When I left the street-art-filled-city of Berlin with Nataly, my new friend from Runneburg, we visited family friends of hers out in the village of Werneuchen for a few days. It was the sort of travel experience that only comes from not having a set schedule and being open to accepting strangers’ hospitality (more on that strangers theme in a few days!).
We gathered around our hosts’ kitchen table on that first afternoon: Nataly, myself, and about four other adults. I quickly learned that I was in the minority as the conversation became more animated. I sat there, listening to a mix of Russian and German, and felt completely lost. During our three weeks at the castle, I had certainly picked up plenty of German words and phrases. I knew good morning (guten morgen), good night (guten nacht), apple juice (apfel saft), pharmacy (apotheke), forbidden (verboten), where is the bathroom (wo ist die toilette), and of course things like please, thank you, and I love you (bitte, danke, Ich liebe dich).
But at the castle and during our subsequent week in Berlin, English was everywhere. I learned what signs meant pretty quickly and was quick to ask Sprechen sie English? to service people, but I almost never had to worry about the fact that I couldn’t carry on a conversation in German. This was different. I felt alone and intimidated and more far away from home than I had during my whole Europe trip. I wished I could disappear, or call up one of my sisters, but I couldn’t. I listened for any recognizable words, observed facial expressions and gestures, and generally tried to ignore my growing feeling of anxiety.
In more recent Europe trips, I’ve been to England, France, Italy, and Spain, all with languages I was either completely comfortable with or could adapt to easily. That afternoon in Werneuchen, Germany stands out for me as its own isolated example of culture shock. It’s one I’m sure I’ll recall in future travels, when I hope to visit places like India, Thailand, and South Africa.
Isn’t language a fascinating thing? I marvel at how much power it has over us, how it has the ability to tear us down, inspire us, confuse us, make us feel more or less alone. Have you ever been surrounded by languages you knew nothing of? Do you have a favorite language? (I know the most Spanish, I took two years of Latin in high school and love having that background, and I’d love to study Italian more).
This post is part of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. Today was G for Germany. I love discovering so many new blogs through the challenge, and hello to all of my new readers!
Interesting. Yes, I was working on an adoption program in Hanoi, Vietnam years ago, most of the time by myself, and in meeting with an interpreter, though I just embraced it and didn’t mind. In Hong Kong, the only blonde sitting in a restaurant, not speaking Chinese, and, in America at Korean events where even after years I’ve not a clue to what is being said, well all except hello and goodbye, and a lot of intermittent bowing and smiling. Thanks for sharing, what a great Post!
Thanks for offering your experience, Peggy. I just love the fact that you’ve even been to Hong Kong! It sounds like you’ve done some really important work!
LOVE this post! I felt the same way when I first went to Mexico. I feel pretty confident in my Spanish, I’ve been speaking it for years and years. However, when I first had to communicate at the grocery store- I completely FROZE. I couldn’t think of words and I couldn’t believe that was happening to me as the other customers in line grew impatient with me. Now as I travel back and forth more often, I’ve relaxed a bit and let my Spanish flow naturally. I’m learning Portuguese now to challenge myself, but Italian is on my list after that. BTW your photos are beautiful!
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Oh yes, I’ve had that frozen moments for sure- they’re the worst! Especially when there are other people around and you feel so on the spot…ugh.
Thank you so much for your kind words! I’d like to learn Portuguese as well- I was so proud of myself the other day at Barnes & Noble when I was trying to to identify which language a woman was speaking to her children- and I came right out and asked her: “I was curious…Portuguese?” And she was so impressed that I was right because no one ever gets it! Have you ever been to Portugal?
I would absolutely love to go to Germany but am worried about the language barrier. It’s good to know you made it!
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I’d say you don’t need to worry about the language barrier at all- chances are you’re not going to find yourself in a rural home filled with solely German and Russian speakers 😉 Plus, this was almost ten years ago. Everyone in the cities knows English for sure. And I loved Berlin!
I took Japanese class for years but I never really built on it and I have since forgotten it.
I did a temp job in a Japanese office once and they all spoke fluently and I felt totally lost. Totally. It made me sad because I loved the language and I loved learning it and it was lost to me.
I think I’d probably have similar luck in Germany, but I am part German and one of my closest friends is German-born and bi-lingual and I always ask her to teach me the language. I’d swap her photography!
Oh wow, that’s so cool that you used to know Japanese! Not using languages *is* so sad; I wish there was a way to hold on to them more when we don’t have a need to use them.
Ooh, yes, get those German lessons! It’s actually the most similar to English, plus pronunciation-wise, it’s totally phonetic. Once you learn what all the letters/letter combos sound like, you’re set. It’s much easier to read than French, for example.
My mom is from Germany so most of her family is from there. I have been there several times. It’s absolutely gorgeous! I did live for a year in Japan eons ago and picked up much of the language. 2 years after living there went back to Germany and my brain was scrambled. I wanted to answer people in Japanese! It was freaky!
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Oh, I can imagine how confusing it must have been, having two such completely different languages mixed up in your head. Yikes!