Saturday, August 2, 2008


Maybe it was that brunch with the Asians where the only language we had in common was German. Or maybe it was in Italy when my Mom explained in broken Italian to the property manager Matteo that my brother had broken a vase only to be told, "Don't worry...unimportant." Or maybe it was yesterday when my friend Julia's three kids and I were playing in the pool.

Hannes and Beno are twins, age 6, and Lotte is 11. Supposedly Lotte doesn't like to go in the water. I had already joined the boys jumping off the wooden platform into the deep end over and over, so they knew I was game. That's when they got started in earnest. They coerced me into the shallow water. Beno climbed up my body, his little arms like strong claws. Hannes kept up diversionary tactics - splashing, screaming, bobbing up and down - until I was good and overwhelmed. By that time a third pair of scrawny arms had me from behind. Lotte, the "shy" one, was choking me from behind. My bikini was nearly off my body. They were screaming. "Tauchen! tauchen!" I had no idea what the hell they were saying. I was just trying to keep my head above water. "Tauschen?" I said "Tauschen was?" Tauschen means to exchange, and I thought they were talking about my bikini bottoms, which by now were getting porno-low. "Nein!" (more climbing, screaming, splashing) "TAUCHEN!" And then, the miracle. They released me. Sprung off my body like little frogs and simultaneously dove into the water. Sleek little heads popped up from underwater, big smiles. They saw the understanding on my face. Oh! Dive! I was excited too, and relieved. Finally none of them was hanging on me anymore. I was free. They just wanted me to dive underwater. And I did. And they held me down, as long as they could.

When I came to Germany I thought I had lost the most important thing I had. The most important thing that I never even realized I had until it was gone. My language. Think about it. You walk into a store, a room, a train, a street. It comes without thinking: I like you, What is that, Where am I, Get away from me, Which are fresher, I was waiting first, I didn't understand you, Please forgive me, He's lying, My stomach hurts, Why is it so expensive, When is the next train, I live here. I thought language equaled manners, status, friendship, and adulthood, and that without it I would be without all of them.

To a certain extent I was right. Not a day goes by when I'm not grateful for my German. After the first year of learning how to make sentences, I'm on what I call the Ein Paar Worte Jeden Tag Plan. A few words every day. You'd be surprised how well it works. Language, you see, is just a scaffolding. You use it to build the house, brick by brick. Without it you can't build the house. But we live in the house, not in the scaffolding. And even when our grasp of the language is just that - rough, skeletal, the house isn't finished yet, we are not native speakers - we climb it, we hold on, we use it to see what's in the building, or to look out.

This is where Matteo from Tuscany comes in. Unimportant, he says, so musically Italian. And Julia's kids. A simple demonstration, a sweet moment of mercy. And Julia. Julia wants to become an English teacher. I want to switch between German and English easily. So she speaks to me in English. And I speak to her in German. There are gaps. But they are unimportant.

1 comment:

lisa said...

it's amazing how important unimportant can be.