3: A 20% version of myself

Every time I speak in German, I can’t help but imagine how I would sound if the sense was replicated in English. I have come to the conclusion that I come across as a shy, nervous girl with severe social difficulties. At best, I retain 20% of my personality in German, whilst the other 80% remains a horrible combination of text book vocabulary, set phrases, stuttering and over exaggerated facial expressions. Therefore the only possibility of me making any real German friends is if they too have severe social difficulties. Then again, I can’t really afford to be fussy.

Whilst British Council/Expat friends can all relate to this struggle (which is lucky because without them I’d spend the year interacting as a 20% version of myself) it’s difficult to articulate the problem to friends back home over skype or facebook. So I’d like to give a few examples of things I’ve wanted to say on an average day of my year abroad and then suggest how they actually came across.

Conversations with Germans of my age

What I wanted to say:

I’m off to Paris on Thursday to see some friends who are also their year abroad.

How it actually came across:

I have to visit my boyfriend in Paris on Thursday who also participate on a year abroad.

What I wanted to say:

Ah! My finger’s bleeding.

How it actually came across:

Alas! The finger bleeds away.

What I wanted to say:

Sounds really cool! Looking forward to it.

How it actually came across:

Sounds completely horny! I am looking forward to this occasion.

In the staff room:

What I wanted to say:

I am actually a language assistant, not a student.

How it actually came across:

On the contrary! I am the new English foreign language assistant from England rather than a pupil on this school.

What I wanted to say:

I didn’t understand a single word in the sentence you just said.

How it actually came across:

I am in complete agreement!

What I wanted to say:

Hi! Nice to meet you.

How it actually came across:

Hello. It pleases me.

Conversations with my students:

What I wanted to say:

I find that Germans sometimes struggle with small talk.

How it actually came across:

It cannot be denied that the German population has many difficulties with small conversation, although this is of course a generalisation which is not always true. But mostly, yes it is true.

What I wanted to say:

Have a good weekend and thanks for your hard work!

How it actually came across:

I wish a good weekend on all of you and thank you for your hard labour.

In a museum:

What I wanted to say:

Can I get a concessions rate- I’m a student?

How it actually came across:

Would it not be possible to receive a student ticket which I am of course able to prove with an ID?

At the bank:

What I wanted to say:

Can I set up online banking myself?

How it actually came across:

Would it not be possible to introduce online banking alone?

In a restaurant:

What I wanted to say:

Can we order desserts, please?

How it actually came across:

Can we order bedside tables, please?

In conversation with my mentor teacher:

What I wanted to say:

When should I give this presentation? How’s Friday?

How it actually came across:

When shall I perform this presentation? I am happily able to teach it on Friday. If that is inconvenient, I could alternatively happily perform it next Monday. The vote is yours.

What I wanted to say:

I think the students’ English is actually really impressive for their age.

How it actually came across:

In my opinion, their linguistic capabilities are much more influential than mine were when I was your age.

What I wanted to say:

How old are they?

How it actually came across: (this one was particularly awful)

How old are you?

I should probably mention that this is a selected highlights of my experiences so far and didn’t all happen in one day- I doubt I would ever speak German again if that were the case.

As you may well be able to tell, when I speak in German I adopt this bizarre mentality that any monosyllabic/short response is insufficient, even if I would definitely speak that way in English. Instead, I opt for a lengthy, rather superfluous sentences where my opinion is unnecessarily offered and justified. My tone is also far too formal and my language incongruously elevated for breakfast table chat/staff room pleasantries. As I’ve spent a significant proportion of my degree studying Middle High German literature, I sometimes even use words (i.e alas) that haven’t been uttered in Germany for a good 500 years. School/university drills in to you that casual conversation or simplistic responses are for “candidates who tend to attract the lower marks”. In reality, it’s for people with a shot at a social life in Germany.

As this is technically my year abroad blog (which has just essentially descended in to me relaying a series of misfortunes) I should briefly mention what I’ve been up to over the past few weeks. I have moved in to a new flat until Christmas with two lovely flatmates and I have finally got my grubby hands on an Anmeldungsbestӓtigung!!! This involved me turning up an hour before the office opened only to once again be told that the next available appointment wasn’t until the end of December. However, this turned out to be a big lie as, after explaining that I’d been queuing for over an hour and threatening her with an ambiguous “I might kill myself” glance of desperation, she took pity on me and gave me an appointment for an hour’s time. I basically experienced reverse Schadenfreude. My parents also came to visit because they were missing me terribly (wanted an excuse to go to Berlin). Therefore, aside from my social incompetence, it’s been a great few weeks, especially as I’m now on half term for two weeks.

In time, I hope that these creases will iron out as I get more language practice and leave Oxford’s exclusive curriculum of ‘academic German’ behind me, at least for the next year. It does worry me that, rather than normalising my German, I might just adopt these weird linguistic quirks in English. On the contrary, I am most certainly of the opinion that it might not be possible because, self-evidently, English will forever my mother language stay.

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2: Bex vs Bureaucracy

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If my year abroad were a tv series, this week’s episode would begin with a montage of various German bureaucrats shouting ‘nein’ at me. I wouldn’t mind these rejections if they offered the possibility of a lengthy German conversation, perhaps even the opportunity to utilise my set rhetorical phrases (“on the other side of the coin…it simply cannot be denied that..”) in a debate over the necessity of bureaucracy. However, these personnel are only capable of speaking monosyllables and I was denied the right to both conversation practice and to register in Berlin.

Just to recap from my previous blog, without attaining this ‘Anmeldungsbestӓtigung’ (confirmation of registration), I can’t open a bank account, get paid, get any kind of membership to anything, sleep at night, etc. So this week’s mission was to get hold of this piece of paper at any cost. Germans, obstinacy, putting up walls to deter outsiders. I think I’m getting déjà vu.

On the 29th September, between the precious hours of 16:00 and 17:30, I had reason to believe that I would finally get my hands on this piece of paper. Here are the events that were to follow:

16:00: After refreshing the appointments page for 3 hours in the hope of a cancellation, a miracle happens. An appointment for 16:50 appears on my screen and I immediately book on.

16:01-16:05: I dance around my room in elation.

16:05: I realise that my appointment is in 45 minutes- it takes about 50 minutes to get there. I run out the flat.

16:05-16:50: Whilst travelling to my appointment, it dawns on me that I am about to have an appointment with not only Germans, the most punctual people in the world, but German bureaucrats, the very ambassadors of this people. And I’m about to be late.

16:50-17:00: I jog out of the Ubahn station, Yorckstraße. I am now certain that I am going to be late. Have I blown my one chance of getting an appointment, which would get me an Anmeldungsbestӓtigung, which would get me a bank account, which would allow me to receive my salary? My jog turns in to a sprint.

17:00: I realise that I’ve been sprinting the wrong way down Yorckstraße. I am already 10 minutes late. Determined this is not the end, I turn around and run in the opposite direction.

17:10: Drenched in sweat, I finally arrive at the Bürgeramt (translation: hell). I explain why I am late in an ambiguous mix of German and wheezing. She offers one word in response, “vorbei” (“over”). As I start to well up, she mumbles to go to the third floor and points to the stairs.

17:12: Whilst catching my breath at the top of the third flight, I catch sight of the lift.

17:13: I apologise profusely at the registration desk and beg to still be seen. She types in my details on the computer, before announcing that my appointment never existed. I show her my email confirmation. She checks again. It still doesn’t exist. She accuses me of appointment fraud.

17:15: She eventually concedes that it’s more likely that there’s been a mix up than that I’ve forged an appointment and, in any case, if I were so desperate that the latter were true then I deserve an appointment anyway. She gives me a ticket with a number on it, but I feel like I’ve won the lottery already.

17:26: My number is called and I go in for my appointment. Fingers trembling, I hand over my passport and rental contract.

17:27: The longest minute of my life.

17:28: Like Rose afloat on the wardrobe before she loses Jack to the ocean, the woman tells me that I am ineligible to register. As I am currently living in student accommodation, I am not allowed to register without the permission of the ‘Studentenwohnheim’.

17:29: She gives me a form to be signed by the Studentenwohnheim, which then needs to be returned to the Bügeramt so that I can register, so that I can then get a bank account, so that I can get paid.

17:30: I explain that without this piece of paper I won’t receive my salary and will therefore starve (accidentally omitting the back-up plans of my Erasmus grant, student loan and middle class parents) yet she shows no mercy. I leave empty handed.

I’m now back to square one, but sweatier and more disillusioned.

I should probably clarify that the past few weeks hasn’t been all fear and misery but, as my dear old friend Bertolt Brecht will tell you, tragedy is a better read.

There have been lots of highlights: Oxford friends (Harriet, Tamanna and Alex) coming to visit, being told off by the deputy head for not being in class, receiving an apology from the deputy head for mistaking me for a student, going out in Berlin, teaching a few classes by myself, shutting children out the staffroom who are waiting for teachers, fun in the sun, etc.

I even went swimming today as I realised I hadn’t exercised since the Anmeldung saga, and even that was accidental. Going to a public swimming pool in Germany is a completely different experience to going to one in England. Now that I am over the age of 10, I would only really go to one in England if I were seeking a verruca or an STD. In Germany, by contrast, they are more like Roman baths than swimming pools, kitted out with jaccuzis, saunas and even a waterslide (without a trace of urine.) They can’t be too bad a people.

The problem, however, remains; I am still without an Anmeldungsbestӓtigung and, with a 6-8 week waiting list, God knows how I am going to get another appointment. I’ll probably have to forge one.