Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Humility Makes Me a Better Woman

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. 


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  2. I was amazed at the post office today also....at how expensive it is to mail a package to Germany!!!

  3. I love little big victories like these. Congrats!

  4. Only you can find positives and heroes in every situation.
    That is what makes you my hero.

  5. A mouse saved her young from a ferocious cat by barking 'bow wow'. After the cat ran away, the mouse said to her offspring 'See, children, it pays to know a second language'

    Sounds like your new language skills are like riding a surf board.... sometimes you fall, off, but only in hopes of riding the big wave someday. Sounds like you are eyeing it up.... Congrats.


  6. You are the BEST - in any language.
    Love ya,

  7. Das Bark, Das Bark, I just caught a fly for Mom

    Love Scouty

    p.s. I love sleeping on your bed.

  8. I remember rehearsing before ordering at a restaurant or going into a store in the Dominican Republic. It is so nerve-wrecking! You did a GREAT job though!

  9. I just creeped your blog and really love it! You have a beautiful way with words. And can I just say, that is my FAVORITE quote on the top of your page! If I ever get a tattoo, I want a small globe with "Not all who wander are lost" encircling it. It sounds like you are having great adventures in Germany! It's wonderful to discover that even the smallest things can become giant obstacles in another language, but you seem to be handling it well! I'll be sure to keep updated :)

  10. Christina- You have such an amazing way with words! I just LOVE reading your blog and hearing about your German adventures! You are such a strong woman! Trust me, learning a language is difficult but it's also empowering and wonderful. Keep up your great attitude and I know you'll go so far! Miss and love you!

  11. The way you write about your stories far surpasses anything I could possibly say in my measly little blog.

    When I was studying abroad in Spain my classes paralleled what you see in your evenings. Charades are so so helpful! It also helps to bring song into the mix. What a neat thing to be a part of... in a way you're not only learning the language, but you're getting a glimpse into all of these people's worlds! YAY!

  12. Thanks for all of the comments, everyone! I really appreciate the fact that someone (anyone) reads what I write ;)

    I'll be sure to keep everyone updated on my German adventures!!