I’ve lived in Germany for 14 years, and it’s embarrassing I’m not fluent in the language by now. For most of my time in Germany, I’ve interacted primarily with other Americans. My kids go to German school, but they don’t have the patience to endure my butchering of the umlauts at home. My work as a university instructor means I am teaching English to people who already speak it. My German has been pretty much limited to saying, “mit Karte,” to the cashier at the grocery store.
As a kid, I frequently had to put my head down on my desk while the other kids ate Apple Jacks from Dixie cups at snack time. On my report card, Mrs. Hendrickson condemned me with the words: “Keri talks too much in class.” She didn’t mean it as a compliment. I love this outgoing part of me, who, due to several traumas over the years, stepped back and allowed an introvert to take over. It was for survival, of course, but with the end of the Coronavirus Kontaktbeschränkungen starting to happen, my extrovert is wresting control from her quiet counterpart.
I made an appointment at the waxing studio for the first day they reopened. I didn’t care that three months of hair was about to be ripped from its roots — I was excited to just travel outside my neighborhood. As I lay half naked on the table, I gushed German the ENTIRE time, even while the wax was being torn from sensitive parts of my body. I apologized to the lady and told her I normally don’t talk so much. She stepped back, eyes wide over the face mask and hot wax dripping from her spatula. “Really?!” she replied.
Welcome back, Extrovert Keri.
The only way to really learn a language is to just take that jump from the diving board and let the plunge nearly drown you. I’m not quite at the bottom of the language pool, but I’m nowhere near the surface yet. My hair is still wrapped around my face, and my lungs are bursting as I struggle to find which way is up.
Online dating in German is about the highest platform I could find for this leap into social immersion. I did earn my B1 certificate, which makes me “employable,” but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m “dateable.” The Integrationskurse prepared me for job interviews but not for first dates. As a writer, it frustrates me to not be able to accurately express my thoughts to another person — especially someone I might see naked. Online dating (I’ve heard) is hard enough, but not knowing how to flirt or make jokes takes the challenge to a new level.
For example, I was messaging with a guy whose profile I liked. We hadn’t released photos to each other yet, which I appreciated. The messages were short and cautious, but they felt genuine — and they were entirely in German. I apologized right away for my lack of skills. He said he thought my German was ‘sweet’ and not strange. He asked me in which part of town I lived. It was a good start, I thought, so I decided to banter a little.
Because one of my kids is transgender, I’ve been looking for apartments in the ‘alternative’ area of the city. I wanted to tell this guy that my German skills made me feel like a child. I could see his job title, but because my German isn’t that great, (and google translate doesn’t always help) I didn’t know what he actually did for work. In online dating, it’s good to get people to talk about themselves, right? I was sitting on a park bench in the sun and didn’t review my message very carefully. Hurriedly, I wrote it and hit ‘send.’
Five seconds later, he left the conversation.
What the hell?
Upon a closer re-reading of the offending message, I realized it probably came across something like this:
I feel most at home in _________ (the gay part of town). I speak sweet like a schoolgirl. What do you make?
Then I released my photos.
I was truly horrified.
No wonder he was gone in a flash. I would’ve done the same. It was humiliating, but after the initial shock, I could only laugh about it. When dating in a foreign language, you have to keep a good sense of humor.
It will be a while before I can truly express myself in German. It’s not just a matter of knowing the words or sentence structure, it’s also about how to use the language. Direct translations of idoms from English to German can sound outright insane to the listener. I listen a lot to how people say things, and I’m trying to mimic that.
In the first bio I wrote describing myself, I came across as arrogant and (possibly) high maintenance. I had one guy tell me I was a show-off because of my photo from Nepal. He accused me of being another woman trying to prove something to the men of the world. He had never been to Nepal, but he ranted about how tourism was destroying the Himalayas, and how I’d been part of it. I’ve read those news articles too, and I’ve witnessed disgusting acts by tourists along the trail (I mean, throwing an empty soda can into a ravine? And the countless energy bar wrappers ground into the trail. Really?!). The guy had a point.
As rebuttal, I told him my group was small (3 people, plus 2 guides), we were very eco-conscious (pack it in pack it out), and the reason for my trek was to get some space after my husband’s death. At the time, it was either a journey to clear my mind or a month at a Kurklinik. The would-be Romeo completely back-peddled, said he had been arrogant and had jumped to conclusions. Then he asked if he still had a chance with me. Just like the guy who blocked my sweet schoolgirl comments, I adhered to my red flag policy. We did end up having a good discussion about tourism in the Himalayas, and I wished him well in his search for love. The entire exchange caused me to re-write my profile. I want to present as accurate a picture I can of who I am and what I want in life, within the confines of my limited German.
Fortunately for me, most of the guys I meet online speak some English.
My first meeting with the Doctor got off to an uncomfortable start. I’m a hugger. Germans are not (unless you know them well). He is also a surgeon. This is also the time of coronavirus. Yet, I was so excited to meet him, I temporarily forgot these crucial points. When we approached each other, I extended my arms for an embrace, and he stuck out his hand for a shake. It was one of those moments like at the gym when someone goes to fist-bump and you react with a high-five. For whatever reason, it makes you feel a little stupid.
I looked skeptically at the Doctor’s outstretched hand, and then he seemed to remember coronavirus, so he pulled it back, and we did an awkward sort of elbow bump. We both laughed. After that, the meeting was good. We spoke in both languages, and when I didn’t understand what he was saying, I had to be brave enough to ask, rather than my usual go-to of nodding and smiling, which can get me into trouble. I tend to have a high opinion of myself, and by exposing my ignorance, my egotistical tendencies are cut down, which I see as a positive thing. We walked through the park and the conversation went past his lunch hour. He didn’t seem to mind.
We agreed to meet again, and I was nervous. I am, by nature, physically demonstrative. I had also been contact-deprived for three months. Coronavirus has not just infected people’s bodies, but those of us fortunate enough to be walking around in public again have become somewhat wary of each other. I had little idea how this date would go until halfway through our walk around the lake, he shared a bottle of water with me. Drinking from the same water bottle is something I don’t often do with my own children (a habit that began when they started eating solid foods). But the fact that the Doctor offered meant there could be an exchange of saliva in my near future. I drank happily.
As far as language, I have this hang-up where if I know a person’s English is better than my German, I end up speaking entirely in English — even when I know I could manage in German. I speak English with my best German friends, mostly because I want to talk about more than the weather, and because it is gut-wrenching to know I’m making one mistake after another. When I was teaching English to Germans, I would encourage them to just speak despite mistakes. It’s really the lack of confidence that holds one back. But it’s one thing to give advice and another to take it.
I’m not using online dating purely as a language class. I genuinely want to get to know people, but it is so damn difficult when I can’t say the things I really want to say. If I were just looking for hookups, then language wouldn’t really be a barrier — there’s so much spoken through body language alone. I’m not well-versed in the hookup scene, but I’m assuming there’s not a lot of talking.
The Doctor and I had a really good conversation, and the more we spoke (in English entirely by this time) the more I wanted to touch his face — and to have him touch MY face! I guess it was the lure of the taboo. He made dinner for us, and later as we sat on his couch, he put his arm around me. The physical deprivation had led to sensitization, where the slightest touch sent lightening bolts through my body. And an actual, weighted arm around my shoulders?! I wanted to melt into a puddle right there on his leather sofa.
I can write about self-pleasure and how empowering it is, but there is nothing in this world like a kiss or a touch from another person. There is a primal feeling in the pit of the stomach that we forget exists when we’re deprived too long. We can also forget the value of touch if we’ve been married for twenty years and get used to seeing it laying around, ready for the grabbing.
I hadn’t been on a first date in a while, so I’d forgotten about that stomach-fluttering moment when someone moves in to kiss you for the first time. Coronavirus wasn’t even a thought in my head as I leaned in to recieve. Once that happened, three months of social isolation unleashed itself upon this poor/lucky guy. While there were plenty of feelings and emotions expressed, I didn’t have to say a word — I just plunged right in.