It’s just a whole new language…

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Nine innings. Strike zone. Pitcher. Batter. Bases: First base, second base, third base, home base. Pitching staff. Top of the inning vs. bottom of the inning. Court not pitch. Touch down. Ballpark. Off season. UFC. Umpire not referee. Wrestling. Bullpen. MLB. NBA. NFL. MLS. NHL. WFAN. ESPN. Spring Training. Floyd Mayweather. Mike Tyson. The Klitschko brothers. Trivia questions. Debate. Fanaticism. Mike Francesa. TV deals. Raw SmackDown.

How do you feel? Is your head still spinning? Do you feel as if you were surrounded by a hundred Chinese speaking people who won’t stop throwing strange words and cloudy sentences your way? Welcome to the world of sports talk in America!

I made first contact with this social phenomenon even before I had my first class meeting. Surprisingly, academic advisement took a pause while I learned about the violent nature of American football and a study about concussions and football that was going to take place. Did you know that the job of a football helmet is not to prevent concussions but to prevent skull fractures? I didn’t mind, did even enjoy how leaned-back the conversation had gone by. But I was surprised to find myself involved in sports talk in this situation.

I became the next dose of sports talk right before my first class meeting. Entering the classroom, I was greeted by the hectic and emotional exchange of arguments. I just wanted to pitch in and say “hi”, but the pace of the debate made it impossible to find a moment of silence to do that.

I tried to follow them, tried to understand what they were talking about. A-Rod. Some TV deal. NBC Sports. Money. USA Network. Entertainment. Wrestling. Yankees vs. Red Sox. Team owner XYZ. I gave up. It just didn’t make any sense.

Same location, different day. With more and more sports talk crossing my way, I wanted to try a different approach: note taking. Ah, I remember that name. Wait, how do you spell this guy? T-a-n-? No, don’t… Too late, they’ve already progressed to another topic; from baseball to football to hockey and back to baseball in split seconds. How am I supposed to learn to understand what you’re talking about if you’re constantly switching topics and sports? Frustrating.

Sports talk seems to be a social activity that is always on. It connects people, breaks the ice, and seems to make people comfortable talking to people they don’t even know. Drop a reference to any type of sport and life around you stops. Everyone has an opinion about everything. Even people who are not into sports either participate or make clear that they are not a fan of whatever people are talking about.

Sports play a major role in German society as well. European football is all over the place, but I’ve never experienced this kind of sports talk. Sure, it still connects people, it’s still THE icebreaker, but it feels different. It’s more rational (despite being far from rational), less heated, and – for sure – a lot slower.

When Germans talk about sports, they talk about football. That’s what I had expected to find here as well – people talking about one sport at a time. But involving all sports into a conversation, jumping from one to another and back in the middle of an argument? That’s new, and that’s what made it so confusing in the beginning because it was impossible to find a starting point from where I could begin to work my way into the field of American sports.

Thanks to the fact that I’m being inundated with sports talk, I’m beginning to understand. This is not supposed to sound negative because it really is not. Sports is just a huge part of the American culture. It’s part of the experience to learn all about it and eventually understand at least the basics. And just recently, I had my first success in my efforts to decode the language of sports. More about that soon!

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Severe Winter in Connecticut proves the blood donor community

The sparkle in Vicki Plagesse’s dark eyes enveloped her in an aura of joy de vivre. Greeting donors at the entrance of the hall of Saint Clare’s Church in East Haven, Conn., Vicki set the atmosphere for the Red Cross Blood Drive on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014.

While nurses from the Red Cross prepared for a busy five hour event in the back of the hall, Vicki talked about the connection between the demanding winter and blood donations. Incoming donors interrupted her flow of sentences for a couple of minutes. She ensured to welcome everyone with a smile that provoked a smile in return.

“Yesterday’s blood drive,” explained Adele Sicignano from the Ladies Guilt at Saint Clare, “was cancelled because of the weather.” Talking about the reasons for them to work hand-in-hand with the Red Cross, she said, “today we are hosting this blood drive because of the mass shortage of blood that is around.”

The ladies from Saint Clare have never organized a blood drive before. “It’s not necessary,” Adele Sicignano explained their reasons for offering sandwiches and backed goods, “but we thought it would be an added treat for those who came out today in this in climate weather again – rain, rain, rain.”

The donation process is simple and does not require much effort. As long as one is over 18 years of age, does not show any cold symptoms, did not receive any vaccinations recently, or, among a few other restrictions, has not been out of American or Canadian territory within the past 12 months, one can give blood every 56 days.

After the blood has been drawn, a procedure that takes approximately eight to 10 minutes, every donated sample goes through several testing and quality control steps to ensure that hospitals receive high quality blood supplies.

“I make a difference,” is the slogan presented on the donor sticker the Red Cross offers in two editions. The red version, indicating a repeated donor, was the one that decorated most people’s clothes at Saint Clare. That does not mean, however, that the green sticker, indicating a first-time donor, would mean less. On the contrary, winning people who are willing to give blood is the key to an improved blood supply level.

Nicholas Givens is one of those regular faces at blood drives. “It’s a great cause,” he said. “There’s always people who need blood, everybody from the world, especially here in the U.S. You know, everybody needs a helping hand sometime. So it’s the least I can do.”

“Every chance I can, I donate,” explains Givens. “The least I can do is donate blood, I mean there is not much I can do, so a little bit helps everybody.”

Helping people who are in need is a motif shared among veteran blood donors. “I think,” Barbara Natarajan said, “it’s a great help to needy. You never know when someone is gonna need blood. Fortunately, I never had to have it, but I’ve been given it for 25 years. When I first started working in New York City, they used to come to the blood drive in work and I give as regularly as I can, like at least four times a year.”

“I feel,” she said about her passion to give blood, “that I’m helping someone. You loose a half a pound,” she interrupted herself mid-sentence with a high-pitched lustily laughter before she continued, “of weight from giving. And I think it’s healthy that your body makes new blood cells. Some people say, oh we want all that blood we need. But I think it’s good to get new blood. Your body makes it, kind of replenishes it within I think they said six weeks.”

With an expected number of 50 donations at the event, the hopes of the Ladies Guilt that the blood drive at Saint Clare would become a success had become true. Donating blood makes a difference, and people need to work together to fight off difficulties like the wintry conditions on the streets of Connecticut. The ladies demonstrated the determination of the donor community to stand together and leap those hurdles. And more is yet to come. “Well, if they need us still,” Adele Sicignano said about plans to let additional blood drives follow, “we will.”

Welcome to the World of Sports in America

High school basketball - Cheshire vs. Fairfield Prep
High school basketball – Cheshire vs. Fairfield Prep

We turn right onto a wide parking lot. The buildings, not higher than two or three stories, are a good distance off the main street. The Star-Spangled Banner is prominently positioned. I’m about to enter my first U.S. high school, and it looks exactly like I had imagined.

We are in Cheshire, just a few miles north of Hamden. I feel, however, strangely reminded on Hamden. There’s a wide, busy road going through the town from south to north, restaurants, supermarkets, and drug stores are located to the left and right of it. We pass the agglomeration of stores that flag up on both sides of the road. Are we back in Hamden? This here looks identical to the shopping district there. But it can’t be, it’s the opposite direction.

The reason for this visit to Cheshire’s high school is another first for me – high school basketball. I’ve only seen one live basketball game before. A good friend of mine took me to a Raptor’s game when I stayed in Toronto a couple of years ago. I loved the experience – thanks, Jon! So I had an idea and a certain expectation of both the game and the event that awaited me tonight.

High school sports is non-existent in Germany. We have sports classes and we exercise, play even basketball or flag football, but we don’t have teams and so no competitions or events like this.

Obviously, I didn’t expect to see a spectacle that could compare to a full-fledged NBA game. But I was interested to observe this part of American culture. Just dive in, I thought, and be part of the culture.

When I think back to my high school, I see the two gyms we had, a small and a big one. Depending on what kinds of sports we practiced, we used either one.

Entering Cheshire’s gym, I notice small stands along both sides of the hall – maybe ten rows high. I am surprised, hadn’t expected to find a gym double the size of our big one. I don’t even begin to speak about the stands. The red and white colors of Cheshire High embellish the location, robbing it of its cold appearance.

People enter the gym. Slowly, the stands get packed. The game is about to begin, I can’t find too many empty seats.

I am surprised and, at the same time, not surprised to find myself in the same family-friendly atmosphere I had experienced in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. I am not surprised because I had connected basketball with families ever since. I am surprised, however, because I hadn’t thought that high school basketball would feel so similar.

In contrast to the *basketball atmosphere*, European football (in America also known as soccer) takes place in a more aggressive atmosphere. Applauding for the players of the visiting team? It’s the opposite. And booing is just a mild form of rivalry you would experience in a stadium. When a team disappoints over a longer period, things can get rough. Hooligans like the ones you will see in the video below, however, are only a few in contrast to hundreds and thousands of peaceful fans. But watch for yourself what happened after the last relegation of Cologne’s football club.

Even before the game begins, I run right into another first; the playing of the national anthem. I feel out-of-place, standing up, listening to the well-known anthem that’s not mine. I look around, notice in their eyes the connection most of the people in attendance have with the music.

The game begins, the stands are packed, and I am surprised yet again. The game is actually entertaining. Cheshire are supposed to be the underdog here, but they head off to a great start, leading Fairfield Prep by six or seven points. The Cheshire supporters zone, diagonally across the gym, goes wild.

The longer the game goes on, the more surprises come my way. Everything looks so professional. The coaches are dressed in a business like style, the refs seem to wear the same uniforms as the professional ones. And there are so many of them. When we played basketball, our teacher was the coach, wearing a jogging suit.

I am excited. I take a couple of photos. I’m perplexed when I see the scores again. The favored team had managed to turn the tables. They now lead Cheshire by fifteen points or so.

The final surprise of the evening is that Cheshire are able to celebrate a comeback. The game is too close to call almost till the final seconds. The crowd is visibly and audibly disappointed as the final pass glides through the hands of one of their players. The gym transforms from the center of excitement into a place of silent within a split second. The game was over; even I had realized that.

I’ve come here with Joe, who needs to write a story about the game for our class. While waiting for him to finish his interviews, I’ve gotten the chance to observe the family atmosphere once again. The parents gather on the pitch, children are racing all over the gym. I hear chatter from all across the hall, sweet laughter pierces through every few seconds. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, everyone has a brilliant time. Exactly how sports should be enjoyed, completive during the game, but forgotten are all the rivalries afterwards.

I notice how densely the walls of the gym are decorated with banners, telling of past successes. School sports has a complete different value in America. It’s important to people, it means something. Now, Joe’s description of the function of high school sports as a gradual process from town to high school to college to professional teams, makes perfect sense.

Watching this game and being immersed in this atmosphere is why I’m here. I’ve dived into American culture and have learned about a side of the country that had been hidden before. It’s exciting to discover all those differences, smaller and bigger ones. Thanks, Joe!

#PleaseStartTalking

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Baseball, a sport I’ve never understood. I hear names being thrown across the room. I’ve never heard of those people. Who are they? What is the class talking about? I become familiar with one name, though, Roger Clemens. For those of you who haven’t heard of him, he is a former baseball player for the Boston Red Sox, the Toronto Blue Jays, the New York Yankees, and the Houston Astros.

We watched an interview Clemens had given Mike Wallace for CBS’s 60 Minutes after he had been accused of having used anabolic steroids. We analyzed Wallace’s interview style, but the conversation slowly but steadily shifted towards doping. Where would you draw the line between “legal enhancements” and doping? More names popped up. Speakers changed quickly now, my head turned left, right, straight, and left again. Can you actually tell someone used illegal substances just by looking at his or her appearance?

I felt lost in-between all those names that didn’t mean anything to me. Why are we talking about doping? What interested me, though, was whether this Clemens guy did actually use anabolic steroids? I searched for an opportunity to jump in so that I could find an answer. But my search didn’t bring any positive results. The wheel of sports-talk kept going round and round.

I didn’t really understand why I felt a little lost or why it was harder to speak up than expected. But that’s how it was. Weird. I’m comfortable with the English language, it feels like a good friendship. It should be easier!

Building a friendship

I hate to watch dubbed movies. Unfortunately, Germany is a cold place for fans of the original movie experience. Movie theaters and TV stations screen everything in a translated version; a few exceptions prove the rule. I left the dark side in March 2007 when I threw myself into the world of original, English language movies. Yale was coming up and I wanted a head start. I rented DVDs, set the language to English, and learned. Within two or three movies, I stopped using subtitles; found them to be too distracting because I caught myself spending too much time thinking about if I agreed with the translation they had chosen.

One of the key lessons I learned during my college years goes like this: Read your books in the original language; it’s gonna make a huge difference. So that’s what I did. I spent my time with writers such as B.S. Johnson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ayn Rand, Paul Auster, John Hersey, and Joseph Mitchell. Book by book, I discovered yet another detail about the English language. The need to have a dictionary handy vanished sooner than I had expected. The foundation laid by my English classes in high school was stronger than anticipated. I didn’t like English classes. Maybe that’s because I don’t fancy to learn a language under pressure, where your grade is determined by a ratio of words written and errors made, maybe the reason is simply that I didn’t discover my love and feeling for languages in general and English in particular before college.

I connect writing with Yale. I’ve never written anything except in-class exams in school and academic papers in college. I was in for a leap of faith when I saw myself confronted with the task to “write down the bones,” a concept of descriptive writing by Natalie Goldberg. I observed people, their surroundings, and their conversations. I thought about life and my own identity. I wrote, learned, and wrote more. At the end of those six weeks, I had been infected with the writing virus.

Back in college, I had to push the more creative writing aside. But I found my way back. When I battled with myself over the direction my life should take, writing helped me through it. I began my first ever private journal. Guess which language I chose for it?

I’ve switched writing languages after Yale. Notes, ideas, meaningless scribbles, journal entries, letters, it’s all in English now. I feel at home when I’m surrounded by the English language. That doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned my native language, though. For writing purposes, I’ve just learned to appreciate the clarity English has to offer. However, I guess that this is just a personal preference, nothing more.

Life in Ghana, exactly a year after Yale, threw new challenges at me. Ghanaian English sounds different. Sitting in the parliament, I asked my fellow co-volunteer (an Englishwoman) if she would understand what the politicians were talking about. It was as difficult for her as it was for me; what a relief. With experience comes adaption, and African English eventually sounded familiar. While movies had introduced me to the sound of American English, some other volunteers and workers for the organization that had brought me to Ghana did the same for British English. I left the continent with a richer understanding of the English language.

Double feelings during the first few weeks

I’ve done this before. I feel comfortable and at home when I’m in an all English environment. Yet, the first few weeks in the U.S. confused me. I could practice everything but speaking. That’s the only thing that’s almost impossible to practice when you are not in an environment that speaks the language in question. I knew I had managed to get talking before, so I didn’t fear.

I had forgotten to count in my mind. During the first few weeks, I felt comfortable yet uncomfortable. I have played through entire conversations in my mind. I know what I want to say and how to say it. Then, as soon as the first sentence leaves my mouth, I think “what are you doing? That’s not what I wanted to say or how I wanted to word it. I know better than that!”

Thinking about it, I’ve come to realize two things. First, there is a difference between being in a group of people who are in the same boat and being among native speakers. At Yale, every student around me faced the same situation; English was their second language. That made it easier because I didn’t feel the pressure to get it right. They made mistakes, I made mistakes. We were all there to learn. That’s different now.

Second, there is a pattern. It’s always the same. It’s all about practice and getting used to speaking a language again. It takes a bit of time and courage to accept and eventually overcome the misalignment between how my mind speaks and how my mouth speaks. And I’m angry with myself every time I fail to speak up. But I can feel the change. It’s getting easier with every day and every conversation. Eventually, everything will be okay. It worked at Yale, it worked in Ghana, and I’m all in to make it work here and improve my language skills.

Lesson number two: I wish I would have known that it takes so much effort to get talking again.

#StopTheSnow

Quinnipiac's Mt. Carmel campus
Quinnipiac’s Mt. Carmel campus

Winter, as many things in life, comes with positive and negative aspects. Above is again the wintry Mount Carmel campus that I’ve shown you in the first entry. Today, I’d like to write about the other side of winter in Connecticut.

The sun had already set when the people in front of me finally began moving. The air that touched my skin felt like a package of frozen food pressed against my head to prevent a bump from swelling. It’s winter in New York. From 10 degrees Celsius (50 F) in Germany earlier this morning to -6 C (21 F) at New York’s JFK airport in just nine hours. I was glad, though, to find the streets of New York free of snow.

The temperature had reached -11 C (12 F) when I reached Hamden, Conn., a few hours later. I stood in front of the Days Inn hotel. It was pitch black, but I knew Quinnipiac’s Mount Carmel campus was only minutes away. All it should have taken me to catch a first glimpse was crossing Whitney Avenue and making a right onto Mount Carmel Avenue.

Where’s the sidewalk? I walked to the edge of the parking lot, but that’s where the walk ended. The snow remains rendered the small strip of grass that I could have misused as safe passage to the intersection useless. Walking on Whitney Avenue didn’t strike me as particularly clever. The other side of the street will surely accommodate pedestrians, right? Only if I wanted to walk through maybe three inches of snow and ice. Trying my luck on the street was still not an idea I was willing to consider. It was cold, I was exhausted, and Quinnipiac would have to wait until tomorrow. After the first few hours in the country I had already realized that winter in Connecticut can be tougher than expected. It struck me as odd that I couldn’t reach the campus, although it was just a few minutes away. Back home, it would have been a no brainer to walk this short a distance.

The positive side of winter in Connecticut
The positive side of winter in Connecticut

The days went by, the winter stayed. I didn’t mind the first snow storm. Unfortunately, it robbed me of my first class experience, postponing my first meeting with my classmates a few more days. After almost two weeks in the country, I longed for company. Other than that, I had no problems with the white powder falling from the sky.

The following night began to change my relationship towards the snow. I’m talking about the process of clearing the street and parking spaces in front of my apartment from the snow. Just underneath my bedroom window, three vehicles kept moving snow for hours in a row. The noise from the engines and the sharp beeps when reversing resulted in a symphony that had made it its duty to keep me from falling asleep.

The snow storm last week elevated the situation to a new level. I had two tasks to accomplish during the afternoon hours of Wednesday, Feb. 5 that required me to hit the streets of Hamden. The bank required additional paperwork and I needed groceries. My feet were soaked before I had even reached the bank. I realized the priorities of this town when I tried to cross the street at the intersection of Whitney and Dixwell avenues. Since my feet were already wet, I didn’t mind the at least three inch deep puddles that I had to walk through. But for the next thirty minutes, I had an enemy who would have almost defeated me, the American sidewalk.

Sidewalk on Dixwell Avenue
Sidewalk on Dixwell Avenue

Snow removal in Hamden works like a charm, but only if you see it from the perspective of a driver. Put yourself in the shoes of a pedestrian and things change. As if it wasn’t enough that I had to wade through seven, maybe 10 inches of snow and ice, the few passages that were almost walkable bore another danger. The snowplows were still busy, although the streets looked fine. I can still see the snow and ice particles flying towards me as a plow approached. Thankfully, the driver noticed me and slowed down so that I could pass the machine safely.

A few minutes later, the plows, in continuous efforts to widen the useable area of the street inch by inch, had stacked up the wintry remains so high that I stood knee-deep in snow and ice. That was the moment where I was almost willing to accept defeat. But having almost reached the supermarket, I kept fighting and reached my destination.

I’ve been in Hamden for four weeks. I arrived with temperatures below the freezing point and that’s pretty much what the conditions have looked like ever since. I’ve gotten inured to the cold, the snow, and the challenging conditions on the sidewalks. But it’s time for spring to arrive. Snow and temperatures below the freezing point aren’t new to me, but I’ve never experienced such conditions for four weeks straight.

Lesson number one: I wish I would have known that winter in Connecticut can be that hard.

I wish I would have known…

 

I came across the video above while researching Quinnipiac University during the process of applying to graduate school. To be completely honest with you, dear reader, I hadn’t heard of Quinnipiac before two insiders pointed me to it.

A couple years ago, while still being an undergraduate student at Ruhr-Universität Bochum (the 30,000 student institution in Bochum, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany that I call my alma mater), I had decided to pursue an English language program at a U.S. university. One of the first options I found had been a program that was part of the summer sessions at Yale University. I applied, was accepted, and had the best time of my life.

The idea of studying in the U.S. had been in my mind ever since my first day at college. This experience strengthened my belief that studying in the U.S. was something I wanted to experience.

I had two professors for the three main classes at Yale; both are teaching at Quinnipiac year-round. When they heard of my plans for the future, they introduced me to Quinnipiac. And that’s how the whole story began.

I’ve made my own experiences over the past four weeks. It’s time to write about what I wish I would have known before I made the first step on this journey.

The next few entries will address several obstacles I hadn’t thought about beforehand, and I will show you how I’ve experienced campus life (and life in general) in New England during the past few weeks.

Thanks for reading,

Florian

Welcome to QU International!

Quinnipiac's Mt. Carmel campus
Quinnipiac’s Mt. Carmel campus

The photo above was taken on Quinnipiac’s Mt. Carmel campus in Hamden, Conn. It shows the Arnold Bernhard Library, a building I’ve already learned to appreciate, although I’ve been here for just a month. But that is only partially why I’ve decided to begin this blog with this specific photograph. Another reason is that I enjoyed the winter wonderland left behind by the snow storm on Monday. However, there is more to it, and I’m afraid you’ve got to wait for the second entry to learn all about it.

For now, just dive into the ‘about‘ page and find out what this blog is all about. The goal is to bring you at least two entries per week.

Thanks for reading,

Florian