Saturday, 7 March 2009

A Saturday at the beginning of spring

Spring might not yet have fully sprung, but it is springing.

As I walked along the Regent's Canal to the market this morning, so many plants and trees were clearly bringing forth blossom and shoots. And randy pigeons were cooing, puffing themselves up and chasing females.

Some of the gloriousness of this is dented a tad by the sound, right outside the front door, of heavy machinery digging up and relaying the road. But, as I've explained before, in Hackney it seems that roadworks are as much a part of spring as birdsong.

Shopping for myself is a very different affair. Options increased, I've decided to open a small can of very good sardines tomorrow, and cook them with fennel, pine nuts and raisins, to be served with good pasta.

But tonight's feast posed the biggest questions. I've settled for lovely looking fresh squid (which I always enjoy preparing), and I'll make a paella with some chorizo and a few (frozen) broad beans.

Chores still need to be done, so washing is spinning around in the machine. And, since we've just booked eight nights in Berlin at the end of May, I pulled out a German language course and started revising.

After the dismal language efforts of my youth, I decided about 10 years ago that the inability to speak another language was a flaw that should be corrected. The Other Half, who spent part of his own childhood in South Africa after his parents emigrated there, is rather more multi-lingual. He recommended German, on the basis that, if I got into it, I'd realise how similar it is to English.

Well, I 'got into it' more than I've ever 'got into' any other language. I did a couple of classes and, when we visited Berlin last, around seven years ago, I managed my first ever conversations in a language other than my mother tongue (of sorts and with drink acting as a useful method of overcoming inhibition and under confidence).

Since then, I've picked up some more. But it's not helped by the chronic flaws in the standard of English education in this country. We were taught so little grammar – even at academically-oriented schools – that it's difficult to get your head around grammar in another language. How do you grasp subject and object, for instance, when you've never even considered them in your own language? You have nothing to refer to. And of course, we don't 'do' gender for words in English.

Since we haven't been to Germany for so long, and have visited France a number of times in recent years (plus Spain), I've concentrated on boosting my French in recent years. At least I can do very well in a restaurant in La Belle France now, although perhaps that's cheating a bit, since any foodie should find French menus fairly easy.

But my German is rusty. So I'm putting myself through a crash course to revise what I did know Рand hopefully move well beyond that. I've already managed to read a couple of Asterix books in German; by the end of May, I've set myself the target of being able to read Erich Kästner's Emil und die Detektive in the original.

My pronounciation is actually rather good – northerners, apparently, find German easier than southerners, because we can naturally pronounce 'ch' more easily. The legacy of ancient linguistic links, presumably.

But even with my limited efforts, at least it wins me huge brownie points when abroad. One thing that the English have a reputation for abroad is the inability – or refusal – to try to speak the local language. It's embarrassing. But the side effect is great – make an effort and it'll really be appreciated. Indeed, I've lost track of how many times we've had free drinks bought – and the root reason is trying to speak the local lingo: in other words, showing some respect for the country that you're a guest in.

In Berlin last time, I managed to combine my stuttering German skills with the great international language of football. Okay, I might have botched up explaining that the reason that I was cheering on Bayern Munich against Manchester United – I couldn't remember how to say: 'my favourite team is Manchester City' and blurted out 'I love Manchester City' instead – but it worked. Free schnapps and a chat about the "beautiful game" was the very pleasant result.

Eight nights in May. I have work to do, because I want to be able to do and appreciate more than ever. And I'm sure I can manage the odd footy conversation too when we find a decent local bar that's not full of tourists.

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