On Carpentry and Deutsch Lernen

Learning a language from scratch, I explained to my tiny, smiley mother, is a lot like being bequeathed a plot of land and then bidden “MY CHILD, BUILD THEE A HOUSE!”…Except you have no materials and no tools. And, shit, you’re also not a carpenter.

What IS this? Plymouth Rock, circa 1620?

Every now and then, though, someone comes along and flings something at you. Sometimes it’s a nail (not very useful if you’re still caught sad and hammerless), sometimes it’s a shingle. Sometimes in the night something totally useless but flair-worthy appears, like a garden gnome or a ceramic deer. And so you spend a lot of moonrises alone there on your plot of land, shivering and crying and cold in the dark. Vulnerable. You spend them there until, little by little, you’re able to cobble together a wall, then a lean-to. Then, maybe, you can call the place you live a shack. You rejoice! but then you realize you must use this shack as a meeting place for you and the rest of the world, and you quietly shit your pants. This part–the inviting people into my hovel–is the one with which I don’t do so well. How can I invite someone in, how can I have guests, surround myself with friends, if I have no place to proudly call my own? If I have only a wall and no chairs? How can I entertain like this, dammit, without any verbal wineglasses or truffles or jokes?

Some people are, bless their hearts, more comfortable than others with inviting passersby into their shanty or onto their plot of land. They sit Indian style in the dirt, grinning mildly at one another, nodding and affirming, “My name is Tom, I have two brothers,” and reciting endlessly their favorite foods and color until one of them tires of the game and leaves, or they both become sufficiently hungry to engage in a fight to the death, winner eats arm. I could protest that I don’t invite people over because I find cannibalism revolting, but really, it’s because I’m an introvert trapped in an extrovert’s body, and I only manage the social veneer with the help of a great number of words, lots of motion and awkward-silence-filling musical interludes.

You see, until you have a place to call your own, a space that you may inhabit within a language, it is a cold, vulnerable time. It’s a friendless time. It’s a cheerless time. It’s a frustrating as Jude Law letting you kiss him in his sports car and grope every last inch of his skinny jeans and then booting you unceremoniously out into an alley you don’t know, in a neighborhood you have never seen before. Did I mention there are also roving gangs of crackheads and rabid animals? Well, yeah. There are, and they’re hungry–all of them.

So, essentially, I’m there now. I’m homeless. Okay, less dramatically (and more literally), I’m back at Middlebury, and I am, for once, rendered silent.

I never expected when I graduated from the Spanish school last August, speech made, tequila in hand, that I’d return to Midd, and I certainly never imagined I’d return to Midd to learn Deutsch. And yet… hi. Here I am, live from Vermont, and I’ve been studying irregular verbs for the past three hours. German, incidentally, is nothing like Spanish, except for the fact that the words for “Today,” (“heute,” and “hoy,”) sound suspiciously similar. (Würst + Tortilla = liebe 4 life!)

Although I never anticipated being here in Stufel Eins (that’s level one for those of you who don’t sprechen Deutsch) and it isn’t exactly easy, it’s not an unwelcome change. In just a short month I’ve gone from the head of the classroom, writing on whiteboards and lesson planning, to part of the crowd, and how much I love to be a student is rushing back to me. Learning new things is exhilarating to me, especially learning new languages (unfortunately, I tend to really like to learn nouns and adjectives, but not so much verb forms or grammar. This results in a lot of pointing and grunting and single-word-uttering). That this language will, come September, have a very practical application is even more rewarding. I’m amped. Here’s why.

Two months from now I’ll be packing my suitcase once more and Europe bound, but this time, I won’t be landing in Barajas, and there shan’t be an ice cold caña with my name on it sweating on the bar. I’m moving to Germany with my darling Niels (you’d all better be “awwing” right now, and if you’re not, I’m aghast) to try my luck in the job market and in the streets of Berlin. I don’t know how integration in my new country will be, though judging by the fact that it’s there I’ve wonderingly glimpsed the first packs of women who look anything like me (“Niels!” I gasped, “That girl looks like I look!”), I wager it might in some ways be easier on me than my beloved Spain. I’m excited and feel ready for a new challenge. Plus, waking up every day beside the man I love and having access to glorious, dark, seedy German bread every day isn’t so bad, either.

If nothing else, I do hope that making myself a home in Germany will prove easier than building myself a lean-to of language and easier than identifying potential friends amidst a sea of unfamiliar faces when I can’t do much more than introduce rudimentary elements of my own character, and am at a stultifying loss as to how to inquire into the nuances of theirs. Summer 2011 is off to a muggy, challenging start, but I’m set on building a house, one shingle, one nail, one garden gnome at at time, and when I’m ready, there’ll be a tea party, arm not included.

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