It is very tempting and vastly more comfortable to live on a level that requires little stretching. This universal truth is particularly well applied when you live somewhere foreign. Arguably, you have stretched enough to be there, arguably everyday is a stretch. But at some point, you carve out a safe space and gather together a safe network of people and you find ways to make your day-to-day easy and comfortable – you find ways to stop stretching. Very often your network includes people who come from a country or culture like your own, or speak your language. Like attracts like. Familiarity is comfort. It isn’t laziness, or a refusal to assimilate, it’s human nature. Ideally, you begin to combine your safety network with its similar people and same language, with people from and parts of your new home, and eventually, as the years go by, it becomes one big, happy mess of quirks and traditions and languages. That’s the plan. Give it time and it will happen.
This universal truth is doubly applicable when you live in a language in which you are not completely fluent. While every good reason points to jumping into as many linguistic situations as possible in order to ultimately become fluent, one tires very quickly of jumping. Existing in a language that isn’t your mother tongue – unless you are bi, tri, multilingual, in which case, stop reading – is a combination of exhausting and frustrating and lonely. In the beginning – and the middle, and possibly the end, I am yet to find out – you cannot make yourself understood as eloquently, as articulately, as you’d like, if at all. You sound like a four year old, or look like a mime artist, and while sometimes that’s okay and you can have a really good laugh about it, sometimes you just want to scream I AM NOT AN IDIOT EVEN THOUGH I SOUND LIKE ONE.
I can speak German, in a most unattractive manner – perhaps ‘butcher’ is a more appropriate verb – and can certainly understand it reasonably well. (I am doing the Australian thing here, that annoying habit we have of playing everything down, of deprecating ourselves until we sound like we are incapable fools, because God forbid we ever talk ourselves up – it isn’t the Aussie way.) To be forthright, or indeed German, I can speak and understand German. (To an extent. Sorry. Australian. Always will be.) While I used to be absolutely terrified of going to things because I would invariably be the dumb, red-faced English speaker who couldn’t understand anyone and needed to ‘mehr Deutsch sprechen‘ (oh how many times was that said to me, and how many times did I want to poke someone in the eye with a knife and say Ich würde Deutsch sprechen wenn ich könnte and go running off into the sunset, only to emerge in London with all the other Aussies doing their ‘living abroad’ thing speaking English and sharing pots of Vegemite) at some point along the way it got less scary and the German words came and I stopped being so hard on myself for not understanding or for making mistakes. I stopped feeling like a failure if I asked someone to speak more slowly, or to repeat what they said. Confessing to not understanding something stopped being so embarrassing and came to be a badge of I’m Learning a Second Language honour. But still. There are times when my instinctive response to an invitation is still to decline it, if only because I will always remember feeling like that red-faced dumb English speaker. There are times I forget I am capable of partaking in exclusively German situations – like birth preparation classes and pediatrician appointments. And childbirth. (MACH ES WEITER FRAU GAMBRETT will forever ring in my ears.)
Recently, more and more, I am facing the simple fact that, now that I have a baby, I no longer have the luxury of saying no. I need to stretch because if I don’t, she can’t. My daughter is, as the Foreigner’s Office reminded me, ein Deutsches Kind (for now Germany, for now. That Australian passport is on the horizon.) and it is my job to acquaint her with her environment as best I can and to an extent, with her culture, as best I can. I can’t say no to things for fear that I won’t understand what’s being said to me, for fear I will be the odd one out, doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing; I cannot dwell only where it is safe, where I am definitely understood and I definitely understand. She won’t make friends that way, not with fellow Kielers, not with her hometown, not with this country’s way of doing things.
So I’m stretching, as best I can. And I’m finding, slowly, that the more I stretch, the bigger and the messier and the quirkier it all gets. And the wider and warmer my safety net feels.