Learning a new language and culture

As I learned German very late, I missed the opportunity to absorb culture together with language, as I would have done in kindergarten and in school and in everyday life, were I born in a German-speaking place. I notice this gap when I write in cursive, when I sing children’s songs, when I use proverbs and figures of speech – they all come from Italian culture. I’m trying to bridge this gap by reading childrens’ books in my local libraries, and it’s always fascinating. Especially history books that -of course- center on another country. In my mind, history is so deeply connected with the history of my country that I first have to find connections with my own knowledge in order to properly place the events of German history on the time-line.

That’s why I think I can profit from childrens’ books and in general from books-that-explain-things rather than just a dictionary. With only word-to-word translations I would not get the culture inputs that I need to feel more integrated here. On the other hand, some books take their time to explain concepts that I know already, and don’t require that much attention from me. This is in converse the most concentrated and captivating collection of culture insights I picked so far:

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Source: m-vg.de

It’s a collection of German idioms, described in their meaning and origin in a short paragraph. Many expressions come from the past, and cite knights, ancient arts and crafts, farming, commerce, construction, old administrative structures. I liked how it gave me another angle of the German culture, not directly like in an history museum or book, but indirectly through many bits and pieces that survived in today’s language. My favourite is “Alles in Butter!” which means “All is OK/safe!”, and comes from the times where merchants transported fine glass manufacts from Italy to Germany, across the Alps on carriages. The risk of breaking would have been very high, if the merchants did not submerge the glasses in liquid butter, then let it become solid and protect the fragile objects from any shock. At destination, the butter was melted again and the glasses taken out and cleaned. Clever and effective!

 

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Book review: “L’Annonce” by Marie-Hélène Lafon

As usual, I picked this book from my meighborhood’s public library and I have read it in a couple days. I sank in the fluent French prose like in a calm lake, and I let myself be carried slowly around. It’s the story of several people in French countryside, I felt the cautious approach of the newcomers, the many wordless statements and the silences among the characters. There was no obvious outcome and not even a clear progress, no heroes, no leaders, no big programs. Things happen, thoughts get deep and feelings transform with time. Little things matter. Nature, animals and weather dictate how and when people can move and work, merciless but full of force and life.

I don’t think I can say more, this is my heartfelt recommendation 🙂 I’ll be looking for more books by Marie-Hélène Lafon and will definitely review them, stay tuned!

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Book recommendation: “The Capital” by Thomas Piketty

It took many months, but today I finally finished reading this book:

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I read it in Italian, as I borrowed it from a friend. The first pages sounded very French in the structure of sentences and maybe even the way in which the topics were presented to the reader. After this initial moment of curious disorientation, I settled in and continued reading, sometimes only a few pages per session, sometimes longer bouts. I took care to pay attention to every component of the discussion, as the topic is extremely broad and unfamiliar to me. Thanks to a simple prose, however, I didn’t have notable difficulties in following Piketty’s explanations, and I’m going to recommend this book to who has interest in the topic, regardless of their previous knowledge. I’m sure that who is new to economics would do like me, that is reading the text and assuming it’s correct, while who has more knowledge would be able to spot unclear conclusions or omissions. What Piketty did while writing the book was to publish the data behind the graphs and welcome others to replicate his results, and potentially correct mistakes. I find it a healthy scientific approach and a great chance to work together on such a vast field of research.

Dog-sitting: first week’s impressions

A friend of mine asked me to take care of her Yorkie for one hour every day of the week, as she started working longer hours and was worried that the dog would feel lonely or need anything while alone in the house. I accepted, and started at the beginning of June.

You have to know that I never had a dog before, and the few times I met dogs was not a great experience. My uncle used to have huge herd dogs at home, and every time we visited I was completely overwhelmed by them! I was a tiny girl and they were for me as big as horses. My family never wanted dogs and I haven’t thought about getting one myself, as I am aware that it’s a big responsibility, for which I never felt ready. Dog-sitting sounds much more feasible (not my own dog, only few hours per week)… so I accepted the challenge.

I wanted to catch up a bit before starting to interact with the dog, so I browsed the library’s pet section and picked up these two books (in German):

I found them fascinating. Karin Actun wrote two unconventional guides on how to establish a good partnership with dogs, focused on observing and developing the inner feeling of respectful leadership, instead of giving exercises or rules and focus on making the dog comply. The second book I read, “Hunde Orientierung geben”, moved me really deeply. Karin’s words made me realise that I could become a good reference person for the dog by setting boundaries, asking and giving respect, all by clear communication, without using force or fear, or letting the dog be the leader. I never saw the way so clearly. I also realised how hard it is for me to make my own boundaries clear to others – both dogs and people. I actually stopped reading anything else and examined a lot of my past, and found so many matches with the situations explained by Karin.

Then I started taking care of this little dog, and it made for a very interesting set of experiences. It is clear that he is used to lead and to take care of himself, and to ask for what he needs or likes. It will take a while for him to realise that he can delegate a few things to me, and that I’m good at taking care of them. For example when we go out he is on high alert, as any other dog could harm us: when one comes round the corner he makes himself big, growls and barks. I have to show him that I can defend both of us in case of need (for sure from small dogs!), and that he can stay quiet – and it starts working, he is calmer every day 🙂 On many other occasions I can understand what he wants to tell me. It’s fascinating to see how he start trusting me and how he is trying his best to understand what I want to communicate. I’m glad I got so much information from these books, and from the videos and explanations on Karin’s website, because I can process a lot more information than I would do by simple trial and error. What I see is that there is as little frustration as possible between me and the dog, and I find it incredibly reassuring, and promising, for both.

Stay tuned for more posts about this dog and what I’ll observe during our mutual respect building!

 

Book recommendation: “Pen and Ink” by James Hobbs

Some time ago, while looking for inspiration on drawing techniques, I found this compact booklet with a lot of drawing ideas, with a one-page explanation next each drawing:

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From the 100 suggestions I took pictures of a few, and keep them handy for when I find my own drawings too repetitive:

It’s more a “where do you want to go” than a “here’s how you get there” book, and I find I need both kinds.

That’s it for today – happy doodling everyone!!

Book recommendation: “Révolution” by Emmanuel Macron

This one is a different kind of book recommendation:

Source: XO Editions

It is awkward for me to write about this strongly political book, because I know very little about the French political scene, and having a vague opinion sounds lame and irresponsible. However, I picked this book with the intention to know more about Macron’s views and his perception of France’s political-social-economical current affairs.

As I expected, this book is meant as a manifesto and as a presentation of Macron’s political persona. There is not much about him, not much about controversial ideas, no debate of course – a series of chapters with his statements about various important topics. Of course if I wanted to hear opinions about him and his actions, I know I have to look elsewhere: books about him written by others, comments from journalists and people with enough experience in the topic under debate, opposition, locals… and consider all these information as pieces of a larger puzzle.

I have to say that I liked the simple, accessible style of the book. I wasn’t moved much, because I know that the book is intentionally written like this, to be readable by virtually everyone. I didn’t feel the urge to agree with him or to support his causes, I don’t know if it was expected or not. I just kept reading, not too fast, and consider his points critically (not knowing the background information for most of the topics forced me to take his word as is, but I know I can make my own research to double-check). I think he packed a lot of statements in such a short text, and it is probably a good overview of his political agenda.

What I would have done differently is reading the book even slower and fact-check everything, but I hadn’t at the moment that much interest. But at least I know something more about him than before.

Book recommendation: “Der Zoo der Anderen” by Jan Mohnhaupt

Source: Hanser Literaturverlag

Here is another book I recently read, and that I wish to review here in English despite it being written in German. The journalist Jan Mohnhaupt has written a detailed report of what happened to the two Berlin zoos during the Cold War, that I found captivating and moving. I have been to both the Zoo and the Tierpark, but at the time with only a vague idea of their history – I am even more curious to come back after this read, to see the animals, trees and enclosures not only as themselves in the present time, but also as traces of a complex past. The interesting side of this book is that the story of the zoos and of the people who managed them and worked there sounded to me as a net of complex, but understandable, human stories, about people who showed the highest dedication to the cause of wildlife, but also had to play smart on the Cold War chess board and to deal with personal life obstacles.

I also have the feeling to be a little more Berliner, with this new piece of local knowledge. I still oscillate between feeling “local” or “foreign” in this city, and I oddly feel close to the most beloved animals in the zoo: adopted by the visitors as true citizens, but forever (hopelessly?) foreign, as members of an exotic species.

Panda bear Bao Bao – source: Berlin Zoo website

I warmly recommend this book to whom has a good German level, and I hope it will be translated to English soon!