Monday, November 28, 2011


It's amazing how quickly vacation passes by. It's been great to catch up with friends, spend time with family and enjoy the fantastic weather. Below are some images from the last week.

Julian, had some buffalo burgers

Downtown San Diego

California Adventure


Old Town San Diego

Breakfast at Denny's

Chillin by the pool

Pizza in Hillcrest

Car show in Del Mar

Thanksgiving dinner

And of course, a day at the beach

And to think in a few days I'll be wrapped up in my winter layers.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Getting home

It is 6 in the morning California time. I actually woke up a few hours ago, but managed to doze for another couple hours. The journey here was long, but fortunately no lost bags or missed connections or forgotten boarding passes, or other such bad luck. Obviously the first stop on the way home was for Mexican food, paired with a cold Corona. We took a direct flight this time, so it actually wasn't too bad. I mean a super long flight is a super long flight, so there isn't much of a difference between 9 and 11 hours once you're on the plane. I realized that over the years I have acquired a few habits when moving through airports and sitting on planes:

1. I love going through the Duty Free shops and trying expensive hand creams I have no intention of buying.

2. Even though I worked there for five years, I seldom go to Starbucks...except when I'm in an airport. I must admit I was bummed when the London barista looked confused and shot a quick, "No," when I asked him if they have pumpkin spice. Wtf, tis the season dude, I mean chap...

3. The last few years I've noticed that international flights (depending on the airline) provide you with a personal screen filled with movies and TV series to keep you occupied during the long haul. I tend to watch cheesy romantic comedies that I would a) probably never admit to watching to most people and 2) probably wouldn't watch in any other context than a 11 hour plane ride.

4. I try to be nice and have patience with airport employees, even if they are yelling at me to remove my shoes and watch and telling me that my backpack must go in a container to be x-rayed (not simply left on the conveyor belt). If I've learned anything it's that if you want help, you won't get it by being rude.

5. The best place to sit on a long flight is the emergency exit row, if you can get it. This time, we were in the row that was right by the exit and had the toilets right in front of us so we had like a meter of leg room, could totally stretch out, it was excellent. Incidentally, there was some kind of tour group on the flight, I noticed lots of people in their older years boarding with these maroon duffle bags. I know it sounds mean, but I did get a laugh when 9 out of 10 old people couldn't figure out how to open the bathroom door and would awkwardly feel around the door without getting it to open. Even though there's a large "PUSH" sign, most people grabbed for the ash tray (PS what is with the ash trays below the signs that prohibit smoking?) even though they may have gone more than once or seen someone else open it.

6. Airplane food has come a long way. I can remember days where you'd receive a glorified TV dinner, but on the last few flights I've gone on the warm meal was downright tasty. I must admit I also enjoy how everything is individually packaged, the salt and pepper packets, the cutlery, the water in a little cup with a pull back lid, the bread, butter, salad and dressing. This meal even had chocolate caramel mousse! In addition to a warm meal, most long haul flights will also offer you a small snack a few hours before landing. Depending on the time of day, I've gotten a small breakfast with some fruit, juice and croissant or something. However since we were landing in the evening we got a lunch-ish snack pack, which as soon as I opened it I knew I wasn't going to eat it (pre-made sandwich and some muffin thing), I guess they can't all be winners.

7. British people know how to queue, something American airports could take a lesson from. We had a layover in Heathrow, so we were shuttled through security and customs before arriving at our gate. However, I must say the airport operates quite smoothly and there are often employees whose job it is simply to tell people where to queue, depending on the traffic flow they may send you to another station to alleviate congestion. This was not the case, however, coming into San Diego "international" airport. I don't think there is much international traffic going through there, so when a machine from Europe comes in we had to go through a control area, which perhaps they aren't used to managing. After meandering from the plane down a hallway, all 300 or so passengers were dumped into a single room with 4 stations for controlling passports (2 for US citizens, 2 for visitors), there was nobody directing people into any line, but rather just the workers who would periodically shout at the crowd to remind people of which lines were which. There weren't even ropes to show people where to line up, we just kind of had to form a haphazard snake that wrapped around the whole room. After the passport control was the special luggage room for international flights, which of course had to be x-rayed and controlled by a dog before we could exit. There was a two-way mirror where once in a while a voice would rudely yell at people who ignored the "No cell phones" signs "Hey you! Yeah, you! I can see you! Stop using your cell phone!"

8. Which brings me to my next point, people at airports are like cattle, or lemmings, or some animal that just kind of follows the group. You often feel disoriented in airports, it takes a minute to get your bearings, even if you've been in that particular airport before. It is funny if you take a minute to just observe, the mass of bodies ambling down a corridor resembles a bunch of cows in a huge way. To board the plane we had to take a bus to the machine, so everyone piled into a stretch bus with "San Diego" on the side. Most people weren't talking, just kind of standing there. When we got to the machine everyone's instinct was to pile out, but the driver yelled, "Wait!" and so we all did until we received instructions to proceed.

It was an adventure, but all in all a problem free journey. Now I can get down to the business of enjoying my vacation :-)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Word of the week: Zahnarzt

Zahnarzt: dentist

The past week has been busy. I’m about to take a little vacation and that has left less time to sit and ponder or think of new topics. One item that has been on my to-do list for some time has been a visit to the dentist. Growing up I always went to the same dentist, and on breaks from college I always tried to make time for a check up and cleaning. But sadly once I graduated and was no longer covered by my parents’ insurance or university provided health care I became one of many uninsured Americans and let my regular appointment schedule lapse.

When I first received permission to stay in the country, part of the process entailed proving that I had health insurance. After finding a provider that was acceptable to the German immigration offices I pretty much called it a day. I’m one of those people who fortunately don’t get sick too often. The occasional cold or sore throat may come my way, but for a while I haven’t really needed to go to the doctor. So I pay my quarterly premium but have yet to really utilize it. But then it recently occurred to me that it had been a while since my last dentist visit, and I recalled seeing something in the paperwork about dental coverage, so I decided to make an appointment.

Since it has admittedly been a while since my teeth were checked, I was a bit nervous about the state of affairs in there. I learned another word today, “der Zahnstein,” (tartar). I found that word in English to also be a bit unsavory just because of the connotation. If you translate the word into English (as non-native speakers such as myself tend to do), it is “Tooth rock,” which paints even more vividly unsettling images. But after a quick set of X rays, auf Deutsch, “die Röntgenaufnahme,” (fun fact: it’s named after the German inventor Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen) and a quick polishing I was told that everything is in order. Glad to hear that my cavity-free record is still intact! 

If you haven’t lately perhaps it’s about time for your check-up! Have a nice week!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Auf jeden Fall

*Caveat: I busted out my German grammar book for this post and was partially inspired by a linguist known for his contributions to the realm of language and thought, so it might get a bit nerdy here.

By now I have mentioned on more than a few occasions my difficulties with the German language. Among pronunciation of umlauts, false cognates and Du or Sie, I’ve also alluded to the various articles (der, die, das) and using them correctly based on the sentence, which is to say, knowing when to use which case. 

What is a case? The case of a noun [car, boy, girl] or pronoun [it, he, her] depends on its grammatical function in a phrase. English and German make use of four cases: nominative (which indicates the subject of a verb), accusative (which indicates the object of a verb), dative (which indicates the indirect object of a verb) and genetive (which indicates possession). In German, case is defined on articles and adjectives of nouns, whereas in English it’s established either with word order, prepositions or pronouns.

To illustrate this let me give an example. Take the English sentence:
"The cat chased the mouse." In this sentence, the cat is the subject, chase is the verb, and the mouse is the object of the verb. This has a distinct meaning from:
"The mouse chased the cat"

In German, case is defined on both articles and adjectives of nouns. Take for example the German sentence:
"Das kleine Mädchen liebt den kleinen Jungen," (the little girl loves the little boy). I chose this sentence as it has both nouns and adjectives to give you an idea of what I mean. In this sentence, Das kleine (from the adjective klein, in the neutral [das] nominative form) Mädchen is the subject, liebt is the verb (from lieben), and der Jung is the object of the verb, which means it’s in the accusative case den Jung, which means the adjective ending must also be defined as we see in kleinen.

In building a sentence you combine a number of elements, depending on how the various elements of that sentence interact, various relationships are established. By and large, it’s the verb of a sentence that determines these relationships. If I may offer an automotive analogy; think of the verb like the chassis of a sentence to which other parts are attached. Wait, now she’s talking about verbs? Weren’t we just talking about nouns? I know, stick with me. By the way, all these rules of grammar may seem completely foreign, but the truth is you already know them, you just might not know that you know them, but whenever you speak you prove it. 

Take for example the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. Whether or not a speaker of a language can explain the difference between the two, they can certainly show it whenever they speak. A transitive verb takes an object, for example: throw, send or buy. All of these verbs beg the question: what? That what is the object of the verb, as in I threw the ball, sent an email and bought a sweater. Intransitive verbs on the other hand, for example: smile, dine, and sleep, do not take an object (She smiled, we dined, they slept). Therefore you intuitively know that you can’t say I threw or we dined the pizza.

To move on to another case, in the English dative (which denotes the indirect object of a verb) construction you can say: “I gave a present to my mom,” where I is the subject, give is the verb, a present is the object of the verb give [it answers the question: what?] and my mom is the indirect object of the verb (the present is given to her). You can also say “I gave my mom a present.” In one sentence we have the prepositional dative and the other is known as double object dative. In this sentence, both versions express the same meaning. So then in an effort to generalize (as all learners of a foreign language try to do-how else do you generate your own sentences if you can’t formulate some kind of ground rules) you could imagine for this scenario the construction:
subject+verb+thing+to recipient= subject+verb+recipient+thing.

Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned, English is a language of exceptions, not rules. There are plenty of idiomatic expressions and figurative speech that throw the proverbial wrench into the operation of attempting to generalize English grammar. For example, you can say Sam drove the car to New York but not Sam drove New York the car. Also it’s perfectly normal for me to say, “My students gave me a headache,” but not, “My students gave a headache to me.”
I mentioned earlier that English tends to indicate dative with pronouns or prepositions. Again, native speakers know this even though they might not know that they know it. Take for example the sentence: “I gave she a present.” You can sense the wrongness, right? The correct sentence is, “I gave her a present,” because: me, you, him, her, us and them are object pronouns and: I, you, he, she, we and they are subject pronouns.

So, let’s bring it back to German. I’ll cut to the chase and show you how this article/adjective thing looks when defining cases.

Masculine (Mann=man)
Neutral (Kind=kid)
Feminine (Frau=woman)
Der junge Mann
Das kleine Kind
Die schöne Frau
Den jungen Mann
Das kleine Kind
Die schöne Frau
Dem jungen Mann
Dem kleinen Kind
Der schönen Frau
Des jungen Mann(e)s
Des kleinen Kind(e)s
Der schönen Frau

Like English, prepositions also play a role in the dative case. However, instead of the preposition itself being the marker of case, it’s the article (respectively adjective) of the noun that is indirectly affected by the verb that is marked by case. There are some prepositions that are always dative. For example the German preposition von (from) is always followed by a dative, as in “Sie kommt vom Bahnhof,” (She’s coming from the train station), Sie (she) kommt (from kommen) vom (von+dem [Bahnhof is masculine, in the dative case der is dem]) Bahnhof (train station). Another preposition that is always followed by the dative is zu (to) as in: Sie geht zur Schule (She’s going to school), She (Sie) geht (from gehen) zur (zu+der [Schule is feminine, in the dative case die is der]) Schule (School). Other German prepositions always followed by the dative are:
aus (out), außer (except for), bei (near), gegenüber (across from), mit (with), nach (after), seit (since)

However German isn’t without its charming exceptions as there are a number of prepositions which depending on how they are used in the sentence (or more specifically, what they convey) can be followed by either the dative or the accusative case. To determine which case one must ask the question: Wohin (where to?) or Wo (where?). To illustrate an example with the German preposition an (on), consider the difference between:
"Ich hänge das Bild an die Wand," (I hang the picture on the wall [wall, feminine accusative]) and, "Das Bild hängt an der Wand," (The picture hangs on the wall, [wall, feminine dative]). Hinter (behind) is another preposition that goes both ways, as in:

"Er bringt das Fahrrad hinter das Haus," (He brings the bike behind the house, [house, neutral accusative]) and, "Das Fahrrad steht hinter dem Haus," (The bike is behind the house, house neutral dative). Other prepositions that can be accusative or dative are:
auf (on), in (in/to), neben (next to), über (above), unter (under), vor (before), zwischen (between). In these cases it becomes necessary to begin thinking (as a non-native speaker of German) of sentences on a more micro level, which involves discerning between the physical movement or location of a noun in relation to the other parts of a phrase. This may help to make the dative or accusative question a little clearer.

To return to the idiomatic expressions in English that were wrenching up our generalization of grammatical constructions:
give the x to the y can be understood as cause x to go to y, and
give the y the x can be understood as cause y to have x

In both cases, the thing that is affected is expressed as the direct object (the noun after the verb). When dissecting these exceptions you also have to consider the verb, and ask: does it specify a motion or a possession change? For example to give something involves both causing something to go and causing someone to have. Drive, however, only causes something to go as in the example sentence New York cannot have the car, which explains why we say, “Sam drove the car to New York,” instead of, “Sam drove New York the car,” and, “My students gave me a headache,” instead of, “My students gave a headache to me.” When you think of the event as causing the car to go somewhere, something is done to the car, so you say, “Sam drove the car to New York,” and when you think of the event as cause someone to have something, something is being done to someone, and to give someone a headache causes them to have the headache, but it isn’t that you physically take the headache and put it in someone else’s head, therefore you express it as, “My students gave me a headache.”

If you’re still reading by now, thanks for indulging me in my obsession (or could I say: for indulging me my obsession? No? Ok, I'll stop) with dissecting and analyzing seemingly banal aspects of language. It’s what I do! I can't end the post without giving credit to my inspiration. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"Ich nehme ein Bierchen."

Prior to the meeting I had last week with the company regarding the new course, there had been ongoing email and phone correspondence between myself and the woman who was coordinating everything. Naturally, the correspondence was first auf Sie, then after we met face to face we were auf Du. Trying to agree on a time is always a bit of an ordeal, coordinating the schedules of various people each with their own engagements can be a challenge, and sometimes it requires that one or more people make a bit of a sacrifice in order to finalize arrangements. In the phone conversation the week before we met, we suggested various days and times where we could all meet. I first proposed Tuesday, but that was ruled out, as some of the participants were to be out of the office on that day. The woman then suggested Wednesday, I was a bit hesitant about that day as I have a course in the morning until 10 and am back home at 11, but have a class in the afternoon and like a little room between engagements, so I suggested Thursday morning, which for me was free. This was also not possible for the group. I asked how long the meeting was expected to run, to which she responded, “ein Stündchen,” (about an hour, or a little hour). I decided in the interest of being agreeable, I should just eat my lunch on the go and agree to Wednesday at noon, which is what we ended up doing.

I got to thinking about this concept of diminutive or smaller forms of things, a grammatical structure, which assigns a change in meaning from the original root form, in this case from “eine Stunde,” to, “ein Stündchen.” Many languages have examples of diminutive forms. Spanish has (to name one example) the –ito/-ita suffixes (masculine and feminine), used to modify nouns in this case to indicate smallness (perrito for perro [dog], burrito for burro [donkey] or señorita for señora [woman]) or endearment such as in nicknames [Juanito for Juan, Lupita for Lupe]. Italian has (among many others) –ino/-ina, as in telefonino [cell phone] from telefono, or singorina from signora to indicate smallness. Diminutives are not as common in English. We’ve borrowed some from the French (-ette [cigarette from cigar]), although by now cigarette is its own word and entity so in this case it’s not as clearly a diminutive form. However if there is something that’s trending (I’ll get to that one in a moment) I feel it would be the –ish suffix, which is now liberally peppered in daily interaction, “It’s a smallish car,” “I’ve got reddish brown hair.” Today when I asked a student what he did over the long weekend he replied, “Couching,” to which I assumed he meant hanging out on the couch. I tried to think of other cases where nouns become verbs and thought of these recent trends you hear of, “planking,” “owling,” etc. There’s also shopping or looting to be considered, as well as dating and schooling. 

The diminutive form in German is very functional and pervades many aspects of day-to-day interaction. It is used primarily to express size of something, namely smallness. There is
Brötchen (roll) from Brot (bread) or Häuschen (hut?) from Haus (house). One thing I learned while researching is that diminutive forms are always (German with its rules! English on the other hand, is a language of exceptions, not rules) neutral (das). This answers a frequently asked question of why der Jung (a young boy) is masculine, but das Mädchen (a young girl) is neutral, as it is a diminutive form of die Maid (a maid[-en?]). 

The diminutive does more than indicate size, it can also be used to make something sound a bit nicer. For example, “ein Stündchen,” sounds much more manageable than, “eine Stunde.” And what harm will “ein Bierchen,” instead of “ein Bier,” do on your lunch break? Or when taking a second (or third) piece of cake and requesting “ein Eckchen,” instead of “eine Ecke,” (corner) even though it is not necessarily any smaller than the other corner piece. Or perhaps when you’re spontaneously invited for, “ein Käffechen,” instead of “eine Kaffee,” you visualize the whole affair as not taking that much of your time. Indeed I myself find a “Hallöchen,” a bit sweeter than a “Hallo!” 

Diminutives are also no stranger to the animal kingdom. There’s das Kaninchen (bunny rabbit [domesticated]), which is its own entity now, and not necessarily related to das Kanin. A Bärchen suddenly sounds less ferocious than a Bär (bear), seen in the beloved German snack Gummibärchen (gummy bears). Or as I heard a group of children singing in the park, “Alle meine Entchen (from die Ente [duck]) Schwimmen auf dem See, Köpfchen (from der Kopf [head]) in das Wasser, Schwänzchen (from der Schwanz [tail] in die Höh.” It sounds so much cuter when you picture ducklings with their little headsies in the water and tiny tailsies in the air.

Well, that’s all for today!
Tschüsschen! (from the German goodbye or “Tschüss”)