Sunday, September 17, 2006

Between three countries

Yesterday I got a bus out of town and walked through a few miles of beautiful mixed woodland crisscrossed with many, many ancient paths and tracks until I got to the Dreiländereck.

It's a reasonably exciting place, sitting on top of a wooded ridge. As you can guess from the name (or not if you don't know enough German), it's the place where three countries meet: Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. In fact, for a short while from 1918 it was the Vierländereck, as the autonomously governed area of Neutral-Moresnet was set up to prevent the Germans and the Belgians from knocking six bells out of one another, and met the other three lands at the corner. What's there nowadays? Well, there's a memorial to a soldier who died aged 20 in the battle of the Ardennes in 1944, there's a tall observation tower with a lift going up it to give you a better view of the three countries (which I didn't go up; too touristy, and besides, it cost money), there are several cafés, restaurants and information centres, and there's a stone plaque on the Dutch side of the border stating that at 327.5 metres this is the highest point in all of the Netherlands.

Being able to understand the information presented in four languages (Dutch, French, German and English) around the stone, though, gave me a massive kick. What? No, that doesn't make me a very sad individual. Let me explain.

I've devoted a fair bit of my short life to learning languages. It's a challenge, really. I'd say that active acquisition of languages other than one's mother tongue is one of the most difficult activities it's possible for the human mind to undertake. A simple comparison of language A-levels with others serves to prove this: while an A-level in, say, Maths, already qualifies you for a fairly wide range of jobs, an A-level in French only proves that you can do (at a considerably lower level) what 60 million people in France alone can already do.

Systems are what I enjoy. I like getting my head inside a system, working it out and mastering it. That's what drew me to maths, and languages, and what fascinates me every time I come into contact with computer languages. But even the "simplest" human language used as a mother tongue by some group of people is orders of magnitude more complex and defined than the most advanced programming language. Languages are the greatest systems there are.

Am I blowing my own trumpet here? Perhaps. I don't do much of that, generally, so I'm probably entitled to, here and there. What I'm doing is more for my own satisfaction than for anything else. By and large, learning languages is a pretty thankless task. Native speakers tend to be extremely impatient with stumbling non-native learners. But sometimes, rarely, it pays off big-style. Like yesterday, when I was confronted with an information board in four languages and had the choice of any of them in which to read the information.

Sometimes I get a faint whiff of wistfulness when I talk about my course to people doing other degrees at Cambridge. They say things like "It must be so great to be donig something as concrete as language learning". It's true, sometimes. After three years at Cambridge, students of, say, English, or History, or Maths, have very little to show for their efforts - they may have a nice shiny degree certificate, but deep down there's always the doubt that they haven't done anything worthwhile at all and that they may have learned nearly nothing. You can't say that with language learning. There's a definite target from the beginning - fluency - and progress down that path is eminently measurable, even if at times painfully slow and blind. And the rewards when you feel yourself getting there are great.

OK, mine isn't the only reason for wanting to learn a language. Many - most - seem to consider the language a key to understanding peoples, cultures, history. That's fine, but it's not what I'm in it for. I'm not in it for career reasons, either. As far as I'm concerned, learning languages is not just a means to an end. It's a satisfying end in and of itself.

Ritter Sport Ratings

Golden Peanut: 4/10
I can't fault the execution of this one. No issues whatever. Peanuts, thickly coated in chocolate. The only question is: Why? Why do this to chocolate, and to peanuts? I like chocolate, I like peanuts, but this really is a silly idea for a novelty Ritter Sport combo. It fully deserves to sink without a trace after aficionados have had their chance to bite into it and think "Oh. OK".

Espresso Crunch: 6/10
Tasty. The crunch is good, and reminds me of the mornings I used to spend in 6th form getting my caffeine fix for the day from grinding chocolate covered coffee beans between my teeth. My reservation with this one is the same as with many other new combos - I think that the type of chocolate here is wrong. While the smoothness of cappuccino suits Ritter's soft, creamy milk chocolate, I think that with a sharp, suave flavour like Espresso dark chocolate would have worked better.

Peppermint: 5/10
I'd been looking forward to this one. I kind of expected it to be a giant After 8, and that's what it proved to be, simply put. Dark chocolate - spot on, here - with a filling of pepperminty goo. Sadly, the proportions were all wrong. The ratio of chocolate to peppermint was skewed in the peppermint direction, which meant that at times eating this one I couldn't help getting the feeling that I was ingesting toothpaste. Another millimetre or two of chocolate on the inside and this would be approaching perfection. Currently, though, this is just too squishy to be counted among the legendary flavours.


Little Fi said...

Am wondering whether there is likely to be a different range of our Quadratisch friends in Oesterreich. Perhaps I could set up a subsidiary reviewing branch?

I leave on Sunday. Yikes. I may even attempt to start thinking about packing today.

George Walkden said...

Could be... although I think that Continental is Continental. (Of course, if you disagree with any of my carefully considered opinions, you have only to say ;))

Good luck with the trip and make sure you blog plenty about soundofmusicland when you get there!