7 German Learning Highs (and Lows)

High Managing to land a joke in German

Low I misunderstand “wer” (who) as “where” said in a German accent. A bunch of times.

High Learning the lyrics to ’99 Luftballons’

Low Failing to understand German TV even after becoming conversational

High Understanding German standup comedy

Low Understanding German standup comedy

High Entering the first evening class and understanding everything the teacher is (slowly) saying.

Low German grammar

High Literally gaining the vaguest understanding of German grammar

Low Discovering the preterite past tense

High Finishing Lemony Snicket in translation.

Low Trying to read Thomas Mann in the original.

High Feeling emotionally connected to a German-language novel for the first time (Der Trafikant).

Low Realising my German might never be perfect!

A Word from German History (no.2)

Image: Dietmar Rabich

Lampenladen (m.)

Lampenladen literally means a lamp store, but in East Berlin it was also a dig at the government. One of the most important buildings in the communist part of the city was the Palast der Republik, or the palace of the republic, which was a cultural centre with restaurants and a theatre, among other things.

It had a big glass facade and at night was brightly lit, which seemed obnoxious to some Berliners, who called the building “Erichs Lampenladen”. Erich Honecker was General Secretary of the ruling (and really only) party – and this was his massive lamp emporium.

The building, which replaced the war-damaged Berliner Stadtschloss, (city palace) was eventually demolished due to asbestos (which again is kinda funny). After some debate, the city decided to reconstruct the Stadtschloss exactly as it was, which should be finished in 2019.

I like the story of the Lampenladen because it touches on the issue of East Germany, but instead of highlighting the dictatorship, it reveals something of Berlin humour (or scorn) and is one major example of the city’s complex architectural history – not to mention the debates which are being had about its architectural future.

See also: the ongoing debacle which is Berlin Brandenburg Airport, an airport which was supposed to open in 2011… and is an utter financial disaster and a long-running joke. The stereotype of German efficiency and frugality has taken a real hard knock.

ni una menos

Image: AFP

Argentinian senators have voted against a law allowing abortion rights. Despite this defeat, pro-choice campaigners remain positive – the driving group behind the movement is Ni una menos, or ‘not one [woman] less’. Their rallying cry has been on my mind since yesterday:

¡Se cuidan, se cuidan los machistas. América Latina va a ser toda feminista!

Latin America will be feminist.

For more insight into changing attitudes in Argentina’s media, this is an NPR piece which explores how a historically misogynistic talk show entered into the debate.

I have found through learning German, and over the last couple of years of Spanish, that these languages lead you quite naturally to learning more about current affairs and global events through the lens of another country. My German classes actually coincided with the peak of the refugee crisis and Merkel’s decision to accept refugees regardless of which EU country they came through (famously saying wir schaffen das – we can do it, we can make it happen).

I would be interested to know what other people have learned from following the news in their target language. Children will pick up the same vocabulary at the same speed, but the acquisition of adult learners can also feed off and be influenced by current affairs.

The Extraordinary Life of Judith Kerr

Image: Christoph Rieger

Judith Kerr’s childhood memoir, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, meant a lot to me as a kid; I want to revisit her family’s story as an adult and take a look at what it means now, in a world in which more people are becoming stateless than ever before.

In Spring 1933, Alfred Kerr’s name was on a list. A Berlin theatre critic, essayist and intellectual with Jewish roots, Kerr was also a vocal opponent of the rising Nazi party. The day after Hitler seized power, they came for Kerr’s passport. Thanks only to a fortunate tip-off, he had already escaped to Switzerland.

It was Alfred’s daughter, Judith, who grew up to share the family’s story with thousands of British children. Nine years old at the time, she, her brother and mother all followed Alfred Kerr into exile. That German girl became one of the most popular children’s authors of the twentieth century with her bold and ingenious picture books, but When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit struck a particular chord.

By portraying exile through a child’s eyes, Kerr gives a charming and deeply moving impression of starting over in a new country. She shares the perspective of a small person (given the pseudonym Anna) who has to abandon a life that had barely begun in exchange for a new home and nationality. First, the once wealthy family experience Parisian poverty and Anna’s main concern is speaking enough French to fit in at school, before eventually moving to Britain. Importantly, kids also find the book very funny.

Kerr revisited these years in exile from the position of an established British author with an adoring readership and a firm place in creative, middle-class circles. She portrays the humanity of normal people caught up in large and terrible events with heart and humour.

Moving countries and learning a foreign language is made exciting for child readers; this undoubtedly speaks to Kerr’s honest memories of being a refugee, as well as the fortitude and love of her parents, who were able to protect their children and shield them from events in a way that kept them safe, physically and emotionally. The child reader, and indeed Kerr herself, misses most of the strain borne by her parents.

Judith Kerr and her brother both became successful in their fields and experienced life here to its fullest. They arrived as children and, based on their outward appearances, were allowed to assimilate into society. Alfred Kerr, who saved the lives of his family, had to abandon his profession. I do not think we should underestimate the losses which are occurring every day, in which normal people have to sacrifice normality to save the futures of their children.

There is everything to be gained personally from an interest in other cultures, a passion for languages and just emigrating out of love or adventure. Above that, we must be open to those who are forced into these upheavals, and to not just acknowledge victims, but also the people who manage to escape the tragedies which are yet to come.

Two “Stolpersteine” (stumbling block) memorials outside an apartment building in Berlin.
There are thousands of Stolpersteine in Germany, each representing a victim and their home.

Me Talk Pretty One Day


For the funniest account of learning to speak a foreign language, you should read David Sedaris’ book, Me Talk Pretty One Day. In it, Sedaris describes his new life in France, but first talks about the French lessons he takes in Paris…


We finished discussing Bastille Day, and the teacher moved on to Easter, which was represented in our textbook by a black-and-white photograph of a chocolate bell lying upon a bed of palm fronds.

“And what does one do on Easter? Would anyone like to tell us?”
The Italian nanny was attempting to answer the question when the Moroccan student interrupted, shouting, “Excuse me, but what’s an Easter?”. Despite her having grown up in a Muslim country, it seemed she might have heard it mentioned once or twice, but no. “I mean it,” she said. “I have no idea what you people are talking about.”
The teacher then called upon the rest of us to explain.
The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. “It is,” said one, “a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and . . . oh, shit.”
She faltered, and her fellow countryman came to her aid.
“He call his self Jesus, and then he be die one day on two . . . morsels of . . . lumber.”


Here is a video is Sedaris giving a reading of this story on late night TV, back in the 90s.

Happy Friday!

3 European Shows to Binge

Deutschland 83
A lively and tense drama set during the height of the Cold War, it follows a young East German boarder guard who is forced into serving his country as a spy in the West German capital. Against a soundtrack of early 80s music (including ’99 Luftballons’, what else?) and the threat of nuclear annihilation, Moritz fumbles his way through espionage and starts to question his loyalties. Nail-biting scenes and plenty of dark humour. The next season, Deutschland 86, premieres this autumn.

The Killing (Forbrydelsen)
Season one of this Danish crime procedural follows Sarah Lund, an iconic detective clad in enviable knitwear, as she investigates the disappearance of a teenage girl. Decked out in her cosy threads against a drizzly Copenhagen, she finds a dark story where a family tragedy becomes gradually entwined with a local political scandal. The plot arc covers the entire season, which at 22 episodes is long for a European drama, and it is essential to watch from start to finish. You would be hard pressed to find a better scripted, or better plotted crime series from the last ten years (but try out the Danish-Swedish show The Bridge when you’re done). For a detective show with less of a time commitment, Sweden’s Wallander has stand-alone episodes.

Thicker Than Water (Tjockare än vatten)
This is an excellent family drama and quite different from most of the super bleak Scandinavian shows which get exported (see directly above). The Waldemar family owns a rustic hotel on a sunny Swedish island, and with the father long gone, matriarch Anna-Lisa runs the show with her loyal son Oskar. Season one starts with her summoning her two other adult children (a struggling actress and a failed restaurateur) back to the homestead with a peculiar proposition. The three siblings have no idea what the summer has in store for them, but scores will be settled and secrets will be uncovered. The characters are so well drawn and the realism underscores what is an engrossing and tense drama.