I speak German, I do. But it is a well-known fact (well, at least to me) that I am a total coward when it comes to speaking German with other people who speak it too. In Thailand we’d run into German tourists and everyone would say “Oh Mariah speaks German,“ and everyone would turn to look at me. There I stood, in the middle of the ring—heat of the spotlight forming little beads of sweat on my forehead and they would commence. Though I’d understand whatever they said to me, I’d generally sheepishly respond in English or tell them I only sort of speak the language. That is, in part, why I forced myself to come to Vienna to live in the home of a real Austrian (where I am sitting at this very moment) so that I would have no choice but to speak.
Turns out, my genuine Austrian family, in addition to being kind, generous, hospitable, and funny speak English like champions and the well-traveled in my life weren’t lying when they said that people here, want to practice their English, so if you don’t immediately initiate German, the opportunity to practice will be theirs.
The anxiety of travel preparation sort of squelched the excitement for the coming summer out of me, but some time in the three days of airport benches and airplane food (specifically upon arrival into London Heathrow), it all came rushing back. I spent the day in London before heading off to Finland where I slept on a bench (my third airport bench sleep in a row—London had the most comfortable seats for sleeping) and then in the morning on to my actual destination—Vienna. They tell you not to sleep in the middle of the day upon arrival to a destination, keep yourself awake and it’ll make the time adjustment easier. No, I conked out straight away. That evening, however, upon regaining control of my faculties I put on a ‘first day in a city you’re bound to love’ dress and went out to explore before we’d gather as a group for the first time.
I confidently walked into a little boutique where everything was arranged by color rather than genre and began to browse as though I were not a tourist at all, but one of the hometown crowd. The proprietress ended her phone call and said “kann ich Ihnen helfen?” which means a very simple and comprehensible “Can I help you with anything?” which thing I could have concluded even if I didn’t speak a word of the local tongue, since that’s what people say when you walk into their shops. I knew what she said, I knew that I was fully capable of answering back, but all I could manage was the wheezy “Nein, Danke” that I forced my lungs to produce. After that I went back to the hotel, having plenty of time left to explore the area, but no confidence left to disappoint myself either by speaking in English nor by potentially making a silly mistake with my German.
Though there are often huge differences in the way that different people across cultures do things, many of the differences (particularly when comparing the United States with Europe) are subtle—significant, but subtle. Zum Beispiel I got into the shower here, assuming that I would be able to figure it out with little difficulty. I got in, turned the knob and though water did start pouring out it was not over my head. Suddenly my feet were getting sprayed full force and I didn’t know which on the twenty something extra buttons were going to help turn it around.
Then I realized that this shower that had initially looked so docile had not just the sprayer at foot level and the expected showerhead above, but six jets on each side and an additional four above and below the temperature knob. I was also to find as I began to push buttons that the monster had a built in radio and just as I was sitting there, feeling cold and vulnerable and thinking that I may come out of this with nothing but wet feet and a song stuck in my head, I noticed a switch much like the ones American showers have to make the water, coming out at the bath level, come out at the top. I pushed it and the long-awaited, desired outcome came pouring out all over my anxious head.
Sometimes, it seems like the solution can’t possibly be that simple, but it is.
It took me three days to break the ice and speak German with a German-speaker, but after all of the other buttons I tried pushing and the ways I tried to justify it in my head, I realized that that switch in the middle that’s just like ours was the only way. I just had to speak the same as I would to practice a monologue or an accent or plain old English in our dear old U.S. of A.—out loud. It was Mozart that finally helped me find my voice. No, not Amadeus, nor the cat we’ve been taking care of here by the same name. It was a man dressed like Mozart hanging around in front of the Opera house trying to sell us concert tickets. We passed him by and he called out “you speak German or English?” and feeling sassy, I said ‘both’ and swung around (mentally pushing that switch), ready to go toe to toe with him in whichever language he preferred. The rest is history—a history that does not involve my buying overpriced tickets from him, but which does involve one giant leap forward into the rest of my confident, capable, multilingual life.