In German she asks, “Do you live here in Germany?”
No, I explain, I am only visiting my friend Ilka.
“But you have lived here before?” She is insistent. “You speak German, so you must have lived here.”
“Ich habe Deutsch in die Schule gelernt,” I say.
“No! You learned only in school? But you speak it well.”
I feel chuffed, although I know she is probably also being quite kind. I leaned German for five years at school. The last time I spoke any German was in a bakery in Swakopmund, a town in Namibia. And that was ten years ago. Swakopmund is a bizarrely German town on the Skeleton Coast of Africa, where the architecture, culture, baking and language are all unashamedly German. That day I asked for a loaf of bread and some cakes in my bestest Deutsch, half convinced that I was on a film set.
I’ve spoken German a few other times in real life since leaving school. It was useful when visiting a friend in Munich, although as everyone there spoke Bayerisch (Bavarian – roughly the equivalent of Doric Scots compared with English) I struggled to follow much of the conversation.
German came in handy when I was Inter-Railing though Europe when the train stopped in Hanover and a very rude German lady demanded that I get out of the carriage as I was sitting in her seat. She kept throwing her suitcase into the 8 person compartment in a violent and aggressive manner, and I kept shoving it back out into the corridor as I argued that as I had booked this seat and had already had my ticket checked by the inspector, then she must be wrong. When she finally made good her threat of summoning the ticket inspector, he removed her and her suitcase from the train, and last we saw was him marching her towards the far end of the platform. I was the hero of the carriage.
Then later on that same trip, when Angela and I were wandering forlornly around Krakow, with nowhere to stay (and that’s a whole other story in itself), we met a woman who not only spoke great German, but was willing to speak it (this was not long after Poland became its own country again in the early 90s, and no one was owning up to speaking German or Russian, and few spoke much English). She offered us a room in her beautiful old house and talked to us about how life was changing for her and her family.
I spoke German when I lived in Greece as this was the only other European language that some of my Greek friends spoke.
And one summer I was working on a farm in Switzerland near Zurich. I didn’t really manage to fathom the impenetrable Swiss German (apart from the useful phrase ‘Tip-top’ which means great), but the farmer’s wife also spoke the Hoch Deutsch which she too had learned in school. One day, she and her husband summoned me to the dining room table, and presented me with a form from the Anglo Nubian Goat Society – they wanted me to complete it for them in order to register a young billy for breeding. I managed fine with the questions asking his name, date of birth, the names of his parents and dates of their birth, but then realised that I didn’t know the words for ‘date put to stud’ or even the slightly more common word ‘conception’. They looked blankly at me as I asked about the night when mummy and daddy goat met and loved each other. Why did I know the word for mushrooms, which I didn’t even like, and not the more useful one for conception? In the end, I resorted to a puppet show with my hands and saying ‘sex’ a lot, at which point they went ‘Ah!’ and told me the date.
Visiting Ilka last year, meeting her friends, and being part of an Acroyoga weekend festival she’d organised (I gave myself the tasks of official photographer and general cheerleader, being somewhat non-bendy), I found that I was speaking more German than I had in the past 20 years.
Miraculously, my brain began clicking into gear, and words began tripping out. Words which sounded German and which people responded to as if they could understand! I know that my memory of general grammar is patchy, and I am practicing like mad in my head before I speak, but it must be good enough to fool a German lady into thinking that I lived in Germany. And I don’t think that she was only being kind.
(Or maybe I am just really good at looking like I am understanding what everyone else is saying? Nodding and smiling a lot – which does get me into trouble sometimes – while I practice like mad in my head, then I find I’ve drifted off and not heard what the other person is saying.)
Strangely, there are two occasions when I am guaranteed to speak fluent German. The first is when I am in Spain and am attempting to speak Spanish. I can rehearse what I am going to say before I go into the café as much as I like. “Un café con leche, pro favour,” but when I open my mouth say this to the barista, out it comes as “Ein Kaffee, bitte.”. I have learned Spanish on and off during my adult life, and I know the basics of ordering food and drink, finding my way around, and befriending people, but my brain prefers to spit out German words instead when I am faced with a real Spaniard. Was ist loss?
The other time I can be completely fluent, astounding myself with the words of German which I actually know, is when I am dreaming. Dreaming in fluent German is a skill which I can find no practical use for, but am pretty delighted that I can do it anyway. It gives my sub-consciousness a sense of achievement!
But in real life, what I am finding is that my vocabulary is limited. Stunted even. The words and phrases I learned were schoolgirl words. “Ich bin eine Schulerein!” I have no idea how to say what my current profession is. Schoolgirl German helps me to buy train tickets (useful) and get excited about collecting mushrooms (“Hans and Liselotte sameln so vielen Piltzeln im Wald!”). But I have no words to rebuff the weirdo who tries to sell me magic mushrooms on the train.
Being only able to use the vocabulary of a teenager means that I can only express myself as a teenager. And that constantly means revisiting my 15 years old self – therapy of a kind – or not! The words that I have cannot describe emotions other than basic childhood ones of happiness and sadness, excitement or fear. I have no German words for the adult I have become, for the modern adult world I now inhabit. In using the words of a teenager, I find it strange that language can pull me straight back to a place and time so quickly. Strange, but oddly soothing as well.
In reality I don’t think that I actually speak German so well, or understand it always. But I’ve found that if I force myself to think in German, a stream of consciousness, “Oh, schau! Ein vogel. Wie heist es auf Deutsch? Ah, das Wort fällt mir im Moment nicht ein!“ I can tune in more and everything becomes more ‘flowy’ – a new German word I’ve just learned!