Wednesday, December 2, 2009


In chaos we boarded the train. It arrived late, and they changed it to another platform. Many people were confused. Furthermore, they had two different trains connected and you had to be careful to board the right one or they would end up in an unplanned destination.

I boarded right after a young couple with a baby in a carriage. They could find no room to move forward so, with fear the train would leave, I had to get off and get on another car. But I am in a seat and am on my way out of Berlin. The graffitied walls of stations I know pass by as we head towards Spandau and rural East Germany. The nuclear power station, closer than I saw it before, just filled the window by our side. Soon we will leave the city.
I left my building in a constant, chill rain. It was sunny when I arrived in Berlin, though it rained most of the time I was there. Nevertheless, the last two weeks have been warmer and sunnier. Yesterday was beautiful and bright.
My umbrella collapsed just as I reached the Alexanderplatz S-Bahn station to go to the Hauptbahnhof where I was to catch my train. I bought it shortly after arriving and as I left, in a gust of wind, one of the metal supports broke and it was finished as half of it folded inward in a pour of water. In the station I plopped it in a garbage bin, almost feeling guilty, though it no longer filled its purpose.
Last night, Frank and Susan arrived at ten, from their meditation group, and wanted to sit with me for a bit before saying good night, and goodbye. We talked about London. We talked about Germans in other countries. Susan spoke about how she found many Germans in Paraguay who were very racist against local Indians. I mentioned how strongly racism is engrained in the upper classes of that region, and told of talking Menonites on the plaza of Santa Cruz, and about all the other Germans I met in that corner of the Western Amazon.
Susan said, one runs into Germans everywhere one goes. I thought about Oxapampa, a remote region of Peru that is heavily German--or at least so I am told. I would have to go to know for sure. Frank said in India he had met a group of Germans speaking Schwäbish and then went to tell me what it is--a distinctive German dialect--and I said it was also spoken near Austin, in central Texas. That is where I first learned about Schwäbish.
Susan then looked at me and said “well of course one also runs into Dutch people everywhere too.” True. I have also had that experience. But the Netherlands is a much smaller country than Germany and much more densely populated. There just isn’t enough room for all their children if they were to stay.
A lot of us Germanics are wondering people. At the Altes Museum I read a display about the waves of Germanics that came from the East and north assaulting one after the other the Roman Empire. Ultimately, they found its weak point and it fell. I remember in Spain, at the great Mosque of Córdoba--besides the conflict between the Catholics who insist it is a great Cathedral and the tourism people who insist it is a mosque; after all the exotic is more sellable--in the back corner, they had lifted the floor to show the Gothic building that had been there earlier. Nearby were Roman ruins so I am sure beneath the Gothic floor there was a Roman one and so on. The Goths were Germanic and ruled Spain before the Moors came from the south.
My grandfather’s grandfather was from a tiny estuary on Netherland’s Zuider See, the Southern Sea, where there is a long town named Workum. He would leave on a sailing ship for China. The town is filled with influences from China (as well as from the Moors and Spaniards since Spain once ruled the area) and is famous for the polychrome pottery they began making building on Chinese influence. It is hard to imagine what it must have been like to see the ship cross the horizon and not know anything for months and months, until one day it appeared again, or the months went on and the ship never returned. Somehow it is easier to imagine the months on board ship and the excitement of port and a different culture in the great inter-cultural zones of nineteenth century China.
Susan asked me where my grandfather was born, and I told her Gouda, although his family was from Leeuwarden in Friesland. “Ah yes she said, Frisian, that is why you and Anne Katarin were speaking about Plaat Deutsch. Friesians speak Plaat.
“Yep, it is true for many in Germany” I said, “but in West Friesland they have their own language, separate from German or Dutch. That is what my grandfather spoke. Though yesterday I heard Plaat again. I was on the M-10 train returning from Warschauer Strasse, a young couple sat in front of me, and they were speaking Plaat softly. I was trying to listen to the sounds while also not showing I was listening.”
“How did you know it was Plaat” Susan posed. “Did you ask them?”
“No, for some reason I did not. I guess I did not want to seem like I was listening. But you are right. I should have asked. It was the sounds,” I said. “They were very different from Berlinisch and much more like the Dutch my grandfather spoke.”
“Were they Netherlanders then,” she asked?
“I doubt it. They did not look the part of tourists. They looked very much like everyone else on the train, and what they were speaking was unintelligible to me, whereas with Dutch I can almost always catch something or another, but their sounds were similar to those of Dutch as were the cadences.”
The vowels particularly as well as the sound of the “r” were far closer to Dutch than anything Berlinisch, but it was not Dutch.
As the train went across Germany, through Plaat speaking regions and Hoch regions I wanted to get off at every stop and go to a local bar, just to hear people speak. I wanted to confirm what Plaat sounded like, even though I know that term is really a cover for a whole assortment of languages that are really not mutually intelligible. They fascinate me because they are a bridge from German to the Anglo Saxon of my ancestors and to the Dutch that surrounded my Grandfather’s family.
I heard Vlaans, or Flemish in Brussels. It is very close to the standard Dutch of the Netherlands. I found the announcements on the loudspeaker easy to understand and read a couple of articles in a magazine. It did sound like what I heard while riding the train to Danziger Strasse. I should have asked the couple. They seemed very pleasant and we got off on the same stop, but I did not want to bother them.
When I arrived in Berlin, the language seemed to keep secrets from me. It escaped my abilities to understand most of the time. Now, as I leave, it is not the language any more that keeps secrets, but vocabulary I have not yet learned. I grasp the language and know its sounds. They are distinctive, with some important sound shifts from standard High German. the vowels are rearranged and the “r” and “g” tend to be under spoken or outright disappear. My ears have learned the key to the sounds around me.
We had to change trains in the city of Köln, Cologne. The train waited on a bridge over the window to enter the station and I looked out on the splendid waterfront. The station was crazy, of course, and people seemed confused. Our train from Berlin had arrived twenty minutes late and we had just a little time to figure out where we could catch the train onward to Brussels. But I gather that is the norm of travel by train.
I figured it out and was standing where I was sure the train would stop. Then I heard the overhead announcer say what I had figured out.
A woman on her way to Brussels to catch a plane to Egypt walked up and spoke with me to ask if I knew where the train was supposed to stop. We had come in on the same train and were feeling flustered and pressured with the shortness of time and the insecurity. But as travelers will do, we kept talking. She stopped at one point and said “Are you from the Netherlands?” “No, I am American, though my grandfather is from there.” “My father lived in Flanders for a while too,” she said.
And so we talked, in German. Even when an Englishman came and asked her a question in English, about the train that now was late too, she answered him in English and then turned to me and continued conversing in German.
I could have spoken English throughout my stay. Many people speak English here to one degree or another, but I chose for most interactions to try in German and keep in German. That was not the case with Susan and Frank, because we started in English. As we said good night, Frank announced that when I return we must speak in German. We already occasionally have.
I think my choice was good. But it did come with a price, the anxiety and shock to the system of moving from a place of comfort to a loss of comfort and a struggle. But as I left Berlin I felt confident. I understood most things and could communicate reasonable, even if sometimes I sound like a Dutchman. i was probably making some of their mistakes in German, like simplifying the system of declensions. At least that is my guess.
We arrived in Brussels. The sequence of languages of the announcements changed and French was now the primary one. That was ok. I understood fine. But the Brussels train station is enormous, signs for the Eurostar were not abundant, and as an American I had to go through another layer of bureaucracy at the passport check and migration. So I was too late to board the train to London, even though it was just about, and not quite, time for it to depart. They stopped me and a bunch of other people and we had to wait for the next train. I am now in London, after a night’s sleep. It rained and the streets were wet this morning, although the skies are now relatively clear. All around me English, in some of its many varieties, is spoken, though last night I heard Spanish a few times. I am missing German.

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