Sunday, October 24, 2010

All the Time in the World

Misti and I ventured out into a grey Vienna day intending to resume the walking tour of "hidden" Vienna that we began a couple of weeks ago.  We were diverted by clocks and globes.

As we wandered toward the center of the old city, we stopped first in the Globe Museum, which is just what it says it is ... a museum of old globes of the Earth, the heavens,  Mars, Venus, and the solar system, both pre- and post Copernicus.

It is an intriguing, unusual museum that reveals past visions of our world.

These two globes date from 1621, and were made in Amsterdam.  They are desktop sized, and they are stunning.

It is wonderful to look carefully at the details of the many globes in the museum and consider what people knew and didn't know about the planet at different times.  You realize the amazing effort, attention to detail, sheer concentration, that went into each one of these.

This picture gives a sense of the museum, with its cases of globes dating back several centuries.

In addition to the big globes, there was a pocket-sized Earth, complete with a carrying case.  That is pictured here (above).

And then there was the tiny globe and the little fold-up paper that included images of the people of the world.  We weren't allowed to use a flash in the museum, and the place is much darker than Keir's Cannon makes it seem.   So, it was difficult to get clear pictures of tiny things ... but the Earth with its people is whimsical.

And finally, on our globe tour, I'll include the image of a spectacular Zodiac globe dating back to 1698 (to the right -- click on it to see it in detail).  It is very dimly lit, but the images on it ... copper engravings on paper ... are beautiful.

Okay, enough of the globes ... although we will be returning to the museum in the future.  It is both quiet and worldly.  And though it is small, it is housed in a palace ... or what used to be a palace.  Sometimes it's hard to tell, but the little hallway leading into the first room is a giveaway.

While this seems ornate ... well, it is ornate ... there are a lot of ceilings and walkways and hallways like this in Vienna.  This one is cozier than most.  Even the old schloss/palace where I work,  despite being in some disrepair, has a few rooms and ceilings like this.  They restored one big room and the gold leaf alone cost enough that they don't plan on doing a second room.

One last picture from the globe museum ... which is both educational and quaint.  If you want to show the relationship of the Earth, the moon and the Sun in a model, and you want to see how the moon casts shadows ... and electricity hasn't been invented yet, what do you do?  See below.

After the Globe Museum we wound our way through some alleys to the Clock Museum.  The museums here usually include the buildings.  The Clock Museum is contained on three floors of a small old building across from the little clock maker shop we showed a couple of blogs ago.

To get to the three levels of exhibits, you have to wind your way up these:
Once inside, we found an amazing collection of clocks -- including this 200-year-old Christmas ornament style clock that was wonderful for its simplicity.

This clock (left) from the 1700s was amazingly modern, and it was ticking away as it has for more than two centuries.

This cabinet clock (right) was puzzling. Clearly it took someone a long time to make it.  The dials are hand painted and lettered, somewhat crudely.  Somewhere in all of these dials is the time ... but we couldn't find it.

 This one was (left)  ... well, the eyes moved left and right as the clock ticked.  Not what you want in your room.

And behind Misti is a clock painting and a clock figurine.  There were several clock paintings and they were all bad.

And finally there was a very old 16th Century piece that was dark and gloomy.  It had a group of religious figures circling a bell with hammers.  They looked like they'd been doing it for much too long.  

Monday, October 18, 2010

Das gute, das schlechte, und das hässliche

BRRRRRRRR.  No, that’s not a weather report, although it is getting quite chilly here. It’s a comment on the Viennese.

I’ve been reluctant to write about the people here because I’ve been waiting for my negative impressions to be proved wrong. However, it’s been almost three months, and instead, those impressions have been strengthened.

Austrians, in general, have a reputation (and after teaching students from more than 90 countries, I’ve learned that every nationality carries a reputation) of being formal, reserved, cold, and, at best, impolite, and more typically, rude. This is particularly true on the street and in other public venues.

Now, my apologies to the Austrians we met in Modling, who, with the exception of two female pharmacists, were generally warm and friendly. The pharmacists, however, whom we met on a fruitless search for Advil, were a harbinger. When Jim mentioned their rudeness to his colleagues, he was told that Austrian pharmacists are notorious for their disdain. I tried to understand this and to see it from their perspective. After all, we were Americans who spoke almost no German requesting an American medicine as if we were asking for nothing unusual. Besides that, we were bursting with the excitement and happiness of the newly-arrived. What could be more offensive….

Except for our short time in Modling, we’ve dealt primarily with the Viennese, so I won’t cast aspersions on all Austrians, and obviously, the non-native Viennese, such as lovely Dominique and the Irish store owner previously mentioned, are not included in this assessment.

Let me try to describe the mean streets of Vienna.

Keir was the first to notice. He returned from an outing and told us the Austrians seemed to target him. He had never been bumped into, shouldered, and elbowed so much in his life. Now, remember, Vienna is not that big, and the sidewalks are not crowded in the way they are in New York, for instance.

Jim and I scoffed, assuming it was merely adolescent exaggeration. It wasn’t.

I venture out almost every day. Lately, I’ve had to steel myself for the experience. On the street, Viennese are cold – ice crystals hanging from their eyelashes cold. They routinely bump into you, expect you to get out of their way, ignore your greeting, and never smile, except at their own companions.  No matter how hard they bump into you, no one ever apologizes. My most common word here is “Entschuldigen” (excuse me.) I use it like an American – if I accidentally get in someone’s way, when I pass in front of somebody, when I need to reach across to get something off a shelf, all those occasions in which Americans say, “excuse me.” I even say it when people bump into me or force me off the sidewalk.

I greet people, not everyone, of course, but if we are the only two people on the sidewalk or in the store or if we’ve happened to make eye contact, I generally smile and say, “Gruse  Gott,” the standard Viennese greeting, which sounds roughly like Grease Got. I smile at children. I smile at mothers and fathers with infants or toddlers. I smile at teenagers. I smile at old people. I smile at dogs. What I get in return is almost always an impassive glower, a glare, a look of contempt that could turn anti-freeze to ice.

And I am not exaggerating. OK, the dogs don’t glower, but they don’t wag their tails like American dogs.

Americans, of course, also have a reputation and most people distinguish, as they should, between the American people and American foreign policymakers. My students are surprised by how friendly, energetic, optimistic and generous Americans are. Depending on their culture, they are amazed when Americans hold doors open for people, hold the elevator for someone, greet people with a hi-how-are-you, and engage in small talk with complete strangers.

In addition, by many cultures’ standards, American society is exceptionally well-ordered. For the most part, people follow the rules; they even stop at stop signs when no one is coming, something considered novel and ridiculous by many South and Central American students. The concept of standing in line isn’t even questioned by Americans, although it is utterly unknown in some cultures. And in American culture, you don’t bribe cops, the folks at the DMV, or teachers.  Some of my students have pointed out that we do have a bribery system – we call it lobbying – but even that has rules.

People from some cultures see American exuberance as naïve and unsophisticated, a result, perhaps, of our having not suffered enough (unless we’re Native or African American). Americans are also known for being superficial, work-obsessed, selfish, and hard to really get to know. As a people, we are seen as generous with money but not with our time. We eat lousy food, are obese, don’t respect the elderly, give children too little discipline, are uptight about sex, tolerate the intolerable such as homelessness, are anti-intellectual and woefully ignorant, and most of us couldn’t dance to save our lives. According to a couple of young Brazilian women I had as students, the worst thing about Americans is our bikinis are too big.

Two weeks ago I had a day when I simply gave up. I had gone forth as I usually do with the intention of speaking German as I did my errands. First stop, the cell phone store. Cell phones here are called “handies,” a term I really like. When I came in, an older customer was already at the counter, but the clerk, whom I had met previously, gestured to me. I asked in English if the other woman was finished, and he assured me that she was, but she remained at the counter about six inches away from me (personal space is very different here). I asked in German if I could practice my German, and proceeded to tell the man that my handy had a long message in German that I couldn’t understand and would he please listen to it and tell me what it meant. My German was pretty good. Throughout this exchange the woman stared at me, not kindly. The man wasn’t cold, merely tepid.

I smiled at the woman, and I noticed that the corner of her mouth twitched slightly. Oh, my god, I thought, she’s going to smile. But she didn’t. She merely hardened her face, which, considering it was already stone, was a feat.

When I left, it hadn’t been a particularly pleasant experience.

I returned to the sidewalk and after about 10 minutes of nothing but frigidity on the street, I was seething. I began having violent fantasies. I was going to trip the next Viennese who glared at me. I envisioned looking over my shoulder and seeing Viennese men and women strewn on the sidewalk for blocks nursing scraped knees and wondering what had set off the crazy American. I knew it was time to go home before I created an international incident.

Now, I realize the Viennese are not behaving this way just to irritate me. This is how they are, how they perceive the world, how history and culture have taught them to be. All cultures are shaped by such factors as geographical location, natural resources, wars, foreign occupation, religion, and the vagaries of fate. The trick is to parse out the why without necessarily justifying the what.  In a later posting, I’ll wrestle with the reasons why the Austrians and the Americans are the way they are.

I decided to go out the next day to shop for Jim’s birthday presents. I was going to spend my money in the neighborhood, and I was determined to wage a one-woman American charm offensive. I knew what I wanted  and where I was going to get it. I practiced what I needed to say, hummed the Rocky theme song, and headed out.

The first challenge was an old one that predates our move to Vienna. Dante missed an important ring of hell – shopping. I detest shopping unless it’s for books, art, or music in a small, cozy store. My idea of hell is being stuck in a 7-11 or any massive warehouse be it Home Depot or Ikea or a shopping mall, any shopping mall. Now not only was I shopping, but I had to do it in German.

I was a woman on a mission.  I walked to the men’s clothing store as quickly as possible before my resolve could wither under the cruel eyes of the Viennese.  I met the young clerk and asked him for permission to speak German, and we were  off. I was there for more than a half hour, a variety of expensive blue shirts spread out on the table, and he and I had a delightful time speaking almost exclusively in German, so delightful, in fact, that another clerk, a woman perhaps in her 40s, came to join us. I bought the shirt, told the young man he was wonderful (Sie sind wunderbar!), and he and I were both beaming as our encounter came to a close.

Phase 1:  Success.

I ducked into and out of a few clothing stores, spreading my American joy, but not my money. Finally, I was ready for Phase 2.

Just down the street is a small jazz and classical CD store. I’d seen the proprietor before and he was a tad scary – in his late 50s, burly, bearded, gruff. But I went for it. I asked if I could speak German, and he looked cynical but amused. Within minutes I had a new Herbie Hancock CD for Jim and had asked about some Chopin nocturnes for me. It wasn’t the warmest conversation I’ve ever had, but it was satisfying.

By then, I was exhausted. It is taxing enough to speak in a foreign language, but to be charming and speak German was almost too much to bear. To reward myself, I went to the bakery, and, fortunately, the woman in her 40s was there instead of the more impertinent younger workers. I asked in German for my new bad habit: a chocolate croissant and a latte to go. She smiled and through broken English, German, and pantomime, told me that what I had said was, “I would like a chocolate croissant and a latte because I am pregnant.”

It was time to go home.

I still go out almost every day; I continue to greet people, smile, and apologize for my lapses and theirs.  I’ve thought about sending an invoice to the State Department to reimburse me for all the diplomacy I conduct daily in this city.

One reason why I expend so much time and energy thinking about this is fear. I don’t want to be Vienna-ized, at least not in this way. I know from my students how easy it is to be Americanized. I see it when my Korean students who were raised on kim chi (which some believe can cure the avian flu) bring in doughnuts slathered with frosting, double-stuffed Oreos and sour cream potato chips to a class party. I hear it in the ugly American slang the young students can’t wait to use. I see it as the au pairs gain weight and a closet full of shoes.

One Chilean woman said when she’s in Chile her friends don’t like to go out with her anymore because she’s so American. When I asked what she meant, she said she will no longer drink alcohol when she goes to dinner if she’s going to drive home. A Ghanian colleague didn’t get the official paper he required while in Ghana until he remembered to bribe the guy behind the desk. A couple of Eastern European au pairs said that when they now see infants in their native countries held on laps in cars or small children not in car seats, they’re horrified. One of Jim’s English colleagues jokes that when she returns from the States, she has to work at becoming a dour Brit again. In each of these cases, I think the American way is better.

The Ghanian colleague, who has lived in the U.S. for almost 20 years, however, said he knew when he had truly become American -- when he no longer allowed Ghanian relatives and friends to stay at his house for any length of time; instead he found them a hotel. Ouch.

As with so many axioms, we mouth the “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” catchphrase with too little thought. Yes, we should adapt and adopt better customs than our own, but I don’t believe we need to take on the negative characteristics of a foreign culture. Obviously, determining which aspects are positive and which deleterious is a matter of judgment.

I worry because it might be easier to behave as coldly as the Viennese as I would certainly experience less frustration and disappointment. Also, I’m not sure I have the fortitude to retain my American energy in the face of all of this joylessness.

See the lamp? When we first moved in, Jim, Keir and I were all aghast at the lamps in this apartment. Although perhaps they were lovely in their original time and place, we find them hideous, this one in particular. This lamp stands a short way from the entryway, and I see it multiple times every day.  Most days, I no longer notice it, but when I do, I stop to wonder if perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe it really is a thing of beauty.

Adaptation can occur consciously or unconsciously. It can be advantageous or insidious. If when I return the States, I’m cold, haughty, superior, humorless, and unkind in public, promise me, you’ll whap me upside the head as many times as it takes to make me American again.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mozart, Beethoven and Orson Wells

Today was bright and crisp as Misti and I wandered the streets of Vienna guided, via our iPods, on a fascinating "Audio Tour Through The Hidden City"  by a rather personable historian named Duncan J. D. Smith.  We took pictures.

The walking tour involves 22 different locations, and we only made it to 10 before chilly evening air forced us to retreat back to Wahringerstrasse.  So we may keep this going for a couple of weeks.

We started at a place called Shottentor, which is the tram stop/subway station just down the way a bit.   We are there a lot, but little did we realize that it is the location of all sorts of historic things … but, like the statues, historic things are almost everywhere in this city.

Beethoven Composed Here
Let's start with Beethoven.  He lived on the fourth floor of this building (which is actually the top, or fifth floor the way Austrians count things) when he was writing his only opera,  Fidelio, first performed in 1805. 

He also wrote a couple of his symphonies while there. He was notorious for dumping his chamber pot down onto the street in front of the building.

The Assassination Attempt
Just at the end of the building, on what was then a cobblestone road following an ancient Roman wall, a Hungarian nationalist with a knife tried to kill Emperor Franz Joseph in 1853.  The Hungarian didn't succeed but a beautiful church – our favorite in the city -- was built after the attack to make the emperor feel loved.

Around the corner from Beethoven's place is a house where three sisters were wooed by Schubert.  I'm certain some music resulted, but I'm not sure what it was.

The Doorway 
And around the corner from that is "THE DOORWAY."  This is the doorway in which Orson Wells stood, hidden in shadow, in "The Third Man" movie.  A black cat walked by his well-shined shoes.  That isn't Orson in the photo, but it is the doorway. 

Not Orson 
And it is the very same door.  Nothing has changed since the movie was shot back in 1949, the year the guy in our photo was born.

Later in our walking tour we came to one of the seemingly countless palaces that populate the city and, encouraged by our audio guide to go into the courtyard, found a striking statue of a woman lying on what appears to be a sarcophagus (see photo at top).  Turns out, it is just a piece of art … for now.  The current owner of the palace had it done so that one day he could be buried there.

Next was an old church in Minoritenplatz with two remarkable features.  The first is the steeple.  Much of it is missing because it was shot off by a Turkish cannon in the 1600s.  I didn't realize cannons could shoot that high in the 1600s.  Despite the intervening centuries, resentment against the Turks for hitting the steeple remains, according to our guide.

Inside the church is a full-sized mosaic, commissioned by Napoleon (his soldiers lived in the church), of da Vinci's Last Supper.   The mosaic, by Giacomo Raffaelli, weighs 20 tons and is remarkable.
It's a Mosaic
Misti and the Skull

 Outside the church one of the walls is decorated with the headstones from the old cemetery.  Note the skull at the bottom of the one Misti admired. 

And given the history of warfare and religious turmoil here, we weren't surprised to step out the door and see three very holy-looking figures armed with arrows, a sword and a crude wood cross.  The middle one is also holding a little dragon or lizard or monster of some sort.  We don't know what that symbolizes.

Old and Older 
As we walked down a nearby street we were told that many of the ornate old buildings are really just plaster shaped to make the buildings look like they were constructed of heavy blocks.  The reality is many were made with ordinary brick, then dressed up.  In our photo the building on the right has the "faux" exterior, whereas the building at the end of the street is the real thing.  The faux buildings aren't new … they're just … faux.

As we strolled we passed by a bakery window with spectacular wedding cakes, which we'd like to share with Jennifer, our cake-making friend.  The cakes included photos of the bakers.

The Turkish Horseman adorns an otherwise unremarkable corner and we learned it is there because during one of the several Turkish invasions a baker at the location believed the Turks were tunneling under the walls of the city – and his bakery.  Nobody believed him.  So he sat a barrel in his cellar, stretched animal skin tightly over it, then put pebbles on the skin.

Turkish Horseman 
He knew that if there was tunneling below, the pebbles would bounce.  There was, they did, and the Vienna authorities came and diverted massive amounts of water from a nearby canal into the cellar, which drowned the Turkish tunnel diggers below and saved the city.

The balcony on the church pictured here is where someone important announced the end of the "Holy Roman Empire."  And next door is the building where Mozart gave a concert as a 6-year-old, apparently to good reviews.
The Balcony

Mozart Played Here As A Child
Nearby is a clockmaker's cottage, tucked between two flying buttresses on a narrow street. One buttress was cut away to allow tall carriages through.  Across the narrow street is the Uhrmuseum, which is filled with old clocks.   Inside is the world's smallest  pendulum clock -- it fits inside a thimble.  
The Clockmaker

Mozart Walked Here?
The narrow street, we're told, would be recognizable to Mozart as it is much as it was back then.

Across the square from Mozart's debut hall is perhaps the nicest fire station in the world. 

Fire Department

Cigar Fountain 
And around the corner, down an alley, and through an arch or two, is a fountain with a story.  The statues, legend has it, were made by a sculptor who wanted to make some extra cash by smuggling cigars into Vienna.  He allegedly filled the statues with cigars, then died before he could remove them.  The fountain was built and the cigars are still there.  Nobody has actually seen the stogies, but the water has stained part of the fountain brown, so the story must be true. 

And finally, we've been told that Vienna embraces Christmas like no other city.  There will be open-air markets, festivals, and celebrations filling the streets.  We got an inkling of that today when, in the first part of October, we saw workmen setting up Christmas trees and other displays. 

Erin, it's your dream come true.

Monday, October 4, 2010

On Language, and the lack of it

Why we like pictures

Oct. 3 (incidentally, Oct. 5 is Jim’s Geburtstag! He will be fifty eleven.)

“I say tomato, du sagst Tomate oder Sie sagen Tomate oder sie sagen Tomate."

This is one reason why it’s not a good idea to translate American lyrics into Deutsch, a language Mark Twain, in an essay another ex-pat brought to my attention, referred to as “the awful German language.” 

I’m making slow, but I like to think steady, progress in learning German. I have numerous books and CDs and when I make the time, I can easily spend a couple of hours working on grammar and conjugations, children’s stories, and elementary school workbooks.  As I’ve mentioned before, Jim and Keir inhabit English-speaking worlds, but I don’t. I have to create an English world, which feels like cheating, or immerse myself in the German-speaking one, which is daunting. I suppose I could also become a Trappistine monkette, take a vow of silence, and avoid the issue completely, but I think I’m missing a few prerequisites.
Jim as an exhibit at the Lichtenstein

First, it’s a fallacy that everyone here speaks English; while many do, I find people every day who don’t, including clerks at the Billa down the street and the local bank. I haven’t yet encountered anyone as English-phobic as the woman at one store’s Help desk a few weeks ago. When Jim asked if she spoke English (in English, first mistake), she yelled “Nein!” and stormed off. Definitely not employee-of-the-month material.  We just figured some American cad had broken her heart.

The other misconception is that “speaking” English means talking beyond the most basic terms. It’s not as if I can approach someone on the street and ask for his or her opinion in English on Freudian psychotherapy or the intricacies of the upcoming Austrian election. Speaking conversational German or English doesn’t equate to knowing the language.

One of my tactics is guerilla learning. I’ve been busy finding “tutors” in my neighborhood, but they’re not in on my linguistic plotting. Shortly after moving in, Keir and I went into the local hardware  store to buy a toaster and met the owner, who first spoke German to me and then, reluctantly, English. It turns out that she’s Irish but has been in Austria for nearly 30 years. She wasn’t particularly friendly, and it took until my third visit (a cutting board) to get her to laugh at my German. At this point, I don’t care if the locals laugh at me or with me; laughing is at least recognition that I do exist. 

Misti at the hardware store 
Now I go in once a week, but only once, to buy something, and if need be, I take in cue cards in German, e.g. Ich brauche Staubsaugerbeutel.  I always try to speak German to her and was grateful when she asked permission to correct me. Yesterday, when Jim and I went to pick up the aforementioned item, I tried to say, “We’re here to pick up the vacuum cleaner bags which we ordered last week,” sans cue cards. I was close.

She is warming up, and I feel like Sally Fields (“She likes me, she really likes me!”) Actually, I think I tread a fine line between  amusing and annoying her. Each time I go in, I scout the place to figure out what I need to buy next. By the end of the year, we’ll probably be able to open our own housewares department.

Then, I (and sometimes Jim) go to my next oblivious tutor, a French woman married to an Austrian, who has also lived in Vienna for years and works in a small school/office supplies shop across the street from the French Lycee.  She’s sweet and hilarious, perhaps the most charming person I’ve met in my life. We speak in German, English, and French (sadly, I’ve almost entirely forgotten the smidgeon of French I learned in May).
Misti and Dominique 

Yesterday Jim and I spent a half hour in her shop buying three markers and three manila envelopes. We were talking about items that you can buy in the U.S. but not in Vienna (in particular,  simple wire folder holders to keep on a desk – honestly, not only unavailable here,  but no on knows what you’re talking about). She told us about the time a few years back, at a friend’s home in Chicago where she encountered her first automatic garage door opener. It delighted her so much that she made the door go up-down, up-down, up-down, up-down until her friend had to take the remote away.  (“I was playing like I was a little girl,” she said.)

When she told me that her name was Dominique, I asked about the Singing Nun (young people, sorry – google it) and she burst into Domineeka, neeka, neeka… I only wish she had had a guitar. We also talked about Jacqueline BOUVIER Kennedy

Unfortunately, most of the conversation was in English. Fortunately, if it’s true that laughter bolsters the immune system, we shouldn’t need flu shots this year.

Our building under the green netting -- more on that later
Once a week or so, we also talk to one of the waiters in the Italian restaurant downstairs, whose name is Lazarus (and, yes, he’s heard all of the jokes), and who is originally from Corfu.

Have you noticed a pattern? Either there are no native Austrians here in Vienna (much as the D.C. area has few D.C. natives) or we haven’t found them yet or they’re just not as friendly as transplants (a distinct possibility).

Actually, there might be at least one, Monika, a tiny woman perhaps in her 70s who teaches the German conversation class I began attending on Tuesday at the AWA (American Women Association). Seven students were  there, including four women I met at the AWA meeting  a couple of weeks ago: Gillian (Scotland),  Philippa (England),  Pam (Australia),  and Christa/(Falls Church, Virginia – the D.C. metropolitan area is vastly over-represented in Vienna).  I’m not sure about the other two.

The teaching isn’t particularly creative – we read and translate simple stories - but it is encouraging to see other people struggle and progress. Monika is a tad less encouraging when she tells us that if we learn Viennese, we won’t be able to understand Germans and they may not understand us. Differences exist between the German denizens of each country speak. For instance, the Austrians don't speak in past tense, only present perfect, with a couple of exceptions. Of course by the end of class, everyone is just chattering away in English, grateful for the opportunity to not feel like idiots, to function as complete human beings.

One of the first things I do when I begin a new ESL class, is to ask my students (especially those who range in age from early 20s to early 80s) why they’re in the class. They usually look puzzled and give me the usual: to learn English, to get a job, to get a better job. I tell them they’re boring me and then write the real reason on the board in the biggest letters I can muster:


Now I’ve got their attention. We talk about how vulnerable people are when they don’t have language; about how diminished they all feel because they can’t tell Americans what they really think; about the pain and frustration that results when they are seen as less than who and what they are because they don’t know the language.

In Bernard Malamud’s short story, “The German Refugee,” this diminution is described:

To many of these people, articulate as they were, the great loss was the loss of language – that they could no longer say what was in them to say. They could, of course, manage to communicate, but just to communicate was frustrating. As Karl Otto Alp, the ex-film star who became a buyer for Macy’s, put it years later, “I felt like a child, or worse, often like a moron. I am left with myself unexpressed. What I knew, indeed, what I am, becomes to me a burden. My tongue hangs useless.”

Anyone who has taught adult ESL has stories about their students that are similar to Malamud’s refugee: The  60-year-old Afghan cabinet minister who barely escaped being killed by the  Taliban, and who has a Ph.D. from a German university, works at the night desk of the Marriott because he isn’t proficient at English; the Bolivian economist who read The Great Gatsby in English but can’t get credentials in the U.S. is working as a Safeway check-out clerk day after day; the Colombian architect, whose portfolio I asked to see,  was pounding nails in Fairfax County because Colombia had become too dangerous for him to stay. I expected to see a modest portfolio; instead I saw brilliant buildings ranging from museums to corporate headquarters.  The personal – and societal - cost that accompanies loss of language is staggering.

In a different way, I’ve been reminded of one of the most important things a friend ever told me. I was in Monterey, California, years ago visiting Deborah, a college friend. I remember the exact moment I first met her coming up the stairs in student housing in 1972. Her enormous eyes were ringed with eyelashes covered in blue mascara and everything about her said “alive.” One evening in Monterey we were talking, or probably I was ranting, about how so little of any real worth is said by most people most days. Deborah, for whom words don’t come easily, quietly said, “Just because someone can’t say what they’re thinking or feeling doesn’t mean they don’t think or feel.”

Now that I’m among the voiceless, I hope that the Viennese recognize that as well.

By no means, am I suffering. I speak English after all in an international city, not a primitive village somewhere; I can meet as many fascinating English speakers as my time, desire and energy can allow; and I can, I hope, return to the U.S. someday. In addition, as someone who loves words, maybe mute is a good button to push every now and then.

The hope is that I might have more experiences of the kind I had last week. Through Jim’s work at IIASA, I was hired to edit a summary brief for the World Bank. The trick was I had a 24-hour deadline to take a fairly raw 20 pages, edit, rewrite, and copyedit it, and at the last minute insert some additional material. It was a challenge.

I began at 7:30 a.m. and sent it to the man who needed it at 6 a.m. the following day. No sleep, no breaks except for one latte and chocolate croissant to keep me going. It was so exhilarating! Not only did I pull a 23-hour shift (at my age, miraculous), but I was able to work in the language of my heart and soul – English – in a sophisticated fashion (the topic was, get ready, the necessity of capacity builders to build capacities ….well, kind of.) The report and I could have used a night of sleep and another day of editing, but that wasn’t possible. By 8 a.m., that report was on someone’s computer on its way to Dulles. It was not only thrilling to work so hard, but given my circumstances, I appreciated the language in ways I wouldn’t have before.

So, back to poor Mark Twain.

Here are some of his assessments of German:

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart.  There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print:

Wilhelm, where is the turnip?

She has gone to the kitchen.

Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?

It has gone to the opera.

A tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female – tomcats included, of course; a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbow, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and NOT according to the sex of the individual who wears it – for in Germany all the women either have male heads or sexless ones; a person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all.

In Germany, a man may THINK he is a man, but when he comes to look into the matter closely, he is bound to have his doubts….

I heard lately of a worn and sorely tried American student who used to fly to a certain German word for relief when he could bear up under his aggravations no longer – the only word whose sound was sweet and precious to his ear and healing to his lacerated spirit. This was the word DAMIT. It was only the SOUND that helped him, not the meaning; and so, at last, when he learned that the emphasis was not on the first syllable, his only stay and support was gone, and he faded away and died.

Political Poster 
Tobacco/Traffic Store
I don’t expect any so drastic end for me and mine, but this week, as you so glibly use the English language, be grateful for having only one “you,” non-gender nouns, and verbs that appear long before the end of the sentence.

Jim's addendum --  We wandered the nearby streets over the past few days and want to give you a sense of our neighborhood.  Some "normal" residential streets, with the ornate, hued buildings, make you think you're wandering on the set of a Disney movie.
Other areas, with trams and buses flowing by mixed with cars, bicyclists and Vespa pilots, make you realize you're in a city -- just not the one you're accustomed to. It is also political season here, with an assortment of political posters around town.  We're not sure about the FPO, but we're guessing we wouldn't be a fan of the BZO.  Another party that seems fairly liberal came out with a little cookbook, so maybe we'll go with them.

We've also included pictures of the SPAR grocery store and the tobacco shop that is also the only place to buy tram tickets.

Cheers, Jim
Just around the corner 
SPAR Grocery Store (tram going by)

Guess his politics