Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

I’ve recently started teaching a rather interesting man. He’s working in Berlin as a security guard at the moment, where, I gather he’s been living all his life. But, he has a dream, and that is to move to Norway and live and work there. In a bid to make this a reality, he’s now studying English and Norwegian and doing a computer course. Maybe there’s nothing so remarkable about that – until you learn that he’s 75 years old.

Norway, captured by the wonderful Cindi Keller
Norway, captured by the wonderful Cindi Keller

When I got an email from one of the schools that I work at telling me his story and asking me if I would take him on, my initial reaction was “Wow! 75 years old and about to embark on an amazing adventure in a new country!” I also couldn’t help comparing this to what I’d seen of people of roughly the same age in Latvia. The average life expectancy for a man there is only 68.9, so if they’re not dead already, they’re probably fast approaching the exit by 75.

Fabulous treatment of old people in Latvia
Fabulous treatment of old people in Latvia

Naturally, I just had to meet this guy, so we started doing lessons around a month ago. He told me that he’s going to Norway in August, “with his cat and car”. It sounds like he’s very much set on the idea.

I must admit, after meeting him, my initial reaction of admiration quickly turned to incredulity. I mean, I admired his gumption, but it was hard enough for me moving to a new country at the age of 36 – this guy was almost 40 years older than me. His English and Norwegian are both at absolute beginner level, and I would imagine his knowledge of computers to be around the same.

Other problems also quickly became apparent.

Me: OK, listen to the CD and write down the names of the people. 

CD:

“Hello, nice to meet you. What’s your name?”

“My name is Hayley.”

Me: (pausing the CD) What’s her name?

Dolf: Carlos? 

Me: Erm, let’s try that again. 

It turns out that his hearing isn’t the best, so I had to keep moving the CD player closer and closer to him until it was basically sitting in his lap. It didn’t help much.

Me: Hello Dolf, how are you?

Dolf: Nice.

Me: No, not “nice”, “fine”.

Me: Hello Dolf, how are you? 

Dolf: Nice. 

Me: (mini-sigh) Nice to meet you. 

Dolf: What?

Me: Nice to meet you. 

Dolf: I’m nice. 

Me: No, no, it’s “Nice to meet you, too”.

Dolf: What? 

Me: (turning around to write it on the board)

Dolf: Snore. 

Yep, he has actually nodded off a couple of times in class. But I like to think that this is not because I’m insanely boring. No, like I said, he’s still working as a security guard so, some mornings, he’s been awake since 3am, worked 5 or 6 hours and then come to our English lesson at 10.30. (Germans, eh?) I’d probably doze off too. In fact, I’m a little tempted to just call it nap time and join in the snoozing, but that would probably be bad teaching form. Instead, I give him around 30 seconds and then start talking loudly pretending not to notice when he re-enters the land of the living.

Anyway, the point of this post isn’t to make fun of an old man. God knows, I have the ultimate respect for any adult attempting to learn a new language, let alone two. I also admire his get-up-and-go attitude but I have to wonder how realistic his plan is. At the risk of sounding defeatist, or worse, less energetic than a 75-year-old, moving countries is hard. This move to Berlin has probably been one of the most trying experiences of my life and I only have to learn one language. I also don’t have a cat to take care of; it would be one sorry cat if I did.

But maybe I’m just in a tired, old place right now so instead I’ll open it up to my lovely readers – what do you think of Dolf’s plans?

Happy older Germans on the move
Happy older Germans on the move

 

For more beautiful photos of Norway, you can visit Cindi’s site by clicking here.

 

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Battle of the bags

I have recently begun to embrace the German love of discount supermarket shopping. This is more due to my financial situation than any particular desire to shop at discount stores, but whatever the reason, I figure it’s probably bringing me one step closer to being a “real” German.

Before I moved to Germany, I’d never set foot in an Aldi or Lidl in my life. This is partly because, in Dublin, they’re usually in slightly awkward locations and I would have needed my own transport to get there. The other reason is that I’m a bit fancy and I didn’t much like the idea of picking stuff up off crates instead of shelves. Despite my poor long-suffering parents trying to convince me that the quality of the products was just the same, I remained unconvinced.

Fast forward to my move to Berlin. Oh, I tried to maintain my fancy ways and started off by shopping at Kaisers and REWE, much to the horror of my equally long-suffering German flatmates. Within a few months, however, with my income dwindling, the time had come to get down, dirty and frill-free.

No frills shopping. Shudder.
No frills shopping. Shudder.

Before embarking on this low-cost adventure, I had been wondering why other foreigners make such a big deal about the speed of shop assistants here. Now I think I’ve got it figured out – the cheaper the supermarket, the faster the shop assistant. If Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves had been faced with a Lidl shop assistant instead of a maniac with a bomb, they would have failed miserably in their endeavours. Just like I do pretty much every time.

Oh, every time I go, I think that I’m mentally prepared. “This time”, I say to myself, “I’ll be the Gewinner and you can suck it, Lidl Lady.” And every time, I become an even bigger Geloser.

As I get nearer the top of the queue, I can feel my heart start to race. When I’m three or four people back, I get into a fighting stance and open my backpack. The noise of the dividers clacking off each other as the shop assistant flings them along the side of the conveyor belt sets my nerves on edge. Finally, I make it to the top of the queue.

Lidl Lady: Guten Morgen.

Me: (Eyes narrowing) Hallo…

The theme tune to “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” starts playing in my head as we eye each other. And then we’re off.

Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep – her hands are a blur as she tosses my items onto the tiny metal space at the end of the belt. I panic and start throwing stuff into my bag, forgetting that bread should be at the top, and instead crushing it with a litre of milk and a bag of potatoes. But there’s no time to worry about that now – she’s finished beeping stuff through and the metal shelf is still full. She’s holding my onions in one hand and my shampoo in the other until I clear some more space.

Sweating, I cram in a few more items with one hand, while frantically searching for my wallet with the other. Lidl Lady is looking at me like I’m a simpleton, while all of the Germans in the queue are tapping their feet, drumming their fingers, and wondering how they’re going to make up for this lost 45 seconds.

I tap in my PIN number, growing redder by the second until it’s unclear where my tomatoes end and my face begins. They get rammed into the backpack as well. They’re already more purée than solid food, but the important thing is that they are IN THERE and I’m almost ready to go.

Quashing the urge to have a little cry, I swing my backpack onto my back, force out an airy “Tschüss!”, and defiantly swagger towards the door, tomato juice dripping down my back.

The Germans are probably tutting behind me, but I don’t care. I’ve just bought enough food to last me the week (and enough wine to last me for around two days) for the bargain price of just over €12. So, I’ll be back, Lidl Lady, oh yes, I’ll be back. And one day, one day, I will be victorious.

 

Why I’ll never be a good German Hausfrau

“Whose turn is it to clean the apartment?”

This is not a real question. If Hildegard or Hildeberta have got to the stage where this question has to be asked, then it’s definitely my turn to clean. Sigh. 

This is where ze Germans and I have very different opinions. I hate housework with the fire of a thousand suns; it bores the pants off me.

20150309_183355[1]
Pants – bored off me. (A German would have ironed both the pants and the sheet before taking that photo.)

Before I moved to Germany, I watched a BBC documentary called “Make me a German”. The show claims that the average German woman does four hours and eleven minutes of housework A DAY. When I’d picked myself up off the (probably not hoovered) floor, my skeptical side kicked in. Surely nobody could spend four hours and eleven minutes a day doing housework. But, now that I live with two German women, I’m starting to realise that it might actually be true. They love it.

If you want to see a German woman really excited, go out drinking, cover your white dress in red wine, and then come back home and look helpless. They’ll spring into action with the same gusto I normally reserve for cake.

Mmm, cake...
Mmm, cake…

And by god, they’ll get those stains out, even if takes four hours and eleven minutes… After all of this excitement, they’ll probably unwind by ironing everything they own or cleaning their shoes. They find this relaxing.

Hildegard: Feel free to borrow the iron any time you like. 

Me: I haven’t ironed anything in around 20 years. I’m a fan of the “take it out of the washing machine quickly and hang it up” method. Then if there are still wrinkles, you just wear the item of clothing until they fall out. The “body heat” approach. 

Hildegard: (Thud)

There are a few other household-related things I’ve done that have resulted in sharp intakes of breath and widened eyes.

Hildeberta: What are you doing? 

Me: Pouring my soup into a bowl.

Hildeberta: Huh, I’ve never seen anyone pour soup directly from a saucepan before.

Me: Really? What do you do? 

Hildeberta: Use a ladle. (She didn’t say “like a normal person” but I guess she was thinking it.)

Me: Huh.

Unnecessary washing-up
Unnecessary washing-up

On another occasion:

Hildeberta: What are you doing?

Me: Filling the kettle.

Hildeberta: Through the spout?

Me: Yeah, I find that opening and closing the lid adds valuable seconds to the process and I’m all about efficiency in the home.

Hildeberta: Huh. 

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not like I’m trying to be lazy or a bad flatmate; I just genuinely don’t see stuff. To me, the flat simply never really looks like it’s in need of cleaning. It’s the cleanest place I’ve ever lived. My mother always said that there could be an elephant sitting in the middle of the living room, and I wouldn’t notice it. I think she’s right. Incidentally, Hildeberta just popped her head into my room.

Hildeberta: Hey, where’s the other chair? 

Me: What chair?

Hildeberta: Didn’t you have two?

Me: Oh, I think you’re right. Hmm, I wonder where the other one went…

Then I remembered that my landlady had come around several months ago to pick up some of her stuff. She must have taken it. Yes, you read that correctly – several months, and I still hadn’t noticed that the chair was gone. I probably never would have.

Now there’s talk of putting together a housework rota. Clearly, this is the last thing on earth I want. Anyway, I probably won’t notice the rota any more than I notice the dirt.

The cupboard of boredom and doom.
The cupboard of boredom and doom.

On a positive note, however, I have a new fan. Hildeberta’s dad is the latest German to enjoy reading the blog. This is good news for me. Now, not only does Hildeberta have to listen to all of my stupid adventures first-hand, she also has to read about them, and then hear all about them again from her dad. He likes to recount my blog posts to her whenever he calls – charming man. I’m hoping that this means that she just won’t have time to put together a rota.

Thank you, Herr Hildeberta. You might just have saved my Speck…

 

You can find the highly entertaining BBC documentary here: 

 

 

Yoda-lay-eee-ooo!

“Hey! You’re the girl that wrote that article!”

Memories of Latvia came flooding back and I braced myself for the cup – or chair – that was probably going to be aimed at my head.

“I really liked it! In fact, it’s the reason I’m here tonight.”

The article was one that I’d written for Berlin Logs about a really interesting free German workshop I’d taken with an organisation called “Language Transfer”. The “here” was the second workshop, which I was eager to attend after learning more in the previous four-hour workshop than I’d done in eight weeks of standard German lessons.

As a teacher myself, there were a couple of things that I found fascinating about this approach to learning a language:

1. We didn’t take any notes – at all.

2. The guy running it doesn’t actually know that much German. He’s only been in Berlin for around three months and is just learning himself.

But how, I hear you ask, can someone who doesn’t know the language teach it? And this is the interesting part for me too.

Basically, he’s learning right alongside you. Of course, he’s checked everything he’s saying with native German speakers, and he had a few in the room to show us how ‘real’ Germans would say things, but instead of being a drawback, it turns out it’s a huge advantage.

The course I took is specifically tailored for English speakers, not necessarily native English speakers, but you’d have to have a pretty good grasp of the language to get anything out of it. This, of course, makes perfect sense as speakers of any language will have different issues with any new language. For example, Germans have different issues with English to Latvians or Russians; Spanish speakers have very different issues to Japanese speakers. How can you teach them all English in the same way?

It’s the same with German, but everything you already know is probably useful in some way, and that was what this course was all about – making connections with your existing language and creating new pathways in your brain. It might all sound a bit cultish but bear with me…

First of all, quite a few verbs are pretty much the same in English and German:

bring – bringen

find  -finden

pack – packen

Some other verbs will just require a bit of a tweak, so you get:

think – denken

thank – danken

wash – waschen

book – buchen

For verbs that originate from the Latin languages – usually the longer, more formal verbs, sometimes you just add ‘-ieren’ to the English verb:

reserve – reservieren

organise – organisieren

Really, after listening to around half an hour of this, I was wondering why people make such a big deal out of learning German at all.

See? I bet you can understand almost every word of this, even if you don’t speak a word of German…

 

There are a lot of other patterns that are useful to know as well. For example, the English ‘th’ often becomes a German ‘d’:

thank – danke

The English ‘t’ often becomes a German ‘s’ or ‘ss’:

what – was

water – Wasser

And so many more. Naturally, this won’t work every time, but if you’re aware of these patterns, you have enough information to at least make a stab at forming a word – then, hopefully a kindly German will have a little chuckle at your efforts and gently correct you.

Being aware of the German you’re surrounded by every day is also incredibly helpful. Mihalis, the guy who runs Language Transfer, asked the group if anyone knew the German word for ‘next’. Nobody did. Until everyone realised that they did, as they’ve seen it on every train, bus and tram they’ve taken since they arrived in Germany.

Also, I doubt there’s a soul in Berlin who hasn’t visited a ‘Spätkauf’ at some point, yet nobody had taken the time to figure out what the words actually mean – ‘Spät-kauf’ = ‘late-buy’, basically an all-night shop that’s very useful when you run out of wine at 1am.

I won’t give away too much more but in case you’re wondering where I got the title to this post from, I’ve discovered that when attempting to speak German, it’s rather useful to speak like Yoda. The word order in German sentences is quite different to English so it’s like a little puzzle every time you have to put one together.

In English, we might say, “I can’t stay here long now”. In German, you would say, “I can now not long here stay”. German sentences generally follow the order of ‘when, how, where’, enclosed in a verb sandwich, so:

verb – can

when – now

how – not long

where – here

verb – stay

Trippy, right?

But it’s given me far more of an understanding of the language than any other method I’ve tried so far. There’s an intensive course coming up at the beginning of April, and I’m definitely going to be taking it. Now, try that sentence out in your best Yoda voice…

 

For more information on Language Transfer, click here.