There are few things worse than situations where everyone speaks a different language than you. With a group of people laughing together, you can do nothing but smile. Perhaps every so often you can toss in a laugh when everyone else does, but they’ll all know you’re faking it.
When I moved to Vienna, I didn’t even know how to say “No German,” properly. My life was reduced to a series of humiliating interactions. When possible, I simply avoided speaking. With my mouth shut I hoped to fool the natural-born citizens, but my doe-eyed look of fear and displacement probably tipped them off.
On the few occasions that I tried to pass using the little German I knew, I found my efforts equally fruitless:
ME: Wo ist die Butter? (Where is the butter?)
GROCERY STORE CLERK: Hinten Links neben den Eiern, aber pass auf wenn du was aussuchst. Wir haben gehört das einige Aldimarke sind irgendwie schlechtgeganen. Insofern empfehle ich, dass du was anderes nimmst. Aber wie gesagt, du musst einfach hier runter und dann Links. Die Butter ist in der Ecke. Man kann sie nicht verpassen.
I would offer a wry smile and walk away empty-handed. Another night of eggs. At least I knew where the eggs were.
After living in Germany for the last year and a half, I had mostly forgotten how emasculating those grocery store adventures could be, until a recent trip to Poland awakened those old shameful feelings.
My Thanksgiving was spent around a twelve-person table where I was the only one who could not speak Polish. As I carved the turkey, the rest of the group tossed around what must have been some very funny comments. Sitting at the dinner table, even those who could speak proficient English would regularly switch back to Polish as things got difficult to explain or as a conversation got more interesting.
If they could speak comfortably to one another, why should they go out of their way to include me? I see this happen all the time at parties here in Germany. A gathering of mixed heritages will generally turn into a party of nationalistic cliques. Each group tries to find a place to talk unhindered. They want to enjoy their drink and enjoy themselves, not struggle through a conversation.
During the party, one of the guests asked my Polish-American co-host about the origins of Thanksgiving. In response, she switched to English and said, “Perhaps Locke can talk about it. He is American. He will probably know better than me.”
While I was thankful for her attempt to draw me into the conversation, I found myself suddenly explaining Thanksgiving to deaf ears. They asked in Polish because they wanted a Polish answer. How was I supposed to relate the complex history of Native American exploitation and family tradition to a group where some were either unable or unwilling to formulate simple English sentences?
By the end of my explanation, I think we all felt a little embarrassed. We took sips from our respective wine glasses and pretended it had never happened.
I did meet one person during my trip, however, who didn’t need any wine to open up to me. From the moment I met him, he spoke with me like I was just another one of the group. There were no strange, shameful moments or awkward pauses, and he took my instances of miscomprehension in stride.
Actually, the first time I met Kosma was a couple of months ago, when I spent the day as his babysitter. Upon introduction, I stood in the corner of the room, embarrassed and silent. My three-year-old companion ran around playing trucks and shouting. Every once in a while he would look in my direction, hoping I was going to join him in rolling on the carpet. Knowing that I couldn’t even ask him “What are you playing?”, I pretended to be engrossed by whatever was on TV.
The next time we got together, he and I were left alone in the kitchen. He was washing dishes when I came in. From his place at the sink, Kosma talked about the things he had eaten that day, showing me an old yogurt container and a crust of bread. He would turn around every so often to see that I was paying attention. I stood with my hands in my pockets, feeling foolish, until he pulled on my arm to make me help him wash his hands.
Later that day, we met up in town. He ran around me, pretending to ride a motorcycle. At night he became Mega Man and needed someone to play the role of the monster.
As I watched him on Thanksgiving, I wondered why I couldn’t be like that. Why did I have to feel foolish for not knowing the language? Why did I feel imposing when I tried to insert an English sentence into a conversation? This little guy didn’t care. The only thing my self-consciousness was doing was depriving him of a playmate.
Somehow my own ego won’t let me let go. I try. Sometimes it even works, but I’m not as good as Kosma.
I hate adulthood.
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