by Madeleine Ballard
One morning in 2016, I took a cable car up a German mountain with friends. At the top, the air rushed white, like a video run backwards. All the trees wore heavy beards of ice. Raised variously in Auckland, Brisbane, Sao Paolo, we shouted and cartwheeled in our first real winter, freshly children. We built a clumsy snowman; traced angels in our insufficient coats; marvelled at our blue hands. I ruined a pair of shoes and laughed. Most extraordinarily, I stepped into knee-deep snow, turned to exclaim to my friends, and found I could speak German without thinking – a miracle.
At this point, I had been living in Freiburg, a town in Germany’s Black Forest, for six weeks. It was almost comically picturesque, with its lollipop-windowed minster, its streets tailing into frosted forest, its two-slice-sized slices of cake. I was there taking a winter language course over my summer holidays – a perfect meteorological metaphor for the oddness of switching out of English. On weekdays, I had four hours of class, taken by a perpetually smoking German man named, somewhat improbably, Phil Coy. During class, complex constructions like the future perfect passive (‘I will have been asked’) and the past subjunctive (‘I wish I had had time’) were assumed knowledge. Herr Coy’s concern was the quirks of German: the special grammatical mood needed for reported speech, verbs with two past participles, the shades of connotation between synonyms. We read constantly: short stories and riddles; the backs of crisp packets; nineteenth-century profiles of Bismarck-era politicians, and, on one memorable occasion, a dishwasher instruction manual. We watched German talk-shows sown with Anglicisms (megacool or Twerk), struggled with puns in German advertising, and debated Herr Coy’s favourite topic, video surveillance, with alarmingly specialised vocabulary. We met German idioms and slang, some deeply relevant (ich verstehe nur Bahnhof; ‘I don’t understand’ – literally ‘I only understand train station’), others charmingly archaic (die Hühner satteln; ‘to prepare to get going’ – literally, ‘to saddle the chickens’). I wrote them all down.
In fact, I wrote everything down: I collected German’s sparkling, silly words more hungrily than ever before. I collected verschlimmbessern (‘to make something worse by trying to make it better’) and Glühbirne (‘lightbulb’; literally ‘glow-pear’); Irrgarten (‘maze’; literally ‘error-garden’) and Leidenschaft (‘passion’, sisters with leiden, ‘to suffer’). Flügel, (both ‘wing’ and ‘grand piano’); Gift (‘poison’, not ‘gift’); sänftigen (‘to subdue with kindness’). I uncovered the roots of words like Eisberg (‘ice mountain’) and Poltergeist (‘shake-spirit’), marvelled at the import of umlauts (tauschen – ‘to exchange’; täuschen – ‘to deceive’), and enjoyed words that were simply fun to say (flink – ‘light-footed’; gnädig – ‘gracious’). German even lit up other languages: the word umarmen, for instance, meaning ‘to hug’, translates literally as ‘to encircle with one’s arms’, which revealed the French bras (‘arm(s)’) in ‘embrace’.
German was more fascinating but also more difficult than ever. I had been learning the language for a couple of years – or always, depending on how you looked at it. Long ago, my younger parents – Dad unironically wearing a beret – met in Vienna. They wreathed my childhood with romanticised German: Emil and the Detectives, gingerbread at Christmas, the symphonies of Brahms. When I began studying the language seriously, at university, it was easy: I had been hearing its music all my life. But if I had been good at German in New Zealand, I was rubbish at it in Germany. Everything went so fast, the speed of real life. I rehearsed everyday interactions before leaving the house and promptly gibbered when they arose. I found myself stranded on an ashen train platform in Basel after a gabbled announcement swept everyone else away. My possessions seemed strange to me, every garment and notebook and hoarded mug suddenly and inexplicably gendered. It was deeply alienating, too, to pick up my copy of Harry Potter auf Deutsch and meet a Teutonic Voldemort – and I had a recurring nightmare in which Angela Merkel demanded I write her a cabinet speech in ten minutes. Most direly, I utterly failed to understand my German flatmates, despite their well-meaning insistence on weekly group breakfasts. Hanna, for instance, was preparing to get married to someone she had met in Kenya. It was never clear to me – and there seemed evidence on all sides – whether the boy in question was a fellow German medical student she had met while practising in Kenya, a Kenyan medical student she had met while practising, or a boy of either nationality on whom she had actually practised in Kenya. In my ramshackle German, I was always one step behind certainty.
When I travelled up the mountain that day, I worked it all out in what the Germans term a Geistesblitz – ‘a flash of spirit’. I still don’t know how. Had I suddenly caught the syntax’s melody? Had I finally, subconsciously memorised all my irregular verbs? Or was it broader; had I managed at last to reconcile Beethoven and Currywurst and Neo Magazin Royal? What I certainly realised was that German was not a translation of English. All my pages of bilingual vocabulary sustained an illusion of direct equivalences: ich meant ‘I’, Welt meant ‘world’. In fact, ich meant ich, and it was part of a system distinct from and just as whole and vital as English. It was the Ur-language for 90 million speakers, literally the code for another way of life, full of ways to express oneself that are unavailable in English, or Mandarin, or Swahili. I conceptualised this with a vividness and precision that went beyond intellectual understanding. It was not that I knew I could think differently; it was that I did. I saw, for the first time, how German reconfigured the mind, not just the sentence.
I stepped out of the cable car into a foreign landscape. I saw die Tannenbäume und den schattenlosen Schnee, the fir trees and the shadowless snow, and they seemed like the answer to every grammar question I had ever asked.
MADELEINE BALLARD reads for an MSt in English (1900-present) at St Cross College. She can usually be found rereading Woolf in the sun.
Art by Abigail Hodges