Monday, September 7, 2015

Defying Gravity

I originally wrote this post in my first week in Hamburg, then somehow lost it in the transfer from draft document to upload. That was probably just as well, because I was unsatisfied with the original version. It seemed I was skirting around the main issue, at least with myself, namely: how integrated did I want/was I willing to be here?

In my two weeks so far in Hamburg I have met some of Larry’s colleagues, shopped at half a dozen stores, navigated the local train system, attended a wine tasting, eaten out at a couple of restaurants and food stalls, purchased tokens for our complex’s laundry room from the security office, and translated a stack of papers regarding health insurance and our new bank account.

Not a bad start, right? But how much of that did I try auf Deutsch?

  • Well, I had a brief conversation in German with the head of Larry’s studio, who is German and was happy to know there was an American with some German knowledge.
  • At the stores my greetings and goodbyes and answers to simple questions were in German, but anything beyond that and I broke out the “sorry, my German isn’t that good” plea.
  • At the wine tasting we had two sommeliers happy to use their English (one had lived in the U.S. as a child).
  • At the train station I spent a few minutes translating till I saw the British flag that symbolized instructions in English. (yes, please!)

No such shortcuts with the paperwork. I read through everything since I already had some context about what they were saying, then painstakingly looked up or broke apart the words I didn’t know. Tedious but satisfying. And though I was tempted to write my email about washing machine tokens in English and let Google translate it for me, I wrote it out in German, looked up the few words I didn’t know, then added an apology at the end for any errors, as my German was still “rudimentary.” Also felt good, but that was all on my own time at my own pace. Much more comfortable than a face-to-face situation.

Like at the bank. We worked with a manager who was used to foreign national transactions and comfortable with her English, and her trainee, who was not. I was distracted because customs had asked for additional information before releasing our cats, and I hadn’t heard anything for hours. In my heightened state I sensed a similar level of anxiety from the trainee, but realized his was because he felt hampered by his English skills. I told him flat out we were in his country and wouldn’t be able to do as well trying to work all this out in German. He felt better, but I thought about how true it was for us.

Like a week later when we went downtown to turn in our visa paperwork and got food from a vendor on the plaza. We had visited this same vendor a couple of days earlier on a scouting run, and ordered fairly easily. On the day in question the woman behind the counter was not as hospitable to foreign bumblers. She repeated the first couple of items in an exaggerated questioning manner, turning to her coworker to ask for clarification. Once she repeated the correct pronunciation of the word, highlighting our lazy “ock” rather than the “aach” required.

Her coworker ignored the game and dutifully fetched items as we ordered them, which kept me in an amused rather than annoyed state of mind. Fair enough, I thought. There are plenty of people in the U.S. who feel if you come to our country, you should know the language. But would I reach a point in the future where I was comfortable, not struggling to make myself understood while a line grew behind me?

The challenge I originally issued to myself was to be courageous enough to embrace the opportunity ahead. Like any other big life change—new place, new job, new relationship—sometimes you just have to trust yourself and go for it. And that’s where I left it in the original version of this blog. Like everything so far has been a matter of deciding to learn the language better and fit in. But who says I have to? We might only be here for this one year, and then what?

Then I met a woman who has lived in Germany for three years. She’s married to a German and has a child entering school, but she doesn’t know German. I can see how you could keep squeaking by. Larry’s company has been incredibly helpful, essentially holding our hand or shielding us completely from the bureaucracy involved in getting housing, our visas, and our utilities set up. Then there are the English-language web sites full of help from expats, some of which can help you stay in your American bubble, or there’s the temptation to drift only toward those stores and services that advertise in German and English.   

But I realized that’s what I feel I should fight against. The easy ways to get by, stay rooted, stay under the radar, stay safe. Because when that woman talked about being afraid to answer the phone because the caller would probably be speaking in German, I saw the banker and I saw me, and I felt sad that I could be the thing holding me back from an incredible experience.

It was essentially a “get over yourself” moment. Plenty of people start over in life and make it work in far less accommodating circumstances. It comes down to what you’ve decided is most important and what you can let go. So I guess it’s time to let go of the fear of not being in control and not knowing what’s right. I will make mistakes and I will be embarrassed and awkward and off balance and I will have to be okay with that for a while.

Hell, it can’t be that much more uncomfortable than camping out in this empty apartment for six weeks, right?


  1. Perhaps too late to ask for the perk and I don't know how much it would cost, but perhaps Larry could take a class from a Goethe Institut if there is one nearby? Paul went to one for a while in Mannheim, learned quite a bit and met a lot of fun international folks. Or maybe he's like me and a lost cause when it comes to languages...

  2. Thanks, that's a great suggestion. There's a Goethe Institut downtown, so I'll check it out as an option.