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April 10, 2011

A Nod to the Everyday/Allestage

The above is a photo of me taken on The Philosophers' Walk, across the river from old Heidelberg on Saturday. I'm wearing my Santa Fe Institute T-shirt. No, I didn't get an endorsement deal.

Sitting here at a cafe - the only one I found open earlyish - drinking a latte on Sunday morning, tears in my eyes. There is a dog here. Big guy, one of those Rott-shepherd types with the brown “eyes” above their eyes. Big, sweet, doted on by his owner. Eager to befriend the waitress, who is “has a bit of angst” around dogs. He wags his tail lazily, contentedly. It’s nice to let well-behaved dogs into restaurants, like letting the kids in The Golden Compass keeps their daimons near.

I’d like to share some of the mundane, pedestrian things that are making for a life here in Freiburg at the Goethe Institute. Forgive the collage-like nature of the post, then.

Cobblestone streets. I love ‘em. Pedestrian-only zones, too.

LOTS of European people smoke. I wonder why. I even saw one young woman smoking as she rode her bike.

Freiburg has more bookstores than any place I’ve ever seen, except, maybe, Berkeley. Lots of variety, too. It’s good to have them here, as a goad and encouragement to work on my Deutsch. Nearly every time I walk past a store I see a book or two I would like to be able to read.

My German instructor is one of the best teachers I have ever seen. She is ever enthusiastic – reminds me, in that way, of the best manager I ever had, Travis at B. Dalton’s, long decades ago – gently corrects errors, makes sense out of our wildly varied accents as we mangle the German language, and gets us out of our seats and using the language in class (and, on Friday, in town, without going along to hold our hands). But the thing that most impresses me is her ability to speak to those of us who know almost no German in a way that allows us to understand nearly every word she says without it seeming so simple as to be condescending. Such gentle instruction builds in us (others have had similar experiences) the sense that we can and do already understand, giving us the confidence to stretch more all the time. The tour guide we had in Heidelberg yesterday had the same gift. He is now retired, but worked for Goethe for 30 years in countries ranging from Egypt to Japan to Vietnam. He was trained in Greek and Latin language and culture. I could have spent all week listening to him, even in German. Both are willing to use English when the topic or need warrants it.

What's fascinating about being in a group of people learning a new language is the way in which we begin with the things our parents taught us to say: good morning, please, thank you, how are you, I am fine, thanks, and so on. We also try to make up words from the little we know, or even from sounds that we think are expressive of a certain thing we want to say; we use lots of body language; and sometimes we get frustrated and begin to babble in the language we know, even when the person to whom we are speaking doesn't understand. It is very much, I presume, like language acquisition as experienced and practiced by children.

The Germans have begun to come to grips with the horrid part of their past in the last 30 years, from what I am told and have seen. Before that, it was considered bad form to bring it up. Now, here in Freiburg, there are “stumbling blocks” set in the streets in front of the homes where Jewish people, who were taken from their homes and delivered into the hands of tormenters, lived. The stones are gold in color, and inscribed with the names and dates of birth and death of those who had lived there. The place of the old synagogue is, likewise, a memorial park in the center of Freiburg. If there is a concentration camp nearby – there must be: they were everywhere – I am confident that it, too, is a memorial. From what I have observed so far - and my ability to see is still quite limited, I must say – such commemoration has not led to compulsive self-flagellation or wallowing. But I wonder if the seriousness of the German people is not, in part, an echo of these oft-recollected misdeeds. I would be interested in knowing what it is like to be a Jewish person either visiting or living here now. I assume a lot in making the following statement, but it seems that the German people are aware both of the many things on account of which they hold justifiable pride, as well as their reasons for being humble. We’ll see if further experience and reflection uphold this hypothesis.

One of the great things about the Goethe Institute is the way they take pains to build a community, to make sure people don’t feel alone or forgotten. I spent a fair amount of the train trip yesterday in the company of two women from India. For them both it was the first time out of their country, but they both exude a sense of comfort and confidence, of openness. Many people are here from Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iraq, and yet all are interested in meeting and talking with people from other countries, including those of us from the US.

I have learned that, while I like the austerity of living in one room in a dorm, there are a couple of things I need: plants, and art. Accordingly, I bought a few aromatic plants – a couple of rosemary, a mint, and a lavender – and a couple of small ceramic pieces from a potter whose studio and store are right next door to the Goethe Institute and its attendant bookstore. The photo shows them in the company of a little Ganesha, a gift from my friend Maia, which came with me. I have been tempted to buy other things – you can take the American out of America, but not the consumerist out of the American – but have, so far, resisted by asking the question, “Do I really want to carry this with me when I leave here to go to Hamburg in three months?”


  1. more bookstores than hay-on-wye?

    a good teacher makes all the difference and your reports sound wonderful. i too have been struggling with my consumerist nature. so far i'm doing better than expected (except for the books, of course).

  2. >more bookstores than hay-on-wye?

    Well, not per capita. And Hay-on-Wye's bookstores represent a higher percentage of the total buildings in town than here in Freiburg. But yes, in actual numbers, many more. Though I don't think I could find in Freiburg a copy of the Complete Works of Samuel Johnson, published in 1787, as I found in Hay-on-Wye.

  3. John!

    Nice to find you on your blog, and to see that Ganesha successfully made the trans-Atlantic journey.

    Wonderful to read these impressions of Freiburg... sounds like both an inner and outer journey.

    We miss you here! Travel well, dear friend...


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