Archive | January, 2017

Short breaks at home

24 Jan

This weekend I went home for a very short break for the first time this year. Over time I have managed to categorise time back home into quick weekends, long weekends and a week or so.

This weekend I added a new category to the list: very short weekend. I arrived on Friday evening and flew back on Sunday afternoon. It works out as less than 48 hours. Luckily, the flight out was on time and actually landed in Manchester early.*

A trip back home normally means having to attend to some admin, shopping for a few things I can’t get in Switzerland or things that are really expensive there and spending time with friends and family. Unfortunately, with the weekend being so short, there was only time to see immediate family. I had a very quick one hour with my grandparents, who it is always lovely to see. The main purpose of the visit this weekend was to meet my nephew for the first time. On this front, the visit did not disappoint. It was worth the wait to see such a happy boy, who also has a big smile on his face.

I don’t know what my niece understands of me not being there all the time. She obviously recognises me from video calls and photos but she is too young to understand that I live in another country far away from the UK. She even asked me this time, why I didn’t live here. It’s a bit complex to explain to a 3-year-old.

I bet she wonders what all the fuss is about whenever I come home and why she has to spend time with this person that she doesn’t even really know. I hope when she is older both she and my nephew will understand some of my reasons for living and working in another country. In the meantime, I will accept that they mainly like me because I can’t resist bringing presents wherever I come back home and I am easily persuaded to play games with them and their imaginary friends.

There are definitely more things on the “Advantages of living in Switzerland” list than there is on the “Disadvantages of living in Switzerland”. However, one of the big disadvantages is being away from friends and family for long periods of time. In some respects, I feel as though I am used to it now. The beginning was hard but as time goes on, I have found this becomes ever so slightly easier but being away from new family members is a tough situation.

I don’t mean this in the sense of “Out of sight, Out of mind”. I mean I have just accepted that the relationships that had before I moved cannot stay the same as they were in the past. We have a huge advantage today of having so many ways of communicating that the world feels smaller than it would have done in the past.

I read an article recently about a woman recalling a time when she was living abroad and received a phone call. What struck me was that she said she knew that the news must be bad because in those days no one made a long distance phone call unless someone had died.

Today, we have free communication via Skype, Whatsapp, Facetime. I wonder if we really are more connected to our fellow man than we were in the pas?. I suspect with our lack of understanding and respect for other cultures, this is probably not the case.

All too soon, the weekend is over and I am at the airport, ready to fly back, preparing myself for work again on Monday morning. I will be back soon. One thing for sure is, I still don’t miss the British weather…

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*And, I actually landed early back in Switzerland with no long customs queue or passport control. A personal record!

Brexit: Will it ever happen?

24 Jan

7 months on from the vote and I am starting to think that Brexit won’t happen. Today there was a ruling by the Supreme Court that the government needs to consult with Parliament before triggering the process for leaving the European Union. The British government are convinced that the ball would start rolling at the end of March but now that is looking unlikely. It seems like there is no direction at all anyway. Maybe they have an amazing, radical plan that will blindside us all and we will all react like “Ohhhhh I see! Very clever!”. I would love that – really I would – but I can’t see that happening. Can you?

I won’t be shy to admit that I voted to remain in the EU. I am not some liberal, wishy-washy, wetter than a dishcloth person. In fact, on many issues, I am the exact opposite. If I was still living in the UK, I am convinced that I too would have voted to leave. However, living in another country and being able to open my eyes to new ways of life and new cultures made me change my mind. It is hard to describe exactly but somehow being an expat and leaving every thing that you know behind changes you emotionally and psychologically.

I don’t mean for this to sound patronising or big-headed, nor do I mean for it to sound as if I think that people who have not expatriated are somehow uneducated and neanderthal-like. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and everyone’s opinions are based on their own experiences. My experiences are different to my friends, my family, my neighbours and anyone else that I might meet in life. For me, it made sense to remain within the EU based on the lack of a plan but also because together we are stronger. The EU is by no stretch of the imagination a perfect organisation but reform will only come from within.eu-1473958__340

Of course, part of my wanting to remain in the EU was purely selfish. Even though Switzerland is not an EU member state, my work and residence permit is valid because I am an EU citizen. There are rigourous conditions that someone wanting to work in Switzerland has to meet to get a work permit. If you are an EU national, it is easier to get than if you are a non-EU national. What happens then to British people working and living abroad when one of the conditions that you are allowed to reside there is suddenly whipped out from under your feet?

I felt sick to my stomach and nervous on the morning of 24th June 2016 when I woke up to the news of the result. This wasn’t helped when a colleague came up to me later that day and said “Well, you won’t be working here much longer!”. The rest of the day I had to endure questions like “Just how stupid are British people? and “What the hell are you going to do now?” I assumed that these were rhetorical questions and didn’t dignify them with a response.

7 months on I still feel nervous for the future, although people keep telling me that nothing will change. No one has yet confirmed what will happen to the British expats who have made the life-changing decision to move to another country. In the meantime, I will sit and wait for the answers and have to trust that my choice to live in another country to the one I was born will be negotiated well and fairly by the British government and our friends in Europe.

 

 

 

Operation Full Immersion: Complete

22 Jan

I arrived back in Zurich yesterday afternoon.  Operation Full Immersion is complete. I thought it would be useful to reflect on the past week and see how much I have benefitted from this exercise.

First of all, it was nice to be able to take the time away from work and to focus on my language learning away from distractions. In a normal day after work, I can come home feeling exhausted and not able to learn something new productively.

It was nice to spend the time in Munich and get to know the city a bit. It is a lovely city, even though it was extremely cold, certainly a lot colder than is was in Switzerland in the city. Normally if I travel to a city in Europe, I only spend a weekend or a long weekend there and often this is not enough time to explore and to get a feeling of the city. It is often the case that I only get to see a few specific things and most of the time is a bit stressed rushing from one place to another. I feel that this time I can say I really have been to the city. The history of the city was surprising in places and I learnt a lot of things that I didn’t know or had completely forgotten.

What was disappointing was the language school. They communicated badly from the start and never mentioned that the highest level was not on the same level as my German is currently. If I had know this from the start I would have reconsidered my options. Ok, it was fine that I was able to change from the group lessons to the private lessons but that wasn’t the point of this trip. The point was to be fully immersed in the language. After the 90 minute lesson I was then on my own and apart from in coffee shops, supermarkets and restaurants, I didn’t properly speak to another person at length. I already knew I would be able to function in German society without any problems but I don’t feel that I got the boost that I needed.

The private lessons themselves were good but I don’t know how much I have profited from these. The teachers only met with me three times and a lot of the time I had the feeling that they were analysing what I actually knew and where my strengths and weaknesses lay.

So one week on, I can say that the mission is complete but how much further I am along the line to being fluent is still to be seen. I was hoping to go to another German speaking city (maybe Vienna in Austria) later in the year for three weeks for German lessons so this was the trial run. One thing is for certain: I can not go somewhere for 3 weeks when the langauage school cannot offer what I want. That would be pointless and a complete waste of money.

I need to reassess my opinions and decide what is best for me to do in the long run. I know I need to speak more German on a day to day basis for it to improve. In the past I have been a bit lazy in this respect but I hope I can focus on this in the months ahead. In the meantime, I need to get ready and prepare for my German lesson tomorrow evening. The learning never stops…

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Operation Full Immersion: Day 6

20 Jan

Waking up to -14 degrees this morning was not at all the sort of welcome anyone needs on a Friday but that is life. It certainly didn’t help me in the preparation for my last lesson. By the time I arrived at the language school, my brain was half frozen.

It is surprising how quickly a 90 minute lesson flies by. By the time you have looked at a few grammar exercises and done a bit of chit chat, it is almost time to pack up. It is a lot easier to remember things if they are presented to you in a unique way. That definitely happened today.

We started talking about idioms. Sentences or phrases that are not meant literally but convey another meaning entirely. In English, you might say “to pull the wool over someone’s eyes” which means that you are deceiving someone by not letting them see the truth and not that someone is pulling your knitted hat down over your face. There are similar phrases in German. We were talking about the phrase: Das Geld zum Fenster hinauswerfen. This means to through money out of the window or to waste money. I understood what the phrase meant but just to make sure the teacher took 10 Euros out of her purse, opened the window and proceeded to thrown it out onto the street below. I had no idea what to say or do. She just turned to me and laughed and said “Someone will be happy to find that later”.

When we moved on to the phrase Die Kuh vom Eis holen which literally means to pick the cow up from the ice and actually means to solve a hard problem, I was worried that she would produce a cow from her handbag à la Mary Poppins style and take it down to the icy street below and try to pick it up.

Needless to say, these two phrases will stay in my head for a long while to come. No revision or further explanation necessary.

As my lesson finished at 10am, I had the rest of the day free. I decided to visit the Dachau concentration camp which is located just outside Munich. After the Third Reich tour from yesterday, it made sense to round off the important sites in the surroundings that are associated with this topic. I was having second thoughts about going but , it is important to understand all parts of history and not just the nice parts.

I arrived by train. What struck me initially was that Dachau itself is a lovely little town. If you didn’t know that there was a former Nazi concentration camp in the vicinity, you would have no idea about the atrocities that occurred there. I wonder what it is like for people who live there, when they tell someone where they come from? For German people, the name is familiar and everyone knows what happened there. I wonder if it feels like there is a dark cloud hanging above them.

The Memorial site itself is completely free to enter and there is an insightful museum and you can roam the grounds and explore. Dachau was the first concentration camp that was built. It was the model for all the other camps, of which there were thousands. Apparently the gas chambers in Dachau were never used for mass extermination as they were in other camps, although no one can explain the reason why.

I found the place to be a very restful and peaceful place, which was probably helped by the cold weather and so few people visiting the site. I am still finding it hard to reconcile the horrific images and decriptions about the conditions and how life was for a political prisoner with the serene, contemplative atmosphere of the place that looked beautiful in the snow and the afternoon sunlight.thumbnail_img_4510

I found out on this trip that it is compulsory for German high schoool children to spend a year learning about what happened in this point in history and they also visit concentration camps as part of their education. I always thought that they learnt very little in comparison to what we learn in the UK. Although I can understand the reasons for this, I can’t help but think that Germans are somehow punished for the mistakes of previous generations. For sure, Brits are no angels either and the British Empire was also a place, where, I imagine, man’s inhumanity to man and explotation of people reared its ugly head. But I know next to nothing about it because it is not something that we are taught or are proud of.

Feeling pensive and slightly depressed with the world again, I head back to the city. I had heard that the Chinese Tower in the English Beer Garden was covered in snow. It sounded like a great photo opportunity. img_4517The English Garden area is relatively big and I can imagine in summer it is packed with picnic-ers and beer drinkers. Unfortunately, when I visited it was cold and covered in snow and the normal food and drink stalls were all shut up for the winter break. I would like to come back in the summer and see what this garden is like then: BBQs, people playing football, sunbathing and enjoying being outside. There is even a part of the river with a man-made waves and you can surf on the river. In the meantime, I saw the Chinese Tower looking glorious in the sunshine. That will have to do for now.

 

 

 

Operation Full Immersion: Day 5

19 Jan

I was up early again this morning for my first of two lessons. I must say that my a-little-bit eccentric teacher is really growing on me. She has such enthusiasm about learning that you just can’t help but carried along with it. We spend most of the lesson talking. She asked me to give a small presentation about my favourite book and we spend a lot of time talking about the different themes in the book.

She knows that I like reading because I mentioned it yesterday  and that I also read some books in German (or, at least I try to). She takes 2 books out of her bag. One is by a Swiss author and one is by Franz Kafka. She explains a bit of the plot of the story to me and says that she has two copies of these books so I am welcome to take them with me. How lovely is that! I have always wanted to read some Kafka but I never thought that I would ever read it in the original language it was written in.

We talk some more about memory and most of the questions that she asked me are hard to explain in English. I muddle through it some how and manage to partly answer the questions. We finish off singing a song together because “I sang so well yesterday”. I am not sure if my confidence in German has grown but my confidence in singing has. I might audition for the X-Factor at this rate!lowenbrau-1693942__340

I have some free time before my next lesson. I go to a well-known coffee shop again and use their internet for free while doing some grammar exercises. I have completely stopped feeling guilty about this. As it costs almost 3 Euros for a tea, the WiFi is certainly NOT free.

Refreshed and ready to go, I head back to the language school for my next lesson with another teacher. I can sense some sort of jealousy going on between the teachers. This teacher asks what I have done with the other teacher and how I found it. I find it a little bit odd. It’s an odd situation all round. I wanted some groups lesson and some private lessons and then the group lessons were changed to private lessons as well; now I feel a bit like a pawn in between to warring fractions.

I realise in my first lesson that I am tired and I made some mistakes that I really shouldn’t be making any more. I try to focus 100% in the second lesson but this makes me feel even more tired. Anyway, we talk about learning languages and how it differs in Germany to England. I mention that the English tend to be a bit lazy because everyone in the world can speak good English. There are many studies which prove that being bilingual, multilingual or even the process of learning a language can have benefits for the brain and also in the pay packet.

Later on, we move onto some grammar topics that I have been having difficulties with and these seem to be a lot clearer now. It has been useful to specifically look at some topics I have been meaning to understand better. I also have these grand ideas that I will spend time on these topics at home to understand them better but I never end up doing it. Having someone else explain something to you that you just can’t seem to get can also make a difference. I have certainly found that out this week.

Straight after the lesson I go to  join another walking tour. This time the topic is the Third Reich. The sun seems to be out but it gives the false impression that it is warmer that it was yesterday. It was -8 degrees and I was stood out in it for about 3 hours.

As you can probably imagine, a 3 hour walking tour about the Third Reich is not the best feel good activity that you could ever do but I feel that this topic is intrinsically linked to the history of Munich and modern day Munich. I was left feeling a little bit depressed at the end. However, the tour guide was very well informed and he really brought to life why Munich was so important to the success of the Nazi and which events unfolded where in the city.

I find it mind-blowing when I think of some of the places that I have been and who was there before me. But this time it made my spine shiver. The guide explained the events of 8 November 1939 when the Nazis walked into Odeonplatz and it was by sheer luck that Hilter was able to get away unscathed. If he hadn’t the whole of human history would have panned out differently. I have no idea if this would have been better or worse but no doubt it would have been different.

The tour itself brought the city and its history to life for me. It was far more interesting than reading a book or watching a TV reconstruction and I found out a lot of things that I didn’t know before or things that I had completely forgotten about from being told in my school days.

Tired from another 3 hours of German lessons, I head home to relax and prepare for my last day!

 

Operation Full Immersion: Day 4

18 Jan

The week seems to be running away and it is Wednesday already! I didn’t sleep that well last night because I knew that I needed to be at the language school for another private lesson for 8.30am. I was nervous that I would oversleep and I would end up missing the lesson after I had made a fuss about the group lessons being too easy. It seemed like I was waking up every half hour just to make sure that my alarm was still set and I hadn’t accidentally not heard it go off.

The private lesson today is with a different teacher than I have had for my other lessons. I met her briefly yesterday when she had introduced herself. On first impressions, she seems to be a little bit skatty with a hint of barmy. She tells me that she is a German-Russian and is wearing a T-shirt with the logo “Love Conquers Capitalism”. It’s an interesting choice.

From my school days, which seem a long, long time ago now, I know that sometimes the more eccentric the teacher, the better the lessons are. I am certainly not disappointed. The lesson is probably one of the most varied I have ever had. We seem to jump from one topic to another but I know, because she only has a limited about of time with me, that she is eager to find out where my strengths and weaknesses lie and to help me as much as possible.

She mentioned that when I speak, I speak really clearly. A mistake that a lot of people make when they are learning a new language is that they tend to mumble and hurry through the words rather than focusing on the individual words. This pleases me because for the past 6 months or so I have really been concentrating on my pronunciation. Even though people have commented that I speak like someone from Switzerland and not someone from Germany, I find this to be a great compliment. Maybe I am no longer sounding like an English person trying to say really long words, which is how I sounded until recently. She does, however, notice that I have a problem with the difference with “u” and “ü” which is something that I have been trying to improve. I think I am almost 90% of the time saying these correctly. I just have to practice a bit more.

We finish off by singing a song together in German. A German pop song. And no, it wasn’t by David Hasselhof. When songs from my childhood come on the radio, I can remember them word for word. Learning songs is probably a good way to learn a language. But I am not sure I could ever get into German pop. No matter how hard I tried.

Straight after my lesson I go to visit Schloss Nymphenburg, which is 15 minutes from the main train station. It is freezing cold and there is a school class who are ice-staking as part of their lessons on the frozen lake which is in front of the palace. The building and the grounds are impressive but it is far too cold to explore outside. I can imagine that in the summer that it is a glorious place to visit and spend time but not when the outdoor temperature is -7 degrees. IMG_4477.JPGHoused at the palace at the Natural Histroy Museum is a temporary exhibit of “The Wildlife Photographer of the Year”. I went to see the exhibition last year and it was amazing. The photographs in the competition were equally mind-blowing. I like taking pictures of animals and nature but I can never imagine taking photographs of this quality. I was studying the first category and was amazed. I then realised that this was a category for the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year for children aged 10-17. Unbelieveable!

After doing some work inside (yes, at Starbucks again), I braved the cold weather to do a free walking tour of Munich. I have been on a lot of free walking tours and have always found them to be a good way to quickly learn about the city and the culture. I was slightly disappointed that the guide was actually from Wolverhampton. He was actually a really good guide, was well informed about the history of the city and was very entertaining. As it was cold, he took us into some public buildings so that we could warm up a bit inside.

On a side note: when I went to Copenhagen with my friend Mark, we went on a walking tour. There were a lot of people and the split us into 3 groups with 3 different tour guides. We were delighted to be put into the group we were in because the other 2 guides were from the UK and Australia. Our guide looked so Danish; with blond hair, blue eyes and a huge beard. We were going to be given a tour by a genuine Danish local! It turns out he was from Belgium. It just goes to show that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

After something quick to eat, I headed back; more because the bitter cold weather had begun to creep into my bones. I have some homework and some things to look over before my lesson tomorrow morning. It is surprising how tired I have felt this week. Obviously, I have not been as stressed and busy as I normally would be if I was working in the office but the combination of the crisp, winter air and using my brain to think hard about certain things and trying to improve my German is definitely a remedy for insomia!

Operation Full Immersion: Day 3

17 Jan

After I “de-registered” from the group lessons, I was free this morning until 12.30pm when my next private lesson would start. I could have stayed in bed for longer but I go up and decided to do some self-study. I went to find a library yesterday and I realised that they don’t open until 10am at the earliest. So I needed to find an alternative.

Going against every grain in my body, I went to a Starbucks. I thought that it would be hard to nurse a mint tea for 3 hours but it was surprisingly easy, even though by the end the tea was pretty disgusting. I would normally feel guilty about sitting there and using the Wi-Fi for free but I read an article recently that said that Starbucks don’t mind you doing that so I did this guilt-free. At almost 3 Euros for hot water and a tea bag it should be them who are feeling guilty.

I thought I would soon get bored but I was powering through grammar exercises and going over somethings which I have already learnt but needed to look over again. I feel like I achieve what I wanted to in the morning and it was a lot easier to do than it would be at home with distractions from TV and basically anything else that is actually in the flat.

I headed to the school for my lesson and we went over some topics which I was having problems within. I think people can explain things in different ways and having a different teacher made it simple to iron out some of the mistake and misunderstandings that I had. We also talked about an article that she had printed off about the EU-Parliament President. It was interesting that some of the verbs that were used in the article were normally used for professional sport so that the reader got the impression that there was a real fight happening and it was something spectacular to watch.

I was surprised that the article mentioned the three female candidates only in passing. There was no mention of names, places of origin as there were for the men. I find this a bit surprising in a country where the Chancellor is female and who, I would say, is one of the strongest leaders in the world irrespective of gender.

After the lesson, I was pretty tired and it was so cold outside that I had no desire to wander around, so I came back to where I was staying to work. I didn’t feel it was right to go back to Starbucks in case the staff recognised me.

I finished a German book I was reading. It was only 90 pages or so long Even though the cover has “Easy Reader” emblazoned on it, there were still quite a few words that I didn’t know so it was a good exercise to help me learn. The story is about a daughter whose mother is involved in a car crash. It doesn’t seem like a great story for a Tuesday afternoon but, nevertheless, it was entertaining and, like I say, I managed to learn something. Oh, and it turns out that the mother comes out of the coma and everything is ok.

In order to complete the Full Immersion, I went to a beer hall for something to eat in the evening. I know that the waiters were dying to talk to me in English but I wouldn’t let them. I got the menu in German, ordered in German, everything in German. Sometimes it pays to be stubborn.

I had heard that Munich was one of the most expensive cities in Germany but in comparison to Zurich it is still cheap. For one Mass of beer (one litre, or the equivalent of about 2 pints) it was 8 Euros 40. You pay about 9 SFr. (about 9 Euros) for less than a pint in Switzerland, so naturally I ordered a Mass with my meal. The waiter looked a littlimg_4455e bit surprised when I ordered it. He probably thought that I didn’t know what it was that I was ordering. But, oh, I definitely did. I noticed as I looked around that I was the only one in the whole place who had ordered a Mass. When in Rome…

I ordered roast pork which is a Bayern delicacy. It delicious and even thought it looks like it wasn’t a lot I did struggle to eat it all. I can’t help but thinking that the presentation reminded me a bit of a pair of tits. I am fairly sure that was unintentional. What do you think?

It has been a long day today and I feel like I have learnt a lot. Although I haven’t spoken as much German as I would have liked,  I think what I have spoken has been better. I’m ready for what tomorrow brings…