Well it’s been a week and I’m still here. I haven’t booked the next flight home to Australia, I haven’t attempted to sneak back into the UK via the (lets admit it) rather flimsy Northern Irish border.
I quite like it here. I’m very much enjoying my German class, which gets me up and out of bed for 9:15 every morning. I eat a banana, I have nutella on crackerbread and a cup of tea then walk to school, which takes 40 mins and wakes me up. Like every good kindergartener, I am completely in love with my teacher, whose praise and attention I am constantly searching for. The truth is, I was always a much better student than I have been at anything else I attempted in life and going to German class every morning has allowed me to regress to those happiest of days. This isn’t me rewriting history through a haze of nostalgia, by the way, I was always aware of how much I enjoyed school, even as a teenager. Except for a couple of rough transition years at the start of high school, I never wanted sit at the back of the class and ignore the teacher. I liked the teacher. Even the teachers that didn’t like students anymore, due to years of yelling and reprimanding and putting up with being the butt of jokes, the teachers who didn’t trust students anymore – I was determined to like them too. I felt sorry for them. I secretly wanted to convince them that I was not like all the others, I was a student who respected and wanted them to like me and would like them back. Yeah, there’s all sorts of psychological issues bound up in my feelings about teachers and people of high status and importance, but let’s just leave that for the moment, and get back to the point.
I loved being a student. I loved learning. I loved essays. I loved grades, for God’s sake. Sure, when I got bad ones that was a bit unpleasant, but it got to the point when I could stop doing the subjects I wasn’t interested in and just do the ones I liked and then everything was easy. Even when it wasn’t cool, I loved being a student.
I’m not trying to crow here, I know school wasn’t a bowl of cherries for everyone. Also, saying I was a good student essentially tells you that I was very good at completing tasks with defined rules. I was good at following an authority figure. I was good at learning accepted knowledge and regurgitating it on demand. I was good at being a subordinate. None of these things are good for life. None of these skills are ones that are going to assist you when you drop out of college and found your multi-billion dollar tech company. I don’t think it’s that great I am so good at being student. All I’m trying to do is give you and idea of the undeniable bliss I am experiencing right at the moment.
It certainly helps that I’ve convinced myself I am some kind of German genius. That me and the German language are connected on a deep, personal level. That I understand this language. It’s strange rules make sense. There’s a family myth that somewhere in my mother’s lineage there are German- Australian settlers from the late 19th – early 20th century and for the past week I have become more and more convinced that this true and my latent Germanic heritage is finally rearing its head in the form of my UNBELIEVABLE, UNEXPECTED and UNNATURAL FLAIR for the GERMAN LANGUAGE.
Of course, I’m cheating a little. There was that year of German study I did back in high school that I thought I remembered nothing of. More importantly, there’s my basic Norwegian skills that give me a slight edge – not only can I easily pick up the German words that sound and look similar to English, German words like ‘reise’ and ‘bild’ and ‘kunst’ hold no mystery for me, due to their exact transfer from/to Norwegian.
Also, I’m actually, probably, not as good as I think I am. This was made clear to me yesterday when I started happily writing out all of my vocab (colour-coded for gender) and I realised I’d written down a hell of a lot of wrong meanings that I thought I had understood and Collins’ online German dictionary was telling me I hadn’t:
Nevertheless, I’m doing my goody-two-shoes act at school. I’m the student that everyone hates. I pretend I am the Hermione Granger of German class. I yell out answers to possibly rhetorical questions just to fill the silence. I am ridiculously over-enthusiastic about participating in games. I chuckle knowingly at the ridiculous dialogues we are meant to translate (‘Das ist kein Geldautomat! Das ist ein Fahrkartenautomat!’ Oh ho ho, silly fake German man who is trying to get money out of a travel ticket machine, how that did tickle my funny bones). I read animatedly with what, I assume, is some kind of accurate German accent, but is probably more Norwegian-laced Australian.
What has been boosting my confidence is the tiny little interactions I am having with ACTUAL GERMAN PEOPLE outside of class. I’m not going to lie, they’re not perfect by any means. But they DO take place in German. I went to a fancy supermarket the other day to buy cheese. The lady at the counter spoke very quickly in German to me. I apologised (in German) and said I spoke bad German. She said that was very good German! I asked her if she spoke English. She didn’t. So I proceeded to order my cheese in German. There wasn’t much ordering. She asked me if I wanted all of a piece of cheese. I said no, ‘small’. She asked if I wanted it in half, I said yes. I picked up another cheese, she told me it was Goat’s cheese. I didn’t do a lot of talking, but what I said was understood and I got all the cheese I wanted. We were both very pleased with ourselves.
Another day I bought beer at the store (I DRINK BEER NOW, WHAT IS THIS), I came to the counter and the man told me the price. One trick I always use to stop people speaking to me in English is to look at the cost on the till. However, it came up on his till as a price that I didn’t expect. I said to the man, Sorry, 3.20? and pointed at the till. He said no, it was the price I expected. Yes, ok, it’s not like I’m reciting Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in German, but, hell, I’ve been here a week, ok?
Today I got a haircut in German. I did some preparations beforehand. I made sure the hairdresser I went to had ‘Frauen’ out the front so I knew they cut ladies hair. Then I looked up, ‘Can I have a haircut?’ on Google translate and ‘I don’t have a Reservation’ and ‘to the chin.’ I wrote them down in my smartphone notes and then headed out. I won’t lie – I was nervous. I mean, telling someone what you want them to do to your hair is a delicate business even when you speak the same language. But everyone assured me everyone spoke English in Berlin, so surely, if worse came to the worst, I could speak English to them. Surely?
I got to the hairdressers and stood outside, looking at the windows nervously. There seemed to be a side for men and one for women. The men’s side was full. The women’s side was empty. Luckily, a gentleman walked out and smiled at me in a friendly manner. He said something in German that I failed to understand. I said that I was sorry I didn’t speak good German. He said that wasn’t a problem. So I said, in English, ‘Could I have a haircut?’ He looked worried and ummed and ahhed, then gestured to a woman down the street. So, I pulled out my phone and showed him my note, ‘Kann ich einen Haarschnitt?’ He smiled and said, ‘natürlich’. The woman approached and greeted me. I showed her my phrase too. She said, not a problem. Then, as all hairdressers do, she attempted some conversation. She asked where I was from. I was delighted. I knew this phrase. This was definitely one of the German phrases I had been taught and knew off by heart in the past week. I said I was from Australia and she nodded and made a sound of interest. She said it was cold and closed the door. I agreed, delighted with myself. She asked how much I wanted off, making a small sign with her fingers. I shook my head and said, ‘zum Kinn’ and showed her. It all went very smoothly. She asked if I wanted my fringe cut. I said yes, she took a little off and showed me. She wanted to know if I wanted it shorter. I did. All up, it took about 15 mins. Ok, it wasn’t 15 minutes of German speaking, but, come on. You’ve got to be impressed – I’ve only been here a week! I’m impressed, even if no-one else is. And to top it all off, it only cost me 10 Euro. Best afternoon ever.