I arrived in Berlin exactly one week ago today, and I’m already in love –not just with the city and its inhabitants (all of whom have been unbelievably patient and helpful as I ask for things in halting German), but with my language course at the Goethe. Each day at 8am I cycle from Ostkreuz, where I’m staying with a truly fabulous Berliner called Tina, to Mitte in the center of the city. Class begins at 8:30 and goes through 1pm, with homework and trips to places all over the city afterward with cultural experts, including an art historian from the Free University in Berlin who is just brilliant (and I can only understand half of what she is saying–I can only imagine the other half!).
My class is 12 strong, and from all over the globe–a lawyer from Venezuela, a dentist from Spain, a med student from Sweden, and a high school teacher from Poland to name a few. Everyone is enthusiastic, determined to help each other learn, and our teacher Nicole is a pedagogical genius. She has language teaching down to a fine science, so it feels like we gain new skills effortlessly (well, almost). We write and speak and read in German, and our afternoon trips are all in German too, so by the end of each day I am sleeping in German. The joy of learning a language in the mother country is that every daily task is auf Deutsch. Reading labels, directions, and food is substantially trickier. I put body wash all over my hair on Day 2, thinking it was conditioner; on Day 4, I bought Unidentified Meat for my sandwiches and ate it before checking in the dictionary that I was consuming sliced duck. On Day 5, I high fived the grocery clerk when I was able to ask for everything I needed in German, and yesterday I learned the kid next door is 6 years old, likes jump rope, and that her dad’s from Boston (she called me out for my transatlantic accent).
I forgot that this is how learning can be–fun, challenging, immersive, rather than oriented to jumping through the hoops that I feel I have facing me when I get back to grad school this fall. I unashamedly loved being at school as kid (perhaps excepting the Awkward Years aged 13-15), so being at the Goethe really does feel like the pure excitement of being ten years old again. It helps that I don’t have to work full time while I’m here either, so I have all the time I need to to learn and am not cramming my lessons like at home – where I need to do my schoolwork today, now, ASAP! because tomorrow I have to work, write a lecture, grade 50 papers, and won’t have time for my own brain activities. I now envy my friends who have fellowships that offer summer stipends for personal research and development, something a city university doesn’t offer (although I was totally supported by them in applying for DAAD). It’s also made me even more sensitive to the students I teach who are ESL. One feels hesitant to make a fool of oneself in another language in public and in the classroom, something I am experiencing on a daily basis here and will take back to teaching in the fall.
I read with interest, as many New Yorkers probably did, “The Busy Trap,” the article in last week’s NYT that called out all of us who overload our schedules, plead too little time for rest and recuperation, and hold up a packed calendar as a competitive sign of a healthy career trajectory. As a grad student, I know my schedule is – in part – overloaded because I earn below a living wage in New York and have to top it up with a patchwork of other part time gigs. However, some is certainly self-imposed. Having been in Berlin only a week, I want to take back a little of the relaxed atmosphere to break my own busy trap when I get back to NY in the fall. The people I’ve met in Berlin are just as smart, interesting, and talented as those I know back home – perhaps sometimes more so, as they spread themselves less thin and designate time for leisure and personal learning. That means saying no, which I have become horrible at doing over the last three years as a grad student well aware that many other people will jump at the chances I am lucky to get given. I am so glad I said yes to DAAD and two months in Berlin, but have decided that in the run up to my orals next year, saying no is okay too. So, that means saying no to a conference in Sweden this fall and all the frantic catch-up that will happen after that, and no to any more writing jobs, and no to staying in the library past 10PM on a regular basis. And, as the sun is shining this afternoon and Berlin is waiting to be explored, it also means stopping here and leaving the computer for the rest of the day to be outside. So, aus Berlin – bis bald….