German, Will You Be My Valentine?

In The Art of Travel, 3. Communicating, Berlin by Havana LiuLeave a Comment

My palms were sweaty. I felt simultaneously cold and hot with anticipation as I determinedly walked over to where he stood. I stared him in the eye and said, “Hallo, Ich hätte gern— ” but before I could even finish my sentence he chuckled a knowing chuckle and then sighed, swirling his hand in front of him, motioning for me to continue. I suddenly felt ashamed, stupid, and giggly all at once. I took a big breath and mustered up the courage to continue, “Ich—hahah—hätte gern eins—oops—einen grüner tee? Bitte?” (Hello, it would please me to have a green tea? Please?) The barista smiled at me and hit me in the face with a rush of German that was so fast and so cruel that I never want to order anything anywhere again.

When you are in love, whether that be platonic or romantic love, language is less of a necessity. You can tell by a micro movement at the end of one eyebrow that they are impressed, you can tell by a miniscule curve in the corner of their mouth that they have been hurt, you can tell from the way they blink that they would like to be held. The problem is that I have not fallen in love with every barista at every German café, with every biker in the bike lanes that I have accidentally stepped into, or with every pedestrian who asks me for directions. Consequently, the bigger issue here is that these Germans have not fallen in love with me. In turn, these Germans cannot see by my micro expressions and hand motions that I am asking for tea, that I am gravely sorry for my misstep, that I believe you need to turn left, walk a few blocks down the street and then turn right to get to the U7 train. Having very few words at my disposal makes me feel like a nuisance. Having so little to offer the world of people around me makes me feel useless and difficult. Having so little language proficiency in some respects makes it hard to give, but equally as hard to ask for what you need, and in turn to take. To put it in relationship terms, this relationship with language has placed me in a state of limbo, unable to give or receive and thus leaving me in a slightly desperate, long distance open relationship with the German language and those who speak it.

I have decided however, to have fun with it. When the barista responds with a flurry of German, internally I flip him off and chuckle, understanding that I am probably an annoying customer holding up the line. But externally, I laugh and ask him to go “langsamer bitte!” (slower please!). When I cannot read a sign or a menu I make the whole affair into a guessing game and order with my guesses in place. When my meal comes, I get to see if I was right, or if I was sorely mistaken. In this same vein, I have also taken to doing German language games on my phone before sleep. Duolingo is like middle school language classes repackaged into a video game that can make you voluntarily pretend for fifteen minutes a day that flashcards are really fun. In the process of “having fun with it” I am hoping that I will be able to close the distance between German and myself in order to better immerse myself into the city of Berlin, and into Germany as a whole. Until this distance is closed however, please wish me luck this Valentines day in my long-distance relationship with the German Language.

(Image: Communicative Confusion; Source: Havana Rose Liu)

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