One thing every second language learner figures out early on is that it is much easier to conduct a conversation when you understand the context and have a general idea what you are likely to be talking about. When you go to the market, for instance, you are likely to be asked things like “Do you need a bag?”, “Did you find everything you needed?”, “Do you want your receipt?”, and, if you are in Germany “Is everything in order?” You grow to depend on these little scripts to get you through the day, and when people throw you a curve ball, it can take quite a long time for your brain to catch up, even if you know all the words being used.
Earlier this week I needed to stop off at the supermarket to pick a few things up for breakfast. As I waited in line the cashier pushed the row of food-dividers to allow folks at the end of the line to reach them, and one popped off and fell on the floor. I stooped to pick it up, and she caught my eye as I replaced it. Instead of “thanks” or “doh, that always happens!”, she said “Schöne Farbe!”…. Wait, what? My brain quickly replayed her words several times. She was still looking at me and smiling, clearly expecting a response….. ‘Ok, I know these words…. Pretty color! hmm, the divider is pretty ordinary… um, oh, wait! My hair! She likes my hair color! Right!’ “Danke!” I said, several beats too late.
When I got up to the register she wanted to continue her assessment of my new green highlights. “Oh what a great color for spring! I am really glad you dyed it because…… ” This is where my German gave out. I have no idea why she thought it was great I dyed it, but I managed to make it through the conversation with a few seemingly considered, properly enthusiastic “Danke Shön”s and a carefully crafted mildly-self-pleased-but-grateful facial expression.
Upon arriving home, I ran into our Hausmeister who wanted to update me on a situation regarding our Crazy Neighbor, who, four years in, still thinks every noise in the apartment building comes from us because we are ignorant auslanders. It has escalated to the point that the Hausmeister is writing to Crazy Neighbor’s brother, a dentist in town, and to the landlord, again. The Hausmeister speaks OK English. He also speaks German, of course, Japanese (because his wife came from Japan) and sign language, because he is partially deaf. He reads lips admirably, but, reading lips in a second language has to be incredibly difficult. So, the conversation was both long and punctuated by multiple moments where we both just chuckled and shrugged, realizing we had no idea what the other person was trying to say. Sigh. Awkwardness is just business as usual.
Next, it was time to take DD to an orthodontist appointment. Those are always a little uncomfortable because most of the staff doesn’t speak any English and because we are really quite ready to be done with the whole Mouth Appliances phase of our lives. Overall, that went ok, but left me a bit scattered. So, when we stopped at a new frozen yogurt place in town, I will admit, my focus was no longer razor sharp. I looked over the menu and discovered a list of fairly unimpressive toppings consisting mostly of berry & tropical syrups. But, they had chocolate, and I needed chocolate about then!
“Good afternoon, I would like a frozen yogurt ice cream with chocolate, please.” I said in my best German. The woman sort of skittered about and muttered “Dunkel?” Dunkel means “dark”. Only, not expecting that question since there was only one chocolate on the menu, I heard “Kugel”, which means “scoop”. To further confound myself, for some reason my brain transformed “Kugel” into “Waffeln” which in this context would mean “cone”. So, I said “No, not a cone, I would like it in a bowl”. At this point the woman must have figured out I was in over my depth because she gave me a bemused look and said “yes, yes, in a bowl, of course, but do you want dark chocolate?” “Yes, please,” I said, at this point possibly too tired to blush.
Finally, DD and I decided to run one more errand. I needed a new “strumpf”, or compression sleeve, for my arm and the shop was right across the street. DD and I went in and I explained what I needed, expecting the attendant to usher me into a room for measurements like they did last time. Instead, she said “Is your arm smaller in the morning?” Now, mind you, this is not a complicated sentence. DD and I both knew every word the woman spoke. And yet, we both stood there like deer in headlights blinking stupidly with absolutely no idea what she was trying to convey. This was not part of the script we had each practiced in our brains before going into the shop. Mornings? What did morning have to do with anything? It was now around 4 in the afternoon…… After watching DD and I confer in English for a moment, the attendant pulled out her own pigeon-english to try to clarify. “Im Morgen, arm is Smaller?” The woman behind her helped out “Or bigger?” Ummmm…. It is bigger, then smaller, then bigger again….. She switched back to German. “It is better to measure it when it is small. We open at 8:30 in the morning. You come back when the time is good for you, but when it is early”. Ok, then. Mission Failed! Try again next week.