On Necessary Stretching

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.

17 thoughts on “On Necessary Stretching

  1. just tell them deutsch ist nicht meine Muttersprache aber ich versuche… (learnt in Australia as a teenager in High School! At the time it was compulsory to learn French, German and Italian but discovered that I had a natural affinity for German.)

    1. We could learn French, German, Japanese or Latin, I think. I did a few years of French as a tiny thing, and the 2 years of compulsory Latin – but broke free as soon as I could haha. So learning German has been my first real language learning experience – and I have enjoyed trying to figure out the ins and outs of a language far more than I did at school!

  2. I know you speak better German than I do… having left Germany as a child almost 50 years ago and being discouraged to speak it by my “Wicked” Stepfather… but this year I was so proud of myself for putting together a few sentences that the natives actually understood, LOL
    Me: Zwei Pfund Aufschnitt, Bitte.
    Clerk: Zwei Pfund?
    Me: Ja, Zwei Pfund in zwei Paketten bitte.
    Clerk: (something in German that I think asked if I wanted 2 equal packages) LOL
    Me: Das macht nichts.
    Clerk: I think, LOL

    1. Hahahaha, I love it. Where do you live in the states? I watched a fascinating little doco on this German dialect that exists in Texas. And I know there are a lot of German immigrants and descendants of in Wisconsin.

      1. I live in Yonkers, NY… not too many Germans around here that I’m aware of, but then again Germans aren’t known for their “Proud to be German” flag flying ways. In that respect, I’m the exception, LOL

  3. These words really resonate with me. Some days are better than others as far as how much I feel comfortable speaking German. I like that we’re kind of at the same stage as far as just becoming mothers – you’ve echoed a lot of the same thoughts I have had recently!

    1. Yes, I think we are doing this parallel to one another! You’re right, some days I feel great about it, some days I think ‘what on EARTH AM I DOING?’ And that goes for the language, more than the child rearing hahahaaha.

  4. I love your posts. It is as if you are writing the words that I think to myself everyday! Eventho I am not a mother I still see myself in a lot of what u write.
    I have made my family also subscribe to your posts as I feel it may help them understand how it is to be an Aussie living in Germany and why we love it with all of its ups, downs, round and rounds. You articulate it far better than I ever could 🙂
    I also will continue to stretch in search of that warm safety net. Thankyou for reminding me I’m not alone or crazy 🙂

    1. Oh that makes me happy to hear. You are definitely NOT alone NOR crazy. And I totally get that whole weeks can go by when you don’t stretch an inch. That’s fine. It’s normal. I also find it far easier to stretch in Spring and Summer – one just feels a little more daring!

  5. Dear Liz, here’s a message from me, a fellow expat (Canadian) living in Lübeck for over 30 years. I am commenting for the first time, though I have enjoyed reading your blog for several months now. Just wanted to offer you the possibility of my sending a course presentation I give to kindergarten teachers on “multilingual development in kindergarten children with migrant background”. Having raised two wonderful children in Germany (even though I didn’t know the scientific data), it has become a mission of mine to help any expat interested in knowing what they can do to raise their children bi-, multilingually. Please feel free to write… info(at)liahadley(do t)com and I would be happy to send you the pdf. Bye, Lia

  6. Thank you so much for this post. I can relate to it in so many ways. No matter how good my german gets, there’s always someone who will correct an article or phrase and annoy or discourage the heck out of me. I’m about to give birth and wonder how it will be to raise kids with a different culture than my own here. Your post encouraged and challenged me today. Thank you!

    1. GOOD LUCK! If you need any words of support, or someone to vent at, my ears are always open. I have found exchanging emails with other Mums in Germany to be so helpful. You will be just fine – pressing my thumbs for a safe delivery and healthy baby.

  7. I’m German living in England. In my opinion it gets easier but never less exhausting. I constantly practice double listening (what I think I say and what I think they might hear) and often get it wrong. Not grammatically but culturally.

  8. Wonderful read. Thank you for the reminder. In some ways I wish I could have come across this post 4 years ago when my wife and I were but fresh faces in Kiel. Still your words are encouraging. I particularly appreciate your point-of-view of stretching for the sake of your child. Our son is a very outgoing 2 year old who makes himself known, and we are often unwittingly dragged into these fleeting moments of total immersion. In those moments, we have to just smile and roll with it. If, however, you find yourself strolling through Schrevenpark and you hear someone yelling, “No! Put that down and come here!”, you can safely bet that I’m not feeling so limber today.

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