Sunday, February 19, 2012

Urlaub, My Fascination with Languages, and Feeling like a Foreigner

My host family left yesterday for Germany.  I will be following the same path this coming Friday.  It is Urlaub!  Meaning the two week Holiday for everyone officially starts on Monday and we all get some time off.  This week Magi and I are staying here at the house in Paris to do some cleaning and hanging out.  Her mother comes to hang out with us on Wednesday and then we will drive to Germany on Friday.  It is really quiet fun to be in this big house with just me and Magi.  Of course, this is Magi's last week in Paris and then she is back in Deutschland and I will be riding back with the family to Paris, all by myself.  Am I scared?  Anxious?  Okay, maybe a little bit.  I also know that I have the ability, the brain power, and the resources to take care of this family.  Yeah, so my German isn't perfect.  Sometimes I have no idea what the girls are saying to me and we have to look things up in my dictionary.  I don't always remember every single detail for taking care of four people, but I am getting there.  Plus, I am going to be taking an intensive, one-week German course while I am in Dusseldorf.  The online test to determine what class you should be in placed me in the B1 section, which I am fairly proud of for only studying German for a month.

Speaking of languages, there are some things that I would like to share with you that absolutely fascinate me about the medium with which we use to communicate.  Fascinating aspect one:  animal sounds and other non-word noises are not the same across the language spectrum.  If you are hurt, you may exclaim, "Ow!" or "Owie!!"  In German, you would exclaim, "Au Aua!"  And I've heard this difference while being with the kids.  "Owie" is not even in their 'sound' vocabulary when something painful happens.  Also, pigs don't "oink," they "krrkrrkrrk."  Sheep do not "baaa,"  they "maaa," which may be more accurate than English. 

Fascinating aspect two: every language has phrases or words that you cannot truly translate into all other languages.  "You are so legit."  I used this phrase yesterday when Magi, Johannah, and I were waiting to go into a modern art gallery.  Johannah had just placed her thick, black-rimmed glasses on and I made this statement.  Both girls looked at me with puzzlement written across their faces.  I tried to explain to the best of my ability, going back to the root word and the root definition of legitimate.  There is no equivalent in German, at least that we could figure out.  Magi was telling me a story in which a friend of hers had said something she did was a "picture for the gods."  I am pretty sure we don't have a similar phrase in English and I am still not exactly sure what this phrase actually implies in German. 

Fascinating aspect three: languages have unique rhythms, cadences, and pitches in which they operate.  There are of course those languages which are classified as tonal languages in which a word may be exactly the same except for how it is "sung."  But I am talking about the actual flow of a language.  I noticed in Italy and also here in France, that romantic languages are spoken at a higher key, or pitch, than English and German, for instance.  Thus, men speaking in Italian always sound higher.  When I was learning Italian, I noticed that I spoke higher when speaking Italian than when I was speaking English.  That same difference has not shown itself during this last month of learning German.  German has a very familiar feel to it, the cadence is similar, as well as the pitch.  This makes sense because both German and English are a part of the Germanic family of languages.  The proverbial existence of a musical score for each language is absolutely amazing.  

And then there is the isolating factor of knowing only one language fluently.  My dream is to master German, then French, then Italian or Albanian, and probably just keep going on from there.  The process, though, can feel so foreign that I feel like I am dying of thirst in an ocean of fresh water.  There is communication happening all around me and I do not understand all of it.  When I am at the bakery, for instance, I have no idea what the woman who I just bought two baguettes from asked, or maybe stated, when I shook my head "no" and mumbled "non" and handed her 10 euros.  And people will smile politely, or bow their heads in slight embarrassment, at the realization that I cannot speak French.

In German it's slightly different because I do understand quiet a bit, and yet nothing at all.  If something is said to me in German in which there is more than 50% of the sentence which I don't understand, or maybe even just the last word, I won't understand it at all.  Do you then just jump in and say, "Ich habe nicht verstanden", or do you just nod your head and hope that it was just a statement rather than something you had to contribute to.  Then I realize how I feel when I am interacting with someone who doesn't speak English very well, or hardly at all.  How I feel when I am speaking with a foreigner.  It's awkward.  Sometimes I just don't want to say anything because I don't want them to not understand me.  Here I am, though, wanting badly for people to speak to me in German, slowly and clearly, so I can learn more.  I do not care if I cannot understand everything they say, and yet I do, all at the same time, I want to learn and the only way to do that is to keep hearing/using the language.  Language learning takes a lot of humility, the ability to be able to laugh at oneself, and the completely necessary immovable belief in your own smartness even though you cannot communicate worth a pile of dog poop.  Challenging for a girl who has a track record of being a fair communicator and intellectual word-nerd.      

Already one month has passed since I arrived here in France.  I have grown, shifted, picked through a lot of personal shit I hadn't quiet yet realized was chilling there, and have continually discovered and reveled in how beautiful life is.  Every time I think about where I am and what I am doing and how I am truly following my dreams, be them crazy or not, I have to smile.  My heart fills up with joy-infused blood and I can feel it radiate throughout my body with each beat.  Although there are lots of things that seem impossible to us, dreams worth having are worth working for, working hard for, too.  So, although I sometimes am frustrated and lonely and unsure of my own abilities, I remember that anything worth having is worth the greater price.                      

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Been Awhile--Feeling Blessed

January 18 seems like a long time ago.  My German vocabulary and grammar skills have grown by leaps and bounds and every day I feel I can understand more.  I am taking private German classes with one of the mothers from Melis's Kindergarten class.  Her name is Ulrika and I adore her.  A woman who never hides her feelings, she is refreshing to spend two hours with twice a week.  Also, she told my host parents that I know more over four weeks than some of the students she had in Germany who had been studying for six months.  I pat myself on the back.  And then I realize how much I have yet to learn. 

Without the ability to express my thoughts, ideals, and emotions adequately, I have found myself quiet frustrated.  I want to say, "Holy cows! This cucumber is cold!"  Yeah, I could say, "Die Gu:rke ist sooo kalt."  But it's not the same.  And then there is the whole matter of trying to say something that has more substance than, "This cucumber is cold."  Those deeper thoughts are pretty much useless because I cannot express them.  I wonder if this is how those with speech impediments feel?  They know exactly what they want to say, but they are unable to express it.  It is isolating.  And infuriating at times.

And this is why I feel blessed.  Because I have skyped with and received emails and letters from so many friends and family who do understand me, who feed that intellectual side of me, and ensure that I never feel isolated.  It's amazing to me that for so long I relied upon only a few people in my life to hold me up mentally, spiritually, and intellectually.  After breaking up with my ex this last summer I realized how important it was for me to reach out to my friends and my family.  Coming to Paris, living on another continent, has made it harder and easier all at the same time to lean on other people.  I am so thankful for the people in my life.  And I am so thankful for the ability to express my thoughts and opinions.  It's something I hope I never take for granted again.

I am tired now.  This blog post is a bit short, and for that I apologize, but I will attempt to post something better in a few days that has some more substance and fun info in it about Paris and my work here.  Love to you all!