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Don’t hesitate. Sign up for an online German distance learning course and learn to speak German already. Or you can do what I did, and use language learning as your flimsy excuse to live abroad for like ever. Here’s a breakdown of how I improved my German while living in Berlin. Sadly, it’s probably a lot more coherent than my German. Hopefully it will help somebody, someday. Four key steps to success:

1. “Tandem” or “language exchange”
Tandem is what the Germans call a conversational meeting (usually over coffee) in which a German speaker and an English speaker divide the time between two languages. Rather than pay a tutor for an hour of German instruction or conversation practice, I could get a half hour of help in the form of casual chatting, and getting questions answered about how to say certain words or phrases in German. For the second half hour I would help my tandem partner with her English, as she was preparing for a placement test to get back into school.

I wanted to learn German slang. So she taught me that in German the hip-hop version of Wie geht’s? is Was geht? I believe it’s like the difference between “How are you?” and “Whatup?” It may seem trivial, but it actually got me a lot of mileage with the locals. It’s not like anybody mistook me for a thug from the knifecrime district of Berlin, but at least it made people laugh and helped break the ice more than once.

Tandem was the most likely place for me to learn this piece of German slang. I wouldn’t have had the time in the German class I took, where the focus was lesson plans and grammar, nor did I ask any of my German friends teach it to me, as I didn’t want to bore them excessively with minutia about a language they generally take for granted. In Tandem I had the luxury to talk exclusively about the fun aspects of the language. She also hooked me up with an apartment.

You can find Tandem partners in the activities section of Berlin’s Craigslist.

2. Making friends
I knew going into it that the most organic way for me to improve my German would be to speak solely in German with all the new people I met. I assumed all Germans spoke perfect English, so I was prepared

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for a challenge. But after settling in I was happily surprised: not all Germans speak English!

In fact, a couple very close friendships were conducted entirely in German. But because my German was even worse then, I couldn’t help feeling slightly suspicious of anyone who would tolerate lengthy conversation with a verbal cripple like me.

What were they getting out of it?

That remains an open question, but for me the rewards were crystal clear. I got hours of real-life practice forming sentences, responding to questions, making jokes and even working through misunderstandings caused by my poor language skills. Talk about a steep learning curve. I even picked up some very practical language tips: after asking was? all the time, I was told to change it up occasionally with the more polite phrase: wie, bitte?

Of course, many Germans do speak English extremely well, and inevitably I made friends with folks who spoke only English to me. I didn’t mind the friendship, but it didn’t help my German at all. And here’s where an unbroken pattern revealed itself: the first few moments of meeting somebody would absolutely determine the language used for the life of the relationship. The second I said “Hi, how are you,” to someone, the German language was DOA.

I think the reason is because I am a different person when I speak German. I express visible glee whenever I can formulate a sentence. Time slows down and every object on the street or in the café becomes amazing, something worth inquiring about. In German, I am a child.

Once I put it to a test and tried switching to German with a friend who normally spoke English to me. It was a complete disaster. One could almost hear a grinding sound as I tried to switch gears into that friendly, lobotomized character that worked so well in German-language friendships. I smiled and blinked uncomprehendingly as a torrent of gibberish flowed from his mouth. He was baffled by my precipitous drop in IQ. It took only moments for us to switch back to English. We were both embarrassed.

3. Reading books
“Here, read this,” a local once told me. It was Arabboy, by Güner Balci, about a Lebanese-Palestinian boy who chooses a life of crime in the poor part of Berlin. Despite its humor, darkness and valuable insight into the immigrant experience, the prose would have bored me stiff if translated into English. But in German I am a child. And in German, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I followed it up with Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, and inevitably found some parallels in the criminal heroes of both stories.

Of course, in both cases practically every sentence yielded multiple new vocabulary words. So rather than look each word up as I encountered it, I would simply write it down and move on. Only at the end of each chapter would I look up all the definitions, write them down, memorize them, then re-read the chapter with a whole new level of comprehension.

It’s work, but it works; the primary benefits were reading comprehension amassing vocabulary. But while this is not a direct method of learning grammar rules, reading hundreds of pages in German did make me more comfortable with the way German

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sentences are thrown together, and I actually think it even helped my spoken German.

But for real help with grammar, there’s nothing like taking a German course:

4. Taking German classes in Berlin
I enrolled in a German course through the Volkshochschule, which is a nationwide adult education program for lower income folk. An expat friend recommended it, but the Germans I knew would disparage it. One was concerned I’d get bored, and another, with decidedly elitist sensibilities, was uncomfortable mentioning the word in public. The course was held in a bright orange high school building from the Soviet era, located in Wedding, a district with zero popular appeal and a large working class population.

I was attracted to it because I’m cheap. A month long course involving around 80 hours of instruction cost something like 100 Euros. There were other young American expats like me in the course, along with older people who came to Germany looking for economic opportunities. Some students hailed from really exotic places like Belarus, Nigeria and the newly-formed nation of Kosova. Our instructor was very friendly but inexperienced. She spoke with a slight Turkish accent, and the course moved at a snail’s pace; per the lesson plan we wasted a lot of time in activities like making posters to pin up to the wall. Nobody liked the text book but her hands were tied, she said.

Despite these criticisms, I really did learn fundamental grammar rules that I wouldn’t have learned outside the classroom environment. No matter how inefficiently the course was run, I feel that by getting up early and putting over four hours in every day, I was bound to learn something, even if I didn’t make it through to the end of the month. If I had to do it again, I might pony up a bit more, for a faster paced and more exciting German course in Berlin.

So there you have it. Since moving back home my German has degraded a lot but I’m trying to keep up by attending a German conversation group in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Woman’s Group Meeting
Woman’s Group Meeting, Kinshasa.

It’s true, and pharmacy viagra I don’t know how I feel about it. I was in a kind of compound before, where if I wanted to go out for a beer I would have to take a Congolese boy with me and we would walk on splintered pavement in the pitch black. Occasionally he’d throw his hand out because a car threatened to run me down. Then we’d get to a tiny shop with no lights on and ask for beer. Inside the cramped generic-cialis4health.com space was littered with imported rice and flour, and I would sometimes see the long tail of a rat disappear into cinder block. Two warm beers and a walk back full of broken English and French conversation. He would tell me, “American boys are gooood, because they have this,” rubbing his fingers together to denote fingers cialis 20 mg cut in half full of cash. I would try to explain that this was first of all not true and that Congolese boys had plenty to offer. He looked viagra online in australia confused, “No, you would not marry a black man?” “Aren’t viagra jokes you racist?”, and then I’d

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laugh a lot at him and he’d sort put the pieces together that I was in Congo by choice and walking with a black boy in the night. I don’t know, I just slept all day and now I’m awake until morning. In any case, I’m back, and missing my friends.

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Sarah in Kinsasha with an Congolese Police dude

I have avoided writing about my trip because I don’t really understand it. I experienced my first real culture shock when I landed, maybe not because Congo is so different than I expected, rather because it’s just as it promised it would be. It met me with green haunty hills and gashes of jungle and the twisting spine of the Congo River, and then we landed and it was havoc.

Kinshasa has a post apocalyptic quality that I have now gotten used to, but at first, after flying for days I was out of my body out of my mind.

Congo is, well I’m having a hard night so I hesitate, but I mostly want to say, terrifying and fucked, but I will re-frame by saying that it is blood stained for generations, and the whole country suffers from post traumatic stress– they are survivors. Everything seems corrupt and in perpetual quagmire. A kingdom of ghost and guns. Everyone is stunning.

For now I will just give you some disconnected highlights that make even less sense to me than they will to you:

I learned that my travel companion was hit by lightning when he was a child and smoke came out of his mouth.

I watched TV with Kabila’s (the assassinated president) vice-president. Er . . . The former president had four vice presidents, and I hung out with one of them. His slipper fell off at one point and I put it back on his foot. In his office I saw a photograph of him with Che and another with Mao, and then we ate some chicken.

We were in Goma during the big Congo Peace Conference, and when our plane landed one of our interpreters turned to me and said, “You know, there are rebel groups no less than 40 kilometers from here”. The conference was deadlocked for a few days and in the end I fear that paper signing is the last thing that will do this country any good.

I crossed Lake Kivu, which rests upon a layer of natural gas, one crack in the basin and the whole lake would explode and the surrounding region would be suffocated by the gas. Seriously, they have exploding lakes here.

Laurent Nkunda Tutsi General from Rwanda

Eastern Congo, really. We had a police man from the presidential guard when we went outside of the city into the villages in the Walungu region. I just found out today that there had been another rebel raid on a village in Walungu while we were there. We don’t know where exactly, they could have been on the other side or it could have been a few miles away. Yes, pretty much scary, but I knew this going in.

I was able to interview a few women, rape victims, in Walugu, and interestingly I actually met and interviewed the same woman that was in that Anderson Cooper thing I sent you. I don’t really know what to tell you about this. It was disturbing, of course, but really my brain is only allowing a little of this information to register at a time.

The next day we were invited to a gun exchange in which a local organization was trying to get villagers to trade in their weapons for useful items like tin roofing or bicycles. It failed; no one would show because this would be a public admittance of being a thief and rapist. I didn’t think it was a realistic plan, but I was there to bear witness anyway. The army was there and then the UN showed up. In this region the UN is made up of a bunch of terrifying Pakistani men that ride around in jeeps. They were like, what are you

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white people doing here in this village in Eastern Congo?

A fine question.

And then I left the jungle and now find myself back in sweltering Kinshasa. I am trying to follow what is and has been going on in this country since the war. I now understand that Rwanda is trying to carve out a piece of Congo, and that the Interhamwe were once found eating UN food. I don’t know!

shitfuckmutherfuckingjesuschristbaby

ok.

Anyway, I’m safe still but pretty well frustrated and misanthropic. Well, no, not completely, but if you want more details I’ll try my best to pull together the fragmented mess that i know and have gathered from my time so far. I will be here for two more weeks, more interviews and filming and then I will pull myself from the motherlands dark loins and return to our white bitch of a country.

I am missing everyone something awful and I feel so so far away. But, all this said, I wouldn’t trade a moment in Africa for anything.

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Janus Roman King

With less than twenty minutes to go Amanda asked me what my New Year’s resolution might be and I of course had none slated for delivery. Dismissive as I was a debate began throwing words like change around and yes, I know, change is inevitable and possibly even good but that doesn’t mean I have to declare anything. If it’s gonna happen it will and that’s fine and dandy unless it sucks.

It did get me thinking, tho, about where these things come from. When did people decide that the end of a calendar year was the best time to make some statement of intent– I will be a better person in this way for the next year because it’s midnight and I’m drunk. A quick little google run decided that both the Romans and the Babylonians invented the concept of New Year’s Resolutions which just goes to show you that the internet doesn’t know shit. It does, however, know how to sell you shit.

A week or so later I was carrying some heavy equipment up some janky stairs and there was a drunk guy who, it turns out, wasn’t the booker or the bartender. He was very friendly, however misplaced, and asked our sad little parade of amps and drums what our New Year’s Resolutions were. Everyone ignored him except me: “I’m running a little behind– I haven’t made mine yet.” This elicited a couple chuckles from the band and a roaring belly-laugh from the random drunk who seemed to accept this automatic response as an answer worth-while.

It did get me thinking, tho, about what kind of resolutions are being made these days. I tried a technorati search but there were thousands of postings made involving them and no one seemed to actually talk about what they were, only about how they’d given

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up. Everyone except for people with Christian Mission blogs, that is, who are more than happy to tell you all about how they worked on maintaining their New Year’s Resolution. This was a sadness I could not investigate further. Perhaps bloglines, with their advanced search parameters, would have allowed for better searching but attempting to access any data in between the end of December and the beginning of January resulted in severe server failure. Basically I learned that the internet is a temporal flux where ideas, information and opinion are created, shared and destroyed within the span of a day and the nutritional yield is approximately zero and the waste-product immeasurable.

It’s a Wonderful Life

I’m not opposed to tradition all the time. I enjoy “It’s a Wonderful Life” and think it’s a shame that the

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effective fit of nostalgia directed by a true believer in American idealism and potential. Unfortunately you can’t watch it without Macy’s parades and the scent of pine in the house or else your sense of time and place would be so distorted your brain would explode like a 4th of July display and melt into a puddle of over-heated Halloween candy. I’m not even opposed to the declaration of New Year’s Resolutions– it’s just that I mostly associate this tradition with Bloom County’s Binkley screaming them on behalf of beleaguered celebrities over the edge of a dark crevice.

However, if I were in the habit of New Year’s Resolutions it seems popular to promise great productivity in the blogosphere, or rather lament the lack of said productivity. No better example of failed hopes, dreams or idealism than where you’re sitting, I suppose, tho we didn’t really need the make a resolution in order to fail. If I believed in them maybe I would have resolved to push the boundaries of my interest/abilities/desire and propel my web presence into deeper depths but I don’t believe and so there you go. I’d attempt to inspire a response from the passing crowd, something of a trick I picked up from a Guatemalan photoblog I frequent, but somehow I can’t bring myself to pander to anyone. What works and makes sense for some just doesn’t for others. Just have a Happy New Year, you, and I apologize for being late. The drunk guy at the gay bar understood and I hope you can too.

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