A great thing about living in a cold, wet, place is that when spring comes, everything blooms–especially at the botanical garden in Bielefeld. Trees grow leaves and blossoms, flowers pop out of nowhere, and even people grow smiles. Bielefeld’s Botanischer Garten is open year-round, but likes to show off during spring. It’s a must-see when visiting Bielefeld.
Events in Bloom
The Botanical Gardens hosts events throughout the year, including plant trades, Qigong, worship services, and outdoor music concerts. And like all public parks or museums in Bielefeld, there’s a Cafe on site with delicious cake. What better way is there to enjoy the outdoors?
Saturday was Nachtansichten. My feet are sore, I’m tired, and I have a bit of a headache, probably from the lights. It’s a Nachtansichten hangover. Every Spring in Bielefeld, the city stays up past midnight and gets a little bit wild, all in the name of creativity. Over 50 museums, art galleries, and churches open their doors for special late-night exhibits, and the Altstadt becomes a playground for creativity and light. For a 12 Euro ticket, you have entrance into any exhibit in the city, with free bus and train fare included.
Sampling the City
The most popular stop: Dr. Oetker. While Dr. Oetker doesn’t exist in the States, it is a huge company in Europe headquartered in Bielefeld. The food manufacturer makes everything from cocoa powder to frozen pizzas, and during Nachtansichten, opens up Dr. Oetker Welt with exhibits on the manufacturing process, and of course, tons of free samples and food from their employee restaurant. We started our night here, with a line wrapped around the block of people waiting to enter.
We lasted about 3 minutes in that line before we gave up. For one thing, Dr. Oetker Welt is open year-round, free samples or not. And I’ve been to Costco enough times to know what to expect. I’d rather explore the museum when less people are jockeying for a look at the exhibits, or sticking their hands in the literal candy bowl. Bis später, Dr. Oetker.
A Little Art
If we learned anything from our attempt at visiting Dr. Oetker Welt, it was that the more popular museums, like Kunsthalle and Bauernhaus Museum, would probably be overcrowded and difficult to get into. We decided to stick to the smaller galleries and boy, am I glad we did.
We took the train away from the Mitte and explored some smaller galleries. The artwork was varied, beautiful, haunting, compelling, and inspiring. We saw oil paintings and watercolors, mixed-media and graffitti, kinetics and robotics. Every venue had live music, food and drinks, and plenty of people enjoying themselves. It was an exercise of sensory muscles I hadn’t used in a while. I couldn’t tell you the last time I’ve been to an art museum or an art gallery. I missed it.
But Nachtansichten is not really an event geared for long studies of artwork or thoughtful gazing. It’s an up-tempo, high-volume event jammed with plenty to do and way too much to see. The highlight being the buildings and courtyards in the Altstadt colored in lights.
Bielefeld takes the art to the streets with outdoor exhibits and performances. During Nachtansichten, the Rathaus and other buildings in the Altstadt are lit with projectors that the public can control and adjust the colors on. It’s fun, engaging, and beautiful.
During Nachtansichten, I visited places I didn’t know existed. I saw things I hadn’t seen before. I was introduced to a different side of Bielefeld. It’s more laidback, creative, and friendly. Sampling the city through Bielefeld’s Nachtansichten event was a perfect way to try out the museums and galleries, and prepare for Summer. Plus, now I have a booklet stuffed with info on the city’s best exhibits. We’re ready for any visitor and any interest! We got you covered!
More beloved than Schnitzel, and definitely up there with Currywurst, is Germany’s favorite veggie: Spargel. Asparagus. To be honest, I hate Asparagus. But auf Deutsch, it sounds better, doesn’t it? Spargel. Sounds fancy and sparkly and delicious. I had to see why Germans celebrate this food.
In Germany, the Spargel season begins in April and ends in mid-June. After surviving a wet and dark winter, I can see why it’s such a big deal. Spargel season marks the beginning of Summer: good weather, cool drinks, and sitting outside endlessly in the sunshine. When the weather is mild and the breeze is light, we’ll take our food alfresco.
While the green stuff is what I recognize, Germans are more fond of white asparagus, which is grown throughout the country along what is called the Spargelstrasse. The traditional Spargel dish consists of boiled white asparagus and potatoes covered in Hollandaise sauce. Or, simply cooked and covered in butter.
Considering I am not a “typical German” (aka not German), I decided to try Spargel a different way. With couscous, strawberries, and a lighter flavor.
Spring Asparagus Couscous
Serves: 4 people
Time: about 30 minutes
Tools used: Skillet
This recipe is Vegan and Dairy free. This dish can be served by itself, but would work great as a side paired with chicken or fish.
You will need:
12 ounces (350g) Couscous
2 pounds (1kg) Green Asparagus
1/2 pound (250g) Strawberries (or more!)
1 Bunch Mint (optional- you do you)
8 tablespoons Olive Oil
2-3 tablespoons White Wine Vinegar
Prepare the couscous according to package directions and set aside.
Wash the asparagus and cut off the bottom. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in the skillet on medium-high heat and grill the asparagus for about 8 minutes.
Wash the strawberries and cut into halves or quarters.
(Optional) Wash the mint, dry, and chop.
Mix 3 tablespoons olive oil with 2-3 tablespoons white wine vinegar, and a generous amount of salt and pepper. Mix the couscous with the vinaigrette (add extra olive oil if necessary).
Top the couscous with grilled asparagus, strawberries, mint (optional), and salt and pepper.
This recipe is translated from German and adapted from Rewe.
As a self-proclaimed asparagus-shunner, I actually liked this meal. Next to try: white asparagus with Hollandaise sauce! I get a stamp on my German Card for trying and liking Spargel, right? 🤷♀️
Is there a food where you live that says “summer” to you? Let me know if you try this recipe.
Moving to Germany has made me look at the United States in a different way. I am constantly blown away by Germany’s innovations and efficiency; little things like how the toilets flush, to the way the windows open, and bigger things like the public transportation and waste system. In comparison, Germany makes the U.S. look like a third world country.*
As one of the most powerful countries on Earth, Germany is saving the world.
Going Old School
When at a coffee shop, restaurant, or special event, your drink will come in a mug or a glass. And you’ll pay for that glass. (usually, it’s 1-3 euro). This is called a Pfand. When you bring it back, you’ll get your money back for the glass. Rarely, if ever, do you get a paper to-go cup. In fact, most cafes will give you a discount for bringing your own mug or thermos (and it’s usually a good discount!).
All plastic bottles (and some glass) purchased also have pfand. When at the market, you pay for the drink, plus the pfand. When the bottle is empty, you can return it to the Leergutautomat, which works like a reverse ATM. It’s not like in California, where you take your empty cans to some unused backside of a creepy parking lot and sort them into a metal crate that smells like stale beer. Every market has Leergutautomat machines. Put the bottles into the machine and out comes a slip of paper with your total Pfand refund on it. This paper can then be used as a credit at the market or redeemed for cash at the register. It’s simple, easy, and guarantees that no recyclable material ends up in a landfill.
Doing laundry in Germany is like stepping into a time machine. Nearly every garden has a laundry line, because most people don’t use dryers. The cellar in our building includes a room specifically for hanging laundry. At first, this way of doing laundry irritated me, because I felt like it would take forever. And honestly, it kind of does. Typically, the washing machine (yes, we still have those here) takes about 2 and half hours for a full cycle, and most of that time it’s just spinning to dry out the clothes. If the sun’s out, the laundry will typically be dry in a couple hours, but in the winter, it must hang overnight inside. It might take forever, but I’m not sitting around waiting for it, and I don’t do more laundry than I did in the States. Plus, what’s better than fresh laundry dried in the sun?
It might seem that Germany has poo-pooed on modern conveniences like dryers or air conditioning, but I think they found a better way to handle it which is better for the environment. The first thing we were told by our landlord when we moved in was to regularly air out our flat. Germans love to air out. Basically, this means, in any given season, regardless of weather, to open every window and door to the outside and let in fresh air. None of the windows in Germany have screens on them, and most of them will open a variety of ways; fully open, just a tad, etc. This is great because you can regulate the airflow into the home; like nature’s air-conditioning.
We also regulate indoor temperatures with the use of Rolladen. These look like metal blinds that fit over the front of the window on the outside, blocking light, noise, and temperature from entering. From the outside, the building looks like a fortress ready for a zombie apocalypse, and from the inside, it’s perfectly comfortable, no air-conditioning required.
For newcomers, the trash system is a common topic of conversation. Mainly because it can be overwhelming and confusing. Inevitably we all start talking trash when at someone’s house and trying to figure out where to throw away food, napkins, etc. There are 4 different trash cans: Biotonne (green), Restmülltonne (brown), Papiertonne (blue), Wertstofftonne (yellow; often referred to as Gelbetonne or just Gelb), not to mention a completely separate bin for throwing away glass. Here’s how it works:
Biotonne: Bio waste like food, plants, etc.
Papiertonne: Paper products likes cardboard, newspaper, cereal boxes, envelopes etc.
Wertstofftonne: Plastics, metals, the plastic window from the envelopes (seriously), etc.
Restmülltonne: All the rest. Anything in this bin gets incinerated.
Most parks are equipped with recycling bins for glass products, which are separated by color, clear, brown, green. Any bottle or jar that doesn’t collect a pfand gets tossed in here. Often you will find empty glass bottles sitting on the top of trash cans in public parks, because people know they shouldn’t toss them in.
I still won’t throw my trash away if anyone is outside, because I am still afraid I am doing it wrong. 🤷♀️
When we moved from Colorado to Ohio, we became a single-car household. Then, when we moved to Germany, we didn’t have a car at all. Our main transportation has been train, bus, or foot (we still need to get bikes!). Germany has a well-established (mostly) efficient public transportation system that helps reduce traffic and emissions. Most major cities, including Bielefeld, have connected park trails that go through the city, making it easy to get around on bike while still taking the scenic route.
This year, Germany pledged to end its use on coal by 2038 and has been continually closing coal mines and establishing alternate energy plants. While some changes need to occur on a larger political level, people around the globe can make small lifestyle changes to affect their global impact. Maybe try doing laundry the German way.
Do you think Germany’s ways to save energy are strange? Would they work where you live? What do you do to reduce your global impact?
*(I realize that Germany is a much smaller country, and the States is both enormous, mostly rural, and definitely votes differently.)
Two hours north by train lies the birthplace of fairytales. Disguised as one of the biggest cities in Germany, Bremen sneaks in little glimpses into its past from behind a modern infrastructure. But this once-small town has a unique celebrity to it: I mean, not every city gets a centuries-old shoutout from the Grimm Brothers.
A weekend in Bremen
Bremen is located on the Weser River in Lower Saxony. Its economy relies on the river, which connects it to other fishing and shipping ports throughout the region, and the North Sea (the trains even have signs that say no fishing poles). On a sunny day, the Altstadt near the river bustles with people milling about enjoying the water, always with ice cream cone in hand.
The weekend surprised with one good afternoon of partial sunshine—enough to get people outside, lazing at café tables and winding their way down the cobbled streets of the city center. I joined in, sans ice cream (I still regret that mistake), and meandered through the old city looking for nothing in particular, but looking nonetheless.
What I found were things unique to Bremen, and seriously rare.
The City Musicians
Once upon a time I had a book of fairytales by the Brothers Grimm. Stories like Rumpelstiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood, and Snow White I had read many times, but I had not heard about the City Musicians of Bremen. The story follows the tale of a donkey, dog, cat, and rooster, who leave their homes and join up to start a band in Bremen. On their way, they come upon some robbers, decide to band together (pun intended?), and scare the crap out of the thieves.
In the story, the animals never actually make it to Bremen, but the city ignores that part. The musicians have become a mascot for the city, with every shop selling kitsch with the animals on it. The Altstadt has a statue of the Stadt Musikanten commemorating the famous fairytale. Around the city are reinterpretations of the famous statue, with colorful animals in different poses.
The Schnoor Viertel
One of these silly statues sits tucked away in the Schnoor Viertel, a mess of narrow streets and even narrower buildings from the middle ages. More than 60% of Bremen was completely destroyed during World War II, but the Schnoor survived, giving us a glimpse into a past that is hard to imagine for an American. Some buildings are hundreds of years older than my homeland. Walking the uneven cobbled paths through the Schnoor makes you feel claustrophobic and a little too big. There are no café tables lining the sidewalks here. Doorways are narrow and low, passing people on the street requires an intricate dance of entschuldigungs and sidestepping. It feels as if the buildings are tilted inward and the ground is moving with you as you walk.
If you’re planning on visiting Bremen, stay near the city center, as that is where most of the museums and Sehenswürdigkeiten (sightseeing) are. Bremen has a well-established Stadtbahn system that runs regularly, but the lines can be confusing. Bring (or rent) a bike. Bremen has bike shops on every corner, and the bike lane is nearly the size of the car lane (the sidewalk is very small in comparison!). Most railway stations will have a bike rental shop, or a Radstation.
Bremen is very different compared to other cities I have visited. It’s not very international, and every time I rode the train or was outside, someone talked to me. This would never happen in Bielefeld or most other German cities. I was shocked by their friendliness, but to be honest, it made me a little uncomfortable. I have gotten used to being able to live silently in public.
Speaking of speaking, it was clear I wasn’t from around there (and not in an Auslander sort of way) when I spoke with the locals. People in Bremen use different words for common things, like “hello,” “goodbye,” and “cookie.” In Bielefeld, we say hallo or morgen, for hello; tschüss for goodbye, and “cookie” for cookie. In Bremen, they say moin, tschau, and Schockosüß.
But a cookie by any other name is still delicious. 🍪
Since I was little, I’ve started my prayers the same way: “Lord, bless me indeed and enlarge my territory. Let your hands be with me and keep me from evil so that I don’t cause pain.” This prayer acts as a comfort, something I can offer up on repeat, a tiny verse out of 1 Chronicles my 10-year-old self over-simplified and memorized in my own way. But when I think about it, I have to laugh a little because here I am, going to church in a different country.
It took us six months, but we finally decided to be brave and go to church. Thanks to the googling skills of my sister-in-law, we found a church, and we had a plan. If anyone approached us and started speaking German to us, we would give them the deer-in-the-headlights look. It worked. The church is located near the main train station, in a modern building. Just like in the States, greeters wait outside to welcome you in. Up two flights of stairs are the main hall, an open space with a bar (yes, a bar), and tables and chairs to relax and hangout.
Here is where Daniel met us. I was probably pretty obvious, standing at the top of the stairs, shoving my beanie and gloves into my backpack and looking around open-mouthed. He introduced himself in German and asked if we were new, and we had to explain we were Ausländer, give our speech about not knowing a lot of German, etc. He very excitedly (for a German) showed us around and explained what to expect from the service. It was a warm welcome, and a good reminder that regardless of language barriers, we were among friends.
The service itself was a typical church service, beginning with music, announcements, a sermon, more music, prayer scattered throughout, and ending with a benediction. What we didn’t expect was the complete openness of the church-goers. I have never been in such a wild crowd with such a rock and roll band. It was the opposite of what you’d expect from orderly Germans. Songs were sung in both German and English (with subtitles on both), and the sermon was in German. While we were offered a translator, we found that we were able to follow the sermon without translation (yay!).
Mut & Glaube
When we went to church for the first time in Kent, the pastor read from Joshua about being strong and courageous. It felt like God was saying, “pssst! Erin!” At this service, I had to laugh because we talked about Mut und Glaube, courage and belief. The pastor read from the book of Mark:
“And the Gospel must first be preached to all nations.”
Here I am, after praying a simple prayer basically my entire Christian life, asking God to expand my territory. And he has taken me through California, Colorado, Ohio, and now Germany.
Pssst! Be strong and courageous!
Pssst! Preach the gospel to all nations!
Pssst! Be a missionary right where you are!
Peaches and Coconuts
The Dutch have a word that doesn’t translate well: Hygge. The easiest way to define it would be a gathering of friends, warm and cozy and talking late into the night. The Germans have a similar word: Chillen. Which is easier to define: to chill/ hang out/ relax with friends and drink beer and have a good time. This church has these vibes.
It wasn’t stuffy, it wasn’t trying to be something else, it wasn’t fake. It was transparent and genuine and chill. No one cared about anything other than celebrating Jesus. No one was worried about people watching them, if it would be weird to raise hands, close their eyes, sing off-key. It didn’t matter to them.
Daniel joined us after the service and asked what we thought. We told him we did not expect that type of service, and that type of worship from Germans. He laughed and said, “It’s all peaches and coconuts.” We both looked at him confused. He said, “in my English class, we were told that Americans and Germans are like peaches and coconuts. Germans are coconuts. Hard on the outside, but when you crack us open, we are soft and sweet. Americans are Peaches. Sweet on the outside, but hard on the inside.”
I mean, Berlin is nice and all, but the only reason we went there was for Harry Potter. The Harry Potter Film Exhibition has been touring the world for about 10 years, displaying costumes and props from the films and immersing visitors into the pages of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy world. I had to move to Europe to see it.
We took the train from Berlin to Potsdam for the Harry Potter Film Exhibition. Tickets and audio guides in hand, we joined a mass of German fans and flooded the exhibit, transported to Platform 9 ¾ , the Great Hall, Gryffindor common room, Hagrid’s hut, and the Forbidden forest.
The exhibit opens with a sorting ceremony, with volunteers chosen from the audience. Afterwards, double doors open into a large room paneled with screens playing scenes from the films. With “Hedwig’s Theme” playing, we get a glimpse at the characters throughout the films, smiling and reminiscing, getting goosebumps remembering waiting in line at midnight for book releases and movie premieres. As nerdy as it might sound, it felt good to be back among friends.
A train whistle sounded and doors opened to reveal the Hogwarts Express at Hogsmead, leading us into the castle where more exhibits awaited.
I quickly realized that I didn’t need the audio guide because I already knew all the info. I abandoned my player and spent my time putting my nose way too close to the props and practically balancing half my body over the barriers to see the costumes as close as possible (the detail is insane!).
Props to the Prop Dept.
It’s one thing to see a film and applaud the artistry that goes into it, especially when the film is set in a fantasy world. But the props used to create Harry Potter and bring these books to life are simply, well, magical. The amount of work and detail that goes into making a simple prop book or a crystal ball (rubber) is true artistry and craftsmanship.
One of my favorite parts were the mini sets strewn through the exhibit. Using costumes, backdrops and props, visitors found themselves at Bill and Fleur’s wedding, dancing at the Yule Ball, in detention with Dolores Umbridge, and placing your bets at the Quidditch World Cup. Much like the props, the costumes were highly detailed, with pinstriping and stitching that I never noticed in the umpteenth times I had seen the films.
I had no idea that Snape’s costume was navy. I always thought he was in black!
The Wizarding World
The exhibit also featured a few costumes from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, as well as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play. The Cursed Child is coming to Germany in Spring 2020, where it will begin shows–in German.
Until another midnight movie release or book launch (fingers crossed for Hogwarts, a History), I’ll continue re-reading and re-watching, making no noise and pretending I don’t exist.
This weekend, we took the DeutscheBahn from Bielefeld to Berlin for an unscheduled no-itinerary weekend in Berlin. We didn’t even know what we wanted to do, only that we wanted to eat good food (preferably Asian) and go to a museum (preferably history). We stayed outside of the historical section of the city, so we’re sorry to say we didn’t see the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) and the only view we had of the Siegessäule (Victory Column) was from the train.
Berlin has a diverse history. As the epicenter of many important political events throughout history, Berlin does a good job of paying homage to its past through museums and memorials throughout the city. We wanted to go to Berlin like locals, exploring cafes and parks, and see a museum or two. We will definitely be back to see more of Berlin’s famous Museuminsel, but during our visit, we went to the Berlin Wall, which has a large memorial park, visitors center, and memorial museum.
The Wall Must Come Down
Apparently, I have a very weird perception of the Berlin Wall. My first introduction to it was at a restaurant, in the bathroom, where parts of the wall were used as decoration. Any films or mentions of the Wall growing up revolved around Rock and Roll, graffiti and people taking pieces of the wall as souvenirs. Friends or family who have visited Germany before me described it as “cool,” or “awesome,” and always in a positive tone.
There is nothing about the Berlin Wall that is cool.
The Berlin Wall Memorial (Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer) is a somber, quiet memorial site that travels along a 1.4km strip of the former wall. The outdoor exhibit includes historical information on the events leading up to the building of the wall, and the city’s political context from 1961-1989. The park is littered with information on the border fortifications, how people escaped, watchtowers, and memorials for victims shot and killed by border guards.
What was most jarring for me about the Wall, was the fact that it ran right through neighborhoods, and directly cut people off from their families and neighbors. The Wall was literally right up against apartment buildings. Imagine that one day you look out your window and suddenly your fence separating you from your neighbor just keeps getting higher and higher.
And now, it’s in the street.
And now, you can’t see the end of it.
You go outside, and there’s an armed guard. They won’t let you past the fence…even though you work on the other side. Your school is on the other side. Your parents live on the other side. What would you do?
2,000 residents were displaced.
130 people were shot and killed while trying to escape.
Old and New
Berlin’s world famous Museum Island (Museumsinsel) does not disappoint. We went there with the intention of going to the Pergamon museum on someone’s recommendation, and ended up being drawn into another museum entirely. We spent a good chunk of time roaming the halls of Neues Museum, which had a collection classical antiquities and artifacts from ancient Egypt, including the bust of Nefertiti.
The most interesting part of the museum was the building itself, which was heavily destroyed in bombing raids during the war. It was left dilapidated and in ruins from the 1940s until the 1980s, when measures were taken to protect it. The building was refurbished in 2003 using any recovered original pieces, preserving the original structure. The interior and exteriors were preserved, leaving signs of damage. Many pillars still show scorch marks from the bombs. The museum reopened to the public in 2009 and is now listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
I am (not) a Donut
Berlin is not a typical German city. For one thing, shops are open on Sundays. This city is the New York of Europe. It’s huge, disorderly, multicultural, and a little bit in-your-face. You could easily live here without learning German. In Bielefeld, everyone wears the same long black coats and Chelsea boots, in Berlin, street style and normcore add color to the yellow train cars and graffitied walkways.
Berlin has a pace that is aggressive and apathetic. Everyone is in a rush to get somewhere, zig-zagging through stations and across streets, yet no one knows how to use an escalator properly. Rechts stehen, links gehen. (Right stand, left go). There are also aspects about Berlin that make it very German. As disorganized as it is, they know how to throw a protest. Their cafe game is on point. People of every race, country, language live side-by-side. And the city has that typical cold, yet welcoming charm that I’ve only ever found in Germany.
I think the best way to visit Berlin is in short spurts, so you have time to recover. For an international visitor, the city is so huge, and there is so much to do it is impossible to even scratch the surface. It’s overwhelming. If you’re looking for a German vacation experience, this isn’t it. Go to Berlin like a tourist visiting any other major city (New York, Los Angeles, Paris, etc.) but in order to form a well-rounded opinion of this country, make sure to visit other places too. Might I suggest Bielefeld? I hear it’s nice there.
Our first visit to the Ausländerbehörde (foreigners office) was supposed to be a confident and hopeful one. Instead, I left frozen and terrified. With paperwork in hand, our goal was to apply for resident permits. Josh’s permit was easy. He had proof of employment within Germany. I, however, worked for a US company and couldn’t get residency just as a spouse, either. I needed to be able to have some reason to legally stay in Germany. Finally, we realized that my German language courses qualified and my application for residency was submitted.
But the fear had settled in my stomach like a rock and I had shut down. In my head, I was already planning my one-way ticket back to the states, packing my bags and figuring out who gets to be with Sherlock.
The Ausländerbehörde is the scariest place to be. I haven’t met anyone who enjoys going there. I think it stems from a paranoia of watching American news, because everything I know about going to the foreigners office includes the phrases “illegal aliens,” “build a wall,” or “bad hombres.” This place is filled with different people from around the world and I wonder if they are as scared as I am, double checking their paperwork and praying the government employees give them the benefit of the doubt.
We are all learning how to live in a new place with new rules and new culture. Sometimes it can feel like we’re fighting a battle just to stay, pleading our cases as if someone is looking for one good reason to kick us out. I know from experience that this is not the case, but I still can’t sleep at night before any appointment here.
I recognize that there are significant differences between an immigrant, a refugee, and an expat. I am not fleeing my country. I can travel freely. I get to go back one day.
But aren’t we all on the quest for a better life?
I was back at the Ausländerbehörde this week picking up residence permits, the waiting room filled to the brim with immigrants, expats and refugees. A group of people from the Middle East were talking to each other in their native language while waiting for their numbers to be called. An office door opened, and an older couple came out, excitedly waving their residence permit. They came back to the group sitting in the waiting area and showed off their permit to everyone. I made eye contact with another guy who was talking to the couple and he smiled wide and said “finally!” I gave the group the biggest teary smile.
The joy and relief of that moment has no language barrier. It’s universal.
I am reading Harry Potter again. While I kept most of my copies in the States, I brought 3 with me.* One I read on the plane (OotP, it’s my favorite, don’t @ me). And 2 versions Josh got me as a gift.
They’re not in English.
Harry Potter und der Stein der Weisen and Harry Potter und die Kammer des Schreckens.
For a while, I would open it up, read the first page and have no clue what I was reading. I knew from memory what it should say, but the language comprehension wasn’t there. It became a game. Every few weeks, I would open the book and see how far I could get. At first, it started with a sentence, then a page, then two pages. Now I am chapters in and craving more, even though I know how the story progresses. I have a system down (I know, very Ravenclaw of me):
Read the chapter.
Underline any unknown/repeated words.
Lookup the words and create a lexicon at the end of the chapter.
Re-read the chapter with the audiobook.
It’s a slow process, but it’s rewarding, and I love seeing familiar and famous lines from the text pop out to me auf Deutsch:
Mr. H Potter
Im Schrank unter der Treppe
The biggest thing is that reading Harry Potter is getting me familiar with my new language and helping me feel more comfortable speaking like a local. It’s just one of the ways I am recognizing I am on the path to fluency.
Learning a new language is very difficult, especially for native English speakers. There are usually two different responses you get when people hear you attempting to speak another language:
They will be insulted.
They will switch to English.
Most of the time, people will just switch to English, which makes it more difficult to practice German. The best way to combat this is to ignore it and keep speaking in German. The best is going through an entire conversation and never switching to English.
I was able to speak with a florist, ask and answer questions, give compliments, make a payment, and say goodbye without switching to English! It was amazing!
I was riding a high when I left the shop, and on the way home, was stopped on the street by a girl who had a question. She spoke so fast and took me by surprise. Eyes wide, I sputtered and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak German.” IN ENGLISH. I laughed nervously, she tossed her hands up and laughed, said “OK” and kept walking.
Well, there goes all the XP I earned at the flower shop.
Setbacks like these are expected, especially since I have only been learning German and living in Germany for about 5 months. Still, I am slowly recognizing fluency on my part, and am more determined than ever to turn this blog into a German language blog! Just kidding. Here’s what I’ve noticed:
My spelling in both German and English is now bad. This is mainly because I am still in between worlds in my head, and mixing things up or thinking in German when trying to write in English, or vice versa. I wrote cash as casch. I constantly swap ei and ie.
My native language lexicon is slowly disappearing. I don’t think it will ever go away, but the less I use the words, the further in my mind they are stored and the harder they are to find. I forgot what an ambulance was called, so I called it a Hospital Car, which, my brain probably already knew, is basically the literal translation of the German word for ambulance: Krankenwagen.
Anyone learning a second language is bound to fill in unknown words with their native tongue. It’s a natural step to fluency and a perfectly normal way to learn. It’s also normal to flip it and use the second language while speaking in their native tongue. When talking with my international friends, we usually speak in English and use German as a filler language for any words that we don’t know or can’t communicate the meaning properly in English.
Filling or Forgetting
When I first started learning German, I would unintentionally substitute unknown German words with the same word in Spanish. It acted as a filler word, because once I learned the word in German, it became more difficult for me to remember the word in Spanish. Just like Hospital Car, I know my Spanish is probably in there somewhere, but it’s getting buried under a new language.
Listening to people talk in another language can be quite relaxing when you have no idea what they’re saying. Contrary to Hollywood’s portrayal, German is not a harsh language. No one is spitting, screaming, or tossing up Nazi salutes when they talk. It’s soft, often quiet and can act as white noise…until you start to understand what they’re saying. Being able to listen to other people’s conversations is one of my favorite things. Walking past a group of people and having your mind go, “Hey! Those are words! I recognize that!” instead of it sounding like a teacher in a Charlie Brown movie is a good feeling.
I moved to Germany with a traveler’s vocabulary. Hallo, entschuldigung, danke, tschüss. While I tried to study the language back in the States, I found it boring and difficult. I wasn’t motivated, and I had no one to talk to. Instead, I put all my hope in learning by total immersion. There wasn’t any concrete goal, just this idea that if I was surrounded by Germans speaking German, I would just magically and passively pick it up. While that is a nice idea, that’s one step up from trying to learn a language in your sleep.
Now, I have attainable goals for 2019. Nothing too crazy, and goals with which I can easily see progress and change:
Read all 7 Harry Potter books in German.
Get a tandem speaking partner.
Wouldn’t it be great if one day, while traveling in Hungary or Italy, where I don’t speak the local language, I can ask, “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” and be able to comfortably converse?
10 bucks says they switch to English.
*I also have an Icelandic version, but who are we kidding? That’s never going to happen!
What are your experiences learning or speaking another language? Are there other aspects in life where the same ideas of fluency apply?
P.S. Congrats to Lisa and Steph C. the winners of the Bielefeld mugs! Your packages are in the mail! ☕