Cedar and Pearl

Guten Tag

By Susan Piotti | Feb 16, 2016

Editor’s note: This week, John Piotti has passed off his column to his wife, Susan.

Like Inspector Clouseau in a classic scene from "The Pink Panther," “Guten Tag” (good day) and “Wie geht’s” (what’s up?), along with “Gesundheit,” are the extent of my German knowledge.

So when Anna asked me to travel with her for a week in Germany, while she did some research for her Bowdoin College honors project, I was a little anxious.

I am a student of the romance languages. I have traveled through and attempted to speak the languages of Spain, Italy and Portugal. But the German language is so different. Rigidly structured, every noun has its own article. (In fact, one learns the noun together with the article, as in “the shoe” and “the house.”) Harsh and thick, the words don’t roll off the tongue with a giddy lyricism. And with all the regional dialects, you may be lost even if you feel proficient.

Simply put, there was no way I could help Anna with German. She would have to be my leader, my guide dog, as I blindly tagged along.

This was to be a very different role for me. After all, I’m the mom! She’s the six-pound newborn I brought home from the hospital. She’s the ditzy blonde who amuses us with her silly antics.

Well, I’m not sure why I thought Anna would need help. Adept with airports, trains, buses and subways, buying tickets and making reservations online, and most importantly, so confident in her German, this smart, self-assured and charming young woman was a joy to watch in action. Everyone beamed at her while she chattered on. I could not get enough of listening to her and watching her interact with others.

We first stayed with the family of Anna’s high school exchange student, Mona, and then at two different bed and  breakfasts. Although we had only six full days in Germany, I am filled with so many memories and insights. I’ll share a few:

1) It’s a wondrous thing to disembark from a train in a foreign city after 20 hours of travel, loaded with bags, and be greeted joyously on the platform by a familiar face. I smile broadly whenever I relive seeing Mona at the station.

2) Germans speak English. And seem to enjoy doing so, which sure helped me. The only issue was in a Thai restaurant where the server’s German was far worse than Anna’s. Otherwise, everyone was willing to converse in my native tongue, and no one was ever disdainful of my ignorance of their language. (John and I had a very different experience years ago in France.)

3) Everyone we spoke to was extremely supportive of all the refugees who have poured into the country. Three of our hosts were educators who devote some of their time to teaching German to refugees, including parentless children and homeless adults. Our hosts told heartbreaking stories of the atrocities these people have suffered.

Yet despite their empathy, they were not judgmental of Americans who feel differently. They never brought up why some Americans talk of “putting up walls” and “kicking them out,” focusing instead on what they could do to help.

“Of course there might be terrorists in the bunch,” explained one of our hosts, a teacher of German literature and religion in high school, “but the vast majority of these people are educated, principled, hardworking and traumatized — and we have to do what we can.”

4) No German we met understands Donald Trump. They incredulously repeat stories they have heard about him, looking for answers I couldn’t give. (Meanwhile, I tried to think of the person who ran against Angela Merkel. Sadly, I am as ignorant of German politics as they are informed of ours.)

5) Flying on a fast train, through a dense forest in a snowstorm, is an experience everyone should have once in his or her life. (And the train arrived at 15:02, precisely on schedule, just as a German train is supposed to.)

6) There is no sprawl in this country. The towns and villages are clustered with houses often touching each other, many with a tiny back “garden.” People walk to one another’s homes, or the ubiquitous “Backerei” (bakery). Most families have just one car, relying mostly on a bus, bike or train for commuting and travel. Just outside the village lie fields and fields and fields, leading to another village a couple of miles away. Dotting the fields are occasional farmhouses. Not a big box store, blinking gas station or car dealership in sight. (These services exist, but they are found along the autobahn, where they don’t disrupt village life or feel.) America could learn from this.

7) One could live on German brot (bread) alone. Oh my goodness!

8) Germans are still embarrassed and guilty about all that happened during World War II. It is incongruous to me that these people, often generations removed from those involved, still feel culpable. One of our hosts admitted that when she traveled through America a few years ago, she would not tell people with whom she socialized that she was German. Anna had warned me never to bring up WWII, as it makes most Germans uncomfortable. Yet this nation that is so ashamed of what happened years ago, when a crazy leader tried to annihilate an entire population, now embraces a million new souls who flee from annihilation elsewhere. How laudable!

But more than all that, what really sticks with me is what I saw in Anna during this trip. Like countless parents before us, we’ve questioned our child’s readiness and maturity to make it alone; but now I’m assured that this “ditzy blonde” can hold her own. When it comes time for Anna to move on after college, either to a new part of the United States or to some part of a German-speaking country, I will not worry.

And soon enough, as John and I grow older, it will be Anna’s turn to worry about us.

Susan Piotti of Unity is a physician assistant at Inland Family Care. Cedar and Pearl appears every other week.

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