Jill and I are off on our first vacation together in 17 years. We want a whiz-bang, someplace exotic but not too dangerous and where we never really thought of going before. On a weekend drive up to see Alex at his residential school, I say, “Maybe we should go to Berlin.”
German was my favorite foreign language in school, though Zeit has rewritten every line. I took it for a semester in 11th grade from one of my favorite teachers ever, then for another semester in college after I moved to New York. That college class culminated in a bunch (Haufen, I think) of us headed to the then-thriving German Upper East Side where we asked a waiter if his restaurant had live music and he tossed the guts of a music box on the table.
A few years from now I’ll have the time to take a class, maybe even take a few days to live a subject like a language 24/7, just as Alex does now, except his subjects are life and maybe someday holding a job. For now I’m going to a place where I don’t understand the signs and on occasion I may not understand how to behave. What if somebody sneezes? What’s German for gesundheit?
The Air Berlin crew gives the take-off announcement to us Fluggaste first in German, which I don’t understand at all, then in English, which I follow pretty well. The common airline signage is all in German: Schwimmweste unter ihrem sitz, Bitte Angeschnallt Bleiben, Meinen Masse. (Back home days later, Jill will be watching a German version of The Nightmare Before Christmas song “This is Halloween” on YouTube when she’ll exclaim, “Masse! Mask! Like on the plane!”)
Why, you might wonder, didn’t I take more seriously learning the language of the country I’m going to visit? I’m not sure. Some laziness, hearing constant assurance that most Germans speak English (Russian, too, if they grew up in the old East Germany), and the need to wing important stuff even more in my early 50s.
I sleep on the plane, waking up in time to see the dawn (and to a far better economy-class breakfast than we would’ve received on an American airline) at what for me is 1 a.m. “It looks like Queens,” Jill says, looking out the window as we begin to land. “Is that a nuclear power plant?”
Getting a cab is remarkably like getting one at LaGuardia. The driver’s patient with our German (that is, he switches the conversation to English) and soon we’re zipping past houses, streets, what looks like a hell of a hobby shop and a business area that reminds me of Boston. The colors are bright in the morning sun; the words are all wrong.
“Ever take a cab ride in a Mercedes before?” I ask Jill. I make a joke out of being the Ugly American by asking “What’s the deal?” with everything. What’s the deal with these Strassen? What’s the deal with umlauts?
(I believe that I can substitute here two letters S for the German eszett, which looks like an unclosed B. My keyboard doesn’t make umlauts, either.)
“Ich heisse Jeff Stimpson...” I try to say to the lady at the hotel desk. She smiles at me with a cabdriver’s patience and we wordlessly agree to continue in English to save money on subtitling.
We can check in early! “And we have the James Bond suite – Room 007!” she says. Does she think I’m British? Cool. How do I look to others in this part of the world?
We spend a week looking around. In a Bahnhof I see a sleeper train of people packing their little bedrooms to roll to Sweden. We eat a mile of wurst; Alex would love this place once he got over the new name for hot dog. At a hamburger joint in a former public toilet, I see my first Gypsy.
I spend a week in front of doors trying to remember that drucken means push (“No, Alex,” I used to say sometimes curtly, “it says pull…”). In a stationery shop I see the innards of music boxes arranged as collectibles. Everything becomes enlightening, and only clerk replies to “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” with a short “No.”
One evening Jill walks us 45 minutes down dark sidewalks to try to find a nightclub in an abandoned bread factory; another night she tries to get us into a dance club under a railroad bridge. One night we get so lost that we catch a city bus, ride it a few stops before we realize we went too far, get off the bus and walk across the street to another bus stop. As we watch, the same bus we got off takes a regularly scheduled turn at the end of the block and starts back in our direction.
“That bus isn’t going to turn the corner and be the one to pick us up, is it?” Jill asks.
Been a long time since I found getting lost this easy. Late one night Jill and I are all turned around (we were four blocks from our hotel) and, exhausted, we hail a cab. This driver speaks a little English; my German skills soon reveal how much. “Jeff,” Jill says, “he needs to know the address on that street.”
Next morning we get an egg and (great) coffee at a little spot. “Have a good week,” the waitress says as we leave. “No, I mean ‘day.’ I’m sorry.” Nicht sein.
What’s the deal with coming to grips with National Socialism, turning the former headquarters of the SS into a renowned museum dedicated to terror? Building a Holocaust memorial that appeals to tourist curiosity and, as you wander the rows and rows of identical featureless columns, slowly overwhelms you with each shadow and angle of sharp Berlin sunlight?
What’s the deal with a ham wrapper? “Original grusten-karree vom stuck (ofenfrisch aufgeschnitten). Netto gewicht, 80g.” Faucets read kein wasser trinken. The music box course taught me enough to understand that, words that sound a little bit like words in English so I assume that they mean the same as the word they sort of look like in English. Bower. Flowers? Power plant? Sounds like “flowers” and so must be right. One night in our hotel I try to do our laundry.
“Oh Jeff, no,” Jill says, as the pre-wash just doesn’t seem to start, “this is the dryer…” Her voice dips in amazement that after all these years she can still lose faith in my ability to figure out anything. Well see, the washer instructions were on the top of the sheet of paper taped to the inside of the bathroom door, and the dryer sits on top of the washer. All wording on both machines is in German. What’s the deal with that?
And in restaurants am I tipping too much? At a seafood counter I recognize austem because I’ve seen it before, just like Alex has seen “Chicken and French fries!” in diners. I walk right up to a counter and ask for “Zwei wasser, bitte.”
“You want that cold?” the counterman asks.
One afternoon at a big flea market Jill finds me at a picnic table. “You look so German,” she says. That’s because my mouth is shut.
I come close to fooling some. After we see the Memorial, Jill wants to attend Friday night services at a synagogue. As the line forms afterward to shake the rabbi’s hand before we leave, I let a few people get between me and Jill in line. The rabbi says “Thank you for coming” to Jill but “Wilkommen” to me.
With renewed confidence I order a drink in our next restaurant. “Eine Berliner pilsner, bitte.”
“Large or small, sir?”
On the last night we stay in and watch German TV. We get mildly hooked on a soap called “Rote Rosen.” What’s the deal with the couple on the show who seem to think it’s the 1890s? Colorful as Elmo, which Alex still watches. We watch “The Simpsons,” a dinosaur documentary and “Band of Brothers.” Here and there I pick out a noun or verb.
On our last day, a lady – she’s German! – asks us for directions. We don’t get her lost and the world makes a klein more sense.