German: The Ulysses of Languages

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I have blogged about my efforts to learn German before, so if you are interested in my self-study techniques and the software I used, check that post out.

I have additionally started taking formal German lessons with a private tutor. We have class 2-3 times per week, for one to two hour sessions.

Germans are always surprised that I cannot speak their language despite being here for a year. The truth is, German is an unbelievably difficult language which is almost impossible to learn in a year unless you are able to do fully immersive learning courses and you don’t have something like, say, a pesky full-time job.

I found an incredible piece by Mark Twain about the language which I absolutely had to share. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

THE AWFUL GERMAN LANGUAGE

A little learning makes the whole world kin.
Proverbs xxxii, 7.

I went often to look at the collection of curiosities in Heidelberg Castle, and one day I surprised the keeper of it with my German. I spoke entirely in that language. He was greatly interested; and after I had talked a while he said my German was very rare, possibly a “unique”; and wanted to add it to his museum.

If he had known what it had cost me to acquire my art, he would also have known that it would break any collector to buy it. Harris and I had been hard at work on our German during several weeks at that time, and although we had made good progress, it had been accomplished under great difficulty and annoyance, for three of our teachers had died in the mean time. A person who has not studied German can form no idea of what a perplexing language it is.

Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, “Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.” He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it. So overboard he goes again, to hunt for another Ararat and find another quicksand. Such has been, and continues to be, my experience. Every time I think I have got one of these four confusing “cases” where I am master of it, a seemingly insignificant preposition intrudes itself into my sentence, clothed with an awful and unsuspected power, and crumbles the ground from under me. For instance, my book inquires after a certain bird — (it is always inquiring after things which are of no sort of consequence to anybody): “Where is the bird?” Now the answer to this question — according to the book — is that the bird is waiting in the blacksmith shop on account of the rain. Of course no bird would do that, but then you must stick to the book. Very well, I begin to cipher out the German for that answer. I begin at the wrong end, necessarily, for that is the German idea. I say to myself, “Regen (rain) is masculine — or maybe it is feminine — or possibly neuter — it is too much trouble to look now. Therefore, it is either der (the) Regen, or die (the) Regen, or das (the) Regen, according to which gender it may turn out to be when I look. In the interest of science, I will cipher it out on the hypothesis that it is masculine. Very well — then the rain is der Regen, if it is simply in the quiescent state of being mentioned, without enlargement or discussion — Nominative case; but if this rain is lying around, in a kind of a general way on the ground, it is then definitely located, it is doing something — that is, resting (which is one of the German grammar’s ideas of doing something), and this throws the rain into the Dative case, and makes it dem Regen. However, this rain is not resting, but is doing something actively, — it is falling — to interfere with the bird, likely — and this indicates movement, which has the effect of sliding it into the Accusative case and changing dem Regen into den Regen.” Having completed the grammatical horoscope of this matter, I answer up confidently and state in German that the bird is staying in the blacksmith shop “wegen (on account of) den Regen.” Then the teacher lets me softly down with the remark that whenever the word “wegen” drops into a sentence, it always throws that subject into the Genitive case, regardless of consequences — and that therefore this bird stayed in the blacksmith shop “wegen des Regens.”

N. B. — I was informed, later, by a higher authority, that there was an “exception” which permits one to say “wegen den Regen” in certain peculiar and complex circumstances, but that this exception is not extended to anything but rain.

There are ten parts of speech, and they are all troublesome. An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech — not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each inclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out — the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,” or words to that effect, and the monument is finished. I suppose that this closing hurrah is in the nature of the flourish to a man’s signature — not necessary, but pretty. German books are easy enough to read when you hold them before the looking-glass or stand on your head — so as to reverse the construction — but I think that to learn to read and understand a German newspaper is a thing which must always remain an impossibility to a foreigner.

Yet even the German books are not entirely free from attacks of the Parenthesis distemper — though they are usually so mild as to cover only a few lines, and therefore when you at last get down to the verb it carries some meaning to your mind because you are able to remember a good deal of what has gone before. Now here is a sentence from a popular and excellent German novel — which a slight parenthesis in it. I will make a perfectly literal translation, and throw in the parenthesis-marks and some hyphens for the assistance of the reader — though in the original there are no parenthesis-marks or hyphens, and the reader is left to flounder through to the remote verb the best way he can:

“But when he, upon the street, the (in-satin-and-silk-covered-now-very-unconstrained-after-the-newest-fashioned-dressed) government counselor’s wife met,” etc., etc. [Wenn er aber auf der Strasse der in Sammt und Seide gehüllten jetzt sehr ungenirt nach der neusten Mode gekleideten Regierungsräthin begegnet.]
That is from The Old Mamselle’s Secret, by Mrs. Marlitt. And that sentence is constructed upon the most approved German model. You observe how far that verb is from the reader’s base of operations; well, in a German newspaper they put their verb away over on the next page; and I have heard that sometimes after stringing along the exciting preliminaries and parentheses for a column or two, they get in a hurry and have to go to press without getting to the verb at all. Of course, then, the reader is left in a very exhausted and ignorant state.

We have the Parenthesis disease in our literature, too; and one may see cases of it every day in our books and newspapers: but with us it is the mark and sign of an unpracticed writer or a cloudy intellect, whereas with the Germans it is doubtless the mark and sign of a practiced pen and of the presence of that sort of luminous intellectual fog which stands for clearness among these people. For surely it is not clearness — it necessarily can’t be clearness. Even a jury would have penetration enough to discover that. A writer’s ideas must be a good deal confused, a good deal out of line and sequence, when he starts out to say that a man met a counselor’s wife in the street, and then right in the midst of this so simple undertaking halts these approaching people and makes them stand still until he jots down an inventory of the woman’s dress. That is manifestly absurd. It reminds a person of those dentists who secure your instant and breathless interest in a tooth by taking a grip on it with the forceps, and then stand there and drawl through a tedious anecdote before they give the dreaded jerk. Parentheses in literature and dentistry are in bad taste.

The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they make by splitting a verb in two and putting half of it at the beginning of an exciting chapter and the other half at the end of it. Can any one conceive of anything more confusing than that? These things are called “separable verbs.” The German grammar is blistered all over with separable verbs; and the wider the two portions of one of them are spread apart, the better the author of the crime is pleased with his performance. A favorite one is reiste ab — which means departed. Here is an example which I culled from a novel and reduced to English:

“The trunks being now ready, he DE- after kissing his mother and sisters, and once more pressing to his bosom his adored Gretchen, who, dressed in simple white muslin, with a single tuberose in the ample folds of her rich brown hair, had tottered feebly down the stairs, still pale from the terror and excitement of the past evening, but longing to lay her poor aching head yet once again upon the breast of him whom she loved more dearly than life itself, PARTED.”
However, it is not well to dwell too much on the separable verbs. One is sure to lose his temper early; and if he sticks to the subject, and will not be warned, it will at last either soften his brain or petrify it. Personal pronouns and adjectives are a fruitful nuisance in this language, and should have been left out. For instance, the same sound, sie, means you, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it means them. Think of the ragged poverty of a language which has to make one word do the work of six — and a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that. But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says sie to me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.

Now observe the Adjective. Here was a case where simplicity would have been an advantage; therefore, for no other reason, the inventor of this language complicated it all he could. When we wish to speak of our “good friend or friends,” in our enlightened tongue, we stick to the one form and have no trouble or hard feeling about it; but with the German tongue it is different. When a German gets his hands on an adjective, he declines it, and keeps on declining it until the common sense is all declined out of it. It is as bad as Latin. He says, for instance:

SINGULAR
Nominative — Mein guter Freund, my good friend.
Genitives — Meines guten Freundes, of my good friend.
Dative — Meinem guten Freund, to my good friend.
Accusative — Meinen guten Freund, my good friend.

PLURAL
N. — Meine guten Freunde, my good friends.
G. — Meiner guten Freunde, of my good friends.
D. — Meinen guten Freunden, to my good friends.
A. — Meine guten Freunde, my good friends.

Now let the candidate for the asylum try to memorize those variations, and see how soon he will be elected. One might better go without friends in Germany than take all this trouble about them. I have shown what a bother it is to decline a good (male) friend; well this is only a third of the work, for there is a variety of new distortions of the adjective to be learned when the object is feminine, and still another when the object is neuter. Now there are more adjectives in this language than there are black cats in Switzerland, and they must all be as elaborately declined as the examples above suggested. Difficult? — troublesome? — these words cannot describe it. I heard a Californian student in Heidelberg say, in one of his calmest moods, that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.

The inventor of the language seems to have taken pleasure in complicating it in every way he could think of. For instance, if one is casually referring to a house, Haus, or a horse, Pferd, or a dog, Hund, he spells these words as I have indicated; but if he is referring to them in the Dative case, he sticks on a foolish and unnecessary e and spells them Hause, Pferde, Hunde. So, as an added e often signifies the plural, as the s does with us, the new student is likely to go on for a month making twins out of a Dative dog before he discovers his mistake; and on the other hand, many a new student who could ill afford loss, has bought and paid for two dogs and only got one of them, because he ignorantly bought that dog in the Dative singular when he really supposed he was talking plural — which left the law on the seller’s side, of course, by the strict rules of grammar, and therefore a suit for recovery could not lie.

In German, all the Nouns begin with a capital letter. Now that is a good idea; and a good idea, in this language, is necessarily conspicuous from its lonesomeness. I consider this capitalizing of nouns a good idea, because by reason of it you are almost always able to tell a noun the minute you see it. You fall into error occasionally, because you mistake the name of a person for the name of a thing, and waste a good deal of time trying to dig a meaning out of it. German names almost always do mean something, and this helps to deceive the student. I translated a passage one day, which said that “the infuriated tigress broke loose and utterly ate up the unfortunate fir forest” (Tannenwald). When I was girding up my loins to doubt this, I found out that Tannenwald in this instance was a man’s name.

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print — I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:

Gretchen.
Wilhelm, where is the turnip?
Wilhelm.
She has gone to the kitchen.
Gretchen.
Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?
Wilhelm.
It has gone to the opera.”

To continue with the German genders: a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female — tomcats included, of course; a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it — for in Germany all the women either male heads or sexless ones; a person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all. The inventor of the language probably got what he knew about a conscience from hearsay.

Now, by the above dissection, the reader will see that in Germany a man may think he is a man, but when he comes to look into the matter closely, he is bound to have his doubts; he finds that in sober truth he is a most ridiculous mixture; and if he ends by trying to comfort himself with the thought that he can at least depend on a third of this mess as being manly and masculine, the humiliating second thought will quickly remind him that in this respect he is no better off than any woman or cow in the land.

In the German it is true that by some oversight of the inventor of the language, a Woman is a female; but a Wife (Weib) is not — which is unfortunate. A Wife, here, has no sex; she is neuter; so, according to the grammar, a fish is he, his scales are she, but a fishwife is neither. To describe a wife as sexless may be called under-description; that is bad enough, but over-description is surely worse. A German speaks of an Englishman as the Engländer; to change the sex, he adds inn, and that stands for Englishwoman — Engländerinn. That seems descriptive enough, but still it is not exact enough for a German; so he precedes the word with that article which indicates that the creature to follow is feminine, and writes it down thus: “die Engländerinn,” — which means “the she-Englishwoman.” I consider that that person is over-described.

Well, after the student has learned the sex of a great number of nouns, he is still in a difficulty, because he finds it impossible to persuade his tongue to refer to things as “he” and “she,” and “him” and “her,” which it has been always accustomed to refer to it as “it.” When he even frames a German sentence in his mind, with the hims and hers in the right places, and then works up his courage to the utterance-point, it is no use — the moment he begins to speak his tongue flies the track and all those labored males and females come out as “its.” And even when he is reading German to himself, he always calls those things “it,” where as he ought to read in this way:

TALE OF THE FISHWIFE AND ITS SAD FATE

I capitalize the nouns, in the German (and ancient English) fashion.

It is a bleak Day. Hear the Rain, how he pours, and the Hail, how he rattles; and see the Snow, how he drifts along, and of the Mud, how deep he is! Ah the poor Fishwife, it is stuck fast in the Mire; it has dropped its Basket of Fishes; and its Hands have been cut by the Scales as it seized some of the falling Creatures; and one Scale has even got into its Eye, and it cannot get her out. It opens its Mouth to cry for Help; but if any Sound comes out of him, alas he is drowned by the raging of the Storm. And now a Tomcat has got one of the Fishes and she will surely escape with him. No, she bites off a Fin, she holds her in her Mouth — will she swallow her? No, the Fishwife’s brave Mother-dog deserts his Puppies and rescues the Fin — which he eats, himself, as his Reward. O, horror, the Lightning has struck the Fish-basket; he sets him on Fire; see the Flame, how she licks the doomed Utensil with her red and angry Tongue; now she attacks the helpless Fishwife’s Foot — she burns him up, all but the big Toe, and even she is partly consumed; and still she spreads, still she waves her fiery Tongues; she attacks the Fishwife’s Leg and destroys it; she attacks its Hand and destroys her also; she attacks the Fishwife’s Leg and destroys her also; she attacks its Body and consumes him; she wreathes herself about its Heart and it is consumed; next about its Breast, and in a Moment she is a Cinder; now she reaches its Neck — he goes; now its Chin — it goes; now its Nose — she goes. In another Moment, except Help come, the Fishwife will be no more. Time presses — is there none to succor and save? Yes! Joy, joy, with flying Feet the she-Englishwoman comes! But alas, the generous she-Female is too late: where now is the fated Fishwife? It has ceased from its Sufferings, it has gone to a better Land; all that is left of it for its loved Ones to lament over, is this poor smoldering Ash-heap. Ah, woeful, woeful Ash-heap! Let us take him up tenderly, reverently, upon the lowly Shovel, and bear him to his long Rest, with the Prayer that when he rises again it will be a Realm where he will have one good square responsible Sex, and have it all to himself, instead of having a mangy lot of assorted Sexes scattered all over him in Spots.

There, now, the reader can see for himself that this pronoun business is a very awkward thing for the unaccustomed tongue. I suppose that in all languages the similarities of look and sound between words which have no similarity in meaning are a fruitful source of perplexity to the foreigner. It is so in our tongue, and it is notably the case in the German. Now there is that troublesome word vermählt: to me it has so close a resemblance — either real or fancied — to three or four other words, that I never know whether it means despised, painted, suspected, or married; until I look in the dictionary, and then I find it means the latter. There are lots of such words and they are a great torment. To increase the difficulty there are words which seem to resemble each other, and yet do not; but they make just as much trouble as if they did. For instance, there is the word vermiethen (to let, to lease, to hire); and the word verheirathen (another way of saying to marry). I heard of an Englishman who knocked at a man’s door in Heidelberg and proposed, in the best German he could command, to “verheirathen” that house. Then there are some words which mean one thing when you emphasize the first syllable, but mean something very different if you throw the emphasis on the last syllable. For instance, there is a word which means a runaway, or the act of glancing through a book, according to the placing of the emphasis; and another word which signifies to associate with a man, or to avoid him, according to where you put the emphasis — and you can generally depend on putting it in the wrong place and getting into trouble.

There are some exceedingly useful words in this language. Schlag, for example; and Zug. There are three-quarters of a column of Schlags in the dictionary, and a column and a half of Zugs. The word Schlag means Blow, Stroke, Dash, Hit, Shock, Clap, Slap, Time, Bar, Coin, Stamp, Kind, Sort, Manner, Way, Apoplexy, Wood-cutting, Enclosure, Field, Forest-clearing. This is its simple and exact meaning — that is to say, its restricted, its fettered meaning; but there are ways by which you can set it free, so that it can soar away, as on the wings of the morning, and never be at rest. You can hang any word you please to its tail, and make it mean anything you want to. You can begin with Schlag-ader, which means artery, and you can hang on the whole dictionary, word by word, clear through the alphabet to Schlag-wasser, which means bilge-water — and including Schlag-mutter, which means mother-in-law.

Just the same with Zug. Strictly speaking, Zug means Pull, Tug, Draught, Procession, March, Progress, Flight, Direction, Expedition, Train, Caravan, Passage, Stroke, Touch, Line, Flourish, Trait of Character, Feature, Lineament, Chess-move, Organ-stop, Team, Whiff, Bias, Drawer, Propensity, Inhalation, Disposition: but that thing which it does not mean — when all its legitimate pennants have been hung on, has not been discovered yet.

One cannot overestimate the usefulness of Schlag and Zug. Armed just with these two, and the word also, what cannot the foreigner on German soil accomplish? The German word also is the equivalent of the English phrase “You know,” and does not mean anything at all — in talk, though it sometimes does in print. Every time a German opens his mouth an also falls out; and every time he shuts it he bites one in two that was trying to get out.

Now, the foreigner, equipped with these three noble words, is master of the situation. Let him talk right along, fearlessly; let him pour his indifferent German forth, and when he lacks for a word, let him heave a Schlag into the vacuum; all the chances are that it fits it like a plug, but if it doesn’t let him promptly heave a Zug after it; the two together can hardly fail to bung the hole; but if, by a miracle, they should fail, let him simply say also! and this will give him a moment’s chance to think of the needful word. In Germany, when you load your conversational gun it is always best to throw in a Schlag or two and a Zug or two, because it doesn’t make any difference how much the rest of the charge may scatter, you are bound to bag something with them. Then you blandly say also, and load up again. Nothing gives such an air of grace and elegance and unconstraint to a German or an English conversation as to scatter it full of “Also’s” or “You knows.”

In my note-book I find this entry:

July 1. — In the hospital yesterday, a word of thirteen syllables was successfully removed from a patient — a North German from near Hamburg; but as most unfortunately the surgeons had opened him in the wrong place, under the impression that he contained a panorama, he died. The sad event has cast a gloom over the whole community.
That paragraph furnishes a text for a few remarks about one of the most curious and notable features of my subject — the length of German words. Some German words are so long that they have a perspective. Observe these examples:

Freundschaftsbezeigungen.
Dilettantenaufdringlichkeiten.
Stadtverordnetenversammlungen
.

These things are not words, they are alphabetical processions. And they are not rare; one can open a German newspaper at any time and see them marching majestically across the page — and if he has any imagination he can see the banners and hear the music, too. They impart a martial thrill to the meekest subject. I take a great interest in these curiosities. Whenever I come across a good one, I stuff it and put it in my museum. In this way I have made quite a valuable collection. When I get duplicates, I exchange with other collectors, and thus increase the variety of my stock. Here rare some specimens which I lately bought at an auction sale of the effects of a bankrupt bric-a-brac hunter:

Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen.
Alterthumswissenschaften.
Kinderbewahrungsanstalten.
Unabhängigkeitserklärungen.
Wiedererstellungbestrebungen.
Waffenstillstandsunterhandlungen.

Of course when one of these grand mountain ranges goes stretching across the printed page, it adorns and ennobles that literary landscape — but at the same time it is a great distress to the new student, for it blocks up his way; he cannot crawl under it, or climb over it, or tunnel through it. So he resorts to the dictionary for help, but there is no help there. The dictionary must draw the line somewhere — so it leaves this sort of words out. And it is right, because these long things are hardly legitimate words, but are rather combinations of words, and the inventor of them ought to have been killed. They are compound words with the hyphens left out. The various words used in building them are in the dictionary, but in a very scattered condition; so you can hunt the materials out, one by one, and get at the meaning at last, but it is a tedious and harassing business. I have tried this process upon some of the above examples. “Freundschaftsbezeigungen” seems to be “Friendship demonstrations,” which is only a foolish and clumsy way of saying “demonstrations of friendship.” “Unabhängigkeitserklärungen” seems to be “Independencedeclarations,” which is no improvement upon “Declarations of Independence,” so far as I can see. “Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen” seems to be “General-statesrepresentativesmeetings,” as nearly as I can get at it — a mere rhythmical, gushy euphuism for “meetings of the legislature,” I judge. We used to have a good deal of this sort of crime in our literature, but it has gone out now. We used to speak of a things as a “never-to-be-forgotten” circumstance, instead of cramping it into the simple and sufficient word “memorable” and then going calmly about our business as if nothing had happened. In those days we were not content to embalm the thing and bury it decently, we wanted to build a monument over it.

But in our newspapers the compounding-disease lingers a little to the present day, but with the hyphens left out, in the German fashion. This is the shape it takes: instead of saying “Mr. Simmons, clerk of the county and district courts, was in town yesterday,” the new form put it thus: “Clerk of the County and District Courts Simmons was in town yesterday.” This saves neither time nor ink, and has an awkward sound besides. One often sees a remark like this in our papers: “Mrs. Assistant District Attorney Johnson returned to her city residence yesterday for the season.” That is a case of really unjustifiable compounding; because it not only saves no time or trouble, but confers a title on Mrs. Johnson which she has no right to. But these little instances are trifles indeed, contrasted with the ponderous and dismal German system of piling jumbled compounds together. I wish to submit the following local item, from a Mannheim journal, by way of illustration:

“In the daybeforeyesterdayshortlyaftereleveno’clock Night, the inthistownstandingtavern called `The Wagoner’ was downburnt. When the fire to the onthedownburninghouseresting Stork’s Nest reached, flew the parent Storks away. But when the bytheraging, firesurrounded Nest itself caught Fire, straightway plunged the quickreturning Mother-stork into the Flames and died, her Wings over her young ones outspread.”
Even the cumbersome German construction is not able to take the pathos out of that picture — indeed, it somehow seems to strengthen it. This item is dated away back yonder months ago. I could have used it sooner, but I was waiting to hear from the Father-stork. I am still waiting.

“Also!” If I had not shown that the German is a difficult language, I have at least intended to do so. I have heard of an American student who was asked how he was getting along with his German, and who answered promptly: “I am not getting along at all. I have worked at it hard for three level months, and all I have got to show for it is one solitary German phrase — `Zwei Glas’” (two glasses of beer). He paused for a moment, reflectively; then added with feeling: “But I’ve got that solid!”

And if I have not also shown that German is a harassing and infuriating study, my execution has been at fault, and not my intent. I heard lately of a worn and sorely tried American student who used to fly to a certain German word for relief when he could bear up under his aggravations no longer — the only word whose sound was sweet and precious to his ear and healing to his lacerated spirit. This was the word Damit. It was only the sound that helped him, not the meaning [it merely means, in its general sense, “herewith.”] and so, at last, when he learned that the emphasis was not on the first syllable, his only stay and support was gone, and he faded away and died.

I think that a description of any loud, stirring, tumultuous episode must be tamer in German than in English. Our descriptive words of this character have such a deep, strong, resonant sound, while their German equivalents do seem so thin and mild and energyless. Boom, burst, crash, roar, storm, bellow, blow, thunder, explosion; howl, cry, shout, yell, groan; battle, hell. These are magnificent words; the have a force and magnitude of sound befitting the things which they describe. But their German equivalents would be ever so nice to sing the children to sleep with, or else my awe-inspiring ears were made for display and not for superior usefulness in analyzing sounds. Would any man want to die in a battle which was called by so tame a term as a Schlacht? Or would not a consumptive feel too much bundled up, who was about to go out, in a shirt-collar and a seal-ring, into a storm which the bird-song word Gewitter was employed to describe? And observe the strongest of the several German equivalents for explosion — Ausbruch. Our word Toothbrush is more powerful than that. It seems to me that the Germans could do worse than import it into their language to describe particularly tremendous explosions with. The German word for hell — Hölle — sounds more like helly than anything else; therefore, how necessary chipper, frivolous, and unimpressive it is. If a man were told in German to go there, could he really rise to thee dignity of feeling insulted?

Having pointed out, in detail, the several vices of this language, I now come to the brief and pleasant task of pointing out its virtues. The capitalizing of the nouns I have already mentioned. But far before this virtue stands another — that of spelling a word according to the sound of it. After one short lesson in the alphabet, the student can tell how any German word is pronounced without having to ask; whereas in our language if a student should inquire of us, “What does B, O, W, spell?” we should be obliged to reply, “Nobody can tell what it spells when you set if off by itself; you can only tell by referring to the context and finding out what it signifies — whether it is a thing to shoot arrows with, or a nod of one’s head, or the forward end of a boat.”

There are some German words which are singularly and powerfully effective. For instance, those which describe lowly, peaceful, and affectionate home life; those which deal with love, in any and all forms, from mere kindly feeling and honest good will toward the passing stranger, clear up to courtship; those which deal with outdoor Nature, in its softest and loveliest aspects — with meadows and forests, and birds and flowers, the fragrance and sunshine of summer, and the moonlight of peaceful winter nights; in a word, those which deal with any and all forms of rest, repose, and peace; those also which deal with the creatures and marvels of fairyland; and lastly and chiefly, in those words which express pathos, is the language surpassingly rich and affective. There are German songs which can make a stranger to the language cry. That shows that the sound of the words is correct — it interprets the meanings with truth and with exactness; and so the ear is informed, and through the ear, the heart.

The Germans do not seem to be afraid to repeat a word when it is the right one. they repeat it several times, if they choose. That is wise. But in English, when we have used a word a couple of times in a paragraph, we imagine we are growing tautological, and so we are weak enough to exchange it for some other word which only approximates exactness, to escape what we wrongly fancy is a greater blemish. Repetition may be bad, but surely inexactness is worse.

There are people in the world who will take a great deal of trouble to point out the faults in a religion or a language, and then go blandly about their business without suggesting any remedy. I am not that kind of person. I have shown that the German language needs reforming. Very well, I am ready to reform it. At least I am ready to make the proper suggestions. Such a course as this might be immodest in another; but I have devoted upward of nine full weeks, first and last, to a careful and critical study of this tongue, and thus have acquired a confidence in my ability to reform it which no mere superficial culture could have conferred upon me.

In the first place, I would leave out the Dative case. It confuses the plurals; and, besides, nobody ever knows when he is in the Dative case, except he discover it by accident — and then he does not know when or where it was that he got into it, or how long he has been in it, or how he is going to get out of it again. The Dative case is but an ornamental folly — it is better to discard it.

In the next place, I would move the Verb further up to the front. You may load up with ever so good a Verb, but I notice that you never really bring down a subject with it at the present German range — you only cripple it. So I insist that this important part of speech should be brought forward to a position where it may be easily seen with the naked eye.

Thirdly, I would import some strong words from the English tongue — to swear with, and also to use in describing all sorts of vigorous things in a vigorous ways. “Verdammt,” and its variations and enlargements, are words which have plenty of meaning, but the sounds are so mild and ineffectual that German ladies can use them without sin. German ladies who could not be induced to commit a sin by any persuasion or compulsion, promptly rip out one of these harmless little words when they tear their dresses or don’t like the soup. It sounds about as wicked as our “My gracious.” German ladies are constantly saying, “Ach! Gott!” “Mein Gott!” “Gott in Himmel!” “Herr Gott” “Der Herr Jesus!” etc. They think our ladies have the same custom, perhaps; for I once heard a gentle and lovely old German lady say to a sweet young American girl: “The two languages are so alike — how pleasant that is; we say `Ach! Gott!’ you say `Goddamn.’”

Fourthly, I would reorganizes the sexes, and distribute them accordingly to the will of the creator. This as a tribute of respect, if nothing else.

Fifthly, I would do away with those great long compounded words; or require the speaker to deliver them in sections, with intermissions for refreshments. To wholly do away with them would be best, for ideas are more easily received and digested when they come one at a time than when they come in bulk. Intellectual food is like any other; it is pleasanter and more beneficial to take it with a spoon than with a shovel.

Sixthly, I would require a speaker to stop when he is done, and not hang a string of those useless “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden seins” to the end of his oration. This sort of gewgaws undignify a speech, instead of adding a grace. They are, therefore, an offense, and should be discarded.

Seventhly, I would discard the Parenthesis. Also the reparenthesis, the re-reparenthesis, and the re-re-re-re-re-reparentheses, and likewise the final wide-reaching all-inclosing king-parenthesis. I would require every individual, be he high or low, to unfold a plain straightforward tale, or else coil it and sit on it and hold his peace. Infractions of this law should be punishable with death.

And eighthly, and last, I would retain Zug and Schlag, with their pendants, and discard the rest of the vocabulary. This would simplify the language.

I have now named what I regard as the most necessary and important changes. These are perhaps all I could be expected to name for nothing; but there are other suggestions which I can and will make in case my proposed application shall result in my being formally employed by the government in the work of reforming the language.

My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.

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What are German people really like?

StockSnap_79A4E09475I had a “Western” upbringing. As a white South African my culture is pretty much aligned with the rest of the Western world. So I didn’t think in that respect there would be a huge adjustment in day to day life when I moved to Germany. I have never been more wrong. German people are different. They are a unique breed.

I have to preface this by saying that of course I have not met every German person. And it unfair to generalize. I am not doing that. I am simply sharing accounts of my own experiences. So… take it with a pinch of salt.

I have lived in Germany for just under a year now. It has been challenging, rewarding, frustrating… and a myriad of other “ings.” I am by no means a social butterfly, but I have met a variety of people here. Some of them are amazing people who have helped me stay sane and avoid being committed to a mental institution. Many people in Germany are lovely. Truly. But many have almost helped to put me in a mental institution or driven me to contemplate violent crime. Hint: Dog people are generally great, so stick with those!

First: Germans don’t seem capable of minding their own business. I have never had so many people be so outspoken and judgmental over my personal life choices. For example, numerous people have told me that it is cruel to keep a dog when you work full time. Thereby implying that I am cruel, despite the fact that I spare no expense and ensure that my dog gets the best food I can afford, the best medical care, and that he goes to daycare every day. I have often been tempted to ask whether these holier-than-thou shitwits are planning to have kids and whether they plan to give up working for at least 13 years to look after said kids. Because it would be cruel otherwise, no?

I have had people take photographs of my apartment from the street, facing right into my bedroom. For what possible reason? I have no idea. I am a law abiding citizen minding my own business. I have had neighbors trespassing onto the property and stare into my window because they heard my dog barking and thought they should investigate. I was home to witness this and he had been barking at another dog he saw in the street, which is NORMAL behaviour. They then thought it fit to inform me that my dog was barking. Yes, he is a dog. He barks sometimes. He’s not a robot beaten into fearful, cowering submission like your dog. He’s healthy and happy and loved. So fuck right off, k?

A neighbor disliked my dog and poured cold water on him and the dog sitter. Despite the fact that I reported the harassment, nothing was done.

My stories are unfortunately not isolated tales.

I have heard stories about neighbors calling a colleague of mine because his newborn baby was crying at night and they were threatening to call the police for noise disturbance. Eventually he was forced to move. I kid you not.

Another colleague had a heated argument with her landlord because she wanted to keep her own mattress in the furnished apartment and just put the old mattress under the bed. Apparently this is unacceptable.

People who own cars here tell stories about Germans shouting at them because they let their car idle just a little too long.

Anyway… back to my woes. My previous landlady also trespassed onto the property without my consent and then proceeded to send me an email about how filthy my apartment was. Since my apartment is not filthy (a little messy, perhaps, but never dirty) I pressed the issue only to discover that the reason I was deemed dirty was because, and I quote: “She doesn’t even have nice furniture.” Well, maybe there are important things in life, lady. Also, was geht dich das an (what business is it of yours)? Being passive aggressive is like a national sport here.

Second: The underlying prejudices. I made young German friends who (I thought) were progressive and tolerant and well educated, until their thinly-veiled racism was revealed. According to them, white people in the West should have all the rights in the world and their rights should not be limited to favor those in developing countries. Instead, their rights should continue unchallenged and unlimited whilst the rights of those in developing countries are limited for the “sake of the planet.” It is disgusting. I have also met individuals who will defend their family’s use of the “n” word because “It’s part of their history and how they grew up, why should they change their vocabulary?” Gross.

Third: Power trips. For instance, an incident that happened to me recently. It’s -10 degrees. The bus leaves at 16 minutes past 7am. It’s 13 minutes past 7am. The bus is (miraculously) on time. But the bus driver refuses to open the doors until 16 minutes past. Why? Sadism. Obviously.

More things that piss me off: Consumer rights are non-existent, and it is difficult not to get locked into horrendous contracts that renew automatically and increase in costs exponentially every year. I shudder to think what happens to old people with dementia in this country. Service (when it pertains to internet connectivity, restaurants, government offices etc) is terrible, and I laugh when I realize that service was better in a third world country. The banking system is far behind Africa’s. Basic healthcare? Well, go to a GP in Germany and try to get them to prescribe something other than herbs and teas, I dare you. If I wanted herbs and teas, I would have gone to a traditional doctor in Africa. Is it too much to expect Western medicine??? I have a chronic illness. Teas don’t help, asshole. And forget about painkillers. Here people tell you that pain is a natural part of life. Well yes, but so is death, and yet we try to avoid that in Germany as much as in the rest of the developed world.

And lastly, I call BULLSHIT on German efficiency. The public transport system is very expensive but is not efficient nor fast, and if a bus or tram or train doesn’t show up or if it’s late, not a single person complains or shouts at the driver or even seems the least bit perturbed. They are all used to this. It is all a farce.

Maybe I am just having a bad day. Maybe I’ll meet better people and I have just been unlucky. Maybe I need a big glass of wine and a nap.

So if you’ll excuse me, I have a dog to cuddle.

Vent: Over.

 

 

Is #MeToo Crumbling Along a Generational Divide?

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Millennials are changing the dating game. But they need to do better.

“I’m glad I’m married. I’d be too scared to approach a woman for fear of being accused of harassment,” a male friend lamented two weeks ago over dinner. As a staunch supporter of the #MeToo movement (a long-awaited catalyst capable of bringing change to the daily lives of women across the world), I became irate. I dismissed his comment as cowardly. I pointed out that none of the public figures outed by the #MeToo movement have been labeled harassers or worse simply because they approached a woman (who doesn’t work for or with them) and their advances were rejected. I argued that if this man didn’t know whether what he was doing when he expressed romantic interest was harassment, perhaps he had no business dating or trying to date women.

I bristled at the comments made by Catherine Deneuve that men should not be forced out of their jobs for “touching a knee” or “stealing a kiss.” Yes, they should, Catherine. They are at work. They should be working, not subjecting their reports to unwanted touching and kissing.

Men should know what harassment looks like. Women sure do.

Or do we?

Just days after this conversation, I read the controversial article describing a date with Aziz Ansari as “the worst night” ever experienced by the woman in question. The woman (identified only by a pseudonym, ‘Grace’) described an uncomfortable situation where she felt that things moved too fast sexually once they arrived at Ansari’s apartment. Ansari persisted in behavior such as placing his fingers in her mouth and asking her: “Where do you want me to f*ck you?” Grace alleged that Ansari ignored her cues to stop. Cues which included pulling away and mumbling. She admits to removing her clothing and performing oral sex on Ansari though she recounts that she felt uncomfortable doing so. When she verbally indicated that she did not want to have sex, it was Ansari who suggested that they get dressed. When she expressed that she wanted to leave, he called her a cab. Grace goes on to explain that she considers this a case of sexual assault.

It’s not.

It is a case of a man who felt entitled to a woman’s body, felt entitled to sexual satisfaction, and behaved inappropriately. It is not sexual assault. I repeat. It is not sexual assault.

The power of #MeToo lies in the fact that every story emerging in the early days of the movement gave an account of men in powerful positions using those positions to harass, assault and rape girls, women, boys and men. #MeToo was a chorus that indicated that these extreme and shocking acts were not isolated instances, but systemic. The power of the hashtag was the very fact that this extreme behavior, this criminal behavior, was so commonplace.

Let’s be clear. We should be talking about the coercive behavior of men on dates, and challenging the entitlement men feel to a woman’s time and body. We should be pointing out the dangers of the “playing hard to get” narrative. We need to banish the words “prude,” “frigid” and “cock-tease.” We should be dismantling the notion that men are less responsible for the comfort and satisfaction of their partners or less likely to pay attention because they “think with the wrong head.” The dating game does need to change.

But to label this encounter sexual assault (and by extension, to accuse men like Ansari of a criminal offense), is not the right way to start that conversation. Why? Because it minimizes and delegitimizes the #MeToo movement. Sadly, the story about Ansari virtually buried the account of Eliza Dushku who was sexually assaulted on a movie set when she was 12. Ansari might be a creep, but he is not a criminal.

#MeToo cannot be everything to everyone. By trying to include all conversations related to the way our patriarchal society influences behavior is akin to raising “Blue Lives Matter” in discussions around “Black Lives Matter.” It is a conversation we should be having, and is valid in its own right, but not under the same umbrella.

Many argue that women know the difference between Harvey Weinstein and Ansari. I want to believe that. But then I remember that Grace expressly categorized her experience with Ansari as sexual assault. I am an older millennial, on the periphery of the generation, and I am not American. Perhaps that contributes to my opinion. Recent research indicates that over 30% of American millennials consider compliments about one’s appearance to be sexual harassment either most of or all of the time.

Whether we admit it or not, we are harmfully blurring the lines by lumping all accounts of toxic masculinity with #MeToo.

Yes, millennials are changing the dating game for everyone. They are demanding higher standards and trying to eliminate the power imbalance between genders. This is important. I applaud and support this effort. However, it is aligned with, but not akin to, the #MeToo conversation. We should be having both.

You would be hard pressed to find a woman who has not been subjected to behavior stemming from male privilege and patriarchal attitudes. They deserve to tell their stories too. And they should. But they should not feel pressured to categorize these experiences as instances of assault in order to “belong” to a current narrative.

We need to talk about Mayim…

StockSnap_0NZR1ZMA6V.jpgMayim Bialik’s misguided op-ed in the New York Times and subsequent defence thereof is perhaps the most troubling response to the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault and harassment scandal, for various reasons. Bialik ostensibly has it all: fame, wit, success and a PhD. Most importantly, she has a platform. She has used that platform in a troubling way. Instead of supporting her peers, she raised her voice only in what appeared to be a thinly-veiled attempt to highlight her perceived superiority. She implies that ugly girls are overlooked by sexual predators and proudly espouses her decision to dress modestly and to avoid flirting.

When someone who is as well-educated as Bialik turns to victim-blaming, we see just how deeply the patriarchal system can affect any of us, by pitting woman against each other from a young age. Bialik alludes to her insecurities and her desire as a teenager to be “like one of the pretty girls,” even considering plastic surgery to achieve the good looks she desired. She admits that she internalized the harsh opinions of men, saying “I never recovered from seeing myself that way.” Instead of resenting the system that caused her emotional pain, her stance barely conceals her resentment towards the “pretty girls.” When these feelings of inferiority are so internalized, it makes women incapable of being true allies to those who need support.

Bialik states that we cannot be naïve about the culture we live in. We are not. We live in a world where a man who is mugged on the street for his Rolex would never be chastised for what he was wearing or the part of town he was frequenting. Where a man whose car has been stolen would never be asked why he chose to park it in a public space in the first place.

In Bialik’s world, “other” women are desperate for the attention of men and cultivate their good looks based on that desire alone. According to her, women looking for this acceptance and love “end up on the casting couch.” In my world, I was harassed by a man in power who I had to spend time with if I wanted to keep my job (and a roof over my head), and who didn’t face any consequences when I reported him.

In Bialik’s world, men are no better than wild animals, like sharks which should not be provoked with bloody bait. In my world, I share a space with intelligent, civilized and educated men who should know and do better.

It is a real shame that despite the backlash following her article, Bialik became defensive instead of taking a much-needed critical look at her own internalized misogyny and the roots thereof. Instead, she claimed that the piece was about her own experiences. However, she claims not to have experienced sexual assault or harassment. So how is this a valuable contribution to the discussion? Is this truly about sharing, or about shaming?

 

Living like a high-class hobo (or how I moved into my apartment)

StockSnap_DD5Z08UIE0I struggled immensely to find an apartment which met my needs: close to public transport, as large as possible, with a private garden and a landlord who would accept my dog. I had given up on finding an apartment matching all the above requirements with light fittings and a kitchen too, as this would have been asking far too much, apparently. So when I found something just slightly over my price range, but with a private garden and close to a forest, I jumped to sign on the dotted line, and adjusted my budget to accommodate the higher expenses. I accepted that I would have to pay around 10 euros a day for a dog walker to take my dog out whilst I am at work, and that I would have to buy a kitchen and light fittings, and install a fence around my garden. These were all expenses I had hoped I wouldn’t have to carry when I moved here, but alas, here I am, adulting super hard in German.

I moved into my apartment yesterday. My container with furniture from South Africa has not arrived yet so I only have a few suitcases and a borrowed mattress with some bedding on it scattered around the empty spaces. The apartment is absolutely filthy, and since I don’t have any cleaning equipment I will have to pay a cleaning service to give this place a thorough scrubbing. In order to sleep without nightmares about cockroaches, I made do with some body wash and water in the bathroom, and tried to sweep the floor in the bedroom as best I could using a dustpan and brush. I was shocked that the landlord didn’t force the previous tenant to clean the place.

The used kitchen I purchased was transported here yesterday with some effort, and is being installed today by a man called Serje who speaks no English and has women’s earrings dangling from the ceiling in his van. I’m not entirely positive that he’s not a serial killer and that those are not his trophies, but since I have few other options available to me, let’s hope not.

Update: As it turns out, the kitchen worktop with attached sink is not going to work, so Serje has negotiated with me via Google Translate that he will buy what I need and give me the receipt. I have no choice but to agree to this, and for the hundredth time since moving here, I am at the mercy of strangers. I try to stay positive as my left eye twitches uncontrollably from never-ending anxiety. The financial pressure of making this move has been far more intense than I bargained for.

In the meantime, I am making coffee by boiling water in my clothes steamer, using a cardboard box as a table and hoping that the guys who have to connect my internet will hurry the fuck up.

Free spirit or freeloader?

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We’ve all been there: You’re travelling abroad and you ask a good friend or family member who lives in Paris/New York/Zurich/Add City Here whether you can crash with them for a few days to save on costs for the rest of the trip. You’re a good houseguest, clean up after yourself and maybe even cook a meal or two before thanking them profusely and going on your merry way.

But what happens when the vacationer is a wanderer? A grown ass person who subscribes to some sort of childish gypsy lifestyle ideology where they aspire to wander around Europe/Asia/America/Enter Continent Here “indefinitely” whilst doing a few odd jobs or trying to find the right job and (this is key) mooching off kind-hearted friends. Now, I am sure that there are individuals out there who do not mind having to pay extra for food, utilities, possibly transport and having to sacrifice their privacy to accommodate this… ahem… free spirit. I am not one of those individuals. I mind. A lot. And I have had the privilege of coming across not one, not two, but three of these lovely tightwads.

I had barely clicked “post” on my first Instagram picture displaying a setting in my new city, when one of them came crawling out the woodwork. I hadn’t spoken to this girl in 7 years, but she acted like she had been a bridesmaid at my wedding or some shit. “Oh I’m coming to Europe and was wondering if you could host me.” Host her? I thought that it seemed like an odd choice of words. The image of a host and parasite popped into my mind… But I scolded myself for being quick to jump to conclusions. After all, maybe she just meant to stay for a few days? I made it clear that I am living in a studio apartment and I am not settled, but this did not deter her. She had just rented out her apartment in South Africa and was dead set on coming to Europe indefinitely to travel and do “some makeup and blogging.”

The warning bells were like foghorns.

Look, if you want to be a wanderer, I respect that. Heck, I admire it. But do it on your own damn dime. You’re not a college kid. Be an adult and take responsibility for yourself.  If you have to learn to forage mushrooms and crabs for food, then do so. If you have to clean toilets to make money, get on with it. That was part of the choice you made when you decided to live an alternative lifestyle. That’s what it is, a choice. Not an excuse to drag out your responsibility-free college existence.

Lastly, here’s a tip for all houseguests: Don’t overstay your welcome, and at least repay the person who opened their doors to you. Splitwise is a handy calculator designed to help you figure out just how much you owe your generous friend.

Happy travels everyone!

Finding a place to rent in Germany

Having just gone through the trials and tribulations of finding an apartment to rent, I can sympathize with the stress, confusion and anxiety that comes with this process. So here are a few guidelines which will hopefully make things a little easier.StockSnap_PQBKOX33PD

First, where the heck do you start looking? I subscribed to a daily update of properties in my city sent straight to my inbox from ImmobilienScout24, which is arguably the website where you can find the largest volume of properties for rent or sale. Whilst I really like the site and find it very user-friendly, my one bugbear is that you are unable to filter the results to search for pet friendly apartments. Since I am bringing my dog over and it is my primary consideration for selecting where I wanted to live, this was a major problem with the site for me.

A slightly smaller variety of properties (with many duplicates from ImmobilienScout24) can be found at Immowelt, where if you click on “weitere kriterien” you can search for pet friendly apartments by checking the “haustiere erlaubt” box.

Similarly, WG-Gesucht is a great resource where you can filter results and search specifically for a room in an apartment (WG Zimmer), a studio apartment (1 Zimmer Wohnung), an apartment (Wohnung), or a house (Haus).

I ended up finding my apartment in the Immobilien section of Kalaydo, so don’t ignore the smaller websites or even Ebay Kleinanzeigen.

You will need a short explanation for the terminology used when renting an apartment.

Zimmer means room. A 2 room apartment has a living room area and one bedroom, along with a kitchen and bathroom. The kitchen and bathroom are not considered in the room numbers. A 3 room apartment therefore has 2 bedrooms and so forth.

Haustiere are pets. Nach Vereinbarung basically means “permissible if agreed to”.

Bezugsfrei ab means “available from”. 
Kaltmiete is your “cold rent”. That means rent before electricity and sometimes heating, water, and other maintenance are included. 
Nebenkosten are additional costs such as electricity and whatever else is agreed to by the landlord.
Heizkosten are heating costs.
A Dachgeschosswohnung is an apartment in the attic of a house.

An Erdgeschosswohnung is a ground floor apartment.

An Einbauküche is a built in kitchen. This is what you will be looking for if you don’t feel like buying a kitchen and installing it (see my previous post on this for more).

A garten is a garden (fairly obvious) but the important thing to note is that most gardens are shared amongst many tenants so if you want a private garden you’ll be looking for the term “eigene garten.”

You will need to contact the landlord or estate agent to set up a viewing. At these viewings it is not unusual for up to 20+ people to show up, so be on time, dress nicely and make sure you have any documents requested on hand. Most landlords need a copy of your passport and proof of income at the very least. I also included a training certificate for my dog, my credit record and references from previous landlords.

I wanted my own garden and a pet friendly apartment, so I chose to live outside the city centre. I have a 40-50 minute commute to work but I would be paying a lot more for what I got if I was right in the centre.

Before you sign your rental agreement (take a German friend or colleague, trust me!) you will need to agree on a few things with the landlord. First, the kaution or deposit. As I mentioned in a previous post, this can legally be up to 3 months cold rent plus 16% tax. You can either open a bank account specially for this deposit, or you can choose to go with a kaution guarantee option (if your landlord permits it). There are two options here: a product from the bank that is essentially a loan or a product from an insurance company that is… well… insurance (duh). Some banks won’t give this guarantee to expats who have recently arrived. I am currently getting permission from my landlord to follow the latter route using Kautionfrei.

The second agreement needs to be regarding the “renovation” of your apartment. This basically means that you have to repaint the apartment. As far as I know there is no way around this, so what needs to be agreed is whether you will paint the apartment when you move in or before you move out.

There are many apartment scams doing the rounds, so always be alert. If the landlord cannot show you the apartment as they are “currently in a different country” or if anyone asks you to part with your money before the contract is signed and you have your keys, you have the right to be more than suspicious.

Happy house hunting and I wish you all the best!

Surviving Germany… when you speak no German

The single biggest challenge for an expat in their new country is the language barrier. When you come from a predominantly English-speaking region, it’s tempting to adopt the somewhat arrogant stance that everywhere you go, people should be able and willing to speak English. Whilst you might get by for a few weeks on holiday, this attitude won’t get you very far as an expat, or endear you to the locals.

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I realize the importance of learning German, but let me be honest here… German is proving to be a bitch. It’s difficult and confusing and the pronunciation does not come naturally to me. I will start a German course as soon as possible but in the meantime I am using a few methods to help me pick up a few of the basics. Please note that this is just my opinion and that because of our individual learning preferences not everything works well for everyone.

Firstly, a big thumbs up to Rocket Languages, a self-learning platform which I have used before to teach myself some basic French and which I enjoyed so much that I splurged again to buy the German course. The available courses come in three levels, the lowest of which promises to help you to reach good conversational level and the highest excellent conversational level. If you are prepared to invest at least 40 minutes to an hour a day, this can get you familiar with the basics for survival fairly quickly and effectively.

I also really like Memrise, a free language learning app (which can also be used to memorize other topics) because it is fun, interactive and can help you memorize the basic vocabulary in a few minutes a day.

For some passive every day learning, I love listening to Coffee Break German on my way to work. One of the perks of public transport is that you don’t have to focus on the road, so you can maximize your time learning a necessary language.

However, whilst I am still learning German there are things to be done that simply cannot wait for my German skills to catch up. One of the biggest issues I had immediately was opening a bank account. Out of all the traditional banks I found in my city, only two had an online platform in English: Sparkasse and Deutsche Bank. However, these platforms are fairly limited and you need to physically go into a branch (where they don’t/won’t speak English) to open an account. Since I didn’t have anyone to go with me, I chose a less conventional option: N26, a mobile bank with no physical branches, no monthly fees and a free debit card which arrived two days after I signed up. You can draw money from any ATM and also from grocery stores using the app, which is a good thing as you start paying for withdrawals after the first 5 ATM withdrawals every month, whilst the grocery store withdrawals are free.

So far, N26 has been really convenient to deal with and the process to sign up was hassle-free. I simply confirmed my identity via a video call with a friendly English-speaking man, and voila. I have already transferred money in and out of the account with no problems, drew money and paid for groceries using the card. It has limitations, and the products are not as varied as other banks (please introduce linked savings accounts, N26) but it is a very good platform to start with.

Next, cellphone contracts and insurance. I bought a prepaid sim card from the airport and found that it was a nightmare to register and set up. Luckily, I discovered this life-saving site: Foreign Money Saver. I have followed the recommendations these guys made for both sim cards and private liability insurance, primarily because they have done the research for me and because they provide a step by step guide to signing up, complete with screenshots and speech bubbles. After I discovered their site I also noticed that they recommend N26 which helped me feel better about the choice I made. I am not sure that I would follow all their recommendations (for instance, I need more data on my internet plan than the choices they recommend) but overall, this is an amazing site for newcomers to Germany.  The cellphone contract I went with from Simply has been a breeze thus far. The sim card was delivered in no time (with an extra sim card for my tablet thrown in) and it was easy to activate the sim card on the website.

I hope some of these tips will be useful for newcomers to Germany and for those who are thinking of moving to this confusing, maddening, bewitching and beautiful country.

The inevitable culture shock that comes with expatriation.

StockSnap_ZJTLF2SGUNBefore you relocate to another country, you generally do your research. You visit the country, scope out a few cities and read up on local customs. You feel prepared. And then you settle in for a few days/weeks/months only to be confronted with the realities of these differences and inevitably respond with, “what. the. actual. fuck.”

Or maybe that’s just me.

First, the big things. Scenarios I knew about before moving, but are no less annoying now that I have to navigate them daily.

  1. The kitchen thing. Seriously, what is this fuckery? Any foreigner who has every lived in Germany will know the near physical pain of having to deal with this frustration. You see, when Germans move out of their homes, they take everything with them. Ev.ery.thing. This includes the ENTIRE kitchen, including pipes, cupboards and countertops (and yes, even the kitchen sink), but that’s not all. When you move into your new apartment, there will be no light fittings or curtain rails. You will be greeted by wires dangling out of the ceiling. If you are on a tight budget, you can buy a used kitchen (eBay Kleinanzeigen is a great resource), and then pay someone to dismantle, transport and re-install it. I am currently trying to find someone to do that for me using Kalaydo, and will let you know how that works out. Speaking from current experience, the quality of your sleep and your health quickly deteriorates when you don’t speak more than 12 German words and you have to sort this kind of shit out.
  2. The kaution. This is the rental deposit that you have to pay before moving into your apartment/house. It can be up to 3 times the “cold” rent (this is rent without electricity, water, heating and other services) plus 16% tax. Absolute insanity.
  3. Paying for stuff you should technically not be paying for. Every single household in Germany, whether they own a TV or not, must pay a monthly amount of more than 17 Euros as a license fee. There is no way around or out of it. Other examples? My colleague and her husband recently got slapped with a 15000 Euro bill to contribute to the maintenance of “their section” of the road running past their home. I’ll say it again: What. the. actual. fuck.
  4. Sundays. Make sure you have all the emergency supplies you may need for the weekend because on Sundays and public holidays, everything shuts down. And I mean everything. No shops are open, no pharmacies or doctors are open, and most restaurants and coffee shops are also “abgeschlossen.” And don’t for a moment think you can spend your whole Saturday out and about enjoying your free time and then use Sunday to clean your apartment, mow your lawn or do the washing. Work is prohibited on a Sunday. This means (depending on your neighbors and how spiteful they are) that the mere sound of a vacuum cleaner or lawnmower can earn you a big fat fine.

Then there are the little day to day things that take some getting used to. For instance, before you have had half a chance to nervously stammer out your “Vielen Dank” to the waitress serving you, she has already curtly said “bitteschön” much to your dismay. Where I come from, saying “you’re welcome” before someone has had a chance to say thanks is at best socially awkward and at worst downright obnoxious. It took me a few days to realize that it is not meant offensively and a more accurate translation could be, “It is my pleasure to help you.”

Despite the annoyances, headaches and stress, it’s worth trying to take it all in your stride. In a few months (maybe years), I know this will all seem very normal to me.

Well, except the kitchen thing.

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