I walk into the post office and, probably for the first time in my life, I am nervous. I get in line behind three other women, and watch carefully to see what they do, how they behave. Under my breath I practice the simple phrase that will get me what I want: Hallo. Ich brauche zehn internationale Postkarte Briefmarken, bitte. Hello, I need ten international postcard stamps, please.
Soon, too soon, it is my turn and I am standing in front of a middle-aged woman who is waiting expectantly for me to say something. I smile and the German words tumble from my lips. I am grateful that I don’t screw it up and though I’ve been told my accent is nothing to write home about, the woman seems to understand me. She pulls a packet of stamps out from under the counter and then asks me something in rapid-fire German.
I freeze, trying to make sense of the jumble of words rattling around in the space between us. It sounded like a yes or a no question and as the woman is clearly waiting for me to respond, I try to think fast. Her hand is hovering over a roll of what look to be air mail stickers and I nod.
“Ja.” Yes. She counts ten stickers and gives them to me. I am relieved. I don’t know if my German is improving but my ability to read body language is getting better by the day.
I pay for the stamps, listening carefully to the numbers so that I am not embarrassed when I pull out a bill too small to pay for my purchase. After I receive my change we say goodbye and I am out the door. I step into the sun and feel like the queen of the universe. I just bought stamps, and it doesn’t matter that I am 23 and have done this dozens of times before, because I did it in German…
|My German Washing Machine|
Learning a language is difficult. Learning a language in a country where you are surrounded by native speakers is overwhelming. And terrifying. And wonderful.
Tonight, I sat in a classroom with 10 other people from all over the world. We are the A2+ class at the Volkschochschule (community education school) in Stade. We meet twice a week to learn German. It is our only common language.
Classes like this exist in the United States and last year during my work as an AmeriCorps VISTA I often ran into signs advertising such groups as I made my rounds at various Minnesota non-profits. Sometimes I thought things like, “Boy, it would be difficult to learn a language that way,” but mostly, I didn’t think about it at all.
Now, I am the person in those classes, learning a language the “difficult” way. I am the person who has thoughts and ideas and stories, but cannot express them because I, a writer by nature and by training, do not have words. And the ten others in my class-- the housewife from Bulgaria, the engineer from Italy, the young man from Columbia—do not have the words either. But we do have each other. We have broken German and all sorts of weird accents. We have bilingual dictionaries. We have hastily drawn pictures and charades. We have smiles and laughter and the same “thank God some things transcend language” looks on our faces.
These ten people, the ones I couldn’t be bothered to think about 4 weeks ago, are now my friends. And, because they get up each and every morning and rehearse what they are going to say to the lady at the post office, they are also my heroes.