I wanted to share a story-in-progress with all of you. I hope you enjoy it.
“Um, ah, bier…?” her father asked, as his bushy eyebrows lifted along with the corners of his mouth.
“Sure!” I replied. “Ja, bitte. Danke” I added for polite emphasis.
He turned and walked toward the basement, quietly muttering and pantomiming my English, “Sure. Sure.”—with a slight rolling R.
It was after dinner, and I was already beginning to feel my stomach protruding through my slim fit dress shirt. Course after course of chicken soup (bones and all), tomato-onion salad, homemade potato pita, sausages, beef wrapped in sauerkraut, bread, Slovonian made vodka, coffee, and now beer. Kölsch. Beer from Cologne.
The first time I was offered Kölsch, it was at her friend’s house. Karl. Karl Klingthammer. The sound of a hammer. And rightfully so.
He greeted me in English, her in German. He shook my hand and added in English, “Welcome to Germany. You must know that in this house we only speak German”. I heard a murmur of embarrassed laughter and dismissive voices of “…aber Karl” from the kitchen. He turned from me and followed the voices, as my German emissary announcing my arrival in what I would later learn is the incessant German necessity of grand and glorious speeches—even if those speeches were in the kitchens of poor history students.
He spoke again in annunciated English, hoping I would appreciate the devious irony of his earlier admonition, “Shawn, you must try a beer from Cologne”. Now groans came from the kitchen. They had heard this before. “Später,” [Later] I yelled in his direction after he turned to display a large, dark beer bottle removed from a plastic, black crate on the floor. Feminine “Ooohs” and “Aaahs” arose like a Greek chorus from the crowded and hot kitchen as my unexpected reply had proven my cultural acumen.
When her father returned, he walked past us in the living room still quietly reciting his mantra of “Sure”.
He opened the beer in the kitchen and set both the bottle and the glass in front of me on the coffee table. Warm beer. Warm Kölsch beer from Cologne. Jetzt, nicht später. [Now, not later].
Before the foam settled from my pour, her mother had a line of salty snacks at my disposal. Peanuts, pretzels, Paprika chips—which I am convinced are the only chips available in all of Germany. We sat quietly and watched X-men 3 in German, without English subtitles.
Her father was usually the last to bed. When we visited, he either worked early in the morning or was making a particularly laborious visit to a physical therapist for lower back problems. I imagined the conversation. The stereotyping. The assumptions. German doctor. Possibly well established (read: old, born or conceived during WWII, traditional, intelligent). Croatian patient (read: immigrant, laborer, insular culture, unadaptive). What was unsaid during those visits could fill novels, but instead it would fill newspaper headlines about the lack of acculturation of Turkish and Yugoslav immigrants. The quiet, honest immigrant workers rarely made headlines. Only the stubborn and culturally recalcitrant received press.
Two years and many hours of plane rides later, we sat outside enjoying the beautiful German, June evening confusing the Italian neighbors with our triumvirate blend of languages as we gossiped about their children in hushed German, Croatian, and English. It was a rare visit to her parent’s house in the absence of her mother, and the atmosphere contained the clarity of a Buddhist when compared to the presence of ever-dramatic tears and fears of that devoutly Catholic woman.
She was to my left, and he directly across from us. When he spoke Croatian, it was clearly directed toward her—since I could only understand very, very little Croatian, and was just beginning to understand the importance of the oft-repeated “dobro,” “tako,” and “možda”. When she spoke Croatian, it was for him. Speaking German was for all of us—with hand gestures for me. English between her and I was exclusionary, but English between her father and I was like candy after a bevy of salted meats and hearty breads.
If I was thinking of a career as a diplomat, this was my comforting induction.
She told him a story.
[Croatian] Earlier that morning, her and I had brought our breakfast of bread, assorted meats and cheeses, bresso, and coffee outside to this very table. All we were missing was some juice. I bravely decided to try my German skills and fetch some from the fridge. In the door lurked a small, translucent bottle with the German word for apple [Apfel] printed on it. The rest was indistinguishable Deutsch. The bottle was half full, and I had wondered who would drink only a little and put it back, but I brought it out anyway. Unassumingly, I placed it on the table and continued eating. She burst out laughing and told me that I had brought Apfelessig to the table: Apple vinegar.
What in the hell is Apple vinegar? No red-blooded American has ever heard of such a product.
With my tail between my legs, I returned the small bottle and came back with the cardboard carton of orange mango juice.
Luckily, I’m the type of man who enjoys a good laugh at himself—thinking that any publicity is good publicity. Typical American.
And in the great tradition of our social being as humans, her father returned us a similar story. When he first came to Germany, he spoke good German, but not that good—despite the hours of classes he and his wife undertook. His boss at the warehouse where he worked asked him to move a number of boxes from the packing floor to the stacks on the wall. After he completed the work, his boss came to look it over.
His boss asked, “Wie es ging? Mögen Sie die Arbeit” [How did it go? Do you like the work?]
Her father looked over his work with pride at a job well done, and replied, “Ja, Ich liebe dich” [Yes, I love you], instead of “Ich liebe es” [I love it].
The beginnings of their strained relations have been ameliorated through an exchange of laughter and cultural misgivings. Like how her father teaches his German boss to swear in Croatian, and they share a dramatic exchange of obscenities that belies their more obvious exterior differences.
And then that beer appeared again: Kölsch. Kept warm in the basement air, it felt no fear of condensation in the Swäbian, June night. She sipped her plum vodka while her father and I poured our beers into glasses and pushed the conversation toward the edge of its linguistic capabilities.
[German] “Okay. Okay. Prost.”
[English] “Prost. Živjeli.”
[German] “In Germany now, there are people who refuse to [Croatian] how do you say it?”
[Crotian] “Adapt. [German] Adapt.”
[English] “Adapt (?)”
[English] “Yes, in German it’s: [German] Adapt.”
[German] “Adapt. They come here, don’t work, don’t learn the language, and never talk to anyone.”
[Broken German] “Yeah, I know about that. I read an article in Spiegel about [English] Turkish migration?”
[German] “Turkish migration.”
[Croatian] “There is an older Croatian woman, you know her, the one who walked by this morning while we were outside, she is always coming over and talking to your mother about Croatia. ‘These people are suffering, these people need money, these people need jobs.’ It goes on and on. And then she sends money! Your mother. [Broken English] I don’t know. I don’t know.”
[Croatian] “I tell her all the time not to talk to that woman. She is no help. Mom doesn’t need anyone to give her a burden; it already comes natural to her.”
[English] “Is he talking about that lady who came by this morning?”
[English] “Yes, she gives mom ‘news’ about the gossip in Sarajevo.”
[Croatian] “When we came here, we worked. We earned money and figured it out. We learned the language. And we try to meet the German neighbors. We bought this house, but we feared someone lazy would buy the other half of the house. [Broken English] The Roma. They come. [German] They want German protection, but don’t want to learn the language or work. [English] I don’t know. I don’t know.”
[Croatian] “Wasn’t there a Muslim couple who wanted to buy the other half?”
[Croatian] “Yes, but…”
[English] “When we moved in to the house the other half was vacant, and the first buyer showed up to speak to us. They were Muslim.”
[German] “His wife was wearing a [Croatian] what is the word?”
[Croatian] “Head scarf? Hijab? [English] She wore a Hijab.”
[English] “Oh. Hijab. Yeah. A head scarf.”
[Croatian] “Yeah. Head scarf. [Broken English] Head scarf. [German] And we had another offer from the Italian family who lives next door. Contessa is the big one. [English] Big one. [German] The wife. They have two sons. They are here tonight, and that is why they are all outside in the backyard. [English] Woohoo, party!”
[English] “The Italians were starting a restaurant that we knew about, so we were glad to have them move in next door.”
[Broken English] “The Muslims had, um, [German] two daughters (?)”
[Broken German] “Two daughter. Yes, yes, I understand”
[Broken English] “…and how could we live next to them? [Croatian] What would they think of our daughters? They would never be able to go outside without our neighbors getting upset.”
[English] “Ha! My parents were worried about raising us girls living next to Muslims who wore hijabs and prayed all day. We could never go outside without covering, he says! We would embarrass ourselves in their eyes.”
I thought of her in a bikini sunbathing on the porch, Muslim disapproval peppering the air. Or her sundress that nearly killed me, and never failed to provoke my arousal. I could not fathom what it would do to peoples who do not dare show their hair in public.
[English] “So, they sold it to the Italians. And they have lived here ever since.”
An inconclusive ending leaves much to pleasure and impetus for the writer to finish his or her work. Thanks for reading.