VERY LONG POST WARNING: My Berliniversary a few days ago seemed like a good occasion to answer the question a reader asked a few months ago about my experience learning German in Berlin. Unfortunately, this post ballooned into a full-blown essay.
I arrived here on September 6, 2005. My new roommate met me at Tegel with a sign with my name on it. I’d always wanted to be met at an airport with a sign with my name on it; this seemed auspicious. Everything felt auspicious that day: the cloudless blue sky (which I foolishly took for the normal way of the Berlin sky), the view of the Admiralbrücke from my new apartment, the wardrobe in my bedroom (an actual wardrobe! how storybook-European!), the wicker shopping baskets my roommate Jesse and I carried to the Turkish market to buy chili olives and Fladenbrot.
That evening Jesse and I went to Ankerklause. We drank beer next to the canal, smoking cigarettes at a rate that would totally disgust me today. I was in love with Berlin, hadn’t even adjusted to this time zone yet but was already scheming how I could make enough money to stay here and ditch out on my return ticket to Boston at the end of November. “So how’s your German?” Jesse asked.
“Limited to the numbers one to ten,” I said. “But I’m going to learn.”
Unlike almost every other person to whom I announced this intention in the year to come, Jesse did not tell me I had no chance of ever learning German. Instead he said I needed to think of learning German in Berlin as a war in which the Germans were my enemies. “Every conversation you ever have with a German,” he said, “is a battle between your will to speak German and their will to speak English with you.” Jesse had studied German at college and arrived here already speaking it well. After about a year in Berlin, he was sick of the place and ready to go home, which seemed to have a lot to do with the frustration of the daily linguistic battle.
Over time I would notice an inverse correlation between how much German people spoke when they arrived here and how happy they were in Berlin. A lot of people who, like Jesse, had studied German at university began complaining bitterly about Germans within a few months of their arrival; those who understood no German and had no aspirations of learning were more inclined to find Berlin paradisiacal. At first I was at the ignorant bliss end of the spectrum. It was campaign season, as it is again now, and I traipsed around Kreuzberg not understanding any of the posters: I thought Erststimme was a first name that a lot of political candidates happened to have. I lived above a funeral parlor and never knew it because I didn’t understand the word Bestattungen.
The apartment where I lived with Jesse had a landlord named Dagmar who lived directly upstairs. Dagmar only rented the place to fresh-off-the-boat foreigners, perhaps assuming such people wouldn’t realize that the terms she offered – no lease, no deposit, Dagmar walking into your apartment unannounced to borrow the wok from your kitchen whenever she felt like it – were not normal for Germany. Dagmar used to be very beautiful. I know this because the front hallway of the apartment was papered in photo collages of her naked at FKK beaches in the 70s. Now she had some profession in the realm of alternative medicine that left her lots of free time for invading my privacy. As I worked at my computer in the kitchen, she would appear and tell me I was not keeping the apartment clean enough. Can’t you see the dust? she would say, and point to some surface on which I did not in fact see any dust. This instilled in me the belief that German women had the power to see dust that was invisible to other people. One evening in late November a lightbulb burned out. I couldn’t buy a new one because it was Sunday. While I was out Dagmar came into the apartment, saw that a lightbulb had burned out, and – apparently feeling a stand had to be taken before the apartment slipped further into invisible-dust chaos – seized my laptop. She left a note saying she’d return it when the lightbulb was replaced. I had work due the next morning. I came home, saw the note, looked up all the words to say “my landlord stole my laptop,” and called the police. (I think I accidentally used a word that means tavern-owner rather than landlord.) After the police made her give my laptop back, she became tearfully contrite and gave me an advent calendar, the price of which she later tried to tack onto my rent. I believe that all around the world, people who are freshly arrived foreigners are inclined to encounter characters like Dagmar, because characters like Dagmar know they can only get away with their inappropriate behavior around people ignorant of local customs. Anyway, I moved out of Dagmar’s apartment after the laptop incident. Continue reading