Category Archives: Germany

April

The longest snowfall we had all winter, by which I mean that it snowed all day without stopping, came on April 1. “April fools,” my students said glumly. Considering temperatures were well into the teens (Celsius) just days before, no one was too pleased with this newest transition.

The biggest ice storm of my childhood, the one in which we lost power for a week, was also the first week of April. Despite, or perhaps due to, the cold, very grey winters of the town where I grew up, we have this mental block where April means spring. And yet, spring is temperamental and we learn this anew every year. As the children’s rhyme goes, “April showers bring May flowers.” (And then the rhyme becomes a history lesson: “And what do Mayflowers bring? Pilgrims!”)

Here in Weimar I learned the saying, “April, April, er macht was er will” before we even got to April. April does what it wants indeed. Although the end of March was lovely, people knew that April was just around the corner. I was warned accordingly and, true to upbringing, brushed the warning aside.

When I got home from the grocery store Friday afternoon, a laughable amount of snow in my hair, my neighbour kindly held the door open as I wheeled my bike up our front step. I commented on the sudden turn in the weather, just as I had the week before when we woke to bright sunshine and summery temperatures. “April, April,” he replied, “er macht was er will.”

Naja. Ah well. April will do what it wants and on the other end of this, we’ll have summer flowers.

This is my first spring in a long time and the world is waking.

From the Heart: Learning German Idioms

Learning a language is about much more than vocabulary (there are common words that I have to look up every single time I come across them), grammar (there are between six and sixteen ways to say “the” in German, depending on how you’re counting), and pronunciation (adding “chen” to the end of a word is a common diminutive and my tongue just doesn’t do this properly).

Learning a language is about understanding how the language flows and how it feels. It takes time to learn common slang, filler words in casual conversation, and the appropriate feedback noises to indicate that you’re listening, or whether you agree or disagree. I’m often really quiet in groups of German speakers (which is admittedly sometimes also the case with English speakers), both because it helps just to listen and because once I’ve crafted a comment or a response, the conversation has probably moved on. Interjecting in a group of more than three people remains a challenge.

But after over a year of learning German and almost nine months living here, communicating in German is becoming easier, more comfortable, and much more aligned with what I actually think and feel rather than being determined by my language acquisition skills. I find myself dreaming in German, particularly when I know I’m going to be in a setting where I am the only non-native German speaker. While this is not entirely relaxing, it does indicate that my brain is processing this language and I find the neuroscience fascinating.

Making progress in German has also led to learning the idioms that make up far more of language than I realized. I remember learning idioms in French but I don’t remember using them, perhaps because I studied French in school surrounded by other French learners whereas I’m learning German surrounded by native speakers. I’ve been particularly taken by the frequency of German idioms that refer to the heart (das Herz) and I think they do a lovely job of dispelling the stereotypes of Germans as stiff and unfriendly, law-abiding and bureaucratic, and lacking in a sense of humour.

Some German idioms that reference the heart are similar to those that do so in English. The literal translation of sein Herz ausschütten, for example, is to pour one’s heart out. But rather than wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve, the German version, das Herz auf der Zunge tragen, literally translates to carrying one’s heart on one’s tongue. And whereas an English speaker knows the feeling where the heart drops into the stomach, the German sensation is the one in which das Herz rutscht in die Hose, or the heart drops into the pants.

Interestingly, the preoccupation with the mind in English becomes that of the heart in German. While English speakers would refer to being of one mind, Germans would say ein Herz und eine Seele sein, to be a heart and a soul. There is also etwas auf dem Herzen haben, literally to have something on the heart. In English, something is on the mind. To ask someone what is troubling them is to ask, “Was liegt dir auf dem Herzen?” I wonder if it feels different when something lies on the heart than on the mind. Additionally, rather than the idea that great minds think alike, Germans would say “Du sprichst mir aus dem Herzen.” The translation, you speak to my heart, conjures a different sense of understanding an individual and I like this very much.

German also has several expressions surrounding the idea of striking up the courage to do something or getting up the nerve to do something. In German, an individual can grip one’s heart (sich ein Herz fassen), take one’s heart into one’s hand (das Herz in die Hand nehmen), or give one’s heart a prod (seinem Herz einen Stoss geben). There is no question here about where courage or nerve comes from.

My German friends speak excellent English but I so enjoy just sitting back and listening when they speak to one another in German. Modes of expression are different, emotions and opinions are conveyed differently, and humour takes on a different tone. When commentary is provided in English, either before or after a discussion in German, the commentary is similar rather than the same. The languages embody different ways of being and are therefore different ways of knowing one another.

Nelson Mandela wrote, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” I decided to learn German so that I would be able to meet people where and as who they are. That my social interactions occur in a combination of languages provides an environment that I haven’t been in before, and one in which I occupy a different place than I might otherwise. As a person, I am often looking to understand rather than to be understood and the shift in focus is compelling. To speak to a person’s heart takes time, patience, and practice, and I am grateful to have a supportive community with which to do so.

Buchenwald

I wasn’t expecting to see a sign for the Buchenwald memorial, even though we had decided as a group to ride there. I wasn’t expecting my heart to drop into my stomach and begin to beat slightly faster. I wasn’t expecting the sounds of the world to grow softer, to find myself so fully inside my own body.

In short, I wasn’t expecting to feel what I felt.


Sometime during my first week here in Weimar, I saw a bus with the word “Buchenwald” on its marquee. This is a place, I reminded myself. A real place. Linked by roads, buses, and people. Where life exists and carries on.

But it wasn’t until last week, actually, that I realized that I knew the word “Wald” – forest. Yesterday, looking into the forest, I learned “die Buche” – beech tree. Buchenwald is a beech forest.

Life exists and carries on.


We turned left at the roundabout and I listened to a friend explain where we were, but I already knew. The obelisk had given it away even before the stone marker indicating the beginning of Blutstraße, or Blood Road. We pulled over and I took a moment that I didn’t know I needed. To the unasked question I answered, This is very strange.

Did I want to turn back? I was grateful for the offer, but no. So we rode on.

Blutstraße is so named because it was built by camp inmates from 1938 to 1939. Small stone markers along the road indicate the railroad that was also built by inmates, a railroad designed to bring people here more quickly rather than walking up the road. The markers are painted with a bright blue train, ensuring visibility through the trees. Buchenwald. Beech forest.

We stopped to look at a map of the sight and the surrounding towns and villages. The residents of my town, Weimar, were marched up this road by the Allies who refused to accept that they didn’t know what had happened here.

The vastness of loss is staggering.


We left our bikes at the entrance to the memorial and walked towards a tower that I have only previously seen from the Autobahn below. That was the idea – to be visible. To be a reminder. So that this will never happen again. The thought of forgetting, the evidence seen around the world of all kinds of forgetting about so much history, is exactly why it was important to be here.

The complex includes three mass graves and as we walked down the steps towards them, the wind picked up. And once there, once protected by the stone that forced us to look down to the grassy knoll at its centre, the noise of the wind faded and we could take stock of where we were.

We followed the path along the ridge with monuments representing each of the eighteen nations that the prisoners came from. We read aloud each name, doing our best to speak the language that the people of that nation would have used to name their home.

The path curved back up the hill and we followed it, pausing at the sculptures illustrating scenes of life in the camp.

And then we returned to where we’d started, wind urging us along, back to the sculpture that had greeted us upon entrance. I couldn’t bring myself to take a photo of the faces that were far too real.

But the artist left no doubt as to their triumph, and for this, I am grateful.


What I felt in my bones as we walked through the memorial was not the sense of something uncanny that came over me at the roundabout. Rather, I felt the fire of a question that I will never stop asking: How can it be that people looked at other people and did not see them?

And to do justice to this question, I must acknowledge that this is often the case in the world we live in. I must face the reality in which we declare, “Never again”, but are quick to look away precisely when we need to look more closely. And to play my part in the world, I need to say this aloud.

Yet, I do believe the world has come a long way. I believe people have dug profoundly deep into history and rebuilt because of it. And precisely because this is possible, the challenge remains: What will we do, each of us, to make the world a better, more peaceful place?

To start, we must never stop looking.