November 26, 2010 | German
Last Day in Göttingen
In which I buy a book in German and try to read it.
Today was my last day in Germany—we are going to Holland for the weekend, and then I am flying home—so I went into downtown Göttingen one last time before our late-afternoon train.
I wandered into bookstores, again. Göttingen has a lot of bookstores. And German bookstores are full of translations. Germans read many works by authors from other countries, including of course the United States.
A Göttingen Bookstore
At Another Store, Murakami and Follett in German
The U.S., however, does not return the favor. A woman I met during my time at the Goethe-Institut told me that only 3 percent of books (literature, non-fiction, everything) in the U.S. are translations. For just fiction published in Germany, she guessed the number was somewhere around 60 percent.
So, while I was roaming around bookstores today, I thought, maybe I should buy an actual German book. One that caught my eye was Föhn Mich Nicht Zu by Stephan Serin. The title means approximately “Don’t Talk My Ear Off,” and the book is about his experiences teaching in a troubled Berlin Gymnasium.
Downtown Göttingen Today
A Lovely Last Day in Germany
I have not read a complete book in German since 1990, so reading this one would be a big deal for me. Why have I not read a complete book in German? Well, because it is hard for me to read large volumes of German text.
I looked at the page count. Two hundred fifty-five. Not good. I had only five days until the end of German and the beginning of my Japanese unit, and the chances that I could/would read that many pages in five days were slim.
I hate buying books that I don’t finish. It makes me feel bad. But I bought it anyway. I took it with me to Cron & Lanz, an old and esteemed café in downtown Göttingen that is familiar to me from my childhood. They have great chocolate, though I stick to coffee nowadays.
Cron & Lanz
They Sell Delicious Things
And—surprise! As I sat there at Cron & Lanz, drinking cappuccino, I found I was not only enjoying my book, but also moving along through it rather quickly.
The school Herr Serin describes is not your standard German Gymnasium; rather, it is plagued by many of the problems you hear about when people complain about secondary education in the States: indifference of students, indifference of teachers, behavioral problems, deficiencies in basic skills, etc.
It probably helped my reading comprehension that I myself have taught plenty of problem students. Metal detectors were installed at a “business college” where I used to teach when I first moved to New York. And at John Jay College for Criminal Justice in Manhattan, a student I had no choice but to fail felt that calling me a “fucking bitch” was an appropriate response. That was a long time ago, though; nowadays I teach only fully grown-up grownups.
During this week in Germany I have actually been in Cron & Lanz a number of times. When I needed to warm up. When I felt a sudden urge to study grammar. When my jet lag demanded caffeination. If I came across a word I couldn’t figure out, I would pester coffee-drinking customers around me.
The Göttingen Sky Shortly Before Our Departure
Today’s word that I didn’t know was Mühl. I asked a guy near me, who looked like a Ph.D. student, what it meant.
“Sprechen Sie Englisch?” he asked. (Do you speak English?)
“Ja,” I said.
“It means ‘waste,’” he told me. And went back to his book.
I considered whether it might have been rude to interrupt a stranger’s meal in an elegant establishment to ask him to translate the word “waste.” I did not resolve that question in my head.
I am now in Voorburg, Holland. More on that shortly.