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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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 crosswordbebop.blogspot.com. 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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