13 March, 2008

Kaiserslautern I

I'm in Germany on a business trip, conducting joint research with someone at Kaiserslautern University, home of the Singular computer algebra system. We had been communicating through email but my visit gives us an opportunity to concentrate our energies. Things are going well at the moment.

Here are some random observations on Germany, in no particular order:

  • One of these days, I must learn German. True, speaking Italian, reading Latin and Spanish, and working on Russian is already A Good ThingTM, but work has twice now brought me to a German-speaking nation, and I don't like being unable to speak the language. Listening to Germans, I hear many vowel sounds that seem distinctly American; I think they're written ä and ö here, for example. The consonants definitely give it away though: lots of sh's, g's, and z's. Enschulbigen sie! or however it's spelled; Farsteien sie änglush? Here's the freetranslation.com spelling: Entschuldigen Sie; verstehen Sie Englisch? Obviously they're wrong, and I'm right.
  • In a similar vein, I have yet to find the mythical European city where Everyone Speaks EnglishTM. Admittedly, everyone at the university speaks English, and they speak it quite well, in fact. That's very good, because, as I noted above, my German is essentially limited to, "Excuse me, I don't understand German. Do you speak English?"
        Outside the university, it's a different story. A woman at the bank spoke English well, if a little hesitantly. An older woman at the train station helped me find the correct bus for the university, but she didn't speak English at all. She spoke German carefully enough, with sufficient gestures, that I was able to make heads and tails of what she was saying. I'm quite sure that the clerks at the supermarket counter didn't understand English.
        This doesn't offend me at all; what offends me are all those "enlightened" Americans who claim that in all the European cities they visit, "everyone" speaks English. Color me "delightened", or "benighted", or whatever, but I think they haven't visited the real Europe.
  • I love German trains. On an American train or on a Russian train, one bumps up, down, left, right, forward, and back. Some people think that's part of the charm of riding a train; you can count me out of that group. When I arrived in Frankfurt, I rode two trains—one to the central station, another to Kaiserslautern—and on both rides I felt as if I were sliding across the countryside.
        The trains were also on time, whereas American trains arrive hours behind schedule on a regular basis. Even Italian trains are better. It's amazing what can be done by (a) competent management, and (b) healthy subsidies by a government that doesn't think its people should only enjoy subsidized highways.
        This does strike me as a weird inconsistency in the American mindset: All levels of American governments throw up all sorts of hoops to subsidies for both mass transportation and the construction of decent passenger railroads, because that smacks of "socialism". Yet all levels of government fall over themselves to pay subsidies that tear up railroads, and a great deal besides, to build highways and bicycle paths; not a penny that goes into our highway systems comes from private financing, although advertisements on road signs may add a drop or two to the ocean of public funds. Mysteriously, few Americans seem to reckon this massive government expenditure in the realm of "socialism". Ya gots me.
  • The weather here has been extraordinarily dismal. The skies are usually clouded, and usually it has rained. It's cold, too, and until today the wind was furious. My plane's landing was delayed a half-hour because of the wind. I'll bet the place is gorgeous in the spring; how depressing that "Spring" Break, the only time I have to visit, occurs before the end of winter. That's just wrong.
  • Half the television shows are redubbed American shows, just like Italy or Russia. They even have that show about the nanny who ends up marrying her employer. I never understood the appeal of Fran Drescher, but she's dubbed in German here.
  • Everyone here is thin.—okay, not everyone, but even the fat people aren't all that big. I'm not so large myself, but many people here look undernourished. I reckon they ain't; rather, Americans are overnourished in an undernourished kind of way, if that makes any sense, which it probably doesn't, just like most of my seemingly deep thoughts.
  • My room at the university's guesthouse is nice and large. I'm in a two-room suite that shares a kitchen and bathroom.
  • The cars are almost all small, and the "large" cars are about the size of a medium-sized American sedan. Even the trucks are small; people who have visited Europe will likely know exactly what kind of truck I'm talking about. I haven't seen an SUV or a pickup truck yet.
  • CNN and MTV are on several channels (it's rather odd that certain channels repeat 2 or 3 times), and neither seems to be any better or more serious than the American versions.
  • None of the paths at the university here are straight. Not one. I wonder why they chose to have them wind around the way they do. If the clouds ever go away, I'll try to take a photo. In case I don't, you can download a map of the university by clicking here and follow the path from building 31 to building 48. If you look hard enough, you'll see that I can't actually walk into the parking lot between buildings 31 and 30; the only entrance into that parking lot is from Paul-Ehrlich-Straße, and bushes obstruct my walking into it otherwise. That just makes things all the windier.
        By the way, those numbers they show on that map are also placed on the buildings: giant numbers that you can't possibly miss. Most other universities I've visited take amusement in making it at hard as possible to find one's way around.
  • The moment I publish this, I'm going to remember two or three more things I wanted to write here, but I won't, because I really ought to get back to work.

1 comment:

Clemens said...

Carmen and I just got back from Portugal and Spain. Like you I noticed the cars - though I saw a few SUVs and pickups. This was on the open highway in the Algrave region of Portugal which is heavily agricultural so these vehicles may actually have been used in a way that makes sense. Saw lots of cars much smaller than anything on the road here.

Lots of other observations. I am going to start posting them on the Not Mayberry blog soon. Though I have a book review last Monday and a few other things on my desk.