8th Week in Berlin (The Last Weekend)

It is right now my last week in Berlin. Two months ago, I planned for this weekend a trip to Eisenach, to visit the childhood home of Bach and Luther, and to admire the Wartburg castle, wherein the legendary medieval singing competition of Meistersingers, which later inspired the work of Tannhäuser by Wagner, supposedly took place. It is with great reluctance that I cancelled this well-planned trip, yet I felt the strong “necessity of conscience”, to spend and relish this last weekend in my host city, Berlin.

It was at this weekend that I experienced some of the most marvellous sides of Berlin. On Friday, under the mood of good weather, I set out after class to the very west districts of Berlin, Wannsee and Lichterfelde. It was a joy to see that Berlin, although being a busy metropolitan no lesser than New York, also has its wonderful sides of Nature with large bodies of water and large areas of forests. And those areas of green are sacred for Berliners, who habitually spend their weekends lying on the lake beaches or under the shades of tress with friends, families to enjoy warm weathers, or going out on a hiking trip into the wooded hills after lunches. I sometimes like to sit upon a stone at a ruin piece on an island called “Schwanenwerder” and gaze at the woods on the opposite shore. That day I spent a peaceful late afternoon there reading a book facing the sunset, and after that, a hearty Berlin local meal at a Biergarten nearby. Berlin food is known to be hearty but simple (because of the lack of care for time-consuming delicacies due to lack of time, they are busy people), yet the food started to feel juicy under a setting of Nature: food with ingredients from the nature which is directly accessible, the nature you feel such a personal connection with, is typical of Berlin food. Fontane wrote so favourably of Berliner food: “Dill, Morcheln, Rübchen aus Teltow, Oderkrebse, Hecht und Zander aus brandenburgischen Seen, Gänse aus dem Oderbruch, Honig aus Kienbaum, Milch und Butter aus dem Havelland, Gurken und Leinöl aus dem Spreewald.”

The Germans have an obsession with forests. If one looks at the map of Germany, one might feel surprised at how much of the geographical space is covered with green. Berlin is virtually surrounded by forests, and the “Central Park” of Berlin, “Tiergarten” is actually an isle of forest within the city (in comparison to the Central Park of New York, which is mostly lawn). This obsession with forests has its cultural reasons, as the imagery of forests is common in German literature, and this mentality permeates into peoples’ cultural life. On Saturday that weekend, I was lucky to enjoy an open-air concert by West-eastern Divan Orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim at the stage of Waldbühne (literally, Forest Stage). The venue was an open-air theatre in the midst of a forest based on the model of ancient Greek theatres. Although I found the fact uncomfortable that the venue was designed for the Nazis, yet the moment when the sun beams shined through the tree branches at a very tender musical passage by Liszt convinced me that the place has already been exorcised. The air was full of scent of late summer, and the sun gradually went down during Wagner’s “Morgendämmerung und Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt”. It was one of the most beautiful moments of music-listening, and I hope one day I will be conducting on this stage as well!


7th Week (Week of wandering in Nature)

That day a friend in my class and I got into a conversation about German songs (Lieder), and this famous one by Schubert occurred to both of us, because both of us could sing it:

Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust,
Das Wandern!
Das muss ein schlechter Müller sein,
Dem niemals fiel das Wandern ein,
Das Wandern.

(“Wanderschaft” Die schöne Müllerin, Wilhelm Müller)

Night fell and I came home. Sitting long at my desk and staring onto the sky and down to the woods in the yard, I suddenly felt something in me that was triggered, most likely by this song. I realised I had been staying in Berlin for the entire month, and even though I travelled before I came to Berlin, I travelled still mostly in towns. Before I came to Germany, I was in Shanghai and New York. Before my long holiday, places I frequented were Notre Dame (of course), Chicago, and Madison. I realised that I have always been in the city, in a town, or at least in the places that highly feature human civilisation and regulated by human regularities. I gazed at the moon, whose silver beams mix with the nocturnal sounds of crickets, and suddenly felt a strong desire to break out from everything, and to go into the nature, the deeper, the farther, the better.

I pulled out a map of Germany, and happened to see a large patch of green near Dresden. It is called Saxon Switzerland (Sächsische Schweiz). I was immediately fascinated by the information I found about it – in short, it is a mountainous region with sublime rock formations and river valleys. Since it was discovered in 1766 by two Swiss painters, countless romantic poets, musicians, and painters have set foot on the famous wandering route “Malerweg” (Painter Way) to be inspired. I made arrangements immediately, did research on the estimated duration of each stage of hiking, and called the inns there to settle down several overnights to connect different stages of the hiking.

The first day of hiking I was welcomed by storm. I stood at the porch of the inn and looked into the mountains. Heavy showers shrouded the forests in a dark and mysterious timbre. Mists rose from the woods and spread across the meadow, and made the landscape seem somehow deeper and grander. The entire view was in a way intimidating, but somehow alluring. I set out, intending to experience the might of nature. On this day’s trip I admired the curious thrusting rock forms in the forest, through which the path zigzagged. The rocks went sometimes over the head, sometimes solemnly pointed downwards, sometimes intertwined with each other. At many points, one has to go through some of the openings in the rock in a crouched position. The next thing I remember of that day was the view of Bastei Bridge, which dramatically stood across several high rocks, overlooking the grand valley of Elb river, the villages resting on the shores, and the abyss down the rocks. Right next to the bridge stood since 19th century an inn with a valley-view restaurant. I thought there was nothing better that having a hearty meal while gazing out into the valley. The mists floated in the valley still, half-transparent and uneven, and clouds were floating as well below our height. The broad Elb river could be partly seen through the sea of fog from here above, lying in tranquillity. The misty weather, I thought, seemed to make everything look more remote and convey an alluring grandeur.

Close to sunset I finally wandered to the inn I stayed at that night. Lying deep in a valley protected by the woods and a castle high above, it rested on a mill and has maintained its cosy hospitality since 1842 for wanderers. On the ground floor is a restaurant, on the upper floors are guest rooms. The house was furnished in completely 19th century wooden décor, and conveyed to my standard the best cosiness. After an extremely generous dinner, I came back to my room which was cosily small and with a window looking out to the mountains. The sun gradually retreated, the mists rose over the forests, which grow darker and deeper. Several hours passed and the moon rested itself on the top of a cliff, and under the moonlight, even the mists started to glow. The stream flowed past the mill with merry sounds and entertained with the cows on the lawn. I felt as if I have unconsciously slipped into a nostalgic old fairyland, secluded, quiet, and idyllic. I sat upon the window, turned off all the lights except the dim lamp beside me, and intended to enjoy this serene night. Under moonlight I took out my pocket poetry collection, and read:

Mondbeglänzte Zaubernacht,
Die den Sinn gefangen hält,
Wundervolle Märchenwelt,
Steig auf in der alten Pracht!

(aus „Wunder der Liebe“, Ludwig Tieck)

In the following three days I wandered the entire region until the village Schmilka on the border of Czech republic. Looking back into those wandering days, I thought of memories of climbing rocks, being assailed by the chill in the forest, strolling along the stream, being welcomed by inns, walking past mills, resting in forest grottos, etc. I believe that these moments, though experienced not always with easiness, will remain in my heart. The last night I rested in an inn at the foot of the mountain, and as I looked back to the ridges, I found it unbelievable that nature just revealed me her beauty with such generosity. It was my Romanticist tendency that drew me to nature, and this unique experience seemed to have brought me closer to Goethe, Eichendorff, Schubert, Schumann and Wagner. The images of Saxon Switzerland will always come back to mind, and remind me of the fairness of Creation.

The train back to Berlin ran along Elb valley, and as I watched the river and quaint villages in golden morning light pass by my view, I bid my farewell to this patch of land, as the last several clock towers of the churches gradually left my view.

Bald werd ich dich verlassen,
Fremd in der Fremde gehn,
Auf buntbewegten Gassen
Des Lebens Schauspiel sehn;
Und mitten in dem Leben
Wird deines Ernstes Gewalt
Mich Einsamen Erheben,
So wird mein Herz nicht alt.

(aus „Abschied“, Eichendorff)

5th Week in Berlin (On German National Character)

The topic of discussion of three days of this week centred around the national character of the Germans, and some interesting but important conclusions were made, or at least suggested, that probably surprised many of us.

When asked to describe a typical image of the German character, what do people think of? On one of the classes we were asked to choose from a large group of adjectives certain ones that correspond with our image of German characters in our mind, and thereafter to talk with one other and explain why we chose certain words (as a speaking exercise). Perhaps not surprisingly, the most students I talked to chose many of the words that I also chose, such as “disciplined”, “serious”, “diligent”, “routine-oriented”, “punctual”. Indeed, the notion that the Germans are traditionally obsessed with discipline, rules, and precision is common worldwide. More importantly, this notion is also very true and historically grounded.

The formation of a national character has to do with not only biological factors, but more importantly, with historical ones. In the case of Germany, the historical condition of the people and the formation of the modern German nation play an important role in shaping the German mentality. In contrary to the medieval France, England Sweden or Russia, that continually developed into established monarchies grounded in firmly feudal societies, the German empire “Kaiserreich” remained a loose confederate with individual states under the sovereignty of local electorates instead of an overriding monarchy. The loose structure of the German land proved to be a special weakness during the time of religious wars of the 16th and 17th century, conflicts within the German-speaking realm between protestant and catholic sovereignties were also common. Another consequence of the loose structure of the German society was the lack of a prominent privileged social class, as existed in France or Britain. The German society has been primarily a society of the middle class with a high degree of social and professional mobility that is accessible to everyone.

The above-mentioned historical factors would have led to a national character that is completely opposite to what we think of the German character. Yet how comes the “rules-obsessed”, “authority-obeying” German tendency? According to the Netherlandish sociologist Geert Hofstede, the historically loose structure of the German society led to a tendency of “Uncertainty Avoidance” (Unsicherheitsvermeidung), that paradoxically explained the German predilection for anything planned, organised, governed and their obsession with orderliness. All these tendencies developed out of the intention to prevent uncertainty under an extremely insecure society. This German character was further strengthened after WWII, as political correctness, national righteousness and moral tightness were the centre of discussions. Moreover, the highly developed automobile industry in Germany made “Made in German” a world-recognised label for good quality, and a highly respected image of the German industry.

However, some of my personal experiences seem to be contrary of the above-mentioned German character. I was at first very surprised at how often the buses in Berlin are not on time, and if that may be due to the changeable traffic situations, many Germans simply disprove the public notion of the national character as too stereotypical. Many say that Germans nowadays are simply not as upstanding, punctual or conscientious in personal life as one often thinks. It also seems that there is a large body of young people who can’t help but to break out from the confines of traditional German virtues. Our instructor told us of his story of his youth: when he and his sister were driving home and they finished eating the hamburger in the car, he told his sister, “This time let’s do something totally crazy: let’s simply throw the packages out of the window.” And they did it. (That’s important.)

Till today, I have not understood what’s going on in the national mentality of the Germans. Some say that the Germans loosened their hold on virtues such as “punctuality” and “discipline” because these are secondary virtues, and they now put more effort into “primary” virtues such as personhood and business morality. But I don’t see the necessity of losing “secondary virtues” for the sake of “primary virtues”. And I wonder, why not have both?

However, it is also important to recognise that this deviation from traditional German virtues in personal life does not apply to everyone and necessarily to the work place. Many sectors of industries in Germany have a higher degree of professionalism than their counterparts in other countries. In my conversation with the manager of Steinway Berlin, I recounted on my experience with the German-made Steinway pianos (I practice at the Steinway studio every afternoon), that sound and feel better than the Steinways I played in the USA, and I was told that is because piano-making is a specific profession in Germany and the individual piano makers are professionalised and have to train for 10 years to acquire mastership of piano making in order to work in the Steinway factory in Hamburg. This lengthy process of professionalization of piano makers do not exist in most piano manufacturers in the world.

Perhaps this high degree of professionalism is still typically German and explains the high quality of German products. It might be safe to say that the traditional German virtues are still at work at higher societies and business situations, yet probably more German nowadays choose to live with a double standard – making a larger distinction between public sphere and private life. Yet German mentality might well be more complicated, and must take more years for me to thoroughly fathom.

Berlin Week 4 (An impressionistic view of Berlin)

One often asks: Where is the Centre of Berlin?

To answer this question is apparently difficult. Is it Brandenburger Gate? Grand, upstanding and victorious, it commemorates the Prussian victory over Napoleon. Its stature rightly qualifies it to be the Centre. Geographically, it is also indeed close to the centre, and moreover, it is situated also in the district “Mitte” (German “Centre). However, as it turns out, I have not been there for even once since I came here 4 weeks ago; and natives don’t go there as well and don’t tend to put it into mind – it seems only tourists go there. Some say the centre is Potsdamer Platz, but it’s obviously too modern to be representative of a historical city. Others recognise the area of Bundestag and Kanzleramt as the centre, but it is s centre of politics, and has an air of being lofty from our folks’ chit-chats. As a matter of fact, this question is difficult to answer when applied to any major cultural capital, be it New York, London, or Paris, but it has almost been agreed upon that this question is especially irrelevant to Berlin, because it is impossible for Berlin to be more multifarious. That being said, if I were to choose a place most representative of Berlin, I would definitely go for the entire Mitte and Potsdamer Platz.

It has been an established routine for me to take the bus 200 everyday from Alexanderplatz after class to my piano studio near Cornelius Bridge. Thats almost a southwest-northeast diagonal across the city. On these bus trips, I have almost never feel inclined to take up my usual habit of reading on public transportation; instead, I take a seat on the upper decker and cannot help but passively absorb the sights of human seas, traffic, and peculiarities of architecture.

Most part of my bus route goes through the “Mitte”, the historical district with boulevards, palaces, and opera houses. The painting of Eduard Gaertner Unter den Linden may well revoke the look of the central boulevard in the past (19 century). However, when one walks along Unter den Linden nowadays, one sees construction sites and notices that almost every building along this historical district is scaffolded. There may be some scaffolding upon the dome of Berliner Cathedral, and the State Opera House of Berlin has moved out of Schiller Theatre because of construction work. It is a shame that the tourists cannot see the most appealing looks of the historical architectures, but it is paradoxically, and probably ironically impossible to ignore the essential beauty even in these constructions projects. With very strict construction regulations and maintenance of traffic order, the constructions do not disrepute the German orderliness. But more importantly, it is deeply exciting to stand at a vantage point of view, for example on the tower of Berliner Cathedral, overlook the grand expanse of construction work peacefully going on and to imagine how the city would look in 20 years’ time in the future, when the building projects would likely have been finished. Most areas of the city centre of Berlin have been destroyed by allied bombing, but instead of building new buildings with glass walls in rigid grids, people have decided to bring back the historical spirit of the city by painstakingly rebuilding Mitte. Underlying this decision is a respect for a nation’s cultural values and historical identity, which are to be carried along and treasured.

Potsdamer Platz has rightly been referred to as Berlin’s new “Mitte”. In the 18th century here stood a toll station and two main roads – Berlin-Potsdamer Chaussee and Preußische Staatschaussee. After WWII this site was where the British, American and Soviet occupation zones bordered each other. Since 1961 the Berlin Wall ran through here and this space therefore became almost a no-man’s land. Several remnants of the former Wall still stand here solitarily, solemnly reminding people the historical scars and fragmentation of this city. Therefore, as a matter of fact, the current layout of Potsdamer Platz only took place shortly after the reunification in 1990. Several buildings are especially representative of the modern flair in the district: Forum Tower in Daimler Complex, Kollhoff Tower, Bahn Tower and Sony Centre. A stroll along the Neue Potsdamer Strasse always inspires excitement and awe, for as a connecting point overriding the former east and west Berlins, Potsdamer Platz expresses itself with a stylistically neutral, thus ultra-modern tonality. It is as if in order to present the totally new facet of Berlin emerging from the darkness of 20th century, the building projects adopt modernity with an extra dosage.

If the Mitte symbolises a historical retrospection, the Potsdamer Platz definitely present a futuristic anticipation. Such is the charm (or more objectively, particularity) of Berlin – it is multifaceted, fragmented, scarred, complicated and above all, diverse. Compared to other cultural capitals, such as New York, Chicago, London or Paris, that are mostly established and intact in comparison, Berlin has suffered significantly in the wars and under the cold war shadows, and in recent decades it has went through a series of re-design, reconstruction and renovation. Besides the remaining historical districts of Berlin, Berlin also appears to be an exciting building ground for new projects and possibilities; it is both old and new, rooted in traditions but in many ways also futuristic. In such a city, one might feel lost, lost in a confusion of identities and feel isolated in a nonchalant irrelevance, but for those who stay here with a sense of purpose and vision, Berlin is always wonderful.

Goethe-Institut Week 3 (Regarding the balance of two foreign languages)

Although I am fully aware that I am in Berlin to study German, I am still speaking English from time to time to keep my English in use. Because both English and German are foreign languages to me, I should prevent both of them from getting rusty. Yet this week I noticed something interesting – when I was ordering a sandwich deliberately in English at a breakfast shop, my tongue felt stiff, and at that moment did not not how to describe the sandwich in English, which I usually refer to in German “die Baguette mit Schnitzel”. I then switched to German to clarify. It seems as if my German, although still far less proficient as my English, acquires more fluency and naturalness in this totally native environment.

According to my German teacher of the first week, this is a good sign – it indicates that one is starting to think in German, and consequently, one’s mind and speaking habits are more on the German track. According to her theory, when one studies a new language, this new language takes up space in the part of the brain that deals with foreign languages, and as one learns more than one foreign languages, these languages compete for the limited space in that part of the brain. As a result, when a new foreign language comes in, and a foreign language acquired earlier is not actively in use, this language would be “marginalised”. For this reason, she speaks different languages to her multilingual colleagues from time to time, to keep these foreign languages in a “balance of power”.

I don’t know if this theory is scientifically proved, but my personal experiences prove it to be true. My experience of difficulty in English at the breakfast shop at implies that German and English are not only two languages different in vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation, but also more importantly, grounded in two mentalities, two ways of thinking, and two seemingly similar, but starkly different cultures. I would characterise my first two weeks as a confrontation with the exoticism of Germany. There are many things about Germany that I have not expected before I came here. Having spent one year in the US and adjusted to the American way of life, I have noticed many things particular of Germany, but do not typically exist in the US. Here is an incomplete list of examples thereof:

1) A highly mobile lifestyle especially in cities, characterised by the prominence of renting apartments, the wide use of bikes, and a highly developed public transportation system that connects every corner of a city and every town within Germany.
2) The practice of husbandry to protect environment, as in the cases such as you have to bring your own bag for shopping, otherwise the plastic bags in supermarkets cost; the rarity of air-conditioners to prevent further global warming; a refund of 25 cents as an encouragement for people to bring back empty water bottles to shops for recycling.
3) The predilection for bright colours, especially bright yellow, sometimes also bright green and red. Especially noteworthy is that yellow is the theme colour of many major companies and manufacturers, such as Lufthansa, BVG (Berlin Public Transportation Authority), Deutsche Post (German Postal System), Deutsche Oper Berlin (a major opera company in Berlin), Berliner Philharmoniker, Deutsche Grammophon (Classical music recording company), Jack Wolfskin (sport equipment and clothing). The combination of yellow and black is very favoured: some say it is reminiscent of the national tricolour, some say its simply eye-catching. In contrast, I recall that the prominent colour in the US would be a nostalgic dark blue or red in most cases.
4) The surprisingly casual dressing style. While most people would expect Europeans to be more conservative and probably “stiffer” than Americans, most people here dress with a, if not always casual, but a practical flair.

The list would go on indefinitely, but the point here is not simply to list cultural differences, but to indicate how different the two cultures, and consequently, two mentalities are, and implications regarding language learning are to be derived therefrom.

Most English-speaking German learners, including myself, are equipped with a German-English two-way dictionary. While this dictionary is helpful in most cases when we search for words that we know in English but do not know in German, this practice may lead to and possibly consolidate the habit, whereby one produces German conversation with an English mind-set by translating words from English to German, and in extreme cases, translate the English collocations and idiom awkwardly into German. As a consequence, traces of English cannot be more apparent in our German speaking. The German speech produced in this way certainly does not sound authentic, not to mention that Germans don’t say certain things that English-speaking people say. For example, although the greeting “How are you? /How’s it going? /What’s up?” has its counterpart in German “Wie geht’s”, it is only rarely used for greeting in slightly more formal situations.

The inclination to produce German with an English mind explains a lot of my speaking problems I encountered recently. I noticed that in extensive conversations in German, my speech gets stuck quite often. This indicates I am searching for an expression, and it is often exactly this English-speaking mentality that instructs me to search for an English expression in German. On the other hand, I speak much more fluently and assuredly when with natives, and this is probably because their German authenticity has a positive impact on me. I am still looking for ways to separate my English-speaking and German-speaking mind-sets, so that my command of German is no longer subordinate to my English speaking side. I believe that continuing reading German newspapers and books and collecting useful idiomatic expressions therefrom would definitely help. Also, I realised it is usually necessary to be a “big child”, and humbly ask natives what they mean if I do not understand what they say, or ask them how to say certain things that I don’t know know to say in German.

Reflecting on the Summer


Now that I’m back in South Bend and missing all the life and color of Beirut, there’s been a lot of time to think back on my goals for the summer, the insights I’ve gained, and where I plan to go from here.

More than anything else, this summer reminded me that the purpose of language is communication. It’s okay if I make mistakes and sound a little ridiculous as long as I’m out there engaging people in conversation and broadening my worldview. My tendency had always been to learn as much Arabic as possible on my own before going out into the world and trying to apply it. Textbooks, apps, podcasts, YouTube… these are all great tools. But learning a language without extensive interpersonal dialogue can reinforce bad habits and make you sound mechanical. Speaking off the cuff, messing things up, and having people correct me are the things that caused the most noticeable improvements. By the end of the summer, I could hold simple conversations in the colloquial language, fairly sophisticated conversations in the standard language, and I produced a 1,000 page research paper in Arabic (of which I was quite proud). Still, I underestimated how much the divide between colloquial and standard Arabic would slow down my progress, and I still need to put in a lot of work to improve my listening comprehension and become more comfortable initiating conversations, moving out of my comfort zone, and taking risks with the language.

The Arabic program that I took part in was especially rigorous, and the level that I tested into (High Intermediate) happened to be more demanding than other classes in the program. This left very little time for anything other than class, homework, and sleep. Taking advantage of the many events happening in the city would have required me to bail on my homework, and I couldn’t bring myself to do that. For the most part, I was okay with this. I had already traveled extensively around the Middle East and visited Lebanon last summer, so it wasn’t my first encounter with the culture. The language took precedent for me. Still, I did not feel that I was fully immersed in the language, because I was mostly surrounded by other students and had limited opportunities for meaningful engagement with Lebanese. As much as I appreciated the rigor and improved my Arabic, had I known more about the structure of this program, I may have opted instead for something that prioritized conversation over grammar and vocabulary. I would encourage those who are considering an SLA Grant to think about the kind of experience you are hoping to have. What type of cultural exchange do you want (e.g., organized class trips or free time to explore on your own)? Is your primary goal to learn how to engage in casual conversations, or do you want to focus on perfecting the mechanics of the language and using it in formal spaces? Thinking carefully about these questions ahead of time can help you select a program that adequately meets your language goals.

It’s difficult to know exactly what the future holds for me in terms of further Arabic study and the application of it. My current dissertation plans would bring me back to the Middle East for at least six months, during which I would be able to continue formal language training alongside my research. As I grow in my field, I hope to continue working with local partners to develop and implement programs that provide psychosocial support for youth that have been displaced or otherwise affected by political violence in the region. In the meantime, I will continue to study Arabic here at Notre Dame and seek out opportunities for practicing conversation. As a move forward, I will focus more heavily on improving my colloquial Arabic and finding spaces to build on the wide array of language skills I gained from this past summer.

مع السلامة // With peace