The last time I went to the post office in Germany (they call it a postbank), the gentleman had almost barked at me, since I spoke no Deutsche. Of course why I was at the post office is a topic worth a brief rant. Germany does not believe in making your life easy by sending stuff through email, and this has been said to me by no other than the Germans themselves. I had to submit some medical bills for a doctor’s visit to my health insurance. What it meant was typing a cover letter, signing it by hand, and posting it, along with all the original receipts.
Anyway, this time at the post office, I was prepared, armed with my knowledge from Pimsleur, unit 1, chapter 1.
"Excuse me? I understand no German. Do you understand English?"
You have no idea how many times I chanted these lines in my head. My last time at Potsdam was bad. I had learned how to say simple sentences while ordering food, but when I went to the restaurant, I blanked out, and all that came out of my mouth were just keywords, "Hähnchen fleisch, essen, bitte, löffel" (Chicken, flesh, eat, please, spoon). My linguistic skills had made me want to die of shame.
But this time, I did not want to embarrass myself. During the 20 minute bus ride, I chanted these sentences like a mantra. At the post office, I went to the lady at the counter and said, albeit rotely,
"Entschuldigen Sie. Ich verstehe kien Deutsch. Verstehen Sie Englisch?"
I even said "Ainglisch", and not "English", because that is the German way of saying it. The lady smiled sweetly, and spoke to me for the rest of the time in perfect English. She did not bark or fumble or confuse me with her German-English (where the verbs are all messed up, and people ask me to "remember" them instead of "remind" them).
I need not have spoken in German at all. But the effort that went into making myself understood in the local language, and successfully so, made my day. Because on one hand, I design large-scale studies and analyze complex data for a living. But on the other hand, my language skills are no better than that of a two year old. On one hand, I write journal papers with little effort. On the other hand, I struggle to speak two lines in German.
I might be slow, but I am working hard. I am trying to fit in.