Why multiple languages rock my world
With fewer than ten-thousand inhabitants, Oberstdorf in southern Bavaria is as its German name suggests: an “upper village” tucked in the Allgäu Alps near the German-Austrian border. Yet, the town feels busy and full with skiers, snowboarders, and winter hikers.
It’s Sunday night and I’m on the hunt for “schnitzel and spätzle.” With my eye already on a place, I arrive at 630pm to a full house. I don’t have a reservation (which is dumb in a small town), but a table of four is available (which is fortunate). The server offers me the table, with the condition I’ll be sharing the table if two people want places. “Alles klar,” I reply.
I order a standard half-litre Weizen beer, along with the required schnitzel-and-spätzle platter. An elderly couple is offered two places at my table; they take one glance in my direction, and they’re gone. The server wears a puzzled look, and I can only shrug. A second couple arrives ten minutes later, and as they approach my table with curiosity, I tell them “die Plätze sind noch frei” (the places are available). They express their thanks, and take their seats across from me. Those last five German words set a positive tone for the rest of the evening.
Sharing tables in restaurants is a perfectly acceptable practice in Germany, and it’s what I expect on busy nights, along with a welcomed opportunity to expose (and inflict) my German on strangers. It’s also entirely acceptable to exchange only a few words with tablemates over the entire evening: phrases like “grüss Gott,” “guten Appetit,” and “(auf) wiederschauen“.
I’m checking my haul of sun-drenched photographs of frosted mountain tops from the Nebelhorn summit. The gentleman says I seem very focused, and the woman comments about how common smartphones are. “Ah, but this isn’t a smartphone,” I say and I point to the word ‘iPod’ at the back of the device. “I’m using my camera’s Wifi to look at my photographs.” I then dig out my small inexpensive cel phone: “nur simsen (Texte senden) und mit Leute quatschen.”
They ask about my origins and how I’ve managed to pick up the German language. In most cases, the questions are asked out of curiosity, and I’m not offended when people ask. Maybe it’s a German thing, but I’ll always use the questions to my advantage to engage in conversation.
“Zwischen 2001 und 2003, wohnte ich in Heidelberg. Seit 2003, hab’ ich ein bis zwei Mal pro Jahr Deutschland besucht und deswegen ich hab’ noch viele Freunden im ganzen Land. Und jetzt ist mein 17ste Jahr in Folge als Deutschland-Besucher. Nachdem meine Eltern aus China nach Kanada umgezogen sind, bin ich in Kanada geboren und aufgewachsen.”
(I lived in Heidelberg between 2001 and 2003. I’ve been coming to Germany every year since 2003 which makes this my 17th consecutive year as visitor. My parents are from China, but I was born and raised in Canada.)
These are generally standard and well-used answers to common questions. But the bit about Canada has prompted further interest. When I ask, they have yet to visit Canada. On the other hand, their granddaughter wants to visit Canada to practice her English and French after she finishes school. ‘La belle province de Québec’ might be the place with Montreal providing both English and French and Quebec City as mostly if not entirely French. Also where she would like to go depends a lot on what she prefers: urban or nature environments.
Our chat comes to a halt when our food arrives and we dive quietly into our respective dinners. Our conversation continues after we’re all done. I restart by saying all my German friends want to spend time in Canada. It’s about population density, and fact is that Canada’s population density at 4 people per square kilometre is a lot smaller than Germany’s 230 people per square kilometre. What does that mean? The simplest thing I can think of is “Raum zu atmen (space to breathe).” In Canada visitors to national parks will feel they’ll have the entire park to themselves. Canadians might take that space for granted, but it’s a big attraction to Germans.
They’re from Dortmund, a city in the Ruhrgebiet (Ruhr river region). They’re curious about what and where I’ve seen and visited in Germany. I haven’t planted my feet yet in the country’s four corners or in all 16 federal states, but I’ve got the five big cities covered, as well as a bunch of places in between. Naturally, they wonder why I’ve spent extensive time in the country.
For me, Germany has always been more than “fairy tale castles, Oktoberfest, and Hitler.” These are the three most common answers when I ask people what they think of Germany. The 21st-century version of a (re)united Germany is diverse and complex with specific regional specialities, cultural histories, and unique attractions, that speaks not only of Germany but also about Europe in general. I’ve arrived in Oberstdorf from Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Mittenwald, not only for the Bavarian Alps, but for some of the pre-Lent (Fasching) traditions. I add I’ve already visited Bochum and Essen in the Ruhrgebiet, and I especially liked what I saw at the Zollverein in Essen: a rich combination of the economic history of local coal-mining with the ongoing green efforts to exhibit former industrial structures and sites as cultural spaces and recreation venues.
The evening comes to an end, and we exchange contact information.
“Bitte besuchen Sie Kanada,” I say, “weil es grosse Vielfalt durch das ganze Land gibt: Landschaft, Essen, Kultur, Leute. Ähnlich wie hier in Deutschland.” (please come to Canada because there’s a great deal of variety across the country: landscape, food, culture, people. As there is variety in Germany.)
I go on to say that they or their granddaughter should feel free to contact me with any questions about visiting Canada.
In turn, they’re giving me an open invite to Dortmund.
“Weil Dortmund auch in der Ruhrgebiet liegt, sollst du definitiv besuchen. Und wenn du nach Dortmund kommst, bitte sag uns Bescheid.” (You should come visit Dortmund; please let us know when you do.)
“Mach’ ich gerne!” (I will!)
So it’s fairly certain I’m visiting Dortmund. And hey, isn’t the new Deutsche Fußballmuseum across the street from Dortmund central station? Why yes; yes, it is.
Oh dear sweet language, how well you treat me when I take care of you.
To that, I go back to the days when a wae lad was I, when I struggled through Chinese language lessons along with my English grammar exercises. And naturally, I lamented about the uselessness of it all.
To that, I go back and thank you, ma and pa, for making me and sis go through the reps and routine, especially when we wanted nothing to do with them. Because for tonight, even when I struggled with vocabulary, I made myself understood in another language.
And that, liebe Damen und Herren, is an ordinary Sunday night in southern Germany, in a quiet mountain village nestled in the Bavarian Alps.
The events described above occurred on 5 March 2017 in Oberstdorf, Bavaria, Germany. I made the featured image above from the train arriving in Oberstdorf on 4 March 2017. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotografie at fotoeins.com as http://wp.me/p1BIdT-9t3.