Jedi Language Master . . . Or Not


I wrote, but never published, the following post a few weeks ago.  My final German class has now wrapped, and my time in Germany is slipping through my fingers at an alarming rate.  I’m still a thousand miles off the shores of fluency, but I am still bouyed by a sort of wonder at the language.  Das ist mein Schicksal; this is my lot.

Call me Yoda.

I am not wise; I am not green; I am not cute and pointy-eared; I am not short.

But language I do speak,  in foreign and fitful patterns I do.  German is like that– its subjects and verbs bounce around depending on meaning, subordination, etc.  It sounds cute when Yoda does it.  And I actually find it enchanting when German does it–  infuriating, but enchanting.  But this doesn’t help my plight in language class.

We are rapidly moving into our final weeks here in Germany, and I’m still attending German class . . . but not flourishing.  I will make my excuses up front.  Let’s start with my teacher. (She is very nice, but just ill matched to my learning style)

I’m back with my original teacher who is all about book work and learning all declensions, conjugations, variations, grammaticalizations  . . . which is not a real thing, but you get the picture.  I’m stuck back in class with the engineers and their precision-cut cogs of language (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, you are more sane than me look back at my past blog post–here).  This class doesn’t really suit the way I learn, but I’m hanging in there, most days.  (I have been known to play hooky a little.)

Still, the truth is that I am languishing horribly.

I like the word “languish,” it’s kind of visual for me.  I see a boat stuck on a windless part of the sea, which of course is just a few days away from disaster and decay . . .but let’s say the wind eventually picks up, and disaster is averted (happier story).  So, anyway, “languish” means “to lose or lack vitality, to grow weak or feeble.”  And this is me in German class right now, but it occurs to me that the word “languish” sounds like the word “language” if spoken by a drunk person. This somehow makes me feel better.  Like the word was specifically invented for my situation–as if it’s a natural thing to languish in a language when one is somehow lacking in mental power, for whatever reason.  A reason like stress brought on by an impending move.

Or like sitting in a book-learning class with my head down in a page, when I can only absorb words by speaking and hearing and bandying them about like a game. It’s a messy, garbled way to learn, but I’m a messy, garbled person.

I like language– I bloomin’ love language, honestly– but not because of its precision bits.  I love it for the most idiotic, but sonorous, reasons– like the fact that “languish” sounds like a drunkard saying “language.” That makes me happy.

And language makes me happy.

But today I sat in German class, having missed a few classes (for various reasons: some good, some bad, some worse).  I was lost.  And the verbs and nouns were jumping all over the place in sentences–like fleas on a dog’s back–for reasons I couldn’t quite understand.  But I liked it.  It made me laugh.

So there I was, some of my classmates scratching their heads and trying earnestly to grapple with the language, others following dutifully and expertly along, and me–the village idiot–just thinking how cool these slippery constructions were, although I understood them not one bit.

And then, at the end of class, came the best moment, the icing on the cake.  My teacher brandished her eraser and said, “I vill vipe die blackboard.”

My ears were in heaven!  While everyone else noted the homework and closed their books, I struggled to stifle my giggles.   The word-fleas jumped, the teacher “viped avay” at the board, and I just laughed.

danke Master, I am not.  Amused, I am.


Ich Bin Ein Berliner

Alternately entitled: One way we foreigners perfect the art of faux pas

It is so very easy, when you are in another country trying to abide by other customs, eat other food, and speak another language, to blunder time and again. Just ask Mark Twain and JFK.   Kennedy made his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin not long after the Soviets put up the wall. It was a moment of solidarity…or possibly a moment of hilarity, depending on whom you ask. “Ich bin ein Berliner”–does that translate as “I am a Berliner” or “I am a jelly donought”? It almost doesn’t matter whether we’re looking at a dreadful gaffe or a faux faux pas–an urban legend–it makes a point.  (If you aren’t familiar with the speech and the controversy, see the links at the end of this post*)

When you are abroad, even in a country where you think you speak the same language as the locals, you don’t speak the same language as the locals. You WILL embarrass yourself again and again. Get used to it. Mark Twain knew this, and you will too after only a few short days in country. The sage Mr. Twain said it best:
“The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad. I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass.”        ― Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

There are approximately 8,992 ways that you travelers might embarrass yourselves (and those around you) in any given moment, but I’ll cover just a few examples.

“Bloody Hell!” What a quaint British phrase that is. It’s cursing without actually cursing. It’s Ron Weasley’s favorite catch phrase, for Pete’s sake–what’s not charming about that? Well, yeah. Says you. Turns out Ron Weasley had a serious potty mouth. “Bloody Hell” is some bad stuff. Do not say it unless you really mean it. And please do not say it to your elderly neighbor under any circumstance. I speak from experience.

Also, if you are an American traveling in the UK, do not use the word “fanny” to refer to your bottom…it does not. Let’s just leave it at that.

Another word that becomes awkward in England: “pants.” If you spill beer on yourself in the pub, whatever you do, do not loudly proclaim that your pants are dirty. Maybe you get the point already, but let me illustrate the problem. My son was young when we lived in Yorkshire; young and growing like a weed. I bought him some new school uniforms that he outgrew after just a wearing or two. The pants were nearly perfect (which is the first strange thing about this story, as my son can wear the knees out of pants in 30 seconds flat–I should have known at this point that fate was conspiring to trick me in some way).

What do you do with nearly perfect pants? You give them to a friend who can use them. It’s a kind gesture, right?

It is, but, bloody hell, mate, you are likely to get it all wrong if you don’t speak the language.

Here’s my story: I walk onto the school playground at pick up time with a bag of nearly perfect pants in hand. I approach a friend whose son is Will’s age, and I offer her the pants. Her response: an odd stare at me. (Is there something on my face?)

So I explain, “The pants have only been worn a few times, they’re still very nice. It would be a shame for someone not to get good use out of them.” This elicits a slight recoil from my friend. (Did I eat garlic for lunch? No, I don’t think so.)

“They’re not at all worn out. I’m pretty sure they’d fit Lewis. You really ought to take them,” I say, as I begin to hand the bag her direction. A look of horror absolutely engulfs her face. “I’ve washed them,” I say.

And then it occurs to me that “pants” are undies in the UK. “Oh, no, no, no,” my voice rises and my arms wave (swinging the parcel of pants wildly), “I’m so sorry. They are trousers!! TROUSERS!!”

I say it too loudly. . .people are beginning to stare. My friend still looks rattled, but she accepts the bag with a wry smile on her face.

I’ve a feeling that she dropped the bag, unopened, into the bin as soon at she got home. Oh…no, wait…I mean the trashcan.

Sigh. It’s exhausting speaking two languages.



*video of JFK’s speech

*wikipedia article on the speech, including the controversy over his wording:


Faux Pas Friday*

Freudian Slip *Brought to you by Dr. Freud and “Thought I Said One Thing, But I Said Something Entirely Different Thursday.”

Every expat blog should offer an occasional thought on the faux pas, because it’s what we strangers in a strange land do best . . . or at least most regularly.

So I’ll open the conversation with my misstep of the week (so far).  Yesterday, I was in my German language class, plodding along and trying to learn a few things.  By the way, I’ve changed classes: no more sitting by Paul Newman’s twin (so sad), but I do really like my new teacher (a very elegant older German man). We were reviewing some useful phrases for eating out–something I fancied I knew a little about.  The teacher asked what the word for appetizer was. I boldly hollered out “Vorspiele!”  What I meant to say was “vorspeise”–  the word for appetizer literally means before (vor) the meal (speise).

But my teacher nearly fell off the side of his desk laughing. . . and I knew, immediately, what my mistake was.  Instead of “speise,” I said “spiele.”

“Spielen” means “play.”

Yep, I’d enthusiastically shouted out “Foreplay!”

All in a day’s work for an expat.

More thoughts on the art of faux pas next week, but for now just remember that, despite what Freud says,  sometimes an appetizer is just an appetizer .

Engineers and Van Goghs–The Cogs and Brushstrokes of Language

m twain awful german lang


Another chapter in my struggle with the German language–a tragicomedy.

I’m back in a rudimentary German class and progress is slow.  I am learning. . . just not quickly.  And it doesn’t help that I spent the first two months sitting next to a Scotsman who looked like a young Paul Newman.  Honestly, Deutsch can’t compete with that.   So I’ve moved seats.

I sit closer to the back of class now, and I find it very interesting how different people react differently to class exercises.  There are only a few of us left in the class–where we started out with 25 or 30 in October.  That number was cut in half by Christmas, and has shrunk even more now.  (Apparently, I’m not the only one who finds German difficult.)  But here’s what I’m seeing:  Some people take nary a note and just listen to the exercises and explanations. Other people write down every syllable spoken in class, never lifting their heads from their notebooks.  Some fall in between (like me)–but each with their own quirks.  One classmate has made copious “cheat sheets” to refer to to help him with articles in various cases (nominative, genitive, accusative, dative); one has written down every vocabulary word we’ve ever spoken and highlighted the genders of nouns; one rocks back and forth slightly whenever trying to remember the gender of a noun.

Me?  I fall in the middle ground lot–writing and pausing to listen; listening and then trying to catch some notes on paper after the fact.  But my quirk is spacing out.  Now that Paul Newman is less of a distraction, I’m people watching my fellow students’ classroom habits.  But I’m also constantly pausing over the whimsy of the language.  I lost a good ten minutes in class the other day after learning the word “Fernseher“–TV set.  The minute it fell from my teacher’s lips, my hand shot up.  “How does that translate literally?”  “Far see-er.” she said.   How fabulous and retro!  The TV set, that box in the corner of the room that opens a window into other people’s worlds or other cities’ news–the far see-er box.  I was consumed for a few minutes by images of people sitting around the earliest TV’s, like characters in a sci-fi B-movie, gazing at far away places through static and wiggly lines.  Magic!   How great is that?!  I suddenly liked the German language again. . . and then I started wondering about other funny words.   There’s the stuabsauger (dust sucker–the vacuum).  And , oh–Kindergarten!   That would literally mean “children’s garden.”  A place for all of the little buds to grow tall and bloom!  How funny–perfectly logical and spectacularly whimsical and visual all at once.   And then, I started wondering about other words in English that I’ve never really thought about.  Well, “television,” for one.  I suppose that means “seeing from a distance.”  Well, there you go.

And there I went–having missed 5 or 10 minutes of what was going on in class while I pondered the whimsy and logic of language.  And while my classmate studiously referred to his charts and cheat sheets on cases and declensions, while the person to his left concentrated and rocked slightly.

And so it seemed crystal clear to me that there are two basic types of people in a language class:  the engineers and the Van Goghs.  The engineers get the specifics down precisely and probably become very efficient at running the language in the direction and at the speed that it should best run.  They build their language skills cog by cog.    The Van Goghs are a different beast.  We enjoy the broad brush strokes of language.  We are intent on communicating, and would like to do it well–we are just less geared (excuse the pun) toward the efficiency of communication and more toward the bright colors, the swirl and flow.  I tend to fall into the structure of German fairly well (okay, rudimentarily well)–the crazy, slipperiness of German verbs that like to come first, last, or middle of a sentence, depending on the sort of message you convey.  I get that on an intuitive level.  But noun genders, and German cases and article and adjective endings, they are less intuit-able to me.  They take a chart, or a precise cog in the brain (cut to measure and carefully placed just so).  They take a mind that sticks to its charts and does NOT slip, trip, and travel over the whimsy of a word in the middle of class.

It might be nice to have an engineer’s mind when you are trying to communicate with the travel agent or sort out your power bill at the municipal power office, under the stern gaze of the German office worker.  But, all in all, I wouldn’t trade it for the slips, trips and whimsy of the brain I have.    Efficient?  Hardly!  Amusing?  To me . . . and that’s enough to keep me happy, and to keep me going back to German class for the time being.


Gemutlichkeit and Thanksgiving

I don’t have the easiest relationship with the German language, but here is a word I love:  “Gemutlichkeit.”   It means coziness–friends, family, good food, the perfect atmosphere.  Cozy.  Is there anything better?

I wish you a lovely Thanksgiving holiday–whether or not you are American and given to celebrating with turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie tomorrow.   I wish you a cozy day to dwell on all you are thankful for.

I am thankful for a year that has brought excitement and un-ease all at the same time.  We’ve had a crazy rollercoaster ride with our move, and, while I tend to share the fun bits of our days in Germany, it’s still a struggle many days.  Last week was a doozy.  Monday night, one child was up late into the night having a meltdown–because that’s just what kids do sometimes.  The next night the other child was up until the wee hours, dreadfully homesick for the States.  After that, it didn’t take long for me to be bawling my eyes out–from exhaustion coupled with a dose of homesickness (who knew it was contagious?).   And by Thursday,  both kids came home early from school with a stomach bug.

No worries–they were happy and well by Friday.  But by that point, our dog had thrown her back out.

Today our dog is better, but another family member, in the States, is prepping for surgery.

We all have worries.  Every road is a bumpy road that’s worth travelling. I really believe that.  Some of the potholes I could certainly do without . . . but the views from the roughhewn paths are something special.

In the midst of the rough week, a friend invited us to his Jewish temple for a service and an early Thanksgiving meal with other Americans.  My husband and I dragged our tired, Protestant selves there–happy to be there, but exhausted nonetheless.  And it was such a beautiful night.  A soulful, but uptempo note in a downtempo week.   Suddenly the caucophany that had plagued us began to sound like a symphony.

And so, I am thankful.  For the fun and the difficult times, for the uptempo and downtempo.  For the opportunity to bawl my eyes out because the people I love are hurting or because the people I love are far away.  Because the people I love… that’s enough.  And, of course, I am thankful for the fun.  Bring on the fun and mischief!  (The people I love would want me to enjoy that, after all.)

Also, I should tell you that once I stopped feeling hysterical about this week, I began feeling a little historical.  I began thinking about the Mayflower and the Pilgrims, and, of course, the funny hats with belt buckles.  But mostly about the Pilgrims.  They weren’t the first English to plant a colony in the “New World.”  There was the Lost Colony at Roanoke first, and then the very successful colony at Jamestown.  And, anyhoo, these pilgrims on the Mayflower weren’t just religious pilgrims.  Some of the folk who took passage on the ship were, essentially, businessmen.  (Nathaniel Philbreck’s book Mayflower is a brilliant recounting of the history, if you want to brush up.)  The story isn’t a simple tale, nor is it a tale only  of success.

These pilgrims suffered huge losses before that first Thanksgiving, and trying times after, too.  I’m sure they were homesick and exhausted.  I’m sure they had bad nights and puffy-eyed mornings. . . and no food. . . and fleas.  No doubt, they would have felt singularly blessed if their loved ones had qualified doctors and surgeons to care for them!  But they didn’t.  Still, they set aside time for thanks and a harvest festival.  And it lasted for days.

And so Time sneezed, and here we are in 2014.  The stories are different. . .but not so different.

Winter is coming, and we celebrate the final harvest festivals, and we remember to be thankful.  Gemutlichkeit–coziness and happiness and gratitude.   Let’s wrap it around ourselves like a cloak to stave off the winter.

Some of the people I love, celebrating their thankful, happy hearts.  Ireland 2008.
Some of the people I love, celebrating their thankful, happy hearts. Ireland 2008.