Monthly Archives: May 2014

What the Lion Said: Thoughts on Learning German As an Adult

The German word for “vocabulary” is Wortschatz. This is lovely — Wortschatz — it translates literally as “word treasure”. Sadly, my Wortschatz is a strangely formed thing. More a lump of lead (das Blei) than of gold (das Gold – cognate!). My limitations only became clear to me, though, when I finally took a German class last semester.

The other students in the class were all American undergraduates, students at a study abroad program for which I teach. The instructor kindly let me sit in on the class, and I participated just like my classmates, all of whom were at least 20 years my juniors. I did the homework, answered test questions, took part in discussions, wrote out in-class exercises, and made a bloody fool of myself.

You see, my classmates learned German differently than I did. That is to say, they learned it properly, with instruction, and correction. I learned German grammar nearly twenty years ago, when I first went to graduate school. All art historians have to learn German, though that usually means knowing just enough to pass a translation exam (with the benefit of a dictionary), and then barely using it again. In the manner of my kind, I  therefore spent the next decade-and-a-half forgetting what I’d learned. And then all of a sudden I married a German, moved to Austria, and tried to pick up the language again, without, until now, any instruction. This makes for a peculiar brew, a rickety heap of a half-learned language, thrown into sudden relief by comparison with my fresh young classmates.

For instance. They all know what is meant by the terms “strong verbs” and “weak verbs.” They know which prepositions take the accusative, and which ones the dative. They know which prefixes from the bewilderingly similar set of single-syllable options turn things on (is that auf and an?) and which ones turn things off (is that aus and ab?). And that’s leaving aside the fact that they know when to separate these prefixes from the verb (did you get that? Separate them from the verb!!) and when not. Throughout my semester-long debacle they were painfully kind and tolerant. They gave me a new and frankly confusing appreciation for the intelligence and diligence of the American college student.

Of course, their brains are two decades and a whole lot of bad choices younger than mine. So there’s that.

My word treasure is made up of altogether different stuff. Most of my recent German I learned from television Krimis and the free newspapers in the Ubahn. So when our class would discuss criminals, crimes, and the legal system I was ready to go! Rape? Murder? Defendant? Gang? I was loaded with that rich treasure, no problem. Or, how about things pertaining to family — all the relatives (mother-in-law, brother-in-law, stepmother), all the family events (wedding, baptism, communion) (and bear in mind, I’m Jewish!), plus an astonishing number of dog breeds. Often when I spoke I could see on one side of me my perplexed classmates, wondering what the hell I was talking about, and on the other my teacher, cracking up at my Tatort-shaped vocabulary.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (himself Austrian, born to one of the rich industrialist families that fostered the Wiener Werkstätte, the decorative arts arm of Jugendstil) famously said, “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.” I know how that lion would feel, the meat-and-blood Wortschatz that ruled the Serengeti of no value in a world of light switches that go on and off (anschalten? auschalten?) and of books that lie on the table (auf dem tisch) or are laid on the table (auf den tisch).

 

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How to Understand Austria’s Win in Eurovision 2014

The Eurovision 2014 song contest wrapped up this weekend with Austrian drag performer Conchita Wurst the unlikely winner. It was pretty exciting. I confess to never having had any interest in Eurovision until this year, indeed not until last Wednesday, when I unexpectedly found myself watching the semifinal. From then on I couldn’t turn away. People say Eurovision is like American Idol for Europe, but it isn’t. It’s far deeper and more revealing.

The basics of Eurovision are that each country runs an individual contest to send one musical act to a continent-wide contest, where all the nations of Europe compete. “Europe” here is loosely construed. Israel, Armenia and Russia are all part of the action. The contest therefore should speak to broad regional unity: the continent that in the last 100 years was twice riven by wars big enough to merit the descriptor “world” now celebrates its cultural differences in an annual sing-off.

Each nation gives points to the acts its people and appointed judges like best, but they can’t vote for their own country’s act. And to judge by the voting, you’d have thought we were all watching different performances. What else could explain the fact that Poland got 62 points for its weirdly sexist contribution? (Seriously, watch this. If you lack patience, start at 2:10 and/or 2:50):

The butter churning is a little over the top, no? Apparently the full video for the song says that it is intended as satire, but it’s not clear any viewers got that.

Quality is not the major determining factor in Eurovision voting. And this year we pretty clearly were watching a fault line develop between western Europe and Russia. This is not surprising, given the situation in Ukraine. But what was interesting was Wurst’s role in this, because it seemed that she allowed that fault line to be, on the part of the western European nations, constructed around the broadly popular notion of tolerance. That Wurst should win Eurovision seemed to be giving the Russians the finger in a way that simply not voting for their bizarre identical blond twins never could. (Though that happened too.)

Example: The spokesperson for Netherlands, as he offered that nation’s 12 points for Austria and for Conchita Wurst, pointedly described the Dutch as having invented tolerance. (Though the Netherlands’ derivative country-western song, which came in second, was anything but inventive.) On the other side of the balance, Belarus gave its points to Russia, Armenia and Ukraine, a bit like an anxious younger sibling hoping to smooth over family conflicts past and present.

It’s typical for Eurovision to reveal regional and political fault-lines within Europe; the former Soviet client states vote together, the western democracies stick together as well. The only nation to be honest about this was Slovenia, whose spokesperson cheerfully offered her nation’s points up to “our neighbor” Austria. But Wurst seemed to represent something new — a rallying figure to express a vision of Europe sharply contrasting that of Russian intolerance, dissimulation, and violence.

Let’s not overstate this, though. Eurovision has the nations split their points among several countries; the spokesperson for each nation announces the 8, 10 and 12 point choices on the pan-European television broadcast. This split-point voting means countries didn’t have to throw away their entire voice on Wurst; it means that Italy, for example, could both express its desire for European tolerance (12 points to Wurst) and Ukrainian independence (10 points to Ukraine) while remaining the Italy we all know and love and wish would stop groping us (8 points to Poland for farmer’s daughter porn).

All of western Europe celebrated Austria on Saturday night — little Austria, bastion of democratic tolerance. Spokespersons announcing votes for Conchita Wurst seemed to feel they were participating in something important, historic. All the more reason, therefore, to be pissed off at Germany.

Germany gave 8 points to Denmark for an adorable boy band that was my second choice. 10 German points went to Poland (my theory is that the Polish outfits looked a bit like dirndls, triggering some deep resonance in the collective German unconscious). And 12 went to the Netherlands for that horrible country song. Fair enough, we all know there’s no accounting for taste, let alone German taste. But in Austria the German vote tapped into a deep well of resentment. And it makes it far worse that the Germans are likely unaware of this.

You are, too. But you wouldn’t be if you lived here. If you lived here, you would be schooled in the ways that Austrian pride is deeply intertwined with Germany’s disdain. Here, look at this:

Cordobart = Cordoba + Bart
Cordobart = Cordoba + Bart

That is an article on the website of the Kurier, an Austrian newspaper. “Cordobart” is an ingenious mashup of Conchita’s beard (bart in German) with Cordoba. Never heard of Cordoba? Neither had I til I came here. Cordoba is the Miracle of Cordoba — the one occasion, in 1978, when Austria beat Germany in the World Cup. It was the first time in 47 years the Austrian national soccer team had beaten the Germans; it was to be the last, at least thus far. That every single person in Austria knows of it, and likely feels passionately about it, tells you a lot about the relationship between these neighboring lands. Germans are the largest population of immigrants in this country. They come here for holidays, for university, and for employment. But they pretty consistently forget the place exists.

When Germany gave Conchita Wurst no votes on Saturday, they seemed to signal they were above both the larger politics of the contest and the kind of mutual regard that generally leads neighboring states to vote for each other. Moreover, they signaled to Austria, once again, that they considered their littler neighbor with whom they share a common language to be beneath their notice. (Switzerland got no substantial German points either).

This is particularly insulting because Conchita Wurst is intensely Austrian. In her full garb she makes an exotic impression, looking perhaps Armenian or Azarbaijani. But Conchita Wurst is the stage name of Tom Neuwirth, a name as Austrian as a Schnitzel, who grew up in a tiny town near Gmunden, Austria. In a profile show leading up to Saturday’s finale, the ORF followed Conchita home to visit her family and film a joyful reunion with her parents, both of whom were dressed from head to toe in Tracht (dirndl for mom, lederhosen for dad). The Neuwirth parents run a Gasthaus, and hosted the entire town, most of whom were also dressed in Tracht, for a party to celebrate Tom/Conchita’s success. Everyone was delighted. The sight of Conchita’s father, in lederhosen, beaming with pride and standing with an arm wrapped unabashedly around his son (dressed in a pencil skirt and midriff-baring top), was unbelievably cute.

Austria has come a long way. Against such an auspicious backdrop, it hardly matters whether one even likes the song:

 

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Sunday Fun: Harness Racing At Krieau

A couple of weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, we headed off to the races. In a part of the Prater called Krieau (Kree-ow) one finds a harness racing track. No galloping, these horses trot along at extreme speeds pulling a little cart, called a sulky. Instead of a jockey, they have a driver.

Krieau harness racing Vienna
I pick my horse the scientific way — by watching them warm up and deciding which one is the cutest. This cutie pie probably galloped.

As at a standard racetrack there is a grandstand, wagering, and plentiful beer. Unlike at a standard racetrack, a horse is eliminated if he or she gallops. (The horses I bet on pretty much invariably galloped.)

Krieau Trabrennbahn Vienna
I love the little Modernist viewing gallery and communications tower behind the finish line, paired with the video screen.

There is actually a non-operational galloping track a little farther down in the Prater — it’s absolutely beautiful, an elegant, spindly Jugendstil structure that’s now used only for the occasional event; we were most recently there for a bicycle festival. The track itself is having a second life as a golf course. Though there’s no more racing there, the structure is under Denkmalschutz (historic preservation), so for the moment they’ve not knocked it down.

Krieau Trabrennbahn Vienna
Grandstand at the Trabrennbahn, decorated with jockey’s colors, Habsburg arms, and old men.

The nearby Trabrennbahn, or trotting track, was finished in 1913 in a Vienna Modernist style. It’s the second-oldest harness track in Europe. One does worry for its future, though. It’s poorly populated and looks run down. An entire section of the grandstand is not in use, basically in a shambles. Theoretically the horses are going to get new stabling (they’re now in older facilities beyond the track). But it’s a little hard to believe they won’t eventually tear the whole thing down and replace it with some awful contemporary structure that more immediately advances the cause of international capital.

Krieau Trabrennbahn Vienna
Beyond the stands in use you can see the deteriorating portion of the grandstand.

The Krieau track sits cheek-by-jowl with the brand new, hideous, overweeningly self-important WU (Wirtschaftsuniversität, or Economics University), built on the edge of the Prater just in the last couple of years. It is seriously the ugliest thing ever, a mishmash of mishapen buildings by important architects, thrown up in haste. In this photo you can see the WU behind the track as well as the Messe Wien — the convention center that already put pressure on this area:

Krieau Trabrennbahn Wien
Pastoral, no? Horses in the shadow of the Economics Uni and convention center.

The area around the Prater is changing rapidly. New campus housing for the WU has already been built; more is being constructed. The old, pastoral, rambling days of the park are on borrowed time — and land. So are the trotters, and the timeless atmosphere that surrounds them. The race meet ends on June 1st. Still opportunity for a pleasant Sunday afternoon at the track.

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