessed how no one bothered to wake up a sleeping passenger when everyone was asked to get out at the line’s terminal. The poor man just kept sitting there and woke up only as the train was in motion again, him being the only one inside.

Call me a pessimist but for a while I was afraid that no one would notice this young man on the platform this past Saturday. That he would just be left there to deal with his own fate (yes, of course I would have helped him if so) because everyone else would be too busy with their own stuff and I was tremendously relieved to see that this was not the case. That people are still able to look out for each other.

 

Learning German? Read These Books!

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A friend of mine who has embarked on the tedious yet adventurous journey of learning German, has asked me whether I could recommend any German books to read.

Dumbstruck as usual whenever someone asks me to recommend something, I immediately forgot about any book I had ever seen or read in my whole life and started staring aimlessly into space. What is a book and what am I supposed to do with it??

After a short while though I started remembering my reading habits from earlier years and since most people who read this blog might still be learning German, I came up with a list not just for my friend, but for anyone else who might read this post.

I learned German through immersion so unfortunately I can’t tell what it feels like to learn German from scratch or how easy or difficult it is to build up one’s vocabulary. Therefore, I cannot say exactly on which level of proficiency you need to be in order to read these. Some of the works were written specifically for children and are therefore easier to read while others are works of classic German literature but still shouldn’t be too hard to understand.

Look at the titles, find something that you like and see how well your reading goes.  I hope you’ll enjoy! Viel Spaß!

Der kleine Prinz (The Little Prince), Antoine de Saint-Exupéry : Certainly not a German piece but I have seen this one on pretty much every list of suggested literature for beginners that I have ever come across so I guess this book should be on here as well.

 Der Struwwelpeter Heinrich Hoffmann: A children’s book made of ten rhymed stories with illustrations. The stories are about children who suffer (quite brutal) punishments after they misbehave. Maybe the fact that the author is a doctor and psychiatrist helps explain the weird nature of this book but nevertheless it is one of Germany’s classics that even made it into the school curriculum. I remember reading one of the stories in elementary school. It must have been for the good rhymes so that we would improve our reading skills…

Märchen (Fairytales), Various authors: Be it by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen or Wilhelm Hauff, fairytales may always be a good insight into the language you are studying. I find them a good source since they (their most recent versions at least) are meant for children and should therefore not be so linguistically challenging.

Die unendliche Geschichte (The Never -ending Story), Michael Ende: I have to admit that in all these years I have never come around to read this book but from all I know it is very popular and can be found in pretty much every child’s room in Germany. The setting varies from the real world and a fantastic parallel world. The story begins with the main character Bastian Balthasar Bux, who is reading a stolen book in the school’s attic instead of going to class. Eventually, the boy gets so drawn into what he is reading that the real world and the one in Bastian’s book merge into one.

Die Rechenaufgabe (The Math Problem), Otto Waalkes: Not a book but a short sketch by the German comedian Otto Waalkes about a little boy who can’t figure out how to divide 28/7 and asks his father for help. I personally included this on here because I remember liking it very much when we used it as reading and acting practice in elementary school. It is a short read and relatively simple. Maybe something to read in between to check your reading comprehension skills? Also might give you an idea of German humor (YES! We CAN be funny, too!!). You can find the text here.

Russendisko (Russian Disco), Wladimir Kaminer: Wladimir Kaminer is an author from Russia who writes about what it is like to live in Germany, the topics ranging  from politics over food to just “weird habits”, making a lot of references to Russian culture along the way. His books (I encourage you to also have a look at his other works!) are mainly in German but have by now been also translated to English in case you want to read parallel. Kaminer writes in vignettes so you don’t have to go through the trouble of following one plot but can read short pieces of text instead. His stories are also incredibly funny and especially good for people who are thinking about visiting Germany.

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Kurzgeschichten (Short Stories), Heinrich Böll: The Nobel Prize for literature winner Heinrich Böll belongs to the generation of authors who were the first ones to start writing again after the horrors of WWII, hence the content of his stories revolves around that topic in particular. In German this literature era is called Trümmerliteratur or rubble literature. I would mainly suggest his work because I think he is a great writer and when I first read “Wanderer Kommst du nach Spa…”  (see page 34) while in college prep, I was thrilled by the pictures that his words would draw in front of my inner eye. He is definitely worth a try, just like his fellow writer Wolfgang Borchert and his story “Nachts schlafen die Ratten doch” (The Rats Sleep at Night).

Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis), Franz Kafka: I assume that everyone has at least at some point heard of Kafka so all I will add is that while the substance of his stories (in Metamorphosis the protagonist turns into a cockroach) might be a bit mystic and deep, his language is less complicated and can be good practice for more advanced German speakers. Another famous work of his is “Der Prozess” (The Trial) which is also available as a graphic novel. That way it might be easier to understand the plot.

Die Physiker (The Physicists), Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Originally a Swiss piece, The Physicists is a play for those of you who like drama and history. It addresses the ethical dilemma that arises when politicians gain scientific knowledge that can eventually destroy the world. The play relates to the issue of nuclear warfare during the Cold War. It is a short piece of two acts with concise sentences. We read it in college prep class last year and my fellow classmates were on German levels between B2 and C1. The reading went fairly well for everyone.

Additional Sources: 

The German version of Project Gutenberg has lots of freely available classical texts from books over poetry to drama, letters etc. If you are still looking for German authors in particular and already have a few names in mind, have a look at the authors register.

If you have access to the media libraries of German TV channels (most of  the time your IP address must be located in Germany for that to work but sometimes it doesn’t) and you think your German listening skills are somewhat advanced, check out the show  Das literarische Quartett. This is where four authors/book critics come together once a month and discuss four books that all of them had to read. I get my reading inspiration from there sometimes. Last time they presented the young adult novel Auerhaus by Bov Bjerg about a group of friends who moved together as a flat share community in a small town in Germany. The story was simple and the language brilliant. There were passages where I couldn’t help but put the book down for a moment and think: Wow, that was deep. I still remember how one of the characters says “I didn’t want to kill myself. I just didn’t want to live anymore.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Independence”

I am an ordinary person like everyone else. But the deeper you look into it, this ordinary person of mine is actually made up of a lot of different things. 

Among those different things stands out the fact that (whether I want it or not) I happen to be a thinker for most of my time.

I was doing a free-write a few minutes ago because my mind just wouldn’t stop thinking. It keeps on going like an excited hamster who just got a new wheel to run in. 

And while I was writing down all of those random thoughts and ideas and speculations that wouldn’t let me sleep, I stumbled upon this idea of “independence”.

So many people (especially women) chant about wanting to be independent and do their own thing. I am an introvert and to be honest, I really enjoy my own company when there is no one else around because everyone in this world is busy 24/7 anyway so better learn getting along with yourself. 

Speaking from an emotional point of view though, how much independence is actually manageable? 

I spent my childhood days dreaming about the time when I would be a grown up girl in a grown up world, living my own life with everyone else being just a supportive noise in the background. I did not want to do that because I thought of myself as superior to others but because until this day I don’t like the idea of having to bother those around me with things I could actually manage on my own. 

Now that I am on my own however, I have to, at least for now since I am new to all this, confirm my previous doubts and say to myself again that things are not always as easy as they seem. I always wanted to lead my own life and now that I have it, I wonder whether I can actually handle it all the way through. 

Will I be able to make ends meet by myself in the future? Will I be able to keep myself organized etc…etc…?

Independence is a great thing, you know but when it really comes down to it, when everything is not just a girlish, feminist dream but blunt reality, I wonder how many of these (young!) women who chant about independence without ever experiencing it before will actually be able to stand through it with their heads raised high and their backs straight?  Maybe everyone. Maybe very few. I don’t know…

This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t be determined about making their own decisions (men and women alike) but rather to think about what independence actually is aside from a goal that so many women in particular try to achieve (My university is kind of very leftist and kind of very crazy about gender diversity seminars so please don’t take that women focus personally. I guess that mind set just makes me wonder a lot)? 

Maybe, instead of solemnly trying to impress everyone with one’s ambitions for “independence”, it might be a good idea to think about how this goal can be achieved first? What needs to be done to get there and what are alternative plans if something doesn’t work out?

Because when it comes down to it, reality is quite good at getting our ideals and dreams crushed. I have met quite a few people who don’t even want to think about these things that I felt like pointing them out.

Should some of us spend a thought or two on what independence actually means in practice before embarking on a gender war? Or have these people already done so and this is what we get anyway?

 

End of Term Thoughts

It’s been three hours since I have been sitting inside the Philological library of my university (we lovingly call it “the brain” because of its shape) and I can’t believe that I have another two hours until my French seminar, which I actually can’t afford not to attend and therefore don’t have time to go back home in between.

Looking at the bright side of things, my desperation may have been bigger had my next class been Arabic and not French. Never mix hobbies and (university) work. Just make sure that if you still put vowels where there are not supposed to be any and if you can’t read your own handwriting after five minutes, do it without the worry of having to pass that class for those 10 credits. Yes, French was a good idea after all. There are vowels all over the place so I have nothing to worry about.

Surprisingly enough, I just realized that this term is nearly over. I have another four weeks of class before it is time for finals and it seems as if it were only yesterday that I was trying to figure out how the lockers at this place work.

So I am thinking about what conclusions I can make after this first term and maybe when I have finished typing this, I will be closer to my last seminar and my way home.

Maybe the first thing I can think of is the fact that the idea of being lonely in a crowd (a massive crowd in my case) has never been so true.

I could say that after almost four months at university I don’t actually really know a soul and not a soul knows me, even though I am regularly surrounded by hundreds of people in a lecture hall. Of course there were various “introduce yourself” rounds at the beginning but where did these people go afterwards? Like when you changed your schedule after one week and suddenly found yourself in a new group when the introductory rounds are over?

There is always a way to exchange a few nice words with someone and the more people there are, the greater the variety but at the end of the day, chances are that this girl who asked you how to get to the film and drama department on a rainy Tuesday afternoon will never cross ways with you again. Instead, you could be approached by a student from the student parliament the next day who will try to convince you with all this strength to vote for the Young Communists Party during elections next week.

In a place as big as this one, people always come and go and if you want to hold on to any of them, you better like them quickly so you still have enough time to exchange phone numbers or something.

Yet, my humble social skills put aside, the anonymity here is not too bad after all. Being “just a number” has its practical sides, too. No one can actually tell whether I chose to sleep in one day or not. No one can point out exactly that I sometimes spend my time in a lecture doing crochet under my desk and if I ever get into a political argument with my professor or ask a stupid question in general, I don’t have to worry about that awkwardness following me for the rest of my time here. Let’s be honest, not even the people in my small seminars know what my name is. The next day they won’t even be able to tell that it was me who spoke.

I noticed that the days go by quicker than they used to when I was in school. I go to class, I listen and doodle on the side and then I go home. I can let my mind wander if I want to and I don’t have to speak when I don’t want to. All I do is listen which in a way, is easier than listening and answering questions because no one else will, put together. All in all, I am my own master when it comes to learning so I have less reasons to be nervous like I used to be in school. In fact, the system here is so flexible, some students live in one town of Germany but are enrolled in university in a different state. They show up for exams only and still get their degrees in the end.

I do however, greatly miss the possibility to know my professors. It was very easy to find a common ground with a teacher in school. The classes were small and the teacher was always part of the faculty. You could ask them for help or you could drop by during break or lunch to discuss stuff that interests you both.

In university that does not seem so much doable to me. The professors that I have this semester are somewhat “very important people”. Lecturing is not even the main part of their work as researchers and political scientists. They drop by here occasionally to give their educated speeches. Some even come here from other states in Germany. So if you think about it, they don’t have the time to chat with their students about anything and everything. It is only a matter of clarifying things you did not understand when reading along on their PowerPoint. They do however, encourage us to come to them with questions about exams or our term papers for which we need an appointment.

It is difficult to think that it would be possible to look up to our professors as givers of advice, people we can turn to when we can’t move forward intellectually. We are simply on a too professional level now but who knows whom I will have the pleasure of dealing with next semester?  Besides, German teachers and professors generally prefer to keep a distance to their students, compared to my experience with Americans and Canadians.

In curiosity of what the next semester will bring, I notice that indeed I am closer to today’s last seminar than I was before. J

 

 

 

The Smell of Dusty Books

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Gulliver’s Travels

The pile of cardboard boxes has been standing around in my corridor for nearly six months. I postponed the business of sorting the things inside them for as long as I could, giving priority to college and- housework. I just didn’t like moving houses including the acts of packing and unpacking things, especially if they weren’t mine.

But once I opened the first box a few days ago and ran my hands through the contents, I felt something like a sense of adventure building up inside me.

Maybe this is what I have been so afraid of. That moment when you have an abundance of things in front of you and you just have no idea what to do with them. Keep them? Throw them away? Donate them? And if I were to keep them, where exactly should I put them so that the whole thing does not look like a huge mess?

Sometimes these kinds of thoughts can occupy me for several minutes.

Most of the things were books. Old ones. The ones that have found their way into my mother’s possession when my existence was not even an idea yet.

Some of those books have been a constant part of my surroundings since childhood. I recognized them immediately. There was the German self- learn book with a black cover and the outlines of Germany printed on it in white.

There were books whose authors and titles made absolutely no sense to me back then but now that I hold them in my hands, I wish I would be reading in Russian much faster so that I could actually enjoy reading a book in my native language. The collected works of Stephen King, Heinrich Böll, Thomas Mann, a biography of Goya, a Belarusian cook book and many more books that could fill the lonely hours alone in my armchair with lit candles and a cup of coffee nearby.

It is very difficult to keep hard copy books when you travel. They are too heavy and there are only so many you can eventually take with you. As much as I understand this now, I am even more happy to find that my mother chose to keep so many of her own copies.

The pages were dry and thin, yellow with age and the several fingers that turned them around several times over. It smelled of nostalgia. It smelled of good old times. A feeling of being home.

Then I came to a box that had my own books in them. There should be more down in the basement I am sure. I looked through the boxes in the corridor and wondered. What made me keep those? Why?

It is interesting to try and re-construct my way of thinking now, nearly six years after I had packed those boxes. Maybe it is true that our bookshelves can reveal quite something about us, their owners.

Who was I six years ago and who am I now? Two were books I had to read for school back then. One were the collected works of C.S. Lewis in Russian, another was a collection of Russian children’s poems that my parents had me learn by heart so that I turned out to be a smart kid in the end. The rest were teenage novels in German.

What made me think that I would want to have those when I am older? At least the teenage novels for girls? Was it because some of them were gifts or because some were bought with my own money? Maybe I just didn’t have the heart to throw them away.

The last thing I found was a black and white photograph of my parents in the late 80s. My father in his Red Army military uniform standing next to my mother in front of a curtain like the one used in photo studios. They must have been as old as I am now. If I had to talk about the very first conscious image I have ever had of my parents, since early childhood, it would be this one and now I found it again.

Maybe keeping things from the past is a good thing. They remind us of who we used to be. They help us not to lose track of ourselves.