This past weekend I had an occasion to scratch my travel itch: it was the alumni reunion for my German law school, and so, for the first time since I left it three years ago, I finally returned to Germany.
Hoping to meet up with someone in Berlin, I had arranged my trip so that I would arrive there. Unfortunately it turned out that she wasn’t going to be in Berlin the day I was there after all, but oh well. Except for a brief layover on a trip back from Poland three years ago, I hadn’t been to Berlin since I spent a day there in 1996, and I was pretty sure it had changed a lot since… So who cared if I had no official reason to be in Berlin; I was glad I’d get to be there anyway.
I was glad even though it required the daunting routing of a flight from San Francisco to London, with an immediate connection to Zurich and then another flight to Berlin, from where I’d later need to take a bus back up to Hamburg that evening. In fact, I may have even been as excited about the diverse itinerary as I was to be there. It reminded me of the backpacking trips I took through Europe in college. On that last trip, that one in 1996, I’d had a month-long railpass and milked it for all it was worth, traveling everywhere, from Madrid and Rome to Narvik and Abisko, Paris and Amsterdam to St. Petersburg and Salzburg. Moving constantly, on a night train or boat almost every night, nearly sleepless from the eager anticipation to see the next place, it was probably that summer when I discovered one can feed off the energy of the journey itself.
Of course, the destination’s nice too. Upon arrival in Berlin last Thursday I didn’t have the time, energy, or inclination to go see a museum. Instead I bought a day pass for the U/S-Bahn and headed over to Alexanderplatz, where I remember there being but one store back when I visited in 1996 (I’d gone there to buy some film). Now it’s a major shopping plaza, and I was on a mission to do some errands: buy a travel adapter for my laptop, and reactivate my German cell phone.
I have little interest in “shopping” when traveling. Boutiques? Over-priced souvenir stalls? No, thanks. But running errands is not the same thing as shopping. In running an errand you have a problem to solve, and you need to solve it like a local would. To me that’s the point of the travel experience, to go somewhere new and different and actually experience it, which doesn’t happen when you only expose yourselves to the out-of-context bits that are purposefully put on display for visitors.
But I digress. Despite some valiant attempts, including some in German, I failed at both errands. It was interesting, though, to actually need to interact in German again. When I lived there for school, over the course of those four months I did everything I could to stuff it into my head: I took multiple classes, listened to language tapes, reviewed an old textbook, and practiced speaking to people in it as often as possible. By the time I moved back to the U.S. my German skills had begun to snowball into something functional, but because just as it got going I had to leave, and because it’s not been reinforced since, a lot of what I knew then has leaked out of my brain. Nouns, particularly, as well as conjunctions and prepositions and to some extent adjectives. Verbs, on the other hand, seemed to have stuck around somewhat more reliably. Including my favorite one, “wohnen.”
Because it happened to me again: someone asked me for directions. I don’t know why so many people ask me for directions — I guess I somehow appear to be simultaneously both knowledgeable and harmless — and I *really* don’t understand why so many Germans insist on trying to. Back when I was living in Germany it had started to reach epidemic proportions, and a dangerous epidemic as that, as I really was not at all equipped to direct Germans around Germany. And yet, they would persist in asking me, to their detriment, although I’d always do my best. I do like to be helpful.
So in Berlin I’m walking hastily towards the bus station, with what I imagine must have been a somewhat befuddled look on my face if it in any way reflected my actual demeanor at the time, and I was stopped again. “Wo ist [something I couldn’t understand]?” asked the woman. I leaned in, hoping she’d at least repeat it on the off-chance that I did happen to know it. She repeated herself, with some insistence that I help her, and suddenly I felt all this pressure to deliver the impossible. Fortunately, even though I’ve forgotten so much of the German I once knew, the reptilian part of my brain still retains those conversational instincts I’d long ago forged. I was enthused to realize this, because it means that if I were to spend any significant time in Germany I would be able to pick it all back up again. That oral confidence is the hardest thing about a language to establish, and I was glad to realize it’s still there in my head somewhere.
Especially when it can help me out of awkward situations like this, as it did when I somehow managed to blurt out, “Ich wohne nicht hier!” (“I do not live here!”) “Ah!” she exclaimed, “Alles klar!” as her facial expression suddenly exonerated me for not helping her out. Which left me feeling somehow a little bit insulted, but also very relieved, as once again “wohnen” had come to the rescue…
But then, chocolate kreme-filled donuts in hand (for in Berlin the local Dunkin Donuts sell them, whereas the Boston ones do not), I caught the bus to Hamburg. As I came to from the haze of my late-evening jet-lagged nap and saw the Hamburg signs as my bus exited the autobahn I felt this warm fuzzy feeling. For even though I’d only be there for a few days, it felt like I was coming home.