Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The indescribable object of my desire ...

It’s fair to say I’m impatient by nature. This makes my struggle with learning German doubly (at least) frustrating. Also, I’ve just returned from a week in the USA and every time I return to Germany after one of these trips I have to play catch up for the next week or two or three until I can struggle back to the level I had attained prior to leaving. This recent trip wasn’t a complete language-looser because there was an intern in the place where I was working who just happened to be from Munich. I practiced a bit of German with her but it didn’t come anywhere near making up for a full week away from my regular Monday and Wednesday morning German classes. About five minutes after I sat down in class this Monday I realized I was in deep, deep water. The class had left me far behind and there was little I could do to make sense of the day’s lesson. As fate would have it, when I got home that day I had a phone message from a graduate student who lives in my building. This neighbor is preparing for final exams in English and was hoping I could help polish off some of the rough spots in her pronunciation. I agreed but only on the condition that she tutor me in German. We had our first session today and it could not have been more lopsided. For the English-language portion of the lesson we read and discussed a recent book review by Janet Maslin in The New York Times. For those of you who are not familiar with Ms. Maslin, hers is writing at a very high level of erudition. For the German portion of the lesson, I tried to read and translate the first paragraph of the first page of my German language workbook. One hour later we had not moved far from our starting point.

I am really resisting a slide into hopelessness but the ups and downs I am experiencing are enough to make even the most diligent optimist think again. I can’t say what I mean, describe what I want or how I feel or even ask for directions without inadvertently confusing both the person with whom I am speaking and myself in the process. Something’s got to give. I sincerely hope having a tutor will help, I already feel better just having taken that step.

As I was sitting in Newark airport last week, about an hour before my plane took off for Cologne, I sat for a moment and slowly scanned the space, moving my eyes from left to right, not looking for anything in particular, but noting how effortless it was to comprehend everything within my field of vision; the signs above the restrooms, the advertisements, the informational placards, arrival and departure schedules, everything. There was no writing or announcement of any kind in that section of the terminal that I didn’t fully comprehend and while looking around I realized that in a matter of a few hours all this would change and I would be back in a situation where I half-understood what people were saying and half-understood the signs in the airport and the announcements over the public address system. Take for example a sign that reads, “It is forbidden to carry containers holding liquids in amounts exceeding five ounces on this aircraft.” I could look at that sign, if it were written in German, and for all I know think I was about to embark on a flight during which I might be subjected to some sort of embarrassing fluid cleansing experience.

Learning German isn’t as easy as falling off a log, in fact it’s more like hauling a log up a steep hill only to loose my grip just as I reach the crest and having to start the whole process over from the bottom. I suppose my only choice is to take the advice of one of the great philosophers, who (to absurdly paraphrase) when describing a similar predicament, advised that the rational course of action was to accept the futility of the endeavor and just enjoy the process.