Drawl of the Wild
... in which Ashley fails to understand even more than usual
The fact that I spend so much time crafting these communiques in English should provide an answer to the oft-repeated question, “How’s your German coming along?” We all know that any number of time-killing chores can attain priority status when anything that smells like school demands our attention. There are no dirty carpets at tax time. And when those distracting chores can be completed in one’s native language, all the sweeter.
So it is with the task of cramming an entire nation’s ancient tongue into my flabby, middle-aged brainpan. I have always been a lazy student, having decided around the age of eight that I was well and full of every bit of knowledge I would ever need for my chosen career (beat poet). I spent the remainder of my formal education proudly refusing any further mental stimulation. No problem in my Hubcap County School District, where a deep suspicion of any cultural element outside the bible belt results in zero foreign language requirements. And so here I am, at this late hour, trying to function in a foreign land, having developed nothing academia would recognize as study habits, unable to remember the German word for “remember.”
I’ve tried to approach the challenge of my illiteracy pre-humbled. Ex-patriotism this one-sided must begin with the acceptance that you will be the stupidest person in any room and will be clearly identifiable as such. Without a firm grasp of the language, my attempts at communication are usually a goulash of disassociated nouns in search of a sentence. “Shower cap rugburn diagnostic? Tuning fork sandbag?” This Johnny Weissmuller routine inspires soul-crushing smiles of condescension on a good day, fuming impatience on others. The ego doesn’t stand a chance.
And yet I must make my way through daily life in Deutschland, Tonto lingo be damned. So, like the paraplegic comic who opens with a joke about kickboxing, I try to acknowledge my handicap from the get-go. Initially, I made the mistake of telling retail clerks that I spoke only a little German, which prompted long, baffling, explanatory statements in response to requests for non-dairy creamer and the like, because really, how stupid could the Ami be? I would nod in feigned comprehension, too embarrassed to admit that what I really needed them to do was point.
Getting through the purchasing of Pringles or drill bits generally goes smoothly enough; I simply need to pay and thank the cashier. But, since my illiteracy extends to the local currency, I sometimes become flustered enough in the checkout aisle to simply hold out a handful of the incomprehensible Euros for the scowling clerk to pick from. In such cases, I try to adopt the air of a wealthy American globetrotter for whom the value of lesser, foreign coins is meaningless.
(In truth, it’s difficult for an American to get used to the idea that the loose Euros he throws into a bowl at the end of the day aren’t simply spare change for the air hose at 7-11 but could be enough for a whole new set of tires.)
This fumbling cluelessness isn’t doing my reputation much good in the community. But admitting to folks that I speak NO German (in German) only causes more consternation because, much to my surprise, I’m passing. Credit a lack of fanny pack or my blinding whiteness, but I apparently look like the sort of local Aryan who’s absorbed parts of speech by the Gymnasium full. My wife would disagree, but those who frequently ask me for directions clearly mistake me for a citizen who knows how to get to Ronsdorfer Strasse or which aisle the blood sausage is on. These are the times when my failings pain me the most, when I’ve been given the opportunity to contribute to the social good and I’ve let down my fellow Deutschlander. “Ich spreche kein Deutsch,” I confess. In fact, I really serve no purpose in this country at all.
My fear is that this advanced stage of isolation and irresponsibility suits my introverted nature to an unhealthy degree. After years of working public service jobs in my home country, where I endured unrequested monologues about relationship troubles and Fast and Furious plotlines, I’m finding the catchall “no hablo Deutsch” excuse for disengagement to be a huge relief. As my mother recently said of me in an unsolicited critique, “His greatest ambition in life is for everybody to leave him alone.” As bucket lists go, you have to give it points for practicality.
But the other advantage of keeping my new neighbors at arm’s length is that it frames them in a more admirable light. Because I cannot understand how inane or downright brainless their daily chatter really is, the Germans remain a noble species in my estimation. I’m left to blissfully assume they are all discussing matters of political science and classical literature rather than trading chemtrail speculations. It’s like enjoying a South American safari from your Range Rover, admiring the athletics of the spider monkeys, safely out-of-range of the turd hurling.
So truthfully, the trouble is that I’d like to freeze things just the way they are. After all, I’m never going to be fluent enough to discuss matters Bundestag without sounding like the gibbering immigrant out of central casting. I’ll always be The American, ordering Cokes with extra ice and mispronouncing tschüs. No amount of Tatort viewing or Schnitzel consumption is ever going to grant me entry into the club at any level above mascot, so why should I bother? Can’t I just remain the village idiot, floundering through prescription refills and pizza deliveries in my native drawl?
Sadly, no. My task is eternal and unavoidable. The incomprehensible emails and road signs will not let me be, so I must try. Yes, I’m practicing with Duolingo. I’m fiddling with Pimsleur. I’ve picked through the official A1 Deutschkurs and supplement workbooks in painstaking detail, eavesdropping on the sample conversations of Raphael and Nasrin (she’s married to Jamal, but there’s definitely something going on there) as they compare their summer vacations and illnesses. Thus far, this has empowered me to speak with authority about how many apples the children have eaten or who bought an expensive skirt last weekend (the wildly irresponsible Mina), none of which really prepares me to answer the phone.
But when that miracle days comes, when I’m fully able to answer that call and can fluently discuss everything from CDU policy to the hits of Udo Jürgens in the language of my new homeland, I still hope the phone doesn’t ring.