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When I travelled to Lauterbach for the harp festival a few weeks back, I took the ICE, a high speed long distance train for part of the way. I also travelled first class, a luxury I allowed myself because it wasn’t all that much more expensive and because I was travelling with my harp on a very crowded holiday weekend. It was very nice … comfortable leather charis with a lot of leg room, enough space to safely store the harp etc.

The train was equipped with little monitors in every waggon, like you normally find in an airplane, showing travel information like the time, the name of the next stop etc. It also displayed the travelling speed. When I consciously noticed that for the first time, the train was running at 271 km/h.

I have to admit that that did amaze me. My first thought was: „Wow …“ Well, I guess, that’s not really a thought. More of a feeling. The second thought was, that this was the fastest I ever travelled on the ground, the only times I had been moving faster I was on board of an airplane. The tracks on that route are specifically built for that train to run that fast, there are no curves, no noticable ascents or descents etc., even though it is quite hilly terrain. To make that possible, there are a lot of tunnels and really high and wide spanning bridges. The train does not slow down for any of them. Once I started thinking about this, it seriously creeped me out, actually. At 271 km/h, there is absolutely no way to bring that train to a stop or even considerably slow it down should there suddenly some kind of obstacle appear on the tracks. And I mean, we are talking regular train tracks here. They are located in the natural world. Of course, there are damns and, in more inhabited areas, even sometimes fences to protect them, but it is not as if those tracks are in a parallel universe or on a seperate plane.

Once I had realized that, moving at that speed did not seem such a good idea to me any longer. Of course nothing happened and the train did arrive safely in Bremen where I switched to a smaller, much slower regional train.

Now I wonder if I would have even noticed this or thought about this when I was still driving regularily. Of course, a car is somewhat slower (well, most cars are, there might be some sports cars around that actually can go 270 km/h), but still fast enough. It was not that uncommon for me to go 150 km/h on the autobahn, even though I normally tried to stick to the recommended speed of 130 km/h. And with that I was still one of the slower drivers around. But still, the feeling of travelling at that speed with a car and of travelling at 270 km/h with a train is not that different. It keeps you completely disconnected from the landscape you are passing through. You might notice major landmarks like hills, forrests and fields, maybe even the occasional building, but that’s it. Actually, on the autobahn you don’t notice much at all except the other cars which are more or less travelling at the same speed you are, since the autobahn is build to block out everything that could distract you.

Since I don’t have a car anymore (I have been car free for 8 years now), I rarely even ride in one. My usual travelling speed is 18 km/h on my bike or 5 km/h on foot. When I cycle to work, I hear the birds sing (and am usually able to tell which kind of bird it is), I see which wild flowers are in bloom beside the road, I smell the ocean when the wind is coming from the sea and the fresh manure when the farmers have been fertilizing their fields. I can tell which way the wind is blowing, if the air is moist and if there are many flying insects about. And of course I know every house, every tree, every horse and every cow I pass day after day.  For half an hour I am deeply connected with the natural world before I start working in the rather unnatural world of retail (I work as a shop assistant). And then, after closing time, I am deeply connected to the world for another half hour.

Of course this is not always fun. I might get soaking wet (even though good clothing can prevent most damage there), I might feel very exhausted physically, especially when I have to struggle against the wind which can be really merciless in these parts. And I have to admit that when the weather is lousy and I have the opportunity to catch a ride with my boss or my colleagues, I do so. But on a good day, I wouldn’t want to trade those 30 minutes for anything. They keep me sane.

And I enjoy walking even more than cycling. For shorter distances, like going into town, I rarely even take the bike. Because that allows me to see, hear, smell, touch and taste even more of my environment as I pass through it.

When the first trains were introduced in the late 18th century, they moved pretty slow by today’s standards. I think the first German locomotive, the Adler, could go at 30 km/h or somesuch. Not really faster than a horse in gallop. Still, there were people who were convinced that it would be dangerous and unhealthy for humans to travel at such a speed. It felt so unnatural.

The less I am part of the fast moving automobile world, the more I begin to understand why they felt that way. I think what’s at the heart of it is not the danger of accidents or physical harm. It is that once we travel faster than we naturally can, we loose the connection with the world around us. And that is the most dangerous thing that can happen to us, as individuals as well as as a species.

On a lighter note: Elisa liked my last blog entry so much that she at once had to paint the /ouse-sh-tiger/. It is now hanging on our living room wall, but we are willing to part with it in exchange for a gipsy waggon 🙂

There are a few German words and phrases that have become part of the English language as loan words, for the simple reason that there hasn’t been a native English expression for the concept. „Zeitgeist“ is one example. So are „Wanderlust“ and „Gemütlichkeit“.

Today, I think I discovered another word that probably should become part of the English language. It is the German word „Aussteiger“. When I ask LEO (my usual source for quick and dirty translations of individual words and phrases), it gives the English word „dropout“ as translation. That’s … well … it covers part of the story, I guess, but I don’t find it satisfying. The Collins German dictionary (that’s the place where I go when I want to appear all intellectual and such) gives „person who opts out“ and „dropout“ again.

Let me explain to you why „dropout“ doesn’t work very well and why I think that the English speaking world really needs the term „Aussteiger“.

An „Aussteiger“ is someone who leaves his or her „normal“ way of life for something more exotic, more down-to-earth or just less hectic and absurd. That can be a manager who suddenly quits his job and buys a yacht to go bluewater sailing for the rest of his life, a middle-class family that decides to live in a cabin in the woods now, a back-to-the-lander or a taxi driver from Berlin who decides to open a kafenion on a small greek island instead. It is someone who trades a lifestyle that is regarded as respectable (even by Hobbit standards) for something that is viewed with a lot of suspicion (and in many cases, some envy). It is someone willing to take a risk to find a better, more satisfying, more peaceful or less damaging lifestyle somewhere else. In most (but not all) cases it is someone who, to put it in Guy Mc Pherson’s words, walks away from Empire.

Someone like that could be described as a dropout, of course. But here is why I don’t like that term and think that „Aussteiger“ is much better. When something drops, it is by definition in a downward motion. Dropping is like falling … once you drop, there is a good chance you will hit rock-bottom sooner or later. „Steigen“ on the other hand also means to rise or climb in German. An „Aussteiger“ is therefore actively pursuing a path that will bring him „up“ more likely than „down“ (even though it is possible to use the verb „steigen“ to decribe a downward motion as well, but even then it is a controlled, active motion).

While most Germans probably wouldn’t want to become an „Aussteiger“ themselves, or don’t think they could or wouldn’t dare to, „Aussteiger“ (the plural is the same as the singular, btw) are viewed with a grim respect and in many cases even admiration. Many people I know and talk to secretly dream of becoming an „Aussteiger“ themselves … one day … maybe after retirement.

Do you understand what I am trying to say here? „Dropping out“ is not sexy. „Aussteigen“ is. And we want people to become „Aussteiger“. Well, I do. I want so many people to leave the system that the system just doesn’t work anymore.

So, I am on a mission … I have this word and I want to nominate it as a candidate for the English language. How do I go about this? I could write a letter to the Oxford English Dictionary: „Dear Editor, please include the following word in your next edition …“, but I doubt it will work. So I can just encourage you to use „Aussteiger“ instead of „dropout“ whenever you refer to someone who trades a 9-5 and a suburban home for something more exciting and reasonable.

How is it pronounced? I suck at phonetic transcription and even if I knew how to spell it out in the correct little wiggly symbols, I doubt I would find them on my keyboard. So I will try to describe it. The stress is on the first syllable, which is pronounced like „house“ but without the „h“ sound in the beginning and with a sharp „s“ at the end (it is a German word after all, we Germans always do hard and sharp consonants at the end). Then it is followed by a „sh“ sound (like in „hush“) and by the word „tiger“. So it is /OUS-sh-tiger/ The „s-sh“ combination might be a bit of a tongue twister at first, but you will get there 😉

So, please, everybody: help me spread the word.

Juni 2012