March 7, 2007

From the mouthes of babes

Today was a great day. The weather was warm, and the sun was shining. It was also my next to last day of having to wake up at 5:30 am and race through the darkened streets of Würzburg to catch the 6:50 am train to my German class in Frankfurt. However, I'll actually miss some aspects of this horrendous commute, because more than any class, it's the repetition of this routine that brings me into contact with regular Germans and forces me to practice my newfound German skills.

For instance, yesterday, while waiting for the train, which was already 35 minutes late (don't believe what you here about German punctuality), I overheard a mother and her son arguing about the location of their train, which was missing from its regular track. I quickly explained (in German) that their train had been transferred to another track. Apparently, they hadn't heard the conductor's recent announcement to that effect. But I had. I had even understood it.

Later that day, a woman stopped me on the subway and asked me for directions to the Hauptbahnhof. Well, if there's one thing I know, it's how to get to the main train station. So I gave her directions (again, in German), and even reminded her when it was time to get off at our stop.

That very same afternoon, my train back to Würzburg was overcrowded, and the only empty seat I could find was underneath a sign that said, "Schwerbehinderte." I had no idea what this meant, so I asked the young man sitting in the next seat over. He looked at me like I had worms crawling out of my eyes. Had I said it wrong? So I repeated myself, "I'm sorry but my German isn't very good. Could you please tell me what this word means and if I can sit here?" He relaxed and sweetly explained that the word meant "disabled persons," but I was welcomed to sit next to him -- the "hard-hindered" be damned.

It turns out, I hadn't said anything wrong at all, but my German accent had been so good that he didn't realize at first that I wasn't German. Of course, any illusions about my fluency were quickly shattered once we got into a longer conversation and I began botching verb tense and adjective endings, but no matter. We had a real conversation. In German. For, like, 40 minutes! It also happens that he is moving to New York next week to start an internship, so I gave him all kinds of helpful information about the best neighborhoods and the best blogs to read for Manhattan news, gossip, and nightlife. Like I really know, but it was nice to feel useful for a change.

But don't let these successes fool you. My German is still, on the whole, really terrible. It's just that by having to do the same things everyday -- commute to Frankfurt, buy a subway pass, order breakfast -- I've become kind good at them. By the sheer force of hundreds of repetitions, I've learned how to say a few words perfectly, not unlike a small child who's learning to speak for the first time. And it turns out that this is the best practice of all, more than any German class.

For instance, every day I spend the hour between my train's arrival in Frankfurt and the start of my class sitting in the Bäckerei Eifler in Sachsenhausen. And every day I order my second breakfast from the funny couple who runs it. (At least I think they're a couple -- they work so closely together, and their movements are perfectly synchronized -- although it's hard to imagine them being married. She is as plump and rosy as he is thin and gray. Every time I see them, I can't help thinking of that old nursery rhyme: "Jack Sprat could eat no fat ... .")

This is one of the hardest German exercises I do all day because they speak very quickly and mostly in slang -- and she speaks with a thick Bavarian accent! It took me weeks to perfect our little exchange: ein Buttercroissant oder Schneebälle, einen Milchkaffee oder ein doppelter Espresso, für heir oder mitnehmen. And then I have to do the quick backwards mental calculation to arrive at the exact change: "Drei Euro funfundvierzig" becomes 3,45.

I also try to change my order every day so that I can learn the gender of each item on the menu, even though I can tell the couple would prefer that I stick to the same old thing. The Germans are very regelmäßig (regular), and I can tell it gives them great pleasure when they've prepared your order before you've even asked for it. Still, as a native English speaker, memorizing the gender of otherwise sexless objects is the bane of my existence, and I've found that this is the best way for me to learn. (David Sedaris had the perfect antidote to this dilemma when he was learning French: just order more than one. In French, as in German, when you ask for multiples of something you can drop the indefinite article and ignore its gender. But I thinking Mrs. Sprat would think it odd if I ordered two Milchkaffes for myself, since I can't seem to finish one.)

Rather than cheating at the gender rule or even memorize the elaborate declination charts, I'm just going to try to learn by osmosis, to learn by heart the rhythm of indefinite articles for everything, just like a child. There are a lot of combinations, which may take me hundreds of thousands of repetitions before I can learn them. But I've got time. And when I've learned something straight from the mouth of my buxom Bavarian baker, I know that I'll always say it perfectly.

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