I had a good ol’ complain earlier this week, didn’t I? Everything was dreadful and German was hard and I would never, ever, ever fit in here.
Well, just as you can generally expect to hit a wall at some point during a new adventure, things turn around just as quickly.
On my exchange in Norway in 2002 I struggled for the first few months. This isn’t unusual: most exchange students are told to expect the first few months to be tough. Of course, the main problem was my inability to communicate properly. Either I had to struggle along in pitiful Norwegian and feel embarrassed; or I had to force people to speak English to me and be a burden to them and feel even more embarrassed at my inability to be a successful exchange student (one who would, of course, pick up the language QUICKLY, NATURALLY and WITHOUT EFFORT OR EVEN BREAKING A SWEAT).
Because I wasn’t speaking Norwegian much and just switching to English whenever things got too tough, my language skills were, understandably, developing slowly. I was discouraged and felt like I’d never fit in properly. With few plans over my Easter holidays, one day I decided to borrow some cross-country skis from my host family and go on a ski on the hill behind our town. Despite the snow covering the ground, it was a sparkling, sun-shiney kind of day and I didn’t want to be inside. I was going to be a true Norwegian! One who would go out skiing the way other people go out walking!
Of course, not being a true Norwegian, I didn’t realise that the lovely warm weather we were having would affect the conditions of the skiing. It melted the top of the snow, making it incredibly hard for me to get any kind of traction and to progress forward faster than, say, hair growing. It was two steps forward, one step back, except more like two glides forward, three glides back. I was red-faced, furious and completely confused as to why I had suddenly lost my (recently discovered) ability to cross-country ski. I was also, by this time (a couple of hours in), on the middle of the track, and the only way to get home was to continue on, or to backtrack. Off the track was very thick snow (in my memory, if I had walked off the track, I would have sunk completely into a snow drift, never to be found again). I was completely disheartened and exhausted and stopped to consider my options, if I had any.
Behind me, I noticed an old man speeding up the hill. Not wanting to be out-done by a pensioner, I threw my 17 year old thighs into action on the small slope. When that didn’t work I started using my ski poles to dig into the snow and desperately drag myself up the hill, which worked until one slipped and I slid all the way back down and rear-ended myself on the old man’s skis. He was surprisingly upbeat about it. He started chattering away in Norwegian to me, asking me how I was going, if I was ok, if I needed help and a bunch of other things I couldn’t understand. I explained, in one of my only confident phrases, that I was Australian, that I was an exchange student here and that I didn’t speak Norwegian. He smiled and told me he didn’t speak English, making him one of the very few people I met that year that spoke no English at all. He started pointing at my skis and making a swiping movement. He repeated a word over and over that I didn’t recognise: ‘skismøring’. Eventually, tired of my blank stares, he grabbed my ski and yanked it into the air (with my foot still attached). He made an exaggerated gesture of understanding. Then, giving up on the pantomime, he started unbuckling my shoes, releasing them from the skis. Then, from out of his pack, he brought ski wax. He started applying it liberally to the bottom of my skis. As he did so, he started talking to me in Norwegian about his family. He told me he was a grandfather. He told me his grandchildren lived in Hammerfest. He told me that his grandchildren spoke English. He told me that his grandchildren would love to visit Australia. He talked and talked and talked and I realised gradually, amazedly, that I understood most of what he was saying. Of course, I couldn’t think quickly enough to reply, but I suddenly didn’t feel so badly about my Norwegian skills. When he’d finishing coating my skis in wax, he gave me a big wave and a smile, got up the hill in double speed and disappeared on the path ahead of me. I never once saw him again that year, which was remarkable, really, in a town of 6000 people, but I suppose we moved in different circles…
Anyway, whoever this was a magical little man was (over the years I’ve come to think of him as some kind of helpful snow elf and/or leprechaun), he gave a boost to my confidence at just the time that I needed it. I suddenly realised I wasn’t as hopeless, nor as alone, nor as far from fitting in as my self-pitying brain had thought.
I had a similar little boost today. After a week of feeling low about my slowing rate of learning; a week of German lessons in which I struggled to make myself understood, made mistakes, didn’t concentrate and generally was terrible; a week of waitresses insisting on switching to English, I was feeling more than a little sorry for myself. Then, on my way home from school, I went to a ticket office to buy some concert tickets for next week for a friend and myself.
As I got in, I realised with a sinking feeling I hadn’t checked the German word for ‘ticket’. But, the gentleman at the computer was older and I decided I wasn’t sure if he would even speak English. With as much confidence as I could muster, I told him (in German) that I wanted to tickets to ‘Charity Children’. He looked it up for me. After a few minutes he asked (in German) if it was on the 10th of June? I said yes and he told me the tickets cost 13.90 Euro. I said that was fine. He then said something very quickly that I didn’t understand. So, in English he asked how many tickets I wanted. I asked for two and he repeated back in German, ‘two tickets, which will be 29.80 Euro. How would you like to pay?’ I asked (in German) if I could pay with my card. When he saw my card and I started to swipe it, he asked ‘Doesn’t it have a chip?’ (in German) I told him it didn’t. He asked ‘warum? (why)’ in an overly shocked voice. I said didn’t know and that it was an old card. He took it from me and said (in German), ‘Ah, ‘Commonwealth’- yes, the Commonwealth IS old!’
And THAT guys, is A JOKE. A JOKE TOLD TO ME IN GERMAN. A JOKE A GERMAN TOLD TO ME IN GERMAN. MOREOVER, A JOKE A GERMAN TOLD TO ME IN GERMAN THAT I UNDERSTOOD. BANTER, people! I had GERMAN banter! Laughing hysterically, I agreed with him that the Commonwealth WAS old and told him it was an Australian card. He let me swipe the card and asked where I was from in Australia and after I told him he said, ah, so you are spending the summer here to avoid the winter in Australia. I said no, I am here a year (because I can’t describe the future yet). He asked another question in German that I didn’t understand and he repeated it in English: ‘How long will you be here for?’ In English I explained I would be here a year and I had only been here for 4 weeks. His mouth dropped. No! He cried, in German. You’ve only been here 4 weeks and you speak SUCH GOOD German?? I went bright red. I said (in German) no, no, it’s not that good. I’m learning. He said, yes, it is VERY good. There are people who live here 5 years and they can’t speak any German, because they don’t want to give up ‘Mother English’. I said I knew and I didn’t like that. He said, yes, he agreed. He handed me my tickets and he told me in German, you are doing very very well, it is very good what you are doing, so if we have to speak a little bit of English with you, that is (in English): ‘No worries!’
And oh, my, did I ever laugh about that!