Laura speaking! So, here’s a fun fact you may or may not know about me – I once moved to Frankfurt, Germany, for a whole year.
Here’s a picture of my butt and green bobble hat heading into Frankfurt town centre. Safe to say, I had NO idea what I was walking into.
I went mainly because I was pursuing the boy of my dreams (who had gone over to work for Nintendo) – but also because I had nothing really tying me to the UK. I had fallen out of love with my job, was living in a houseshare that I could leave at any time and my biggest passion – writing – was and is, fortunately, a hobby that travels well.
What the heck!, I thought, you only have one life. Why NOT join your Baltic beauty in the land of beer and Bavaria, and see what happens?
Reader, blinded by love and the promise of a new adventure, I failed to prepare for my new life at all.
Specifically – I did not pause to wonder whether the fact that I knew exactly ZERO Deutsch would set me back, nor whether my inability to absorb new languages well would hinder me. Nope. I didn’t think about any of that until I got there, and at that point I just decided to wing it using a combination of Google Translate and emphatic gesturing. (I know, I know. Shameful.)
It was a vague and terrible plan, and as you can imagine, resulted in plenty of awkward encounters.
Daily interactions were a disaster. Trying to book a plumber over the phone when our boiler broke? Disaster. Trying to question something on my receipt at the DHL office? Disaster. Trying to understand the cashier as they made small-talk with me at our local corner store, while the rest of the queue smirked at my inadequacy? Disaster. Though I quickly realised that my lackadaisical efforts at communicating were folly, and that I’d need to learn the lingo properly, I couldn’t go through Memrise and Duolingo fast enough to adjust to the world around me. In fact, more often than not, trips to the outside world would end up with me running home, my bilingually-impaired tail between my legs.
But there was one disaster that really took the cake.
It was around 10 months into our living there, and I was due a trip to the dentist’s. Due to my hasty efforts to pick up German, I had reached a point where I could make basic conversation – enough to greet the receptionist, state that I was there for an appointment and understand her when she told me to go and sit in the waiting room, anyway – and the easiness of this initial encounter made me feel weirdly confident.
The alien sensation stayed with me even after I fumbled through my ‘hellos’ with my dentist and climbed onto her chair. She motioned for me to lie down, and before I knew it, she was sticking a bunch of tools into my mouth and humming to herself. I closed my eyes and tried to relax.
But it all fell apart when she asked me to ‘lecker’.
I was immediately confused, because ‘lecker’ means delicious in German. Now, it’s hard to know how to ‘be’ delicious in any context, but I’d wager it’s especially hard when you’re having dental work done, your breath pongs and you’re squinting unattractively into a spotlight.
Confused, I opted for doing nothing.
This did not please her. With increasing intensity, she repeated ‘lecker’ over and over, the beginning notes of anger creeping into her voice. I started to spiral. I hate it when people are mad at me – particularly when they are in control of whether or not I keep my teeth – and it was clear that I needed to do the delicious thing she was asking me to do, stat.
At a loss, I slipped into default mode: which, for me, is acting like an idiot.
I started thrashing my tongue around inside my mouth, sending the tools haywire. They slipped deeper into my mouth – and suddenly terrified that they would fall down my throat and choke me – I begun to gag as a form of defence, my eyes lolling in my head like a demented sea creature. ‘DELICIOUS!’, she roared. I opened and closed my lips at hyperspeed. Drool pooled up in my mouth and cascaded down my chin.
It was not pretty.
This went on for about five minutes. Towards the end, my dentist simply watched me flail, the word ‘lecker’ dying on her lips as she (likely) wondered whether the nearest asylum had lost a patient recently.
Finally, and with a long-suffering sigh, she reached for a towel and placed it over my face.
I thought she was suffocating me (a move I’d have understood), but instead she just wiped the drool away as though I were a three-year-old. She quietly shut down the tools, sat back, and surveyed me… before pointing to her front teeth and shouting ‘NICHT GUT’. Then she handed me a leaflet advertising night guards.
I fled without looking back.
My mother – who used to be a languages teacher (ironically, considering I am her blood relative and am terrible at them, if I hadn’t illustrated that clearly enough already) – quietly told me afterwards that my poor dentist had probably been saying ‘lecken’, which means ‘lick’. Which makes more sense… but like, only marginally. What did she want me to lick!? The tools in my mouth!? Her hand!? To this day, I do not know.
The moral of the story is this.
Let your teeth rot if you decide to move to a country where you don’t know the language. Or, make some effort to learn the language before you go. Trust me.
‘Winging it’ is not the solution.
P.S. Another time, I asked a waiter for a ‘rectum’, because the word for ‘bill’ in German is ‘Rechnung’. Just thought I would throw that in there.
P.P.S. I also should make it clear that the onus was TOTALLY ON ME to learn German before moving abroad (or at least to have had a better plan to pick up the language) – I do realise that, and don’t blame the German citizens AT ALL for any of the awkward encounters I had. (Though I’m still cringing from 100% of them.) They were all my bad. Entschuldigung.