Saturday, 27 April 2013

Germany - A Nation of Starers

Some time ago I wrote a post about  10 Things I Like About Germany . Well, now I have to tell you about "1 Thing" I absolutely loathe about Germany. No, it's not the "ruthless efficiency", not the towels, and not even the ubiquitous beer which, granted, I'm not that keen on.

It's the staring. Germany is a nation of starers. Germans stare at you... well, all the time. On the streets, in the underground, in restaurants, in shops - everywhere. There isn't a single refuge from being stared at (maybe the cinema, but just because it's dark).  And I really really don't like it!

Why do they stare? You could of course give it a flattering spin: Be glad they're staring at you, it means they find you attractive. Or: Being stared at is better than being ignored. Or whatever. I've tried to convince myself - but a) it's not true, b) it doesn't work. They stare at everybody - women at women, men at women, men at men, they stare at old people, at children.. at anybody. Do they know they're staring? Is it automatic? Have they gone half-way to sleep and just forgot to take their eyes off you? I don't know.

In Anglo-American countries staring at people in a consistent manner it considered extremely rude. Nobody does it. Ever. On the tube in London, people go to extraordinary ways in order not to meet each other's gaze. And frankly, first thing in the morning when you're only semi-awake, awaiting the working day's tribulations whilst being squashed into a stuffy train, really the last thing you want is some nosy stranger staring at you unabashedly.

But in Germany, children don't get told that it's rude to stare at people- it simply isn't a concept. People obviously don't mind it. They don't see it as an intrusion of private space. I'm not sure where this cow-like behaviour comes from - is it a sign of provincialism, of curiosity, of just not being bothered?

I often think what might happen to these starers when they indulge in their favourite activity in a less harmless environment than most German towns present. People there might not take so kindly to their intrusive stares...

Thursday, 11 April 2013

East Germany - Wasn't It Cool? Err, no.

"So...!, said one of the many new Anglo-American apologists of a brutal regime in broken German - "what's YOUR experience of the GDR then??" Thinking of course I would say ooh err, none I'm afraid.

Thinking they could impress me with their touristy ideas of how great it had all been, how civilized, how fashionable and cool.

But if you spend parts of your childhood growing up whilst East Germany still existed - it will have infiltrated every corner of your existence.

School, for a start - all lessons would refer in some way or other to what was going on in the other part of Gemany (apart from biology maybe).

I grew up only about 40 km from the border. I knew the horrendous sight of spiked barbed wire, endless ploughed fields, dotted with watch towers, search lights scanning the ground in the night so that no suspicious movement would go unnoticed. The watch towers were manned by brutalised officers of the National People's Army who would not hesitate to shoot anybody trying to flee the "socialist republic".

I had an uncle who was so bothered about Gemany being a divided country, he went round putting up placards to protest against it. He also gave lectures in town halls about it all.

I had cousins who hated the regime so much they never called it DDR (GDR) but only ever spoke of "the zone". Meaning it was (Russian) occupied territory.

Although we didn't have any relatives over there, loads of other people did. They made up parcels with foodstuffs for Christmas, with old clothes during the year, and if their relatives were elderly, they were actually allowed to visit the West. Not everybody was totally enthusiastic about this.

I went there and shuddered at the decay and grottiness. It was like leaving behind a technicolour world and entering a monochrome grey zone.It was also like travelling back in time - about 60 years.

The food was so bad there (in restaurants) I couldn't eat anything. It was really low-quality, badly prepared stuff. The meat was particularly disgusting. I remember they also had their own brand of cola which was vile.

The entire time I spent there, I lived off chocolate you could buy (at hugely inflated prices) in one of their "Intershops" where Western goods were available.

I once saw a box of discoloured lemons for sale (an absolute rarity) labelled "Fraternally from Cuba".

The whole place was decorated with giant posters re-affirming the eternal friendship with the Soviet Union.

People were shabbily dressed and looked extremely poor. Suspicion and  fear were written in people's faces. I couldn't shake off the feeling that people were keeping tabs on one another.

Crossing the inner-German border was a frightening, humiliating and heart-stopping event. You simply can't imagine the rabid roughness of the controllers, and the hatred in their eyes.

Later on, in Hungary, I had an East German boyfriend for a while. He came from the furthest Eastern region of the country where they couldn't even get Western TV or radio as it was too far away. He was involved with the dissident peace movement, sewed up his own jeans, and other clothes so as to look Western. He told me horrendous stories of intimidation and prosecution of so many other dissidents.

Still later, I watched the long snaky queues of little trabbis making their way over to the west. Was I pleased? Not really.

So.... touristy apologists - that's my experience of East Germany. Forgive me if I'm not that interested in yours.

Here's a Wikipedia article on East Germany if you're interested

Thursday, 4 April 2013

I'm a Pronunciation Snob

I know it's wrong. And yet I can't help it. It's made worse by the fact that I hold language learning in such high esteem. I never miss an opportunity to tell people "just get on with it - doesn't matter if you're not perfect, just do it" - the usual enlightened stuff.

But. But.But. The truth is - I cannot abide bad pronunciation. Sorry, but I think in most cases it's just laziness. Treating a foreign language like your own, not making an effort with different vowel sounds, intonation, pitch - why should one nod sagely, and say "You're perfect"?

Especially as it isn't very difficult. Just listen and listen and listen. Like you would to music. In fact, listening to music sung in a different language is the best way of picking up the pronunciation. I can pronounce Italian well because I listened to "Azzurro" billions of times in my youth and took it from there. Maybe nothing to be proud of musically, but it sets you up. Listen to Beatles songs - not once or twice, but all day long til you find yourself singing along - and your English pronunciation will benefit so much! It's the next best thing to living in the country itself.

Most people make the mistake thinking it's all about picking up the current slang. In fact there is nothing sadder (or funnier) than listening to a foreigner talking street but with their homely accent firmly in place.

First set yourself the target of getting the pronunciation totally and absolutely pitch-perfect, then turn your mind to the lingo of the day!

Listen to a single word over and over again til it swirls round your head all day - you'll never forget it, and it will trigger off a "pronunciation memory bank".

And never get bogged down with too much grammar stuff - proper native pronunciation is the mainstay of learning a language -everything else can (and will) come automatically. But it is very hard to lose a foreign accent if you let it hang around. So remember when you first set out learning a new language - get the music going!