Speaking German in California

Part Eight of What I Will Miss was speakingIMG_6439
and hearing German, and I wrote that I looked forward to German Table at Pomona College. This is where we practiced, once a week, before we headed to Switzerland. I was curious as to whether our conversational skills had improved. I know for sure that our comprehension had increased, and now, after our first day back at the table, I think that our speaking skills have also gotten better. Our endings are still schrecklich, but not quite as bad as before. I think those will take many years to improve.

Trivia for the day. One of the writers for Star Trek: The Next Generation went to Pomona College. This language dorm, Oldenborg, was the naming inspiration for the dreaded Borg with its maze-like halls.


What I Will Miss, Part Eight: German!

IMG_6308The expat life is like a continual espresso buzz according to a post in the Wall Street Journal Expat Blog. You step out of your home, and instantly you are enveloped in a language that is not your Muttersprache.

Even though I have only learned a handful of Swiss German phrases, and I can often understand about 5% of an overheard conversation on the street, I can honestly say that I am going to miss having German as a part of my daily life. I plan on keeping up German at home, but living here is the best reason for thinking about it every day.

There’s the daily reading of 20 Minuten, the near-daily interaction at the grocery store, all the signs in the city. Once a week I had to listen in German at orchestra rehearsal, and once a week I got to listen and speak for our German practice group.

I’m glad that I have a chance to go to German table at Pomona College when the semester starts at the end of August.

* * * *

I will not miss being frustrated by Swiss German!

More Fun with German

When I work on Duolingo these days, Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 12.14.08 PMit now gives me a percentage of how fluent I have become in German, and it hovers around 50%. I’m not sure exactly how you can quantify this kind of information, but I think it seems about right. Some conversations I have feel totally natural to me (at an unsophisticated level), and when other people speak to me, I feel as though I have no idea what is happening. I like reading 20 Minuten and other things in German, and even when I don’t know all the vocabulary, I can often figure out what is going on.

The other day when I was buying coffee in the Migros take-away, the woman asked me what else I wanted. I added two wraps to the order, and she asked me if that was all. I said, “yes, for today.” That is something I would say in the US, meaning that I would be back another time and get something else then. She took it to mean something else, I think. She replied, “That’s not much for today.” I smiled and said, “Oh, well, it’s just for lunch.” I think she might have known what I meant, but, who knows?

The Black Forest (Der Schwarzwald)

The first thing to know about the Black Forest is that it is not in Bavaria. I used to think that it was close to Munich, but it is actually quite close to the French and Swiss borders in the state of Baden-Württemburg. Germany’s very famous castle, Neuschwanstein is far from here.

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 1.30.38 PMWith all of the very touristy famous places we have been this year, we thought that a quiet weekend in the country would be a lovely change. We found very few foreign tourists wandering around (and no selfie sticks!). It turns out that this area is where many Germans like to visit.



A group of German tourists.

Not knowing exactly where to go, H found Black Forest Tours online where you can buy a multipage PDF with many recommendations for self-guided tours. After looking through the possibilities, we bought the Panorama and Cuckoo Clocks Tour. This day tour had more things to do in it that one actually has time for in a day, so we chose what looked most interesting to us (and actually skipped the cuckoo clock stuff since H said that if he had to go to a cuckoo clock museum and/or shop, it might put a major strain on our marriage …).

Because we had the rental car, I started looking for AirBnB accommodations outside of Freiburg and found our favorite place we’ve stayed yet. In the tiny, tiny town of Tutschfelden (pop. 600) we found this top-floor apartment in an old rectory. The owners live downstairs and have renovated the upstairs to look like something out of a magazine. The balcony was fabulous and looked out towards the town church which right now has a pair of storks nesting on the roof. We spent time watching as one or the other would swoop in with a beak full of nest material.

Although we had communicated with the owners in English, when we arrived, we carried on most of our conversation in German. In fact, we were once again so happy to realize that our German is better than we think it is than when we are in Switzerland, where we are never quite sure. At one point we asked someone for a map in English and she was surprised because she told us that our German was good. We felt that most of the people we talked to spoke slowly and clearly, not just for us, but as a general rule.


It’s been real spring here for several weeks, and we’ve had lots of sunshine and warm weather. I’ve been out more, taking afternoon walks, and I have noticed something. People are happier than they were in the winter. I was so used to walking with my eyes looking down, or away from people, but now I notice that I can get almost half of the people I pass to give me a slight smile. An occasional Grüezi, too. On Monday I decided to walk down through the Niderdorf and take some pictures. I saw this fountain which someone had strewn with flowers. IMG_9939 A woman was taking photos of it, so I thought that would be a nice thing to do, too. She started talking to me as I stepped up to the fountain, and at first I didn’t know what she was saying (I think it was about how pretty the fountain was), and soon I figured out that she wanted me to take a few pictures of her with the fountain on her phone. We actually carried on a conversation for over a minute. I told her that her face was in the shade, so perhaps she should move into the sun, and maybe push back her hat. Okay, maybe my German sentences weren’t so elegant, but she didn’t feel the need to switch languages. We parted with a cheery Schönen Tag.

Then on a recent tram ride I ended up standing next to a father and his daughter who looked to be about 8 months old. Daughter was not happy sitting in her Kinderwagen, so he took her out and stood her on the ledge. Father and I exchanged smiles, and then I did a little peek-a-boo with the baby who kept wanting my attention. We had a wordless 10-minute ride with plenty of smiles from all three of us. At the end we exchanged a Schönen Abend and a wave. These are the two most memorable of the handful of exchanges I’ve had lately, but it reminds me to keep my face up and see if I can bring even a small smile to someone’s face as we pass.

ß – the Eszett

When I was studying German in Austria, our group made up our own version of Spanglish we called Carl-stoanstyrish (Carl for Carleton, our college, Stoan Styrish for the Graz / Styria dialect). One of our favorite sayings was Viel Spaß (lots of fun) where we would pronounce the eszett (ß) as a B rather than double S. Viel Spab!

Wouldn’t you know, but the Swiss have outlawed the ß! Even though I learned the Mac keyboard shortcut for typing it (opt S). Actually, the Swiss outlawed this letter back in the 1930s. Schools stopped using it then, as did Die Post. It took the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (New Zurich Newspaper) until 1974 to give it up.

So, Glampers, I hope today you have veil Spass!

Swiss Dialects

The past few weeks I have been asking my Swiss friends their opinions about different Swiss German dialects. I know that the Swiss have all kinds of stereotypes about people in other cantons, but I wanted to hear what they had to say about their fellow citizens.

The guy from Luzern (who definitely loves his city and canton and knows its superiority over all other parts of the country) says that the Schaffhausen dialect is the one that makes his ears hurt.

The woman from Winterthur (in Canton Zürich) says that St. Gallen dialect is worse than Schaffhausen.

Then on Tuesday I asked my friend (from Zürich) who meets with us to practice German and she said, actually, that Zürich is the worse dialect of all.

All three, though, agree that the very best dialect is from Graubunden. I’ve been here long enough that I am JUST starting to hear differences in dialects (when I am not concentrating so hard on just hearing words for meaning). I did a little digging and found this video of people from Graubunden speaking about their lives. It has German subtitles, which is helpful for me. Even if you don’t speak the language, you can just listen for a moment to hear the musical quality of the tones.

Then there is this little weather report video. I’m not sure which region it is from, but you can hear what has been referred to as a “throat disease” (compared to the loveliness of Graubunden).

Then, there’s Roger Federer, the darling of Switzerland, who is from Basel. Here’s an interview with him in his mother tongue.