Imagine you are eating breakfast. There are fresh-baked rolls, French salami, butter, honey, eggs from the chickens in the backyard, and a nice cup of coffee (from a Portland roaster, of course). You are taking in this wonderful sight, yet all you can think of saying to the person with whom you’re eating is “Meine lieblingsfrüstuck ist Spiegeleier mit Speck (My favorite breakfast is fried eggs with bacon).” Insert crossed eyes, crooked teeth, and a dumb smile with that sentence, and you know, at least in a small way, what it felt like having breakfast with my German friends.
Perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration, because I can say more. For instance, I can say: “This food tastes good; it’s delicious…” Or I can ask, “Are these eggs from your chickens?” etc, etc. However, sometimes I really do feel like what I described above. It’s not only in simple situations like that. Think, for example, of playing volleyball with some young people who are speaking partly in dialect and wholly fast (because that’s just the nature of the situation). No one has time for “Hochdeutsch” (High German). Of course, they condescend sometimes by explaining things and speaking slowly, but they are young people, who have not learned sympathy quite the same way as some adults who understand what it means to be in a new place and know very little. I must simply play the game and remember to quickly say “hab ich” or “have I” when I want or need to get the ball.
Then there’s the aspect of realizing that for the past week I’ve had so many conversations that have not exceeded a first grade level, that my spirit seems to be withering. Again, I exaggerate. I have stayed in contact with friends and family, and even here many speak Russian (honestly, it’s making it harder to learn German, but oh well, Goethe Institute, I’m waiting for you!), and I’ve been reading a lot in English to compensate for my longing to understand something. So my spirit hasn’t necessarily withered, and in a sense, even those “first grade” conversations, which are usually about what I’m studying and who I want to be, are enlarging my heart and mind. Whereas learning new English words isn’t always that exciting, with each new German word I learn, there are Feuerwerks (fireworks) going off in my head.
Now, on a more positive note. I started laughing a lot more. Whether it’s genuine or not, you be the judge, but I’ve at least been trying to say more funny things. It’s most likely a defense mechanism of sorts, wherein I am attempting to mask my nervousness or embarrassment with laughter. When I talk with my German friends (sometimes even with the Russian-speaking ones), I will say something and immediately chuckle or laugh. Nothing funny has been said, but it’s as if I am trying to acknowledge that what I am saying can and should be understood by the other person. If they laugh too, that means I have been understood. If they don’t laugh, I’m in a pickle, because, usually, I know of only one way to say something in German. If that one way didn’t work, then I’m “kaput!” The conversation is over.
On the other hand, laughter may not be so positive after all. Laughter is good, don’t get me wrong, yet I think I need to stop depending on it and start being okay with silence and misunderstanding. This is because in my often nervous laughter I’m laughing irrespective to the tone of the situation. I’m putting on a certain falseness that only has to do with me and nothing that is inherently funny in what has been said. I will sometimes say something only to be funny; but sometimes it’s better to say nothing at all than to speak the first thing that comes to mind. It reminds me of a proverb I read this week, “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (Proverbs 15:28). This proverb is a good test for myself: am I pondering how to answer, or am I just speaking whatever comes to mind?
Nevertheless, both silence and speaking, learning and laughter have their place. I still have eleven weeks ahead of me and I hope to better discern when and where to place my language and my laughter.