The heater wasn’t working. My husband assured me before he left in early September that the heat would automatically turn on by the first of October. It didn’t. The Indian summer gave us warm days, but the nights were definitely getting colder. The main problem, other than not having heat, was that my husband was the German speaker in the house. We’d been in Germany three months and I was still struggling with the language. I couldn’t call the landlord. In the end, I walked over and attempted to explain in person. Through a muddled combination of English, German, and pantomime, I somehow managed to convey that it was pretty darn cold in the house at night.
Fast forward a few months and both kids are sick. As I open the prescription bottle, I discover not a liquid, but a small amount of white powder. Accustomed to liquid antibiotics, I was stunned. I couldn’t read the directions, and it didn’t seem like enough powder. While I made certain that the Apotheker (Pharmacist) wrote down the dosage I needed for both children, I had no frame of reference to warn me that the antibiotic might come in a powdered form. In a panic I ran to a neighbor’s house. He patiently showed me that the powder must be mixed with water before it can be used.
That first year, many more things fell into the “could not” rather than “can do” portion of my repertoire. The difficulty of every task was amplified. It took me twice as long to shop at the grocery store, because I couldn’t read what I was looking at. It took twice as long to do everything, because I had to do it in person. I couldn’t call the salon to schedule a haircut. I couldn’t call and place an order for take-out. I couldn’t make a doctor’s appointment. I set up the wireless network in the house with a dictionary and prayed that it never went out. I couldn’t do more than smile and nod at people when they spoke to me. I couldn’t read signs, couldn’t read directions, couldn’t read newspapers. I couldn’t ask for directions, I couldn’t ask for assistance. I felt lost and helpless. Yet I managed. I got a library card, I took the children to school, I shopped, I traveled, I ate at Restaurants and I began to learn. It was a very slow and painful process.
Many times that first year I was reduced to tears after another maddening encounter with the crazy German language. Just when I thought I understood something, I realized that I understood nothing. I had to find alternative ways to communicate. It became necessary to pay closer attention to nonverbal cues. I never left the house without a phrase book and a dictionary. I had to think in synonyms. But I didn’t give up. I wanted to learn, to really understand the culture, and to engage my new friends in meaningful conversation. I wanted to be self-sufficient in my new home. And honestly, even in those moments of frustration, I was having fun.
It was not necessary to learn German to survive. It would have been possible to merely learn enough to get by. But it wasn’t just not understanding the language that was bothering me. It was the loss of independence. There were people that were willing to help me, and many times I needed to accept more help than I was accustomed to. But I was uncomfortable not being able to do things myself. For me, that was the most difficult part of adjusting to life a new land. Upon arrival, I had to cede a certain amount of control. My understanding was hindered by my lack of language skills, but my discomfort was caused by my loss of independence. I was determined to regain control. And I was going to do it by learning German.
Our situation was slightly different than most US Military members arriving overseas. Ordinarily there is less dramatic entrance into foreign life. There are resources available on post to help newcomers, and there is a large community of folks experiencing the same thing you are. The option of the comfortable familiarity of the installation is always available to you. There are people who manage to remain in “little America” their entire tour. Our first three years in Germany were well outside this American comfort zone. Living like this had a differing impact on each of the handful of American spouses whose time coincided with my own. Some of us thrived, some of us survived, and some of us packed up early and went home.
Three years later, my German is by no means perfect. The language came slowly, but the confidence came quickly. While I am still overwhelmed when speaking in large groups, I can hold my own in a conversation. I realized that the more you try, the more willing people are to work with you and help you learn. It may take me longer to answer because I have to translate from German to English and then English to German in my head, but I can answer. I may need to keep a dictionary by my side when I am reading, but I no longer carry a phrasebook in my purse. I am confident that I can handle most situations that arise. Understanding German has given me insights into the culture that I would have missed had I merely looked to survive. Learning German allowed me to thrive in a new home and develop relationships that will last a lifetime.
„Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt“- The limits of my language mean the limits of my world – Ludwig Wittgenstein