Erik is feeling under the weather this week, so we are reprinting one of his columns from 2005 when he took a trip to Germany.
Many years ago, I was in Germany on a business trip (Geschäftsreise), and had been looking forward to using my German language skills I had learned in high school (Gymnasium). I was looking forward to immersing myself in a week-long cultural adventure.
The words I had learned during the first two weeks of class were still burned in my memory — I had forgotten everything else — and I was convinced that, despite the 22-year gap, I was sure I would be able to remember everything. I mentally rehearsed important sentences so I would be ready to engage in the many conversations we were promised to have if we ever went to Germany.
"Hello, my name is Erik." ("Guten Tag. Ich heisse Erik.")
"I would like some orange juice, please" ("Ich möchte Orangensaft, bitte.")
"My pen is blue." ("Meine Kugelschreiber ist blau.")
"I like your badger." ("Ich mag deinen Dachs.")
You can imagine my disappointment on my first day, when not only was nobody carrying a badger, but absolutely nobody asked about the color of my pen (Kugelschreiber). It was for the best, though, because I was not carrying a pen at all.
I had to fix that problem (Problem) immediately! This was Germany, the land of blau Kugelschreibers and Orangensaft. Somebody might ask about my pen at any moment.
I needed to get to the shopping district (Einkaufenbezirk) near the train station (Bahnhof), so I hailed a taxi (Taxi).
"Deliver me to the train station forthwith, my good man!" I shouted.
That's not true. We never learned that in class. Instead, I just mumbled, "Bahnhof, bitte."
"Sure thing, buddy," said the driver.
I took the next train (Zug) to the shopping district and scouted around for a pen store (Schreibwarengeschäft). After a stop in a bookstore (Buchhandlung), two coffee shops (Kaffeehaus), and the financial district for lunch (Mittagessen), I found my Shangri-La (Shangri-La): The world-famous Faber-Castell pen store.
I marched in, mentally rehearsing the words I needed to buy my first German pen.
"Haben Sie eine Kuli?" I asked the clerk, using the shortened form of Kugelschreiber.
I had promised myself that I would buy (einkaufen) the pen in German in order to pay homage to my German high school teacher, Frau Müller. My German was rusty but passable, and I could understand someone as long as they spoke ver-r-r-y slowly.
This guy did not.
He picked up two pens I had been looking at. "Blah blah blah ein blah zwei?"
Oh, crap. We didn't study any of this! I was going to blow it. I just said my first four words of an actual German conversation, and I was about to blow it. He was going to realize that not only did I not know any German, but I didn't even have a pen! All the real Germans were going to make fun of me until I left for home.
Wait, what did he say? "Blah blah blah ein blah zwei?"
Something clicked, and I recognized two of the words. "Something something one or two." He wants to know how many pens I want!
I wanted two. "Zwei, bitte," I said.
"Blah blah blah grau oder silber?"
Things started coming back to me. The dam that was holding back my German language was starting to crack, and a pencil-thick stream of language sprang forth in my brain.
"Ja, beide," I said. "Einer ist für mich, und einer is für meine Frau." Yes, both. One for me, and one for my wife.
"Blah blah blah schwarz oder blau?" said the clerk
This was it. My big moment. This was the moment that would fulfill my German class prophecies.
The pen store assistant (Schreibwarengeschäftassistent) had just asked me if I wanted a black or blue pen. Someone was asking me about my pen, just like Frau Müller promised!
I stood ramrod straight, puffed my chest, lifted my chin, and in a voice made for the Shakespearean stage, I declared, "Ich möchte einen blauen Kugelschreiber, bitte."
The clerk smiled and nodded at me, pleased. I had done it. I passed the test. I had not only made a successful purchase, but I had talked about a pen with a real German person!
That was going to be an important milestone in my life. It was going to change everything about me. I was going to become a citizen of the world. The purchase (Erwerb) of my new blau Kugelschreiber would unlock many conversational doors.
Just like Frau Müller predicted, I would make dozens of new friends. We would sit in a local Kaffeehaus, discuss our pens, and debate the merits of orange juice (Orangensaft) and apple juice (Apfelsaft). We would inquire about our health (Gesund) and learn about each other's mothers and fathers (Mütter und Vätter).
I was about to live the dream of every high school German student. At least, until one of my new friends (Freunde) would lean over and say, "Was möchten Sie für Abendessen?" (What do you want for dinner?)
Photo credit: Erik Deckers (Me. I took that.)
My new humor novel, Mackinac Island Nation, is finished and available from 4 Horsemen Publications. You can get the ebook and print versions here.