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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Re-writing the self: Thoughts on memory

‘When it rains, think of us as we walk under dripping trees or through small rooms lit only by storm’ – Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels.

One of my earliest memories is of being lost in a field near my family home in the country. It was Summertime. I remember the heat and the tall grass looming over me. Small as I was I could see very little, only the sky and the heavy overhang from the leaves of the trees that beckoned me into the forest.

I remember being aware that I was lost – that is, I knew I had wandered away from my childminder in a game of hide and seek and that she hadn’t yet found me – but the idea of being missing wasn’t yet a concept for me. I don’t remember feeling distress, only wonder at this new mellifluous world of the neighbouring field that I hadn’t yet trespassed. I remember my name being called, echoes circling around me, but the length of the grass obscured me from sight so that I was unable to be found.

Perhaps it is a condition of early memories to resemble an ethereal, almost dreamlike quality due to the limits of our perception at that time. This memory of mine is always veiled in a kind of golden haze, either obscured by time or romanticised by my mind. I see shapes, I remember colours. Golds and greens and yellows. I remember the cold relief of wading through the stream. I remember the unsteady path: the soil; the roots that clawed at my ankles. I remember the sensation of being lost but not my emotional response to it. I just remember happiness. A child charmed by curiosity.

While the likelihood is that I entered into a panic and ran through the woods in alarm once I realised I had strayed too far, my mind wants to remember the positive perception I had of my surroundings. It wants childlike inquisitiveness to take precedence over feelings of fear.

It wants to reconcile fragments of memory into a coherent, happy narrative. While our logical minds want to preserve integrity to the facts, there is always a part of us that wants to tell a good story.

Virginia Woolf speaks of the associative potency of memory in her autobiographical essay ‘A Sketch of the Past.’ She tells us that one of her earliest memories was looking at the patterns of flowers on her mother’s dress, as she lay in her lap on a train journey to St. Ives. This is how Woolf always remembered her.

In memory, we are all compelled to understand our lives through narrative and symbolism.

Like the flowers on the dress of Woolf’s mother, I relate my memory to a sensorium of warmth and playfulness, represented by my childlike experience of nature. My memory conveniently chooses to omit my alarm of being lost and instead reframes it as a pleasant adventure.

In Orlando, Woolf acknowledges how our subconscious minds play a part in obscuring memory. She writes, ‘Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither.’ Memories are set against a backdrop of narrative that we construct for ourselves. When we look back into the past, we view events through a prism. Integrity to facts falters in our intrinsic desire to tell a more desirable story.

Memory is a seamstress. It weaves together representations of the past into a coherent timeline: a kaleidoscope of images, objects, fragments of conversations, emotions.

It is a mediator between past and present. It preserves connectivity between our present and past selves. More importantly, it situates us in time and place. We make sense of ourselves through the narratives we choose to construct.

Ultimately, we are creators; the seamstresses of our own lives. We subconsciously distort memory, re-fashion narratives, re-write the self and consequently inform the present. We grow by seeing our present selves reflected in images of the past.

Memories, while unreliable, allow us to understand ourselves, our current place in the world. They make artists of us all.

What People Don’t Tell You About Travelling:

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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.