The Nice Thing About Strangers

Creative Non-Fiction Short Stories. :) Travel, Oldsters, Love, and Compassion.

When All The German Fell Out Of My Head

In every tunnel, because the darkness turns the windows into mirrors, people in the train gaze at their own reflection. They pose, pat their hair, examine their own eyes. As we break from one tunnel and the sun returns, an elderly man delights in the beams and stretches like a cat.

My neighbors begin to chit chat with me, observing that I have been writing in my notebook for almost an hour. Now, I understand German pretty well until someone speaks to me. Then my ears get hot and I forget everything. I want to reply, but the anxiety of making mistakes upends any vocabulary I have acquired.  The Der, Die, and Das melt.

I fumble a bit and go mute. At least I don’t have to tell anyone that I’ve been trying to learn German for a year and a half. Hopefully they will assume I started only last week. We should go with that.

A little boy across the aisle notices that I am unable to speak. He peers at me over his pastry, then he smiles. I recognize that look of consolation. I give it to people who have tripped in public. But this boy buoys me. I smile back. I accept the kind gazes of the German speakers around me. I accept the gestures they make to communicate wordlessly that I should eat the apple they offer, that I should show them my ticket and they will tell me when to exit. I keep my grip on a shy expression and let my neighbors play hospitable charades.

Later the boy points his mother in my direction, then they both blink at me with mercy. I try to savor this chance to be utterly humbled. Vielen Dank. (I think.)

–In the train from Vienna to Innsbruck, Austria. 2008.

hiking in Austria, travel Austria

18 comments on “When All The German Fell Out Of My Head

  1. lagottocattleya
    July 29, 2013

    This is a sweet story, and I can really recognize myself too…

  2. Cornelia Lohs
    July 29, 2013

    Don’t be afraid to talk German, even if you make mistakes. You learn the language best by speaking it. Before I went into journalism I taught German as a foreign language and I know how hard it is to learn my language.

    • Thank you, Cornelia. I have improved since 2008, but I’ve somehow discarded the der, die, and das. My German-speaking friends are quite kind about it all!

  3. Steve Lakey
    July 29, 2013

    I visited Germany many years ago, knowing hardly any German – despite having studied it at school for two years! I found that if I tried to speak German, people were very friendly and would help out. By the end of my 10 day trip, I’d learnt more than in two years of school!

    • Agreed! There’s nothing more valuable than a friendly reply when you make an attempt. 🙂 Sometimes getting caught in the conjugations can be just too much!

  4. anglophiletoad
    July 29, 2013

    Greatest title ever.:o)

  5. kiwiskan
    July 29, 2013

    just highlights how helpful everybody wants to be – all over the world

  6. Hans Susser
    July 29, 2013

    Sehr gut 🙂 Danke

  7. joannerambling
    July 29, 2013

    Since I speak only English I would be screwed if I went to a country that doesn’t speak English

    • I bet you could get by on your smile! And I almost always could make inroads with a few of the local basics, or with English. I always tried to learn please, thank you, and I’m sorry. 🙂 Go figure!

  8. suej
    July 30, 2013

    Like your story! That was me when I was younger…but later, I realised that people like it when you try to speak their language, and mistakes are forgiven. Also, a German friend of mine pointed out that conversational German is not the same as the written language!

  9. vanessalovespostcards
    July 31, 2013

    Nice little story. I know German is a hard language. Like Mark Twain once said:
    “[…] it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.”
    I would not worry about getting mute 🙂 I am German and sometimes it is hard even for me. All you can do is practice and speak! And soon you are going to talk as a parrot 😉 sure about that!
    Alles Liebe aus dem schönen München!

  10. As a German I can assure you that it also hard for me now to speak perfectly my mother-tongue – I have been away far too long. Your ‘problem’ with german is my problem with french – I know the grammar etc. but I can not put a simple sentence together – no problem in any other language, only french – and it is such an elegant language, too. Herzliche Gruesse aus dem schoenen Sueden Indiens – namaskaram! Carina 🙂

  11. anelephantcant
    August 12, 2013

    AnElephant has travelled in different countries, some where he speaks the language (but with a Scottish accent), others where he struggles and plenty where he knows not a word.
    He finds strangers unfailingly kind, helpful and sympathetic in all three cases.
    Nice things, as you say!

  12. Wayne
    January 13, 2014

    You gave me HOPE!

    Maybe I can learn Russian ….

    You just thought German was hard ….


  13. michaelwatsonvt
    April 13, 2015

    Ah, a Vermont moment for sure!

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