Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Poland, part 1

I’m on a train now from Crakow to Warshow after our first day in Poland. We left Thursday morning at 9:30 am from the Hauptbanhof in Berlin and arrived in Crakow six hours later. The ride was uncomfortable; the train car was packed full of heating, the air conditioning was broken, and it was 84 degrees outside. Luckily I was able to sleep for most of it (although not comfortably or restfully) as I had stayed up the entire night before getting prepared to leave. Truthfully, that was fairly easy and took only an hour of the night. All of my stuff fits in a single backpack (and I didn’t need to bring a sleeping bag and pillow).
The greater challenge was deciding what food to take with me and what to eat before I left; I had recently gone grocery shopping, totally spacing that I would be leaving home two days later and not returning until the week after. So I’ve been carrying around a bag full of bread, cheese and sausages, all of which I am sure are slowly going bad but I am eating anyway.
Poland is pretty, or at least the countryside is, which we have gotten to see during our train rides. Crackow used to be a German city named Breslow, before the Yalta agreements after world war II allotted Poland a portion of German territory. In that regard, Crakow looks a lot like parts of Berlin, but smaller and less metropolitan. Polish language sounds a lot like Russian (which I am told is due to a rooted connection between the two as Slavic languages, as opposed to Germanic or Romance languages) kind of like Dutch sounds a lot like German. The written language is similar to German, save for maybe six or so unique characters, though their pronunciation has nothing in common with either English or German.
After arriving we took our bags to the hostile where we would be staying, which turned out to be quite nice (wifi, but no electricity; odd). We then went on a tour of the city (tiring but often interesting) ending with a group dinner at a Polish restaurant (our entrees were salad dishes, but completely filling and amazingly good). Afterwards we went for drinks with Jeff and the tour guides. Everyone had an apple-something (with cinnamon and wodka) which were quite good and I taught Michaela and Peter the basic steps (follower and leader, respectively) for tango, which was what the local couples were dancing on the floor in the bar. None of us ended up taking up the floor though, as even I am not a confident tango dancer; it’s been *years*.
We got back and dropped dead in our beds. Breakfast next morning was cereal and toast with butter and/or jam. We visited one of the last two remaining Jewish cemeteries in Crakow, left by request of a German ambassador during the treaty signings after the Yalta agreements. The woman leading our tour was an American who studied undergrad at Indiana University as an anthropologist (very cool, we talked a lot about Bloomington while walking from one famous grave to another).
Our guides from the day before met us there and together we visited the city convention halld under-renovation. We were given hard hats and taken beneath the dome which was shockingly large when seen from the inside. I commented that it was interesting how impressive a large open space can be when surrounded by a barrier or boarder of some kind. We were lead here by the director of the project, a Ukrainian woman who studied in the US and married a Polish man. She showed us a very interesting power point presentation on the history of the dome, the sources of income and expenditures which the project faced now, as well as the renovation of the fountain courtyard and the plans for a subterranean parking lot, both of which being outsourced to private companies.
After a rushed (but delicious) lunch in the on site cafeteria (spiced baked potatoes, a seared whitefish dish and the best cream of celery and mushroom soup I have ever had) we rushed back to the hostile, picked up our bags and headed toward the train station. More about Poland later.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Recent developments

So it is the morning of May 29th and I have yet to go to sleep from the night before; not my usual routine but it has been known to happen. Last evening was Lange Nacht der Wissenschaft, another event in the series of "Lange Nachts". Basically the whole city has been hosting a series of events where, for one evening, either the museums and galleries, opera houses and theaters, or (as in this case) universities and research labs open their doors to the public and display special exhibits and performances. A defining feature of these evenings has been that all of the locations are connected by direct route city buses, limiting the need to navigate or even walk between locations.

For "Long night of the sciences" I visited the "technical university" and checked out their displays on architecture, energy efficiency, solar and wind energy production and energy state conversion and storage. Unlike Lange Nacht der Museen I found the displays to be a bit... "simplified", for the congestion of a large and constantly fluxing crowd. They made a great effort though and I was thoroughly entertained, and all of their displays had something interesting that a viewer would remember and possibly delve into deeper in their own time. Being an avid follower of TED however, I find my standards for lectures and displays in the sciences to have become somewhat high, perhaps unreasonably.

Later that evening, after stopping back home, I met up with Benedict and checked out a club (which was really just a bar with some speakers and a small dance floor) where his boss was djing (although I like techno, this sort was a little too loud and also a little too bland). But I was already there and so I stayed and danced until 3:00 am. After getting home I skyped a friend and then just finished watching Baby Mama, a movie with Tina Fey (whom I've decided I love as much as Whoopi Goldberg and Ellen DeGeneres, but still not quite as much as Jodie Foster, Helen Hunt or Rachel Weisz). Now that the sun is already up I thought I would write an update.

My Berlin adventure has exactly 7 weeks left, it's hard to imagine that I've been here for 4 months already.

Last Friday our Hampshire group had its last student seminar (Maggie's, and we discussed a short story and related essay on Jewish culture and incest in Germany). Afterwards we had dinner together (Vietnamese again, but it was good) which meant I had to reschedule my planned dinner with the Schlueters, which was a bummer because I haven't seen them in quite a while.

Circus has been going well, although I haven't had a trapeze lesson in nearly 2 weeks. I'm learning a lot of new tricks and techniques, but all of my old challenges seem to be staying at their original levels of completeness; very frustrating. I've been watching a lot of movies which, for me, is no surprise. On the plus side, the movie theater closest to me shows only German dubs so I still get to appreciate some linguistic immersion.

Classes have been interesting though I find having only reading homework with discussion and analysis to be far less stimulating or challenging than research papers or critical reaction essays, or even debates or presentation based assignments. I feel that the pressure on students here is incredibly low compared to the US, although I must admit that I could make it more challenging for myself by taking 2-4 more classes. Still, without trying to compare American students to German ones (as there is no comparison when each group shows such wide and similar variety), I fear as to how much information I will retain at the end of the semester compared to classes which I took in my first semester of college or even back in High School, purely from an increase in my own involvement with my assignments and the course material.

To simply "expect" students to read and retain all of the information they could possibly need is, I feel, irresponsible and unthoughtful. I myself wish learning were so simple, that any single individual could read a comprehensive text book or essay on a topic and both understand it and retain it. However, it is my experience that such a method simply isn't effective. People learn the most and remember the longest about topics which they themselves had to explain and express to their professor or class; in the form of a research paper or project, and even more so when they themselves had to actively present it. I appreciate Hampshire more (and my high school, Harmony) all the more when being exposed to this kind of system.

That tangent aside, my classes really are interesting and I enjoy the questions and points which the other students have brought to the discussions.

In other news, our group is leaving on the 2nd of June to visit Poland for 5-6 days which should be very exciting. I have been developing an increasingly intense writer's block (or writer's aversion as I have been calling it), leading me to avoid my mother's one-page-from-complete short story, my novel, various short stories and most notably this blog. In a creative capacity I feel writer's block truly does exist; that it is embodied by the feeling of detachment from one's work (either due to a distraction or simply being unable to immerse oneself in their field); how can you convince yourself to write when you feel that anything you create will be skewed and uninspired? However, in the case of homework or even this blog (as it is a responsibility rather than an outlet; I have always despised journal keeping if it has nothing to do with dreams), then writer's block is more of a laziness, an ongoing procrastination fed by the idea of "well, I just don't know what to write about".

Creative writing suffers when you are uninspired, technical writing suffers when you are unmotivated. I can't imagine trying to combine the two as a career path, sheer chaos.

In lighter news I have found lots of new and interesting music on music blogs and am enjoying my expanded library. I also watched the Alien quadrilogy for the first time and was truly impressed with both the acting and story line (as far as horror movies go). I'm sure I'll post something again, probably from Poland but certainly before my conclusive and comprehensive retrospective.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Berlin trip half over

I'm not even going to try to pick up where I last left off. In any case, at the end of the trip I'll do a final retrospective set of blog posts, covering specific themes.

More importantly, today I celebrated my 20th birthday. I am the odd sort who gets somewhat depressed and melancholy on my birthday, so I was pleased to be able to spend it with friends. Sundays there is a flea market in the park near where I live, and I went there in search of a piece of art I had seen weeks ago; sadly unsuccessful but I had a lot of fun and my roommate came with me. Then I had a very lovely dinner with the Schlueter family and their friends. And to top it off I saw "Limitless" with my roommate and just got back from that; the movie was good, i give it 6.5-ish/10 stars.

Tomorrow will mark the beginning of the second week of university classes. I plan on taking 5, one each day of the week, although I have room for more. The classes are "Social inequality from a global perspective", "Global and Regional Transformations: Theories, Trends, Interdependencies", "Regulation of Information Goods and Service", "Objects, laboratories, systems: the anthropology of technologies", and "The social structure of European societies". I am also considering a class on Planetary bodies in other solarsystems, one called "Modern methods of experimental physics", and "Statistical economics". In any case I'm not "officially" signed up for any yet, due to "schwierigkeiten" (difficulties) with Blackboard (sound familiar?). That doesn't seem to be a problem yet though as the professors are all happy to treat me as an official student and send me links to the readings (if I ask). Hopefully it will be fixed tomorrow though.

Being half way through my trip I recognize that my German, my reason for coming here in the first place, has truly and vastly improved. I speak more fluently, with a larger vocabulary, and more grammatically correct than ever before; and, my "off days" are becoming less and less frequent. I think seeing all of the German dubbed films lately has helped. It's truly exciting to improve in something when you don't really notice the work you've put into it; it seems like magic.

I love it here and look forward to 3 more beautiful months of spring and summer. Also, I'll post pictures... eventually?

Monday, March 14, 2011

A month gone by

For starters, I lost my steam for keeping my blog up to date, perhaps because I felt like nothing particularly interesting had occurred for a some time and the motion of posting felt more like a chore than an outlet. I wish now that it hadn't gone in that direction.
To date:
I have successfully found, attended and befriended a circus (specifically partner acrobatics) in Berlin; they meet on Mondays from 7:00 to 10:00 pm. I have started teach poi to a girl there (Mikalella ?, she's very cute and sweet; I hope to get to know her better). I also got my split to the ground (yay!) and will be sure to take pictures at the next opportunity. They have very different names for all of the different tricks and positions I am familiar with, and they certainly have shown me some things which I have never seen before (most of it being L-base hand-to-shoulder balancing and standing on hands /or/ feet). Definitely becoming a huge part of my week.
I have sadly NOT gone to any awesome German clubs. Amelia and I tried to organize an event together where we would attempt to get into the most famous (arguably?) club in Berlin, but certainly the most difficult to get into; Berghain. We didn't make it so far as to the gate though as I was never able to get a hold of Amelia the night of and did not feel like going alone. We're going to try again this weekend.
As a group we have undertaken quite a few activities together, all of which I have enjoyed and have been grateful for. Just yesterday (Sunday) we took a trip to Wittenberg, the home of Martin Luther and the founding of Lutheranism. It's a sizable town, perhaps smaller than Amherst but with much older buildings and pertinent history (and therefore more tourists and touristy shops). We had a lovely time and learned quite a lot; apparently Martin Luther was quite the gambler and sexual deviant. That aside we have also been enjoying many movie screenings together ("Almanya", "Wer, wenn nicht wir", and others). As a movie lover this has been a lot of fun for me.
--tired now, will add more tomorrow afternoon--

Monday, February 14, 2011

While walking back from class today.

I met eyes with a middle aged (40's?) woman outside of a restaurant-&-bar. Being charismatic and friendly as I am, I shot her a big grinning smile, which she returned. Then, she started walking towards me and I immediately thought "Okay, she's either going to ask me for directions or money, be prepared." I slowed to a stop and asked "Can I help you?", which in the German I used sounded less like a friendly greeting and more like a disgruntled employee (not what I had meant, exactly). She didn't seem to mind and laughed, saying (auf Deutsch) "Oh no, I'm just visiting the city to celebrate Valentines day," and something else which I couldn't catch. I laughed, in a friendly manner, and said "Oh, how nice." She reached up and stroked my arm, nodding and saying "Yea, it is."
At this point I realized she was completely wasted, and at 12:45 in the afternoon I might add. With the realization however I did not really know what to say or how to interpret her meaning; was she just a happy drunk? Was she coming on to me? Was she about to ask me to go somewhere with her? What polite ways of disengaging a discussion did I know how to say in German?
Saved by the bell, her husband (I assume) came out of the restaurant at that time and she took her hand away from my arm. I wished her a lovely day and the two of them strode away arm in arm. I immediately called Ellen to regale her with my story. I'm still laughing about it now, internally at least.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Two weeks "schon vorbei" (already gone)

A few things caught my attention today. First was the realization of the utter and amazing versatility of English grammar. You can literally throw around the subject, object and verb of a sentence like dice, and in most situations still come out with the same meaning as before. As a writer of poetry, short fiction and lover of the literary universe, "this I love."
Much to my chagrin and embarrassment, I learned today in class that German is strictly not so. The verb must ALWAYS follow the subject. You cannot say, for example; "I, in order to become fluent, will speak only German from this day on." Arguably, that isn't great English either, at least not spoken English. But this sort of grammatically awkward phrasing still has a home in the literary word, aber NICHT. AUF. DEUTSCH. To put it simply, I think they're wrong. But, whatever...

In other news I absolutely love/hate the food I have encountered while here. What I mean to say is that I have discovered no foods towards which I am ambivalent, rather only ones which I have absolutely loved or completely detested. On the winning side there have been döner kebabs (a Turkish fast food/bread wrap made of entirely German ingredients (processed beef, red cabbage, light mayonase (which Germans LOVE), lettuce and cucumber), knacker wurst (a very salty and tender sausage, not processed to the degree of American hot dogs or liver wurst) and of course blutwurst, my all time favorite sausage (made from fat, tender cartilage and congealed blood; yummy!)
On the losing side we have Turkish bread boats (aka Turkish pizza), which I dislike because it has simply far too much oil and grease; you feel it in your stomach for hours, your burps taste like it each time and in the end it's not always pleasant either. Also I have found that Germans seem to like (and I very much do not) plastic wrapped fruit and vegetables, as opposed to cellophane wrapping which we use so often in the US. I've tried both bananas and tomatoes of this fashion and they have been tasteless, stiff to the touch, and dry; blech.

Today I bought a bunch of very delicious and fresh tomatoes, plumbs and mangos from the Turkish street market. While there I bought a very cool fountain pen and was (I'm still not sure if I made the mistake or he did) swindled 1,50 euro on it. I also bought some short sport socks, always handy. Much to my surprise I found a booth selling antique, spring wound watches in spherical crystal casing (basically identical to the one I bought in Ohio while visiting my family). It was to my great disappointment that I learned they were being sold for 22-24 euro a piece, where I had paid over $100 dollars for mine in the US.
It is one thing to be mugged or even pick-pocketed, but it is an other thing entirely to feel retroactively swindled, especially so close to home and at such a high price.

I'll just have to make up for it with a great purchase in the future. I look forward to it. :-)

Monday, January 31, 2011

Realizing the obvious

I've been feeling kind of self depreciative over the past week due to a frustration with my grasp of the German language, in vocabulary, grammar and spelling (primarily the first). I have had to realize that coming here I must have been expecting to be fluent within days of landing, and that by now I would be gallivanting around the city speaking German "ohne Akzent" (unbetonte Deutsch) and appearing to all the world like the blondest German giant there ever was; Massachusetts? Never heard of the place. Ich bin Deutscher!
Clearly this was too high of an expectation for myself, and coming down from that has been abrupt, but more so it was eye opening and invigorating. I WILL be fluent by the end of this trip, but now I know I have to work hard to accomplish that. I can be confident of where my German is at now while recognizing that it has much further to go. I hate studying, and I hate home work, and I despise taking down notes (maybe not really...) but nothing is going to stop me.
The Hampshire group met up with Diana (I think that was her name) who graduated from Hampshire in 2004 and has been living in Berlin for the last 7 years. She did the Berlin trip as a student at Hampshire as well. Upon arriving here, she spoke next to no German. Since then, she has become completely fluent and even went so far as to write her master's dissertation in perfect German. Hearing that story has really put a fire into my desire to master this language, here and now. I feel confident, excited, eager, and totally terrified of failure. I'm exactly where I need to be.