Wie, bitte?Freiburg, Spring 2012

It is another beautiful spring morning and outside, the kids have a bucket – a big metal one. Right now the gang of five are practicing rolling it across the pavement and whacking it with wooden planks. Before I saw the sunshine through my window, I mistook the racket for thunder.

Between the clank and rumble of the other Vauban residents’ auto repair and the shrieks and giggles of the younger set on the big pirate ship playground, I’ve given up on sleeping in. Instead, I wake up early and try and get as much work done at my desk as possible before someone starts work with a hammer or the kids begin their adventures on the high seas. It’s an auditory assault and it’s all auf detusch.

When  I walk around my neighborhood, I’m immersed in the language. Often times when I sit out on my balcony to enjoy the sunshine or here at my desk and type, I close my eyes and focus very hard on what it is people are saying outside. Most of the time, it’s difficult and I pick out phrases and words that are familiar and then I’m able to piece together the main theme of the discussion. Previously, my interactions when I spoke German were grounded in the contexts of restaurants and pubs, grocery stores, and asking strangers for directions. I’ve taken German every semester since my freshman year of high school, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there’s the German you learn in school (hochdeutsch, or “high German”) and there’s the German spoken by well, actual native speakers. While students learn the typical hochdeutsch form in school, the more widely spoken style of German depends on the region. Language isn’t a passive and bland construct, there is much variability – look at the differences in how people speak between rural Alabama and Boston, for example. After living here since March, I’ve adjusted to the structure, flow and emphasis of phrases. The phonetics and the sounds words make when they leave the mouth have become familiar to my ears, but not necessarily known by my brain. Bridging that gap between the two is what I’ve focused on the most during my time here and I’m able to make polite conversation while making up for any lack of vocabulary by smiling as much as possible (NOTE: Understanding children is even more difficult. I’m convinced that there is a dialect specifically of four and five year olds. I haven’t been able to understand a thing said by anyone under the age of seven).

Several weeks ago, I went with a friend to his roommate’s girlfriend’s birthday party. She lives outside of Freiburg in the village of Au. As with many other experiences here , our hosts were warm and friendly. Many people my age speak some degree of English, but if you really want to practice a language, it’s best to force yourself into situations that require you to practice. My German is far from perfect, but they were impressed by my willingness to try and encouraged me to keep practicing. This is considerably easy when there is a a full buffet, several rotating bottles of wine and of course lots of laughing and enjoying one another’s company. It was a birthday party, after all. We made a valiant effort auf deutsch and by the time we decided to leave, it was well past my bedtime.

My experience speaking German are punctuated by times such as these. The day I can understand my cell phone’s instructions will be the day I feel like I’m actually making progress. But that’s all part of it, I guess.

Still to come: Dispatches from Rome, Florence, and Venice as well as a Saturday of concrete demolition

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