It’s an all-too-common occurrence: A group of people listening to a riveting story by a ruthlessly animated storyteller. I bend an ear almost literally in an attempt to assemble the key words and phrases into a concept palatable to my understanding. Then, as I believe I am coming to a deeper understanding and I can feel the tale peaking to a breaking point, it happens again.
It’s the special moment when a lesson is learned, the punch line is delivered, and the culmination of the litany occurs. I recall in rapid-fire the facts I have digested, “Katze, Hund, Arbeitstag, Schnell, Apfel…” It is all for not, and it is all too late. As the people around me break out into laughter in synchronization my look of anticipation unbeknownst to me has become one of utter confusion. As the initial burst of laughter subsides like clockwork one turns to me often, but not always my girlfriend, Andi and utters the three words I cringe to hear in public, “Hast du verstanden?” - “Did you understand?”
I have lived in Germany for one and a half years now. What no one bothers to tell you is when you move to a foreign country the first thing you give up is your pride. Being able to admit, “I don’t understand” or “I don’t know” transforms from a statement of weakness into a call for survival. But the shame never quite leaves. It’s hard not to find yourself walking in a constant state of anxiety or paranoia. What if somebody asks me a question or yells at me something I don’t understand?
At the one-year mark I had to renew my staying and working permission. Andi asked me, “Do you need me to go with you?” I hate this office. Nobody is happy to be alive in there. Maybe that is because of the constant flood of immigrants (who remarkably enough, speak often quite good German). In any case, my deluge to save face often surpasses my quest for survival. “No, of course I can do it alone. No problem.”
“No problem.” The words echo back and forth in my mind as I sit across from a man in a small office looking at my papers and adamantly telling me something I do not understand. Damn, I hate it when she’s right. He frustratingly looks at one document. Moments pass as he looks to another, and begins to utter words that at first thought seem to resemble that of a question although I don’t understand them. I say, “Können Sie bitte das langsamer sprechen?” – “Can you please say that slower?” He nods in agreement and then proceeds to respond in a fashion quite similar to before only this time with more volume. I am visible irritated, I’m certain. He says the same thing five or six times through a thick Swabian local dialect until I am finally able to latch onto one specific word: “einschalten”. “Einschalten oder ausschalten? Ja oder nein? Ja oder nein?” – I abruptly stop him, “Was war das?” – “What was that?” – “Das Wort, ich verstehe nicht das Wort.” – “That word, I don’t understand that word.” I’m pleading. He begins again. Slower. “Einshalten oder ausschalten?” He writes it down.
I use my handy cell phone translator app. “Activate.” He wants to know if I have activated my card online as he points to a little book written entirely in German that I’m now beginning to see was apparently something I was supposed to sleep with under my pillow every night since. I infer he wants to know if I did this action that in no way did I ever know I was supposed to perform. He tells me I must go home and do this before he can help me.
As I glance at the new paper sitting on the desk – the very tangible item for which I initially came through the doors – we agree to disagree. I can almost grab it with my sweaty hands. He chuckles, gives me his hand and tells me to have a good evening. I oblige the handshake and tell him to do likewise. I’m ready to throw a chair at his face. I refrain.
I’m busy anyway. My German class starts soon. I exit the office holding a heavy breath locked inside me, and I walk a few yards, no; excuse me - meters around the corner. I set my bag down, sit on the stone, and exhale for what feels like the first time since I left the office. Tears of anger and frustration run down my face.
A child walks by with her mother walking along a straight path of stones toward my feet stepping within inches, sorry - centimeters of me. She jibbers an uninterrupted barrage of German upon her tired but thoughtful mother. This three year old is spitting out so many words that I’m not sure I cannot understand or simply do not know. God damn it. She makes it look easy.
Forget the class. I go home and drink a beer. Or two. I tell Andi I was unsuccessful and still not quite sure what is being expected of me from the office. She also looks confused. She says, “I’ll go tomorrow.” I say, “thank you,” but what I really mean is, “good luck.” She doesn’t need luck. She needs nothing. She talks to the same man in the same office and brings home the same document that I could see but not hold only a few short hours before. No activation necessary.
Andi and I almost always speak English together. Her grandmother always tells us, “Svetch Daitsch!” – Swabisch. She means, “Sprech Deutsch” – “Speak German.” Thanks Oma, lots of love. She means well. She’s right, and we do. And then quickly we don’t.
The second thing nobody tells you after they thoughtfully forget to tell you to forget your pride is that no one really cares how tired or frustrated you are. That even though there are thousands upon thousands of Germans who speak near-perfect English, Germany will not slow down so the pace of things will be more to my liking. They don’t care about that.
Some may say I’m victimizing myself. “Just learn German,” one proclaims, “It can’t be that hard.” My only response has become a slurred mix of positive and negative feelings about German, becoming a vortex of yes-days and no-days. Some mornings I wake up and say to myself how I’m going to own this experience, and that the language cannot hold a candle to my arrogant American indifference to difficult challenges. But the truth is that most days I wake up feeling indignant in advance to those who may not understand my frustration at trying and failing.
Could I do more? Oh certainly I could commit more time and effort to learning the language so that others here don’t always have to “press 1 for German” to borrow a popular and relevant American metaphor. Other than having an experience with a handful of people that leave me riddled with irritations only a user of pepper-infused enemas would know anything about, I carry on. Let me clarify for my fiber-rich and metaphorically challenged readers. There are a few people I have met that through their entire lack of patience, love, and understanding of my challenge leave me wishing only to speak in my first language – sarcasm. I mean that on a truly bad day, it’s not worth the risk of making any mistakes speaking terrible German grammar in an effort to learn by doing, because my child-like anger can be more potent a drug in my adrenaline-pulsating veins. This leaves me succumbing at times to act as if I didn’t know or understand a word of German, and if you don’t understand my English then hold on while I grab my world’s smallest violin and play a sad song just for you.
On my better days I feel like I’m surrounded by people who are guiding me to a new skill through equal-measured patience and respect. It is embarrassing for me to see how easy it is with a country where 2nd and 3rd languages are more than common. They’re necessary facets of 21st Century European living. This is the real melting pot. In my quiet moments when I acquiesce into thinking I wonder. I wonder if from the ethno-centric, single-language United States I call home where a map could comfortably fit 2-3 Europe’s, comprised of countless languages, I’m left with one burning and long-begged question. If America is doomed to hate each successive immigrant or minority group, focused today, but not always, on Latin America – Latin Americans – can we continue to dress ourselves in the mosaic coat we wear in pride, but closet in shame?