It’s a bright, sunny and warming (to 11 C) morning, in contrast with the rain and cold of yesterday afternoon. May it continue. I intend take the bike and ride down the bike path to the Altstadt, perhaps to see something of the commemoration of the day in the platz in front of the Dom.
Just a few minutes after my husband left this morning, the doorbell rang for the first time since we’ve been in the flat. I had just started to sort the laundry to use in the new washing machine and, in fact, was still in my dressing gown and more disheveled than usual.
I was confused when I opened the door to an unfamiliar young woman, not older than 25, I’d say, wearing a jacket with a logo and three lime green boxes under her arm. Odd. I wasn't expecting any packages.
As always – it happens afresh with each encounter – I was disconcerted when she addressed me in German. Isolated as I am in the flat all day, moving in my narrowly defined world, continuing to relate to it in English through books and magazines, the internet and in conversations with Himself, it is disorienting to be confronted again with the reality of a German-speaking world just beyond our door.
In the stream of German I caught at last our surname and the penny dropped. She was from Telekom Austria and the boxes contained our new landline phone and broadband modem. At last, after only a week, we would be connected. We had been told it would be two weeks. (When we moved to Ireland, we waited three months for a landline; broadband took many months more.)
The young woman, with very short breached-blonde hair and capable working hands, was disconcerted as well, her English being not particularly fluent. And we needed to have a conversation. Where were the phone outlets? Did we want the phone and the internet connected in the same room? And more.
I found my mobile and dialed my husband’s Blackberry. When I held it out to her, she reeled back just slightly, her look saying, ‘Don’t do this to me!’ However, she took the phone. The first thing she said into the phone was, ‘Do you speak German?’ and it turns out that Rosetta Stone is paying off. Soon they were conversing auf Deutsch, and we were on our way. (He tells me now that he handed his phone over to the German-speaker he was meeting with, so it was a three-way conversation.)
As she worked away, I got dressed and continued with the laundry in the nearly child-like state I inhabit these day. Unable to communicate beyond a few stammered words and sign language, I feel at times a kind of lightness, the lack of responsibility that accompanies my inability to understand or be understood.
That doesn’t compensate for the frustrations though. We bought new washing machine last week, and it was delivered complete with instructions and manual, auf Deutsch, of course. Downstairs I stared at the control panel. I recognise for word for ‘cotton’ and the word for wool, but what is Koch-/Buntwäsche? I came upstairs and typed it into the Google translator. Something cooking?
The young woman had just come into the room. I showed her the manual. ‘Ah, so,’ she said. ‘Neu?’
I pointed to the phrase. What does this mean?
Ah. ‘Not black. Not white. Coloured.’
A mixed load. That would work.
Downstairs I turned the knob to Buntwäsche Eco and set the temperature to 40. Pressing the button labelled Tür, I felt a bit reckless. At least it was all socks, underwear and assorted towels – nothing that required special care. I’d just have to see if it works.
This is me, the obsessive worrier about instructions and procedures. Who keeps a file of every manual for every appliance I’ve ever owned. Including watches and pocket calculators. Who wants to know How Things Work. Who figures if the engineers designed the machine to work a particular way, that’s the way it should be done.
I walked away.
Upstairs the young woman had the line working. ‘Your husband said you had a' – gesturing, she fumbled unsuccessfully for the words – 'from Ireland?' Ah, yes, the phone itself.
She continued. ‘He didn’t know if it would work here.’
We were in the shared office, which is still piled with cartons to be unpacked. The handset had been in my office in Ireland, so it must be in one of these. I started pulling things out of one box and pointed to another, indicating she should root through it. And we were lucky; eventually we pulled out the base and then one, then another, of the handsets.
We tested it and it worked. We were set to go. After she had explained to me, seeming more confident in her English, where the cables needed to connect to the wiring, how to install the software for the modem and what light – she called it a lamp – on the modem had to be steady, I complimented her on her English.
She was pleased but dismissive. ‘Everyone learns it in school. But school is long time ago now.’
‘I must learn German,’ I told her.
‘I think German is very hard to learn. Very hard. Even I, I have problems writing it. So many rules. For writing. And they change every week.’
I doubted that was true, but we were nearing the limit of mutual comprehension.
‘I’m a writer,’ I tried to explain. ‘And it’s hard not being able to speak to people. Not being able to use words.’
I didn’t think she got me. I tried a different way.
‘My work is writing. Words are my work.’
‘Yes,’ she said, as though she understood. ‘Words are work.’
We shook hands on the landing. I was sorry to see her go.