19-28 May: Lost in Translation
I’m standing in Marksburg which, although damaged by American artillery fire in 1945, is the best-preserved castle of the many dotting Germany’s spectacular Middle Rhine* and first mentioned in historical records in the 13th Century. Here is a picture:
I’m on the upper floor standing in a 65-meter knight’s hall with a long medieval dining table hewn from wood as dark as the surrounding forest, huge open fireplace, and window recesses revealing that the castle’s walls are 3 meters thick. Our guide is explaining that the deep bay in the wall in the center of the hall is a toilet where the knights could take an altitudinous crap on whomever might be passing by below while keeping up with the raucous banter going on at the table. Even more interesting, this was the most vulnerable part of the castle to enemy invaders who, used to being repelled with cauldrons of boiling oil, heavy rocks, and volleys of flaming arrows, were quite content to cast aside the chivalric etiquette of castle-storming and attempt to sneak in through the infinitely less perilous shithole.
“In fact,” our guide concludes, “downstream from here, just outside Bonn, Bavarian knights sacked Godesburg this way.”
“Trust the Bavarians,” mutters my wife to the quiet tittering of those within earshot except, not surprisingly, the plump Bavarian couple who scrunch up their tongue-red faces as if they have just been suddenly shat upon. [Side note: Bavarians are subject to some low-boil animosity in the rest of the country because they are viewed as perpetuating the hated stereotype that all Germans are lederhosen-clad mountain-dwellers forever swilling oceans of beer, during a permanent Octoberfest, while dancing to Oompapa bands. It doesn’t help that their accents, even if reciting love poetry, sound like a gathering storm. Even less that Bavaria is the richest state in the country.]
“Come this way,” says the guide with a wave. “Watch your heads on the ceiling. Here’s another great view of the valley from this window.” He pronounces ceiling “siling”, valley “walley”, and window “vindow”. My wife rolls her eyes again at the quality of his English. For me, though, I’m seized by another spasm of guilt about the quality of my German. Here I am on an hour-long castle tour being conducted in scrappy English despite the fact that everyone on it, except for me and an Asian couple (who don’t appear to even understand English) are German speakers. They’re only taking the English tour because they’d have to wait another hour for the next one in German. This is in their home country.
Personally, I suck at languages and actively resent people who have a gift for them. I like to think I’m not an easily intimidated person but when I attempt to speak German, I’m as blushing and self-conscious as a young boy who has inadvertently popped an erection at the swimming pool. During the castle tour, when I imagine myself seated at the table in the great hall surrounded by heavily armed knights drinking wine out of oversized goblets made from the skulls of vanquished enemies, what I fear most is one of them turning and talking to me. I can imagine him, face all whiskers and battle scars, deeply growling a long question in a medieval Teutonic language almost as mysterious to me as modern-day German. I picture myself fleeing the table to the toilet for the remainder of the meal and hoping the manifestation of my fear might at least get some credit for repelling a Bavarian invader.
My wife humors me by telling me how good my German is getting. Probably the only person on earth who would genuinely concur with that bright assessment is her 94-year-old grandmother (or “Oma” as grandmothers are affectionately dubbed in Germany). A lovely woman, I am at ease practicing German with her. Because she’s half-deaf and somewhat age-addled, we only very loosely get the gist of what the other is saying. It’s perfect. To give you an idea, here is a transcript translated into English of an exchange that took place over dinner the day before Marksburg:
Oma [stabbing at my plate with her knife]: How do you like the potatoes?
Me: The potatoes? Very delicious. Her nipples are furry and taste like landmines.
Oma: Exactly. I had a big garden once and grew all my own vegetables.
Me: Really? If I was a garden, my toes would probably harden in the ground.
Oma: I grew those too. I once grew a zucchini that weighed about a kilo.
Me: Did the cat make soup with it?
Oma: Oh yes, that was a super summer. Hardly any rain at all.
Me: Very nice. When the sun shines, does your pillow usually glow like that?
Oma: Of course, but the weather has been terrible lately.
Me: And the fog yesterday smelled like dandruff.
Oma: It’s not good for the tourists in England though is it?
Me: No, no. I toured the royal wedding around the gate and it went to bed before I woke up.
Oma: Yes, I did watch it. I didn’t know those princes had gone so bald.
Me: Prince Philip? His hair is older than your wife’s.
Oma: Your wife? She has beautiful hair. She gets that from me, you know.
Me: I know. I think her skin is also licked by bears.
At this point, a bemused family member who is eavesdropping (unbeknownst to me or I would have fled to the toilet) gently interjects before I accidentally desecrate an innocent conversation by blurting something pornographic and potentially provoking “Oma” to go into cardiac arrest.
In any case, over the course of a week, I did begin to sense that if I lived in the country for a significant amount of time I might one day wrap my head around the language enough to be conversationally fluent. It makes all the difference being totally immersed. This is especially true for colloquial usages. For example, when my mother-in-law is watching television in the evening I learned by osmosis that the easiest, most informal, way to ask her what she’s watching is to say “Was guckst du?” rather than the awkward and formal construction that I had learned: “Was schaust du im Fernsehen?”
As the week progressed, I also began aping the tendency of Germans to end almost everything they say with an interrogative “oder?” (“oder” being the word for “or” in German). For example, “we could go into town today, or?”; “do you want some asparagus, or?”, “the sex was great tonight, or?” etc. I probably overdo it a bit though. In fact, the transcript above is probably more accurate if you tack on “or?” at the end of each of my statements.
Wife [reading in bed]: By the way, why are you saying “oder” at the end of everything when you speak German?
Me [exasperated]: Because you maniacs do!
Wife: No, we don’t!
Me: Oh yes, you do! You say it almost as much as “genau”!** I’m trying to speak the street, man!
Wife: You’re doing great.
Me: Ja, genau. Oder?
Wife [sighing and turning out the light]: Goodnight.
Me [grumpily]: Gute Nacht. Oder?
And of course, just as I’m starting to get a bit into the swing of it, we return to Paris and I have to reconfigure my short-circuiting brain synapses back to French, another language I speak badly and which almost broke me learning on the streets of Montreal over the course of 30 years.
The day after we got back, I had to go and get my fucked-up knee seen again by my doctor. Marching up to the receptionist, I spewed this Franco-German vomit: “J’ai heute à midi einen Termin avec l’Arzt” (“I have an appointment at noon today with the doctor”.)
The good thing is, as terrible as I am at languages I’m not despairing with German. I’m slowly, very slowly, improving and it helps a lot that I actually like the language. Although the grammar incites me to gnaw on my left leg, it does have an internal logic that I relate to much more than French. Also, after even as little as half an hour of studying, I really feel I have given my brain an iron man workout and I’m able to think more clearly about other important things (e.g. pants first, then shoes).
When I do get mopey about my skills, I remind myself that I have had to struggle to learn French and German as an adult, long after my brain had been fully and unilingually hardwired in English. It’s all very well for my many Montreal friends to be smug about being fluently trilingual. I sometimes remind them that if, when I was growing up, I had to go through the French school system (courtesy of Bill 101**) while speaking e.g. Portuguese at home and English with my friends, I would have been effortlessly trilingual by age 18 too.
“So, there!” I declare, standing in front of the mirror at the conclusion of my pep talk. But still, I know I really do have to work on my confidence as much as my skills. Perhaps I should start by hanging out at the swimming pool with a deliberate erection and shamelessly not offer a single word of apology about it… in any language.
* This section of the river snakes through vineyard pocked and thickly forested mountains between Mainz and Cologne. The stuff of German fairytales and a wine-tasters paradise, it’s a must for your bucket list!
** Genau means “exactly” and over the course of an average lifetime, a German will say it approximately 5,896,054,321,468 times.
*** This is the mainstay legislative piece in Quebec’s odious language policy, undoubtedly the subject of a future rant. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charter_of_the_French_Language