Saturday, 25 November 2017

When German Genders Screw You Over

You spend time learning the German genders, whether your preferred method is doing grammar drills or practising out in the wild. You get to a pretty good place with the endings, the cases, all that jazz. You've stopped stumbling so much and that fills you with confidence.
And then something comes up and flips the table over, erasing all your hard work.

Sometimes the grammatical genders totally contradict what you have learnt.

In a way, you probably already know to be wary. You've most likely noticed that the idea that all English loan words are das is a falsehood. There's no hard and fast rule, but often, you can think of what the "true" German word would be and then apply that gender to the loan word. (Example: die Party, because die Feier.)

So, to start off easy, here's a fun example of when genders aren't what they seem.
Balzac Coffee, a German café chain, are doing a seasonal macadamia latte. It's an absolute must: ein absolutes Muss!

Wait... that's not actually an "M" there, though. It's an "N", which means the word is in fact Nuss, the German word for nut. Nice pun.
But... it still looks weird because it's die Nuss, so it should be "eine absolute Nuss" instead. But yeah, it's a play on das Muss, so we disregard grammatical constructs.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. (Or the cream atop the macadamia latte.)

It becomes much more unpredictable when proper nouns and titles are involved. That's when things get almost existential.
In English, it's plain odd to refer to somebody as "the Sophie". I remember being weirded out the first few times I heard people say things like "die Sophie mag keinen Reis", or "kannst du das bitte der Sophie geben?". 
This is usually within a familiar context. Yet mentally keeping stock of German gender is a good habit for a learner to develop, because in the following examples, you really have to think about what something actually is, in spite of what seems to be logical (or simple).

Please forgive this sentence and instead consider the grammatical question it throws at us:

"Ich habe es in der Bild gelesen."

Wait, what? Surely it should be im Bild, since it's das Bild?
Well, no. If you think about it it this way, it makes more sense:

"Ich habe es in der Bild-Zeitung gelesen."

Die Zeitung is a feminine noun (die becomes der in the dative) and it gets omitted here because it's assumed that if you're talking in German -- and also, context -- you'll know that we're talking about the publication Bild, i.e. a proper noun. Not Bild as in an image.

"Ich war im Karstadt shoppen."

Now, if we didn't already know that Karstadt is a department store in Germany, we might assume that this sentence should read in der Karstadt, because die Stadt. But since the various words for "store" or "shop" in German are either das or der, we are going to stick to im Karstadt. And we are, after all, talking about a store, not an actual Stadt (city).
I guess there is also the option of just saying "in Karstadt" without an article, but now that I've heard so many native speakers use one when referring to establishments like this, it sounds flimsy without.

To round things off: this is what happened when I tried to ask my German boyfriend what the gender of Österreicher would be if you're talking about an Austrian restaurant, not an Austrian man:

I pushed it and he said he didn't know, maintaining that it would just be "Wir gehen zum Österreicher". This doesn't bring us any closer to knowing whether it's das or der, though. I mean, it could literally be either.
The case for das: it's das Restaurant.
The case for der: it's der Österreicher when you're referring to a person, so maybe it just transfers onto here as well?

I guess that until I find a definitive answer, I will just find ways to avoid saying it. Sort of like when I mumble a mixture of der and das when I say the word Kabel, because I can never remember that one.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Mount Eerie

Last night, I finally saw Phil Elverum play live. I have been listening to his music since I was 18. I firstly discovered The Microphones' massive-yet-cosy The Glow Pt. 2, which led me to his more extensive catalogue as Mount Eerie. I'd always dreamed of seeing him in Europe, but had never imagined it would be in circumstances like this.

In July 2016, Phil's wife, Geneviève Castrée, died of pancreatic cancer aged 35 -- leaving behind Phil and their infant daughter. I happen to own one of her books, so when I realised they were married, I felt doubly sad: for the loss of her, and for the unfathomably unfair loss that a musician dear to me would now have to shoulder.

Phil released the album A Crow Looked At Me earlier this year. It wasn't that I was refusing to listen to it; it was more that I didn't dare go there. I already couldn't listen to most of Carrie & Lowell, Sufjan Stevens' last LP that deals with grief of his mother, without flinching -- and there are songs on there that I have to skip altogether. Death is a topic that I keep at arm's length, made worse by the fact that intellectually, there is no point in doing that.

But when I found out Mount Eerie was playing in Berlin, at silent green, no less, there was no question about it. Of course I was going to go.

Courtesy of Linnea Nugent

Phil opened with 'Real Death', and I was weeping straightaway -- specifically at the part about Geneviève having secretly ordered a gift for their daughter when she would eventually start school. 'Ravens' was also incredibly hard to listen to. The music was so understated, so matter-of-fact. Yet it crushed me.

A common theme in the other songs on A Crow Looked At Me is the particular ways in which mundanities, such as taking out the trash, remind him of his wife. In one of them, he confesses that the "conceptual emptiness" he indulged in his younger years is nothing in comparison to this. There is no theorising about what happens after death. This is all very raw, brusque, bare. While he sings 'I love you', he also sings, 'You don't exist'.

After the show, my friend Carrie observed that there was no catharsis to be found here.

'There are moments when you think there's going to be,' I said, mostly referring to a new song that features an anecdote about the absurdity of being in a festival VIP area with Skrillex and Father John Misty shortly after Geneviève's passing. 'But then it's like... nope!'

In the middle of his set, Phil thanked us for coming and asked whether everyone was doing okay, which was met with nervous laughter.

'We're all sad,' I thought, 'but none of it is close to what this man on the stage is going through right now. Yet none of us are immune to this happening to us, either.'

The show ended and Phil ducked through a door offstage. We clapped and clapped and clapped. Everyone must have known it would be grotesque to expect some kind of encore; it would be like forcing a bear to dance. The lights went on and the audience was caught red-handed: red-eyed, dehydrated, with solemn expressions.

My first reflex after walking out of that hall was to reject those songs I'd just heard. I approached the merch table where Phil was sitting, which had various Mount Eerie and The Microphones records for sale. A Crow Looked At Me was there, naturally, but I involuntarily overlooked it. Something inside me wanted to pretend I couldn't see it. This show had been my first exposure to the album. I will have to brace myself before I hear it again. It is challenging, but there is poetry in it (even though death is 'not for making art').

Instead, I purchased the Japanese edition of Lost Wisdom, Phil's collaboration with Julie Doiron and Fred Squire, and one of my favourite albums of all time. I got him to sign it, too, with my shitty blue freebie ballpoint pen.

I hope he sensed that when I looked into his eyes and said 'Thank you', I wasn't just thanking him for signing the CD.

(Edit 28/02/2018: apparently Phil actually hates when fans ask him to sign records at shows because he wants us to be on the same level.)