It’s bucketing down and the sun is setting, and in my book that is enough to scupper my attempts (albeit not very enthusiastic ones) to go for a run. So instead, I’ve made a cup of tea, grabbed a handful of the brownies I made in post-Trump baking hysteria and have sat down to write this. Gemütlichkeit.
I’ve been living in the village of Mitlosheim, Saarland, Germany for exactly two months now, working as an English language assistant in two German high schools in order to learn the secrets of how to Deutsch. The reasons why I am spending nine months in the most rural part of the most obscure of Germany’s Bundesländer are a little unclear even to me: suffice to say, to anyone reading this, I am not being held against my will. (Yet.) I have come to the conclusion that treating this year (and perhaps my entire life) as an absurdist experience is the only way to get by, and as such I won’t be striving for meaningful conclusions here. Rather, I’m going to record some of the funnier, happier or more interesting things that are happening to me, but – like that guy who declares his love to Kiera Knightley with the cue cards in Love Actually – “without hope or agenda.”
I’ll start here with a summary of my arrival in the klein aber fein Saarland. My flatmate and I arrived in Saarland under the care of our kindly landlords/surrogate grandparents Maria and Friedhelm. We were immediately taught certain aspects of the fiendishly difficult Saarlandisch dialect which defies comprehension to many native German speakers, let alone someone who only learnt the word for a fork a few weeks before. In summary: be brief and to the point. Ja and Nein become Jo and Ne in Saarlandisch, and a common way to ask how someone is – Wie geht’s? in standard German – is through the monosyllable Un? (Short for und.) Finding an appropriate response to such a perfunctory question can be difficult – except, of course, for Saarlanders, who reply equally brusquely with klar – “fine.”
Language aside, the first few weeks in a new country have presented their own set of difficulties. My first day in school I went to the headmaster’s office where I waited for almost an hour before I could go and sit in on an English class. Making awkward conversation with the depute headteacher in my dodgy German and his dodgier English made the stress build up even more. Upon discovering which university he went to, he perked up. “Ah! Golf. Good sport. Great sport. Golf hat in Schottland angefangen, oder?”
“Ja, du hast Recht,” I replied nervously, vaguely aware that I had maybe read somewhere that golf had actually originated in Ancient Egypt, or possibly Ancient Greece, but unwilling to relinquish so promising a topic in common.
“Spielst du Golf?” he asked. My heart sank. Maybe not so promising a topic. My golf experience was limited to hitting a few balls in my grandfather’s garden, getting them to move either a few feet or into far-off bushes, but never in between.
“Do you teach sport, then?” I asked, floundering to keep the conversation going. He gave me a steady, confused look.
“No. I’m English teacher!”
This did not bode well for the English classes to come. Nevertheless, I managed to muddle through the first few days of classes, each class of students using me as an opportunity to practice their question-asking skills in English – making sure to be as personal and intrusive as possible: “Why do you live here?”; “What will you do after university?”; “Do you have a girlfriend?” and the like. I corrected their grammar and didn’t get too emotional about my inability to answer these questions properly.
One other story of that first week should be related, however, before I sum up. Beth, my flatmate and I, eager to see if there were any young people in the Losheim area (population: around 50 or 5000 including sheep; average age: 103) followed posters to what was advertised as an U-30 party – a party for the under-30 year-olds in the town. We paid our entrance fee, collected a couple of Steins and entered the old railway station which serves as Losheim’s town hall.
We had made a terrible mistake. Fat middle-aged men in Lederhosen surrounded us. Old women in Dirndls cackled in groups into glasses of Sekt. Finding a poster on the wall, we realised with horror we had missed an umlaut: this was in fact an Über-dreißig Party – an over-thirties party. It appeared that there really were no young people in the area.
So we got drunk and had to run up a steep hill to get the last bus. All in all, not a wasted evening.