Lost in Translation: my grapple with the German Language

‘Ich hätte gern die Rechnung’, I asked, shakily. The girl behind the counter giggled. ‘You’ve just asked me for whipped cream,’ she said, ‘but I suppose you’d like to pay.’ 

Before insulting the German public with my lack of linguistic skill, the first phrase I decided to learn prior to my trip to Berlin was ‘Ich kann keine Deutsch sprechen’, or ‘I cannot speak German’, just to cover my back. I hadn’t anticipated that my first week in Germany would render me confused and tongue-tied, like a baby learning how to pronounce it’s first word. We forget about the nuances of phrases and pronunciation in other languages when we’re so used to speaking our own. I figured that just getting the words out right was the first step towards conversation. Who knew that a slight mispronunciation of a vowel could have rendered me a laughing stock.

There’s nothing like visiting another country to make you appreciate your own culture, and how it differs so much from other places. My Englishness is all too apparent even when I do manage to get the German words out right. A prim and proper girl from the South of England, they all seem to think..’Your accent is so nice’, they say in their strict Germanic sound, but all I feel is ashamed for my inability to converse.

‘That’s a whole new kettle of fish’, I found myself saying to my English-speaking German friend on my second week here. He roared with laughter at this. Having uttered an English idiom completely by accident, I had forgotten where I was in that moment. Situated in Germany, I had managed to tie myself inescapably to my Englishness in just a collection of words.

English politeness, while a stereotype, is real and it’s something I battled with in my first few weeks here. As much as we British like to think it is, it’s not common to say please and thank you and sorry a million times, and people’s lack of reciprocity of my excessive manners made me think them rude or ungrateful.

One of the first words I learned here was ‘entschuldigung’ for ‘excuse me’, or ‘sorry.’ Can you imagine my frustration as I attempted to utter this? I’d tread on somebody’s foot on the underground and by the time I’d even tried to pronounce this long, obscure word the person would have already walked away. My lowly, over-polite, english-speaking heart was broken.

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Language is absurd, but it bridges the gaps. If anything, it makes us more expressive. Confused faces are often met with grand gesticulations when trying to communicate in public. My lack of German has made me adept at miming.

The grandma of my host family and I have certainly perfected this art. She doesn’t speak a word of English. We have brief conversations in my very limited German, and we fill in the gaps with a game of charades, literally. My favourite of her mimes are dancing, gardening and an elaborate series of sunbathing movements. We bond over minimal conversation as we play a game of ‘snap’ while trying to match the children’s pairs of odd socks. We make meals together and embrace, chanting ‘sehr lecker’ to congratulate ourselves on our brilliance. Oftentimes, we sit in silence. We may not be able to communicate in words, but her warmth, her energy, her maternity, even for a stranger – (I once got stung by a ‘pferdefliege’ , or horsefly to you and me, and she spent at least ten minutes holding an ice pack to my wound and rubbing my back) – and her humour makes me understand on a human level what a kind heart she has.

If my last few weeks in Germany have taught me anything, it’s that people are, ultimately, good. While I have come up against conservative Germans who will refuse to speak to me in English, identifying me as just another tourist that doesn’t give a sh** about the culture they are trying to preserve, I have met people who want nothing more than to help me settle in.

My German is limited, but it is growing by the day.  I confidently ask for the bill, say ‘entschuldigung’ profusely if I do end up treading on someone’s foot, and I can say ‘Nein, danke schön’, quite kindly to the advances of German men.

I have been asked out on three dates since landing here in Berlin. I say this not to gloat or pat myself on the back as each of these experiences have been no less than entirely awkward, but more to illustrate the different dynamics of heterosexual dating in Germany than in England.

The German guys I have met have all been honourable, if not very forthcoming, and charming. I don’t pretend to be able to read men’s minds but they have always been honest and direct with exactly what they are after. ‘I’ve seen you in Potsdam quite a few times and I like you. Would you like to go for dinner sometime?’, or something along those lines, was my first offer. I haven’t yet had this experience in England. Mostly men seem to observe you from afar for weeks on end before shuffling over and making very weak advances, or the total opposite.

While this guy could have touched up on his techniques in subtlety, at least he stated directly, in a very practical, to-the-point, no beating-round-the-bush kind of way, (which I might add is very typically German), at least there was no misunderstanding. Englishmen, you are not all bad but you need to up your game.

The result of this was, however, nothing. I panicked, probably went a bit red and scuttled off but this was my first, if not entirely fruitless, lesson in German dating conversation.

Up until now, I have been the new girl on the block in the tiny city of Potsdam. I’ve been told that au pairs often assume the ‘girl next door’ trope. ‘You’ve been the discussion of the next door neighbour’s dinner table’, my host mum said to me in my first week. I immediately started scanning my brain for any heinous crime I could have committed. She laughed, ‘They have two boys in their twenties who were eager to check out the new au pair’…

Berlin is one of the most international cities on the planet, and Berliners are used to meeting people from all over the world. What’s nice is that people are always sensitive and inquisitive. I’ve spoken about what I love about England down to the last bourbon, and I have experienced everything about German language and culture that has enlightened me on what we could improve on back home. My skills in German speaking are still much to be desired. I only dread when I have to get a hair cut…

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What People Don’t Tell You About Travelling:

12.03.18

And where to find a friendly face

In a city I do not yet

Know how to love.

Some days are not that exciting:

Often you wake up and the clouds are heavy with rain. Sightseeing doesn’t seem all too appealing. You’re saturated with information from countless museums and exhibitions. You’ve met that same person for coffee twice already, and you feel foolish asking for a third. You’ve mastered how to spend time alone and are craving contact, but finding a friendly face in a large city is a task too overwhelming to bear.

Today is that day for me. Admittedly, I have wasted time this morning not knowing where to be or what to do. And the only rational answer is just to give in.

Settling into a new place is tough and it’s only today that I’m realising the gravity of that statement. Like at home, some days will seem like they are lacking in excitement and productivity. Often, I feel lazy. I berate myself for not taking complete advantage of my freedom to travel and immerse myself in everything, but then I remember that I am here for six months, not six days. Not every day has to be jam-packed with activity. Some days you will need to recharge.

Part of finding my balance, improving my mental health and opinion of myself, was taking the pressure off myself to constantly be achieving.

Tell yourself in these moments of self-doubt that time is in abundance. If today is not the day that you order your coffee in the native language, or learn to stand on your head in yoga, then tomorrow will be.

Not everything is always at your fingertips:

There is countless material online about what to do in your country of choice: classes to join, people to meet, things to see. The internet makes everything seem so accessible. You can type in a key word and millions of results pop up, beckoning you to click on them.

Being research-savvy is essential and takes practice. Admittedly I have not yet found the knack. I have spent whole mornings wading through a whole host of sites looking for yoga classes, language-speaking classes etc. only to find out that they are miles away, or perhaps not to my preference.

Some days, you will feel out of the loop.

Often, I have found word of mouth to be the most effective means of finding relevant information. Facebook groups such as ‘Free advice Berlin’ and ‘Girl-Gone International’ have become my best friend here. You can post any number of info requests from where to buy house plants, to how best to negotiate with a medical professional as an international person, to suggesting an idea for a meet-up in a specific area. I’ve learnt that people like to help and I have made connections as a result.

You are fundamentally the same person you were when you left home:

Travel brings perspective, and I’ve certainly had a large dose of that since temporarily moving to Berlin. I see certain aspects of myself in a new light, and have already conquered minor personal fears, but ultimately, I am the same person as I was when I left. I still have the same fears and anxieties, stresses and insecurities.

A change in geography does not relieve you of all emotional baggage. You may feel liberated, but parts of you will still labour with the weight of thoughts and feelings you had back home. This has been an important lesson to me.

An experienced traveller knows that, in any location, there will be good and bad days. There will be days where you have to affirm your purpose. Mine was to learn how to exist out of planning and structure, learning how to just ‘be’.

Don’t reduce this time by attempting to squeeze activity into each day. Just ‘being’, not ‘doing’, is important progress to make too.

Finding my Balance: My Changing Concept of ‘Home’

Home to me is the sensation of peace on a Sunday morning; the sound of the cathedral bells tolling for morning service; the comforting memory of my mum’s bangles jingling on her wrists; the raucous sound of my brothers running up and down the stairs; my dad elegantly playing the piano and then pausing to slowly pace across the wooden floorboards in the wake of a new idea.

The word ‘home’ can mean any number of things to a person. One of the first questions we ask people when we first meet them is ‘Where do you live?’, or ‘Where do you come from?’ Home is our conception of self, the foundation of our identity. Feeling like you have an origin is an essential part of human nature. We are lone wolves, but we will always be part of a pack.

At five am this morning, I woke up contemplating the Western definition of ‘home’. We associate home with comfort, stability, the familiar. But what if home can be the new and unfamiliar?

Before I moved away, home was a place almost too comfortable to motivate me to make a change. Feeling grounded did little to shake off my feelings of despondency. But what if home is meant to be somewhere that challenges you, somewhere that makes you feel unsafe in order to hurl you out into the unknown? What if home can be mobile, transient, ever-changing?

Over time, we cultivate our lives in many different homes. We shed one shell and adopt another.

It’s been three weeks since I moved to Berlin and already my concept of home has changed. I have found home in myself: my passions, my interests, my own company. Home is still a sanctuary, but it has been constructed out of my own being. Home is no longer a physical place, but a concept.

Home is a place to be content, even if you are far away from those you love. Home for me is where I spend time alone, cultivate ideas, immerse myself in culture, literature, the things I love; learn to speak to myself more kindly, reward myself for small personal triumphs. For now, home is within myself and it’s a powerful feeling.

Home doesn’t just have to be with the familiar. Establishing home in yourself actually involves wading through tides of the unfamiliar. It’s surprising how much we conceal from ourselves.

Making home within yourself involves opening the floodgates to emotion. One cannot know oneself without first knowing how to feel.

Home can be any number of places, but it’s comforts are defined by simple, blissful moments that remind you of where you belong. It is in your own concept of home where the fragments of your life are unified. You will leave parts of you in different places and with different people, but home reminds you of what is absolutely true and integral to your life and character.

Home is the place where my facades are shed. I am entirely myself. Imperfect, flawed, but me.

Home is substantial, safe, secure. Places are home. People are home. You, your mind, your body, is home.

 

 

 

5 SIMPLE WAYS TO BE MORE PRODUCTIVE

  1. KNOW YOUR LIMITS

This is something very few of us care to acknowledge. We like to think of ourselves as deadline-driven machines who can conquer any task in any given amount of time.

It’s important to realise your own individual capacity for concentration and honour it. If you feel your mind wandering from your computer screen an hour into your emails then TAKE A BREAK. Even if that means getting up from your desk, making a hot drink, even staring out of the window for a few minutes to refresh your mind. You’ll find that the time you spend not actually concentrating is improved by accepting that your mind doesn’t run on a timer.

2. MAKE A LIST OF PRIORITIES, NOT A TO-DO LIST

Lists are an important tool of productivity. I run my life on them. Ticking completed tasks off is a powerful source of validation of your efforts and helps you feel like you have things under control.

My advice would be not to constrain yourself to time. Of course, we all have deadlines that need to be met. But instead of writing a ‘To-do list’ that has a strict time schedule, make a list of priorities in terms of importance. This will allow you to recognise which tasks need to be the most imminently completed without feeling overwhelmed. The aim is to feel like you have an abundance of time, not a lack of it.

3. WORK IN NATURAL LIGHT

Sleep disorders are epidemic and it’s partially to do with our lack of daylight during office hours. Scientists conclude that our circadian rhythms – our body’s internal clocks – are disrupted by our lack of exposure to daylight. Feeling that midday slump in the office? That will be why. Even if your access to natural light is limited by the plan of your workplace, then take time at lunch to go for a stroll. It will do wonders for your concentration.

4. CLEAN YOUR IMMEDIATE ENVIRONMENT

We don’t all have to be masters of Feng Shui to recognise that a tidy workspace makes for a tidy mind. Our minds are cluttered enough, without having our environment replicate it.

Not only does having a clean workspace keep you focused by limiting distractions, it keeps you more organised. Work on developing your own filing system and invest in some desk organisers. You’ll know where everything is, you’ll waste less time and you’ll be better able to keep on top of things.

5. DO SOMETHING ELSE

If you’re unable to concentrate on the immediate task in front of you, then take a short break that sets your mind on something else. The aim is to keep moving. Keep your brain ticking by reading, going for a walk or cooking. Something that keeps your mind and body on its toes, but that allows you to rest from your original activity.

A Room of One’s Own: Creating space for the mind.

Be mindful of choice. Be conscious of pain. Let in the deluge of thought.

The virtue of one’s own company is a forgotten therapy in today’s society. Spending time alone is something that is feared, rather than embraced. The demands of daily life – crippling work schedules, relationships, finances, the modern necessity to be sociable – reduces our ability to spend time alone and, in my view, restricts our ability to be objective about our lives. There is much to be gained from solitude.

To crudely quote Virginia Woolf, having ‘a room of one’s own’, having space both mentally and physically, is absolutely essential within my daily life. I would go as far as to say that my mental health absolutely depends upon it. Since moving to Berlin, I have been privileged enough to be temporarily distanced from the anxieties of modern life. My brain has finally stopped ticking. I walked along the pavement this morning with no real destination in mind and felt myself increasingly aware of my surroundings. For once, I could hear the birds sing.

I like to see spending time alone as a time to put myself back together, to declutter the space in my brain. Psychologically clearing away residual thoughts in the mind is as necessary to me as chucking out old, unused possessions in my home. Solitude has long been associated with loneliness where it should be associated with freedom. Solitude can be a practice for long-term mental health.

My most productive musings have often occurred when I have been alone in unfamiliar surroundings. Perspective on life can sometimes be found by taking a step out of our usual environment. Empathy was often described to me as a child as ‘understanding what it is like to be in another’s shoes’. Perhaps having empathy with ourselves involves stepping out of our own shoes once in a while and stepping back into them with renewed clarity.

Psychologically switching off

The mind is a muscle. It needs to be exercised, stretched, challenged, but it also needs time to rest. The brain is the same.

When we are so used to being permanently stimulated, it can be hard to sit still for too long.

My mum often reminds me about the fact that, unlike most babies, I learned to stand before even learning to sit up. She uses this as an analogy for me now. I never complete one task without starting another. I flit from one thing to the next. I anxiously worry about the future rather than the present.

I never give myself time to just be.

And this is what all of us do. We stand before we can sit. We run before we can walk.

We are the generation of immediacy. Things happen at the click of a button. If only it were just as easy to click ‘off’ in our minds.

Unplug and live for now

When I am restless I like to walk, aimlessly. This reminds me that I don’t always have to have a plan. Perhaps my message is entirely banal, but I speak with the sincerity of experience.

I highly prize the virtue of being disconnected.

Tiziano Terzani cherished self-reliance, writing that ‘The only real teacher is not in a forest, or a hut or an ice cave in the Himalayas. It is within us.’ He preached of finding meaning and value in adversity and personal experience. Having time alone to mentally declutter has often proved to be the best antidote for me in periods of high anxiety.

Perhaps having a conversation with yourself may be the only therapy you need.

A Short Anecdote

This morning was miserable. I was feeling particularly sorry for myself as I stood on the platform, drenched and already drained of any fervour for the day ahead. While sat in the carriage, gazing drearily out the window, wishing the cyclist next to me would move the wheel of his bike unobtrusively from the side of my thigh, I overheard a conversation. A lady, who by the sounds of it had been the subject of infidelity by her husband, said ‘but you’ve got to laugh.’ She had to laugh to make light of the situation, to release herself, momentarily, from pain, to protect herself from the judging, yet kind, eyes of the spectator opposite her.

And this is why we laugh, I thought. We laugh to forget the cares of the world. We laugh to remind ourselves that we still live, and breathe, and hurt. We have a heart beating still, reverberating in our chests, beneath the layers of our paper skin.

 

‘New Year, New Me’ – that old chestnut

Christmas has passed and now dawns the obligatory reflection on the past year. I’ve had fun. I’ve got no regrets. But one thing that has occurred to me is the fact that for the first time in my life, I have had to adjust to feeling like my life is permanently in stasis. I am neither on the move, nor settled. I have no real aims or desires. Little to strive for other than securing my first 9-5 job.

After graduating from University, we all need time to adjust, it’s true, but when you’re floundering amid job sites, interviews and sometimes rather useless career advice, it’s easy to see how graduates such as myself struggle to do just that.

My graduate experience has seen me coming to terms with the fact that, for now, my life is stagnant. People say this is a time for ‘endless opportunity.’ I have an expanse of time in front of me. The struggle is knowing how to use it effectively.

After returning home from university, my mind, so used to being stimulated, even overloaded, struggled to cope with the sudden inactivity. Days passed when I laid on my bed feeling truly, inescapably depressed; anxious under the weight of having very little to fill the days.

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The future appeared as an endless abyss of time – days unfolding before me that had no real significance. I felt my mind teetering on the brink of insanity as I meditatively watched my mother’s hand stirring her tea every morning, wondering what I would do with my life that day. Psychologists have made links between depression and boredom. A mind unstimulated can create a mind that is unsound. The only problem with my mind, however, was its inactivity.

Emily Dickinson wrote in her poem ‘One need not be a chamber to be haunted’ that the greatest terror to be found is within ourselves. Forget ghosts, our brains, our minds, are the most insidious presence of all. Left alone with my thoughts on a daily basis became lethal to me. Monotony killed all creativity. The most genius people in history have had days where they have woken up encased in despondency, unable to quite contemplate why everything seems so distant from themselves. Keats once said, ‘I do not feel in the world’, and I relate. There’s nothing worse than feeling out of touch with yourself.

I tried to immerse myself in literature, politics and history to find some way of staying connected to the world, and to myself. I found comfort in reading things that inspired me. It reminded me of what I love and what is most important to me. The greatest among us can, so easily, slip into the recesses of our own minds and become dominated by our fears and anxieties. The test is how you dig yourself out.

Ever since I was a child, my mum has always been fond of speaking to me in metaphors. Her metaphor for me now is that of a flower – one that has been weathered by the storm and has, at times, nearly perished in the frost and must now protect itself for the winter ahead. The winter may be cruel and unkind, but it will fortify the flower for later years when the frost inevitably returns. This flower will protect itself under a layer of earth ready to bloom in the turn of Spring. For now it must wait, recover, and learn to be still.

Perhaps I will look back on this part of my life and realise that stillness is exactly what I needed. I needed to learn how to lead a life not under my own tyrannous dictatorship. In short, I needed to give myself a break.

I have no resolutions to make for the New Year, but all I know is that I want it to be varied. I want my life to be an ‘exhausting profusion of passions’, a series of mistakes and set-backs that are remedied by moments of intense happiness, glory and pride. I want life to be something I progressively discover when sense and experience deem me able to. I want to know and experience all, but remain curious.

And when all the chips are down, I will remind myself, as I try to do every day that, I am alive and I am advancing.

mparts_ @instagram

 

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