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BERLIN—Act I. Exposition.
All the young comrades sing on the street.
Arm aber sexy—poor but sexy—is the unofficial motto of Berlin these days. And fair enough, in a city that boasts half the per capita GDP of Detroit or Birmingham yet finds itself at the heart of world art, music, and fashion. 21 percent of Berliners are on welfare—and the rest dress like they are. It’s snarky, it’s hip, it’s vaguely dishonest. It’s also really damned cool.
When I first arrived here, I was ready for some edgy. I’d just spent a few days in stuffy old Vienna, where the first bar I visited was a beach bar—ja, an Austrian beach bar, complete with strawberry daquiris, sunburnt Brits and ethnically ambiguous staff in banana skirts. They were playing a typical series of Euro-club hits—blurry, indistinct hours of You will never feel alone / My touch is such a rush / It overflows—while I stared at the Danube through a cloud of hookah smoke and dreamed of Turkish horsemen. And then I began pondering the question that’s bothered me since I started watching Eurovision: what is it with Europeans and crappy English song lyrics?
They just love the stuff. And when I got to Berlin, eager to try out my rusty old German, it was hardly any better: the English language seemed to rescue the lamest of lines from embarrassing kitsch. I ride my bike past Party Bar on my way to White Trash Fast Food; later on, people much cooler than me will end up at Cookies or Watergate while I kick back at Roses. Crappy English even dominates the lyrics that sneak in between wobbles and slaps in the post-grunge industrial lo-organic gypsy-step that anyone who’s anyone listens to these days. From last weekend:
Bitch / Bitch / Ride the white pony / Bitch / Bitch / Ride the white pony / Bitch / bitch/ Ride the white pony.
Pop and electro lyrics have always been dumb. But the Old Continent seems happy to put up with a whole other level of cliché and kitsch—even the earnestly blasé scenesters hardly put up a fight—and suddenly I’m wishing I didn’t speak such good English, because how much fun would it be to sing along to Eurovision with neither irony nor shame?
Act II. Contrapunto.
And they are greeted by the slogans of the people.
I don’t think it’s just that English is sexier, or more expressive, or the lingua franca buoyed by Hollywood and Wall Street. The English-speaking audience, too, seems to give extra points for songs with foreign language elements: Arriverdeci, Darling; Que Sera Sera; Vamos a la Playa. These sorts of songs surely profit from their recognizable—but still unusual—phrases, which would sound downright silly released to the charts in English. Even modern-day troubadours like Bieber and Derulo would struggle to pull off “Let’s go to the beach / I like to dance / Rhythm of the night / Sounds of the party.”
And I must confess to taking a few hundred photos of street art stencils with epigrams like KAPITALISMUS TÖTET (“capitalism kills”) and KUNST IST FREIHEIT (“art is freedom”)—as well as listening to old German pop music that most native speakers now find inane (see: Nein, Mann). Maybe there’s just something special about phrases in foreign languages that make them seem more meaningful than they are—or, instead, that reveal to us the meaning that has been there all along without our noticing. Something that lets us sing out at the top of our lungs that, yes, we would very much like to go to the beach, and no, we don’t want to think too hard about it at all.
Act III. Synthesis.
They march together, and all are one.
My favorite moments as a language learner—and a word lover—are the ones when you stop and think about how another language expresses a familiar concept in a way that is both completely strange and entirely sensible. In German, instead of saying there is, you say it gives; instead of I wonder, you say I ask myself.
I am standing on the subway, looking blankly through the window at a piece of the Berlin Wall that’s lurching by. It’s only after a while that I notice I’m being addressed by a homeless man, whose hair is more like a mane and whose eyes are just so damned hard to look at. He asks me for money and I wave him away; it doesn’t feel as bad in a foreign country for some reason.
“Entschuldigung,” I say. (Pardon me, literally remove my blame).
“Schönen Tag” (Have a nice day).
And then he gets off the train and I stare at the glass while I think about what I actually just said—and whether I ever really thought words could achieve that sort of thing.
Alexander J.B. Wells ’13, an associate magazine editor, is a Literature concentrator in Quincy House.
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