An Englishman Abroad

Following a two-week hiatus from my blog, I thought I might make some notes on what I’ve been up to in the mean­time: an Easter break in Germany. My girl­friend is German, and I occa­sion­ally accom­pany her back to Dortmund. You know, the bet­ter to — at parties — grip a beer bottle in my sweaty hand and wrack my brains for dat­ives, gen­it­ives, and the oth­er half to fam­ous Monty Python phrases.

I did not study German at school. Instead, I stud­ied Latin, thanks to a crazy scheme hatched by my friend Paul that would help us with ter­min­o­logy when we both became med­ic­al doc­tors. Well, Paul became a doc­tor of the use­ful type — i.e. med­ic­al — and I became a doc­tor of the long-essay type. So I’ve learned my German at night classes. Because these classes con­sist mainly of adults who will leave if the going gets too tough, suc­cess­ive teach­ers (with some hon­our­able excep­tions) have steered well clear of teach­ing any­thing fun­da­ment­al about the lan­guage — e.g. its gram­mar, top one-hun­dred verbs, and so on — and have resor­ted to les­sons about more pro­sa­ic aspects of the lan­guage. As a res­ult, I bow to no oth­er in my grasp of obst and gemüse (fruit and veget­ables), but the sweat pops out on my fore­head when faced with explain­ing what I do for a liv­ing.

To be sure, I should speak German with Britta (my German girl­friend) when we’re at home. But con­sider Britta’s think­ing: ‘This is lovely. But there’s some­thing miss­ing. I know! We need to add a lay­er of com­plex­ity and mis­un­der­stand­ing that means Ian will buy milk instead of cinema tick­ets and put the house on the mar­ket in response to an obser­va­tion about the cof­fee run­ning low.’

I have, of course, pro­gressed a little. I listen to Neue Deutsche Welle (New German Wave) in the gym, and I know all there is to know about Fred from Jupiter and how many bal­loons were released by Nena — ninety-nine, by the way. This means I’m per­fectly placed to quote from a NDW song in moments of pan­ic, whereupon my German con­ver­sa­tion­al com­pan­ion will look at me as if I’m an imbe­cile, then mark my words as English humour (Germans think the English are funny, a belief I’m stead­ily erod­ing), and ask me what the hell I think we’re up to in Iraq. “Alles Klar, Herr Kommissar?” I will ask cryptic­ally. Then I melt ninja-like into the bushes.

But I have not pro­gressed to the extent that I can dis­cuss Chomskian trans­form­a­tion­al gram­mar and its rela­tion­ship to rad­ic­al beha­vi­our­ism. That, on the sur­face, doesn’t sound like it’s too much of a prob­lem. But there I am, loiter­ing at the Easter bon­fire held in the beau­ti­ful grounds of Schloss Bodelschwingh, chat­ting in awful German to the odd per­son — while, at the same time, keep­ing Britta on my radar in case I need to ask for a rap­id trans­la­tion — when a doc­tor, who lives in the schloss, beck­ons me towards the light of the bon­fire. We chat for a bit and I explain — for the ninth or tenth time that everything — that, yes, I write fic­tion, and, no, the hourly rate is not bril­liant, and, yes, I am also a psy­cho­lo­gist.

Ah!” says the doc­tor. He takes my elbow and puts me on a bench facing six Germans of vari­ous age and gender. He then says some­thing I pro­cess in the man­ner I like to dub ‘the six Ps of trans­la­tion’ at high-powered self-improve­ment work­shops:

  • (1) Panic.
  • (2) Pick out the nouns in the sen­tence.
  • (3) Panic.
  • (4) Pick out VERY IMPORTANT words like ‘not’, ‘nev­er’, and ‘damned’.
  • (5) Panic.
  • (6) Put the nouns togeth­er, as well as the occa­sion­al verb that hasn’t been chopped up and sprinkled ran­domly through­out the sen­tence, and pic­ture Johnny Weismuller speak­ing them: “You my fath­er-in-law togeth­er psy­cho­logy philo­sophy speak.”

Before I knew it, I was attempt­ing to trans­late sen­tences like “It goes without say­ing that vari­ations in rel­at­ive clause attach­ment between English and Spanish speak­ers has led to…”

There is a sev­enth step, if needed: melt ninja-like into the bushes.

Overall, the trip to Germany has made for a good break. I man­aged to work up a ini­tial chapter and in-depth syn­op­sis (at the request of a pub­lish­er), and do a little pre­par­a­tion for some upcom­ing post­gradu­ate tutori­als. Once these jobs are out of the way, I will turn my atten­tion to get­ting my last two manu­scripts into print.

Some read­ers — well, Mum and Dad, and some people who know me — might like to see a couple of pho­tos from the trip. Here they are (the pho­tos, not Mum and Dad and some people who know me). Feel free to click away from this page if you don’t find this very inter­est­ing.

Here’s a nice pic­ture of Anne, Britta’s mum, whom we stayed with:

Arie and his new son Sam (new moth­er Jane is out of shot), whom we vis­ited in Maastricht (if the pic­ture is blurred, blame that on the mad­den­ing hour I spent driv­ing around Maastricht try­ing to find their apart­ment, and the res­ult­ant trembles; rest assured my upper lip lost none of its tensile strength):

David and Christine, friends who gave Britta and me a lift over to Germany:

Me with some hap­less German chil­dren who were ‘volun­teered’ by Britta to hear a nat­ive English speak­er read some nurs­ery rhymes. My pig impres­sions have since passed into Dortmund folk­lore:

At Dunkerque, lean­ing on our car — which seemed like a good idea at the time. In ret­ro­spect, I look like a sus­pect invited to ‘spread ‘em, Monsieur’:

Lastly, me at the Easter bon­fire, the fast­est beer-slinger in Westfalia — at least, until I drank the beer:

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Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

7 thoughts on “An Englishman Abroad”

  1. Okay, I’m con­fused. These pic­tures of you look *noth­ing* like the pic­ture of you on your blog! How am I to ima­gine you…you know, when I ima­gine you?

  2. Welcome back, Ian. It was good to read your post, and love the pic­tures!

    I recall once that I went out with an English guy who lived in Heidelberg. It las­ted about 18 months, largely because we hardly ever saw each oth­er (I was an impov­er­ished PhD stu­dent at the time and could not afford to even live, let alone travel.)

    But on the few occa­sions I did get to that lovely city where he lived, I was regarded as very sweet. This was purely because I did (and do) not speak German, oth­er than the odd phrase such as “you have lovely blue eyes”. I was silent, so every­one there thought I was very, well, sweet is the only word I can think of to describe it, as I smiled a lot.

    I am sure there was a life-les­son here that I failed to learn, in ret­ro­spect.

  3. PS to both of you (Ian and Debra) — I curse and love you, Ian, for put­ting me onto that damn “daily set”. So addict­ive!

  4. Ah, good to hear it! It’s won­der­fully addict­ive. As of last week there’s now a weekly com­pet­i­tion between my read­ers and those of This week looks like we’re going to pull it off. Feel free to add your times!

  5. Maxine, yes, I expect I’m seen as harm­less too. Just get me a beer and prop me up, that’ll do me…

    I haven’t been back to the daily set for a while — I give up too eas­ily! Perhaps I should stick to sudoku…

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