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OFF THE SCENE: Learning to speak another language

May 9, 2011
Have you tried to learn another language? When I was in high school (Northwood) passing 2 years of, initially, either Latin or French was a requirement to graduate. I wanted to take German, but they didn’t offer it. I managed to pass one year of Latin, then they dropped the course, and it took my remaining three years to scrape through French – passing I think more to the French teacher’s dread of experiencing my botching the language for yet another year than any skill on my part.

In the college I chose, Pratt Institute, considered by all who attended the best art college in the country, a view not equally held by those at RISD, Cooper Union or a few other competitors – none of which, including Pratt, required knowing or learning another tongue. Post college I decided to head for Germany, the land of my mother’s ancestors, to investigate that side of my roots. My mother and Grossmama (aka grandmother) spoke German to each other, but not us deciding that after a couple generations in America it was high time someone learned English as a first language.

To prepare myself for the cultural shock to come, I decided to head first to England – to London – where I could speak the language and learn a bit about how Europeans think. Little did I know that the English did not then and still do not think of themselves as Europeans. Upon getting through customs, I saw an English gent and asked him how to get into the city and what would it cost. Then I learned I couldn’t speak or understand that language either. Words like tuppence, bob, guv, tube and Kangaroo’s Court came back at me.

Three months later, after finishing a semester at Sir John Cass, the University of London, sharing a flat with two college students, working as a nanny for a single mum, learning phrase’s like “a how’s your father,” from her 8-year-old daughter (a thingamajig) and Enoch Powell jokes from her liberal barrister boyfriend, and selling hand-made dolls on Portobello Road, I was ready to tackle Germany.

I decided on going to Munich. Why? My friend Mark’s brother had dated a woman from there named Gretta, which gave me someone to call who I knew could speak English, and one of my college classmates was over there on a Fulbright. Besides, it was located near the Alps (I liked to ski), was known for its beer halls (I liked German beer), and it was to hold the summer Olympics (maybe I could find work).

Gretta, I was soon to learn, was no longer dating Mark’s brother, but a big strapping blonde German guy named Heinrich none to happy to see me or witness the amount of time she spent helping me find jobs, or going to various beer halls with them. Jobs I did get, from carving tombstones to driving a taxi, a wild experience as I could neither speak or read the language. By in large the Bavarians thought it was funny and would do their best to get me lost, and the Berliners cursed their luck and me repeatedly.

Gretta’s boyfriend Heinrich was getting desperate and took it on himself to find me a job – at Schloss Elmau – a castle turned hotel way up in the Alps – as far south as one could go and still be in Germany – and he offered to drive me there. How kind. He had his car cranked up and we were speeding along the Autobahn with Gretta in the front and me in the back. She and were I nattering away and I recall saying to her what an unromantic language German was – all this Acch and Icchh sounds. Too harsh, I couldn’t imagine wooing someone with such sounds. “Not so,” she said. “Bah,” I said. “I’ll prove it, I will say I love you in German.” And she did, with feeling.

The reaction from Heinrich was instantaneous. His head snapped around, which caused him to jerk the wheel, which sent us off the road crashing through field of Edelweiss for all I know. His face was blood red. I swear steam came out of his ears. “You are right, you are right I,” screamed. She laughed hysterically and tried to tell him it was a joke, she was trying to prove a point. He was having none of it. To say he was happy to dump me off at the front door of the castle was to put it mildly.

Heinrich had called ahead so I was expected. I was lead down into the basement, through the kitchens, past the storerooms, and shown a room with a bed and where I could put my stuff. I was then taken back to the kitchen and introduced to Frau Schmidt, a formable presence if there ever was one, who showed me my workstation. I was to wash dishes for the employees, one of the lowest of the low jobs. During all this no one spoke English, a bit of a surprise as I understood Elmau have quite a reputation as a cultural center.

So I put on an apron and set to work. I grew up in the Mirror Lake Inn. I knew how to clean dishes. I had barely started when in came one of the cooks with a large pot yelling, “Heiss, heiss.” I took it and learned the meaning of one word I’d never forget, heiss means hot. And when they yell heiss it means scalding hot. After awhile I graduated to pot washer, then got an assistant, Joseph, an infantry veteran of World War II who could say in English things like, Rat a tat tat, and Chicago gangster, public enemy.” We got along.

Well, we will have to leave this adventure until next week, as they say, to be continued.



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