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Vienna: Days 6 and 7

21 Aug

Finally the weekend which means no need to get up early for school. However, the intensive German learning continued because we spoke for the whole weekend in the most part in German.

In my last post I was hoping for rain because the whole city was so warm and it needed to cool down. In true British fashion I will complain about the one thing that I was hoping for. It rained too much!

We left the apartment and it was already raining but only small showers. I had read in the free newspaper that there was an Oldtimers event near the Town Hall so we headed there. Just to be clear: there is a difference in what German speakers mean by an “Oldtimer” and what English speakers mean. In this case, I mean vintage car and not old people. My boyfriend is interested in vintage cars, especially British ones.

By the time we came out of the underground, it was lashing it down. I only had a rain jacket which turns out isn’t waterproof. We couldn’t find the event anywhere. Either it was cancelled because of the weather or we had gone to the wrong place. We then went hunting to find an umbrella so that I wouldn’t continue to get soaking wet through. By then I was pretty miserable so my boyfriend suggested that we go to the Sacher Hotel to try some of its world famous Sachertorte.

I was glad that we went, not just because I had an opportunity to dry off a bit, but also because the Sachertorte was delicious. The recipe was created in 1832 and the original recipe is still being used today. The actual price is relatively expensive but as it was a special treat and the surroundings were nice, it was nice.

I was slightly taken aback by the customer service. The waiter was not friendly when we arrived. All of the tables were taken and we were told “I don’t have any tables”. There was no sorry, or if you don’t mind waiting, we will seat you as soon as we can. I believe that this is just how Austrians are. They are known for being very direct with a little bit of arrogance on the side.

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It was incredible the number of people who were queuing outside the hotel to come in a try a piece of cake. I have no idea how many slices they sell a day there but they definitely make a tidy profit from it.

After that we joined a free walking tour. To make it a bit more difficult for me, we joined the tour in German. This is the first time that I had done a walking tour in a language other than English. I could understand most of what was said but at time it was difficult to understand what the tour guide was saying because the rain was beating down on the umbrellas. Even so it was good to learn some more about Vienna, the Habsburgs and the history.

In the evening despite the rain (and my protesting), we went running. Rather than go to the castle and back we found another route that was a bit flatter. I enjoying running in the rain a lot more than running when it is warm. I managed 9km but in the end I was a bit disappointed because I know that I could have run further. Anyway, 9km is better than nothing.

On Sunday we took a trip to Petronell Carnuntum. I had heard about this place from a student at the school. It is a Roman city about 45km away from Vienna. It was founded in the time of Emperor Tiberus and a significant military camp during the Roman Empire and it even had its own gladiator school. Some of the excavated wares were in unbelievably good condition. Even though the site is one of the most important sites in Central Europe, only 0.5% of the site has been excavated.

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The city is made up of 3 sites. One has a replica of a Roman villa that visitors can walk around, there is an amphitheatre which has a small exhibition and a museum. All of the sites are not together so we had to walk about 5km in total to visit them all. It was definitely worth it, especially as the entrance fees was good value to visit all the sites.

We had to be back in Vienna for 6pm because we had a table booked at Figlmüller. Figlmüller is home of the most famous schnitznel in Vienna. The Schnitznel is so big that it doesn’t fit on the plate. It was a good job that we booked in advance because the staff were turning away people every 5 minutes. It is so well-known that the tables are booked out weeks in advance. I love my food and I loved that schnitzel.

When we came to pay the bill the waiter asked me if I was American. I was wearing a Harvard T-Shirt so it was a good assumption. His second guess was Swiss. His third guess was Canadian. I told him in the end. He said that I had a little bit of a Swiss accent, which I have heard several times during my time here. I’m not sure what to make of that. I am pleased that people cannot guess my nationality from my accent because it means that I am not just saying German words in an English accent.

After eating a schnitznel the size of a plate it was time to go slowly home and spend the rest of the evening asking the eternal question: Why does the weekend always go so quickly?

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Vienna: Days 4 and 5

18 Aug

The past few days I have been in the school for the morning and in the afternoon explored the city a bit.

Although the themes in the class haven’t been anything more advanced a few topics have come up that I needed some extra practice on anyway.

In one of the classes someone asked if we come watch the German film Die Welle (The Wave). I had never heard of the film before but it was based on a real experiment that happened at an American school. The basic premise is that a teacher tries to prove to the students that, despite all the lessons that we think we have learnt about fascism, there is still a real danger that a dictatorship could once again happen in the western world.

Of course, the students all think that this couldn’t possibly happen but before they know it they are beginning to give the teacher (who assumes the role of the Dictator) the status of an idol and do whatever he says without questioning him. It soon turns into destruction and death.

Apparently the real experiment happened over 3 or 4 months and not a week like the film depicts and there was a bit of destruction but no death.

It’s an interesting topic to think about anyway but perhaps more so when I think about our friends over the Atlantic and the similarities that have been drawn between Trump and other famous dictators.

There is also a book of the same name which I will try to read in German, even though I much prefer to read the book before the film.

On Thursday afternoon we walked around the city. The city isn’t so big and it’s easy to work out all the different routes and shortcuts. I’m still really impressed with how beautiful the city is. The building are so elegant and the white marble against the backdrop of an electric blue sky with no clouds makes it even more impressive-looking.

The heat in the city is incredible at the moment and it was uncomfortable to walk around so much so we came back to the apartment to read and try to cool down. In the evening we ran to Schloss Schönbrunn again. We went a bit further than on Tuesday and it felt a lot better as well.

On Friday we had lunch at the apartment and walked to Schloss Schönbrunn. When we have run there, the grounds were already closed so we couldn’t have a look round.

The grounds surrounding the building are huge and it must take a lot of people a lot of time to keep the grounds looking so nice. It was a nice afternoon so lots of people and children were milling about.

In the picture you can see Schloss Schönbrunn and the surrounding area. Wandering around the grounds you would never realise that you were so near to a large city. You can barely hear any traffic noise. You could be anywhere.

The temperature is still in the 30s so it will be a hot evening tonight. Lucky (and only a Brit could say this) tomorrow it will rain! Yes! It needs to cool down a bit, especially as I have promised to go for a 10k run with my training partner/boyfriend tomorrow.

Vienna: Day 2 and 3

16 Aug

Day 2 in Vienna turned out to be a little unexpected. It turns out it is a public holiday here which meant I didn’t have to go into school. The holiday is to celebrate the Assumption of Mary, a holiday that is not celebrated in England not in Zurich (because it is not a catholic canton) but is in other parts of Switzerland.

As the weather was nice we went to the city and had a wander around. The city is different to what I expected. Firstly, there are so many tourists that it is hard to look at things or walk around without finding yourself inadvertently appearing in someone’s holiday snap. Secondly, the architecture is amazing. I am not sure if all of the buildings are original but they are magificent to look at.

The weather was around 32 degrees which was a bit hot for me so it was important that I kept drinking something. After a look around the city centre, we took the underground to Prater. I had never heard of Prater before but it is a large fun fair just outside of the city. Considering it was a public holiday it wasn’t overcrowded and it was nice to have a wander around and see what rides they had.

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Later we went to Donauinsel which is an “island” on the Danube. It was really cool there were lots of wide-open spaces for running, walking, roller skating and biking as well as places to bathe along the river and places to have a drink and something to eat. It still amazes me that countries have these facilities – it would never work in England. Ok, perhaps it would for one day when the weather is nice. The rest of the time it would be deserted and the deck chairs would have found legs and moved off to someone’s back garden.

In the afternoon, we came back to the apartment to go some work. I started to read a German book. I chose this booked because the chapters are no so long so you can just dip in and out of the book. Also, the story is made up of smaller stories belonging to different characters so you find out bits of information as you go along. I was surprised that I didn’t have to look up so many words and a lot of the book I was able to read without much difficulty.

We realised that Schönbrunn Castle is only about a mile and a half away so in the evening we jogged there and back. I say jogged but I was almost crawling at the end. It was a bit deceptive because at the start it was downhill but back it was uphill. I am used to running on completely flat surfaces, although I know that running uphill will get you a lot fitted than running on the flat. The run actually took it out of me. I haven’t run for around 10 days and I could still feel that I wasn’t 100% fit after my illness before I came to Vienna. But I managed it. Onwards and upwards!

Today (Wednesday) I was back in school and I was ready to complain. I explained that I wasn’t happy with the level that I had been placed at and I wanted to go into another group. I was just told that I would need to take the test that I had already taken again and see if I did better. I didn’t want to do this because I have a certificate that demostrates that I have already completed this level and at a high standard. Plus there is nothing from stopped them from not remarking the test and staying at the same class that I was in. At this point in the day I was thinking about asking to change to private lessons but I knew that this would mean a lot fewer lessons and would mean that I end up not interacting and speaking with many people throughout the day. This is definitely not the point of taking a holiday to come here and improve my German.

I went to the lessons while I was thinking about what to do. In the second lesson, the teacher ask me how I was finding the group. So I told her. I actually learnt a lot in her lessons (she takes the conversation group) so we learn a lot of new words and can speak a bit freer. I told her I had already spoken about my misgivings and she said that she could give me additional tasks to do while in her lessons. Thank goodness someone else has recognised that I shouldn’t really be in this group! She also asked what specifically I wanted to work on and she will bring me some things to do that I can do additionally.

For the moment I have decided to stay doing what I am doing and I can do the additional things as well. If I drop out of the course and take private lessons instead I will just isolate myself and not interact. I have been a bit unlucky with this happening to me for the second time. Luckily, my boyfriend is here to help me a bit outside of school. For this I don’t have to pay anything… at least I hope not!

In the afternoon we had a nice traditional Viennese lunch of Knödelsuppe (dumpling soup), Knödel und Eier (meat dumplings and egg) and a Viennese beer.

We also went to find Hundertwasser Haus. Friedensreich Hundertwasser is a very famous Austria artist who died in 2000. Until recently, I hadn’t heard of him. I was introduced to him when my German teacher in Switzerland gave me a copy of one of his pictures and asked me to describe it as part of an exercise. I really like his work. The Hundertwasser Haus is a house that he designed in a unique style. The outside is very colourful and I was surprise by how many people were there. The strange thing is that the house is actually inhabited by real people so you can’t go inside. It must be strange to live there and have so many tourists outside looking in. His art is in the nearby Kunst Haus Wien. By then it was getting late so it wasn’t worth paying to go inside. I will do it another day before I go home.

And just like that the day is almost over. Time for a bit of homework, a bit of relaxing. Then it is already Thursday.

Good news

24 Jul

To start the new week off I have some good news. I actually found out on Saturday after coming back from my trip with the Bernina Express but I didn’t have time to write about it. I passed my B2 German exam!

I am not sure that it was so much of a surprise because I had a good feeling about the exam on the day and I was well prepared for it. The surprise was that I had done less-than-expected in the writing part of the exam than I had hoped. I think that this could be partly due to the fact that I might have “over-practiced” this part and, as a result, I was probably too focused on trying to crowbar in specific grammatical phrases and structures, rather than focusing on the question that was asked. It is irrelevant though as I did comfortably pass that part any way and, as far as I know, no one is interested to find out the marks that you got in each of the four parts of the exam (reading, writing, listening and speaking).

Now the journey continues again. I will be carrying on with German lessons for the foreseeable future but only having one lesson per week instead of two. I think that I can save some money by focusing on areas that I am not too sure about in my own time and aspects, such as increasing vocabulary, I also have to do alone. Sure, a teacher can give me a list of words to learn but I have to learn and remember them myself. In this way, I will have some flexibility during the week to do other things as well as making improvement to my German skills when it suits me best.

I am aiming to speed up the learning process in a few different ways. I watched every single episode of a German comedy series in the run up to my exam, which I think helped me a great deal. The series was called Der Tatortreininger (basically, meaning The Crime Scene Cleaner). It follows the eventful working day of a man who is tasked with cleaning the blood and other bodily fluids from crime scenes one the police have made their investigations. It sounds gruesome but the actual series is more about the people that he meets during his working day and the people affected by the death at the crime scene. It is a comedy so it is very light-hearted and I really enjoyed watching it. I have found a list of other TV series that it is recommended for German learners to watch so I hope that a few of these are as entertaining as my first encounter with German TV.

I am going to try to increase my use of German throughout the day. I have already started to send some email in German, where possible and where I know that the receiver knows that I am trying my best to communicate and improve. There are also a few groups where you can meet with other people who are keen to improve their language skills. I will try to find one that fits in with my schedule and attend. I have also thought about the possibility of finding a penpal or someone that I can have a tandem exchange (where two people meet who have different mother tongues and they help each other learn together) either in person on via Skype. I have had some tandem partners in the past and they have been really beneficial.

In August, I will be going to Vienna in Austria for two weeks for an intensive German course. This is similar to the week that I spent in Munich in January but this time I am hoping that the course that I want to go on is available. I am looking forward to a “working” holiday and visiting Vienna, which I believe is a beautiful place, especially in the summer.

So onwards and upwards. It seems like learning a language is a never-ending struggle but I think I can see that the end is in sight…homework-1735644__340

Finally it’s over…

10 Jul

On Saturday it was time to put the books away and just go for it. Too late to look at any more vocabulary lists or verb tables now – it was D-Day (Deutsch-Day). 

I was disappointed that the weather was completely glorious and that I would be spending the whole day cooped up in an exam room, wracking my brain to remember how to spell things while the weather outside was like this…


Not in the least bit fair, eh?

I arrived early at the exam centre and it was easy to find from the train station. I noticed one of the other candidates must be 60, if she was a day. I’m not sure that I will be still doing language exams at that age. If I am, you have permission to slap me in the face as hard as you can.

The first part of the exam was reading which is by far my favourite part of the exam. Partly because I enjoy reading and I have tried to develop the habit of reading German as much as possible over the past few months. So I find it a little bit easier than the other parts. The section was nothing that I hadn’t expected which was a nice surprise. Although there were some tricky parts, overall it went well. 

Next up was listening. Again it’s not a section that I particularly loathe but it was a bit tricky. When I had answered the questions, I realised on the multiple choice question that I had few too few Cs for me to have got 100% but maybe I’m reading too much into it!

Next up was the writing. Again a part that I find relatively straight forward. I had to write about fairy tales. I couldn’t think of any names of fairly tales in German so I just said I was a fan of the Brothers Grimm stories which, I hope, will not count against me. If it doesn’t, I am happy with my creativity of getting out of a potentially sticky situation.

So then I had a lovely 4 hour break before my speaking part began. I met a friend and we sat by the lake in the sun for a few hours. This was great because it really took my mind off the rest of the exam. I really hate the speaking test. I feel so self-conscious and it’s very obvious if you mess this part up. It’s not just the examiners that you are speaking with but also a fellow candidate. It’s potentially really embarrassing if you forget what to say or get a bit tongue tied.

I had to talk about the topic of reducing the voting age to 16. I managed to talk about Brexit and how this sort of issue impacts more young people in the long term. I finished by saying the issues are too complex for people so young to comprehend and that there must be other ways for them to be engaged in political thinkings. Then I had to discuss with the other candidate about three pictures on the topic “Your Friend – the animal”. These parts of the exam are always daft. The topics are sometimes really vague and it’s difficult to know what to say. Luckily I had had plenty of practice with the other half, so it ended up not being so bad.

Would you believe the moment I finished the exam and stepped out of the exam centre that the heavens opened? Typical, just typical! Even so I managed to go out and have a few drinks to celebrate.

I just had a 4 week wait now until I get my result. I will hopefully be able to share some good news with you soon….

The literal nature of the German language

16 Mar

The other day I was thinking (and I have no idea why before you ask) about the German word for breakfast. I have no idea why I was thinking about Frühstück while I was waiting for my tram but I was. If you deconstruct the word, you are left with früh which means “early” and stück which means “piece”. The word literally means in English “early piece”. This make so much sense because breakfast is the first meal of the day and my theory is that the word “piece” is fitting for the German speaking world because most people have a croissant or a piece of bread as their first meal.

This doesn’t really work in the English language because we tend to have more lavish and complicated breakfasts. We don’t just take “a piece” and go. Can you imagine if you took a piece from an English breakfast and you mistakenly end up with a baked bean? That won’t stop you snacking until lunchtime.

This got me thinking about other German words which are literal in their meaning. The word for shoe in German is Schuh and the word for glove is Handschuh. So Germans genuinely think of a glove as a shoe for the hand, which it sort of is.

The German word for a sloth is made up of the word faul meaning “lazy” and tier meaning “animal”. I’ve watched David Attenbourgh and that animal is lazy by anyone’s standards.

It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that there are some laughable mistranslations when Germans try to speak English. I mean laughable in the nicest possible way. One mistake that is frequently used in the office is emails that start with “Hello together”. In German the email would start with Hallo zusammen meaning dear all. The problem is that zusammen also means “together”. You can say Wir gehen morgen zusammen which means “We are going together tomorrow”. I have a colleague who proudly walks into the office every day, cheerily declaring “Hello together”. Part of me thinks I should politely point out to him his mistake, the other part of me thinks it might be a bit rude to say anything at all. It’s a modern-day dilemma.

Other howler is the use of the words “some when” which is directly translated from the German word Irgendwann (irgend meaning some and wann meaning when in the precise sense of what time). A friend asked me if I wanted to go to the cinema with her some when. I pointed out this way wrong. Firstly, she is my friend and secondly, she specifically mentioned that it’s ok if I pick her up on mistakes. The modern-day dilemma was clearly avoided in this case. When I told her the question should be “do you want to go to the cinema some time?”, she looked at me a little confused and said “when do you use some when?” To which I replied “well, never. It doesn’t exist in English in the way that you mean it”.

The verb to ski in German is Skifahren, literally “to drive skis”. This time I was on the receiving end of the confusion when a friend told me he would like to drive with me. I had to stop myself from saying words to the effect of “That’s lovely. Maybe we can drive somewhere later but right now I would like to go skiing”. Then it dawned on me what he meant and I smiled and followed him down the mountain.

These miscommunications, while at times can be frustrating when learning a language, provide light relief. In some of the above cases, it makes it easier for me to remember phrases in German because of the funny story or association behind it. At the moment, I wish there were some more funny stories that would stick more vocabulary in my head; recently my memory has been like a sieve and I need a way to bung those holes up!

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The language question

1 Feb

After my blogging about going to Germany for a week, I realised that people may not have understood the real reason for this or, that they may be wondering why after 4 years in a country with a different language, I am not fluent already.

The main reason is because in Switzerland the language that is spoken is not the same as in Germany (“High German” as it is known) but Swiss German. The differences between the two are many and varied. So much so, that Germans who come to Switzerland to work or on holiday have difficulty in understanding the Swiss.

There is the well-known quote of the Irish writer, George Bernard Shaw who said:

England and America are two countries divided by a common language

I would say that this is true of the difference between Swiss German and High German as well. An example may help with my explanation. The German word for “taste” is actually the word that Swiss Germans uses for “smell”. So there could be a misunderstanding, when a Swiss German asks a German colleague, if they have smelt how bad the toilet is. The German will understand that this to mean “have you tasted how bad the toilet is”. This leads to confusion all round and quite a few puzzled looks in the office.

It is not just the words that might be confusing. The grammar and the sounds of the words are completely different in both languages It can take some time for a native German speaker to grasp the meaning of the Swiss language.

Of course the Swiss are also able to speak High German. In fact, they normally write emails, read books and newspapers in High German but only speak in Swiss German. A teacher once explained to me that Swiss people don’t like speaking in High German because this is the language that they are forced to speak at school. A child growing up in Switzerland will learn to talk Swiss German with friends and family. They will only learn High German when they finally begin school. Very early on, a child is programmed to associate speaking Swiss German with spending time with friends and family and having fun and High German with homework and school.

As this isn’t complicated enough, there are different Swiss dialects which are only spoken in certain regions. The word for “boy” is different in the Canton of Zurich to the word that they use in other cantons. The verb “to shop” is different in Zurich to the verb that is used to mean the exact same thing in Bern, which is only an hour away.

I would say that this is a little bit like the different words we use in England for a bread roll. Where I was brought up, I would use the word “barm” to refer to a sandwich roll but regional variations can be anything from bap, roll, barmcake, buns, bin lids, cob, teacake. I actually looked this up and there are 18 regional variations for a bread roll in the UK.

But teacake, for the record, is most certainly not a savoury bread. It is a sweet bread with currants in it that you have with slathered on it with a cup of tea on the side. I would just like to make that absolutely clear.

From the context of the sentence, it is normally easy to work out what the speaker is saying but it requires some effort from the listener to decipher what is being said. My point is that even Swiss Germans can have some difficultly in understanding each other.

When you put all of this together, you can see what my, and many others in my situation, problem is. There is a complete disconnect between the High German that I am taught in my language school and the language that is spoken in the office, in the supermarket and in the street. I spent the first year and a half wondering if I was learning another language because I was still struggling to understand what was being said to me and around me.

download-3Going to Germany was a tactic to hear as much German as was possible and to reinforce
how much I could understand and function in the language that I have been struggling to learn for so long.

I am not sure if I know of any other languages where there is this disconnect between the spoken and written language. It is completely confusing for someone trying to learn. In France and Italy for example, the language that you would hear after leaving in the language school would be the same as the language as on the street and the learning process would be accelerated.

For now, I am concentrating on getting my High German perfect but if I am to stay here longer term I will need to learn some Swiss German. I already have an okay-ish understanding of the numbers for example (so I can at least give the cashier at the supermarket the right money for my shopping, which was virtually impossible when I first arrived) and I know the days of the week. Except for Tuesday. I can never remember the word for Tuesday. But as I don’t consider Tuesday to be so much of an important day of the week, I am happy to let that one slide.