April 27, 2007

A Tramp Abroad in Heidelberg

In 1878, Samuel Clemens (AKA Mark Twain), fleeing financial woes, embarked on a lengthy European sojourn, mainly in the Germanic countries, where the dollar was at a great advantage. (If only we could all be so lucky!) Playing off the success of his earlier travelogue The Innocents Abroad (1869), he began turning his fish-out-of-water experiences in Germany, Austria and Switzerland into a collection of humorous sketches. The resulting book, A Tramp Abroad (1880), became an overnight success and solved all his money problems – at least for the time being.

Recently, a good friend gave me his own well-thumbed copy of the book, after having suffered through one too many of my own stories about being a fish-out-of-water in Germany – particularly my bungling of the German language. The Appendix of A Tramp Abroad contains Twain’s classic essay, "The Awful German Language," which contains brilliant one-liners like, “I heard a Californian student in Heidelberg say, in one of his calmest moods, that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective,” as well as lengthy riffs on German’s absurd grammar rules [See below]. Its humor is so pitch perfect and its understanding of the perversities of the language so inspired, that I’ve resisted the urge to write anything on the topic myself. [I mean, if Mark Twain has already done it, what’s the point?]

But it turns out that A Tramp Abroad is not only an excellent satire but an excellent travel guide as well, particularly for Heidelberg, where Twain spent the first several months of his tour. It describes the city in such vivid detail – and so little has changed in the last hundred years or so – that I substituted it for my massive Lonely Planet guide, and let Twain be my guide instead. Kevin and I toured the ruins of Heidelberg Castle, walked the famous garden-lined streets of the Philosopher’s Way, and took a boat cruise to nearby Neckarsteinach, just as Twain did 120 years before us. We found everything exactly as he described it – well, almost. Heidelberg Castle is currently undergoing such a massive renovation that if they repair it much more it will no longer qualify as “ruins” at all. I can only imagine what fun Twain would have had with that.

Twain on “gender”:
Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print -- I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:
Wilhelm, where is the turnip?
She has gone to the kitchen.
Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?
It has gone to the opera.

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