Jan. 15.


                                                                   Leo’s TV: bird-less at the moment

Birds of Europe

or, How’s your German coming?

Ein sehr grosser, schwerer, und langhalsiger weisser Vogel. “Very large, strong, and long-necked white bird.” Isn’t that stating the obvious? Maybe the authors felt the need to be even-handed and describe every species of bird completely and matter-of-factly. One shouldn’t make any assumptions. Perhaps you have never seen a swan.

I open Voegel Europas at random to glean a few more words of German in a half-serious way. It’s because I have nothing to read in English and my other option, Le Monde, feels like too much work and full of horrible news, as are all newspapers. So it’s the Hoecker Schwan. The humped swan–perhaps an odd name for this elegant if not very surprising feature of parks all over Europe and cartoons and wedding cakes worldwide. (Here I feel an urge to explain that just because they call a swan “humped” does not mean that Germans speak a language that is overly literal or harsh, quite the contrary, but…I must leave that alone for now.)

Speaking of birds, there are so very few here. Yes, it’s winter, and it’s also true that there are almost no trees in the town itself. The gardens are too tidy–hardly anything gone to seed.  And I can’t help but notice how most of the crop fields are plowed to the very edge of the road. Few or meager hedgerows. I will not read the papers, which tell me what I already know (or assume), that here too Big Ag has slyly bought up all the research that would tell us what happens with all this chemified monoculture. I cannot look at anything, at any landscape any more without thinking like this.

But then, right here, look. Look at the #Amsel (Turdus merula), nonchalantly hopping around and flinging leaf litter left and right. It looks like an American robin in an unconvincing disguise. The female coal-brown, the male all black. It’s about the same size as a robin and robin shaped. The song is a little altered, like someone trying to disguise his voice, but recognizable as a sing-songy kind of thrush. And the mannerisms, the attitudes are there—I see the family resemblance. It is an ordinary bird and that is why I’m instantly in love with it. It is predictable. It is there. In November, in December, in January. And so on. It’s a year-rounder.

But where was I? Browsing idly in Vögel Europa to keep up my German practice, or rather to convince myself that every few minutes here and there counts for something. Lothar tells me I am at that stage where the beginner starts to get just enough of a grip on the language to look past their own hands grasping the rock in front of them and up, way up, at the enormity of the mountain. And what I see is only a false summit. I still don’t know enough German even to guess how high it is. What I feel is a combination of awe and—if not defeat at least profound discouragement, even indignation.

An example of one of my angry complaints he was ready for:

“So, if German is supposed to be such a literal, such a precise language why couldn’t they come up with different words for she (sie), they (sie) and you-formal (Sie)?”

“It makes sense to a German speaker.”

“But if I said “Sie sind hier wilkommen” you wouldn’t know if I was saying “They are welcome here.” or “You are welcome here.”

“That is correct.”

“Isn’t that confusing?”

“Not if you have the context.”

“And if you have no context?”

“You put some in.”

“And why is it here Ein sehr grosser Vogel and here Der sehr grosse Vogel? Vogel is masculine so shouldn’t it always be grosser?

“You know that one already. Adjective endings depend on whether you use the definite or indefinite article.”

“But not for all genders all the time.”

“No. It depends on case: Nominative, Accusative, Dative.”

“I don’t know if I’ll ever remember all the rules.”

“After a while it just makes sense when you hear it.”

Like the sounds of birds, I suppose. After a while, it just makes sense when you hear it, the tiny but significant difference in the songs of two small brown birds.  And why not think of learning German as tricky birding?  I realized that if one stops thinking of a new language as a mountain to climb (you will never get there…you will never be good enough…you are always making mistakes) and more like a forest to explore, then every day can be a joy. Not struggle but curiosity. Not lack but abundance. Think of every new word you learn as a pebble, a leaf, a shell you put in your pocket and take home. No matter how few the things you collect and no matter how slowly, it is an experience to enjoy.

While I am being the language explorer I can be thankful that everybody I talk to is so kind and patient. There isn’t a hint of there being anything wrong when I say to someone at the bakery “I believe you are inside.” (Sie sind drin) when I meant to say “I believe it’s your turn.”  (Sie sind dran)  Drin, dran. Chip, churp. Whatever. It’s a step up from when I sat down at a café and ordered a rabbit (Kanninchen) instead of a pot of tea (Kännchen).

Should I be glad I’m not being laughed at? I think I would prefer at least a chuckle and not such poker faces, such unfailing courtesy from my new neighbours in Dörnberg and the store employees in Kassel. I would like to think that I am brightening their day with a little comedy. I admit that I would enjoy being the local colour, even if I’m an import.

Leo, the cat, is not buying any of this, in any language. He is bored, mainly because TV (the window he looks out of) is so inert. There are only two channels: the street on one side of the house and the lane on the other side of the house. There are few people passing by and even fewer animals. Once and a while a cat, on its way to hunt for mice in the barns perhaps, but I’ve only counted two birds seen out of the window since we moved here (one was an Amsel). Leo says: Occasionally the wind jostles the tall evergreen hedge and I can look at that or I can guess how thick the moss will grow on this small tree. What you people call ‘watching paint dry.’

Friends had asked us before we left Asheville what we would miss and I suspected but didn’t really know how much I would miss the natural diversity of the East Coast and of our own front yard. There was always something going on: lots of birds and several families of squirrels. In the last few years we were there large flocks of (American) robins (Turdus migratorius) had moved in, expanding their range up into the North Carolina mountains.  I had never really liked robins–sorry–because they are so ordinary and so annoying in their somehow stern yet hesitant hopping across the lawn, the monotonous song, the head-cocked eyeing of worms, etc., and here I am falling for its European relative.

Really, after the long drum roll of people asking me/telling me “Aren’t you excited!” I am, finally, excited in my small, birder way whenever I see an Amsel poking around and doing its Amsel thing.

Singt meistens in der Daemmerung von einer gut sichtbaren Warte. Der sehr allgemein bekannte Gesang besteht aus reinem Floeten, langsamen Uebergaengen zwischen hohen und tiefen Toenen…

“It sings mainly at dawn, from an obvious perch.  Its well-known song consists of pure flute sounds, slowly alternating between high and low tones…”  Or roughly: whether new or familiar, the exotic is right there in front of you.  Take note.

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