I am a lucky person, but I think I make my luck, too.

I started learning German about a year ago.  I didn’t plan to, but on an eclipse trip in Argentina I met two young astrophysicists from Munich, both fluent in English.  We corresponded after the eclipse, and because there is a ring (annular) eclipse in the US in 2012, I invited them over.  I promised I would learn a little German.  Well…a little turned into a full time 5-6 hours a day for 9 months.  I did most of it alone, until I found a couple of language learning websites.  These allow people to correct each other, and through that I met people on line in several countries.  I don’t like to use the word “friend” for somebody I have never met, but on the other hand these people have been available for me to bounce things off more than many of my friends over here.  I regularly correspond with people in Europe and Brazil.

Originally I planned on a short visit to Europe to see the two women I met.  I figured 4-5 days was enough, trying to heed the adage that guests are like fish, after 3 days they begin to smell.  But two of my online “friends” invited me to stay with them when I went over, one in Switzerland, the other in Austria. They were serious, so I changed my plans.  Now 62, my 4 days in Munich turned out to be 26 days abroad in 3 countries.  I spent 8 days in Munich, another 4 in Switzerland, and 14 in Austria, in a small town where people speak dialect and don’t lock their doors.  Yeah, those places still exist.

The first thing I realized was how difficult German is to learn, and that what I spoke was not at all as good as I hoped, nor was my comprehension anywhere near what I hoped.  But the people around me were astounded at my progress, and they were pleased that I was speaking their language.  Not one person said anything derogatory.  Not one.  Oh, I made some funny mistakes, but we all laughed….and moved on.  I asked questions and more questions.  Some things I picked up right away, others just didn’t stick for the longest time.

One of my hosts, Niki, met me in Munich.  He spoke German immediately and I later learned that was his plan–to be “grausam” or cruel–as he put it.  I responded in German, and within 2 days, I decided that in public, I would speak German, no English at all.  There was a lot I would not say, much of which I wanted to, and a great deal I would not understand, but I decided I had to go with the flow, knowing I would do some stupid things and ask a lot of dumb questions.  But I spoke German in Europe almost exclusively.  In Austria, I explained the US financial crisis to Elisabeth in English, both because it was easier, and because I am so angry at what happened that the anger affected my ability to speak German.

As I got more comfortable with Europe, I noted things to compare with here.  Europe sure isn’t perfect, any more than we are.  There are things people on both sides of the Atlantic could learn from one another.  There is too much smoking in Europe, although they are making progress eliminating places where people may smoke.  While many bicycle, there are far too few with helmets, although motorcyclists do wear them.  Yes, I am in favor of helmet laws; as a retired neurologist, I think my credentials to say that are  solid.

Europeans have good public transportation.  With gas $8 a gallon, they need to move a lot of people efficiently.  No, it isn’t perfect.  I missed a train in Salzburg.  But there was another one two hours later.  I was able to get all around Munich using the S and U-Bahns.  They work.  Not knowing the system, I still got around.  Speaking some German helped, but it wasn’t necessary; people were just happier with me when I did speak it.  We need the same public transportation system here.  It can be done, and Portland, Oregon is a good example of how a city can work.  I doubt it will in Tucson.    I have stopped listening to my detractors and those who confuse average with “world class.”  Tucson has major climate problems, educational problems, and an immense number of far right wing people living here.  They are old people, regardless of their age, and they have damaged the state perhaps irreparably.  We need good public transportation, and if it is good, people will use it.  Yes, it will cost money, but it will pay for itself in many ways, not all of them monetary.

The food was great in Europe, and I must have walked most of the calories off, because I did not gain weight, and I ate cheese and pastries by the kilogram.  Oh yes, we need the metric system here, too.  There is no excuse for not using it.  None.  I have for decades, and most Americans don’t know the English system well.  Think you do?  Answer these without looking them up:  How much does a gallon of water weigh?  How many ounces in a gallon?  How many yards in a mile?  How many acres in a square mile?  How many square feet in an acre?  To the nearest hundredth, what is 7/16ths in decimal form?  What is the scale in inches to a mile of a map that is 1:100,000?  What is the approximate conversion for nautical to statute miles?  If you can’t answer most of those questions quickly without looking them up, I rest my case.

Restaurants in Europe open later than I am used to, and you have to get the waiter or waitress to give you the bill.  What that does is allow you to stay longer with your friends, and generally order more food and drink.  I can’t say how many times an American waitress has lost money for the restaurant by shoving the bill under my plate without asking if I wanted anything more.  I would have ordered dessert, but decided it wasn’t worth it.

Internet service fails in Europe, as it does here.  But I had cable high speed Internet in homes, even if I didn’t have wi-fi.  Phone service had its problems, but my National Geographic phone was a nightmare that I finally stopped using.  Customer Service was a long wait, and if you didn’t have minutes you couldn’t call to order them. One has to have a toll free line to the service center, and this telephone did not have that.  Nor did it fill 80% of my request for minutes.  Is that stupid or just American?

In truth, despite National Geographic, I really didn’t spend a lot of time comparing Europe and America.  I simply saw parts of the world I had never seen before with people I had never met until recently.

Europeans usually can speak another language, but I learned that their English was often like my German, passable but not fluent.  That was fine by me.  They spoke English to me, and I spoke German back.  We communicated, and we had fun doing it.  Many have been to America and have a good opinion of the country, especially Mr. Obama.  They wonder why we don’t have national health insurance and why we don’t do something about guns.  I have wondered both of those for years.  I bet my career on improving medicine and lost, and I have long since not bothered trying to fight the National Gun Association (it really is about guns, not rifles, but ‘rifle’ sounds so much better than ‘handgun’).  I don’t interpret the 2nd amendment the way the Supreme Court does, and most of those who tote guns are not US Veterans.  Am I sure of that?  Yes I am, since only 7% of Americans served this country in uniform and a lot more than 21 million people (minus me) have guns.  So much for a militia, unless the Tea Party forms one, in which case I am off to Canada.

Here is a list of what I saw that I doubt I would have on my own or with a tour:

  1. Two visits to a family on a farm outside of Munich.  On my own, I had to deal with Bayern dialect, not understanding a lot of it, but learning a few words and realizing a man my age was calling me “du”, which is something one has to be careful about in Germany.  On the second visit, there was a party of 20 young people, half my age.  Three times, for a protracted period, one of the people engaged me in a conversation in German.  They spoke slowly enough, but still at reasonable speed, that I could ask about them and tell them about myself.
  2. A tour of Munich with one of my friends from the Argentina trip and her husband.  The weather was terrible, but it did not matter a bit.  We had a lot of fun. 
  3. A trip to Chiemsee, a large lake in southern Bayern (Bavaria).  Got out to Herreninsel, and walked around the island, seeing King Ludwig’s Castle.                                4. A visit to the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestial Physics, and a look at the work going into EROSITA, an X-Ray telescope to be launched in early 2013 to L5, the LaGrangian Point (where Earth and Sun’s gravity are equal, so the orbit is stable), beyond the Earth’s orbit.  5.  A visit to Poing, a lovely wild animal park with room for the animals.

Yes, I walked around Erding, a suburb, and I had dinner and coffee with and without others.  I talked German with complete strangers, but these would have been normal parts of a visit. 

In Switzerland, the German is more difficult to understand, and I was with a family where English was spoken only by one son.  I stayed 4 nights in their house in Kerzers, a suburb of Bern.  I got off the beaten track.

  1. I was met at the Bahnhof and immediately taken to Enrico’s workplace (the husband of Teresa, whom I met online).  It was a clear Sunday afternoon, and we had unfettered access to the rooftop, where the view of the Alps above the powerlines and houses.  The views were stunning.2.  That night, I was shown a book about the first 26 hour flight with a plane whose wings were completely covered with solar panels.  The propeller driven plane used no fuel, only batteries at night, and flew as high as 8700 meters.  I also saw a DVD of the flight.  There were no American firms in the consortium.  I never heard about this flight.  If we can power an airplane with solar panels, why not a car, an air conditioner,  hot water heaters, and automobile accessories?   3.I was on the tourist track when Teresa took me through the three lakes and two canals on a boat ride.  We saw Merton through her experience, climbing high up into an old church above the old town.  We took the train to the boats, and we walked to the train again.  No cars.4.  One night, the family cleared the table quickly and I noted everybody dressing up.  I was still in shorts, so I decided I ought to put on decent clothes, really not knowing what was going to happen.  Teresa’s look, after I had changed, told me I had done the right thing.  We drove with a son to a school.  I saw a piano and drums on the stage and figured this was a concert.  I could have asked, but wasn’t sure I needed to or should to.  Sure enough, three young women appeared and played two numbers, one on the piano, one on a sax, and the third on a violin.  

But then things changed.  A man started talking, and from a few words, I realized this was their son’s graduation from school!  I was asked to take pictures, which I did, and later there was a reception, where I took the family’s picture.  There might have been other Americans there, but somehow I doubt it.  I was really deep into another country’s culture.

5.  On my second day, Teresa had to work, so I went into Bern, where I met the sons of my only cousin.  Peter lives in Bern, is the oldest, and I met him in Tucson in 2006.  He speaks four languages.  I had never met Richard, who looks like my late uncle.  Both spoke English and German to me, I spoke German back.  They were amazed, pleased, and we had a lot of fun.  They had lived in Bern for years when they were children, so we had a lot of fun together and I saw Bern through their eyes.  I have no parents living, only one cousin, and so to meet anybody in my family was truly special.6.The last day, Teresa took me to Freiburg, where there is an old church and a tower where one can walk to.  We climbed up to the tower, where really quite by surprise, a nearby lightning strike caused me to yell for Teresa to get off the tower.  She said, all in German, that everything was OK.  I screamed at her, again in German, that all was indeed NOT OK, and we needed to get out of there.  We did.

One has to be prepared for changes.  Teresa had mentioned nothing about the last morning, and I had a 0745 train to catch from Bern, meaning I needed to catch the 0650   train from Kerzers.  I was up at 5, and at 6 the house was still quiet.  I ate, expecting to take a walk to the Bahnhof.  At 0615, Teresa appeared in a bathrobe, so I assumed I would still be walking.  About as I got ready to leave, Enrico appeared at 0625, sleepy eyed and saying he would take me.  So I did get a ride, although I didn’t know it until the last minute.

I had no problem getting the train from Bern to Zurich, but I had to ask for directions for the train to Salzburg.  That was no problem, as it turned out, although the train itself was slow, frequently stopped too long, and I realized I would not make my connection in Salzburg for the trip to Oberösterreich, where Lambach was located.  I texted Elisabeth, who told me to take another train that left later, going to a different stop, which would be easier for her.

I have learned that the posted schedules at Bahnhofs are not always accurate, so I went to information to confirm my trip.  I found the train and got off at Wels, where Elisabeth met me.  People don’t use signs very often, but we had chatted on the Internet, and there were not many departing the train at Wels.  She took me to her house, where we had dinner.  I would stay there for two weeks.

Lambach is small, on the Traun River, but has good transportation.  The stores are all closed on Sundays, which is a throwback to many years ago here in the US.  

  1. I went to a school, where I was asked to speak English at Elisabeth’s English class.  She is fluent in English and is the school’s English teacher.  I soon realized that those teachers who spoke English with me were less fluent than I was in German.  I answered in German, they spoke English.  This was a recurring theme in Europe.  The students loved having me there, had many questions, surrounded me afterwards, peppering me with questions.  Later, we had a computer class where I showed them pictures of the US, solar eclipses, and explained the latter phenomenon in German.  I had a blast.2.The next day, we hiked to a Laudachsee, a small lake east of Traunsee in the mountains.  It rained, but not hard, and we walked around the small lake and then had lunch in a restaurant.  The inside was taken up by a wedding party, so we ate outside.  It was cold, but we were given blankets and stayed dry.    We walked back down the mountain and took a visit to Traunsee and a church on a small island accessible from shore.  I almost died on the walk over.  One of my big fears is riding in a car, the other is being a pedestrian.  Most cars will stop for people in a crosswalk.  Fortunately, in this crosswalk, I looked.  A black Mercedes sped through at 80 kph (50 mph), never once stopping.  Illegal, yes.  That would not have saved my life.
  1. The following day, we took the train to Salzburg.  Elisabeth had lived there 3 years, so I had a tour guide.  We saw the city, the Feststellung, high on the hill, had lunch in a lovely old place dating at least 300 years, and at the end of the day had drinks with her sister and brother in law, who lived nearby.  Again, it was a chance to work on my German with strangers, and again I was told I was understandable.  This had been my biggest concern, and I was greatly relieved to know I was able to speak correctly.  Elisabeth and I took the train back and walked back to the house from the station.
  2. I was invited to go to Linz, for a program where schools in the surrounding area (Linz is the capital of Öberosterreich, one of the nine states in the country) put on a show.  Unfortunately, the dancing, athletics, and the fair atmosphere was considerably dampened by the rain.  Still, I got to see the Danube, Brown, not Blue.
  3. On my own, I visited the farmer’s market, several bakeries, and had conversations with people in town.  I had to see a doctor about a small infection that wasn’t healing, and it was interesting to see medicine from a patient’s side abroad.  The visit was 15 euros, the medicine about 7.5.  All drugs are 5 euros for residents, regardless of what the drug is.
  4. Elisabeth and I went to a concert with a Russian pianist, held in a local church.  I figured with a town of 4000, there would be few attendees.  There were 400, and the pianist was superb.  So was the church.
  5. We visited Epps, the oldest city in Austria (800 years next year), and then went to Mauthausen, the main concentration camp in the area.  It took in just about anybody the Third Reich didn’t want, which in this instance led to 122,000 deaths.  It was perhaps the cruelest of all the camps.  Prisoners had to haul 55 kg blocks of granite (120 lb) up an incline which today has about 200 stairs and had me puffing.  Many were lined up at the top of the quarry and told to push the person in front of them over or to jump themselves.  The guards laughed as they called these people “parachutists without parachutes”.  Several thousand were shot as they tried to escape; at least 1500 committed suicide by touching the electric fence.  When liberated by the Americans in 1945, a day before V-E day, they buried 1200 the first day and 300 a day thereafter.  The surrounding countryside is so beautiful, but one cannot not escape the memorials by more than 40 countries, with words almost all in languages other than English. The words struck me deep to my core, as did the place called “Gaskammer”, and a beam where hundreds of Russian prisoners died painful deaths.  These places existed.  I had never been to one.  It is said Austrians won’t take people there, but Elisabeth takes her school children there to show them what their country was capable of.  America has MyLai and Iraq.  No country is immune to evil.  The evil at Mauthausen, however, was beyond compare.
  6. The next afternoon, we had dinner at a house of a friend–fellow teacher–and again, I had to speak German at length.  The way people opened their houses was deeply appreciated by me.
  7. We spent two days in Hallstättsee, spending the night in Obertraun.  The first day, we went up the Dachstein on the Gondola where we saw two caves, the latter the Ice Caves, where there are stalactites and stalagmites, made of ice.  The backlighting was superb, and the caves remarkable.  We spent time on the summit, over the 5 Fingers, which are projections built out over the cliffs.  It became foggy, but we were up there and again beat the rain down.  The next day we explored the town and the gondola up to where the salt mines were.
  8. That night, we had dinner at a local pizza restaurant in Lambach.  Perhaps America has better pizza, perhaps, but if we do, that is the only food I ate over there where our’s was better.  I have never just savored the taste of bread, pastries, and other food the way I did in Europe.  We were part of a group of 8, and again, many were curious about me and my life.  I spent some time talking about German grammar with a man, again, all in German.
  9. Elisabeth and I rafted the Traun, with a friend driving us upstream.  There is a 10 mile stretch with no houses, only clear water and lovely woods on either side.  It is a gentle river and with a raft, no problem.  There are plenty of places to swim or to camp.

I was not allowed to clean the house or the yard, although I did take it upon myself to empty the dishwasher, take out the trash, and feed her two cats.  We split up expenses, although I paid for dinner one night and gas one time as well.  There were just too many things she was doing for me that I needed to repay somehow.

I brought gifts for Teresa, Enrico and Elisabeth.  I had no idea and still don’t, how they will work, although the SW jewelry bracelet Elisabeth received has been worn several times.

I spoke English with Elisabeth twice, as mentioned earlier.  A third time was at the train station the day I left.  I wanted to be certain I could express myself clearly.

I then had to return to Munich, where the schedule changed, and I went from the Bahnhof to the S-Bahn and then the U-Bahn, taking that to MPE.  I met Maria and Anita and had a snack at MPE.  Maria, Niki and Maria’s uncle had dinner with me in Erding, my last night before flying home.

I was pleased that my German was understood, but I was disappointed that I still could not understand completely the news, although I knew the drift.  Nor could I read the newspaper well, although I read it daily.  I have two German books I am reading, I am spending sometime every day listening to German, and I decided to join the University of Arizona German club so I can meet with them on Thursday nights and both speak and hear German.

I do want my life back, where I am not spending every day learning German.  But I do not want to lose what came at great expense of time and effort, and is really appreciated by the German speakers whom I met.

I’ve seen the ads “Learn German in 20 minutes a day,” or “you will be nearly fluent using Rosetta Stone.”  Do not believe these.  Learning a language is hard work.  It requires mastery of vocabulary, and in German, the noun gender and plural.  It requires knowledge of grammar, which in German requires knowledge of cases and verbs/prepositions that take certain cases (in some instances two different cases for a preposition, depending upon how it is used).  I spent 5-6 hours a day for 9 months. I wrote, I listened, I practiced, I had lists of words, file cards of nouns, whose gender I needed to learn.  But it was worth it.  I could talk in sentences, and I could do more than just order things in a restaurant.  I could speak correctly, and my grammar was good.  There is just so much more I need to learn. defines fluency as being able to carry on a simple conversation with somebody.  I don’t agree.  Fluency is speaking the language clearly with anybody, about anything, at any speed.  I am not fluent.  But I am conversational.  I can talk about any topic I want to.  Sometimes it is slow, and sometimes, I need help for verbs or nouns.  But I can make myself understood.  I just want to do better.  And that will take years.  Being “in country” was essential for the nuances that every language has.  This is a journey that won’t end, but on this particular journey, I not only spoke German, but I got to see a side of Europe that tourists just don’t see.  And I am a different and I hope a better person for it.

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  1. Ernesto Funn Says:

    excellent article, really enjoyed reading it. will be back to read future posts.

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