Thursday, January 16, 2014


My efforts over recent years to improve my French have now paid dividends on the street, or rather the platform.

The scene: in the very early morning I am waiting for a train on a platform of the Cologne train station, smoking a cigarette, walking meditatively around in the smoking area and near it. At one point I was at the edge of the platform next to the rails, which are a few feet below the platform.

Suddenly a young woman seated a few feet away in the middle of the platform jumps up, runs at and kicks out at me as if to knock me down on the rails, and says something in French. I didn't understand exactly what she said, but aggressive as I am (especially when surprised), I reacted accordingly and she backed away.

Because she spoke in French, I figured quickly that I should reply in French. The first sentences that rushed out of me: Tu es folle ? Qu'est-ce que tu veux de moi ?. She answered (in translation, I can't remember the exact words): "You're walking up and down in front of me". I replied, thinking very fast ("Can you say conne ?"): Qu'est-ce que ca te regarde ? Sale conne, je te casse le nez ?

She was subdued now and shut up, so I moved away. A bit later she got up and vanished down the platform. I got to thinking: she may have been annoyed at my smoking just outside the smoking area. There was no smoke in her direction (I checked), so she was just playing citizen policeman. But what a way to do it ! My physical reaction was justified, but what a way for me to react verbally ! Where did all those disobliging phrases come from ??

Very satisfactory, all things told (marie-lucie will be scandalized, but that's only because she's a nice lady). My linguistic skills are moving into line with my moods. It's good that I watch French TV and read not only Sartre, but also less edifying authors. It's a lifesaver.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Changing your mind

To learn is to change your mind.

This is a paraphrase of a remark by Luhmann. It may seem paradoxical to those who think of learning as the accumulation of knowledge. On this line of thinking, each new piece of knowledge lines up more or less neatly next to the old pieces, as in a well-organized warehouse. Flashes of insight merely illuminate the goods from different angles. Learning in this sense requires no ability to take stock.

But learning can be looked at in another, additional way. By the definition of "new", when you run into something new it can't be an extension of what you already knew. To incorporate it into what you already know, you must change your mind about its being new, or change your mind about what you thought you knew. Learning in this sense requires an ability to take stock and reevaluate.

If these considerations are new to you, you may have learned something - depending on how you look at it.