Sunday, December 29, 2013

Speaking German in Germany

When I met my husband I didn't know any German.  I was a college student who really, really wanted to finished school with as little student loan debt as possible.  That meant getting the last two years over as fast as I could.  I had no time to jump into learning a foreign language.  It doesn't help me that I am terrible at languages.  I'm awesome at mathematics, English, science, history, sociology... but I fail miserably in the foreign language learning departments.  I had no idea I'd be living in another country.  No idea.  If I'd known then I would have learned another language.  Any European language would have been helpful.  I transfered out of Spanish in the middle of the semester and started taking Indonesian instead.  Because Indonesian has a romanized alphabet and Pidgin grammar it is easy to learn.  It didn't mess up my grade point average like Spanish.  Indoeuropean languages are all related.  If you know one it makes it easier to learn a second.  Lucky for English speakers German and English are in the same language subfamily.  You wouldn't know it from German grammar but it's true.  English did away with cases and formality a few hundred years ago. 

As soon as I graduated we got married.  I landed in Germany speaking no German.  None.  I couldn't even count to ten.  I could say 'Ich liebe dich.'  Cute but not very useful.

A lot of people in the expat community were unkind about my lack of German.  Instead of getting helpful advice on the kinds of jobs I could do without knowing any German people would berate my lack of language abilities.  Speaking German is a point of pride for expats.  Once you learn German it's easy to forget what it was like when you didn't understand the simplest things.  I was often told to 'learn German' like it was an easy thing I could pick up or put down depending on my mood.  This can be discouraging.  Now I always try to encourage people who have just moved here because I remember how tough it is.  While you can get the basics in a few months it takes most people years to become as fluent as native speakers.  If you can do most simple things like order a coffee then you are proficient.  You speak German, congratulations.  But that's still a far cry from taking a university class with native speakers.  (I'd crash and burn if I had to take a university class).
German is not the hardest language to learn.  There are four classes of difficulty in language learning for English speakers.  German is a two.  It's harder than French or Spanish but it's not like trying to learn Arabic or Chinese.  The ease at which a person learns depends on their abilities, the class size and how much effort is expended.  Learning German takes time and money (I don't know anyone who was able to become fluent without classes, the grammar is too hard).  The more time a person spends the faster they will learn.  Money can pay for smaller classes or the very best, one on one tutoring.  This is the most expensive but fastest way to learn German. 

I had time, but as a newly minted college graduate without a job, I didn't have a lot of money to spend on language classes.   I took the standard integration course required for my visa.  The class size was huge, thirty students to one teacher.  Some of the students couldn't read or had native languages that didn't use the Roman alphabet.  This slowed the pace of the class.  Missing a week didn't matter because I was able to pick up the material faster than my peers.  Not because I'm talented.  I had the advantage of being the only native English speaker. 

If only I loved learning German as much as I love the study of linguistics  (source)
English and German are the same language family unlike Farsi or Russian.   Only two students passed the A2 test after nine months.  I was one of them.  At this point I had spent 26 hours a week for nine months learning German.  I had learned how to count and answer simple questions or order at a restaurant but I couldn't hold a conversation at all.   I was bored with language classes and sick of earning no money so I started working.  Sometimes I was able to get free language classes through my work but acquisition slowed down dramatically.

After a few years I changed jobs and starting using more German at work.  I took evening classes a few times a week.  Then I got pregnant and my husband got a job where he would be traveling a lot.  I started doing everything myself.  I made my own appointments, I spoke to everyone in German without caring if I was making mistakes.  I asked people to correct me but I refused to be embarrassed.  By the time my daughter was born I had a working proficiency.  I could function in Germany but I still needed help writing letters and had to translate a lot of words I didn't understand.  I wouldn't say I am as fluent as a native but I can hold a conversation.  I am proficient enough to do everything I need to do while my husband is absent for long periods of time.  I'm always trying to learn new useful things and improve my grammar.  My grammar is still pretty bad but I'm working on it.  
For some expats learning German is not important.  The time, money and effort doesn't make sense if a person is only going to be living in Germany for a few years in an urban area.  This is why many expats don't ever learn German.  They don't need to.  For people who don't live in the city it's more likely you'll need some German as most people won't know English.  For people who are living here longer the commitment needed to become as fluent as the natives might be worth it.  However, if an expat is working full time or a parent it can be hard to carve out the required hours every day.  Speaking at least basic German makes life a lot easier.  It's worth it for people who are staying for more than a few years. 

Good luck!  


Monday, December 23, 2013

Having a medical emergency in Germany

This year I had planned to take Sophie to the zoo on my birthday but instead I got to go to the hospital.

Having a medical emergency in a foriegn country can be scary.  To be totally honest I almost gave myself a panic attack because I didn't know what to do and I had to think of Sophie.  I am thankful for the months my husband was gone.  This isn't the first time I've had to deal with some kind of problem by myself.  When I stopped being able to breath I knew that panic was going to make everything take longer than it should.  I decided to focus on one small task at a time and keep it together.   Taking care of my daughter, bringing her from doctor to doctor and trying to entertain her in waiting rooms while dealing with horrible pain is the hardest thing I have ever done since becoming a parent. 

It started with Sophie being sick last week.  I wasn't getting much sleep caring for her.  Then H and I came down with whatever she had this week.  No fun but whatever.  Something strange started happening to my hands on Wednesday.  I noticed one little bump like a blood blister.  I had a sore throat and was feeling exhausted and unwell.  My hands started to hurt.  I thought it must be from all the hand washing.   Stay at home moms wash their hands all the time which can dry the skin and irritate it.  But I woke up at two in the morning on Friday with pain in my hands so bad I couldn't sleep.  It got worse and worse and worse.  I tried taking something for the pain but it did nothing. There were fair red dots all over and some were starting to rise into weird bumps.
the beginning
What I should have done was call the Notartz (emergency doctor) and go to the hospital.  I was still in the mindset that this wasn't an emergency.  When I think of emergencies I think of heart attacks, not weird burning hand syndrome.  My husband didn't think it was that serious either so he went to work. I waited until 8:00 when I could see the Fachartz.  I thought my general physician could prescribe something and I'd be fine.  In hindsight that's silly.  I felt like hundreds of burning needles were stabbing my hands and was near tears.  After waiting an hour I finally got to see the doctor.  She prescribed something.  I went to pharmacy to pick it up.  As soon as we got back to the car I tore into the medicine and put it on my hands hoping for instant relief.  Nothing.  I went back home and waited for an hour.  This is when I had the almost panic attack.  Sophie didn't understand what was going on and was crying a lot because I wasn't able to respond to her needs the way I normally would have.  I was desperate so I went back to the Fachartz in tears.  She told me to go to the hospital.

At the hospital the front desk directed me to the non emergency dermatologist.  He was able to see me pretty quickly which was nice.  At this point Sophie hadn't eaten a proper meal and it was almost lunch time.  He prescribed cortisone cream.   This didn't work either.  Not knowing what else to do I went home and made her lunch.  Thankfully my husband was off work and called the hospital.  He spoke to someone who said I could meet with the head of the dermatology department.

When I got to the hospital a nurse told me off for not following proper procedure, which is to arrive by ambulance.  I was so demoralized I asked her if I should leave.  She continued in German so fast I couldn't understand.  Pain makes it difficult to concentrate and this person had no idea what kind of ordeal she was putting me through.  I didn't have to deal with her meanness for very long before she called the doctor I needed.  The doctor was surprisingly kind and had me admitted immediately.  My hands looked really horrible by then.  I won't subject anyone read this to a picture of them.  Super gross.

The nurses and doctors were great.  I had a fabulous sixty something roommate who kept me company and put up with my terrible German.  We did nothing but talk for the two days I was there.  I felt awful but having company was a nice distraction.  Though she was only a little older than my Dad something about her reminded me of my grandmother a little bit.  Sophie took the first day pretty hard but after the first 24 hours she was fine.  Getting sick on the day my family does laundry put me in the funny situation of having no clean pajamas.  I made due with some ancient leggings from my c-section.  I will be using this as a reason to buy two sets of lounge wear.   I could be dying and I'd still care about what I was wearing.  Let's not get into the gendered implications that even when women are terribly sick we're supposed to be cute.  Moving on.  All German hospitals feed their patients is bread.  Not kidding.  I feel for the people who have to be there for a long time.  I discovered a basket of fruit by the water at the nurses station and made do with that.  

My mysterious burning hand syndrome was a cross infection from the cold I had.  I also got a fun skin rash. 
skin rashes, yay

It was not a happy birthday.  I spent 48 hours wishing for nothing but enough respite to sleep.  I'm going to be ok and I don't have to be in the hospital over Christmas.  I am thankful.