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Sommersemester

It is week 3 of my Sommersemester at the Freie Universität in west Berlin and finally—finally—I am hitting my stride. “In The Good Person of Szechuan, Berthold Brecht has created what looks at first like a parable about virtue and vice,” I declaim to my fellow students in slapdash German. A few blank faces, but the heavily Latinate, Cambridge-inflected language of literary theorizing has a momentum of its own.

“Brecht begins with the familiar divine visitation—as in the story of Abraham and Sarah, or Ovid’s Bacchus and Philemon….” I notice titters of puzzlement. “But, being Brecht, he immediately complicates his own paradigm. The play problematizes received notions of virtue and vice. And character itself, the idea of vice as a stable attribute of what we call character…”

The Professorin attempts to intervene. “What do you mean, exactly?” The tittering grows louder. “Virtue and—what?”

Panicking, I fumble for my pocket dictionary. Der Schraubstock, n. vice.“Schraubstock,” I say.

At which point the most fully bilingual student graciously steps in—in English. “I think you have confused this with another ‘vice’—it is like, some kind of carpenter’s instrument?”

Yes. In The Good Person of Szechuan, Bertolt Brecht has created what looks at first like a parable about virtue and vise. As in, a bench vise. English homonymy has caused me to confuse two words that, in German, sound no more alike than “heinous” and “jackhammer.”

Still reeling from my insight, the class moves on. Someone says something about the play as an allegory of life in postwar East Berlin. I try to regain composure and promise myself I’ll find a dictionary that uses American, not British, spelling.

 

“My language, heavens!” Ferdinand exclaims in The Tempest, upon arrival at Prospero’s island. “Were I but where ’tis spoken.”

Like many a good, New York-bred, East Coast liberal-arts student, I rarely profess any particular affinity to America or my own Americanness. When my host-siblings would call upon me at the breakfast table to explain the newest photographs from Iraq in any given week’s issue of Der Spiegel, I often genuinely wished I were from another country. Yet, whatever worldliness my two years of literature and intellectual history classes at Harvard had instilled in me, I was not quite prepared for the alienating and often exhausting experience of communicating exclusively in a language in which I had had only one semester of formal instruction.

I quickly learned that a vow of “No English, Not Even in Thought,” except in the occasional phone call or e-mail—a vow that others had correctly argued was my only chance of getting to the level of German I wanted in a mere three months—would entail a period of considerable loneliness. A perhaps even-more-than-typically-garrulous Harvard student, I am used to holding forth on everything from the Satyajit Ray retrospective at the Film Archive and the respective virtues of philosophers Edmund Husserl and Emmanuel Lévinas, to the superiority of the Adams House dining-hall’s frozen yogurt to all others and the injustice of my Core requirements.

So I was a bit flummoxed by my new selective mutism. Though I lettered twice in varsity squash, my attempt to coach friends at the Fitnesszentrum was hopeless. The most dramatic wake-up call to my predicament came when I had to fetch my obliging host-brother Benedikt back from across the city to deal with the easily 90-kilogram Rottweiler by whom I was accosted on returning home alone one day. (It turned out the family not only periodically dog-sat for this beast but also regarded it with some tenderness. And I learned that, while you do tell German dogs to “sit,” you don’t use the formal “you.”)

 “That you’ve been able to get through your classes, to do all of this, is amazing,” Benedikt mused at the end of my stay, as he drove me and my ample luggage to the Schönefeld airport in his picture-perfect SmartCar. Then, noting the difficulties I was having with the car cell phone: “But you have no practical talent, or…?” (I’d soon learned that …oder? [“…or?”], which Germans say frequently, is roughly the equivalent of …n’est-ce pas?)

By then I was able to shoot back a smart-aleck retort. However, my persistent ineptitude with German area codes, despite my ability to joke about it fluently, is not a bad metaphor for what I often felt in my classes, and what I think many Harvard students experience attending foreign universities.

Generally, we are well-read, well-prepared, and relatively confident. We are also more than a little bit pampered by the College, whether it is by the plethora of advisers or the various amenities of the House system (my roommate has just returned from a make-your-own-cupcake “brain break” in the Kirkland House dining hall). Though I am certainly grateful for Harvard’s truly astonishing resources, I think that, ultimately, the most valuable part of my Sommersemester will have been the experience of a “college experience” that is not as romanticized as it is in American universities.

The students I befriended in Berlin did not live in dormitories, but in apartments or low-cost student housing scattered around the city. They were generally a little older than my friends here and indulged in little of our rhetorically inflated diffidence regarding the future employment for which their educations were preparing them. Unlike the vast majority of my friends, they had also never contemplated going to graduate school in comparative literature. Upon finding me in bed one Saturday night with Kafka, my other host brother, Steffan, recoiled in horror. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Are you sick?”

An hour later we were safely en route to a bar to watch yet another game in the interminable European Fussball championship.

Which is not to say that mine was an experience only of relaxing, or of lowering my academic expectations. Through my high-school-aged host-sister, Leah, I encountered a number of basic texts of German fiction that were new to me. My European classmates showed me that it was possible to study many of the same texts I had at Harvard and to learn them well in a very different environment—one that is less privileged and, to be frank, less infantilizing. I returned to Harvard in September with a new appreciation of what the University has to offer and, I would like to think, a slightly different perspective on American college life, not to mention a better understanding of the culture I had been studying theretofore in English translation.

 

Harvard’s Office of International Programs (OIP) declares in its mission statement that it “want[s] to help ensure that some type of international experience—whether study, research, or volunteer or paid work—is part of the education of every Harvard student.”

My reasons for heading abroad last summer were relatively clear. In addition to suffering from the vague sense of Wanderlust that I think hits many undergraduates around the midpoint of their college careers, I had made the unconventional decision halfway through my sophomore year to leave the warm vale of the English department for the chill, Teutonic heights of Germanic languages and literatures (located three stories higher in the same building). It was a department in which I had not taken a single course and of which I had only the vaguest impressions. Because my German was, at that point, that of a four-year-old with a precocious knowledge of Continental philosophy, it was imperative that I do something.

So I threw myself into cold water, as the Germans say. Having been warned that it was impossible to receive college credit without paying Harvard prices at an outpost of the Summer School, I found my program over the Internet, checked up on its reputation with a few friends and professors, applied, was accepted, and proceeded to enter various bits of data—seeming to bear only the most frail and abstract relation to myself—into a form that promised to find me the perfect host family.

Miraculously, it all worked. Knowing that grades I received at the FU couldn’t be counted against me, I leapt right into literature and culture courses with American and European students of near-native fluency. And, the Vise Incident aside, I got by more or less fine. With slightly less academic pressure than usual, I took the opportunity to explore the city—which, sprawling from the placid greenery of Wannsee to the long streets of prefabricated, Communist-era apartment complexes in Friedrichshain, was every bit as interesting and complicated as I had been led to expect. I wandered frequently past the new Holocaust Memorial under construction at Potsdamer Platz and jogged almost daily along the Todesstreifen: the “death strip” between the two barriers that made up the Berlin Wall, so named for the punishment for being found standing in them—punishments which some of my friends could remember having been administered in their lifetimes. I spent hours listening to my host mother, Gabi, describe the circumstances under which she fled the East in the late 1960s—though she did not mention this until six weeks into my stay, a delay that was itself illustrative of a certain typically German reserve.

It is possible that I am inflating, in the end, what could most honestly be described as a kind of multinational day camp. My stories, when I returned, were certainly not so exotic as those my roommate brought back from Cairo. I caught neither malaria nor scarlet fever; an unlucky friend returned from Ghana with both. I had not taught American debating skills to Mongolian children.

In fact, I had not done much except learn a language, see some classic movies, read some books. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that my 10 weeks in Berlin were among the most productive of my college years—and, I hope, have prepared me for further travel and study. A friend from one of my classes last summer helped me screen potential apartments in east Berlin (where I am currently conducting thesis research in the Staatsbibliothek, thanks to a grant from the Center for European Studies.) I was grateful, because another Harvard student came home one night last summer to his apartment in Prenzlauerberg to find his 40-something housemate threatening to burn down the building if the landlord forced him to pay rent—a poignant testimony to the problems facing the generation raised and subsequently abandoned by communism, but also not something one is necessarily prepared to deal with on a given weeknight.

I came across the OIP information mentioned above in May, as I was waiting for an appointment to discuss the possibilities for travel if I take a year off from school before my senior year. It’s true: the Wanderlust has me in its vise-grip again. Whether or not I will follow it, and whether it will lead me back to Deutschland or somewhere else, I can now contemplate the option with the confidence that I can make some kind of home wherever I am.

Moira Gallagher Weigel ’06, of Brooklyn and Kirkland House, is seeking internship opportunities in Paris for the 2005-06 academic year.