Humbling might be the word to describe the feeling that arose when I tried to change the address on our New Yorker subscription. I realised I wasn’t sure of the address format to use. Is it city and postal code on the first address line and street address the line after, as it was on the information packet given us by the relocation specialist? Or was that just her way of presenting the material? Does the house number come after the street name or before it?
It probably doesn’t matter; I’m sure the post will get to us. But it’s symptomatic of the sometimes humiliating experience of not knowing, of being ignorant, in the bluntest term, of common expressions of social life, after a lifetime of natural competency in a common language.
This morning, for instance, I’m going to a place suggested by the hotel desk clerk to have my pale, nearly invisible, eyebrows shaped and tinted, as I do periodically. How will I convey my preference, for I’ve found that leaving it up to the judgement of the beautician yields disappointing results. (Perhaps I cling too stubbornly to the beauty standards of my youth.) If I’m lucky, she’ll be fairly fluent in English, but even so, the insecurity of not being to express with precision what I mean is disconcerting.
The other day I left some clothes to be cleaned. The woman at the desk had enough English, and the transaction was simple enough, that we got on well until she asked me to spell my name. My Irish surname – not Seal – is straightforward enough in English, but vowels are pronounced differently in other languages. ‘A’, I said, and she wrote ‘E’. We corrected that, then came an ‘E’. If ‘A’ is ‘E’, what is ‘E’? And ‘Y’, it turns out, is pronounced ‘Ipsilon’. I will have to carry a card with the name printed on it until I am able to spell in German. A simple solution, but again, the humiliation of not being able to spell one’s name!
It’s lonely, too, not being able to pass remarks with those around me. At breakfast yesterday, my husband having left for work, the cheerful waitress patted my shoulder as she passed, seeing, I suppose, something pass over my face when he’d gone. She’s unfailingly kind and welcoming, but she speaks no more English than I do German. Conversations swirled around me in the breakfast room; I sat as an island, mute. It was St Patrick’s Day, and I wore a shamrock. I showed it to her, but she nodded without comprehension. I couldn’t find any word or other way to explain its significance. (Salzburg is not like America is this respect: as far as wearing green, the day seemed like any other. Only in the Irish pub we went to in the evening was the occasions observed.)
I enter shops, and people greet me with the traditional, ‘Grüss Gott’, which I return. Then comes a flood of words, inquiries and offers of help, to which I can only shake my head. On buses, women turn to me and begin conversations. Alone as I am much of the day, I would willingly engage with them, but I can only respond, ‘I don’t speak German’. (Soon I hope to be able to say it auf Deutsch. ‘Ich habe nicht Deutsch,’ perhaps. Or is it, ‘Ich nicht Deutsch habe’? I’m guessing here.) There’s surreal quality to the experience, as I am addressed with friendliness in a language I don’t understand, like watching someone mouth words from behind a window.
It’s not that I’m not getting by. I am, with comfort. Most people do speak at least a smattering of English, many with fluency. I’m cossetted in pleasant hotel, and I’ve learned to get around on the bus. (Yesterday though, on foot, I got lost, but that’s another story.) People are helpful and very kind; I feel very lucky. There’s an element of wonder or awe, even, at being unable to read signs or understand apparently simple questions. Language, the element I’ve always been most at home with, is nearly opaque; conversations around me become white noise, easy to ignore. It’s on a par with living in a hotel, with few responsibilities for the present, as though I’m on a desert island, observing, waiting, resting. But there are those moments of frustration, as when I couldn’t tell the waiter to give me ten and keep the rest, because I don’t even know the numbers past four, and two, three and four are shaky at that. I stand on the shore of my island, contemplating the vastness around me, knowing soon I must soon dive in.