Most people don’t know this about me, but the height of my German speaking was probably sometime in February of 2017. I was 33 years old. I’d gone to Germany because of a girl and that had failed spectacularly. So I decided to stay in Hamburg and take an intensive German course.
My teacher’s name was Lydia and at first I thought she was terrible. She wasn’t terrible, she was a gifted teacher, she was just a bit lazy. She made up for her laziness, however, with extreme wit and good humor and an amazing ability to explain the intricacies of German grammar to our fragile minds, and I grew to love her.
She was also a lesbian. I was surprised when I found this out. I never would’ve thought it. One night she brought her partner with her to dinner with all of us, and I introduced myself in Spanish — her partner was from Puerto Rico — and told her I was from the US. Me, too, she said, smiling. You could tell she liked playing this little “joke,” introducing herself to Americans and then reminding them that yes, Puerto Rico is part of the States. Oh, right, I said, I forget that. Inside I was fuming. I don’t know exactly why, but I was fuming.
I was in love with a girl in my class named Kara. I wasn’t actually in love with her, but she was attractive and somewhat intelligent and for me that usually constitutes love. However, she was there for her boyfriend, or actually, her husband. Almost everyone was there for a significant other, except me, though that had originally been the plan. There was a girl from Nicaragua who had a cute smile and wore three inch thick sweaters. There was a guy from Spain named Fred, short for Federico, who spoke perfect French, perfect Spanish and perfect English. And now he was learning German. He was tremendously vulgar. He would use the “f” word with Lydia, in a joking way, and every time he’d do it I’d cringe. But underneath his somewhat bulky and abrasive exterior was a pool of insecurity which expressed itself in these verbal lashings. There was also some tenderness. On my last day in class he hugged me and said, “Good luck, mate.”
Anyway, the height of my German speaking came when I took a short trip up to Sankt Peter in Ording, on the North Sea. The idea was to do some surfing. Germany actually has some decent surf spots, though decent only in that they’re surfable. Sankt Peter in Ording was one of the worst places I’d ever surfed, but I had a ball. The local shop owner, Timothy, let me borrow a longboard for free. He gave me some gloves. Not rented them to me or let me borrow them, but simply gave them to me. I stayed in the water for at least an hour, which is long for me and long in the North Sea, and there were actually two other guys out there paddle boarding. The waves were pure wind swell. It felt like surfing on the moon. Or surfing in Norway. Or surfing in Germany.
That night, after surfing, I went to a restaurant in the town. I was terrified about how much it would cost, and my fears were founded. I got a bowl of soup, it was paltry and cost 8 euros. And as I came into the restaurant a man started talking to me. He was sitting at the bar drinking a Weiss Bier and had a ruddy face. His face looked sun burnt even though there was no sun in Sankt Peter.
“From where…..” He said in English, or rather yelled. “From where, you!” He said, pointing this time.
“Ich komme aus den USA,” I said.
The bartender laughed. “His German is better than your English.”
And then we proceeded to have a conversation. It was one of the more broken conversations two humans can have short of hand signals and grunts. I expressed that I lived in Hamburg and was studying German. I expressed that I had come to Sankt Peter to surf. I expressed that the soup was good even though it was too salty and tasted like feet.
The next day I got on the bus back to Hamburg, and the driver was Croatian and didn’t speak English. This allowed for more German conversation. I sat at the front of the bus and was the only one there for the first half hour or so. It was satisfying to speak German, satisfying to feel like I spoke it, satisfying to feel like I could say to people, “Yeah, my German is decent.” But then I left Germany, and it’s slowly drifted away from me like kelp on the ocean, and now I fear it’s mostly gone. Now I can’t imagine having those conversations with those two random guys in a tiny town next to the North Sea in Germany. I can’t really even imagine I was even in Germany. I didn’t have friends there. I didn’t talk to anyone. All I did was go to class, listen to my lazy but well-intentioned and intelligent teacher, and then afterward ride home, eat yogurt with muesli, take long walks, and read. Except, of course, for the weekend I went surfing.