Sunday, 19 November 2017

Q Beanie

Today I walked a little way (not a mile, just a little way) in the shoes of my ESL students.

I was on a Tri-Met train in Portland, on my way downtown.  It was mid-November, with rain and temperatures in the upper 40s, so being a Florida/Arizona girl (by acclimation if not by birth) I was wearing a fleece with a raincoat over it, a woolen ski hat, and gloves.

I glanced at my fellow passengers, wondering whether there would be anything similar to yesterday's drama when an inebriated woman, carrying a case of Heineken, had been removed from the train after alternately cursing at and offering beer to her fellow passengers (another story, another day, another blog post!)  This morning, all appeared peaceful.  


Until the passenger sitting opposite me spoke to me.  'I like Q Beanie', she said, approvingly.  It was clear from her expression that a response was expected; however, my (culturally learned, but very real) British horror of interaction with strangers on public transportation was intensified almost to the point of panic by my lack of understanding.  What, or who, was Q Beanie?  A movie, perhaps?  A famous person I'd never heard of?  Ah!  Maybe it was the local nickname for the Tri-Met red line we were on?  Or, maybe it referred to a re-loadable travel card, the Portland equivalent of the Oyster card?

I played it safe, offered a non-committal nod, and said 'ah, OK, that's good then.'

But this answer was not satisfactory, apparently.

'Where did you get it?'  she asked.

There was no escape -- I would have to admit I had no idea what she was talking about.  'I'm sorry', I said, 'I don't know what that means.'  She looked at me doubtfully.  'I don't know what Q Beanie means,'  I said firmly.  The look she gave me reminded me of what my ESL students had often described, when, in conversations, 'we don't understand anything, and people look at us as if we are stupid.'

'It's a hat' she said finally.  'A beanie is a hat.'  And just like that, the puzzle was solved; if a beanie was a hat, then Q was not Q at all; it was simply the sound made when linking the K (in like) to the Y (in you).  And you was a colloquial substitute for your.  Of course, if I'd known a beanie was a hat, I wouldn't have been misled by the Q sound, and the meaning would have been clear.

What's the point of the story?  Well, just that it isn't only English Language Learners who struggle to negotiate meaning in conversations; we all do.  However, whereas it was easy for me to stand my ground and ask for clarification, safe in the knowledge my 'level of English' wasn't the problem, this isn't the case for ELLs. They often give up and attribute their lack of understanding to their 'poor English', when in many cases it takes only one unknown word, or an unfamiliar pronunciation of a known word, for the meaning of a whole sentence to be lost.  And then, as they are struggling to piece that sentence together, they miss the next one.  And so on it goes.  Just something to think about as we continue to try to improve our communication skills.


Japanese garden, Portland, November 2017






Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The Säufer and the Schimpfer, Part Two

NOTE:  This is part two of a two-part story.  Click here for part one which should be read first!


Eibsee and Zugspitz

CHAPTER SIX: RANDY

Because Sabine was so beautiful, there were always boys queuing up to dance with us at the Monopol.  One night, she had a new admirer – an American named Randy.  (At first I didn’t believe this was a real name, but it was -- it was short for Randall).  We didn’t often meet Americans at the Monopol because they had their own disco called The Grill at the AFRC (American Forces Recreation Center) where they could pay in dollars.  It was easy to exchange marks and dollars at the train station, so I didn't know why the Americans all went to The Grill and the Germans all went to the Monopol, but that’s how it was, at least until the day that Randy became bored with The Grill and decided to boldly venture into German territory to seek out new nightlife.  He discovered the Monopol, and Sabine, but as he didn’t speak any German, and she didn’t speak any English, my services as interpreter were required.  This was a new role for me, and, somewhat to my surprise, I loved it.

In fact, I found translating to be as much fun as dancing, but less tiring, so I could keep it up longer.  Sometimes, translating felt like an intricate, expertly performed dance of the mind.  The best dancing happens when there is perfect, wordless, communication between partners.  Once that deeper level of communication is achieved, words are not only unnecessary, they get in the way.  It worked the same way in translating.  Most of the time, words couldn’t be translated directly from one language to another; they first had to pass through a deeper layer of communication, where ideas, not words, are exchanged.  What are words, after all, but a system devised to represent and communicate ideas?  To achieve an authentic translation, then, the words must be removed, peeled away, the underlying ideas revealed, and a new system of representation assigned to express them in the new language.  But were the ideas quite the same, wearing their new clothes?  

Edelweiss
Words and ideas are like chickens and eggs; we don’t know which comes first.  Does our language – our system of representation – influence or limit our ideas?  Can we have an idea if there are no words to express it?  Or do ideas  exist independently from words?  When we can't find the right words to express what we're thinking, is it because the words don’t exist in our language, but might in another?  Does learning an additional language show us new ways of thinking as well as communicating?  I didn’t know the answer to any of these questions, but I always had them in the back of my mind.

Nights were even more fun now that I had translating as well as dancing to look forward to, and one thing was particularly on my mind: how happy Chef would be if I could persuade Sabine to invite Randy for dinner!  However, as fate would have it, Chef was going to be disappointed and my career as a translator was going to be short lived.  Randy was about to be replaced in Sabine’s affections. 

CHAPTER 7:  TOMAS

‘How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.’
‘Sometimes, Winston. Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder.  It is not easy to become sane.’  
George Orwell, 1984

In July, a live band was hired to replace the DJ at the Monopol.  Although the band was German, they played the same American disco music we’d had before, except that the lyrics were … well, let's just say they were a little bit wrong.  On the band's first day, Sabine fell in love with the lead singer, whose name was Tomas.  There was not a night after that, that we missed going to the Monopol.  We danced with anyone who asked us, but she was always looking for a way to meet Tomas.  She wore her most flamboyant outfits and chose the most expert dance partners, engineering them skillfully into the center front of the dance floor where she would be most visible to the band.  And, of course, it didn’t take Tomas long to notice her.  I noticed them huddled together at a small corner table during the band’s next break, but when he went back on stage, she wore such a tragic expression I could feel the tears of sympathy forming behind my eyes even before she opened her mouth to explain. The news couldn’t be more devastating, she whispered, dejectedly.  He already had a girlfriend.  She took it badly; we had to leave right away.  As we walked home she appeared to be in the grip of some kind of mania, weeping bitterly, lamenting the worthlessness of life, announcing impetuously that she must now, without further ado, throw herself off the bridge into the Loisach river (which, although not very deep, could certainly have resulted in her being dashed to death on the rocks).  We got home safely, but I was concerned about how she could work the next day in such a state of emotional turmoil. However, the next day she appeared quite recovered, and wanted to go back to the Monopol.  She had a plan, she announced. 

I never discovered the details of her plan, but it was successful. Within a week, Tomas had broken up with his girlfriend and taken up with Sabine.  I was happy that she was happy, and our lives continued much as before, except that I walked home from the Monopol alone at night, and Sabine went home with Tomas, reappearing at the hotel early in the morning, just in time for work.   

I should mention here that Sabine’s shift was different from mine.  I started cleaning at 6 and then worked on the buffet from 7 to 3; she cleaned guest rooms from 9 until 3 (or whenever she finished), and then worked in the laundry room until 6, assisting the two full time laundry women with washing, drying, folding, and ironing the sheets, towels, dirndls, and chef’s uniforms.  Soon after Sabine took up with Tomas, I found Chef in a fury because his clean uniforms weren’t ready and pressed.  He stormed down into the laundry, which was in the basement. ‘What’s going on now in this madhouse?’ he growled.  After interrogating the two women, he came back upstairs.  ‘Where’s Sabine?’ he demanded.  I didn’t know, and had no way to warn her that he was looking for her, and on the warpath. 

Later that afternoon, I found her in tears.  She had been neglecting her laundry duties, and had incurred the wrath of Chef.  We’d often witnessed Chef’s tantrums in the kitchen, directed toward one or another of his hapless assistants, and we had sincerely hoped neither of us would ever be on the receiving end of his rage.  But now she had been.  Please help me, she entreated.  I’m just too tired to do it.  I have to sleep in the afternoons.  When else can I sleep?  She was distraught, so of course I offered to take her laundry shift the next day after I had finished on the buffet.  Her profound and unaffected gratitude was so touching that I volunteered the next day as well, and on the third day, Sabine took it for granted that I would be doing it again.  I wasn’t quite sure how to extricate myself from this new arrangement, but before I could come up with a strategy, a mysterious, Orwellian collective amnesia had taken hold in the hotel.  Nobody appeared to remember that the laundry had once been Sabine’s job.  It was my job; in fact, with no physical evidence to the contrary, it had always been my job. Philosophical questions about the existence of the past aside, surely I could rely on the logic of mathematics to come to my assistance? Two hours a day had been added to my shift and two had been taken away from Sabine’s, with no corresponding adjustment in salary.  But to whom could I present my case?  I had never met anyone in charge.  Perhaps there wasn’t anyone.  It occurred to me that perhaps there was no such thing as 'people in charge.'  Perhaps these mysterious beings were invented by grown-ups to give children the illusion that the world is a safe and predictable place. Then we grow up, and realize the lunatics are running the asylum.  As far as I could tell, it was Frau Tiedke and Chef who were running the hotel, and there was no doubt that they were both mad. 

CHAPTER EIGHT:  ULLI AND ELKE


“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad."
"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

The laundry was nicknamed the Irrenhaus (mad house) because the two women who worked there were known to be verrückt.  Sabine had assured me that, while definitely insane, they were quite harmless.  She declined to elaborate on the nature of their insanity, but suggested that Chef might know.  Since Chef was still upset with me over my failure to produce any Americans, I knew I’d have no luck there, and turned instead to my pocket dictionary.  It told me only what I already knew; that verrückt meant crazy, or insane.  I guessed this might be the equivalent of the English word ‘mental’, which we had used mostly as a playground insult, not a diagnosis of a real psychiatric condition. I was wrong.

They were Ulli, for Ulrike, and Elke.  They lived in the hotel, and never ventured outside its walls, spending their days in the laundry and their evenings in their room. In appearance, they could have been a comic duo – a female Morecome and Wise.  Ulli was short, plump, and blonde, with soft facial features, whereas Elke was tall, thin, with jet-black hair and sharp, angular features.  I guessed that Elke was 50 – ish and Ulli 40 – ish, although they could very well have been ten years younger than that.  At 18, I wasn’t very good at judging the age of anyone over 25.   

Elke’s mouth always wore a grin that didn’t seem quite right, because it appeared to be painted on with red lipstick, and the rest of her face didn’t smile with it.  While her mouth and the rest of her face moved continuously without ever settling into an identifiable expression, her eyes were oddly vacant.  She rarely spoke; when spoken to, she just smiled.  It was a kind smile, a dreamy smile, and usually accompanied by a profound sigh. Ulli was very different; she never smiled. Always vigilant, her eyes darted in all directions watching for dangers that lurked everywhere -- behind piles of folded towels, under the bugel (ironing) machine, coming down the stairs.  With Quixotian fervor, she would set upon the washing machines with a wooden spoon whenever the soap suds formed suspicious-looking patterns.  But this wasn’t what made her verrückt. What made her verrückt was that she talked to herself, non-stop, in a bitter, scolding, voice.  A continuous rant directed at a person or persons unseen.  It reminded me of Basil Fawlty's diatribe when his car wouldn’t start: You vicious bastard!  I’ll count to three!  Don’t say I haven’t warned you!  I’ve laid it on the line time and time again!  But here there was no car. 

What’s wrong with her?  I asked Elke.  Elke smiled benevolently, her eyes blank as always.  She didn’t answer.  I asked a few more times.  Finally, she whispered, conspiratorially, sie schimpft.  From the previously-mentioned ‘O’ level German, I knew the verb schimpfen meant ‘grumble’ or ‘scold.’  So, then, she scolds.  Yes, that seemed right.  Ulli certainly sounded like she was scolding someone.  But who?  Who is she scolding?  I asked.  Elke just smiled again, an even bigger than normal smile, and her eyes became unfocused.  Sie schimpft, she repeated dreamily, nodding her head from side to side. 

Once I got used to the schimpfing, it became just another type of background noise, like the machines.  On occasion, however, Ulli would work herself up into a furious rage, wag her finger threateningly at a newly folded sheet, or a chef’s hat, and give it a right good telling off.  The first time this happened I was quite alarmed, and glanced at Elke, but there was not a flicker of a reaction, just the same smile and blank expression.  

I asked Chef what was wrong with Ulli. I got the same answer Elke had given me; sie schmipft.  When I asked him who  and why, he just shrugged, and repeated sie schimpft.  It occurred to me that perhaps this was something like Herr Kreh, and ‘er sauft’.  Well then.  So … sie ist ein schimpfer?  I suggested.  The intensity of his reaction was alarming.  Apparently I’d made a first-rate joke, because he started laughing and slapping his legs in great hilarity, shouting genau, ganz genau! (exactly!)  How ironic, I thought.  He’s finally impressed with my command of the German language, yet I’m at a loss to understand my own witticism.  And I was no closer to learning what was wrong with Ulli.  At first my working theory was she was scolding herself – perhaps for something in her past?  But I gradually came to the conclusion that what I was hearing was in fact one side of a two-way conversation.  She was talking to someone, or something, that wasn’t there.  Like Macbeth and his dagger.  A false creation proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain.   

Well, so what?  So Ulli had an imaginary person, or people, just as I had once had imaginary American friends.  But I knew my Americans were imaginary, while she thought -- or appeared to think -- her people were real.  That was one difference.  Another difference was that my people were friendly, whereas hers were hostile.  The third difference was that she talked to her imaginary people -- out loud, which was worse -- and I didn’t. 

So, just like that, I had drawn a line between sanity and insanity, and put myself on one side with Ulli on the other.    

“And how do you know that you're mad?”
 "To begin with," said the Cat, "a dog's not mad. You grant that?"
“ I suppose so’, said Alice.
 "Well then," the Cat went on, "you see a dog growls when it's angry, and wags its tail when it's pleased. Now I growl when I'm pleased, and wag my tail when I'm angry. Therefore I'm mad.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

CHAPTER NINE:  BOB

‘Relax’ said the night man,
‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave’
Eagles:  Hotel California

At the Monopol, I had become someone special, thanks to Sabine.  She was the girlfriend of the lead singer, and I was her best friend.  I got to sit at the Stammtisch (best table -- reserved for friends of the band), and I was in high demand as a dance partner.  One night the band sang Lyin’ Eyes, and, not for the first time, I noticed that the lyrics were wrong.  I didn’t like to say anything, but I didn’t need to, because ‘can you help us with our English?’  Tomas asked me.  ‘Can you check the words for us?’  He handed me a piece of paper on which he had written the lyrics. I looked at them carefully, before pronouncing my verdict: ‘This isn’t English.'  ‘Oh yes, it is, it definitely is’ Tomas assured me, beaming with confidence. I shook my head to make it clear I disagreed. ‘But I’ll see what I can do’, I said doubtfully.

I knew the song reasonably well, and wrote out the words as best I could from memory, using Tomas's version as a phonetic guide.  Seedy girls became city girls, but it wasn’t all that easy.  I really need to listen to the original version, I told him.  The next night, he produced three cassette tapes (Eagles, One of these Nights, and Hotel California) and a small tape player.  Take them, he said.  They’re for you.  

So now we had music in the laundry.  Ulli seemed to like it; her schimpfing took on a lighter quality when the tape was playing – as if the people inside her head weren't giving her quite such a hard time.  Sometimes, particularly during New Kid in Town, she would turn slowly around, for no apparent reason, with her arms outstretched, almost as if she was dancing. 

I listened to all the songs and wrote down the words.  Play, rewind, play, write.  I had to listen carefully.  Was it every ‘former refuge’ or ‘form of refuge’ has its price?  Did it matter? Would anyone notice the difference?  It was unlikely, at the Monopol.  

I embraced this new enterprise enthusiastically, thrilled that the band had entrusted this important responsibility to me.  Meanwhile, Sabine and I, having abandoned our dreams of houses, babies, and schlagzahne machines, were now imagining a glamorous future touring the world with the band when they became famous.  My role was to be official:  Lyric specialist.

I didn’t always understand the words, and there was no Google in 1978 (which is just as well, as the band wouldn't have needed a lyric specialist!) so I sometimes had to go with my best guess.  In Hotel California I had no idea what colitas were, but it was very clear, so I guessed it was some kind of fragrant food.  In Take it Easy, I got stuck with the line it’s a girl my lord in a flapped out Ford slowing down to take a look at me.  I knew Ford was a type of car, but I had no idea about ‘flapped out’.  Perhaps I was hearing it wrong, but I couldn’t think of a better alternative. Plastic Ford, maybe?  Clapped out Ford?  That could be it – meaning an old junky run-down car?  But I was definitely hearing an ‘F.’  Flapped as in wings?  I'd seen some cars in American TV shows that had wing-shaped things on the sides.  Maybe that was it.  Stop, rewind, play, write. 

One night at the Monopol, while I was taking a break from dancing to work on the lyrics to Yes Sir, I can boogie (wondering how much people got paid to write such nonsense and whether I could do a better job) a tall, dark, handsome stranger approached me and asked in English if I would like to dance.  He didn’t know how to fox tanzen, which wasn’t a problem because the band was singing How Deep is Your Love?  His name was Bob, and he was from Evansville, Indiana, which sounded deliciously exotic because it was a place I’d never heard of.  Every word he said in his sexy American accent was mesmerizing.  He looked and sounded like Captain James Kirk of the Star Ship Enterprise.  When he called me 'babe,' I stood there gaping at him, speechless, wondering how I would ever be able to do ordinary things again, like clean the buffet floor or make an Eiskaffee.  

On top of the Zugspitz
Soon we were spending all our non-working hours together: walking in the mountains, swimming in the Eibsee, and dancing at the Monopol.  He gave me a map of the United States so that I would know where Indiana was.  We supported each other in our daily struggles (Bob’s Sargent and Frau Tiedke had remarkably similar characteristics) and dared to consider our future.  Whether we had one together, and what it might look like.  We contemplated two possible futures in particular – one was idyllic, in Indiana, involving marriage, a house, horses, and children, while the other, rather less appealing, was global annihilation via nuclear war.  ‘I’d want to be right where the bomb exploded’ declared Bob bravely.  ‘I wouldn’t want to know anything about it.’  I wondered how he, or anybody, could think like that.  I wondered how anybody could even think about things like that.  I couldn’t.  When I tried to think about it, even a little bit, my mind rescued me, immediately fixating on something else – anything else.  Apfelstrudel.  Fox tanzen.  Song lyrics.  Usually in those days it was song lyrics. 

‘Hey', I asked him one night, ‘what's a flapped out Ford?'  He looked confused. ‘You know’, I said, ‘in the song.’  I started to sing:  ‘It's a girl my Lord in a flapped out Ford slowing down to take a look at me.’  It can't be that funny, I protested, five minutes later, when he was still laughing.  Finally, ‘flat bed’, he said.  ‘Flat bed Ford.’  This was less than enlightening.  ‘What does that mean?  I thought a Ford was a car’, I said, grumpily, annoyed that he was enjoying such merriment at my expense.  How can it be a bed if it’s a car?  He tried to explain the different models of truck, but with limited success.  I’d never heard of a truck.  He appeared to be describing something like a lorry, but smaller, and for which I had no point of reference in English, even though it was an English word.

I brought Bob to meet Chef.  Since neither of us smoked, he was happy to enter into the cigarette business with Chef.  Chef was overjoyed, and from then on I was his favorite person at the hotel.  He was willing to tell me anything I wanted to know, so I asked him about Ulli and Elke.  How did they come to be working at the hotel?  Was there any way to help them lead more normal lives?  'What do you mean by normal?' asked Chef.  'Well, you know', I replied, 'like going out sometimes.' 

Chef explained that until recently, maybe a couple of years earlier, these two ladies, due to their mental health problems,  had been confined in a psychiatric institution.  Then, in Germany (and, he thought, in other European countries) investigations had uncovered deplorable conditions in these hospitals; patients were isolated but not treated; they suffered from misery and humiliation and had no hope for recovery.  The governments had closed the hospitals, and patients like Ulli and Elke, who could function in society (albeit not optimally) had been released into the community to lead independent lives.  The hotel, he explained, provided them with a home and a job, and in return, they worked long hours for very little money.  

Was this fair?  I wondered. At first I thought not.  But, perhaps the Hotel Herzoghof was providing community care of a sort.  If it also benefitted by the arrangement, did this diminish the benefit for Ulli and Elke?  I asked Chef if he thought it was fair, but he considered the question irrelevant. 'If everyone's happy with the situation, what difference does it make whether it's fair?'  he said.  'It just does', I insisted, although I couldn't quite explain why.  'But anyway', I pointed out, 'how do you know everyone's happy?'  He shrugged his shoulders, having no answer for that, but somehow I didn't feel the satisfaction that normally comes with having had the last word.  

My next question for Chef was about himself.  I wondered how he could be happy working in a kitchen all day?  ‘Ah, but for me’, he explained, ‘cooking is a love.  A passion.  When I cook, I feel happy.’  I looked at him in frank disbelief. ‘Isn’t there something you do that makes you feel happy?’ he asked.  Well, of course, I said.  Lots of things.  Dancing.  Translating. Horse riding. Diving. Ice skating.  ‘Well’, he explained patiently, ‘I wouldn’t like any of those things at all.  But, you see, the way you feel when you do those things is the way I feel when I cook.’  He seemed amused by my skeptical expression. ‘People are different’ he went on.  ‘Not everyone likes the same things.’  I considered this possibility, which had not previously occurred to me. It explained a lot – like why Chef had no interest in learning English, despite his desire to meet Americans.  ‘But wouldn’t it be easier if you could speak English?’ I’d asked him.  I'd even offered to teach him.  I offered again, 'so you wouldn’t have to rely on someone else to translate.’  ‘Well’, he countered, ‘you like to eat, right?  Wouldn’t it be easier for you to learn to cook, rather than rely on me to make your meals?  Maybe I should teach you to cook!'  ‘But I don’t like cooking’, I said.  ‘Exactly’, he replied, smiling. 


Me, from the buffet window

Chef went on to explain that any situation has multiple interpretations.  From our point of view, Chef’s and mine, perhaps the hotel was taking advantage of Ulli and Elke.  But from their perspective, they had a home where they felt safe and useful, and where they were much happier than in the institution.  And they weren’t being deprived of a life outside the hotel – they simply didn’t want one.   Perhaps folding laundry and operating the bugel machine was what made them happy.  Or, perhaps for them, it was enough not to be unhappy.  

CHAPTER TEN: SUMMER'S END

 “Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.
“No, I give it up,” Alice replied: “What’s the answer?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter. 
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

The rest of the summer passed happily, with Bob, Sabine, Tomas, the band, and the crazy nights dancing at the Monopol.  Things on the buffet were better too; now that I was a favorite with Chef, Frau Tiedke had stopped ordering me about.  Even the laundry was agreeable now that we had music, and to this day, whenever I hear an Eagles song, I think of Ulli and Elke, and wonder what became of them. 

But the days were getting shorter, and nowhere was this more noticeable than in Garmisch, where you could track the sun’s path across the sky by the way it lit up the mountains.   Summer was coming to an end.  Bob was ‘short’ (translation:  coming to the end of his time in Germany) and going back to ‘the world’ (translation:  the United States).  We held hands, felt sad, and comforted each other by talking half-heartedly about writing, me coming to Indiana, him coming back to Garmisch for ski season, but we both knew these things wouldn’t happen.  Not because we didn’t love each other -- we did.  But, you see, we had spent an inordinate amount of time on the dance floor pondering this very question, because How Deep is your Love was one of only a handful of slow songs the band knew, so they played it three or four times a night.  And we were there almost every night, and we always danced to it because it was ‘our song.’  So you can imagine how much time we had spent, albeit unwillingly, accidentally, if you will, mulling this very issue around.  In the end, we seemed to have settled on the sad reality that our love was in fact not quite deep enough for me to move to Indiana. 



Meanwhile, Sabine suspected that Tomas had a new love interest.  ‘He started a relationship with me when he had another girlfriend,’ she pointed out petulantly, ‘so I would be stupid to think he wouldn't do the same thing again’.  And she wasn’t stupid.  But she was, apparently, pregnant.  Things hadn’t gone well when she told Tomas about the pregnancy, so she wanted to have an abortion, but it was illegal.  She had two options, she said:  travel to Holland, where the procedure was legal, or have it done illegally in Munich.  Both options would cost about the same -- 300 marks, which was half of our monthly salary, and she wanted me to lend her the money because she didn't have any.   

It wasn’t fair.  If I was the one who was pregnant then certainly I would have to confront this ethical dilemma, but I wasn’t, so why was she dragging me into it?  And why didn't she have any money?  We both earned the same; in fact, she was always taking my money for cigarettes.  I had money in the bank -- why didn’t she? I had been careful about birth control -- why hadn't she?  I never got answers to these questions; I never bothered asking them.  I might as well have asked why a raven is like a writing desk.  So I told her I would have to think about it.  But I didn’t want to think about it.  When I did think about it, I wavered between two extremes – one moment indignant at the injustice of it; the next, mortified at my disloyalty. I was her best friend; I should be supporting her.  The more I equivocated, the more she increased the frequency and intensity of her dramatic scenes.  The next discovery was that Tomas's new love interest was 'an English girl!’ Not any English girl, either, but Judith, who worked at the Bahnhof --  the same Judith I'd met at Victoria station.  She flung this out as an accusation, as if the whole thing was somehow my fault, even though I hadn’t seen Judith once since we’d arrived in Garmisch back in March.

I began to see Sabine in a completely different light – no longer a bosom friend or kindred spirit; instead, a master manipulator. I was so disappointed in her.  I even suspected she might be making up the pregnancy to get sympathy and money, because we both knew that if I lent it to her, I’d never get it back.  It would be like the cigarette money.  I hated myself for suspecting such a thing, but the more she tried to manipulate me, the more I suspected it.  

I had no idea what to do. The only thing I knew for sure was that whatever I decided, our friendship was over.  Maybe having a best friend wasn’t for me.  Maybe I wasn’t a good enough friend.  Maybe I would never have another chance to have a best friend, and maybe I wasn’t worthy of one.  

It wasn’t that I had unemotionally weighed the pros and cons and concluded that the cons of our friendship outweighed the pros.  It wasn’t even that this latest incident had been the ‘deal-breaker.’  It was simply that I could no longer see the value of a relationship with someone who didn’t think I deserved to be treated fairly. 

As it turned out, this wasn't a problem because summer was over, and the hotel was not keeping on any of the seasonal staff, which is what we were.

It was time to decide what to do next. 


NOTE:  Although this story is based on true events, the names have been changed.  The Hotel Herzoghof is a fictional hotel, an amalgamation of several different Garmisch hotels that I worked in between 1978 and 1981. 


fun at the trampoline park on the Alpspitzstrasse

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

First Day

It was a very important and exciting day, the first day of my first job in my new career.  Changing careers hadn’t been easy; in fact, it was one of the hardest things I’d ever done.  Two years earlier, I’d given up everything – my house, my income, the middle class Florida lifestyle where my children were happy and thriving, and moved us all to England so that I could finish my degree and find a new career.  Some may say this was selfish of me, and maybe it was; there are worse things in life than not liking your job, after all.  And I didn’t even know what this new career was going to look like.  But I did know I was desperately unhappy working long hours in a job completely wrong for my personality, and I wasn’t getting any younger.  Starting again was scary, yes, but even scarier was the prospect that I might wake up one day and be ten years older and find that nothing had changed.

So I’d moved to England with my children, ages 15, 14, and 2, and started a degree in publishing and English literature, with the idea that I might like to be a journalist.  Gradually, and somewhat accidentally, I happened upon English language teaching, and decided to take a course so that I could get a summer job at one of Oxford’s many language schools.  By the second week of the course, I knew beyond a doubt that this was what I was always meant to be doing.  I had found my career.  

Now here I was, in the summer of 1999, about to start my first proper teaching job. The first day of my new professional life, and I couldn't have been happier, or better prepared.

Although it was only a ten-minute walk from my house to the language school, I allowed myself half an hour, in case of unforeseen circumstances.  Passing the Co-op, I decided to go inside to buy a bottle of water and kill a little time looking at chocolate bars. Wispa gold, Wispa original, or Wispa mint?  I could pass an agreeable ten minutes or so contemplating that question.

However, when I walked into the shop, there appeared to be an incident in progress.  An unhappy group of people was standing at the till (that’s cash register for my American readers), and the cashier, a usually easy-going local girl by the name of Wendy, looked distressed.  When she saw me, she was visibly relieved.  ‘Oh, I’m so glad you’re here’ she said.  ‘You teach EFL, don’t you?’  ‘Um, yes’, I said, guardedly, since technically, I didn’t, at least not yet.  Furthermore, I couldn’t imagine any predicament involving a Co-op cash register having the potential to be resolved by a teacher of English as a foreign language.

Wendy apparently thought otherwise. ‘They want to exchange dollars’ she explained.  ‘I’m trying to explain that we’re not a bank, we don’t exchange money, this is a shop and we only take pounds.’  I nodded, evaluating the situation and my possible role in it.  Then, ‘they don’t understand English,’ she added, satisfied she had successfully clarified the position.  

I surveyed the group doubtfully.  They appeared to be a family.  A man in his mid-30s, about my age, a woman I guessed was his wife, an older woman who may have been the mother of one of them, and a couple of children -- a young teenage boy and a toddler.  They were all dirty and disheveled, and the man had a desperate look in his eyes as he continued to proffer the unwanted dollars, waving them around hopefully in all directions. In his other hand was a piece of paper with a London phone number written on it.  With that hand he was pointing animatedly to the phone box just outside the door.  ‘They want change for the phone’ said Wendy, unnecessarily.  ‘They’re refugees’ she added. 

We’d been hearing a lot in the news about Kosovan refugees smuggled into the UK in the back of lorries and then either taken to the detention center in North Oxford or dropped off on the A-40 somewhere between London and Oxford.  We were in a small village just outside Oxford, right off the A-40.  Wendy must be right; these people were refugees from Kosovo. They had nothing except each other and two small plastic carrier bags of clothes.  And … a big fat wad of 100-dollar bills. 

‘Can you explain it to them?’ asked Wendy again.  For her, the problem was straightforward; the solution simple.  All she needed was someone to explain to the Kosovans that the Co-op didn’t do currency exchange.  But how did she think I could help?  Did she believe that teachers of English automatically know all other languages?  Or perhaps she imagined I might conduct an impromptu lesson right there in the Co-op, teaching them just enough English in the next ten minutes to enable them to grasp this crucial point?

All I could think of was to try some other languages.  So I tried French and German, the only other two I had some ability to communicate in at that time.  I addressed myself to the teenager, thinking he might have studied a foreign language at school.  But he shook his head solemnly to everything I said.  I tried to remember where Kosovo was –  wasn’t it somewhere near Italy?  Maybe they learned Italian at school.  ‘Italiano?’ I asked.  As soon as I said it I realized it was pointless; I didn’t speak Italian, so what good would it do to know that he did?  Well, I could have phoned my mother for help in that case, I suppose.  She spoke fluent Italian.  But, the enquiry about Italian met with the same negative response, so I was now all out of languages and ideas.

Wendy and the Kosovans were looking at me eagerly, hopefully, having apparently concluded, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that I was capable of sorting everything out.  Even the baby was watching me, expectantly. Their faith in me was genuine and affecting, but it was unsolicited, undeserved, and, if I’m to be completely honest, annoying.  What could I do? I had to be somewhere important!  It was the first day of my new life!  I’d earned this; I deserved it.  Everything I’d given up was finally going to be worth it; all my hard work was finally going to pay off.  I wanted nothing more than to shrug my shoulders, say ‘sorry, I can’t help you’, and walk out of the Co-op.  The door was open and the way out was clear.  But that just wasn't going to cut it.  Someone had to help them.  I didn’t want the job, but I was all they had.  It had to be me.  The universe had spoken, and you don’t argue with the universe.  So I pointed to myself, and said ‘Sarah.’  The man pointed to himself, and said ‘Ditmer.’  We were in business. 

I beckoned them out to the phone box and took the piece of paper with the phone number, feeling in my pockets for change. I didn’t have any.  So I rang the operator.  I’d heard that operators would allow you to make a free phone call in cases of emergency.  ‘Hello there’ I said, in what I hoped was an authoritative voice.  ‘I’m here at a phone box with a family of Kosovan refugees who just got dumped off the back of a lorry on the A-40.  They need to make an emergency phone call to London.  Can you help us, please?’  The universe must have spoken to her as well because she put the call through.  A man answered.  I handed the phone to Ditmer.  There was enthusiastic, emotional conversation in a language I didn’t recognize, but which I now know was Albanian.  Ditmer handed the phone back to me.  The man on the other end spoke English.  ‘Please help my people’ he pleaded.  ‘They need go London.  Victoria station.  I meet  there them.’  ‘But what can I do?’ I started to protest.  “I’m on my way to work...’  This feeble attempt to extricate myself was completely ignored.  ‘Please, help my people’ he repeated.  ‘OK’, I said, ‘OK’, and put down the phone.  Ditmer and his family were looking at me trustingly, waiting to see what was going to happen next.

‘Right then’, I said. ‘Come on.’  A plan was forming in my mind.  I needed to get them to the bus stop for the Oxford Tube – a bus that ran from Oxford to London every 10-12 minutes and went all the way through to Victoria Station.  But it didn’t go through the village, so I’d have to drive them to the park and ride.  Plus, they needed money for bus fare.  I only had 10 pounds on me, which wasn't going to be enough to buy five tickets to London.  I went back into the Co-op.  ‘We need some pounds’, I told Wendy. ‘If I buy a bottle of water with my bank card’ (I’d forgotten about the Wispas) ‘how much cash back can I get?’  ‘50 pounds’, she said. ‘That’s so nice of you’ she added, gratefully.  I took the 50, added my 10, and showed it to Ditmer.  ‘Bus’, I said.  He eagerly offered his wad of dollars to me.  ‘No, no’, I said, ‘just give me one 100 dollar bill.  That’s a fair exchange.  Keep the rest’.  I took one of the bills and gestured at him to put the rest away.  ‘Now, come on’, I said.  ‘Come with me’.  I turned around and headed for home, in the opposite direction from the language school, but I tried not to think about that. 

My car was parked in the driveway and I knew that to fit five passengers inside, I’d need to take out the car seat.  When I took the car seat into the kitchen, they all followed me.  They must be starving, I thought, frantically looking around the kitchen to see what I might have.  A half empty box of biscuits, a loaf of sliced bread, and a jar of peanut butter were all I could come up with, but they devoured these humble offerings gratefully.

But enough was enough!  I needed to get them out of the house!  My new life was being sabotaged!  And their friend was waiting for them at Victoria station.  How to get them all into the car was the next dilemma.  There weren’t enough seat belts for everyone, there were people on laps, a baby without a car seat – who knows how many laws we were breaking, but what could I do?  It wasn’t far, and surely if we were stopped by the police, the officer would be sympathetic if I explained the situation?  But we weren’t stopped.  We made it safely to the bus stop.  The bus arrived.  I gestured them to go in, paid their fares out of the 60 pounds, gave them their change, and then, because the driver looked kind, took him into my confidence.  ‘They’re refugees’ I told him.  ‘Please make sure they stay on until Victoria station; they’re being met.’ ‘Don’t worry, love’, he replied.  ‘I’ll take care of them.  Everything will be all right.’  Sometimes in life, you run across people who, when they tell you everything is going to be all right, you know you can believe them.  The universe had sent one of those people to drive the bus that took the Kosovans away to their new life.

In 1999, only a few people had mobile phones, and I wasn’t one of them.  So I had no way to contact the language school to let them know I was going to be late, and in any case, what could I have said?  I ran into some Kosovans at the Co-op?  In the end, I arrived twenty minutes late, having surrendered my fate to the wisdom of the universe.  The director looked at me.  ‘Oh good’, he said.  ‘There you are.  We just finished the placement tests.  They went on a bit longer than expected.  We’re getting ready to start the classes now.  Yours are the upper intermediates, room 5-A, upstairs and turn right. 

I went upstairs, turned right, and walked into the room marked 5-A.  A room full of smiling, trusting faces were looking expectantly at me. I took a deep breath. ‘Hello everyone’, I said.  ‘My name is Sarah, and I’m your teacher.’