Apples, cinnamon and umlauts


November 8, 2012 by anelim

For some unknown reason, the first thing I ever learnt in German resurfaced in my mind today. It is simple song sung by a spoiled child. It is about a lantern that is about to burn out, and it goes like this:

Laterne, Laterne

Sonne, Mond und Sterne
Brenne auf, mein Licht,
Brenne auf, mein Licht
Aber nur meine liebe Laterne nicht.

When I was about 13, my mother suddenly decided that it was a good idea for me to a foreign language other than English. Times were hard, shops were empty, and the Lev cost less in the evening than it had done the morning of the same day. But my mother was relentless: since no languages other than English and Russian were offered at my school, and my music teacher happened to know a German friend, I was to have private lessons. The small fact that I wasn’t at all curious about German didn’t bother her. I had no idea of the German language? I had never heard anyone speak it? I didn’t know it had umlauts? I should embrace the opportunity thrown at me and learn. If I had actually read some of my mother’s Burda Moden magazines, I might have noticed the dotted vowels, but I was interested in fashion even less than I was in history.

I knew that between World War II and 1990 there had been two Germanies, but didn’t quite understand why that was. I had never met anyone from Germany, apart from my mother’s best friend, aunt Beate, who was married to a Bulgarian guy and who had left the country with her family soon after the Wall fell (but I wasn’t quite sure which of the two Germanies she had gone back to). Besides, aunt Beate had spoken almost perfect Bulgarian and in my mind, the German language sounded like her Bulgarian: calm, soft, blonde, elvish, dressed in fashionable pastel-coloured long skirts, and a little distanced. Maybe also tasting of chocolate, apples and cinnamon (aunt Beate had given my mother her recipe for apple cake called strudel, the healthy version of which my mother adopted wholeheartedly and wholemealflourly, in the spirit of Soviet architecture – see 00:20 – 03:10 of this movie). So, being as polite as my mother was insistent, one cold December evening I found myself standing in front of (or rather shrinking under the towering shadow of) the second German person in my world.

Frau Hiltrude Petrova added new dimensions to my idea of Germanity. She was retired, loud, imposing, unfashionable, could see right through you, and spoke Bulgarian with a metallic Cherman aktsent and little tact. She was so awesome (in all senses of the word) and so demanding that I wished in vain that she had been my grandmother and not my teacher. The only resemblance with my previous mental image was the fact that her candlelit house smelled of Christmas cookies, cinnamon and apples.

We had several introductory lessons, during which I recall being taught things like the baffling song about the lantern, how to say that my name is so-and-so, numbers and days of the week, and how to read strange umlauted letters. I was so embarrassed to pronounce the odd, non-Slavic letters that I shot myself in the foot: instead of letting me off with imperfect pronunciation, my refusal to cooperate made Frau Petrova devote a whole evening of her life (and mine) to the pronunciation of Ü. Even after that torture I couldn’t make my voice say “eee” at the same time as my mouth says “ouu”. The difference between Ä and E completely escaped me. I found myself unable to remember the words, even though I diligently filled three lines with repetitions of each of them out, as I had been accustomed to do in English. The scratchy Germanic ‘R’ made my throat sore. I was convinced it wasn’t a virus, although half of my class was home in bed with the flu. I insisted I was home in bed with the German “R”.

I dropped out soon after Christmas, when my mother’s zeal had dissipated somewhat, together with the waning Christmas scent of cinnamon in the damp coastal wintry air and the melting family savings. This was my first (of many) unconscious encounter with the caustic effect of my own stubbornness. Having set my mind at methodically not learning any German, I succeeded.

After 18 years, no less than four absolutely brilliant, inspiring and amazing German language teachers, and a translating job in which I abstracted German economic news into English for 6 hours a day in the course of 5 months, I find myself working in a history institute in Berlin. I speak English to the Vietnamese fruit-vendor next to my block of flats, shy away from asking directions in the street, trail flea markets for fashionable clothes, and seek out a Russian-speaking dentist because I am too shy to speak the few hundred German words that still linger in my memory. Talk about undoing mental blocks. After all, I can’t be that ‘bad at learning’, since I did learn English fairly well in the meanwhile. Right, enough moaning, it is time to translate those 40 reflexive verbs for tomorrow’s German lesson and have some of that apple strudel left over froms Mittagessen…

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