A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Parlez you Deutch?


“Ist… Toiletten?” 

The guy addressing me looked a little overwhelmed amidst the hubbub of the Freiburg im Brisgau train station.  He was wide-eyed, dark-haired, brown-skinned, and barely out of his teens.  He also, it seemed, needed a bathroom.

“Ja!” I nodded encouragingly.  “Ist Toiletten!  Um… Ist ein Euro…”  I pointed to where a coin had to be inserted in order to enter.  Ugh.  Pay toilets.  But still, toilets. 

Apparently this young man had the necessary euro, which was a good thing, because I was pretty sure I’d used the last of my own coins on the way into the bathroom a few minutes earlier.  He smiled.  “Danke.”

“Bitte”.  I smiled back, watched him successfully gain access, and moved on.

He didn’t speak German.  Then again, neither do I. 

My friend Amy and I planned our European vacation with just enough attention to detail to be sure that we didn’t end up stranded in airports, dark alleys, or idyllic-yet-bemusing mazes of hundreds of tiny vegetable gardens.  But we left much of the trip up for grabs, including the question of precisely which towns we’d immerse ourselves in.  Or which countries.  And, by extension, which languages.

I detest the arrogance of Americans who expect the entire globe to speak English to them.  Sadly, however, I am no more linguistically equipped than many such travelers.  This means that if I want to see anything of the world, I need to be willing to look like an idiot. 

Amy and I agreed to meet up in Karlsruhe, a mid-size college town in western Germany where she was wrapping up a short teaching gig.  The Black Forest area and the nearby Alsace-Lorraine region of France were part of our vaguely-planned travel agenda.  Switzerland was more of a whim. But, as entire nations with hundreds of years of complex history go, it was an excellent whim.

Amy speaks passable but imperfect German, plus a little French remembered from the distant past of high school.  I speak terrible but enthusiastic French, gleaned from the same high school classed plus two years of not-very-dedicated practice with the cheery Duolingo owl.  I also speak approximately thirty-seven words of any other given European language, learned via guesswork, Latin roots, and osmosis.

Obviously, we were all set for international adventure.

I flew direct from home – Fairbanks, Alaska -- to Frankfurt.  This trajectory offers incredible luxury in over-the-Artic surrealism, allowing a traveler to acquire ten hours of jetlag over the course of a nine-hour flight.  Despite my language inadequacy, the train connection was easy.  Of course it was.  Because Europe. 

Our first full day was spent exploring Karlsruhe.  Ergo, talking was up to Amy.  From the start, she and I were unofficially playing a game that I’ll call “Anything But English”.  The goal was to conduct conversations without our interlocutors figuratively or literally rolling their eyes and switching to our native tongue.  This game was stacked; while Amy’s German is much better than my French, Germans are much more likely to know English than are their French neighbors.

As such, my verb-mangling and noun-forgetting found plenty of scope on the next stage of our journey, in the ridiculously scenic and historic small city of Strasbourg, France.  More than once, I was reminded of David Sedaris’s snortingly funny self-deprecation in Me Talk Pretty One Day: “On my fifth trip to France… things began to come together, and I went from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. "Is thems the thoughts of cows?  I want me some lamb chop with handles on 'em.”

I had different but equally bungling food-related questions. “C’est un legume? Pas de viande?  Je suis une vegetarienne.”  The server at the outdoor café – all the cafes were outdoor cafes, idyllic in the cobbled streets, shaded by umbrellas or spreading maples – was a time-worn and kindly chain-smoker.  She assured me that “le poireau” was indeed a vegetable, but that still left a lot of wiggle-room with regard to what kind of tart I was ordering.  I dredged my brain.  I knew the words for peas, onions, carrots, mushrooms, tomatoes, beans, cabbage, lettuce, cucumbers...  Okay, so it wouldn’t be a lettuce and cucumber tart… wait… “C’est un legume comme un oignon vert, mais tres grand?”

The server grinned.  “Oui, oui!”

“Leek!” I said, with a far greater sense of triumph than leek-identifying could reasonably warrant.  “It’s leek tart!” 

“Leek,” our server repeated, earnestly hoping to help the next clueless American or Brit to come along.  Who says the French are unaccommodating?  She wandered off to place the order.  A few minutes later, she returned to tell us that, malheureusement, there was no leek tart today.  Quel dommage.  Mais la tarte a l’oignon est vraiment très délicieuse. 

We ate onion tart.  The sun shone down on the cobblestones.  Our server cheerfully smoked another cigarette while ambling off to get us the bill. 

In some ways, Amy and I traveled exactly like the middle-aged people we are.  Clubbing and nightlife were nowhere on the agenda; we were more interested in cathedrals, museums, architecture, parks, forests, and gardens.  On the other hand, we toted backpacks, draped sink-washed laundry around our modest shared hotel rooms, and walked 12-16 miles per day, just… seeing stuff.  We ate fruit by the pound from market stalls, and consumed fresh-baked croissants, pretzels, and baguettes with glutenous and gluttonous abandon.  We climbed all the steps, turrets, hills, and belltowers.  All the belltowers!  And we made linguistic fools of ourselves.

At our Strasbourg hotel, the desk clerk, a tall, slender young Black man, grinned at my French and asked where I learned it.  In high school, I told him -- which was a long, long, LONG time ago – and from the little green Duolingo owl on my phone.  He laughed.  Did I speak English? he inquired.  When I complimented him on his command of my own language, he told me that he’d learned it from his dad, who was from Ghana.  His self-deprecating tone suggested that his bilingualism was easy, almost a form of cheating. 

Thousands of new citizens are enriching the linguistic complexity of Europe.  All three of the nations that Amy and I visited have thriving populations of immigrants, as well as kids growing up as first-generation natives. Many of the new residents are refugees.  France has welcomed half a million in recent years, mostly from Afghanistan, Syria, and Sri Lanka.  Germany is now home to almost one and a half million diverse new residents, a fact that feels keenly poignant on so many different levels.  In the streets, I heard mashups of… well, okay, I’m not entirely sure.  French and Pashto?  German and Arabic? It’s a gleeful, colorful, complicated, wonderful Babel out there, and we threw ourselves into it.

Wandering the pedestrian plazas of Strasbourg one evening, Amy and I found our dinnertime palates tempted not by haute cuisine, but by a cheerful hole-in-the wall Syrian place.  “I feel like we should eat French food while we’re in France,” I said, then paused.  This food WAS French food, being eaten by newly French people. 

The felafel was excellent.

Later in the trip, a young man who looked perhaps of Syrian origin politely approached me as I was returning a rental bike to a rack.  He wanted to know if he could check out the same bike after I’d checked it in, because it clearly worked well and was the right size.  He started the conversation in German.  We were in a border town, so I tried French.  He responded in kind.  It wasn’t until we were pleasantly parting that it became clear that he also spoke perfectly serviceable English.

This three-flavor blended language became even more prevalent in Switzerland, which is not just a border town but a border nation. Basel, Switzerland was easy to reach (trains!)  The Rhine was azure in the summer heat, and I envied the locals bobbing sociably down the river, their clothes and valuables floating with them in little dry-bags.  These folks were clearly planning to hop out refreshed and take public transport home (trams!).  Basel also had the coolest cathedral of all, boasting two bell towers AND a dim and delightfully creepy crypt.  And everyone in Basel seemed to speak at least three languages – not necessarily one at a time. 

My mother spent a year in Switzerland as a young adult, honing her high school French into fluency while typing letters for an international corporation.  Years later, trotting out her rusty language skills, she laughingly remarked that her French was better after a glass of wine.  She had a point.  As Sedaris demonstrates, multilingualism requires a level of letting go. In Basel, I felt like there was no way to do language “wrong”.  It was here that I gave up any last pretenses of knowing anything about verb tenses or noun genders, and just jumped into the full-on linguistic bedlam.

I thought that communication would revert to being Amy’s job when we left France, but Basel wasn’t the only place that felt like a free-for-all.  Late one afternoon, on another scorching-yet-wonderful day of exploring, I heard, “Excuse me?”  An anxious-looking girl of about 12 or 13 was addressing me in English… with a thick French accent… in Germany. 

It took me a moment to parse this.  But the surrounding gaggle of notebook-toting middle-schoolers offered an instant flash-back to mid-eighties school field trips with Amy and 23 other tragically awkward children.  We often visited neighboring states, such as the wilds of New Jersey, where we had to record important facts about historic monuments or pause to “notice the terrain”.  These poor kids were clearly on a field trip to a neighboring nation.

I jumped in and started trying to help them in my awful French. This resulted in several fits of uncontrollable giggling from the hangers-on, but a look of relief from the poor girl who had somehow been forced by her peers into the position of interlingual spokesperson.  She answered me in a rush of French. 

I did my best.  La rue à droite, puis tournez à gauche, c'est tout près. I’m pretty sure they would have found the cathedral without my help.  It’s très grande. But there was satisfaction in communication – even though I couldn’t explain, in French, the connection and nostalgia I felt.

I wasn’t sure I would have been able to explain it in English.  Nonetheless, throughout the trip, my lack of ability to explain myself didn’t stop me from doing things that might require explanation – such as stopping in the middle of a German city park and sticking my head in the lake. 

In my defense, there was a clear precedent.  A brisk, fit, 70ish guy in a bathing suit and towel had just emerged from an early-morning dip.  It was about 6:30 a.m., but the temperature was already about 70 (or 21, for reasonable metric Europeans).  A combination of jet-lag, enthusiasm, and scorching weather had rendered me a Very Early Morning Jogger.

When I popped up, my hair refreshingly soaked, a woman appeared at my side.  She looked like a solid citizen: about my age, earnest, tidy.  “Guten Morgen,” I smiled.  She answered.  And didn’t stop answering.

This woman seemed to be a chatty-yet-solemn extrovert with time on her hands and a lot to say.  It involved water.  And chlorine.  And. . . I don’t know, something complicated about cancer, a tragedy, children, medical care?  Things were better now?  It was worthy of lots of head-nodding and hmm-hmming.  It was way too late for me to try to explain that I do not, in fact speak German.  At all.  Instead, I kept a straight face and nodded seriously at the serious lady who was telling me serious things.  I learned a lot from her – albeit not, perhaps, precisely the things she was trying to tell me. 

I learned that listening, even without comprehension, can still be valuable.  I was reminded that body language accounts for a staggeringly high percentage of communication.  And I pondered the deep, complex, overwhelmingly hard-wired linguistic instincts that have driven humans to invent and propagate languages. Everywhere.  Every era.  Pidgins, creoles, dialects, sign languages, and all the insanity of verb tenses – we’ve done this instinctively, collectively, literally thousands of times.  Language is not merely a characteristic of humans, it’s part of the fundamental definition and blueprint of our species.  We’re tool-using apes, true, but even more obviously, we’re apes who communicate – socially, informationally, educationally, connectively, crucially, constantly.  Even while dripping next to a lake.

Eventually, I used polite gestures to suggest that, gosh, maybe I’d better be continuing my morning run.  I smiled.  I turned.  “Danke schon!” I said, as I jogged away. 

I meant every word.

The trip ended before I wanted it to, as all trips should. On my flight home – a surreal nine solid hours of it being consistently 2:10 in the afternoon – the Condor flight attendant spoke to me in German, and I carefully replied with my miniscule vocabulary: danke, bitte, wasser, CocaCola.  She was undoubtedly laughing at me behind her polite smile.  Her English was impeccable, and she was, somewhat inexplicably, using that language to communicate with the fellow Fairbanksan who happened to be seated next to me.  But I wasn’t ready to return to the humdrum of “yes please” and “no thanks” until I was through Customs and Immigration.

Looking back on the trip now, I think that although I clocked a few victories in almost actually speaking French, my favorite foreign-language conversation was the one that took place in elemental Deutch.

“Is toilets?” 

“Yes, is toilets!”

I don’t speak any German.  Neither did the young stranger in the Freiburg im Brisgau train station.  We’re both human, though.  Sometimes that’s what matters most.