PART II: No Verstehen, No Cry (Living in a Sound-Bubble)
or “My gift for misinterpreting German (and Germans)”
My first years in Germany I found it peaceful and relaxing living in a world where all sounds were equal, where people’s words were like a breeze or a thunderstorm or or a running stream, and had no meaning other than as sound, a function of physics and moving air. Basically I was living in the time of dinosaurs, in the stone age before speech was invented, in a time when the most important thing was building a fire and roasting meat — my specialties as a Boy Scout, and skills highly valued by many Germans even today. Yes, it was quite wonderful. Really.
I remember one night sitting the back seat of a car driving from Augsburg to Nürnberg. Half-asleep, the sound of German wafted through the air like a mild exotic incense. It reminded me of my early childhood, riding in the back of the family car as we drove home at night from some family excursion, my parents speaking quietly, just quietly enough that it was impossible to understand them except for something about Christmas and Santa Claus, and except for the nagging doubt that the conversation left in me about Santa, I felt reassured by their calm and measured voices. Everything on those moments (except that there was no Santa Claus??!!) was good and safe and okay in the world.
When I went to someone’s house for dinner or a small party, I would examine people’s body language, study their facial expressions as they spoke German, trying to discern what they were talking about and whether it was good or bad, whether they were happy or unhappy with what they were saying.
I got very good at analyzing these discussions. Afterwards I’d explain my deductions to my girlfriend, who is German but also speaks excellent English. She was always very surprised with my stories, since they very often had nothing to do with what was actually discussed during the evening. Since that time, my ability to intuit German from facial expressions, body language and tone of voice has not improved, although now that I can understand a few words, it isn’t surprising that I might think the topic was the cost of restoring an antique car, when it was actually taxes and retirement. The topic was “Geld” and it’s only logical that I would think that Oldtimers were retirees.
Once I’d learned some German, I would sit listening for key words in order to ask them what someone had said, or whether someone was annoyed with someone else, or if someone had just criticized someone with some sharp words and a strong gesture of their hands. This was, of course, very stressful. And when I’d abruptly interrupt the conversation to ask my questions, inevitably everyone would stare at me for several seconds in total confusion before looking meaningfully at my girlfriend and then continuing on with their discussion as if nothing had happened.
After a short time my German had improved to the point where people could understand what I had asked. Unfortunately, until I’d been here for six or seven years, I was unable to understand their answers. My wife (my former girlfriend) says that I have a gift for misinterpreting the German language, and that my intuition regarding what Germans mean in their discussions is similarly unique.
However, despite my limitations (crippling limitations) at understanding and speaking German and interpreting what people are saying and meaning and doing when they are speaking German, I find and have found the entire experience of living in a foreign language rather freeing.
I realize now that when I lived in the US understanding everyone and everything became, over the years, increasingly discouraging and depressing. At the current rate of improvement in my German language speaking and comprehension, I estimate I have at least another 10-15 years of peace wandering blissfully uncomprehending here in Germany.
Here I can experience once again the innocence and helplessness of being a tiny child. With only the occasional aggravation:
– when I must pay outrageous and unfair late payment fees because I just stopped paying for something and didn’t properly cancel the contract with a written registered letter more than one month before automatic renewal (Germans must sign rigid automatically annually-renewing contracts for everything from dance classes to magazine subscriptions)
– when I must endure the glares, raised eyebrows and extravagant eye-rolls of irritated supermarket employees when I unknowingly set a bottle of Federweisser on its side at checkout or when I am at the service desk and give an incomprehensible explanation why I am bringing back this rotten avocado in a paper bag
– when I must endure furious looks bitter words from strangers (especially little old ladies who are made from leather and rope) when I misunderstand the restrictions on a special traffic sign, for example one designating that a street is one-way during specific hours (written in small print… in German!).
In recent years, however, I’ve learned to understand more than a bit too much, so that my ability to enjoy the peace and quiet isolation of Germany in an impenetrable bubble of incomprehension is becoming increasingly compromised.
The only upside is that I’ve been learning to complain as the Germans do, which provides me with hours fun sitting at the table after dinner when everyone lists their personal litany of inefficiencies, indignities and outright abuses of bureaucratic ignorance and logical insanity.
Which is to say, I’ve been avidly learning to complain about the bureaucracy which is basically the same as complaining about how itchy and annoying mosquito bites are… and this in a land that has, bureaucratically speaking, been seeking to pass laws and create systems to eliminate all mosquitos… for the past 150 years or so.