Monday, October 19, 2009

The Scent of Tea

A pot of English tea steeps in a striped pot on the table before me. By its side sand slowly pours into the base of a timer stamped “Tee Uhr” on top to let me know when it is ready to consume.

I am in the T-Room, a very comfortable cafe between the neighborhoods of Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte. Run by a fellow from London who used to work construction, it has open for only three months.

The tea is a smoky blend he and his partner, his wife, have put together with carmel tones. It is just one of their offerings but the one I chose on this cloudy day as the temperature slowly creeps to its high for the day of 7 degrees celsius, if the promised rain doesn’t come.

The weather report promises fog for tomorrow. This makes today (and tomorrow possibly) a great day for English tea and this cafe the perfect place with the cockney-inflected English that greeted me at the door.

The English draws me in, just like the warmth and scent of the tea that has now finished steeping and is going into my cup. The only question is milk or no milk. I am American so milk seems strange, but I am a stranger in a strange country and so maybe milk will be good. After all, the password that lets me get on their internet is “with milk”. So when in an English Tea house, even in Germany ...

Of course, there is bit of an edge to drinking tea for me, given my Mormon background. My Yorkshire grandma would surely give me a tongue lashing and suggest a cup of Pero, while she pulled out a biscuit or some toast with butter and treacle for me, while dishing up a big bowl of the soup that was always on the back burner waiting for guests.

But I also feel a bit guilty because he spoke to me in English and I answered back and it felt so good. I do not know if the guilt comes from how good it felt or because I have been trying not to speak English or Spanish, to force myself over the wall and into the arms of Deutsch.

On the subway, I plopped myself beside some five or six guys I thought were Spaniards. I almost said, “permiso”, excuse me in my Spanish, before I remembered my goal. I understood them so clearly. But their language wasn’t quite right. I realized they were speaking Italian, but it was so clear and intelligible.

Earlier I had sat on the bench next to two guys who were standing. I thought they had spoken to me in English as I moved between them to take an open seat and said in German, “entschuldigung”, or “excuse me”. Then I realized they were speaking Dutch. Their vowels and the tone of their voices reminded me of when my grandfather and my uncles would joke around in Dutch, thinking we grandkids did not understand. I do not know about my cousins, but I generally understood. I couldn’t help listening to these two guys on the Zug, the train, the one blond with a couple days’ growth of whiskers, and the other, brown haired and clean-shaven.

At first, when I actually listened--I know it was rude, but language haunts me today, I can’t help it--all I heard were the sounds of their language, that sensual Dutch accent. Their voices were not as hard or closed as those of Amsterdamers, they reminded me more of my Grandfather’s northern voice.

Soon I started to hear words, and meaning crept into place. Yikes. I could understand most of what they were saying.

Why is so much German defeating me here in Berlin? I studied the language for four years in the University. In my later teens and early twenties I could converse in the language and read it. I even used it in graduate school to get resources for a paper when all the books on the topic in English were checked out. But here and now, German is proving difficult; it resists the efforts of my ear, though sentences form almost effortlessly in my mind.

After getting off the train I roamed around and found a bookstore with a wide and quirky collection and then next to it a rather large cd store that specialized in classical music. I almost did not go in because I am not buying CDs.

But I did. I was standing by the door, looking inside when suddenly it was flung out and a big guy invited me in with a smile. I thanked him, in German of course, and went in, amazed at the walls of Cd’s of classical music. In Salt Lake there is no such store, even though many people like classical. But record stores, and now CD stores, are disappearing in the face of MP3s and the press constantly trumpets the crisis of classical music. It supposedly has no longer a mass audience.

I guess no one had told the owners of this store in the main shopping district of West Berlin, just down from enormous department store, KaDeWe, and close to the bombed out church tower int eh center of Kurfürstendam.

The Beethoven collection alone was huge; it occupied a case that went two-thirds of the way to the ceiling. It had versions of versions of performances for almost all his work.

Even minor composers and rare twentieth century composers appeared on the shelves that wrapped around this big room and another one.

This lover of classical music felt like he had died and gone to heaven. This was no Barnes and Nobel block, with lots of mass market books and CDs. I felt like sinking to the floor, since there were no over-stuffed chairs, and spending the afternoon just listening to what was playing on their speakers.

But I wanted to write, to sit in a cafe and write. Being there made me need to let language flow from my finger tips. It has taken up residence there in the last two weeks since I speak so infrequently, other than to say “Danke” and “Entschuldigung”, “thank you” and “excuse me.” I needed to record and share this transcendent experience. Language was necessary.

So I walked back to the U-Bahn station and caught the train. This time a woman, a year or two younger than my fifty-four years, with her hair died a magnetic magenta entered pushing a baby carriage, while a blond woman with a face I see frequently in Utah came on with her, a blond four-year old girl in tow, while a red haired late teenager brought up the rear. I really didn’t pay them any attention, until they started speaking.

It sure sounded strange. My ears perked up.

Is it a different German dialect, I wondered? Maybe one of the Platt dialects from around here? Berlin is a smorgasbord of languages and dialects.

Then they made a distinctive sound that told me they were speaking Scandinavian. Of course I had to try to classify it. I wondered if it was Danish, it did not sound quite like what I remembered Swedish or Norwegian sounding like. As the grandmother was teasing the little girl, and then taking pictures of her reaction, I began to capture a word here and there. This Scandinavian was familiar just like the faces and builds of the people.

But is language like books and CDs, bounded and complete, closed within their covers? Is it really discrete, like the books of grammar used in classes and then the subject of final exams?

Even though years have passed, I still know German grammar. I studied hard, when an undergraduate, and got good grades. I can conjugate the verbs, decline the nouns, and even know how those damn adjectival endings work. The subjunctive is no big deal for me.

Walking around Berlin, sitting in its cafes, riding its subways makes me wonder about language. I am obsessed with it. But the question of my frustration is shifting. It is no longer what is wrong with me that understanding seems to avoid me as if I were the un- shaven and un-showered wallflower at a singles dance.

Instead the question is increasingly how does all that formal study of “German”, yes with quotes, since I am talking about what I was taught in school, relate to what I here on the street. Is it really the same language?

The question broke, like a tectonic plate, when with an earthquake of realization I knew that many of the sounds people were using around here were very different from what I had been taught. It happened when, on the train, I realized the voice from the air had never been saying things right and it had been confusing me, though I had thought it was just me who was mis-hearing and mis-understanding.

She had said--as if the voice of God were always female in that bureaucratic airport way with which you can never argue--the name of my stop, “Eberswalder Straße”. But instead of the “eh”, as if a long “a” I expected for that first vowel, given what I was always taught, she said “ee” like a long “e” as if she had a horrible English accent.

Then I started hearing her making that sound everywhere. When I expected “eh” she said “ee”.

Now that’s just downright hard. How is a person to know.

Suddenly I was hearing things that way all over town. But I was also hearing things said the way I was taught. My mind felt overwhelmed. I couldn’t understand because I did not know how to hear.

So I went online and looked up Berlin dialect and such. Surprisingly I found quite a lot of material, although nothing that was really helpful. I had to read a lot and piece things together. But I did learn that Berlin was in an area that spoke one of the Low German dialects.

What I had been taught in school is a made-up language, a standard, based on dialects from the mountainous south. Those dialects are called upper German, or High German, but the word Hoch Deutsch, or High German, also means the standard. Somehow people know the difference, though I don’t. Bavarian, or Schwäbish, may be High German, but they are a world apart from the formal to my ears. They may as well be different languages.

Upper German, to try and avoid the confusion between standard and dialects--although this last word is not used in the way linguists use it to confuse me more, is part of a range of language forms in communication with one another that extends from the borders with the Slavs all the way to America.

English is part of all this, although formal English seems extremely different from formal German. Scholars divide the German part of the language into two big dialect areas, upper and lower. The lower is from the northern coasts and the lowlands, like the Netherlands where my grandfather is from. Evidently there are major sound differences between Platt, lower, and Hoch, upper. The lower dialects share significant features with English, including many sounds which are different in High German dialects, as well as the “do” helper verb that is not found in High German.

Berlin arose up in a low German area, but increasingly the language of the city became a version of the formal, Hoch, although with lots of Platt features, including some sounds and words.

Then, with the unification of West and East Germany, following the collapse of the wall twenty years ago, many Easterners moved West and people from the West poured East, especially when Berlin was Declared the capital of a united Germany.

And, to make the linguistic situation even more complex, Berlin draws tourists from all over.

I read that low German was a lot like Dutch, the language my grandfather would speak with my uncles. So I started listening for things sounding like Dutch, and sure enough I started hearing a lot. They weren’t Dutch--it has its own distinctive ways--but they were similar sounding when compared with High German, like a word I just heard that my grandfather taught me.

When we were kids he would have us count to ten in Dutch and German. Those numbers have never gone away.

The number ten in German is zehn, pronounced “tsayn”. In Dutch it is tien and is pronounced “teen”. I just heard someone from Berlin say “teen”, though she is speaking German and not Dutch.

Now I am hearing all kinds of language differences. There are simply people I understand and people I don’t. It is not my lack of training--I was taught well in formal German. It is that in Germany, High German is just one of a whole lot of language resources, including different dialects--that can be more different than Italian and Spanish. Every person seems to have a somewhat different set. My set is just very limited.

I was looking for formal German, the standard, and found a smorgasbord, where formal German is one kind of many.

Well, I am starting to dine at that smorgasbord, even if right now I am cheating and am in an Anglophone place.

Earlier today, in Kreuzberg, I was looking for a cafe I had read about. I could not find it. But I saw a local bar that had a sign out in front offering different dishes, among them jägerschnitzel. For some reason that just sounded good and I was hungry from getting lost and walking lots.

I went inside. There were two middle-aged couples, about my age in fact, seated by one window conversing over big mugs of beer. A corpulent barman with a big mustache stood behind the bar.

I came in and said “Guten Tag” and chose a place to sit. The barman came over, greeted me and asked what I would like to drink and then gave me the menu. I ordered the jägerschnitzel. We exchanged several sentences and I understood everything he said, although his pronunciation was not exactly how I had been taught.

My schnitzel came. It was a breaded pork cutlet, deep fried, and then smothered with a dark brown gravy and mushrooms, served with fried potatoes and cabbage slaw. It was good and very satisfying after all my walking.

While slowly slicing pieces of my schnitzel, I was listening to the people in the bar. Another man came in and then left. As he went out the door, he looked at me and said “Guten Apetit”. How nice. here I was an obvious outsider in neighborhood bar where people obviously had been interacting over many, many years, and they were wishing me a good appetite. Cool.

Even cooler, I noticed the people were switching in between language forms. Sometimes I understood and sometimes I did not. This was like in Bolivia where sometimes people would speak Spanish and sometimes Aymara or Quechua, indian languages. When the former I understood. When the latter, I used to be really lost.

For me, this was like a lightning bolt. Now instead of being frustrated I did not understand everything, I could hold onto what I do understand, realize that I can speak because I know that form of language--I have it in common with the people. The other is ok. It is a different form. I can deal with that.

My tea has now lost all its heat. Some people around me are speaking German although most are speaking English in its various forms. English is part of the language varieties of Berlin as a major European city. I am comfortable.

Maybe I will order some pie.


  1. Enjoy your English blend in a multilingual land! Sounds like a lovely day, with Beethoven and tea and new areas to explore.

    My favorite teas are English, although I have been trying to drink more green tea for its benefits. Still, I do enjoy a bit of milk in the black tea from time to time. Enjoy!

  2. Thank you, Michael. It was a lovely day. And, the milk was a good addition, although I have mixed feelings about the sugar, despite the owner's saying his buddies would put in as many as ten cubes.

    I don't know if you are going to Denver for the SSSR, but if so, I am sorry I will miss you. It is always nice to catch up. Please give my hellos to everyone in the MSSA.

  3. David! What a lovely entry. I work from an English Man and every morning we start the day, and every afternoon around 4PM we take a break, with a cup of English Tea (with milk of course), and at first, I must admit, it was a little strange, but now I adore it!

    You may be working on mastering the German language but you are, of course, a master of the English Language. In my world of headlines and bullet points, I was caught up in your prose, and soaked up your entire post. You have a way of bringing me along on the journey with the details.

    I've now gone back and read every single one of your entries, and I can't wait for another little escape with my personal tour guide. Living vicariously through your words is a nice escape from my every day. So much of what you've written speaks to me, and I realize as I smile or nod, when you refer to something so familiar, and barely recognized when I too have experienced the same thing. I'll probably go back and re-read, take my time and comment on your previouse posts, just because they were so enjoyable!

  4. No, David, I'm afraid my travel budget is spent this year, so I will miss SSSR. I hope to go next year.

    Keep writing. I love your blog.