Friday, April 25, 2008

Learning German

This is something of a progress report. When I first moved here about two years ago I took a speedy, intensive, one-month German course. Armed with a handful of verbs and nouns I went about life, shopping and navigating this city that is now home and I felt pretty good about things. Then I got busy, with long trips home and work and life and even though I made a very weak attempt at another German course, I never really dug in and said to myself, “You have got to learn this language!”

Well, this winter HH and I has a rather nasty experience with a sidewalk and the two of us ended up bloody and scared in a German emergency room. I was barely able to explain what had happened and the type of insurance I had and when we left, bandaged and feeling a bit better, I swore to myself that this wouldn’t happen again. Now there is no way short of locking HH in his room for the next 12 years or so that I can be confident he won’t end up in another emergency room, but I can do something about my German language skills, so about 8 weeks ago I enrolled in a lengthy, intensive course of study and I’m about half-way finished with it. I’ve reached that point where I am beginning to realize just how much of this language I don’t know and how very steep the incline is between where I stand now and where I want to be. This week I had both a small triumph an moment of clarity.

I was in a beverage store, standing in line, and I noticed the checkout lady was having very animated conversations with the customers as they went through the line. She was a jolly sort of German – Cologne is known to be a friendly city and she was a good example of just how chipper the natives can be when the spirit moves them. When it was my turn she started up and without hesitation I engaged her. She paused from her calculations for a moment and looking up at me asked if I was from the Netherlands. I must admit I was pretty happy with myself. Nine times out of ten when speaking with a German I will be asked if I come from England or the USA but never Holland. I counted that as a sign that my language skills were definitely improving. The dreaded “Englander” label was beginning to fade.

Then two days ago I was pedaling my bike to my German course when a police officer flagged me to the curb. I had no idea what I might have done wrong and he rather quickly started talking to me, lecturing me to be more precise, about my transgression. “Bitte?” I said very politely in response. Well, he got right up in my face and asked me if I had a hearing problem. He wasn’t happy and he must have thought I was being fresh or something. It was my first encounter with a surly German police officer and I proceeded to explain, in slow, halting German, that I didn’t understand all that he had said. Unlike the checkout lady at the beverage store, this Policeman was under no allusion that I was from Holland or Belgium or any other neighboring country – he realized I was an American and immediately began apologizing and explained slowly and calmly that I was riding in the wrong direction down a one-way street.

It’s not the first time I’ve retreated to my very best broken German and it probably won’t be the last. There is something to be said for keeping a little ineptitude in reserve for situations such as these, when being a non-German speaker can get you out of an otherwise dicey situation.