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Die Glühbirne: the lightbulb, literally the “glowpear”

Die Glühbirne: the lightbulb, literally the “glowpear”

After about four months of classes and 5 months in Germany,  I find myself in German A2, well aware that German — with its random articles and various cases, not to mention the seemingly impossible sound that lingers in the gap between ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ — is a difficult language to learn. But there is good to be found in the language learning process. German relies heavily on compound words, which anyone can invent and use whenever they so desire, while still remaining grammatically correct. This allows for amazing specificity and has resulted in many odd, whimsical sounding names for various objects and ideas.

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Nabokov (second from left) on a tennis court behind the cinema “Universum” - which later became Schaubühne

Nabokov (second from left) on a tennis court behind the cinema “Universum” – which later became Schaubühne

One cannot visit Nabokov’s Berlin in the way one can visit Joyce’s Dublin or Kafka’s Prague. It no longer exists. There are, of course, certain ghosts. We know that he hunted for butterflies at Grunewald, and that he taught tennis on Kurfürstendamm. Charlottenburg was once home to so many Russian expatriates that it was nicknamed Charlottengrad, but that community disappeared at the beginning of World War II. Just as his ghost haunts Berlin, so the ghost of Berlin haunts Nabokov’s body of work. His first novels, written in Russian and set in Berlin, offer an interesting perspective on Nabokov’s oeuvre, and on his place in the pantheon of twentieth-century writers.

Nabokov was a notoriously cranky novelist. (Even decades after his death, it causes me some anxiety to wonder what he might think of this essay.) His predilections and pet peeves are well documented, the subject of countless essays and interviews.  Berlin did not escape the disdain he held for soft music, cocaine, Freud, fascism, gossip reporters, and Dostoyevsky. He moved here in 1922, after the rise of the Bolsheviks, hoping to escape the fate that befell many of his aristocratic peers. His arrival in Germany was less than auspicious. In March of 1922, Nabokov’s father was killed shielding Pavel Nikolayevich Milyukov from an assassin.

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ECLA of Bard German Club

Even though you can order your Currywurst in English anywhere in Berlin, learning German is important. ECLA of Bard B.A. students need to pass a test in German by the end of the second year. Moreover, learning German can help students read major philosophical and literary texts in their original version. The German Club at ECLA of Bard was initiated by David Kretz, a first year BA student and a native German speaker, in order to help students who want to improve their German. The weekly sessions of the German Club are set in an informal environment – the ECLA of Bard Student Centre – and are open to students of all levels, from beginners to proficient speakers.

The process of learning “the awful German language”- to use Mark Twain’s words – is made easier through the Club’s fun and engaging activities. David kindly agreed to tell us more about the German Club in an interview.

Diana: How did you decide to start the German Club?

David: In a meeting of the student committee we started to discuss with our Dean, Catherine Toal, the problems students have with German language. Many of them still have difficulties speaking German, even if they have been studying in Berlin for a while. The language courses at ECLA of Bard were intensified in the last year, as there are three sessions per week instead of two, but learning a language is very demanding and it requires a lot of work. So we thought that meeting in an informal setting to study German might help and, with the support of faculty and administration members, the German Club was initiated.

Diana: What are the activities that take place at the German Club?

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Photo: Irina Stelea

Every expat has felt this: living in a country, the language of which you don’t know, can be extremely challenging. The feeling that one gets is of concomitantly being absent and present, living discreetly (and frequenting international events and places).

Of course, as students of ECLA (and probably every second one of us, if not more, was or is in this situation), we feel sheltered in the secluded Pankow, where the campus is situated. Here, the coordinates are known by heart, the employees of the supermarkets recognize our faces, and sometimes a touristy smile can replace a German phrase.

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Into the Woods

Into the Woods

The winter excursion came to an end with ECLA students dancing to the tune, “Neun und Neunzig Luftballons,” with local Germans in a small town restaurant. The excursion was full of merriment and joy, partly because the students had gotten to know each other so well and partly because of the scenic beauty of the area.

The excursion took place right after fifth week of the term. Although most of the students decided not to join and the bus was half empty, the trip became one of the most memorable in the lives of many. The excursion took place in the Harz Mountains near a town called Braunlage. Many had planned to ski and sled but the weather did not allow for these activities. The excursion was small, simple and yet very much needed and rightly timed in the term.

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A Park Walk

A Park Walk

Two days after New Year, my collie Marley and I strolled into the dog park on Madison Avenue in New York.  She, with her shiny sable coat, a striking resemblance to Lassie, and joyful demeanor, attracts a lot of attention.  As I let her loose to play with the other dogs, a dog-walker approached me and asked, “Is that a collie?  A full collie?”  She sounded surprised.  You don’t see many collies in the city.

I sat down on one of the benches off to the side of the park.  Marley pranced over to me and lovingly wiggled her body against my knees.  I smiled at her.  Her sheer delight at being alive and outside on a bright, brisk January day washed over me, contagious. Then she bolted off, eager to greet the other dogs.  She sniffed their noses and their butts, leaned in teasingly close on her front haunches — tail wagging high in the air — and then hopped backward only to skip coyly away. This was her friendly dance, the dance that said, “Come play with me!” far more expansively than my words ever could.

A few feet away from me, another dog-walker surveyed the scene. He held three leashes in his hand and monitored the behavior not only of his own charges, but of all of the dogs present. He clearly knew many of them. He was a regular.

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Dirk Deichfuss has lived in all three variations of Berlin over the last two decades: in the 80’s he was a student in East Berlin, in 1989 he escaped to West Berlin, and six months later he lived in the unified city.  No wonder the German instructor’s excursions to local sites are so popular.  Last quarter, he led the well-liked excursion series entitled “In the Footsteps of the Wall,” which took students to sites that played important roles in the life of the divided city, including Schloß Cecilienhof, where the Potsdam Conference was held, and the Mauerdokumentationszentrum, a museum documenting the Wall.  In another outing a group of over 30 ECLA students visited the Blindenwerkstatt, where Otto Weidt saved the lives of scores of Jews from the National Socialists by employing them in manufacturing work.  In addition to teaching German, Dirk Deichfuss is Coordinator of the language programme at ECLA.

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