Mein Problem

Yesterday in German class we learned I can’t even tell you what we learned, I understood so little of it about possessive articles in the nominative form and in the accusative form. (I honest to God had to look that up. This is how completely it went over my head.) This basically entails learning the difference between eure and euer (their, or their, one is masculin, one feminin); when to use ihr (her) and when to use sein (his) and when to use ein (a). This explanation would probably bring shame to my husband, the linguist.

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I’m a week and a half in, and class has made me feel like a two-year-old learning to speak been fine so far. Here’s a typical scenario (in German):

LEHRERIN (teacher): Abby, can you read the sentence and fill in the correct answer?

ABBY: The apartment has _____  rooms.

LEHRERIN: How many rooms?

ABBY: Uhm, The room has three. No four. Four rooms!

LEHRERIN: Vier! Sehr gut!

And so on. Here I was thinking I had a master’s degree.

I was progressing like any two-year-old would progress, only much more slowly at top speeds until yesterday. But then. Oh Lord. As we spent hours of my life I will never get back the entire session going over the difference between ein and einen and when to use which (I’d tell you, but I just don’t know, and also why would you care?), I couldn’t help but feeling like I was back in 10th grade math, the moron struggling to understand the difference between sin and co-sin. My poor father, the scientist, spent hours making me want to rip my hair out helping me understand the principles behind whatever we were learning that week. “Can’t you just give me the formula?” I’d ask. (There was always a formula! But my father wanted me to understand the damn logic.) He stared in disbelief, probably panicking about how much money he was wasting sending me to a not-terribly-good-but-expensive-school.

I survived math class by reassuring myself that I’d never need it after high school. I was cocky an artist! When would I need to know how to solve for X?! All too often, it turned out. In 11th grade, I even had the balls to say to a very underpaid kind teacher who was working excruciatingly hard to help me understand something completely inane incomprehensible, “When will I ever need this?”

“You won’t,” he said. And therein ended my math career.

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I sometimes wish I could say the same here. But it is undeniable that everyone in Vienna speaks English I need German. Still, I can see how much less I need it than other people in my group. Every day I sit next to the class know-it-all a young Iraqi dentist. He is 23 and was forced to leave Iraq due to “terrorism by tourists” (English is our common language, so not everything is always terribly clear). He drives me insane, whispering the answers under his breath while I’m still trying to work out what page we’re on is sweet as can be. Between me and the Italian woman, who sits to his right, he can never hear the teacher he has his hands full, explaining everything to us a second time. (As an aside, I love it when the Italian is asked to read aloud: “Die Tasche” always sounds like “Deee-AA Tas-chA.”)

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But for all the energy I spend being pissed that he’s picking everything up faster than I am, there is no denying why: He needs it.  English saves me almost every time — it is very rare to find someone who cannot speak a word — and if English doesn’t work, my husband does. The Iraqi kid’s English isn’t bad (in fact, it’s possible that it’s terrible, given that I think he left Iraq because of terrorist tourists), but he cannot play with the language the way I can, making myself understood at all costs. (Let’s not also forget that I’m an exceptionally good mime, so this helps me, too.) And much more importantly, he is starting his life and his career over. He cannot go back to Iraq, and is waiting for the rest of his family to take refuge here, too. I can picture him hunched over his notebooks at night, studying the crap out of “der tische” (the table) and “die lampe” (the lamp) because soon, if he wants to use his good, Iraqi education, he’ll have to learn all about the parts of the mouth, the instruments of dentistry, the Austrian rules of licensing, etc. etc. etc., in German, not to mention how to converse with people with their mouths wide open.

I just want to make sure I’m not the mom who can’t understand what her child is saying to her friends order a coffee properly.

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Obviously it reminds me of all those cab drivers one encounters in New York who were marine biologists and award-winning physicists in their homelands and then learned English just well enough to support their families by carting Manhattanites to LaGuardia. Necessity is, indeed, the mother of invention. My learning curve here is stilted because my husband English is my crutch, and I know that I will never hold down a job in German. I don’t have to. This is exactly the opposite of the experience I had in Paris learning how to sit and stand properlygetting it meant getting out of pain. Not getting it meant another day in agony. You can bet I learned the crap out everything I was taught — practicing at home, taking copious notes — just to save myself. But in Paris, I did look around at all the other geriatric students thinking, I am desperate. Why the hell are you here?

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I still ask myself this, as I sit in a tiny university classroom with five 20-year-old Turkish boys, two super blonde Polish girls and my Italian and Iraqi friends, learning how to say “the fork.” Why the hell am I here? The question is now both comical and no longer completely weird. And yet. Here I am, lucky and unlucky to be struggling to say “Where is the bathroom?” And yet there are rewards. The other night I went out with one of our loveliest new friends and her lovely girlfriends, and while I didn’t understand much of what any of them were saying when they spoke to one another at breakneck speeds, I was able to order for myself, ask the waiter to pack up my schnitzel, and find my way home on my own.

These days, this is a victory.

xo

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