Prose: Deutsch

I don’t want to speak German.

I complain all the time about the constant complaints regarding my lack of the German language. I have plenty of excuses: I don’t know how long I’ll stay in Berlin; I hate being corrected; I am too busy working to take a very necessary intensive course for 4 hours a day; native speakers just want to practice their English anyway;  I hate when I can hear and understand what strangers are saying in public places; I am a writer and I’ve spent my entire life mastering the English language and becoming acclimated with fifty-cent words and I don’t have time to do this with another language; I struggle with switching over to such a thoughtful and complex language after years of studying sweet sounding romantic languages; I enjoy having the option of simply ignoring someone who I am not interested in talking to; it’s too difficult.

The best excuse overall came from a natural born Berliner with the typisch blond and blues and a glass cutting jawline and tattered tale teeth that were filthy and crooked and hinted at the hours he spent adorning the welcoming abodes of debauchery in this brightly dark city of Berlin. It was over one of those makeshift impromptu dinners for artists where some one of us was trying to seduce the other in collaborating on a new project with that allusive prize of home cooked food in lieu of an actual salary. There was wine, because there is always wine, but food was the determining factor that what was being asked was really serious. This tattered man told me, not long after he asked if I wanted him to switch to deutsch (in the usual fashion of these artist dinners, we were speaking in German, English and French), and the host complained about my lack thereof, and someone else recommended a school I had already applied for and never went to, he said, “Life is too short to learn German.”

I know plenty of German, don’t get me wrong, and please please please, don’t tell anyone. Bitte. I attack people with doe eyes and fluttering eyelashes as necessary when they ask me that dreaded albeit obligatory question about speaking that language, then I continue on to explain that I speak German, “when I need it,” that always comes out as a joke that no one really laughs at (my American sense of humor is constantly lost in translation, another reason why I won’t learn German.

It is not easy to build confidence in meeting the specific standards of where to put the verb, especially when you are constantly bombarded by requests to repeat what you said and then after three times of repeating myself, they repeat the same exact thing I said three times back to me, “corrected” for the purpose of my or their personal gain, I never know which. As a perfectionist, this troubles me to no end.

The irony of course comes from so many denizens that preach the gospel of the godly language that is German but when confronted with it, there are shouts of blasphemy that come in the form of, “Please stop! Your German is burning my ears,” or “You don’t have to speak German, we all speak English here,” and when they continue on in English, bad English, horrible English, indecipherable English, so far removed from Denglish or Globbish or any remotely comprehensible form of muddling or murdering the English language itself, they are not so apt to accept any corrections at all.

I learned quickly that Germans are the greatest teachers, and learning is not something they feel comes from their students. I dare not claim this to be a mistake of theirs, for rules and standards are an indicative part of their culture. I deal with the horrible English, biting my mother tongue all the while and even sometimes I tell a little white lie about how I would prefer that they speak German in my presence to help me learn – just to silence the atrocities of Ws that sound like Vs or the unnecessary sound of the letter H or questions that sound like answers or the complete absence of any other tense except the present or further complaints about how there is no perfect English word for something that is so perfect in German. Most times they refuse, and I am stricken with the task of tuning them out, which is harder to do with broken English than with correct English.

I haven’t had any major problems with my fear of German here in Berlin. It is comparable to my fear of math. Like math, I have a little machine that helps me when all the chaos needs to be controlled. Also, as a writer, I have a good memory, so looking at all the long German words boasted on signage and advertising helps, as queasy as it makes me. If all else fails, there is the international language of pantomime and pointing.

I understand what I need to, when I want to understand it. For example, when I was walking my friend’s dog yesterday and this stranger from the neighborhood approached me and asked me if I was cleaning up after the dog (in German) I pointed and spatted at her something about my German not being so good and not understanding what she was saying. She kept on, and on, and on, and I feigned distress, though really I was uneasy about the challenge of having spent almost two years here and I could understand almost every word she had said, without ever taking classes.

As I ran back into the house, feeling horrible about the lie (I did in fact leave the droppings from the dog in the fresh spring white snow, much like everyone else in the neighborhood, hence her complaining), I realized my biggest problem is that no matter how much German I learn, no one will ever understand me. Though I miss the comforts of home of being talked to instead of talked at, I realized when I had the opportunity to speak German, I would have lost all of my anonymity and autonomy – two of the most prized possessions of any good writer. I wonder what the rents are in Prague; the last time I was there I noticed that Czech is a beautiful, difficult, language. I digress.

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