I spoke last week in Aachen, Germany at the Rhine-Westphalia Institute of Technology. It was an incredible trip and it was my first time to that part of Europe.
There are a lot of complicated and personal reasons why I had never been to any of these places, and visiting Aachen, which is on the Belgian/Netherlands border, seemed like a good way to break myself in to a part of the world I have never seen.
It was lovely. The people were lovely. There was delicious food to eat on every side of the border. The tomatoes were stellar, no joke. The churches had more stained glass than I’ve ever seen in my life. Flowers everywhere. And people dress much more conservatively there, so I will add with a smile that I did not see the butt cheeks of anyone for the three days I was away, whereas in Los Angeles at this time of year, I am basically looking at the butt cheeks of every other person I interact with in the supermarket or while trying to get gas for my car. That’s how we roll in LA in the summer.
So, overall it was great! However, there are a few things I had not realized beforehand:
1. I missed my kids, but…
Of course I missed being with my sons, but let’s just lay it down right here: Flying without children on trans-Atlantic flights is a million times easier than flying with children on such flights. I recently took my boys to Israel and while we took a direct El Al flight which was “only” 14 hours, when flying with children on really any flight, every hour feels like an eternity. At any given time, they might need something, have to use the bathroom, get hungry, want access to carry on bags when they are hard to get to…
On this flight, I simply took care of myself and watched movies and ate at a leisurely pace without worrying that someone would need to use the potty right when I got everything all set up, and I could use the bathroom without a small person up in my face in a tiny cramped bathroom…It was honestly a piece of cake to fly 10 hours to Germany. Glad to be home with my boys now, but I could not believe what a piece of cake that flight was!
2. Speech and Being Speechless…
I actually stayed on the Netherlands side of the Germany/Netherlands border (here’s a map so you can see the region I was in), and it became clear pretty quickly (since in the town I stayed in there were no menus at restaurants in English) that in the Netherlands they do not speak German. Right. They speak Dutch which is similar in a lot of roots of words and such but it’s just not the same language. At all.
3. Speaking German
I don’t speak German, but I can read the German alphabet (since it’s written in English alphabet letters for the most part) and I was raised speaking Yiddish.
Note to those of you who don’t know much about Yiddish: Yiddish is phonetic German for the most part, written in the Hebrew alphabet. It’s one of about 30 such languages that the Jewish people created when they lived among non-Jews. (Ladino is phonetic Spanish written in Hebrew, as an example.) Yiddish is approximately 30% Hebrew, with variations in pronunciation (hence the Hebrew word Shabbat is Shabbos in Yiddish, and Hanukkah is actually pronounced chanikeh in Yiddish.)
So anyway, the German I know–the grammar, how to conjugate verbs, roots of words that are from German–I only know if I see them written in Hebrew. So words sounded familiar when someone else said them, but I had no real linguistic autonomy which made it hard. And when people at the talk I gave had to move me from place to place, or get me ready to go give my talk, there were often groups of people around me speaking about me in German and I had no clue what they were saying. I wondered if my grandparents felt like this when they first came to America and while they were learning English.
Being a tourist somewhere and having no clue what people are saying is different from people standing with you and gesturing at you and smiling right at you because they are directly talking about you and what to do with you in a foreign language. It was a linguistic novel experience indeed!
Speaking of Yiddish…someone asked me in my talk if I currently speak it, since I mentioned that I was raised with Yiddish, as it was my mother’s first language and she spoke Yiddish in her childhood home.
I replied that I raised my boys with a smattering of Yiddish: a proper vocabulary and some evidence of short “baby” sentences.
I suppose it is funny to hear that I speak a dead language that was formed from German when Jews still lived freely in that part of the world. But it’s my language. It’s our language.
I have so much respect for the German people of this modern era and tremendous acknowledgment for the ways German society has come to terms with their past, but I found it disturbing that I still felt ashamed to speak Yiddish, as if I am an impostor of their language, or as if it’s a bastardization of German. I was nervous to even say “Danke schoen” (thank you) since I was afraid someone would laugh at how I said it, or I was afraid that the Yiddish way I say thank you, which is “A shaynem dank” would slip out by accident and I would be “revealed” as the impostor.
No one made me feel this way overtly, mind you. I just had a lot of old voices in my head, I suppose. It was very startling, to be honest, that I still have hang-ups about the language of my people being anything but appropriate to speak exactly the way my mother spoke it to me. I am sure there is more underneath the surface, but I hope that the next time I go back to Germany, whenever that is, that I don’t hold my tongue, and instead use my mamaloshen (mother tongue) knowledge to feel part of, rather than separate from.
Thank you, Aachen for giving me this amazing experience–no, scratch that. Let’s try again:
A shaynem dank!