Living in a bubble

When you do not speak the language in the country that you live, it is as if you do not exist. It’s like walking around in a bubble and no one can see you.

Because, if you cannot communicate, do you exist? Matter?

When I walk out of my house, there is always a tad of fear in the bottom of my stomach. I pray that no one will try to speak to me and I will not be able to understand and I have to babble “engshudigan, ich sprachen kein deutsch”. The moment you say that, either they smile and wave away or they say something in English.

My chances of being spoken to increase if I have my dogs with me. As obnoxious as they are, they are cute and demand attention from people. Rudy is a mini celebrity as he is the only chihuahua in this land of Saint Bernards that I have seen. I usually try to cut off people by speaking very loudly in English to the dogs, preventing people from trying to talk to me.

Going to the grocery store is a daily source of dread. The checkers usually only ask me if I have a loyalty card and end it there. Sometimes, they try to chit chat and out comes my “Engshuldigan………(excuse me but I don’t speak German)”. Yes, daily because we a) don’t have a car so I can only buy what I can carry and b) nothing has preservatives here so nothing lasts very long. Thank God, the checkers are not like Trader Joes checkers who want to know how you like products, talk about the weather, ask how your day is. These checkers are all business.

The super fear is when I have to go somewhere and specifically speak to someone. Last week, I had to go get a name plate for our mail box. Without it, in this land of rules, our mail would not be delivered. I found out where I needed to go and headed out. I entered this tiny shop manned by someone who looked like an immigrant himself. I asked him if he spoke English which he didn’t. I then went out to draw pictures of what I needed and he told me to come back in ten minutes. I putzed around and when I came back I asked him, by showing him my wallet, how much I owed him. He told me, by crossing his hands and shaking his head, I owed him nothing. I could not believe it. I thanked him in German(thank you being one of the 12 words I know). The name plate is now on our box as a reminder of this kind man who either felt pity on me or didn’t want to go through the hassle of having to explain how much. The plate is not the correct size but it will stay there.

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Does anything terrible happen when I have to ask for forgiveness because I do not speak German? No of course not, but I feel as if I am less of a person. I am no longer a confidant, middle-aged, educated woman. I am reduced to something less than a child because I cannot do one of the most simple things in life which is to communicate.

By not being able to communicate, I do not exist. Those daily interactions which we all take for granted either do not exist in my world or are incredibly painful. And so, I walk around with my head bent, giving off bad vibes so no one dares to acknowledge me.

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12 thoughts on “Living in a bubble”

  1. i understand that a little bit…when i go to montreal i am embarrassed that i have to talk to them in english even though i know they are completely bilingual. still, it makes me feel like a little bit of a dumby!

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  2. Christine you’re going to be a master of Charades when you get back!!! Just go out in the world and start practicing with hand gestures and drawings or whatever you need… Pretend you are that little child that is trying to communicate his/her wishes… and pretty soon you’ll be chatting everywhere you go! Don’t give up! You can do it!!! Daily youtube classes can help…
    We miss you and I’m actually jealous of where you are… no preservatives on your food?!!! Where can you get that in the US??? Daily grocery store trips are amazing! Walking everywhere? Great exercise!!! You can do this girl!!!

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    1. Thanks Ingrid for the pep talk. I will take German classes and I know it will get better. It’s all very interesting to me when I can look at it objectively. I realize I take for granted those little chit chats throughout the day; at Trader Joes, with the neighbors, someone at school pick up – they really do make life wonderful. And yes, the rest is good and interesting so it is all worthwhile.

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  3. You are already a strong woman and this will make you even stronger. 🙂 I remember when my cousin and her family moved to India for a year for Intel. It was so hard that year and she really was miserable and could not wait to get back home. Then the time came to return to the states and she realized that things were not as hard as they once were, they had made friends and now it was going to be hard to leave India. I keep thinking about Charlie and how much he is growing and will grow from this experience. You are wonderful parents to give him this opportunity. I miss you here but look forward to your wonderful posts!!

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    1. Thank you my friend. I miss you too but this is good. Charlie is happy and life here is very nice. We are in a transition period which will get better once I start working on my German. You are right, it is a good experience for us all but no matter what I am coming home eventually!

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  4. So interesting to me Christine and reminds me so much of how my some has grown up. He is deaf ( but communicates orally) and I have watched him live with this hesitation and reluctance his whole life. Before he was born, there is no way I would have known so personally how important communication is to confidence, social acceptance and belonging. It affects every part of your life. They say that being blind cuts you off from things but being deaf cuts you off from people. He has worked extraordinarily hard ( and does everyday) to be a part of the world. It takes constant courage and purring yourself out there in a way you may have never done. I thank you for this article because I sometimes take his hard work for granted as he looks like he moves relatively smoothly through the world. But you have reminded me of the extraordinary and everyday bravery someone in your ( and his) position confront. I hope you are well.

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  5. This essay is a great reminder for people in the United States, in terms of acceptance for the scores of immigrants we “welcome” here, and as an underscore for our years in the receptive (international) tourism business.

    I wonder, Christine, are you taking a German class? I know you speak French already. Language classes are always a wonderful pastime for so-called (I hate the term, but) “trailing spouses.”

    In any case, we all love the updates, and are vicariously living them with you all.

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    1. Thanks Ruth. I am trying to remember how I feel now and don’t want to forget it. For the last 2 years, I have been teaching TEFL at El Camino College and can realize better how my students feel.
      I also think of all the immigrants we have in the US and how hard it must be for them as parents to not be able to advocate for their children because of the language/self-esteem barriers. Its a really good exercise for me. I will take a German class and am already studying with Charlie. He teaches me what he learns in school.

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  6. Beautifully written. I think you will slowly but surely meet folks to connect with before long. Until then, write , call, and FaceTime or Skype. Maybe in that way, it will help you remember that you are still you, that you exist, and that you are not alone.

    I think for me, aside from the day to day isolation…I would always be anxious about emergencies. Are there some stock phrases that can be memorized to say to 911 (or equivalent)?

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    1. Oh geez Mark – now I have something else to think about! I know the 911 equivalent which is 117. Fortunately, speaking English is not as bad as speaking some other language. There is usually someone around who speaks English, especially in pharmacies and the medical professions. What does bother me is we don’t have a car which you don’t actually need unless you want to buy a lot of groceries or garden supply stuff. So, I lie there and think what if we broke out arm? How would we get to the hospital? Now that I think of it, I better check out where the closest hospital is! You may have just saved a life.

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  7. Hmmm … kind of a sad story. In the last months Í tried to learn Italianen by:

    – switching the language of my cellphone to Italian
    – using an app like Memrise for daily practice
    – using Google translate
    – using an app called Teach to make my own wordlist and practice that
    – reading an article a day in an Italian newspaper about a newsitem i already know

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    1. Thanks Jeroen, those are all great suggestions. I especially like the Teach app because there are words I always end up using. You are clearly very disciplined.
      Yeah, it’s a little sad and I am a little sad but it will get better as the transition turns into life here and I learn to communicate.

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