Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Breaking Language Barriers...with my face (Strike 1)

Last Sunday, my plane touched down on the beautiful European continent. I arrived with roughly three hours of sleep in my system. I miraculously had an empty seat next to me and attempted to curl up in the fetal position across both seats like the Russian woman on the other side of the aisle who found herself with a little extra elbow room, too.

We had bonded earlier in the flight when she asked me what I was reading. I hefted the massive red tome that is my constant companion and sheepishly admitted War and Peace. I feel like there is a kind of academic affectation surrounding the book and I feel a little embarrassed to be reading it in certain situations. But in this situation, I couldn't have had a more satisfactory novel in hand (or brick in lap, depending on your perspective).

"Oh, I love this book! I have read it one-hundred, at least, times. Marvelous. I enjoy both zee War and zee Peace, but War can get a bit boring, especially with all of zat French. Aye-yai-aye."

Anyway, the point is that I had an empty seat and could get more sleep than most of my fellow Fullbrighters. But three hours of sleep is still not adequate for expertly navigating a foreign airport. I stumbled through customs somehow schlepping my huge internal frame backpack, a black rolling suitcase, my messenger bag and my guitar case without incident (except for a holdup when my guitar didn't appear on the baggage claim. I was worried I wouldn't be able to take it to Austria and sing "I have confidence" from The Sound of Music, but it luckily popped up with the other awkwardly shaped luggage.)

I had slept through breakfast and my stomach was a bit upset that the airport was basically closed at 5:30 AM, but I plowed ahead looking for the magical European train system to American myth and legend. I located an automated ticket booth, but it only took Euros which I didn't have yet. Then I found one that would take a credit card but didn't have an obvious "English" button. Did I actually need to approach a real, live person?

No. Thankfully, I found the hidden "Change Language" button and bought my ticket without needing to interact with a single person. Of course that meant I had no idea where to go to catch my train. There were track numbers, but these didn't correspond to the station names on my ticket. I knew I needed to get to the central Frankfurt hub so I finally broke down and asked a Bahn station agent (The Bahn is the national German train company). He pointed to an escalator and I scampered down (or went as quickly as a person with four pieces of luggage can scamper). A train arrived but the name didn't mention Frankfurt, so I wandered back and forth looking for someone to ask.

Finally, a middle-aged German man walked by my little corner of stress, sized me up and rattled off something in German and laughed. In case you ever thought this was a comfortable feeling, know that it is not. I looked back blankly and finally exploded with one of my key phrases, "Ich spreche kein Deutsch. Ich spreche English." He nodded and, in near perfect English translated himself, "I said you are so loaded with things that you look like a donkey!"

My first interaction with a German and I get insulted. Ja Deutschland.

He meant well, if he didn't have the most flattering conversation starter, and quickly revealed he had learned English working on an Army base in Northern Ohio. The conversation went from there, eventually including which trains I should and should not get onto. He was going my way and gave me his card in case I want to hang out in Frankfurt and need restaurant recommendations. Wait. Maybe I could get a Frankfurter in Frankfurt. Oh the possibilities...

German: 1
Me: zilch

austrinken - to drink up

Ich trinke dien Milchshake. Ich trinke er aus!
I drink your milkshake. I drink it up!

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