German as a second language
When I first moved to Germany in the late 90s, I enrolled in a brief course on German language and culture to help ease my transition to my new home. I don’t remember much about the class; in fact, the only thing I clearly remember is that the instructor made it a point to teach us the German word for diarrhea, which (I will never forget) is Durchfall. I don’t know why he loved this word. Its subordinate parts—durch and fall—literally translate into “it falls through,” and he seemed to find this particular etymology completely—if inexplicably—hilarious.
During a class outing, the instructor was practically giddy over finding an anti-diarrheal medication ad on prominent display on the train station wall. He walked up to the sign, pointed to his favorite word and said, quite loudly, "Durchfall. Remember? Duuuurchfaaaaal," he said again, elongating each syllable. People stopped to gawk at the spectacle. I tried to translate this scene into an American context, to picture a group of Germans encircling a Kaopectate ad, one of them calling out "Diarrhea. Erinnern? Diarrheeeeeeeaaaah." It was all too perfectly ridiculous.
Then again, in the months to follow, I would often find myself adopting the role of the stereotypically ridiculous foreigner. For several weeks, I told people that my family name Laubscher was of "sweat" origin until a German colleague was kind enough to teach me the difference between sweat—Schweiss—and Swiss—Schweizer. For Christmas, I gave my landlady a turkey and asked her—my voice hesitant and childlike—Es gefällt Ihnen, ja? It pleases you, yes? She grabbed my cheek and looked at me with faint amusement before kissing me.
I was most certainly a stranger in a strange land. I think back fondly on those years abroad, though, every day brimming with new intellectual challenges and opportunities for embarrassment. Early on I stumbled upon the meaning of the word fremde—foreign—when my Bavarian waitress commented on my struggle to choke down an ox tongue salad. And don't even ask what happened when I attempted to pay for the "foreplay" I had been snacking on while out at the local pub with friends.
Fumbling efforts aside, there was nothing quite as satisfying as having a native speaker not only entertain my efforts to speak the language but compliment me as well. "Your German is very good," was a compliment of the highest order, even if it was plainly spoken in English and intoned as if speaking to a child. But just as for a child, learning was—and is—one of life's greatest thrills.
These days, my German skills are probably comparable to when I was eating Ochsenmaulsalat and offering to pay for Vorspiele. Some years I resolve to pick it up again, and my family will endure a few weeks of listening to what probably translates to gibberish before I put the idea back on the shelf with most of my other resolutions. There are still things to learn, and the season of speaking German has passed. But I will still think of Germany and smile every time I hear the word diarrhea.