I always dreamt of seeing Europe (the castles, the quaint villages, the timeless cities) so as soon as I was old enough I jumped at the chance to study foreign languages.
My first French teacher, Madame Burkholder, had us spend all our time memorizing dialogues in which we pretended to be young French students going to the library. It must have worked because after three years, the only phrases I remember to this day are Ou est la biblioteque? and Le matin papa apporter mon frère, ma soeur et moi au musee du Louvre
Two phrases I have never ever used in all my travels. Who asks to go to the library in a country where they can barely speak let alone read the native language?
In high school I decided to branch out to German.
My teacher, Herr Asmus (that really was his name), looked just like Ichabod Crane. His class was held in the same room used for Sex Education. Thus my most enduring memory of Hairy Asmus was of him turning to a diagram on the wall beside him and snorting in disgust “How can I be expected to teach German with this giant penis staring me in the face????” We spent most of our time pretending to be tour guides. The only phrase I remember from that class is: Im Jahr 1950 König Ludwig der Zweite hatte diese berühmte Schloss geschlossen.
Since no one in Germany ever asked me when King Louis the Second closed his famous castle, I never had a chance to use that phrase either. In fact the first person in Germany I tried to communicate with was a cleaning lady. That experience inspired the following scene from the Graduation Present. Riley O’Tannen has just spent her first morning in the tiny town of Gunthersblum trying to communicate with her uncle’s cleaning lady (Putzfrau). Around noon she receives a call from her uncle and takes off for Worms where he works hoping to have her first real german meal, but instead she is picked up at the train station by the intriguing young man she met the night before, Gil, and driven to the Officers’ Club for a burger.
“Your uncle’s only on his first martini,” Gil explained wryly. “So, he sent me to get you. He’s only got an hour for lunch which doesn’t leave a lot of time for …”
“Booze.” I muttered to which he laughed.
When I’m nervous or self-conscious I become a regular Chatty Cathy and so it was with poor Gil as we drove through the streets of Worms. First he had to hear all about the train station that was also the Post Office, the conductor who thought I’d changed identities between stations and kept demanding to see my passport, the Putzfrau and her cleaning fetishes and finally, regretfully, my confusion over the two toilets in Uncle Bob’s bathroom.
“Well, that seals it,” he teased. “You are a country bumpkin! The second toilet is a bidet. It’s for washing up that part of your anatomy after you go.”