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Tag: gymnasium

My secret to learning German: Asterix and Obelix

When I was an exchange student sometime in the past century in Germany, I discovered a secret to learning German. I mean, besides the crushing loneliness and hours of boredom.

Before I arrived I had taken two years of middle school German (shout out to my fellow malcontents in Ms. Cathcart’s German class at Laredo Middle School) and one year and some change of high school German. In modern lingo, this equates to about one Youtube beginning German course or an hour on Duolingo.

My German wasn’t great.

learning German secret

After landing in-country, I discovered that, when actual Germans spoke German, I couldn’t tell where one word ended and the next began. It was a lot different than just some voice in cheap headphones in Smoky Hill High School’s language lab. And when I could tell the words apart, I would write down the words I didn’t understand. Often they were names. Silke, Thilo, Sebastian and Thörsten were all new to me.

I actually looked them up in a dictionary. Really.

But then, in a cupboard in the room I was staying in, I found a stack of comics. “Asterix und Obelix” was scrawled across the front. When I began reading, I discovered the comics were slightly goofy but somehow funny and, anyway, I had to bridge the time between dinner and falling asleep somehow.

I know all the comic nerds out there are freaking out about how Asterix and Obelix comics aren’t German. I know, Besserwisser (know-it-alls). But at the time, I didn’t need to learn French and they were all in German. And, as a foreigner, you often mistakenly see the country you’re currently in as an item’s country-of-origin. I made the same mistake with Nutella and the world does it with that Adolf guy.

But every night for a month or so, I cranked up the Simple Minds on my Walkman and got to work. The formula made the learning easy: The Romans were bad, the Gauls good. And Asterix was fat, lovable and didn’t know his own strength. Obelix was the brains. Or was it Asterix that was fat and Obelix was the brain?

It didn’t really matter.

Learning German

The comics were perfect because they presented me simple German sentences in a childish context. Too much of the German being thrown at me at the time was too high-brow. Reading a newspaper didn’t help because I barely knew who Kohl was let alone Genscher, Honecker or Herbert Grönemeyer. And books weren’t any better. It just confused me.

Asterix and Obelix was just the ticket.

Plus they gave me a cultural hook for starting conversations with Germans.

Ja, Asterix und Obelix sind schon geil (Yes, Asterix and Obelix are great),” Mark Bonitz said to me on the smoker’s patio, helping me learn German slang. “Probier es mal damit (Try this),” he said, handing me a thick Donald Duck comic. Though I could never get into the Donald Ducks.

Thilo in Leistungskurs Chemie (Advanced Chemistry) was a little different.

Ja, Asterix und Obelix. Habe ich auch gelesen (I read Asterix and Obelix too),” he said. “… in der dritten Klasse (… in third grade).”

I learned a valuable lesson from Thilo that day too. That it was better to spend time on the smoker’s patio even though I didn’t smoke.






The coldest winter of my life

Sometimes I wonder if Germans hate warmth.

My first winter in Germany was the coldest in my life. Even though I had grown up at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, I had no idea the world could even get that cold.

Or maybe I just had the wrong jacket.

Pic thanks Marcus Pink via Creative Commons

Though come to think of it, of course I had the wrong jacket. In German cold you don’t need a jacket, you need an anorak. You don’t just need clothing for that kind of cold, you need a solution.

And it seemed especially cold when I walked the kilometer to Gymnasium every morning in my wrong jacket. By the time I got there I was freezing. I was so cold, I’m certain several of my relatives were cold as well.

I would get to school and walk up the steps into my first period philosophy class and be greeted by the warmest, snuggliest heat I had ever felt. The warmth of a room that has been heated all night while no one was in it, as if it were just waiting for me.

“Drew,” the room was saying, “I understand your suffering.”

And I would get more than just warm. I would get relief. The world was going to be OK.

That is, until Thilo walked into that room. Thilo is pretty much the German version of Chad and everyone suffers when Chad or Thilo is around. They are popular, the Thilos and Chads. But they are so often misguided.

Thilo never felt welcomed by that warm room. Thilo felt offended.

Meine Fresse (My goodness),” he would announce. “Hier ist eine Luft drin! (The air in here!).“

And with that he would throw every window in the room open. Other students would file in and no one seemed happy until the temperature of the room matched that of Little Siberia outside. Apparently only then was the air repaired. They would close the windows and I would once again freeze. As would my relatives.

Perfect learning temperature.

Germans seem to often get angry at warm air. They resolve the situation through something called Stossluften (freeze everyone in the room). It involves exchanging all of the warm air for freezing air. Apparently freezing air that heats slowly while you are in it is no longer offensive.

I don’t exactly understand the science.

I’ve encountered this in my kids’ schools, offices where I’ve worked and even from maids in hotel rooms but, oddly, never in a smoke-filled bar. No, that air is not offensive, just carcinogenic. A German once told me warm air lacks oxygen and cannot sustain life. You know, like Mars. Even in rooms that have been empty for 12 hours.

Again, I’m unclear of the science.

January is almost over. Stay warm.