29.12.14

Learning from Literature

I

Herman Hesse once wrote that the third dimension of history is fiction. And it is history which we are told to turn to when we are in need of sage advice, mistake-preventing insight and some wisdom from those who have gone before us. Would it matter if these were fictional stories? Does it matter that despite best efforts to strip something back to facts, there will always remain a small touch of embellishment? No, it doesn’t, which explains my fascination with literature – fiction, stories, make-believe, embellished histories – because they provide much from which I have learned; they provide, in the case of good literature, insight just as profound as if it were to have really happened.

Novel studies are profoundly hated by students because they seem pointless, so frankly why should they bother? They aren’t done for no reason, as education isn’t just some fun lark to keep kids of the streets. There is a depth of meaning, a purpose. The fact is, you learn from books. I have learned from books, you have probably learned from books – but only from good books. Bad books are like bad teachers: often exciting, often fun, but totally hopeless when it comes to imparting knowledge; you might remember them but not because of what you have learned.

In his essay Why I Write, George Orwell speaks of his deep, inexplicable motives for writing but makes it clear that “all writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.” Orwell adds that “writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a bout of some horrible illness.” Orwell hypothesises that the only reason such a thing would ever be undertaken is because a writer is driven by some unexplained demon. I think that the only reason anyone would ever embark on a book is because sub-consciously they have got something to lay out, in the hope others may learn.

It is readily apparent when a book does have something to offer and something from which the reader can learn. There are books written for different levels of learning, too; this is why children are enthralled by children’s books, but older readers returning to them find them full of obvious outcomes. While I have drifted away from young adult fiction, it is interesting to see my friends remain totally enthralled by it. Adult books still have an air of the foreign about them, in their eyes. But it is to adult books I turn when I’m looking for something edgier, more engaging – and, ultimately, more educational. This is not to say that I find young adult fiction to be bad; indeed, there is some high-calibre story-telling going on, but I find myself wanting more where my peers didn’t.

There is the right book for the right time. One of my teachers once told me to read Lord of the Flies by William Golding, but then stopped himself and said that I should wait a year before I did. Dutifully, I waited a year and then read it. He was right. If I had read it a year earlier I wouldn’t have understood half of what was going on. There was a lot that occurred in that year that I saw reflected in the novel, and there was, therefore, more I learned from it. One shouldn’t rush reading. There is time to get around to it, to build up to it, otherwise it becomes merely words – which good, educational literature is not.

II

I have read a number of books which I have learned much form. Among them:

  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell;
  • The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse;
  • Eucalyptus by Murray Bail;
  • The Plains by Gerald Murnane;
  • My Brother Jack by George Johnston;
  • The Chrysalids by John Wyndham;
  • Accident by Nicholas Mosley; and
  • Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

Of course, there have been others, but these are the examples that stick in my mind.

They are all novels interestingly, even though some are quite experimental.They are all very different – the subject matter varies wildly. There are also three Australian writers – Bail, Johnston and Murnane – which perhaps reflects my Australian heritage; and perhaps these authors would not have as profound an impact of readers overseas.

From these books I have learned about manipulation, beauty, love, absurdity, fortune, misfortune, desire, tragedy and blasphemy. There is so much encompassed in these books that I would offer the list above as a reading list – a difficult one, but one worth embarking on. (After all, there is always the urge to share books which have had an impact on you, hoping that the experience can be replicated and shared – producing a common bond.)

But what have I learned about writing? The styles of the books are wildly different. Some are punchier than others. The Glass Bead Game is much slower than Accident, but you could tell this from just looking at the books: The Glass Bead Game is nearly four centimetres thick, Accident is just one. These books, though, are the lengths they need to be: they are comfortable in their clothes, they’re well-tailored. This is the common thread. All of the books which have ever had an impact on me are well-tailored: they are all the right length. W. Somerset Maugham said that there were three rules for writing a novel; nobody knows what they are. Indeed, it would be difficult to define what the right length for a novel is, because it seems to be more like a feel you have to have. This is a significant lesson I have learned about writing: make sure it sits well in its form.

All of the books I’ve listed show that writing must be comfortable in its own form. This is the secret, I think, to good writing: it must be comfortable telling the story it’s telling.

III

When it boils down to it there is no way to tell if something really did occur before you were born. There are accounts of course, but it could be a pack of concerted lies. The German word for history is the same as the word for story. Where lies the difference? Fact morphing into fiction morphing back into fact. Fiction happens in the mind – just as history has to be conjured – and if you can enter it fully, there is much to learn, as I have always found. But only if the reader is willing.


This blog post is a part of the Teens Can Write Too December 2014 blog chain. The (thankfully open-ended) prompt was, “What works of fiction have taught you by example, and what did they teach you?” The other participants in the chain were:

5thhttp://thelittleenginethatcouldnt.wordpress.com/

6thhttp://nasrielsfanfics.wordpress.com/

7thhttps://erinkenobi2893.wordpress.com/

8thhttp://introspectioncreative.wordpress.com/

9thhttp://semilegacy.blogspot.com/

10thhttp://kirabudge.weebly.com/

11thhttp://whileishouldbedoingprecal.weebly.com/

12thhttp://randomosityofeden.wordpress.com/

13thhttp://musingsfromnevillesnavel.wordpress.com/

14thhttp://www.alwaysopinionatedgirl.wordpress.com/

15thhttp://www.juliathewritergirl.wordpress.com/

16thhttp://miriamjoywrites.com/

17thhttp://horsfeathersblog.wordpress.com/

18thhttp://unironicallyexcited.wordpress.com/

19thhttp://theboardingblogger.wordpress.com/

20thhttp://stayandwatchthestars.wordpress.com/

21sthttp://unikkelyfe.wordpress.com/

22ndhttp://fantasiesofapockethuman.blogspot.com/

23rdhttp://lilyjenness.blogspot.com/

24thhttp://oliviarivers.wordpress.com/

25th – [No posts today!]

26thhttp://butterfliesoftheimagination.wordpress.com/

27thhttp://missalexandrinabrant.wordpress.com/

28thhttp://www.pamelanicolewrites.com

29thhttp://jasperlindell.blogspot.com.au/

30thhttp://maralaurey.wordpress.com/ and http://theedfiles.blogspot.com/

23.12.14

O! Silly Shopping Season!

It is the second last shopping day before Christmas; the day before Christmas Eve. In a cheap shop which people are walking out of with piles of cheap wrapping paper and novelty, Santa-adorned boxes, a young boy is visibly upset. His mother, burdened with department stores bags and a haggard face, is sheparding him through cramped aisles.

“You’re not getting it,” she yells at him, as they boy walks around and stamps on the spot, not able to express his immense frustration at this joyous time of the year.

“You’ve got enough stuff already. You don’t need anything new.”

In the mall at large, the escalators transport a constant line of consumers. Sunglasses perched on the tops of heads, hands holding bags, they crane their necks, looking at shops they’re being mechanically moved past. Have I remembered all the presents? Would I find something for Richard down there?

On the floor it is a matter of the quick and the dead. The quick are in and out, weaving around, ducking past the slow; they are narrowly missing gaps between poles and trolleys. They smile as they move with their head: they feel ever so efficient, pleased with themselves.

In front of me in a line for an ATM that snakes along, two young women – 18? 19? 20? – are discussing their upcoming party. “Last time I was at your house,” one was saying, “I don’t think we bothered with shot glasses. We were just drinking straight from the bottle!”

“You know why that is? Because I don’t have any shot glasses.”

“Well, we’d better get some, hadn’t we?”

They both look at each other, laughing.

In the newsagent’s, they are wearing elf hats. Excited regulars come in brandishing lotto tickets, their expressions giving away their secret hope of a life-changing Christmas windfall. Behind the counter they are sick of it and just want to get to the end of their shift.

Looking at frying pans, two middle aged women are pondering presents. “What about this for Brenda?” They puzzle over the handle, the non-stick surface and finally the price tag.

“We’ll find something better somewhere else.”

In the car park, tinny, worn-out speakers are belting out jazzified versions of Christmas classics. If the desired effect is to impart Christmas cheer, it isn’t working. Profanities greet the ears of unsuspecting young children like lumps of coal thrown down the chimney.

One family, lead by a frustrated mother, has found a spot and is heading in to see Santa. The youngest, a girl, is excited. The eldest, a boy, couldn’t give a rats.

“He isn’t even the real Santa,” the older brother is saying.

“Shut up. Don’t ruin Christmas,” the mother tells him.

Back inside, Santa is looking hot and tired behind his beard. His eyes are working to remain open for outrageous gift requests – a pony anyone? – and for countless photos. Each flash half blinds him, his eyes stuck open.

Perhaps Santa is frustrated, stuck here in a spending palace, as the big day is only two sleeps away.

11.12.14

The Story-teller Under The Choir

A Story For Christmas

The cold, dark night is singing. Some fifty miles south-west of Tehran an almost forgotten old man sits on his steps in an almost forgotten town; he is sitting under the choir. Every year he sits there. Each year he tells the story.

“Many, may years ago,” he begins with a deep, gravelly voice, “a star appeared in the sky. Three Magi set out to honour the king who had been born under that star. The three Magi – Jaspar, Melchior and Balthasar – became the worshippers of Fire.

“They took three gifts on their journey to find the king. If he takes Gold, they said, he is an earthly king; if he takes Incense he is of God; if he takes of the Myrrh he is a healer.

“The three Magi journeyed for days, each night stopping to see the new born king’s star rise, ensuring they were still following it. It came to pass that they arrived where the Child was born. The spriteliest and youngest of the Magi went in first to see the Child. He found the Child of his own age. He marvelled. The Middle Magi followed and did the same. The eldest Magi went in last, pensively. He marvelled, also. The three gathered outside and agreed to go in together. Doing so, they found the Child of his own age – thirteen days old.

“The Magi adored the child and presented to him their gifts, watching to see which he would take.

“The child accepted all of their gifts.”

The story-teller sits back and looks to the music.

“The child’s mother gave the Magi a small box and they headed towards their own land. As they journeyed home, the star that had guided them sank and faded.

“When the Magi were close to their own land, they opened the box and found in it a small, grey pebble. They were disappointed.

“The youngest Magi picked up the pebble between the tips of his fingers and threw it behind him without looking. The other Magi didn’t stop him – they too believed it was useless.

“But the pebble landed in a puddle left by almost forgotten rain. The Three Magi, still walking towards home, felt a flash behind them. They turned to see the puddle had been consumed by light – the pebble had turned to fire.

“The Magi took the fire with them and it burns, still, to this day, not far from here.”

The story tellers feels exhausted. The story his father and told him and his father’s father had told his father had been spoken. Once every year, as it always had.

“That’s impossible!” one of the bright, young ones in the audience says, rolling his eyes and looking to his friends for support.

“It isn’t,” the story-teller says.

He stands up slowly on his step, pulls a matchbox from his coat pocket, extracts a small, grey pebble and throws it with his wrist across, over the heads of his audience into the town’s crumbling, stone well.

Enveloped in music, there is fire.

 

A return the story of the Three Kings with a different, broader focus, based on a tale Marco Polo brought back from his travels. It was written for, and spoken at, a Christmas Festival in Canberra on 11 December 2014.

8.11.14

Talking Shop [Lifting]

“I don’t think that many people are doing it anymore,” I’m told one recent Friday afternoon, sitting on a melamine chair in a Civic food court. These “people” are well off, private school-attending, Canberran teenagers.

We were talking about shop lifting, run-ins with security guards, being banned from Woolworths for 12 months. There was no shock revealed in the tone of my companions. Juvenile detention is seen as something to be avoided, but no a reality needing to be reconciled with.

“I didn’t ever do it to small stores,” my companion declares. “Only big places like David Jones.”

Is that because they can afford to lose what you’re taking?

“Yeah, something like that.”

I ask about what people are taking. Clothes? Electronics? Cigarettes? Shoes? I wasn’t far off the mark.

“All the normal stuff, I guess. But energy drinks are easy.” I was told two mutual acquaintances of ours had perfected the art of stealing energy drinks from Woolworths. “They’d stick the bottles down their pants and just walk out. It worked for ages until they forgot to check the aisle was clear. Someone saw them and now they’re banned for twelve months.”

The punishments vary, but everyone we talked about had avoided a court appearance. Some had avoided getting caught at all; it seems that teenage shop lifting is a game of luck, not skill. “When I got caught,” my companion told me, “I was lucky because I was only 16. I just got a warning. When you’re 17 you get charged.” He has since turned 17.

Does this worry people? Does it deter them from shoplifting?

“Not really. The thing that scares most people off are the buzzers on the way out of the shops. But if they go off and you disappear into a crowd, they can’t do anything about it.”

I’m told this didn’t deter a “bunch of Year Nines” who spent a period of time going into JB-HiFi and coming out listening to music, on headphones they’d just pinched. A few got caught and the craze died down, but the 15-year-olds still have their trophies.

“The easiest way to steal a T-Shirt,” I’m told now that my companion has loosened up, “is to take the one you want and a size bigger into the change rooms. You put the one you want on, and take the one that’s too large back.” Sort of like an alibi, I suppose. “Then you just walk out.”

The flow of the conversation is interrupted. “Have you ever had a cigarette, Jasper?” No, I say. But where are teenagers getting them? “The ones who look old enough just go in and buy them. But make sure you go to a dodgy, little shop. The Asian ones work the best.” Like the one near the bus interchange? “Yeah, that’s where a few people go. And if you get  asked for ID you just say you haven’t got it; they don’t usually care. Some won’t sell them to you but they’re still easy to get.”

“I quite like smoking,” my companion adds. “But I don’t do it that often. Only when I’m drinking. Not like [Name Redacted – Another Mutual Acquaintance.] He’s totally addicted.” He’s old enough to buy them himself. It’s a combination of beard beginnings and a lip piercing.

He’s the same person, I’m told, who once walked into a shoe shop bare foot and brazenly walked out with a new pair of shoes sans receipt.

But why?

“It’s fun.”

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting any philosophical insights. Those who are shoplifting are more worried about the security guard remembering them from shops they’ve taken from than the moral implications of what they’re doing.

8.11.2014

20.9.14

The Most Complicated Maths in the World

The most complicated maths in the world is used by teachers to calculate final marks for their students. I’m not sure whether teachers recognise this, and that is perhaps why they struggle to answer the time-honoured question of, What will I use this maths for when I’m older?

It would be cynical of me to suggest that there are teachers who simply invent numbers that translate into grades. I’m well aware that this isn’t true. Instead, teachers have developed magical grade-calculating systems, which only they can understand.

“Now,” a teacher will their class, “for this assignment you’ll receive a mark out of twenty, which is broken down into fifty marks which will be awarded against the criteria which I’ve set out (don’t ignore this aspect); this will then be calculated against the other marks for the other piece of assessment you’ve already completed in this unit, which, as you know, have been marked out of 35. Your final mark for the unit will be out of 16, which will be translated to a percentage and your final grade.”

Er, what?

There must be some method to the madness, so it’s always a relief to get to a maths lesson – the bastion of logic and clear-cut facts, towering over arse-acquired hypotheticals.

In maths, you are right, half-right or totally wrong. Attainable marks are conducted in orderly multiples of ten. There is no calculus or projection geometry involved in inventing them.

(If only teachers knew and recognised the complexity of their work. If they did, they could tell students they would need maths in their post-Muck Up Day lives. “It will allow you,” they could say, “to come up with assignment marks of your very own! Cut out the middleman!”)

So, why is it that the humanities and languages departments (usually) create more work for themselves in a field that seems, by its very nature, to be out of their comfort zones? While maths is, unlike its very nature, very simple.

Go figure.

Actually, don’t bother.

28.6.14

Generation And: A portrait of teenagers

Loud, talkative and dream-filled, the not-quite-adult’s day only starts after school ends.

“You know we were in love once?” Emily asks me, sitting across from Jonah on a recent Friday afternoon in a Canberra shopping centre’s food court.

“It was a long time ago,” Jonah adds, without taking his eyes off Emily and her voluminous curly hair.

“Oh yes. This was like year eight. And everyone said we should get married and have children –”

“It’s definitely the curly hair,” Jonah says. “They couldn’t believe too people with curly hair would like each other.”

The two “best friends from way back” have run into each other and introduced me to a group from a high school louder and more social, and probably more promiscuous, than my own. All ready, though,  I’d listened to their conversation and could see where Emily’s rhetorical question had come from; I just didn’t want to ask myself.

Emily had been telling Jonah about her next project. “I’m making this short film in the holidays – it’s going to be about a girl who joins a support group for being normal, and makes this friend, who becomes famous, and then they can’t contact her anymore (because the normal and the famous worlds are split); I’m still unsure about the ending,” she had said, hardly stopping to breathe.

Jonah took his time with his reply. “It could get quite philosophical,” he settled on, leaning across the Laminex table, conscious of his slinged, broken arm.

And before I know it, I hear that Emily has somehow ended up being asked to co-direct a show at a Canberra theatre. Jonah had his eyes open wider than normal. “And you’re what, 15?” he asked.

“Yes. And if it’s bad, not my fault – co-director.”

They both laugh.

 

Surrounded by discarded take-away containers and half-finished bottles of Coke are groups from most of the large high schools south of the Lake in Canberra. Watching their phones and talking about nothing, they cling like barnacles to greasy tables. School had ended two hours ago. They day is just starting.

Emily and Jonah introduce me to the group of about 15 from the large, public high school. They have commandeered a bench table where they can sit on both sides, marking their territory with iPhones and backpacks and jackets. The group’s conversation isn’t coherent.

One girl announces she is going to throw a big party sometime soon. The invite list is canvassed and previous parties are vaguely remembered.

“Did you get invited to that year 12’s 18th?” someone asks.

“No –”

“Then what do you know about parties?”

Parties leads to drugs. “This is the boy,” Emily says, looking at Jonah, “who got high twice and didn’t think it was that good, or that weed was from heaven.”

“Oh, but it is,” another member of the group, sporting the beginnings of a thin, blond beard and dental braces, says. He can’t have been more than 17.

“I’ve tried it [weed] a few times,” Jonah goes on. “But I just don’t get that high –”

“What the fuck?”

“I know, it’s fucking disappointing.”

Jonah is the president of the student representative council and he says, “I’ve missed so many meetings – they keep sending me messages about it.” A one-time entrant in a stand-up comedy competition, he is switched-on, sporty (he says) and articulate. Recently, he has impressed himself with the improvements he has made in English. He gets out of one his recent essays to show me, but the group is still talking about parties.

“And you know Tinty, well, when didn’t know much about alcohol he had 14 shots of vodka and almost died,” someone is saying. Then they add, “But now he drinks a bottle of vodka at a time. Yeah, but his tolerance is high – he’s 80 kilos or something.”

“Oh, and he’s been suspended again,” Jonah tells Emily. They’re sitting opposite each other and rarely break from eye-contact while they talk. “We walk around the Lake, right? And Tinty can see the finish line on the other side, so he thinks, ‘I could just swim.’ He jumps in and it’s cold, right? And he’s freezing and half-way he takes his jeans off – and I thought, ‘What the fuck?’ – and he’s on the Governor-General’s lawn and the cops are saying, ‘You’ve just broken national fucking security laws’, and he’s got hypothermia –”

“Did the police really say that? National fucking security laws?”

“Yeah, national fucking security laws.”

 

It’s starting to get cold and dark now. One member of the group gets up to leave; he walks around to everyone to say good bye. After he has gone, Jonah explains to me that, “That’s Kev. He comes here and hangs around with whoever is here. He’s here all the time – cool bloke.” But Kev isn’t the only one on the move. “Look at him!” yells one of the athletic members of the group. “Yeah, he’s chasing this girl to Subway,” everyone turned around to look. “He’s always chasing girls for their numbers.” I wonder if he has heard of a phone book.

When he comes back and joins the other end of the table, Jonah asks Emily to rate him. “Oh well, but if he’s funny or if he has a good personality it could sway either way,” she says, trying not to commit to anything.

“It was like this kid,” she continues, “and he was trying to bang my cousin, and they were going to meet up – on my birthday – and you know, but I got so angry with him and we were yelling outside of that concrete part at school, and then Maddie-someone was swearing at him (she didn’t know what he had done wrong); and I was in love with him a bit, too.” Jonah, enthralled, says, “Oh no.” There’s no sarcasm in his voice.

There was no sarcasm in his voice either when he was adamant he didn’t have a bird fetish. “But he’s got this app,” Emily protested, “it shows feather colours, calls, mating habits. It’s a fetish.” Jonah admits he did work experience at Toronga Zoo – in the bird department. “But it’s not a fetish. It’s a fascination.”

 

Every Friday would be like this. The day only really starting at three in the afternoon, its opening council held in food courts, its agenda non-existent. It’s all sex, drugs and where you’re going to college next year. What does your package look like? What courses are you doing?

No one is trying to prove anything. There aren’t any points to be made. They crave attention, their eyes headings towards their phones if they can’t get it directly from the group. Attention doesn’t require truth, either. It’s embellished and fanciful; they all lap it up and can’t bear to leave.

“This is like two worlds colliding,” Emily says of me being there. I’m afraid I don’t have a world they’d notice they’ve collided with.

In some eyes at the table there is the possibility of violence, in others there is kindness; most are searching for something – a thrill late in the night or something they don’t quite realise yet.

2.5.14

02.05.2014

I’ve been back for a week now. I don’t stall when asked what the time is anymore and I’ve started to cope again with the prospect that I will have to go to and get out of bed at normal times. Normalcy has indeed returned, everything’s unpacked and there’ll be no more weekends spent in other countries for the time being.

I’ve been asked a few times whether this blog would be retired after the Germany stuff. Don’t they realise it wasn’t started for the Germany stuff? It was around long before that and it won’t be going anywhere soon. It will remain as a reminder of my awful writing.

Now, of course, there’s an even greater risk I’ll be writing measly crap about nothing in particular. I’ve already noticed the page view count drop off dramatically – this is comforting.

There are remedies for your withdrawal symptoms from my blogging (not that you’ll have any): Two blogs will continue for a little bit longer while the writers – people I go to school with – are still over there.

Firstly, Lotta Raap’s simply titled but expertly crafted, Germany (http://germanydiaries.blogspot.de/).

Secondly, the most recent addition to the stable of collections of teenage ponderings on time spent in Germany, is Oliver Armstrong’s An Insight To My Trip to Germany (http://aninsighttogermany2014.blogspot.de/).

And what will you find if you care to come back here? This is the great unknown. The unfound cursive x, remaining unaccounted for as the test draws to its conclusion.

But I’ll see what I can do.

23.4.14

22.04.2014

LEAVING FREIBURG WITH A BANG

This is how one goes about beginning leaving a place – with a bang.

It was just an idea that popped into our heads. Perhaps it wasn’t totally legal – but my German allows me to pretend that I didn’t know that…

It was the classic rocket in the milk bottle trick – in a suburban street – not on some special day – without anyone getting too worried. Don’t try it at home, kids.

(Filming by Lotta Raap, of this blog here: http://germanydiaries.blogspot.de/)

21.4.14

20.04.2014

I did one of the “must dos” in Freiburg today – as the number of days I have left here dwindles. We took the cable car up into the Hochschwarzwald (High Black Forest), and walked back down.

The cable car is a small thing that takes you up a damned long way past the trees with new, light green leaves. It’s Spring here and the apocalyptic, naked branches are becoming harder and harder to find. The leaves have taken their grey-green tint off the sides of some hills.

At the top, on a clear day, you can see the Swiss Alps. Today, though, we had a bit of mist, and the view wasn’t as extensive as the map suggested it was going to be.

(On the subject of the map: There was the German edition and the English edition. The German edition featured quite a decent map of walks you could take back down from the top, with different gradients and time required. The English one featured a fairly pathetic map and tourism-inclined advertisements, suggesting one should head on to the Badische wine centre for a tasting afternoon. I found this a bit funny – that tourists who speak English obviously won’t like long, scenic walks, while the Germans do.)

The walk was very nice. Slow. Not rushed. Lots of stoping to look at the flowers, eating the flowers, smelling the flowers, identifying the flowers.

The down hill walk tired my legs and has made my feet a bit sore. But it was definitely worth seeing the Black Forest in Spring.

 

PARIS – WAS I TOO HARSH?

In this age of interconnectivity, I’ve already received some whispers on the Bush Telegraph – yes! now with coverage in Germany! – that perhaps I was a little harsh on Paris in my post: 14-18.04.2014. I’ll give it another go, therefore, at explaining what I think:

It’s a city that is approached with a dash of total ignorance and arrogance and preconceived idea of beauty. The most beautiful parts of Paris I saw were the grottiest bits - with light spewing out onto littered streets; of human activity in slimy Metro stations; of a living and working city. There’s beauty in grotty curtains and signs that are missing letters; in shabby restaurants, and scrawled names in hidden, dusty alcoves.

A massive brown aerial, an arch of triumph, some swish shops, famous pictures and constant turnover in trivial souvenirs sold on the pretence of the cliché does not, in and of itself, make for this “amazing” and “beautiful” city of which everyone speaks. This doesn’t take into account the people moving about, crossing the Seine, books being sold and bought and sold again, little businesses that have carried on without fuss, Metro trains running in graffiti-strewn tunnels, made political.

Paris is a city that you must open your eyes in and refuse to allow them to be shut, then you’ll see its magic. This is not a magic readily available to whistle stop tours and buses driving in and out – it’s a little bit deeper than that. It’s not so superficial, but can be overlooked as being so.

20.4.14

19.04.2014

The sound of a single trombone quietly held the group together in the market place in Vauban tonight. There’s no church in Vauban; they meet around a fire as the twilight descended for a service.

They sing self consciously. Voices speak more loudly from outside the circle – those who aren’t interested in the proceedings. It’s quiet and huddled; it isn’t a big display of belief – no agenda is being pushed on those who aren’t standing there.

The fire burns oblivious to belief. Cold, stiff fingers – people thought, perhaps, they wouldn’t need gloves now that it’s April – hold the music booklet printed on pink paper. The fumble with it as the introduction from the trombone, played by a man standing on the edge of the circle, brings them together. It looks as if their mouths are hardly moving; their shoulders are still.

“God” is the noun, and “to live” is the verb – Gott and leben. The resurrection is covered, love is mentioned. As said every year, I suppose, the message is that, “Everyone is going to be OK, really.”

It’s Easter. The coloured eggs had been prepared and the cakes had been baked before they met around the fire. The tree branches to hang the eggs on had already been found by the small creek that runs to behind the left side of Vauban if you’re looking down to the end of the tram line.

The group huddled – standing for one of the last times in coats and scarves and beanies before the weather gets better – looked like a community. It was here and it was now.

There were probably other similar gatherings going on at the same time – but you don’t think about this standing there, listening. You don’t think about what’s going on externally. These gatherings are immediate, something which small scale, community-based religion does really well.

I left before it ended and dispersed into the night. It felt right to drift away from a half understood sermon, still an anonymous face.

19.4.14

14-18.04.2014

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This, theoretically, could be a post in which I fill it with the general clichés that are to be expected from the obnoxious participation of a week in Paris. The post would open with a picture of the world’s most famous antenna, it would then continue on about how I absolutely “adored” Paris and think it’s the most “amazing” city.

Personally, I’d like to cut the crap.

In my notebook I wrote this yesterday evening:

“Paris could quite happily, in light of economic disaster, descend into a state of attractive sluminess.”

It’s a city that, if you’re lost in the streets, everything does look the same on and on and on and on: it all looks vibrant, dashed with varying typography and lights on the cobble stones – especially if you’re there in the evening. It could still quite happily return to the point where it was when Orwell wrote about it in his Down and Out in Paris and London in the 1920s.

Now, of course, it’s a city that has it’s own image, rendered in plastic and metal and sold for often no more than five Euros. The number of Eiffel Towers produced in the year would be repulsive. The berets and the post cards and Toulouse-Lautrec posters and the vinyl bags and the jumpers – “I love Paris” – and the wallets and the cigarette lighters and the fridge magnets and the crystal balls and the scarves are crammed into shops, filled with people buying the stuff to take home. It’s the dumbed down image of Paris constantly spreading.

Our hotel was on Rue Ordener, a street of decent length, which the internet, in all its wisdom, describes as quaint and cafe-lined – I can testify to that. My dark room – wallpapered in green and red – looked out over the street, which saw traffic most of the time, except the very early hours of the morning.

From here, the Metro station Jules Joffrin on Line 12 was a short walk and a long flight of stairs away – whence you could really get anywhere on the densely constructed Metro network. (On average, the Metro stations are just under 500 metres apart on the line; in some cases if you lean out a bit you can see the illuminated tiles of the next station down from your own platform. Still, it beats walking.)

The Metro is where the real Parisians are. A lot less American voices are heard and the drop off rate of British and German backpackers is enormous. This is where you’ll hear French, where you won’t be subjected to conversations about how “amazing” the Eiffel Tower is, and where you’ll see the ordinary people taking their baguettes home and their dogs out. Does “real” Paris have to travel about underground to avoid the imposing force of tourism?

I think it would have been amazing to have seen Paris before it was corrupted by the jet engine and easy travel, but the opportunity for that is now long past.

Cafes are nestled in, not asking for attention with their red neon signage and round tables. The Parisians remain permanently fit as they navigate the stairs at the older Metro stations – then they brace their legs in such a way that is surely beneficial to their health to remain upright on crammed trains, trains which have been in service in some cases since the mid-60s and which have a density of four passengers per square metre.

Of the Metro stations, I wrote:

“The tracks of a metro [sic] station are littered with used needles, cigarettes, pieces of paper.

“The Paris Metro is grotty yet efficient.”

I forgot to add that forgotten chewing gums are pushed into the backs of seats, scattered and squashed into the concrete platforms, and pushed into the tiled walls. It’s not all Three Michelin Star surroundings, you know.

Vespas and motorbikes whizz down the cobbles, the homeless mind their own business, or ask for small change, from their bus stop vantage points. People are always going somewhere.

But it isn’t all just little streets, cafes and Metro station entrances. There are some other things to see – the things that everyone comes to see:

The Louvre is one heck of a big place. You enter through a glass pyramid – to see everything in the collection in a day you would have to be split like a light beam into different colours, each appreciative of the different artistic pursuits on display.

This is what I wrote at the time:

“The first thing that I would ban if I were running the Louvre is cameras. You can see this art rendered in 16 megapixel quality on a screen at home – surely you’d take the opportunity to see it properly here.

“The Mona Lisa was infuriating – there’s no hope of seeing the painting in its entirety unless you’re 6’4”. Cameras and phones are raised as pictures are constantly taken. What’s the picture per minute rate, I wonder?

“It’s perverted and symbolic of the shallow appreciation of art.

“But it is a beautiful painting – it looks as if it appreciates the attention, but doesn’t understand why. … [The painting] is periodically ruined by the light of the camera’s flash on the glass. It made me unreasonably cranky.”

It was definitely worth being there. Some of the stuff they have is really top notch. However, the Musèe d’Orsay was a lot nicer, for one main reason: Photography was verboten – banned – not allowed – illegal – prevented. And[ fewer people and no artistic mosh pits, admittedly, it was a bit tricky to see Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhône – I wasn’t the only one there who was interested in having a look.

The Notre Dame was a lot easier to appreciate, but a bit off putting in its own way. The first note I made in Paris in my notebook was:

“In the Notre Dame in Paris you can hear the coins falling; you can see the grubby banks notes changing hands. Everything comes with a price tag. The trampling feet oblige.”

It felt shifty to me, especially watching the suited security guards wheel around boxes of coins on trolleys. Faith really is a perfect business model.

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The same could be said of the Eiffel Tower – but that felt acceptable, and it had a view to make up for it. It’s an impressive bit of kit, with a billion rivets and layers upon worn thick gloopy layer of brown paint. Our guide said there was an online survey to test the market in relation to changing the colour. How many people would go for my orange paint idea, I wonder? The Eiffel Tower is painted every seven years by hand – every part of it. “Because otherwise, if they sprayed it, the whole of Paris would be brown,” our guide said. That’s a job which doesn’t have much interest for me.

Yes, that’s me at the top reading the paper – what else did you think I was going to do up there? It was a crazy idea for a photo – my friends would say it’s a Jasper thing to do; I’d agree. At the bottom, a more sensible photograph was taken:

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With such efficient travel arrangements, nothing is really locked in about Paris. Except the bridges:

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All these people, supposedly, were in love in Paris, locking the memory of this to a bridge, thus aiding in making it look absolutely horrendous, while adding another key to the River Seine below. I’m sure before the age of the jet engine, the foot bridges in Paris looked quite attractive. Now the ones that are easily able to harbour padlocks look atrocious.

Making up for the padlocks, though, are the riverside booksellers, who operate out of identical green boxes, which fold out to reveal their wares, that sit on the wall on the bank of the River Seine. I left with the front page of the continental edition of the Daily Mirror of July 7, 1945 (original price: four francs). The headline announced that the Union Jack was flying in Berlin, the Germans having watched silently on.

Another thing quickly realised is that it appears as if everyone who goes to Paris did so on a whim and it was all rushed. They’re still reading their books about Paris when they’re there – they mustn’t have had enough forewarning to be able to finish them in time. Rick Steve’s guide book was popular and Dorling Kindersley also seemed to have the monopoly on the English language; Lonely Planet seemed popular, too.

Paris really is a big, beautiful, glorious mess; I wouldn’t write “amazing”. The streets don’t make sense, there are grotty parts and cleaner parts. Parts feel isolated within the whole, as if you could live within a few streets and never venture anywhere else. It hasn’t lost its localness. It hasn’t been extrapolated beyond recognition. It’s still human.

I left wondering what the turn over in population is. What percentage is tourists at any given time? and how long will it take for them to all leave and be replaced with new ones? You could spend years here and still not see everything. It’s been described as a mysterious city – mystery that just awaits you to get off your backside and see it, perhaps. Or is the mystery the activity of the city – so varied and absurd and plentiful that you won’t ever be able to comprehend it?

It a stationary and steady city that’s plural and constantly on the move, and it takes you with it.

14.4.14

13.04.2014

PRE TRAVEL JOTTINGS

School ended. I probably didn’t say good bye to enough people, but I shook hands and wished people luck for the future. They did the same for me. We all smiled as we rode away, to a future where I probably won’t see any of them again.

The human mind struggles with never-agains. They are constantly happening around us, though, and we need to get over ourselves. What are the chances the people I played mini-golf with yesterday will ever play another round together?

After the mini-golf, I caught the tram into the city for Jamie’s birthday (he’s an exchange student here too; we know each other at home). This being Jamie’s 16th birthday, I will leave you, dear readers, to fill in the blanks. Perhaps if you know the following you’ll be able to deduce the happenings with greater accuracy: The legal drinking age in Germany is 16.

In other news, a glass of beer tastes like a cold, more fluid cup of tea, but one with 25 tea bags and a dash of pepper. It was bizarrely nice, actually. Although, I haven’t worked out how people have five in one sitting.

Jamie is in Italy now and I won’t see him until we’re all back in Australia. Back for another term and the coal face of learning and wisdom.

Today we went for a bike ride along the Dreisdam, heading out from the centre of Freiburg in the direction of the Black Forest. Very sunny, beautiful weather. Everyone lying on the grassy banks the further we got out from the city was publicly displaying affection.

Tomorrow we’re going to Paris for the week. It’s a bit crazy, I think, but it’s the done thing in Europe. It’s about four hours on the train with one change. From her tone on the telephone this morning, I think my mother’s a bit envious.

Well, we’ll see how it goes. Is it the City of Love, the City of Clichés or something else totally unexpected?

10.4.14

09.04.2014

What follows today is a collection of small mental meanderings taken from random pieces of writing I’ve been half working on in lessons that were left half understood as a result of a lack of my full attention. I suppose I’m publishing them now – all just fragments of ideas and blog posts – knowing that I won’t finish them, because I’m sort of knotting loose ends up. Knotting loose ends up is really just a euphemism for doing all the things that I said I’d do later. Now there is no later.

Most of this stuff was written about events in the classroom at the time, or just to make it look like I was working on “work”. Most of it is totally pretentious and unreadable – but “for the record” nonetheless.

 

DEMOCRACY (9.4.14)

It doesn’t provide a very rosy picture of democracy. There is bickering, arguing and little achievement in the way of actually making decisions.

This is not the European Parliament – it’s Class 9A trying to work how they are going to go on a school trip.

Oh! It looks like there has been a breakthrough – a vote, that staple of democracy, has been employed. The decision is “bus”; applause erupts. The losing parties, especially the “bicycle” force, are in denial as the desperate pour sentences out of their mouths, but they stack up, unlistened to, at the opposition’s ear holes.

Now, let’s see what they’ll do about the Ukraine situation.

 

LONG SENTENCE (4.4.14)

Those with public standing, as unfortunate as this may be for the rest of us, often believe that “kids these days” aren’t as clever as they were in their own times (these people are, of course, legends in their own lunchtimes, so they think); they believe that the problem is revealed with brightest clarity in the modern lack of capability in long sentence writing, however I don’t think this is correct in all its facets, mainly because I am able to demonstrate – as I’m doing now with a Lamy Safari fountain pen, Pelikan ink and a single sheet of lined recycled paper with holes for a binder, not to mention my brain – my own personal ability to write long sentences, which do not, therefore, have to be delegated to the annals of verbose history; they do not have to be forgotten – they may continue making writing awful.

(Written in a Russian lesson – where they were talking about sentence length – to fill exactly one lined DIN A4 page.)

 

EVERY TEACHER’S DREAM (27.3.2014)

Today every teacher’s dream was enacted: a lesson conducted in total silence; the earmuffs and earplugs probably helped.

Just how it related to human biology – it felt more like social science meets English literature (Lord of the Flies) – is easily debated, but it proved one point: silence is not golden: The earplugs and earmuffs ensured that all you could hear was your own bodily functions. Even normal breathing sound strained, swallowing and tongue movements sounded like having to manually squelch poo, and a lot of it, around  the S-bend of a toilet with your hand; scratching your head sounded like taking a piece of 80-grade across an Edwardian mahogany table top. If there was any consolation, it was that the earmuffs and plugs ensured that the person sitting next to you wouldn’t have to put up with as well.

 

BIRTHDAY REMINDERS (31.3.2014)

…the advantage of having obnoxious friends is at least they remind you of their birthdays…

 

HEAVY EYEBROWS (27.3.2014)

The heavy eyebrows and watery eyes are a combination easily achieved by staying up beyond midnight.

The rumbling stomach is a result of the apparent German aversion to morning tea; it’s not even lunch time.

The headache is just an added bonus.

I really should go to bed early tonight – or very early tomorrow if it comes to that.

9.4.14

08.04.2014

The arrangements sounded suspicious: “Catch the 9.15 train to Müllheim from Freiburg. There’ll be a blonde lady waiting in a black VW van just outside of the station for you.”

This is how the band of current English-speaking exchange students from the Freie Waldorfschule St. Georgen were informed to get to Müllheim so that we could speak some English with a very eager and excited Class 7 class.

Their teacher, Ann, had assembled a mixture of English speakers for small groups to talk with and show around the school. There was also the thought of a prize: the group who made the presentation about their guest in the coming weeks will win a silver cup. I hope the group I was with wins.

The collection of English speakers was a range. One exchange student from Canada, one from New York state, one from San Francisco, me, an old fellow from New Zealand who was wearing sandals (not that it was sandals weather), and a very proper, RP-talking, BBC-listening, very Home Counties, British woman – who you would say was “of the old Empire”.

For about two hours we ate, talked, were asked questions and shown around. Verbs were misconjugated and sentence structure was in many cases ignored – but who cared? We were actually communicating – speakers of two different first languages.

They told me that they liked English, but found it tricky. I said that it was tricky, but they should keep plugging away. “You’ll get there,” I said.

I was taken to see the school’s garden, which is about a five minute walk from the school. We headed off into the streets of Müllheim without saying anything or supervision. I asked them whether this was OK; they said it was perfectly fine.

On the way I was told about dream jobs and travel plans. It was had greater depth than what I’d been told to expect: favourite colours and foods and books and films.

The school’s garden teacher, who the kids said could get a bit grumpy, was an older gentlemen who spoke fluent English. He told me to give his greetings to Australia. “Everyone you meet for a year, shake their hand and say greetings from me!” he said. We both laughed before he waved me off – “You can’t just talk to silly old men all day, you’ve got to see the garden!”

The garden was a jumble of huts and vegetable patches and a plastic glasshouse and subterranean water tanks and wood stacks and a gypsy caravan-cum-classroom.

Back at the school, the lesson finished up, the goodbyes were said. Ann then took the group of exchange students to the school kitchen for a chat for the last half an hour before the black van returned.

We talked about education, Steiner-vs.-Normal, A-Level students, O-Level students, the Arbitur (the German “I want to go to university” school exam), language learning, the principles of education, how to teach well, play in the classroom and the fact that all things aren’t either true or false – as exams might have you believe. At the end of the conversation we agreed we’d come up with the principles for a fairly utopian school. “Well, you know how to contact me when we can make this happen,” Ann said, smiling.

Very shortly the black van arrived again. We thanked Ann, said our goodbyes and climbed in. Despite the suspicious nature of a black van in a foreign country we felt OK after having seen a box set of Edith Piaf CDs. No child abductor would have such good taste, would they?

 

ON THE CURFEW

I have been asked about Germany’s curfew on the youths on the streets at night. I mentioned this in my post on April 6. Perhaps I could have explained it a little better…

It’s really very simple. At 10 o’clock at night everyone under the age 16 who is unaccompanied must be off the streets, otherwise the police, if they find you, will take you home. Those over the age of 16 but who are not yet 18 have until midnight.

In reality it isn’t such a big deal in Freiburg, I’ve been told. The Polizei aren’t really very bothered and you don’t see that many of them on the lookout. What it does do, however, is instil fear and concern into the youths who, when it’s past their “bed time”, will do whatever they can to get home as quickly as they possibly can.

The idea is a good thing, I think. People know when to go home. At this age we don’t need to be rolling around the streets this late and it gives the police a legal foundation on which they are able to spring off into action. They have the legal ability to take young people home. It might be considered “annoying” but it fits into that seemingly endless backing of “being for our own good”.

The more intellectually inclined contingent of the “youth today” might carry on about it being a reduction of civil liberties and freedom of movement and blah, blah, blah – but we’re not quite adults yet. And that’s something that, although we’d like to ignore it, justifies such a clever idea such as a curfew. Besides, if an adult is willing to accompany us, we are allowed out.

So, it’s not such a massive problem that inhibits your nightly movements.

8.4.14

07.04.2014

SURREAL ADDITIONS,  INKY FISH & THE WEIGHT OF VERBS

“And then I thought I was an octopus.”

This was my surreal contribution to the weekly German lesson today. We were each adding saying a sentence with the general aim of putting together a coherent story. My sentence was developed so it could stand alone in any context. Besides, my abilities are limited.

Our story creation was followed by the comparison and contrasting of smartphones. Which comes equipped with the most megapixels? Which can play the music the loudest on its internal speakers? Which can be dropped from the highest point without smashing? – OK, not the last one, but Herr G. did suggest it.

Herr G. is a joy to listen to, as long as you can cope with not understanding. I think that the human brain struggles with listening to something attentively that it cannot understand; it’s frustrated and angered – the anger directed at the talker, not its own lack of understanding ability. German sentences can be ended with the dropping of a verb – an audible full stop. Herr G. uses verbs that I don’t understand, but they make his sentences sound interesting and wholly engaging. The weight of his words sound unexpected.

Music today was very gechilled – “chilled”, you might have guessed. The Cup Song, which, despite having been around since the 1930s, seems to be known by every musically inclined teenager today, was taught. I, of course, was fairly hopeless at the beginning. By the end of it I was at least not sending plastic cups flying across the room. But it’s the last week before a two week holiday – the chances of teaching complicated elements of musical theory are diminished.

The Cup Song involves manipulating a cup on a hard surface while maintaining a good sense of rhythm. It’s one of those things that can be made to look very easy. Meanwhile, if you don’t know what I’m talking about it, I suggest a short visit to YouTube; not that any visit to YouTube is short – it’s a place where five minutes becomes three hours.

It’s interesting to note, though, that most of the songs they’re singing are in English. I wonder whether this is in conjunction with the English department to assist in the teaching and learning of English. Expose the buggers to English and hopefully they’ll pick some of it up, they think here, perhaps.

 

COMPOSING ONE’S SENTENCES

They pronounce the names with more confidence and conviction. Even the crappiest newspaper here prints opera listings – it’s only natural that the Germans know how to say the composers’ names.

Tchaikovsky is spelt with a “w” instead of a “v” – this in Germany, remember – and the beginning of Beethoven doesn’t rhyme with the end of a broad sounding “debate”.

I’ve avoided talking about composers. The names are the same, but my pronunciation would ensure misunderstanding. Not that it’s hard to avoid talking about composers – it’s really no trouble.

7.4.14

06.04.2014

GERMAN HUMOUR – I’M NOT JOKING

Various hypotheses of what the German national sense of humour could actually be have been put forward.  It suggests, on the whole, that it reveals itself in a form undetectable to the rest of Western world. This is absolute nonsense. The Germans do, in fact, have a sense of humour – and it’s not very far from our own.

On Friday night we were at the Variété in der Wiehre – an all singing, all dancing, all circus-ing, all laughing spectacle of an event that nearly made it into the morning held at the Freie Waldorfschule Freiburg-Wiehre. It started at 8 o’clock, allowed us 20 minutes to purchase more drinks (needed to stay alive in the very stuffy hall) at what we thought would be the half way point and then went on until about 11.45pm. Turns out it wasn’t the half way point.

I was there on obligation with Lotta (who has also just fallen into the bottomless pit of addiction and torment of writing a blog about Germany here: http://germanydiaries.blogspot.de), to see our fellow Canberran, Jamie (of photo essay fame), kill himself on stage. Er, make that: Perform with the circus troupe.

The two gents looking after the continuity announcements dazzled in character, and peeped over the wall of the language barrier. One was the foreman, the bloke in the charge; the other was the hapless builder, who should have gone to Specsavers – his el cheapo nerd glasses weren’t doing anything to help prevent his natural clumsiness.

It was the classic comic set up. The tall, good looking, in control foreman versus the shorter, idiotic moron of a builder. They dabbled in doses of toilet humour, Abbott and Costello-esque misunderstandings and even a bit of ballet – men in tights seems to always evoke a laugh.

They even had a video. As we were at a Waldorf School production the eurythmy jokes were inevitable. The one they pulled was the best I’ve seen. Using a video from their “friends in China”, they showed as the new eurythmy tower that was being built. But there were some problems, construction hadn’t started yet and they needed the audience to help when they got a phone call. They needed to make it sound like there was movement at the station.

We gloriously participated, interspersed with laughter, in creating phony construction site noises. And then they brought the house down. The top of the tower, a million or so metres in the air, would house the French room – “because from up there you can see France!”

The next comic gem – at which we were all laughing – came from too chaps in Class 11 at the Freie Waldorfschule St. Georgen (the best one – because that’s where I am), and then a “surprise” visit from a French friend.

Their musical song revolved around the line, Ich trau mich nicht – “I don’t trust myself.” That’s how the singer, the other chap played the piano, would back out of situations. The song was good – with stabs at public transport, people you meet and the usual dilemmas for 17- or 18-year-old boys. The Germans laughed heartily at this, too.

Then, when the act appeared to be finished, the “French girl” was invited up to sing a song in French. The chap was going to provide translations line for line. The song began and, obvious to anyone who has a brain, despite it being devoid of French, was about love – particularly the love for the chap doing translations. We would stop and the translations would be shaky and nervous. Then the song got complicated, the girl lent in closer. The translation, in a loud, passable, singing tenor voice, was, “The weather is beautiful!” The piano cut, the girl looked pissed off. But continued to lean in. It was getting serious now. The audience was all thinking, Here we go; she’s gone in for the kiss.

Suddenly the piano changed from its serious minor chord to a light-hearted major one. The chap pulled away looked out to the audience and sang jovially, but a little forlornly, Ich trau mich nicht.

All of this stuff would work in English translation, minus the joke about putting your French room where you can see France. So, discuss farts, reveal the insecurities of a teenage boy with up beat piano backing and keep your audience with you, and you’ll go OK in Germany.

Afterwards, because the thing went for so long, we had to walk home. We’d missed the last tram. I wasn’t breaking any laws – I am 16 and I had 2 minutes to get home before the Polizei would be interested in my movements, thanks to Germany’s very clever youth curfew. Others, though, weren’t quite so comfortable within the law. However, if the police were to arrive we would have at least got a ride home – they’re obligated, whereas the tram was not.

Oh, and Jamie survived.

 

THE BEGINNING OF THE END1

(1The title, if you’ll excuse me, is the blatant use of a cliché.)

This week is my last full week in Freiburg. I suppose the tone of this blogging flight of fancy has turned from, “Oh, I’m Germany – look how much time I;m going to have”, to the, “Bugger-bugger-poo, it’s nearly over.” It’s a shift in thought process, physically reflected in the changing calendar pictures on the walls. Days falling like strips of freshly grated cheese onto a bowl of warm pasta, being absorbed in the sauce and losing their form, but leaving a good taste.

One more week of school: Five more morning bike rides down Vaubanallee at speed because we running just on time – never late; five more bouts of anger directed at my phone masquerading as an alarm clock; five more times my coat will be hung on a hook on the wooden row in the hallway outside Class 9B as the electronic three tones of the bell ring out, signalling last second movements; five more times I will pour milk blearily eyed over muesli while thinking to myself, Look, you should have got up earlier; five more times I will sit through lessons and wonder what the hell they are talking about – or wishing I could ask questions; five more times I will be part of the rush out of the school for lunch – part of the scramble of bikes in search of food.

6.4.14

05.04.2014

The line for the bastards takes longer than the ride itself. And they really are bastards – the engineering love child of psychological torment and pure insanity. Why anyone “likes” rollercoasters is beyond me, but perhaps some people like the idea of experiencing the feeling of having every internal organ come up through the body and attempt to push out through the tear ducts in your eyelids.

The worst part about rollercoasters is the line. It’s not the waiting – it the where you have to wait. You wait as you can hear and see the people on the tracks. There is screaming and the visuals give you the sense that violent motion sickness is imminent. I was thinking to myself today on more than one occasion, “What are you doing, Jasper?”

By the time you’re sitting in the carriage – a word that makes it sound too nice – you realise there was no point going to the toilet before hand; you need to go again anyway. And then you’re off, accelerating stupidly.

After the internal-organs-through-tear-ducts effect you’re back, ready to go again.

If there was a way to get on a rollercoaster without the psychological build-up of having to get on the bastard, it wouldn’t be so bad.

Europa Park – the –est theme park in a variety of categories in Europe – provided this new experience today. Despite what you might think, I did have a lot of fun.

 

A REPUTATION

“You’ve got quite a reputation,” she said.

“I hope it’s a good one,” I thought out loud.

The woman talking was one of the other English teachers here. She had news: I had been invited along with the other English-speaking exchange students here to Müllheim for the purposes of assisting with English.

Perhaps I was onto something in my blog post from April 1, 2014.

Now, if all goes to plan, I’ll head off on Tuesday and miss out on something wholly worthwhile: a day out of a week’s worth of maths main lessons. At least it’s the last week of school, although I’m even a little bit sad about that.

2.4.14

01.04.2014

And so begins my last month in Germany, and it won’t even be a whole month.

Today I had the pleasure of being involved with a couple of Class 7 English lessons. Eurythmy was joyously cancelled and a free period enabled me to “hang about” and talk some English.

They told me that they found the lessons very boring. Their relationship with their teacher isn’t very good and they all feel like they’re not getting anywhere. They think their English is awful but they’re all eager to learn more. Talking to them, I could see that they understood a lot.

Together we laughed and carried on and generally ignored the official parameters of the exercise. I think they should be shown how to have more fun with English. Language can be fun – it doesn’t have to be all doom, gloom and grammar. Say, Look, you can do this, but if you shut up for a bit and let me teach you something else, you’ll be able to do so much more.

Language learning, it appears, is built around the constant reminding of the lack of ability. No one actually needs to say to someone at school in a language lesson at the age of 12 or 13 that they can’t do much with the language – they know it for themselves.

Suggest that they can do more than they think, but make it clear that there’s more to learn and that it can be done, and I think you won’t concrete in the once hungry stomach for new words and more understanding.

Another English teacher who was listening in on our outside conversation group – she was “keeping an eye on Class 10 – you never know what they get up to” – was shocked at the approach she’d overheard. She said this to me. “But it was so informal? They need to learn to talk properly first.” “Perhaps,” I said, “but don’t children learn to talk informally first – the formal stuff comes later as it’s often more complex. Why shouldn’t they learn to speak informally and have fun first and then go on to study the ins and outs of formalities and social requirements?” I could sense she wanted to argue, but the bell went – thank a deity of your choice.

 

On Sunday I was in Basel again (this time without a fellow Australian to create a somewhat derogatory photo essay of my efforts) for a type-in – the gathering of more than one typewriter nerd for some serious typewriter fun. Find out all of the details here, at my typewriter blog: http://dhiatensor.blogspot.com.au/2014/04/from-type-in-in-basel-world-exclusive.html.

 

Today was April Fool’s Day – or, as it is referred to here, “April, April”. Planning began yesterday with concepts of claiming Obama was dead and that it didn’t make the papers because of time zone differences. None of it happened at the school today, though, and it was left to the Badische Zeitung to run a little something on its 19th page.

The 19th page article, entitled “New Attraction: Galaxy swimming world [to be] built on the Ganter site in Freiburg”, suggested that a new swimming complex would be built on the site of the Ganter brewery – which looks like a fairly historic sort of a building. Perhaps not quite to the calibre of The Guardian’s 1977 supplement on the isle of Sans Seriffe: a new discovery and must see travel destination! – which looked like a semicolon.

 

Now, because today was April Fool’s Day it means yesterday was my birthday. As this is my own personal blog with an extremely exclusive (think: limited) readership, I can go ahead self-centred-like and mention it.

So, it was my birthday – the word got out here and I spent the day shaking hands and accepting good wishes, auf Deutsch. Everyone was very nice; a wonderful cake was consumed; and I had a nice day – placebo effect, perhaps?

Although, the soundtrack for the morning was the Easybeats’ Friday On My Mind. Monday is a bummer of a day to have your birthday on – but at least eurythmy was cancelled.

(Thank you, too, to everyone who sent me emails and Skype messages, too,  saying “Happy Birthday!!!”)

27.3.14

26.03.2014

Freiburg appeared like a medieval, communism utopia today – we had to resort to walking and bikes: the trams were on strike.

It was eerily quiet and even now, in the middle evening, the familiar zing of metal and tram bell is absent. It’s odd.

I don’t know why there was a strike. I do know it wasn’t limited to Freiburg – the folks in Stuttgart also had to find alternative means of transport – and I know that the general thoughts about it were, “Well, this is a pain in the backside – we’re all having to ride bikes.”

A highly irregular bus was running (which occurred at the frequency one would expect in Canberra, Australia). “Only once an hour?” – the people here found it obscene.

From my limited grasp of this morning’s newspaper, multiple companies provide public transport here, but the largest and most useful one – the one with the trams – was on strike for some reason or another. They would like better hours? More money? Better working conditions? Concerned about safety?

I was told that tram strikes happen perhaps twice a year. Those who have to ride their bikes in to school from what they deem to be an obscene distance – something akin to a flat, five kilometres – throw their bikes at the submerged metal rings that they can lock them too. They step back in disgust as the bike often falls to the ground. It’s described as a Scheisseding – a “shitty thing”. Tram-alternative transport is a semi-regular necessity to them.

The Innenstadt – the inner city – this afternoon had been taken over by madcap bike riders heading down the tram lines that slice through the cobble stones like blunt, bent swords. One woman appeared with a suitcase. Her voice gave her away – she was American. Into a mobile phone she whinged: “There aren’t any damned trams today! How am I going to actually get there?” There were arm movements and exasperated eye rolls.

But it was OK. The lone train to Breisach am Rhein – a place where “Shoot the French” competitions are possible – was running.

26.3.14

25.03.2014

There are only three English words that I distinctively remember hearing for the first time and learning:

- negotiation;
- ludicrous; and,
- reputation.

However, in German I can distinctly remember learning a much larger number of words. Langweilig (boring) will forever be associated with the first conversation I had about school on my second day here. Egal (roughly: “all the same”, but almost like a noun version of “who cares”) is associated with whether one should have a shower in the morning or the evening; it came up when I asked the question. Gefährlich (dangerous) appeared in my vocabulary when I went bike riding here for the first time.

Is this the most efficient way to learn words – to associate them with places, conversations, times, experiences?

(“Negotiation” was explained to us in Class Two in connection a classmate who had been shown negotiation as a means to sort out his behaviour management. The example sentence at the time was, “The vehicle failed to negotiate a corner.”

“Ludicrous” was a word I came across in a dictionary one day – it was the same day that everything was described as such.

The first time I head “reputation” used was in the sentence, “I have a reputation to uphold.” The thing was that it was said by a fellow Class Two classmate. In hindsight I’m not sure he knew it meant – I certainly didn’t.)

 

* * *

 

Today at school we heard a Holocaust survivor speak. She was a small lady with dyed hair who now lives in Queens, New York. She is 79.

Sure, I didn’t understand every word she said (she might live in America, but her German is top notch to my untrained ears), but the way she talked was entrancing. It wasn’t a talk instilled with plain hatred and loathing for what happened, it was infused with emotion.

There isn’t really a whole lot to say. Anything, if I were to write it, would have to be countered with the disclaimer, “You had to be there.” You had to be there to see her eyes and her smile and the way she moved her arms and lent in and made everyone in the room fill like she was talking to them and only them.

It was very special in a gentle, worldly, “Yes, it happened – that was then, this is now”, sort of way.

23.3.14

22.03.2014

Tonight on the tram home from the train station – the one place where one can buy the necessary amount of English language newspapers for the week – I sat opposite a woman who had a really big vein in her eyeball. It was the sort of thing you’d like to take a closer look at, in disgust and wonder. Unfortunately, because it was her eyeball, it’s hard to do this without her noticing – which is usually the ideal method when looking at people on trams.

Why do I mention this? [Insert philosophical reason here.]

 

BEEN THERE, DONE THAT

Today I was at a bee museum. The small, fairly informal establishment in an old house that looks like it might not have changed in any way since 1990s. The pictures on the display boards have the old glossy-look of forgotten back issues of National Geographic; the proprietor loves his topic – bees – and will happily fill in on the details; there is a benign layer of dust; everything has a faded look of heartily-remembered establishment.

The technical language was tricky (all in German, naturally), but the stuff, the exhibits, were fascinating. Bee-keeping in Egypt, Switzerland, the Black Forest here; the evolution of smoking technology (from burning branch to hand-held gizmos); harvesting methods; clothing developments; books printed in Stuttgart in 1820 on the subject; and, as the visitors would hope, a bee-hive with bees in it that can be looked at thanks to Perspex.

It was a quaint little place, but very familiar

22.3.14

21.03.2014

Well, it’s going pretty quickly. No, my bank balance remains healthy; the amount of time I have here does not.

Weeks disappear very quickly and at an alarming pace. “Break neck speed” is the technical terminology. I’m struggling to remember individual days now; I can sort of make out weeks, but it’s all getting mixed together and up and around into a sort of caramel sweetness of historical events; book ended, it will be, by the chocolate of international aeroplane travel (which has just had the rhetorical question of, “What could possible go wrong?” answered).

I realised, too, after my last post that I must be scraping the bottom of the barrel of ideas for this dilapidated little thing. I mean, a picture of a sky with clouds illuminated by the setting sun? What’s that about? Free falling into the world of egotistical internet clichés, that is. Hopefully I climb my way out of those depths.

 

ON VAUBAN

People here are talking about a single father who is quite pleased to be being evicted from his apartment in the next few days. Everyone thinks it’s horrible for his kids. The father doesn’t want any help from the government and, so the story goes, is very anti-charity. They’ll move into a Wagenplatz shortly, which is a plot usually commandeered for people to live in old vans, caravans, cars and shacks. Picture fires in 44-gallon drums and odds and ends stacked up and lying around the plus; picture colourful characters living there, and self-motivated implementation of law and order.

These streaks of anarchy are to be expected in Freiburg, and Vauban especially – a left-leaning suburb if ever there was one. Graffiti here features the cry of 1789: Vive la révolution!; paste-ups of a self-contented Karl Marx behind a benign, three-tone stencil beard are also a regular feature on available walls. Yellow flags hang from balconies, declaring: Atomkraft? Nein Danke. – “Nuclear power? No thanks.”

Vauban is a suburb that The New York Times and The Guardian got to before I did. In 2008 The Guardian’s Andrew Purvis wrote that:

In Vauban … green living is compulsory. ‘It jumps in your face a little,’ Claudia Duppe warned me, ‘and there is a lot of social control. If you walk into the quarter with an Aldi carrier bag, it's, “Sorry, I'm not talking to you; you shop at a discount supermarket and you don't buy organic.” It feels claustrophobic, because everyone expects you to behave in the same way - and of course you are not allowed to have a car.’

It's an overstatement, since Vauban residents can own a car - but they have to pay €18,000 a year to park it in one of the multistorey 'Solar Garages' on the outskirts of the quarter. On the main thoroughfare there is a speed limit of 30km per hour - and on Vauban's narrow residential streets, hemmed in by housing estates, cars can travel no faster than walking speed.

(read more)

It painted a picture of a utopian ideal that didn’t quite work. It works well in theory, it seems to say, but “normal” living is just easier – we really just have human nature to blame.

The New York Times’ Elisabeth Rosenthal was here a year later. She wrote:

In Germany, a country that is home to Mercedes-Benz and the autobahn, life in a car-reduced place like Vauban has its own unusual gestalt. The town is long and relatively narrow, so that the tram into Freiburg is an easy walk from every home. Stores, restaurants, banks and schools are more interspersed among homes than they are in a typical suburb. Most residents, like Ms. Walter, have carts that they haul behind bicycles for shopping trips or children’s play dates.

For trips to stores like IKEA or the ski slopes, families buy cars together or use communal cars rented out by Vauban’s car-sharing club. Ms. Walter had previously lived — with a private car — in Freiburg as well as the United States.

“If you have one, you tend to use it,” she said. “Some people move in here and move out rather quickly — they miss the car next door.”

Vauban, the site of a former Nazi army base, was occupied by the French Army from the end of World War II until the reunification of Germany two decades ago. Because it was planned as a base, the grid was never meant to accommodate private car use: the “roads” were narrow passageways between barracks.

The original buildings have long since been torn down. The stylish row houses that replaced them are buildings of four or five stories, designed to reduce heat loss and maximize energy efficiency, and trimmed with exotic woods and elaborate balconies; free-standing homes are forbidden.

(read more)

This is a more optimistic read. It gives you the picture that the physical set up will affect the way that you live. This, I think, is more accurate. It’s the same concept of Walter Burley Griffin and what he was trying to do with Canberra. I do wonder if Vauban, which is a much, much, much smaller place, has a greater affect, though, because rather than an entire city, it has been attempted on a tiny scale.

Do I think Vauban “works”? Mainly yes. Public transport is available, shops are within walking distance, there are parks and open spaces, if not private backyards; there are always people out and about to talk to; and it’s not far from anywhere – the “real” world is very close if you need it.

It is very different to what I know. The Saturday morning main theme of the petrol mower is almost totally non-existent, and the rolling of a diesel engine pulling into a driveway late in the evening has been totally replaced with the metal zing of the tram.

19.3.14

18.03.2014

PHOTOGRAPHIC EVIDENCE

I’m feeling a bit lazy today, so here is a picture:

IMG_0204

This is a picture looking out of my window tonight. We’re having stupidly good weather and enjoyed 20 degrees today. Perfect. The population here is a bit shocked by being able to wear shorts (not that I’ve partaken in this yet). You have to wear sunglasses – not because of the sun, because of the whiteness of people’s knees.

(Note the solar panels on the houses: this is a very green area and there’s a lot of selling electricity back to the grid going on here.)

 

I received my first letters here this week. Always exciting, although one’s in a Hallmark envelope, so it might be birthday related. I’ve held off on opening it; I’ve buried it in a drawer so I don’t get tempted – the risk is I’ll forget it’s there. I’ve replied to the others and will send some more postcards out soon. (Postcards are tedious, though; I need one of those “novel spinning machines” from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to whip them up.)

School continues as ever. As the level of understanding increases so does the susceptibility to work. The German word for “work” is arbeit – easy to remember because the first sound sounds like, “pain in the arse”.

16.3.14

15.03.2014

AN INTERNATIONAL DAY TRIP

“What about going to Basel tomorrow?” Jamie, another Australian exchange student and a friend from home, asked yesterday evening.

“Well, why not?”

“How far is it?”

“An hour, maybe.”

“Let’s do it.”

It was no big deal. That’s how you do things here. You just get on with it. Oh, you’re minors and you’ll be unsupervised in a foreign country: no big deal. Just take your passports and train tickets. And remember that the Swiss, although they’re talking German, don’t talk it in a way you’ve heard before.

The plan was to meet at nine. When I woke up I looked at my glorified alarm clock – my single purpose smartphone – and said a few unpublishable words. It was 9.09 already. Luckily there was also a notification for an email. Jamie was going to bit late too.

I scrambled out of bed, scoffed breakfast and the doorbell rang. Jamie was here.

We made the wise decision of getting the next train. They leave every hour and that meant breakfast could be elongated.

Armed with passports, tickets and no idea about what we’ do, we headed off. We caught a train to the German train station at Basel. (There are two stations: a German and a Swiss one.)

The first order of business was money. We needed some Swiss Francs. Then, after a brief transaction at a conveniently located Travelex, we needed a map. Then, after a conveniently located newsagent and bookshop was visited we were ready for the big smoke.

(A note on currency: I suppose going to Switzerland is more like pre-European Union Europe when everywhere had its own currency and travelling was a total pain in the bum.)

We were heading towards the old part of the city when we saw the trams. “Should we get tickets?” was the immediate question, because we’re both 15 and lazy. We decided against it and kept walking. We soon made it to a bridge over the Rhine and we were in the Altstadt (old city).

Lunch – wurst, naturally – was ordered in German from a French speaking woman at the Saturday market in front of the town hall. The sign said that no expense was spared when it was built in the 1500s, and they’re right. The front of the building was red and gold paint was used without compromise. Paintings within the front courtyard were old, lavish and bright. A few government functions remain, but most have moved.

Chocolate was another order of business, which was purchased from a shop that was selling pens with a Swiss Army knife on the end. And then we walked around and took it all in. This photo essay from Jamie demonstrates (with his captions):

DSCN03391. Look at this bastard I ran into in Basel, Switzerland. Who would have thought this would happen.

DSCN03442. Look at this bastard who got us lost. And then he couldn’t read the map in German.

DSCN03483. Look at this bastard. He was rolling his eyes about not being able to read the pamphlet about an historic building in German.

DSCN03544. Look at this bastard who got in the way of my picture of the street.

DSCN03555. This bastard wasn’t even looking at the view across the Rhine.

DSCN03606. This bastard didn’t even want to do selfies.

Personally, I don’t think I’m that much of a bastard.

The weather wasn’t that great, but we didn’t get any rain and it was mainly just wind. In the narrow streets with high buildings it was nice and sheltered.

And no wonder the Swiss have good banks, because they have to have somewhere to put all the money they need. Everything’s expensive.

Our feet tired out very quickly, though, and we headed back to Freiburg earlier than I thought we would. On the train back we sat near some very loud Americans. It was very stimulating for our own conversation. We would talk about the subjects they were talking about. They were too caught up in their own little world to nice; we had a great time.

We got back at dusk and I bought the Guardian Weekly. A fairly perfect day.

14.3.14

13.03.2014

WHOSAIDWHAT? MORE IMPORTANT THAN WHODUNNIT?

I thought I was watching a murder mystery. I’ve never been very good at piecing them together in English – of course I have crazy theories that usually rely on witness protection plots; so, in German, there’s no chance. I’m just trying to keep with who said what, and how these people the detectives keep talking to are related over the murder.

I didn’t quite know what the crime was, who the suspects and the victims were supposed to be; I did know, however, that a mother was having a birthday and that the female detective wanted the bartender to give her male counterpart some poison after a verbal barney that I didn’t comprehend. Then there was gold being auctioned off from a big, once illustrious, house (which I think housed a dysfunctional family; most big houses do) – was it because they ran out of money? or they saw the “we buy gold” ads on the sides of the trams here in Freiburg? I don’t quite know.

I suppose I didn’t really know what was going on because I didn’t start at the beginning.

But, at the end of the programme it turned out that there wasn’t a murder in the first place. I did think along the lines of, “What the?” My next question was, “So, what was the crime?” Dunno about that either. Tax evasion? child pornography? petty theft? drug dealing? I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Was there even a crime? or was it just a set up?”

 

MORE DIFFERENCES

They just don’t understand morning tea, do they? – But even at breakfast: the butter is too hard; you have to leave it out for three hours before you can spread it on anything – The bread seems to be purchased stale – But you’re at school before you have time for this butter melting business – The people are familiar at the same time has being totally foreign – Funny, that – And then the lessons! – Yes, the lessons! – Eurythmy is a load of nonsense, don’t you think? – Probably invented by someone on drugs – The other stupid thing is books without indents for paragraphs; slabs of text – They ask “How much clock is it?” when they want to know the time – At a restaurant they ask for the “calculation” when they want the bill – For a school in a country where winter is a dominant sort of a thing, why aren’t there good places to accommodate coats in the classrooms? – The weather means you don’t know what to wear at the moment; should you take the coat or the jacket? You need coat in the morning, jacket during the day and then coat again later on.

(Inspired partly by The Interrogative Mode: A Novel? by Padgett Powell, which I read half of in a book shop one day. Although, it, unlike the above “slab of text”, entailed just questions for a lot
of pages.)

 

AN ALMIGHTY STUFF UP

What were you thinking, Jasper? But more importantly, how did you do it? How did you give the teacher the impression that you speak “good German” and understand a damn lot more? You thought that, by the simple face of circumstance, was impossible, didn’t you? It wasn’t a smart thing to do, was it?

Now, because of this error (which was not a conscious action), I’m expected to give a little speech to the class about a topic related to biology – in German, to people who speak German, not Australians who are pretending to be “learning”* it while doodling with fluoro highlighters on the back covers of exercise books. These are people who won’t clap politely at the end because it sounded alright to them; these are people who will be clapping politely at the end to create enough noise to mask their giggling: Now that was funny!

Anyway, you have to do what you have to. Maybe I could work in a Freud quote in the original German to sound intelligent despite not being able to conjugate a verb accurately very often. We’ll see, we’ll see. Or I could just try and be intentionally funny, but this is Germany remember, so that’s a risk. Worth taking? Not sure yet.

 

* “Learning” may also refer to the act of cruising through school with unremarkable foreign language grades that don’t require too much effort, an extensive vocabulary or the ability to conjugate a verb.