Friday, 29 November 2013

Oh I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day

I am almost weeping with joy. Today marks the first day of the Bautzen Christmas Market. I have been watching it gradually take shape every day on my way to and from school, and every day it became a little more magical, and I became a little more elated - and now I am a pure ball of elation, floating on a cloud of happiness, about to burst with Christmas bliss.

Bautzen being one of the smaller Christmas markets, it has a rather cute quality about it - as they say, the best things come in small, compact packages like Bautzen Weihnachtsmarkt. I fully intend to spend the run-up to Christmas making the most of the all the Gluehwein, Lebkuchen, and Currywurst that are on offer practically on my doorstep, and get most of my Christmas shopping done there. Of course, I also intend to visit the bigger one in Dresden too - one can never get enough of a German Weihnachtsmarkt!

Also getting me in the Christmas spirit was the snow we had this week. I was walking through town minding my own business and suddenly, out of nowhere, was assaulted by a flurry of little white hailstones. It was not an unwelcome moment. The mornings have been frosty and my heart has been sinking in disappointment every day upon waking up when I look out of my window and find everything is not covered in a thick white blanket. However, I am still in Germany for another three weeks until I go back to England, so there's still time. It was a bit disappointing that it rained today and washed away the only smidgens of snow, ice, and frost that there was, but I'm hoping this dreary weather won't be too frequent in the upcoming weeks.

Ah, and I did mean to give a little review of 'Mein Fuehrer' - the comedy about Hitler that I mentioned I was going to watch in one of my previous blog posts. The long and short of it was - it was a disappointment, and I was not sorry to hand it back to the Bibliothek. Although it was amusing in places, it failed to keep me engaged for the whole one and a half hours. The film was repetitive, didn't seem to go anywhere, and seemed a lot longer that it actually was. I have read some reviews that claimed it was distasteful - but I would disagree with that. In my opinion, to its credit, it did not cross the line between laughing at Hitler and disrespecting his victims, but it was just unfortunately a little boring. I was quite saddened to learn that it was the last film that the excellent German actor Ulrich Muehe made before he died that year (if you've seen 'The Lives of Others' you'll know his face) as I do think that with his talents he deserved to finish on more of a high.

So, onwards and upwards - tomorrow, a walk in the Saechsische Schweiz a (apparently) beautiful National Park near Dresden, before going to the Dresden Christmas market - I can hardly contain my excitement.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Cocktails and Bongos

Well the last week has been spent discovering some more of the lovely Bautzen. It started last Friday when I had a visitor for the weekend. We spent most of the weekend eating and drinking in various restaurants and cafes, and going out for cocktails.

First surprise of the weekend was in 'Cafe Surprise', located right in the town centre (which does probably the best schnitzels I've ever tasted. Although it was a good job I was outrageously hungry - my portion could have fed the five thousand I'm sure). Aside from the great schnitzels however, the cafe has a much more exciting thing to offer. I am not sure why they are there, but just inside the doorway was a glass pane, behind which were the smallest, cutest little monkeys, who were running around having a wonderful time. I've been back a few times since - I just can't get enough of them.

Surprise number two was the Alte Wasserkunst.This beautiful stone building was built in the 16th century in order to provide the growing town with sufficient drinking water. There are a lot of steps to contend with, but the view from the top is spectacular. The interesting thing about it was though, that it is more than just a museum. Upon entering the small entrance hall we were greeted with three table-clothed tables complete with a candle on each one. The effect was cosy and homely, and after we had paid our 2,50 euros to climb the tower and then see the water pumps in the cellar, we sat down and enjoyed a nice cup of Gluehwein (mulled wine) before noticing that there was a 'Troedelmarkt' upstairs (which loosely translates as a jumble sale) - an attic of treasures! After spending a good 45 minutes looking through the old photos, postcards, magazines, and marvelling at the ancient-looking typewriters and telephones, we left with our purchases - mine consisting of an envelope with the DDR logo, a children's magazine from 1989, a postcard written in 1910, and a children's book from the 60s. And to think I had no idea this tower was even open!

Although Bautzen is a quiet town, I found out there are some quite good places for cocktails, not least 'Sam's Cocktails'. This weekend it was particularly fun there as it had a 'party' to celebrate its 18th birthday, so it was jam-packed and we were all treated to a rendition of bongo-players.

On a side note, I am very impressed with the general price of cocktails here - about £3 each. I am never spending money in England again.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Library Joy

So, I'm now a fully-fledged member of Bautzen library, which makes me feel much more as though I am a proper resident rather than merely a non-library-card-holding Bautzenite wannabe. So far I've taken out a book of Grimm's Fairy Tales and two films:

Die Faelscher
This Austrian film known in English as 'The Counterfeiters' is a depiction of the lives of the prisoners in Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp who were forced to produce forgeries for the Nazis. Although the film is true to an extent, and is based on the memoirs of some of the survivors, artistic licence is responsible for the main premise of the film; that the Jews argued between themselves about the morality of the operation and there were attempts to sabotage it. A little bit of superficial research suggests that this was not mentioned in any of the publications from survivors, but it does make for an excellent, morally ambiguous film. I've watched it numerous times and I can never seem to find the solution to the ethical predicament into which the film thrusts me: which character is more scrupulous, the one who is willing to risk the lives of his fellow workers for the sake of refusing to partake in unethical activity designed to help the Nazis win the war effort, or the one who is willing to be a cog in the Nazis' wheel for the sake of the individual prisoners he is aiming to save? If you understand German or aren't someone who hates subtitles, I would say it's worth a watch.

Mein Fuehrer
I haven't watched this DVD yet but it apparently is a comedic representation of Hitler, clearly a controversial idea, but one I am very interested to see how it is done. Turning the leader of the Nazis and murderer of millions into a comic protagonist clearly requires a delicate balancing act, and I can imagine that if it is done well, it could serve as a reminder that (evil as he may have been, or mentally ill, depending on your point of view, but dangerous certainly) Hitler was just a man; and perhaps all the solemn and grave mainstream discourse that suggests he was somehow a great and fearsome anti-human monster might be over-crediting the man somewhat - him being a cocaine addict with a flatulence problem and all, and perhaps a few laughs at his expense is exactly what he deserves and is far from sullying the memories of his many innocent victims. However, it is the kind of film that, if it is not fantastic, is going to be terrible, and could easily be an embarrassing, self-conscious attempt and being controversially humorous, but I will be fair, and reserve judgment until after I've watched it.

However, on a less sombre thread, Christmas is definitely on its merry way, and there is none on this earth more excited than I! The lights have now been put up in the town, the days are freezing cold, and shop displays are adorned with Christmassy wonder. I feel so lucky that this year I can enjoy a proper German xmas market (or maybe a few), and am looking forward to a few crisp evenings filled with Lebkuchen and Gluehwein. Now waiting for the last piece in the puzzle: a bit of snow...

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Language Learning Tips

One of the main complaints of trying to use a foreign language abroad (and one that drives me up the wall too) is the people switching to English at the first opportunity. I have been lucky enough to be placed in a town in which this rarely happens. In fact, out of school (where actually 90% of the time I have to speak English - to both the teachers and students) I do not experience this. Perhaps because Bautzen is a smallish town off the beaten track and the amount of people who speak English is minimal, or maybe my German is now of a standard where it's not painful to speak to me anymore (I hope beyond hope this is the case). Who knows. But that isn't to say I haven't come across it at all, just not very much. Recently I have discovered 'Itchy Feet', an online comic chronicling the trials and tribulations of travelling and language learning, and this particular post sums up the pain of having your efforts being thrown in your face:
And if you are a foreign language learner - the rest of the site is definitely worth a look too. It is hilarious and sums up the situation perfectly!

Having been here for 6 weeks I feel I have learned a lot about how to learn a language. If I had to dole out only one piece of advice, it would be: Watch as much TV in the foreign language as you can! Obviously, this has to be complemented with practising speaking to people, and going out and experiencing the culture (and not just becoming a passive couch potato) - no-one's going to learn a language solely by watching TV, but it is one of the most effective tools. Practise is great, but TV gives you the intensive input from which you can draw when you are practising. It really increases vocabulary and your mental set of everyday stock phrases (stuff you wouldn't necessarily be taught in school), teaches you how the language is spoken and used in the real world, and is a great way of exposing yourself to the language even though you might be alone, tired, or just not in the mood to go and talk to someone. It's also entertaining and things are more likely to stick than if you sit down and try and memorise a grammatical rule or a list of words. I've been watching it in the evenings before I go to bed, on quiet afternoons, and when I am eating dinner, and I have learned so much, and also discovered some great German programmes (if you find yourself in Germany I would recommend giving one or more of these a try: Sturm der Liebe, Rote Rosen, or Gute Zeiten Schlechte Zeiten).

But I do also have some other tips to try for those who are trying to learn a foreign language:

1) Read!

It doesn't have to be a lot, but getting a children's book or magazine and reading a few pages a day (while you eat your breakfast maybe) is really helpful. But the most essential thing is: Lock That Dictionary Away. As soon as you have an urge to look something up, just don't. I was the German student at school and university who would read with the book/article in one hand, and have the dictionary in the other, and IT DOESN'T WORK. Yes you end up knowing what every single word on the page means, for about 3 minutes, and you might be lucky enough to remember one or two of them, but in taking this approach the reading process becomes a chore, and the overall meaning is completely lost. I've been reading teen magazines and taking out children's books from the library and have had a revelation: the most effective way is to read the whole article or the page through once, and then do it again (and maybe a few times more until you get it or are just bored). Sometimes you might have to accept you don't know what a sentence means and move on, and sometimes you might have to work out a word from the context, or by breaking it down into its parts, but the most important thing is that you get the gist, not the literal word-for-word meaning! This way, you want to read more because it's not such a chore, and you do, and then you might come across some of the same phrases or words many many times before it clicks what it means, and this way you'll remember it forever. Look it up, and you won't. Guaranteed.

2) Find a band/singer who sings in the language and listen to their music as much as possible.

This is an easy one to integrate easily into your life. You can put the music on whilst cooking, getting dressed/doing your hair etc. in your room etc. Listening to the radio can be useful too (I've been doing this when I'm in the kitchen), as hearing the DJs speak isn't going to do anybody any harm, but the problem is, you might find a lot of the songs they play are English, which can get annoying. But it can help you discover new singers/songs. Through listening to the radio I discovered the German singer Christina Stuermer. Her music might not be to everyone's taste but she is just one example.

3) Ask what things are

When I'm watching TV with my housemates, or I'm out with someone, or it just hits me that I have never learned what something is called, a simple question "Was heisst das auf Deutsch?" is just a simple way to learn a bit more vocab as I'm going about my day. As long as you don't do it too much! But the most important thing is, stay curious - I've found that people don't mind helping you out if you show you're interested.

4) Accept that you will get things wrong.

This is the hardest one that I, and I think probably most other people, have to contend with. It's so frustrating when you've spent ages building up to say something, and you've got it all worked out in your head, and then under the pressure of the moment your word order goes awry, or the wrong preposition is used, or you seize up and your mind goes completely blank. When I first got here, my fear of sounding ungrammatical and stupid was one of the main things holding me back. But, I have trained myself a little bit to shake it off when I make an embarrassing error like using the wrong word, or wrong inflection, or some other linguistic crime. That's not to say that now I'm always feeling totally confident, but in making the mistakes, you tend not to make them so often in the future. And honestly, people are generally nice, and aren't going to judge you! I've also seen this from the other side as a language assistant - the students who try really hard to be chatty, and explain around words they don't know, or just make a guess if they are unsure, are the ones who seem to learn faster. They get a lot of things wrong, but I love that they are making the effort,  and I don't laugh at them. Therefore I figure that most Germans will feel the same about my less than perfect German (or I hope!).

And now, I must go and plan a lesson on National Identity and Great Britain...

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Tea and all things British

A quiet week in Bautzen. The days are getting shorter, and colder, and now after two weeks of rest, I am ready to take on school again in a couple of days.

And with the Christmas season approaching I've had to start thinking about home again, and that got  me thinking about differences between here and there and, although I love it here, I realised there are a few things I miss about England:

1) A decent cup of tea

It took me a little while to realise that, in Germany, when you are offered a cup of tea, not to expect a steaming hot milky brew. The possibilities of the kind of tea that you might be given upon answering in the affirmative are virtually limitless. I've been given everything from bright green liquids (that actually turned out to be a quite a nice apple tea) to a dandelion and burdock brew to an Earl Grey. Now, I'm not opposed to herbal and fruit teas - in fact, I rather like them, but I do like to have a say over which one I'm getting, and sometimes I just want an English Breakfast Tea. With milk! (It took me a few error-filled outings to realise that this has to be specified, and that I do have to brace myself for the looks of incredulity).

2) Heart-attack Breakfasts

Not that I have these very often, but sometimes of a weekend morning, going to a cafe and ordering the greasiest, eggiest, most bacon-filled treat just sounds like heaven. Saying that though, I cannot fault the breakfasts here. Fruit, boiled eggs, bread, jam - I do have to admit, they are delicious, and there is none of the stodgy, greasy feeling one gets after they've had a huge fry-up.

3) Baked beans!

Being this canned delight's number one fan, I am having serious bean withdrawals. They are tough to find, and some Germans don't even seem to know what they are! When trying to explain them a couple of weeks ago I was met with nothing more than a blank stare. Going from being a student who bought 10+ cans of beans at a time and storing them in the cupboard 'just in case' to having a bean-free larder has been a strange experience, and having a beautiful easy meal of beans on toast with cheese sprinkled on top will be the first thing I have when I go home for Christmas.

4) How are you?

Having been brought up on a diet of small-talk and empty conversation, I was a little perturbed when I brought my habits here and was offered not much on response. On walking into a room and seeing someone, I would immediately start off with "Hallo, wie geht's dir?" (Hello, how are you?), and at first was a little confused why I would always just get the simple response: "Hallo, gut" (Hello, good), until I brought this up in conversation with a German who enlightened me on his people's ways. "Ah yes, you British just ask everyone how they are, even when you don't care. In Germany, you would only ask that question if you genuinely cared about the answer". It's not something I can shake off easily though, if at all.