Monday, March 30, 2009

A Stray Dog Speaks

Graduating from college in mid life makes me feel sort of out-of-place; I'm not just starting out, and though I have dreams and goals for the next, post-graduation part of my life, they're not the same as those of someone half my age. I don't relate to most of the graduation-speak, but today I found a commencement quote I can relate to:

Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and simply never leave. Our lives are measured by these.

- Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)

I remember the day I stood in front of a convenience store clerk in Germany, dripping water onto the floor and sputtering incoherently. It was one of my "stray dog" moments -- an unexpected milestone. On that day, I was 23 and had spent the last six months as an exchange student, living near the big city of Cologne. If you had asked me before I set off on my overseas adventure what the most difficult part of the year might be, I would have said, "Learning to speak German," and my words would've been prophetic. I was an absolute beginner, but I’d studied, practiced, and even attended language courses upon arrival in my host country. Still, as prepared as I felt for the challenge, the reality was much worse than I’d imagined. I had no idea how much I’d taken for granted the ability to express myself and was completely unprepared for what it felt like not being able to converse with ease. It made me feel helpless and, somehow, anonymous.

When you travel on vacation, it’s novel -- fun, even -- to struggle with a foreign language. You often encounter friendly natives at hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions who are only too willing to help you along. But, when you face language difficulties day in and day out, month after month, and in everyday places like banks and libraries and grocery stores, where tourists don’t typically tread, it can get old, real fast. Naturally, you meet people who are busy and just want to get down to business, who view your lack of fluency as a problem and an inconvenience.

I had developed a pretty extensive vocabulary, but there was the issue of pronunciation: the pesky way things were upside down and otherwise different from English.“S” is pronounced “Z”, “F” is “V”, “ie” is “ei” and vice versa – and don’t even get me started on those articles. I had to concentrate very hard to get that verb on the end of a sentence, and I knew that if I forgot to use the formal "you" it could be very offensive. I always felt that, even if I knew the correct words, there were still literally a dozen ways I could say it wrong!

But more than the mechanics of the language, my problem was with the nuances of it. I had never realized how much of the art of conversing is in the colloquialisms, the framing of our words, and the artful stringing-together of phrases that can create things like tension, and curiosity, and humor. Try being funny in a language you're not fluent in -- I tell you, it can't be done!

I became accustomed to all kinds of little humiliations: people finishing my sentences for me because I was taking too long, echoing back my words to me, corrected, or turning to someone else and asking them, as if I wasn’t there, “Did you understand a word of that?” Strangers furrowed their brows as they listened to my strange accent and broken German. Sometimes they squinted their eyes, and looked me over from head to toe and back, as if trying to decide where I could possibly have come from!

I found myself waving my hands around, trying to communicate via improvised sign language. Once I had to ask in a store for saline solution but, since I couldn't find it in my German-English dictionary, I described it to a clerk as “water with salt in it, for contact lenses.” Then there was the time that, to my horror, I noticed that my host mother addressed me with a particular tone of voice -- and that it was the same one she used when she talked to small children, and the family dog! You know what I'm talking about. There were a lot of times I found it easier to just smile and keep my mouth shut.

Back home, even though I wasn’t what you would call a pushover, or a doormat, I often held my tongue out of fear. I was the type that would never have the nerve to ask for a raise, or get on my roommate’s case for leaving dirty dishes in the sink for two weeks. That year I was in Germany, I thought back to how silly it had been not to speak up in those situations. It should be easy to say what needs to be said when you have the power of language and comprehension behind you -- shouldn't it?

One day I was in the city doing some shopping. I hadn’t had the best day and was already feeling discouraged when the sky opened up and rain began to fall. It was very cold out, and I had no umbrella. I decided to cut the trip short and made my way to an unfamiliar streetcar stop. As I stood under an awning to wait, I scrounged through my purse for the fare and realized I was without any change, only large bills. This was a problem because the streetcar drivers didn’t make change. Then I spied a kiosk, a small convenience store, across the street. So, I ran to it in what was by then a downpour.

I walked into the kiosk, drenched. The clerk looked at me haughtily. I approached her with a brave smile and politely asked her to make change for my bill. She shook her head in response and gave a negative response: “nein.”

I was taken aback. Surely she’d misunderstood. I started over and slowly asked again, this time explaining that I needed change to be able to ride the streetcar. She gave me the same response, this time with an upturned nose and a dismissive look as she turned away.

I gritted my teeth and looked around in defeat for something to purchase so I could get the change on the up and up, no favors.

I settled on a small pack of gum. I set it in front of her on the counter and handed her my bill. She took my money without a word and then slapped my change on the counter in front of me. I might have known there would be trouble when she hesitated a moment before removing her hand from it, smiling smugly. She had given me large coins as change, and, judging from that smile, she derived great enjoyment out of denying me the small change she knew I needed.

So many words rushed through my mind as I stood there in disbelief (all of them in English): I wanted to ask her how she could be so cruel? Didn’t she have a life? Did she enjoy torturing poor, defenseless foreigners?

I just knew she was only treating me that way because I couldn’t speak properly – she’d made the mistake of believing that just because I had a small German vocabulary, I had a tiny intellect in any language. It was so insulting, and so unfair!

That was when I had a life-changing moment. I opened my mouth and scolded her as best I could: a little English, a little German, and a lot in-between and incoherent. I wasn’t yelling, but I was talking very loudly!

She stood there with her mouth open. She wasn’t smiling anymore. She might not have been able to understand my words, but she did get my meaning. In fact, the look on her face was so satisfyingly startled that I was able to turn around and leave with dignity intact. I had some gum I didn’t want and I had to overpay the streetcar driver, but I also had a brave new voice. I vowed from that day forward I’d never lose it.

It has been over 20 years since that day, but I’ve never forgotten it. It was among the most memorable days of my life because it was when I made the decision to always say what needs to be said because I can: I have a voice, and I know the words.

I’ve had to take care of my aging parents and tell them things they didn’t want to hear; and then I had to say goodbye, and speak at their funerals. I’ve had difficult conversations with siblings. I’ve had to deal with bad neighbors, nasty coworkers, and hurtful friends. I crossed T
he Boss that no one crosses -- and lived to tell, with job intact.

I've taken some very unpopular stands, because of the principle involved. I've also spoken tender, encouraging, and loving, and apologetic words, risking personal pride, and vulnerability. And, you might have liked to have been a fly on the wall during some of the debates I've had with my professors at SMWC!

Whenever I get that heart-pounding, nervous feeling about a conversation I'm about to have, I think of that kiosk in rainy
Germany. It makes me feel that the battle’s half won because I already have the words.


Lydia said...


I LOVE this post! Beautifully communicated. I understand that feeling in your last paragraph, because I too have had those moments. My student teaching experience comes to mind- but that's a long story.

I, quite opposite, loved ,and still do, communicating w/as little or as much language as I have had/have. I guess it's the challenge.

I too, used multiple languages, and body language, but love it. I always figure that there is always another way to get your point across.There is always an answer to things. Simplicity usually works best.

And in Madrid, I searched high and low for a 'bolsa para agua caliente, that was a little child w/a tennis racket (Vintage, but new, rubber hot water bag) for my tennis husband, some 24 +- years ago. ( I couldn't remember where I had seen it, so had to search for it.)

I bet I would've loved to have been a fly on the wall in your college classes. Only, I might've forced a 'Metamorphosis' into a college student to speak my mind, especially when principle is involved.:)

PS- Thank you for your sweet words-Renaissance, huh? tehe

barb cabot said...

Laurie, this is a very powerful and empowering post. It is easily relatable. I can imagine your great frustration (I feel the same about my italian language inabilities). You have a beautiful way of expressing yourself. You write so well. Your frustration with that very unkind woman brought tears to my eyes. I'm glad you were able to muster up the courage and had the will to tell her what you thought. I'm very sure she felt the impact of your words. This is a fantastic story, so well written and expressed. I think it should be published. Thank you for sharing this event in your life. It will stay with me for a long long time.

Laurie said...

Oh, thank you so much Lydia and Barb! Really, thank you for reading it because it's a very l-o-n-g post, much longer than I usually write, but I really wanted to put it on my blog. I wrote this back in August when prompted by a magazine's question, "What was the most important day of your life?" I was reminded about it when I saw the Susan B. Anthony quote about the times that you find matter as you look back on your life.

Your comments meant a lot to me because, as you know, I've just earned my degree in Creative Writing and there's nothing I love hearing more than that something I wrote made a difference to someone!

barb cabot said...

Oooh I didn't know the degree was in creative writing. Well I should've guessed. You have such a strength with the written word. I look forward to future matter how have an audience here. Love your words.

Spotted Sparrow said...

What a beautiful post! Thank you for sharing this with us. I can totally relate to not being able to communicate, and Germans aren't exactly the nicest people to Auslanders. I've lived in Germany for 2 years and still have trouble communicating on a daily basis!

May you never lose your voice! I hope you give us more glimpses of your creative writing talents. :)