I’ve had very few occasions in my life where I’ve felt the kind of vulnerability that occurs when in a foreign land unable to speak the language or truly know the culture and systems. I’ve traveled out of the United States to Mexico, The Bahamas, England, France and now Germany. Of course in England and The Bahamas, English is the spoken language. When visiting Mexico I’ve always stayed close to the resorts where English is always spoken to the American tourists, although I do frequently take the opportunity to utilize my rudimentary Spanish skills on the poor resort staff. I’m sure they never get tired of that. hahaha.
When I traveled to Paris last year I was very nervous about my complete ignorance of French, because we’ve all heard about how mean the French are! hehehe (actually the French were quite lovely!). Prior to our trip, I became BFFs with Rosetta Stone and at least learned enough French to be able to say some basic things and understand signs and menus. However, to my surprise most Parisians automatically spoke to me in English after just my utterance of “Bonjour”. The way that greeting rolls off my tongue must have given some indication I wasn’t French and blew my cover! Only once when in France did I encounter anyone that didn’t speak excellent English. One morning, on the way out the door of my hotel room, I made a quick call to room service to ask them to pick up the breakfast dishes. Everyone in the hotel had spoken English so I was caught off guard when the kitchen staff was unable to communicate with me. I actually know enough French to be able to string some words together to get my point across, but what did I do?……PANIC! ugh! I panicked and just hung up the phone! I was shocked by my rudeness and inability to blurt out any French at all. I guess it’s not that surprising, but definitely embarrassing. Other than that though, Paris was quite easy, language-wise. I’m sure a lot of it has to do with it being such a tourist hub and my experience would vary significantly if I traveled outside of the city.
When we traveled to Germany I was half expecting things to be the same as Paris. I had much less lead time to learn some German on this trip, as it was a quick decision centered around a job opportunity for my husband, rather than a long anticipated European vacation. Instead of paying another big chunk of money for Rosetta Stone, I decided to check out the free language app Duolingo. It definitely helped me learn some basics in a short amount of time. However, during our trip I realized that no one was going to automatically speak to me in English, often even at the hotel. (Maybe my Guten Tag is better than my Bon Jour!) Many Germans do speak English, especially younger ones, but probably 95% of the Germans I encountered spoke to me in German until I asked them “Sprechen sie English?” The government also doesn’t really accommodate English speakers. All info at the train stations, signage and as I understand, all official government dealings, are almost exclusively in German. Thank goodness there were English options on the ATMs and the train ticket machines. However, when the ticket comes out…..all in German. Good luck knowing how to catch the train if you don’t even know what a “gleis” is (by the way, it means “track” or platform). None of this is surprising. It is Germany after all and they speak German. I’m telling you though, it is quite a strange feeling and extremely anxiety producing, especially if you are someone that really doesn’t like not having control over your surroundings.
While in Germany I had an appointment with a doctor in a little village, Bad Bergzabern. I have some chronic health issues so our decision to move was determined in part if I could find an appropriate doctor in Germany. Bad Bergzabern is an hour away from Karlsruhe by train and requires changing trains once. My appointment was on a day when my husband was scheduled to participate in interviews at his prospective company so I had to go solo. The idea of negotiating the trains by myself was pretty scary to me. (Don’t worry, the fact that I sound like a neurotic wimp isn’t lost on me.) My kind husband agreed to do a trial run with me a few days before. YESSSS! Even that was stressful though.
We got to the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) and our first task was to purchase tickets. We can do this! So we queued up at the back of a line at what looked like a ticket counter. When we reached the front of the line I
pleaded asked “Sprechen sie English”. ” Ja! a little”, the young woman at the counter replied. (everyone says a little, no matter how good their English is). Ok awesome! I went on to tell her where we wanted to go, Bad Bergzabern. The look of incomprehension on her face couldn’t have been more if I would have said I wanted to go to Mars. After a few more times of butchering the name of this poor town I finally wrote it down. The young girl smiled with acknowledgement and repeated back to me what sounded to my American ears as “budbusaba”. OK sure. Yeah…that’s it. Please can I have tickets? She again looked at me like I had food in my teeth. Apparently we were in a line just to ask information, not to get tickets. She pointed us to the ticket machines. As I said, the machines have an English option and were fairly easy to navigate, but when the tickets came out printed all in German. we were still clueless about what it meant or where to catch the train. UGH!!! I started fumbling with the translator on my cell phone and in short order we decided it would be easier just to go back to the young lady at the information counter. There were 2 workers at the counter and as I was standing in line I was saying a prayer, “God please let the same girl help me”. Sometimes prayers are unanswered. So I began over again. “Sprechen sie…..” This girl told us the tickets we purchased weren’t enough to get to our destination and that we would have to go to the “window room” to add money to our tickets. What the hell is a window room???! (I didn’t really say that. I just smiled and said danke) We finally figured out where the window room was and found that she had given us incorrect information. Our tickets were fine and we were informed of what a “gleis” was and where we should go to catch our train. Awesome! Yay Window Room! This was already way more stress than I like to impose on myself and all we had accomplished at this point was buying the tickets!!! The labyrinth of our journey had just begun and we had quite a few more obstacles, but we made it to Bad Bergzabern. It is the most beautiful village and we really enjoyed it, along with some ice cream. Ice cream makes everything better, right?! During my 9 days in Germany I had a number of similar experiences. I was grateful to the many kind Germans that assisted me along the way….. and there were MANY!
The first time I ever remember feeling like a fish out of water was when I was 7 years old and in the 2nd grade. My mom took my sisters and me to New York City to live in the Bronx with our grandparents. We ended up not staying for long, but I was enrolled in school for awhile. We previously had been living in small towns in Oklahoma. That was the only life I knew, so going from that to New York City was a huge change for that little girl. I remember my first day in the
Monster Educational Complex school, at the end of the day the teachers were funneling all the kids into different lines leading to multiple buses, many of them city buses. My mom and grandfather were supposed to pick me up that day and I think I knew that, but for some unknown reason I followed the leader right onto a city bus. By the grace of God it was actually a bus that went to my grandparents’ neighborhood. I remember being very scared in that crazy big city. Somehow though I recognized the shopping district close to our neighborhood, got off the bus and walked to my grandparent’s apartment building. Of course no one was home because they were frantically looking for me at the school! That feeling of being a vulnerable little girl completely out of her comfort zone was similar to what I felt when trying to navigate unfamiliar systems in a foreign German tongue. However, if I could find my way at seven years old, I certainly can do it with 40+ extra years under my belt. I just may occasionally need some liquid courage at the end of the day AND a lot of German lessons!