Thursday, 14 March 2013

Garmisch then and now; a lesson in long term memory

Top of the Hausbergbahn, March 2013

Garmisch revisited:  One of the essay topics we used to give students for their final exam was ‘if you could travel to any time, past or future, what time would you choose, and why?’ 

Reading the essays, I’d think about how I would have answered the question, and I'd always think of Garmisch.  That’s where I’d choose to go!  Garmisch, around 1980.  After school, when my friends all went to university, I wanted to travel instead.  Somehow, I ended up in Garmisch.  Instead of getting a degree, I spent three years working in a hotel, learning German, and skiing (see pic below from 1981!)

skiing on Zugspitz, April 1981
For the past 30 plus years, I’ve dreamed of going back to ski in Garmisch, or, to give it its full name, Garmisch-Partenkirchen.  Once I realized I could make it happen this year, I tried to stop myself from having unrealistic expectations.  What if I was disappointed?  What if it had changed unrecognizably?  Would all my memories be spoiled? That must happen sometimes when people re-visit a place from their past.  But, this turned out not to be one of those times. 

Zugspitz March 2013, almost the same view!
21 again?  On arrival, the hotel staff complimented me on my German, and asked where I’d learned it.  Here, I said.  I used to live here.  And then I thought to myself, ‘before you were born.’  None of them looked over 30; their whole lives had taken place during the time since I last spoke German.  You'd think this would have made me feel old; instead, I had the distinct feeling that, like Benjamin Button, I was growing younger by the minute.  Garmisch was working its magic! It wasn’t long before I was pretty convinced that I was 21 again.  My legs were happy to cooperate with this age change;  after a hard day’s skiing, I still had unlimited energy to go walking all over town.  Five days in a row.  

I used to work at a hotel on this street

But, of course, not everything was the same.  In 1981, I used to ski until 2 p.m., work until 10 p.m., and then go out to the disco where my friends and I would dance all night to ‘Billy Jean’, ‘Brick house’, 'Staying alive', ‘Play that funky music’, and ‘Don’t stop til you get enough.'  I decided to make no attempt to replicate this particular activity from my past, (suspecting anyway that I was unlikely to find, in 2013, a disco playing the soundtrack from Saturday Night Fever).

Skiing:  How has skiing changed?  Well, chair lifts have been added to, or in some cases replaced, T-bars.  The cable cars are still the same, but talking on mobile phones has replaced smoking as the preferred way to pass the time on the ride up the mountain.  Ski passes now look like credit cards and have a contactless chip; you put it in an inside pocket and forget about it.  So much better than the old paper kind you had to hang on your jacket zip and show every time you got on the lift.

I didn’t mind going skiing alone then, nor did I mind it this time.  Then, of course, I was a ‘local’, so I would always run into someone I knew on the slopes.  We’d ski together for a bit, until one of us had to go to work, or until we ran into other people we knew and went off in different directions.  This time I was visitor, an outsider, so no chance of meeting up with a local ski buddy.  But, (always look on the bright side) I didn’t have to leave the slopes at 1:30 to go wait tables!

Views:  The views from the ski slopes haven’t changed.  What has changed is my appreciation for them.  I barely noticed them before; I was only interested in skiing fast, experiencing that adrenaline rush, keeping up with my ski patrol friends. 

Wandering through the streets of town during my afternoon walks, I realized how much I'd taken the beauty and grandeur of the alpine landscape for granted when I lived there.  Mountain views are everywhere, in every direction, and for everyone, because there are no high rise buildings in Garmisch.  I guess living under the Alpspitz and Zugspitz is like everything else – you don’t notice what you are used to.  

view of Alpspitz and Zugspitz from town

church in Partenkirchen
Memory:  It’s always fascinating to experience first hand the mystery of how memory works. (Note:  I’m writing a separate blog post specifically about language memory and my horrendous, hybrid ‘Germish’ sentences).

My lesson in long term memory retrieval came when I saw the Horn sign.  In the ‘old days’, the Horn was the black run I was always getting into difficulty on, the most challenging run on the mountain.  I came across it on the morning of the second day.  Up to that point, I hadn’t remembered the names of any of the runs;  I'd lost my ‘mental map’ of the mountain.  However, once I saw the sign saying Horn with the black diamond, everything came back.  The way down.  The names of the other runs.  The layout of the mountain.  Random German words and phrases.  Songs.  And, people.  People I hadn't thought about in years.  All these appeared by magic in my mind as if a switch had been turned on.  The experience was so powerful that I’ve been thinking about memory ever since, and how to harness its potential to improve language learning and acquisition for my students.

By the way, if any of my skiing friends are reading this -- I didn’t go down the Horn; I thought about it though!  There was a sign saying Lebensgefahr (literally ‘life danger’!)  A couple of kids, who looked about 10, ignored the sign and zoomed on past.  In 1981, I’d probably have followed them, thinking ‘if they can do it, so can I.’ But, not now.  I have to make some concessions to middle age. 

If you ever get the chance to visit Garmisch, go!  It's a beautiful, happy, magical place; I’m so glad that I went back as part of my sabbatical adventures.  Although I had thought it might make me feel old, revisiting the neighborhoods and ski slopes of my youth; it didn't.  It made me feel young.   

Couple more pics below:  

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