This morning I woke up at 6:30, did some work, fiddled around, and then went out in search of coffee and a hot breakfast. It was my first encounter with the Neuköllner Schiffahrtskanal, the beautiful canal by which I live:
Swans floated on top of the water through the morning fog behind the leaves of dozens of weeping willows. Mothers jogged by with their strollers while everyone else rode bicycles, helmetless, on the cobblestone paths beside the water’s edges.
Luckily the waiter at my breakfast place spoke English, but I’m finding it more and more difficult to bear the embarrassment I feel at knowing next to zero German. Due to obnoxious levels of ignorance on my part, I had believed that, being a Germanic language, English would share enough cognates and structural similarity to German that I could get by on context.
I was wrong about that.
My mom taught me some German while all of our furniture was being moved to Ramstein Air Force Base, in West Germany, when I was in the second grade. Books and videos were bought. I might’ve become a German speaker if my dad hadn’t been reassigned, our furniture moved back to the States, and re-shipped to Madrid the following year. So Spanish became my second language instead, and I’m still much more comfortable in the realm of Italic languages - no problems in France, Portugal, Spain.
My shame comes from feeling like an entitled, uncomfortable English speaker who is traveling at beginner’s challenge level. Berlin is very similar to San Francisco in most other ways, so I’m ashamed to feel stressed out about this small problem. I also don’t want to inconvenience people or force them into my ways rather than yielding to theirs in their country. I feel disrespectful every time I say it: “Do you speak English?” - and every time I forget to say “danke,” instead saying “thank you,” “no” instead of “nein.”
So I come home, I practice, and I try again.
I had a beautiful bacon and cheese croissant and a cappuccino for breakfast. My table was old and rich, and there was a tall old-fashioned candle on it. This seems to be a Thing here.
(…in my room here)
I had brought my laptop, but there was no wifi. The English-speaking waiter explained that it was because “we prefer everybody to talk with each other and hang out, not work.” Fair enough. So I cracked open a book and read for awhile instead.
I’m re-reading “Just Kids,” in which Patti Smith describes even more difficult challenges moving to New York with nothing to eat, no place to stay, and no money. I’m trying to determine which attitudes and motivations get her to her place of, for lack of a better word, actualization. “I was free,” she says.
This read is more romantic. I’m scribbling notes inside the pages, remembering why I found the way she lived so unusual the first time I read it years ago. I have a sense of losing something that I thought I had gained once before… what is it?
Like her, I’m trying to become something and figure something out in an unfamiliar place. I don’t know what I’m becoming or figuring out, yet. But it’ll come to me.