I've debated about whether I should elaborate on this in some other entry, but this story is not about what I went through back then. It does, however, set the scene.
I set out to attend a four-day Polyglot Gathering in Berlin, Germany in early May. I also gave myself another week to spend in Germany on my own. As much as I love traveling and living abroad, the process of actually going abroad is slightly terrifying to me, like the professional skydiver who is afraid of heights or public speakers who will admit to having stagefright.
The plan was to spend four days at the conference. After that I had some very loose notions of what I would do in Germany, but I also went to run a test of sorts on myself and to see how open I could be to what life has in store:
I was going to go in with a vague idea at best, and with no preparations beyond that (such as no pre-arranged places to stay) just to see how life would fall into place if I took my hands off the wheel. Instead of planning for everything to overcorrect the mild but constant drone of anxiety that accompanies me every waking minute, I stopped tinkering to see what would arise spontaneously. This was my experimental project, such that it was.
I hope that my new friends and acquaintances will read this and some of my other entries, but for those need a definition of this funny sounding word, a polyglot is a person who has a fluent handle on several languages. There is no real set number on how many qualify - some think it is three, although I personally won't consider myself one until I can speak five languages. I also am not even going to touch the question of what counts as fluency, since that is beyond the scope of this entry.
I don't recall the numbers now but there were several dozen countries and languages represented. Other than English, almost everyone spoke German, which somehow surprised me, although in a crowd of polyglots, German would be one of the major languages learned first. Naturally the other biggies were represented, too: Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese and many others that would be two numerous to list here. But there were also smaller (yet just as precious) languages to be heard: Welsh, Irish, Icelandic, Danish, Finnish, Hungarian, Basque, Navajo, and at least one dialect of Sami (also known as the Lapp language, although nowadays Lapp is considered a politically incorrect and insulting term in those cultures).
Additionally there were some constructed languages gracing the crowds: Esperanto seemed to be spoken about as widely as Italian or German. There were two people who had knowledge of Klingon (I've also studied it, but now can only vaguely describe the features of the language) and Toki Panasonic (which I've also flirted with.
For myself I only speak English, Spanish and German. I also included Esperanto, Norwegian, French and several others on my name tag but I am not yet fluent in but have studied. I marked them as such out of the hope it would start connections along the lines of "Oh I studied that one as well for a summer, etc" but instead it caused confusion and left me feeling slightly misleading about what I could speak, so I simplified my card to just ones I could function in currently.
Most people spoke at least three languages, although a few spoke just English and their native language. Weighing in at three myself, I was certainly on the lower end of the numbers spectrum. The majority of people could probably handle about five languages, and there were a few who spoke around thirty.
To me, the most subtle and most interesting aspect of the whole gathering was that while you could argue that some or most of the world's best language learners were all at this gathering, there was an atmosphere of just common air. There was practically no arrogance at all, no ego of who spoke more or who spoke best. There was no competition in who knew the most languages, and if there were any geniuses or prodigies in the crowd, you would never have noticed. Everyone was absolutely normal and average (or as normal and average as you can expect of out lovingly obsessed language geeks, one of which I am proud to be).
There is the idea that to speak a large number of languages, or even one or two more languages in addition to your native language, you need to have a superior brain, but this in fact false, or at least mostly so. Certainly there is talent and some have more talent than others, but most people who learn something well do it because they love or because they need it. And many people will probably not learn six or eight languages or more because they "need" them. When you get to that point, it you have the mark of a language lover. And it is a lot of work, too. It can be very enjoyable, but it is still work. However, it is fun work. And that is what the folks at this gathering understood. So if you told a polyglot they were a genius, they would probably be a little confused by that remark, since they know how much energy rather than the accute lack of cerebral magic it takes. And I think everyone at this grasped this innately by this point.
It was also touching to see how many Americans were present - not a lot but not a few either - breaking the ever-more-outdated stereotype that Americans are monolingual.
One of the most interesting sessions for me was a two-parter about life as an interpreter. I already do some interpreting on the phone but it was fascinating to see an experienced and trained interpreter with years of professional experience talk about working at huge gatherings and speak about some of the pitfalls that can happen, like when some kicks the cable to the microphone and kills the audio, or if a doorknob falls off the interpreter's booth and the maintenance worker decides to drill it back into place while you are still at work. The next day included interpreting exercises which proved to be so demanding (and fun) that it whet my interest to learn more about this art and profession. I still prefer writing however, which means I am more inclined to translate.
The people themselves were wonderful and I made some new friends from around the globe. One of the first people I met was Cristina, a woman from Norway, and while walking around in Berlin in the 50 F degree weather (10 C) she commented on how hot it was, which I knew to be true for her but I still thought that was a mild tragedy. She probably thought the same about me for saying that in Austin it was getting up to 90's F (30's C) and that I thought that was decent weather. This conversation proved not to be the strangest one we would have but certainly be beginning to many interesting ones.
And interesting conversations were to be had in several languages, indeed. German has been near and dear to my heart for many years, but I found my practice lacking in America, as I focus more on Spanish for my job. My goal is to move to Germany to at least study translation in a grad school program, and possibly to move there long term. So if there is anyone who reading this who has advice on how to apply for school in Europe, I would love to hear from you, please.
Other languages I found a rekindled interest in were Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish and Dutch. Now, these were all languages I have near the top of my to-learn list, and it doesn't hurt that they were all spoken very very pretty women at the Gathering, but meeting people to speak them with and to see it was possible (which I always knew, to but to meet people who've accomplished it helps) was a great inspiration on its own. In fact, on my way home I ended up speaking with a new Russian friend in Norwegian on a chat feature on my phone. I didn't really even know I could converse in Norwegian beyond "I've studied it for a little bit but I've forgotten almost everything."
In one memorable instance I wanted to test the melody of a Dutch sentence with Hannah, a woman from Flanders. I've been told the sentence "I have a rusty razor that needs to to be sharpened" gives a fine concert of throat explosions when rendered into Dutch, and so I asked Hannah to please translate it for me without bothering to tell her why I wanted to hear it. She gave me a bemused look and then started translating it before pausing and asking "But, wouldn't you just buy a new one?" The answer was so disarming I decided not to worry about the translation.
So for my next gathering, I'm planning on adding Dutch and Norwegian to my list, and possibly Finnish and Swedish too, in addition to maintaining my German and Spanish.
I'm afraid of leaving some languages out, since I always met some nice Poles and French speakers...but I've known for ages that my To-Learn List for languages would be a week long.
The Gathering was only four days, with a couple of book-ended activities that were fun, but after the four days it was time to say good bye to almost everyone, and I found myself with a few new buddies to speak with from around the globe and to look forward to meet again.
Myself, I still had plans to stay in Germany for another week. I didn't want to travel so far for just four days, so I took almost two weeks of vacation. And that is where I took a bit of a leap of faith or whatever you want to call it. I knew I'd be nervous about what I would do, where I would stay, what I would eat, and all those other things that my mind grasps at like sand going through your fingers. So I kept to my project of planning only the bare minimum and see what would happen.
I had planned on visiting a few friends in Germany, but that all came quickly undone: two had important engagements they couldn't get around and one of them had fallen ill and needed to be with her family. I toyed with the idea of going to Prague but it was harder than I had expected to get in touch with my friends there (and one of them was out of town anyways) and, quite frankly, after four days of hundreds of people, I needed time to decompress and recharge. So I booked myself a single room in the hostel I stayed at for the conference and started wandering around the town, taking pictures and running into Russians (I'll get back to that).
This does not mean I was a hermit, though. There were a few other people who stayed late after the conference that I did some sight-seeing with while they stayed in town. It also happened that Julia, a friend of mine from when I studied in Germany, suggested I meet up with Heike, her old roommate, who now lived in Berlin. I wrote Heike a Facebook introduction to which she replied that she would love to meet up. She suggested I join her roommates, friends and herself to watch a soccer game at a bar.
I personally find sports dull to no end, but I didn't exactly want to say that, so instead I said, "Sure, sounds great." Heike met me at the subway station to take me to the bar, and asked me if I enjoyed soccer. She seemed nice enough and I didn't really feel like making shit up so I said no, which she laughed at and said she didn't really either.
The start of a beautiful friendship!
But indeed watching the game was fun. By which I mean it was fun to see everyone sitting outside the bar watching a TV through and drinking mugs of beer that make American glasses look like samplers.
Heike then invited me back to her place with her friends to have some Riesling wine, which was from the region that the two of us (as well as Julia, my friend who put us in touch) all studied in.
So really, I have Julia and Heike to thank for making the second part of my trip so culturally enriching. Heike invited me to an old GDR cinema to watch a movie and to a barbeque her neighbors hosted. She also introduced me to the German tradition of watching crime shows on Sunday evening. Unfortunately for her, the mystery had a major twist itself when it turned out the bar was showing the wrong show. So I think I was only half-introduced to this German tradition. Does it count if the show is not correct?
I met up and got breakfast with another old friend, Anna, who I first wrote about in this entry, and also met up with a penpal of mine, Gregg, an American polyglot who has amassed knowledge of a huge number of languages and yet was still humble and down-to-earth about his usage of them. While walking around the city we passed a Japanese restaurant that had an English/Japanese advertisement and I asked Gregg if he could read it. Instead of bragging or bluffing or just reading the English and saying he was reading the Japanese, he merely pointed out the characters he could understand, told me what the meant, and said that the rest of them he could not read. And yet in the course of our trip in addition to English, he moved gracefully between German with passersby and French on his phone, and told me stories of his in-laws whose language he had to learn as well because they speak a dialect of German so unique that it has since been deemed its own separate language in the Germanic branch.
The vast majority of my trip was one of quietness though. As Heike was at work and my other friends were busy, I busied myself by not being busy at all. I wandered over to river banks and drank pints of beer while I read my book, and sought out Döner Kebabs to dine on. On one particular evening I decided to visit a park I had heard about; Treptower Park. I thought this would be a nice and spacious place to meander and take some pictures of a monument I had heard about.
What I did not know was that it is full of Soviet memorials for those lost in the war and particularly in the taking of Berlin. I also didn't consider that the week I was there they commemorating the end of World War II and so the park was far from empty. Instead there were thousands of Russians standing in droves, shouting chants, holding flags, looking at the memorials and laying thousands of beautiful flowers and wreaths at the bases of the statues. So indeed I got my pictures.
I also got myself promptly lost while trying to find an abandoned and haunted-looking theme park called Spreepark. Somehow I completely lost it, finding instead only a bus and train stop that looked plenty haunted itself. I then promptly ended up getting my own self lost trying to get back to my metro station, or so I thought. It turned out I wasn't lost at all, I was just confused, which amounts to the same thing when you boil it down.
My last day in Berlin were spent visiting two more friends from my Trier days, Maren and her boyfriend Micha, and then sight-seeing in the evening with Heike where we visited one of largest protestant cathedrals in Berlin and went to the top of the Fernseherturm, the tallest point in Berlin. Heike and I finished off the evening by going dinner at an East-German style restaurant.
My experiment had been to see what would happen if I took my hands out of the mix of planning and just let things fall into place, and things indeed worked out quite nicely during my trip. It was inspiring to see that life has its way of working out, as it tend it tends to do. Space was filled plenty and in a better way that I could have planned for by myself. Even though the hum of anxiety drones on in the back of my life, there comes a point when it just becomes part of the soundscape, the way the sound insects chirping outside is no longer noticed when you stop focusing on it.
As to the Polyglot Gathering, I am definitely going to do everything in my power to go next year and see some of most wonderful and interesting people the corners of the world has to offer.
The morning I woke up to leave Germany, I got a text from a friend directing me to a news article which reported that the skeleton of a young woman was found at the bottom of a cliff in Trier. This struck a chord with both him and me because this person proved to be Tanja Gräff, a student at our University who had had suddenly vanished seven years prior during a summer party during her first year there, which had also been our first year there. Even though I had never met her I had wondered from time to time what had become of her, although I don't think anyone was surprised to see that it had been a fatal outcome. According to the articles I read, even her mother had known in her heart that Tanja had died, but at least there will finally be some closure.