Have you ever moved somewhere without having a home to move into? Just picked up and ventured forth like Abram and Sarai before they received new names. Knowing it’s right, but not knowing exactly why–except you have to do it because it is right.
We had it much easier than the aging Abram and Sarai. We were young, adventurous, and–perhaps most importantly–we had family to stay with until we found our own home. It wasn’t the first time I had moved blindly. After finishing graduate school, I began my new job without a home of my own. The school secretary, generous, compassionate Lorraine invited me into her home until I found the right place, requesting only that I pass the kindness forward one day. And in Brandenburg, Germany, we had kindness shown us again when Ange’s folks welcomed us into their home until something worked out…something that took longer than anyone thought or wished. Thankfully, our patience was only tried by expectations while we waited on fairly comfortable terms compared with years of wandering deserts.
Still, a wait it was. Until a home of our own could be, we settled in with my in-laws. After hearing stereotypical nightmares about actual in-laws from actual friends, I am extremely grateful to have a pair I get along with swimmingly. Relationships were not a hardship. There were, however, three things that made my new life challenging. One will suffice for now: communication.
- Language. Obviously. I knew only a few basic words and phrases in German. Communication is SO important! Sure, I could speak English with my American husband and his parents, but almost everyone else…Well, let me just say that the former East Germany put more emphasis on Russian than English. In Berlin it was, and is, the case that almost everyone you run into will want to show you how great their English is–even if you insist on speaking German! They just keep rolling out their beautiful display of English language learned in schools that often put an emphasis on it from day one. Out here in the boonies, on the other hand, there still pervades a certain ignorance among some folks. Consider the following:
My blonde-haired, blue-eyed sister-in-law and I (pale as a peeled pear) were browsing a local second-hand store when we overheard a conversation between a few men. The youngest complained to the others about those Turkish immigrants, meaning Rose and myself. Since Turkish immigration is a hot topic in Germany (in a similar way to the Hispanic/Latino immigration debate in the States), one would think it might be rather obvious to this young man that we did not look at all Turkish, nor were we speaking Turkish. The Turkish language resembles our American English, um, not at all. To the trained ear, I suppose?
So…I felt rather lonely. I would wander through the aisles of grocery stores, taking my time, familiarizing myself with typical names and prices. The most important word–I thought–to know in this particular situation was “Entschuldigung,” meaning “Excuse me.” I soon discovered, however, that Germans do not easily take offense at a casual bump, a too-close-encounter into “American-sized” personal space, or an intrusion into their line of vision (as in my shopping cart and I pass between a woman and the shelf of canned oily fish she is perusing). I, having been raised mostly in the South and Midwest, learned to be a lady of good manners, oozing pleases and thank yous, excuse mes and sorries, at the slightest possible requirement. Such requirements are rather rare in Brandenburg, Germany.
Browsing Aldi, Lidl, or any other staple, discount German grocery store did not allow for very many verbal interactions. Now and then, however, miscommunication or lack of communication caused embarrassing moments in the checkout line. One spicy, petite cashier with a big pile of blonde curls about chewed my head off for trying to request a cardboard box to put my groceries in; I had seen my mother-in-law do so every time she shopped. How was I to know Aldi had instated a new regulation? Or had I simply not said what I thought I had? Another time, I was physically led out the door of a store as other customers stared, and to this day I have no idea why. All I did was ask for a little paper time-keeper thingy you have to put in your windshield to show how long you’ve parked in certain parking spaces; yeah, I still don’t know what it’s called. Which is probably why they threw me out. I’ve never gone back to that store.
Sitting around the stately old dining room table at Angelo’s folks’, I could carry on a conversation in English, but their family had lived in Germany for so many years that German had become their main mode of communication. Especially when the foster children joined the gathering, the room filled with laughter I could not honestly share because, not only did I not get the punchline, I had no clue what led up to it. It felt like my ears strained to hear when the volume was adequate; my brain ached to separate individual words from a conglomerate of garble and try to unscramble them into some kind of meaning. After awhile, I would silently slip outside, sit on the step, and talk to cats.
At first, German sounds harsh. To me, in the beginning, a casual talk between two friends might sound like the typical Nazi guard yelling orders at the prisoners in all those movies. Whenever I had heard one-sided phone conversations before I knew any German at all, I assumed there was always an argument in the works.
Ange always said I’d come to appreciate some aspects of the German language; it was hard to believe him at first, but he was right. Sometimes the matter-of-fact way two, three, name a number of words strung together into one spaceless phrase of a word astonishes, yet practically states a precise meaning.
Gemeindemitgliederversammlung, for instance. What an insane word! One word made up of three different words combined to be “church member gathering”. But it says exactly what it is and avoids spaces, which simply clutter the page, don’t you think?
German even has cute words. Don’t believe me? Schnecke. Pronounced “shnekka”. Snail. We wouldn’t dream of saying, “Snail, dear, would you please pass the salt?” But Germans use snail as a term of endearment because the word is just so darned cute. (By the way, I realize the irony of a snail getting near salt. The example refers to a person being called “Snail” like “Sweetie” or “Honey”. Just so we’re on the same page.)
And then there are those words that you just throw around like “genau” (pronounced “guh-now”…”exactly”. “Genau” just jumps from the back to the front of the tongue and fits so many situations. Just like this. Genau.
Ah, but even though I have lived in Germany for almost ten years, I have yet to master this grammatically nightmarish language! Die, der, or das? Which article should I use when? THE! Such a wondrously simple article, applicable in every instance! No, I fear I shall never master the German articles. Not only do different nouns receive a different article depending on the noun’s prescribed femininity, masculinity, or neutrality, but the article changes again if applied to the same noun used grammatically differently. For example, the article before a noun used as a subject may very well change into a different article when placed before the same noun used as an object. Even though I was an English major, I will never master grammar in German. I’m pretty sure I don’t even want to. Which makes me empathize more with my many former students who loathed grammar lessons.
No, I am not fluent. I never will be. My 8-year-old corrects my German. But I have learned to place my verb accurately most of the time–often seemingly illogically, at the end of the sentence–oh, the suspense! I have also come to appreciate the language (sans articles), and–most importantly–I have learned to communicate.
The world is a friendlier place when understanding takes place.