Kevin and I recently spent a week in Berlin as guests of the Humboldt Stiftung, the German academic foundation that’s sponsoring our year in Germany, and I can only assume that the Germans must value academics very highly, as they treated the 300 Humboldtians, their spouses, and their many, many children (1,000 people total) to a week fit for royalty. There was a round of dinners and cocktail parties, lectures and performances to attend, but the highlight was a visit to the Schloss Bellevue and a chance to meet the German president.
Although the Schloss Bellevue is roughly equivalent to the American White House – all white columns and rose gardens, the German president is nothing like our Commander in Chief. His roll is largely ceremonial – entertaining 3,000 foreign academics on his back lawn, say – and it’s really the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who wields all the political power. I doubt that many Germans even know the president’s name. (It’s Horst Köhler, by the way).
Nonetheless the Humboldtians, many from third world countries, were wild with excitement about the visit, and several had accepted the request to don their traditional national garb for the occasion. I declined, having left my American flag bellbottoms and my “I (heart) NY” T-shirt back in the States, and Kevin declared it much to warm for flannel and a toque.
Normally, I think the Germans’ repeated appeals for national apparel reek of “Exotisismus” – I have been asked no less than three times in the past six months – but even I had to admit that the effect was impressive. Bejeweled Indian and Pakistani women in saris, African families in bright calicos, and the most beautiful Japanese woman I have ever seen, decked out in full Kimono, sandals, and parasol – it was like being in some live-action version of Disney’s “It’s a Small World After All.” That, and the children of every color working together to hold a giant inflatable Earth balloon above their heads.
Anyway, despite being warned many times that the president would not sign autographs or pose for individual photos (apparently this has been a problem at past Humboldt events), the crowd crushed around him, and so I never got a clear view. Instead I sat back, enjoying the mimosas, and tried to decipher his speech, which was in German. I flattered myself that I understood about 85% of what he said. (Although isn’t always the case that the other 15% is really essential?) But all political speeches being roughly the same, regardless of language or the nationality of the politician, even Kevin understood most it.
Still, I was excited about the chance to practice my German. Despite the organizers’ best efforts, English was clearly the language of preference and thus, the working language of the conference. I felt bad for the Germans, actually. They are so clearly fighting a losing battle against the English monopoly. And after all, it was their conference. They should have been able to have in their own language if they wanted. But across the world, most people’s second language is English, and even if they later learn German, they’re often more comfortable with English. My friend Dina, an engineer from Madagascar whom I meet at my German class in Frankfurt, spoke almost entirely in English, although his German is good and his French is exceptional.
The waning of the German language was clearly on the minds of our hosts. One night, after a string of lectures, mostly in English, the President of the Humboldt Stiftung, Professor Doktor Wolfgang Frühwald, stepped up to the podium, began his introduction in English, and then said, “Now I will deliver my speech in German, the language of Alexander von Humboldt. English translations are available in the foyer.” He then delivered a brilliant speech about the need to learn foreign languages in general and German in particular, and then harangued those fellows who hadn’t learned some German during their stay as having “wasted a great opportunity.” I patted myself on the back for having used Humboldt money to learn some German this year, but of course he was really preaching to the choir. None of the Humboldtians who hadn’t taken the free German classes could have understood his criticism.
Nonetheless, after a week of speaking English with non-native English speakers I was exhausted. Even with foreigners who speak very good English, you often have to modify your speech and strain to understand what’s being said. And so after the picnic, when the group boarded a cruise ship for a tour of the Havel, Kevin and I desperately sought out a table of North Americans. We found just the group: a Canadian historian, an engineer from Chicago, and the engineer’s wife and two teenaged kids. On the face of it, we didn’t have much in common, but either we’re all brilliant conversationalists, or we were just starved for company from our homelands, but we talked non-stop about everything under that sun: art and religion, science and politics, and above all German-American cultural differences. I must have spent six months worth of saved-up conversation in those three hours.
All in all, it was a wonderful day, and I remarked later, that I figured it must be pretty good to be the German President, if you could dispense with the political duties and spend all your days throwing big parties full of interesting guests. Kevin replied that Canada, too, has a ceremonial leader, who lives in a palace and does nothing but give parties, and that Canadians usually nominate a prominent academic or journalist for the role. I joked that if we stayed in Canada, we'd make a pretty competitive duo. Although he suggested a better choice would be to remain in Germany, where they elevate their academics to Head of State.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was a physicist before she became a politician.