| Imagine a
city that isn't particularly attractive, or especially clean; a city where the people are no friendlier - and perhaps even considerably less friendly - than
those in your home town. Doesn't sound very appealing, does it? Ah, but
if this city just happens to be one in a country whose language you are
learning, it is a different matter altogether. For in that case, everything
about it may well seem magically attractive to you. You will overlook
its defects, and only focus on the many things that you find
fascinating about it. In short, you will view it through rose-colored
I distinctly remember my first months in
Germany way back when, and also the first time I came to Spain. During
my first weeks here in Spain, I made it a point to meet people, always
an advisable procedure when you want to perfect your skills in a foreign language.
Looking back at that time, I realize that some of the people I
associated with were not the kind I would like to take home to
introduce to my family in the U.S.
For instance, I occasionally visited a
small group of young people who were to the extreme left politically.
No, by that I don't mean the "Ted Kennedy/John Kerry" left; those two
venerable politicians would definitely seem decidedly right-of-center
in comparison with those folks I hung around with, who were more the
"somewhere-between-Fidel-Castro-and-Joe-Stalin" kind of extreme left.
Their days were spent mainly sitting around smoking dope and talking
about when the world revolution would finally come to Spain so that they
would be able
to live the sorts of lives they knew
they deserved. What in the world was I doing eating an occasional lunch
with them in their home, and listening to all that nonsensical
propaganda? Well, for me, it was actually interesting.
Not their naïve beliefs, of course, but the fact that they
were saying it all in Spanish, and I had the chance to expand my
knowledge of that language by listening to them. (And I might add that
though I disagreed with them, I did get a chance to see that some of
them were indeed nice people - even if their views did contain more
than a touch of fanaticism.)
Before living in Spain, I spent 13 years
in Germany, in the city of Kassel. Kassel, like practically all the
cities in Germany, is neat and clean. However, if you walk through the
center, you will certainly not be impressed with its beauty, for Kassel
is not an especially beautiful city - at least not since Oct 23, 1943.
On the night of the 22/23 of that year, over 560 British bombers rained
destruction and death over Kassel, killing about 10,000 people, and
destroying more than 75% of the city (some figures put this as high as
90%). You won't see many signs of this today, since Kassel was rebuilt
in the post-war years. However, the new buildings completely lack the
charm of the pre-war ones, and almost all of the edifices you see in
the center have that stark, modernistic, "functional" look that often
predominated in the 50's and 60's. Neat and clean, to be sure, but
boring as well.
Nonetheless, during my first months in
Kassel, it was the most interesting place on earth. After all, I was
living in Germany, something I had always wanted to do. When I walked
through the center back then, the uninteresting style of the buildings
didn't bother me one bit. I hardly noticed it, since all my attention
was focused on myriads of fascinating details, like signs in store
windows: "Sonderangebot" (special offer), "Buchhandlung" (Bookshop),
"Apotheke" ("Chemist's" to you Brits, "Drug Store" for us Americans),
and the like. "Parken verboten" (No parking allowed"), "Strassenbahn"
(Street car -something I had previously only known as a wee child back
Wherever I looked, there were words that
I had either learned during my German studies, and was now seeing in a
practical context for the first time, or words that I had never seen
before, and whose meaning I had to divine - or else jot down in my
little notebook so that I could look them up later.
And the people! I made it a point to ask
directions often, just to have the chance to talk to people, and maybe
make the acquaintance of a few. I didn't always understand the answers
they gave me, but so what? I was forced to think, to try to figure out
what the devil they were saying. It was a wonderful learning
experience. When I had made a few friends, they informed me that people
in Kassel were not known for their friendliness, but rather had the
reputation of being "etwas verschlossen und misstraurisch" (somewhat
closed and mistrustful). I was a trifle surprised, for I thought they
were great, simply because they were German, and I was there as an
American trying to master their language. I was viewing both the people
as well as the city through rose-colored glasses, and I loved every
minute of it!
(An aside: my conscience will not permit me to criticize Kassel's
post-war appearance without commenting as well on its most remarkable
feature: Park Wilhelmshöhe. This forest-like park, located on
the western outskirts of the city, a few kilometers from the center, is
most beautiful park in Europe. It is one of my favorite places on
earth, and is definitely worth going out of your way to visit. One of
its most notable features is Schloss Wilhelmshöhe,
-Wilhelmshöhe Palace - , which is now the seat of a fantastic
art gallery, housing some 15 Rembrandts, as well as hundreds of other
masterpieces. Also, let me say that the people in Kassel, though not
naturally extraverted, are really fine folks and excellent friends once
you get to know them, and I myself made a few life-long friends during
my stay there.
Being in a foreign city while learning
the local language is one of the most wonderful, memorable and
enriching experiences you can ever have, and I almost pity those who
have never done so. If mastering Spanish is one of your goals, and you
ever get the chance to visit a city like Granada, Spain (where I now
live), by all means, do so! Or is speaking French your aim? Besides
Paris, you might want to check out delightful places like Tours,
Angers, Poitiers, Montpellier, or Albi. But no matter what
language you are learning, or what foreign city you choose to visit,
you will find your stay there to be a treasure that you will always
hold fondly in memory, and on which you will frequently look back with
nostalgia in the future.
A few weeks or months wearing rose-colored glasses - recommendable to
anyone who wants to add a touch of magic to life!
14) Inertia - how
can help you... or ruin you
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