I just returned from the first day (yay beginnings!) of my newest German language course here in Berlin. To say I was nervous before this class started would be a severe understatement. Just walking from my apartment to the u-bahn station today was nerve-wracking. I’ve been off-and-on (but mostly on) in Berlin for a long while now (too long to count) and my German is just…schlecht. Sehr schlecht!
Read my previous adventures of learning German in Berlin in the archives.
The past few weeks, in between German language lessons, my language skills have decreased dramatically. Not least because I holed myself up in a warm bed to avoid the winter that doesn’t seem to want to end. Then there’s this anxiousness I feel when trying to learn German. I’m not sure where it comes from—maybe it’s because I’m worried about unavoidable mistakes, worried about making a fool of myself, or worse, of some sort of strange, German-language induced death. (It can happen, right??) Of course, as soon as I made my way into the school (this time it’s the VHS if you’re counting), most of my fears dissipated.
Today’s teacher (Lehrerin) wasn’t much older than me from what I could tell. The 14 or so other students didn’t try to eat my brains, nor did they laugh at my mistakes. No pit opened up to swallow me as soon as the wrong article (der,die,das,den,who-really-cares?!) sputtered from my tongue. In fact, as soon as the tennis ball landed in my hands and it was my turn to introduce myself, I was quite calm. And ready to give it my best.
* * *
But that’s when it hit me. This must be the umpteenth time I’ve had to introduce myself in a German language course. With my limited language skills, my introduction to the who/what/where I am is pretty fine-tuned at this point. When backpacking around the world, most travelers are already familiar with “the same conversation” where you repeat your story, over and over to new, fast friends and casual acquaintances. The travel questions that you have to answer when backpacking typically goes the likes of this:
- Where are you from?
- Where have you been?
- Where are you going?
- How long are you traveling for?
The answers can vary widely but the conversation does seem to get repetitive. In language class, however, the questions we have to answer about ourselves are this:
- Where are you from?
- What/where is your family?
- What’s your job?
- What are your hobbies?
There’s something worth noting about these two sets of questions. For one, the language questions are much more focused on who you are, things you cannot control. The travel questions are more about your experiences and the choices you’ve made. I’m not saying one’s better than the other, because even if I tried to say that, I wouldn’t believe myself, but I do think each set of questions has their significance.
Having to answer these questions about myself, however, has led me to some interesting answers. When I was backpacking, my travel answers were pretty clear-cut. I knew where I’d come from, and where I was going was pretty much always open for discussion. I knew how long I was traveling for, but was less sure how much longer the trip would last.
My language answers, though, have been a whole other beast. I’ve got my location and my family down pat — that’s easy. It’s when I try to figure out how long I’ve been in Berlin, why I live here, and what exactly it is that I’m doing here—that’s where I run into trouble. How long have I been here? Off-and-on for over a year and a half, but with several long breaks. Sometimes I was working, sometimes I wasn’t. Now: defining my job is a tricky question and sometimes I’m not even sure what it is that I’m doing. My hobbies? I suppose it’s travel (or is that my job?).
It seems no matter which questions I answer these days, there’s always ambiguity. I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing, and like I wondered aloud last week, I don’t particularly mind that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ll save the real answers for later and just focus on asking someone else the questions.
Who are you and what are you doing here? Wer bist du und was machst du hier?