Dinner for One–The World’s Most Frequently Broadcast Film!

We spent the 2nd Day of Christmas (December 26) at the home of German friends. There I was asked what I thought about the film “Dinner for One,” a film where a 90 year-old woman is served a birthday dinner by her butler. I’d never hear of it. Turns out it is an 11 minute long British film (in English) from the 1960s which has something of a cult-following in Germany, as well as a few other northern European countries. As a result, it holds a Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most frequently broadcast film—apparently it is better known than The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It has never been broadcast in the US or UK, though. If you don’t believe me, check out The German news magazine Spiegel‘s story here. Or, better yet, you too can join the cult, and see the film on You Tube here.
I will admit to not generally getting the “British humor” of the film (or for that matter Monty Python). But so it goes. I am assured that anyone that likes Monty Python will be rolling on the floor over this film. The really interesting thing is that such an English film could become so popular in a country where English is not the home language!

The Verb “To Chill”

Most Americans know of the common English slang „to chill.“ It is clearly a verb, and used to describe teenagers what teenagers do when they go somewhere together. My understanding of chilling is that it is something you do with friends, it is unplanned, and you do low key sort of things like lie on a couch, talk, watch videos, play games, and eat doritos.

My daughter Kirsten came home from her German school yesterday to tell me that she had learned a new adjective at school “chillig” which is a borrowing from English of the word “to chill” but with the German adjectival ending making it into the English equivalent of “chill-ish.”. What is more she said, the kids were talking about the best club in town which not only is chillig, but the chilligstes (i.e. the German superlative form, making it into the English equivalent of “most chill-ish”) club in town.

This defied Kirsten’s sense of American teenage propriety. Dance clubs are great, she pointed out, but there is no way that you can chill at them. They are just too noisy and active.

Home for the Holidays

The Arrival Scene is a trope of classic anthropological literature. In invoking the beginning of the anthropologist’s journey among a specific people, a specific landscape is invariably described. Doing so is more than an attempt to hook the reader—writing these scenes also hooks the anthropologist back into the field experience. That moment, conjured in narrative, when the anthropologist is confronted with the people and place they have decided to make familiar, is also when the anthropologist begins their attempt to feel at home in an unfamiliar place.

That sense of home is often invoked in fiction as well. Narrators return home after long journeys away. Narrators flee home, vowing never to return. Home can have positive or negative connotations, but the intuitive feel of the landscape called “home” saturates our imaginings and actual experiences. The smell of the air in a particular season, the intimate knowledge of a street’s history, both architectural and personal, the layers of personal experience all contribute to an intuitive feel for a place, an instant rapport between an individual and a landscape. One can look at a lake, a street, a building, a very old tree, and see alongside them the experiences of one’s lifetime, and the lifetimes of others. In addition, one can know without even walking further what lies beyond that lake, inside that building, up in that tree, because that knowledge, too, came from living in that landscape.

Anthropologists traditionally equated the land with a people, a tradition since much complicated by the attention paid to migration and globalization, among other processes. To understand the people meant taking on the meanings embedded in landscape. Even nomadic people had seasonal rounds in consistent places each year. When one grows up in one place, one acquires effortlessly the layers of meaning that anthropologists work so hard to incompletely comprehend.

People who grow up in one particular home can speak of a place being “in their blood,” using a somatic metaphor for how completely they associate their personal history with a place. Home saturates their senses, so that they do not have to think consciously about how to get around, for instance—and it is occasionally difficult to describe how to get from one place to another to an outsider, so taken-for-granted is their knowledge of place. The insider, at home, simply does, knows, feels—this is not a mystical process, or a genetic phenomenon, but is a by-product of all of those years of practice.

I did not have that experience of growing up in one place. My intimate, sensory associations are scattered across the southern and western United States, thanks to my father’s career in the US Air Force. I have, therefore, felt distanced from the experiences that many of my friends have of a nostalgia for “home.” Home, for me, was people. It was not a place.

But now I get it. I lived, through a conspiracy of circumstances, in the San Francisco Bay Area for 15 years. My recent move to the Southeastern US was a welcome move to new opportunities, but I left a network of friends and experiences behind. How much I left behind was recently brought home (ha) to me in October. I was back in the Bay Area for less than a week, and as soon as I got off the plane in Oakland, all was familiar. I knew exactly where I was going. I did not have to consult any maps. The air smelt “right” for October. All of the things that I have to check and double-check in my new home, the places that I’m not sure of yet because I haven’t been there, all of the references to Yahoo maps, none of that was necessary. The landscape was saturated with all that I had done there for 15 years. It was stunning.

I love my new home. I look forward to getting the opportunity to layer this landscape with new experiences, so that my presence in the landscape becomes intuitive and intimate, just as it was in the Bay Area. What is nice for me is that I realize that it can be done. The Bay Area was not the “home” I grew up in—it became home because I was there for so long.

I plan to be where I am for a long, long time. And the day that it feels completely like home is somewhere, not too far off, in my future.

More about Erving Goffman and my German Language Problems

As I wrote before I am living in Germany and learning German.  On Tuesday and Thursday mornings I spend 2.5 hours with ten strangers from all over the world. We have little in common except that we are foreigners living in Germany struggling to integrate. Our conversations with each other are in German, and inevitably about such topics as why it is so difficult to remember how to get the right ending on a comparative adjective (is it –e, -en, -er, em, es, etc.?). Not really the stuff that great friendships are made of; particularly when you do not share fluency in a common language. But nevertheless, Cordula our teacher assures us that this is all necessary for our life in Germany. So grumpy or not we all push along, collectively sharing an unspoken dream of proving Germans wrong about the idea that multiple adjectival endings are important to anyone’s life.

All of us have tried to explain to Cordula at some point why German does not make sense. She just smiles nicely, and notes that “it’s irregular,” which is the language teacher’s way of saying “it is logicval only when I say it is logical, otherwise it is illogical.” And so we are stumped since after all, how can you ever say that my language is “more logical” than German unless you get the proper ending onto the adjective (something along the lines of “my language is more logikalerere than German because the der-die-das komparativ so much easier is”). You don’t have to believe me on this issue, of course. Mark Twain wrote “The Awful German Language”
after killing two or three German teachers—they died of heart failure—in the 1880s during his attempts to master German grammar. Fortunately, Cordula, has both a better sense of humor and stronger heart than Twain’s teachers, is still alive, but more about her below.

But this blog is not about the nature of German language, but about my classmates who are what sociologist Erving Goffman called my “own” because we share the stigma of being linguistically impaired in Friedrichshafen. There are ten of us, and except with the young English-speaking Kenyan woman who works at a local nursing home, my conversations with the others are in German. We all speak enough to know something about each other. There are two music teachers (one from Russia and one Kazakhstan) both married to German men. There are two from Belarus in the class, one a computer engineer at a local company, and the other a language student. Two Italians work at local restaurants, and Daniel from France who recently retired here. The most fluent German speaker is a Hungarian-speaker from Romania who we all secretly admire greatly. In short, we have little in common, except that we ended up in Friedrichshafen somehow, we are all foreigners, we share a classroom twice a week, and believe in Cordula’s capacity to transform our German verb forms.

And yet we also share that unspoken and special bond described by Goffman in his book Stigma. We are each others’ “own” with respect to the vast numbers of Germans around us who are the “normals.” Some of the best classroom conversations have been about how the normal Germans do things to us which are odd to us. Among the things we notice are that Germans are insurance-crazy, carry little reflective triangles in their cars (in case their car breaks down, and their warning blinkers don’t work), and do not like hugging as much as Italians, Russians, and French. We have all compared notes about German immigration law as a result of time spent securing permits in the local immigration office.

We have also endured at some level an attitude that foreigners should just get with it and learn German—integration is the key (gee thanks for the advice Mr. Normal German—when was the last time you tried to memorize and use 48 Kazakh articles?). As with normals everywhere, they do not easily understand what it is like to be on the outside looking in. Believe me, we all want to “integrate” and achieve linguistic anonymity–were it only so easy! So integration from a normal is the last thing any of us wants to hear after hours spent wrestling with the weird German vowels like Ö Ä Ü, unpronounceable even to Mötley Krüe, or worse yet distinguishing between the sound of a sharp s (ß) and a double ss.

And so we help each other out in class with whispered answers when we are stuck, awkwardly trade news about planned vacations and family, and have a special bond when we encounter each other in the city. Daniel especially, has become helpful in slipping us all study guides, and one of the Italians picked up the tab for me and my family when we were at his restaurant. Cordula of course is our shared hero—she is what Goffman called one of the “wise.” She is a “normal” German, but as a result of years teaching German, she instinctively understands and sympathizes with our tribulations. She points out my “typical English mistakes,” and I can even laugh when she does this. She also knows more about the rapidly changing German immigration laws than do most Germans—a wisdom she gained through years of interacting with foreign German learners.

Among Cordula’s more appreciated tales are about the strong local dialect known as Swabian German. Somehow it takes the edge off of things, realizing that all those “normal” Swabians also use the “wrong” article with the word for “butter” routinely, and butcher any word having a st consonant combination. Those of us imagining ourselves at the bottom of Friedrichshafen’s linguistic heap enjoy the chance to snicker at the problems of our presumed tormentors!

Will consult for food

I have not been posting much recently. This is because I have been laying the plans to leave my current position at Jump Associates at the end of January to start a new path far away from the business of design and strategy. I have noticed I need a radical career change every 8 to 10 years. I am going to be doing a bit of independent consulting before my next gig. If I suddenly start posting a lot, you will know the independent thing is not going so well!

In the meantime, my co-editor Cindy will lead Ethnography.com to new heights (or at least more readers) in my absence. Donna, Tony and Jennifer.. write! Write like the wind!!!