Bakterioita January 13, 2006Posted by BiB in Uncategorized.
It can be queer living abroad, there’s no denying it. Although it depends on the abroad, of course. The Russians have a nice way of distinguishing between the ‘near abroad’, i.e. that which they don’t consider that much abroad, such as Ukraine and Belarus, and just abroad. Well, depending on your point of view, for us Englanders, Germany could easily fall into the ‘near-abroad’ category. We’re not that different, us and them. The view from the island might be a bit different, but over here on the continent, where your nation’s neighbours are one mental remove fewer away, the similarities are probably as likely to make themselves felt as the differences. Now it goes without saying that German-bashing is a Europe-wide sport, but once you get past the goose-stepping and sausage jokes, I think most Scandies, our Dutch cousins and the various other Germanic stragglers around the continent – actually, I’m beginning to want to contradict myself already. I think the Swiss and Austrians defy categorisation – would agree that we all have rather a lot in common.
But then there’s that little gem language to remember. Most Englanders are always going to feel more at home where the locals sound fairly much like we do. If they happen to be descendants of subjects of Her Majesty into the bargain, I suppose the mental link might be felt even more strongly. And then most even feel fairly at home in those naughty old colonies that dared declare independence all by themselves. (Zimbabwe’s lovely at this time of year, I hear.) Of course I don’t mean to say I can’t make as good a friend amongst the Germans as I can, say, with a New Zealander, but with a New Zealander, you’ve got a head start.
Which is why I’m interested to go and see how a couple of weeks in New Zealand are going to work their magic on me. Is it going to have all the mystery of exotica, or is it going to be a bit queer, sort of England-like but with decent weather and wooden houses? In any case, I’m already looking forward to the lingo. The list of things I’ve got to do before going – have haircut, get suit dry-cleaned, become a nicer person – have all been put gloriously on hold as I remember, “No, I won’t go and struggle to explain what I want here, I’ll go to the other side of the world and do it more easily there instead.” I fully expect to make up for lost linguistic time and chat to strangers on the street, flaunting my perfect English and stunning the natives with my fluency. (I just have to remember to adjust those vowel sounds. Fush, not fish. Pin, not pen.)
Which is, again, not to say that living with a language disability – or is it called facing-the-challenge-of-being-too-dim-and-lazy-to-learn-a-foreign-lingo- once-you’re-in-your-30s these days? – can’t be fun too. I have just had many a festive reminisce with pals about the days when we first arrived in Germany and there was no way round me dealing with bureaucracy all alone. An awfully kind friend had organised accommodation for us for our first month here but obviously we spent the first weeks frantically looking for a place to live. There was no phone where we were staying so I bravely set off to the Post Office to acquire a cheapo mobile. “Phone, phone,” I said, cavemanly and pointily to the – ça va sans dire – woman-with-short-hair-and-glasses scowling behind the counter. She came back with a box, unfurled a biblical screed of what I presumed were terms and conditions and talked me through them at great length without realising, or at least not totally, that I couldn’t understand a word she was saying. I got round this by humming my agreement at ten-second intervals, ears pricked for the slightest suggestion of interrogative intonation in her soliloquy. But, luckily for me, there were no questions asked, I got a phone with nothing more than a grunt, a point and a few uh-huhs and we were all happy.
Understanding the odd word – very odd, indeed – can be more of a hindrance than a boon. At least with my short-hair-and-bespectacled official I didn’t have to overly strain my brain. I knew it was a lost cause and just hoped for the best. But when I went to Finland, I was meant to know the language. I’d studied it for two whole years. I was invited by Finnish taxpayers to improve my knowledge, be put up in luxurious university accommodation and be shown a corkingly good time by the people organising the course. But of course I couldn’t understand a fucking word. Well, or just the odd fucking word, as I say. When we had all been given a sonorous but utterly incomprehensible welcome by our hosts, we were then shown to our accommodation which led to my first bit of terrifying one-on-one-ness with a Finnish-speaking Finn. I was led to my incredibly nice student flat with my guide saying something along the lines of ‘Kokko kukka kykkö kökky kokissako.’ I uh-huhed for my life, again ears to the ready for interrogative pitch (or ending, actually, in Finnish) in case I had to make a real contribution. But I seemed to be in the clear. Yet as she showed me my spangly, shiny kitchen, she did a wiping motion with her right arm, spurted forth a fountain of ks and then, in the middle of it, to make me feel comfortable, no doubt, she said, very carefully, pointedly and succinctly, ‘bakterioita’. Now bakterioita might mean, “The bus to the university leaves at 8am.” Finnish is that kind of language. But I’ve got a feeling it actually means ‘bacteria’ (partitive plural is my guess). An odd word to have got into our first ever chat; we didn’t fall in love and settle down, you’ll be surprised to hear, but at least she must be a stickler for cleanliness.
Well, language is sorta kinda everything. Without it, you’re fucked. There’s no denying it. And the language barrier is pretty insurmountable beyond the most caveman of communications. Yet sometimes I wonder if the sacrifice of struggling to talk to the locals is actually more than compensated for by also not being able to understand half of what they say. The next couple of weeks are going to be a Germany v New Zealand special. If understanding the idle chatter of NZers beats not understanding the idle chatter of Germans, I shall seriously have to reconsider my geographic future.