My first several weeks in Berlin were clouded by one glaring problem: I didn’t know German. Really didn’t know it. I suffered through seven years of French and still default to it as a reflex when I hear a foreign language. I took Spanish in college, spent a summer in Costa Rica and still have a firm handle on most of the basics. But German? The extent of my German knowledge when I boarded the plane to move to Germany was beyond limited. Bratwurst, guten Morgen and auf Wiedersehen (spelled wildly incorrectly) were the extent of what I knew. Basically, I am a typical American idiot.
Fortunately, Germans are a well-educated, multi-lingual and kind people who were patient with my American idiocy and put up with attempts to speak a language whose letters looked like a Word Jumble to my uninitiated eye (see here). A few days after I got here, Regine and Carsten (my number one favorite Germans and surrogate parents) and I got started looking for a class. The best option seemed to be Volkshoschule, Berlin’s network of community colleges with cheap German classes for the hordes of people like me who flock to the city. I was ready. And this is where things got interesting.
Volkshochshule has tons of campuses around town, all offering a variety of English classes at different times. Sounds amazing, right? The first hitch: in typical German fashion, the schools require prospective students to show up to the campus between certain hours that vary from school to school, grab a ticket and wait in line to talk to someone before you even know if there’s space available in the classes that you want, then take an aptitude test to see what you qualify for (clearly not necessary in my case as my vocabulary had only expanded to include Hallo, Tchüss and brötchen after a few weeks here). On my first attempt, I bundled up the baby and walked a couple of kilometers to the school in our neighborhood – Schöneberg. We waited for two hours (awful…remind me to never become a single mother) and my number was finally called. Thrilled, I put Tilda in her stroller, walked confidently up to the woman I’d been assigned to and opened with my only full German sentence: “Hallo! Sprechen Sie Englisch?” So proud of myself. I’d only been practicing for the last two hours. Then, the crushing news that beginners classes were booked through April. Forever away from January. She sent me home with a list of other schools nearby, and I got to work.
Next up was a visit to the Mitte school – I dragged the stroller through two train changes and up a winding flight of stairs to the Mitte office. Booked through May. Next – Charlottenburg, where I got turned around on my route and basically sprinted (not cute) to make it in time. Booked. Dumb American feelings setting in big time. The sweet man I was pleading with took my email address and told me he’d let me know if anything turned up. Eventually I tried my hand at the Neukölln campus where I was told I was too late for even the April classes. Still optimistic that something would work out, I thought of these quests as a good way to get to know the city and improve my negotiating skills. Besides, I didn’t have a whole lot better to do than attempt to weasel my way into a class. I knew the next campus – Steglitz – would have an opening. They had to let me in – they were the first campus to agree to talk to me on the phone. Tilda and I set out on a freezing but sunny day and found the building without incident. This was it. I wrangled Tilda out of her stroller and carried her up the narrow staircase to the office (I don’t know how anyone with a physical disability gets around this city…wrangling a stroller puts a new perspective on everything) and found the administrative person – a cute British guy about my age. I was ready to sign up. “You’re in the wrong building,” he told me. “There are two Steglitz campuses – you need Steglitz-Zehlendorf, a few stops away from here, and they’re about to close for the day.” Of course. I started crying while Tilda took a shit in my arms. Perfect.
Claudia, one of Tilda’s grandmas and my personal hot mess hero, stepped in the next day and fairy-godmothered her way into the situation. She’d spoken to the other Steglitz campus, booked a spot for me and planned to drive me to the school to help me sign up…and it worked! I was in! It was three train transfers and a bus ride away, but I didn’t care – I was prepared to flail my way through a new language course in hopes that I could carry on a conversation with our Polish housekeeper and answer questions from strangers using more than one word.
When it came down to it, the timing of the class didn’t work with our schedules and I had to drop out before I even started. I’d pretty much resigned myself to seven more months of nodding and smiling when I found another school with classes starting in March. It would set me back a few more Euros, but I signed up immediately and have been in the class about a month, grateful that my first language wasn’t Thai, and learning that when it comes to language, I will always have to try very, very hard to make sense of things. The best phrase I’ve learned so far? “Das ist verrückt.”