Black Ravens: Landau, Germany
When Ester and I first arrived to Germany, my German friend Stephen gave me a book. It was called “Germany: A History”, and had all sorts of rave reviews on the cover such as “A tour de force!” and “If you want to understand Germany, read this book!”
The author said something in the opening paragraph that has stuck with me to this day; Germany is the only country in the world that has built monuments to its own shame.
That’s a powerful statement, and says a lot about not just the country, but about the people. Germany’s past is loaded with shame, and it’s architecture, sculptures, even the language, all share the same stark upright posture. The people are quiet, they do not wear flamboyant outfits or bright colors, nor do they talk loud and fast like the Spanish.
Instead, the German people seem to all feel the shame of their not-so distant horrendous past. They have that air about them of a professional with something to hide; proper, good posture, polite. But as an outsider, you can’t help but think about what happened 70 years ago.
Germany is a beautiful place filled with sleepy little towns, beer, and sausage. The people are very friendly, and often will bend over backwards to make sure a clueless tourist like myself walks away pleased with the exchange.
I like to listen in on people’s conversations to get a feel for a language, but in Germany’s small towns and cities I couldn’t hear anyone. It was like an episode of the Twilight Zone, where if anyone had a bad thought they’d be zapped to death by some unknown force.
I have a lot of German friends, and they all speak impeccable English, and they’ve all insisted that everyone in Germany speaks English. This is not true. While we had a German native and a Spaniard who spoke the language with us at all times, we constantly found ourselves desperately searching for anyone that spoke English. If it wasn’t for them, Ester and I probably wouldn’t have drank a single beer.
Like Spain, there are castles built on mountain tops, something the medieval monarchs loved to do. The more dramatic the vista, the better. But even the old castles were dark and brooding, like something out of Dracula, and offered no helpful explanation to it’s history, because everything was in German.
All in all, our time in Germany was calm and tranquil. There’s not much to tell for we spent much of our time meandering through towns and castles, Ester speaking with her friend Ani in Spanish while I ran around like a dog taking pictures.
Things got more interesting once we arrived in Switzerland.
Defeat In the Alps!: Alt St. Johann, Switzerland
I refuse to say I’m a bad snowboarder.
Once, when I was fifteen years old, I fell so hard on a snowboard that I knocked myself out. When that happens, you want to stop. You feel like you were just beat up by someone bigger and stronger than you, and you want to admit defeat. On that day, I did admit defeat; I took off my snowboard and walked down the hill. I couldn’t imagine trying to do that again.
We arrived at the Toggenburg Ski resort on the morning of Saturday the 11th, located in a small town called Alt St. Johann in the north of Switzerland. It’s the kind of place that someone like Tolkien would take one look at, run home and write The Lord Of The Rings. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen, people skied in shirts, it smelled of cow shit and old bearded men threw around big barrels of hay.
My day at the ski resort did not start off well. After departing from the chair lift, there was a another “lift”, nothing more than a little seat that dangled from a rope. You’re supposed to put the seat between your legs and it would pull you up the mountain, like you are skiing uphill. For obvious reasons, I wasn’t too excited about it.
I watched the other experienced riders take this thing and slide up the hill, and they made it seem easy enough. My turn came. As the rope sped by me I snatched it and threw the little seat between my legs and braced for the pull. But the pull never came, so I fell. The rope began to pull, and I was dragged for what seemed like an eternity while the snowboard attached to my foot dug into the snow behind me. After some stumbling I got my feet underneath myself and straightened out the board and began to glide up the hill, proud and upright. No pasa nada. The next patient rider behind me took their turn.
I hadn’t gone snowboarding for about two years at that point, so I was nervous but excited. My heart beat a like a drum in my chest, and I was already sweating despite not having done anything. I angled my board down the hill and began.
I turned a corner and fell really, really hard on the right side of my ass. I groaned, got back up, slid down the mountain for a moment, and fell again on the right side of my ass. The second fall hurt so bad I let out a weak little whimper like a sickly child, and it took me a moment to get back on my board.
When you get hurt like that, your confidence goes out the window. If an MMA fighter gets hit hard in the leg, he doesn’t want to get hit in the same place twice, thus he becomes slightly more hesitant when fighting. In snowboarding, hesitance is a death sentence. It’s an activity where you have to attack the hill, and where playing too much defense causes you to go splat.
What followed was one of the worst snowboarding experiences of my life. There were a few golden moments when I regained my confidence, but a slip and fall on the right side of my ass quickly removed all of it. Less than halfway through the day my butt was black and blue and covered in bruises. I was not having fun.
After a quick break with my German friend Stephen, who was having no problem arriving at the bottom of the slope unscathed, I psyched myself up for another go at the slopes. We decided to go higher up the mountain, near the top, and the view was amazing—that’s when we took this picture:
If circumstances were any different, the above photo would have been my last.
My heart was exploding and I banged my hands together, and we jumped on the hill.
I felt great, I felt confident, like a boss. I was an American exploring the Swiss Alps on a snowboard, scratch that shit off the bucket list! Fucking badass. Then I fell flat on my face.
I was on my stomach, sliding down the hill faster than skiers on their skies, like a boy on a slip’n slide during the summer. Stephen managed an “are you okay?” as I flew past him and I meekly muttered something like “I can’t stop, haha.”
For about ten seconds I slid like this.
I dug my hands into the snow in front of me and snow splashed up into my face, I slowly turned myself around and slammed my board into the snow, finally bringing myself to a grinding halt.
My confidence wavered, but I was a fucking badass American on the Swiss alps and I wasn’t going to let this embarrassment get the best of me. I waved Stephen on, letting him know I’d meet him further down, and I jumped upright and started back down the mountain.
I fell. Got back up, fell again, got back up. Fell again. Hard. Straight on right side of my ass.
I snapped. On hands and knees, I banged on the snow with my fists, head-butted the ground once, twice, thrice, my helmet buckling under the force of the blows, raised my hands in the air and screamed bloody hell to the clear blue sky.
A skier came around the corner and said “entschuldigung!” as she zipped by me. I hung my head, cold, wet, battered, and I had a headache.
I was utterly defeated.
I finished the hill, slow and clumsy, falling and growling like a rabid dog the whole way down. I found Stephen at the bottom, and he asked me the worst question you can ask a person going through this kind of turmoil: “Are you okay?”
I said I was done and needed to rest. The wonderful people of the Toggenburg Ski Resort provided beach chairs for individuals who want to rest and take in some sun. I found one of these chairs, but sitting was a challenge. I laid uncomfortably on my left side for about an hour, shuddering in cold, wet rage. I pulled down my ski goggles and slept in the blazing winter sun.
We always hear about being in flow, being in the zone, on fire. But what about the complete opposite? What about being in a state of complete self-denial that you’re literally paralyzed, where activities that you’re usually capable of suddenly become arduous and near impossible?
People say we learn more from our failures than our successes, and that day on the mountain is no exception. The first fall caused every fall thereafter, and I was not able to shake the fear of landing on my butt again. I was visited by the demon of self doubt and it was with me for the whole day.
What I did not learn, however, is how the hell do you get that guy off your back?
A clash of Three Languages: Strasbourg, France
I can speak a little french, but I can’t speak any German. Well, now I can speak a little, but when we first sat down for our first meal in Germany, I realized that I didn’t even know how to say “Thank you”. My Spanish would not help me, and I was two languages away from my mother tongue of English.
Being in the French city of Strasbourg where at least I’d know how to say “Please” and “Thanks” made me feel like less of a mute, but only halfway from it. The French are famous for not wanting “Stoopid Amearicones” to butcher their language, so the locals would switch to English whenever possible.
It feels like defeat when someone switches to your language, especially after giving you a chance in theirs. It’s something the polyglot Benny Lewis calls “The Language Power Struggle”. A person wants to speak your language, while you want to speak theirs, so you go back and forth in different languages, trying to out-tounge the other.
I am proud to say that I purchased cheese in a store only speaking French. While I didn’t get exactly what I wanted, I still managed to communicate the desire for cheese in another language. In a foreign country, speaking even a little bit of a language can go a long way.
While I was able to buy cheese in French, I was able to only sputter a few words in German. Which is better than it was when I first arrived, when I had to substitute “Thank You” with convulsions and grinning like a fool.
When I did learn a little German and tried to use it, I might as well have put my tongue between my lips and blew a raspberry. German is a damn complex language, and even my German friend Stephen couldn’t explain the language’s reasonings.
When all else fails, at least I can always rely on the mighty English language, which many people in many countries speak at least a little. Also I have my hands, and you’d be surprised how far pointing and waving your hands wildly in the air can get you.
We wandered the streets of Strausburg for a good six hours, taking in the history, views, and people. The presence of tourists is strong there, and while I’m always trying to not stand out like just another tourist, my legs hurt from powersquating and snapping photos. We spent as little money as possible, for Switzerland drained our wallets, but we didn’t leave without sampling the coffee, cheese, and the buttery and flaky croissants.
Check out Strasbourg if the opportunity arrises, but study up on some German or French—English is scarce there.
Back Home: Spain
There are days in Spain when one could say I am in the zone with Spanish, speaking with a level of fluency I never dreamed I’d ever have. However there are other days when the funk takes over, and I can barely mutter a “Gracias” without feeling like I want to jump off a bridge.
We’ve been back in Spain for less than a week as of writing this, and already we’ve gone to barbecues and children’s birthday parties. I’ve spoken with old timers who speak slightly more coherently than a drone, with kids who’s level of Spanish blew me away until I remembered that they were Spanish. I’ve been on fire and have spoken about my life and have been in a funk where I’d not realize people were talking to me, and I do not feel like I have control over it.
But I do. We all do. It’s paramount to everything that we do, from drawing, martial arts, to “crushing” an interview. Speaking is an activity like any other. I’m not talking about speaking another language, but speaking in general. We all have bad days and good days, but why can’t everyday just be a good day?
I’m no self-development coach, but with all things, maybe we just need to roll with the punches, and not let our own internal bullshit get the better of us. It’s been proven that you can generate incredible amounts of adrenaline while laying down; the body effects the mind and the mind effects the body. Theoretically, if you control one of these systems, you can dictate the state of the other.
This is an attractive idea, but life just doesn’t work that way. Sometimes fate has it out for you and deals a crappy deck of cards, and you start your day by spilling your freshly brewed pot of coffee all over the kitchen floor and your favorite white pants. The question is: What do you do in between those moments that insure you won’t lose it and slam your head through a table?
The trip to Germany was great, but the moment that stands out to me is in the mountains of Alt St. Johann, Switzerland, when after so many falls I lost my mind. Failure teaches us a lot, but only when you look at why you failed. Simply falling on the right side of your ass over and over without asking why only throws gas on the fire, and after so many falls, you explode.
I wasn’t attacking the hill. I wasn’t putting enough weight on my front foot, and I was leaning too far back in my front-side carves.
I wasn’t engaging myself in the conversation. I didn’t visualize the piece of music before playing it. I didn’t stretch.
I was thinking too much.
I refuse to say I’m a bad snowboarder.