Learning German – Oma and the rooster

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Oma was nearly as wide as she was short. She shuffled around the yard in my old, beat up, Nike sport shoes which she had fished out of the trash. Her bunions ached all the time so my super-sized, worn-out shoes suited her just right. Most of my husband’s family and friends just called her „Oma”, but she was always “little Oma” to me.

We had a polite relationship. She was my husband’s grandmother and the future great-grandmother of the baby growing in my belly. It was 1998 and to Omas’ dismay, I was still thin and strong, climbing mountains in my pregnancy whenever I could. She was determined to keep me at home and fatten me up with her delicious cooking. She lived in a little flat upstairs in the house that we shared but she shuffled in and out of our private lives as often as she pleased, huffing about and calling out to me to eat around the clock. If I went anywhere, there was food waiting on the kitchen counter when I returned. If I locked the door to the flat, she simply jimmied it open with some tools from the workshop. She rarely knocked before entering our flat. She simply butted the door open with proprietorial flair, knowing damn well that we couldn’t be annoyed if she was bearing food. These meal offerings weren’t because she particularly liked me, but they were a direct food chute to the baby that she was looking forward to feed and spoil to pieces. She was so short and I am so tall, it felt like she was always talking to my belly anyway.

I had a wary respect for little Oma mostly because I couldn’t really understand her Schwabian German dialect. By the time I was able to understand her, we had thankfully settled into an unspoken, mutual agreement that we would be civil to each other even though she barged into my flat unannounced at least six times a day. She also had a passion for doing laundry and a drive for washing all color and form out of our clothing. We wore grey, limp and lifeless clothing because we couldn’t stop her from sneaking in, collecting clothing (regardless if it were dirty or clean) and washing everything on the hottest cycle.

Oma was suspicious of me because it was inconceivable to her that I could just stroll right into Austria without knowing one single word of German. It was like a personal affront to her. She asked me over and over, “ Why don’t you know German? Didn’t you learn a little bit of German in America?” She would scrunch up her eyes and crinkle her nose like she couldn’t quite see me straight. She said all this in a dialect that I could just barely understand but her voice was thick with disapproval.  At the beginning, she was proud that she could outdo my German skills with her English. She had learned a few lines many years before when visiting her sister in America. She was proud to count from von, two tree….all the way past tventy-two. And she had been trained to politely ask, Vill you kiss my Asch?

One day Oma confronted me with a small, wilted, green plant in a white pot. She pointed to the pot and said du muss giessen. I had never heard the verb giessen before and now she was demanding I do just that: giessen. In my mind it could have meant anything but it certainly didn’t sound to me like water the plant – which was exactly what she was telling me to do. So I formed my own sentence with a different verb that sounded, to my ear at least, a lot more correct. I told her that I had indeed irrigated  the wilted plant. Ich habe bewässert. She looked at me and squinted, which meant that I had said something wrong once again. I repeated my sentence trying out all the verbs that sounded like water in German; wassern? wasser geben? gewässert? Wasser on the pflanze? She looked at me, disgusted. GIESSEN! she snapped. She was going to stand there and wait until I got it right. I was desperate to know what she was demanding of me. Prune it? Throw it out? Fertilize it? All I needed to do was water the poor thing but she stood there demanding that I excercise some brutal german verb upon it.

So, I did what every language beginner does, I acted it out. Like a bad street mime in large, exaggerated sweeps of my arms I pointed to the plant and pretended to hold a watering can over the wilted leaves. I acted out a cascading rush of water over the thirsty plant. I shook pretend droplets of water from the canister in my hands onto the wilted plant she was clutching to her chest. I finished with what I thought was a confident German sentence; me already irrigated!  She had to know what I was talking about! She just turned her back on me and shuffled away, grumbling about what I can imagine was a growing list of all my verbal shortcomings. I was left on the doorstep alone, confused and insecure about my language skills and my failed attempt to speak with my hands and feet.

We limped through our days together like this communicating but not comprehending each other. There was no talking around a word. If I didn’t know the word for spoon, I would describe it as the thing you eat soup with. She would impatiently give me the words in German but it really annoyed her.” Löffel!” she’d snap at me.

Then Oma got sick and I began taking her to doctors appointments and became her caretaker. She was pushy and stubborn with others, but her and I maintained our polite relationship. She even  began to hide her disgust at my bad German. But only slightly. I didn’t want to get into arguments with her like she did with so many others in the family because I knew from experience that she nearly always won. If only Oma had showed a bit of mercy with my poor German, my life would have been a bit easier.

One day I took her to the doctor, led her into an overfilled waiting room and got her a seat to ease her aching feet. She had put on stiff, barely used orthopedic shoes in place of the comfortable Nikes. I approached the receptionist behind a small window where she told me politely that Oma needed to do a Harnprobe, which is the  German word for urine sample. I hesitated, asking her to repeat what she said, knowing full well that my American tongue had not been yet trained in the acrobatics it entailed to roll my rrr’s enough (but not too much) to say Harrrrrrnprobe. And I knew from experience that Oma was not going to make this easy for me. So I asked the receptionist to repeat what she said, listened very carefully to her German pronunciation and turned to the crowded, quiet waiting room and Oma patiently waiting for me. I knew that I had just one shot to say it correctly.

I carried the word like a fragile offering  across the room to Oma, carefully laying the words down like a sacrifice and secretly praying that she wouldn’t make me her victim. “Oma, du muss ein Harrrrnprobe machen”, I said with a slightly rolled “r”. And to my relief, it didn’t sound like I was rolling a potato in my mouth, I had said it beautifully! I was so proud of myself. But Oma still looked confused. Unfortunately, she had a hearing problem and hadn’t actually heard my perfect pronunciation of urine sample. So she said very loudly:  Ein WAS!? Ein Hahn? And I replied loudly “Ja Oma, ein HAHN (a rooster). I heard someone in the waiting room chuckle.  I knew I hadn’t said the right word and my first beautiful pronunciation had been wasted on her. Under the scrutiny of the crowded waiting room she thought she heard that the doctor wants a rooster from her and that’s exactly what I repeated back to her. The word was just hanging there large and wrong and all cock-like, waiting for her to completely belittle me with her face scrunched up and her constant disappointment in my poor language skills. How could she not hear the similarity between Harn and Hahn? And why would she choose the farm animal (Hahn) over the medical word (Harn) while we were sitting in a doctor’s office!

My face turned bright red and I could see the people in the waiting room trying not to laugh at us. I decided then to get it all over with as quickly as possible and resorted to my formerly unsuccessful and lousy pantomine skills: I formed my hand into the shape of a cup, pointed to the inside, looked her right in the eye and said loudly  PEE PEE IN THE CUP, OMA! To my relief, she got it.

From that day on, we limped our way through hospitals, supermarkets and flower stores. I continued with hundreds of poorly written half English and German grocery lists when she could no longer accompany me to the shops. She taught me how to say “cow” and “trash can” in a Swabian German dialect, she taught me the German names of all the plants and flowers in the garden, impatiently pointing out the weeds with a cane as I plucked and trimmed them on my knees. She showed me how to tie a homemade pretzel into shape and she fed and cuddled my first son as often as she could. She cooked and baked up a storm nearly burning down the house twice in the process.

Mostly, Oma taught me patience and instilled in me a strong perseverance in learning German even through many embarrassing and humbling situations. Not everyone was as domineering as Oma was about my first attempts at German. But she is my history, she is the beginning of my language acquisition. She is my experience and personal connection to language that no German course in the world could ever have achieved. She will always be a part of my story.


A note:

Finding the right words in another language can be a creative, positive experience if you have a willing listener. In fact, it can be charming to hear how beginners creatively talk around a word. Over the years I’ve heard and often resorted to such descriptions. Here’s a short list:

Lawnmower (Rasenmäher) The loud machine which you push around to make grass shorter.

Laundry detergent (Waschpulver) Powder for washing the clothes

Gravy boat (Sauciere) A pouring boat for meat juice

Lid (Deckel) The hat for a pot.

Toilet plunger (Toilettensauger) The stick for the toilet that makes things go down again

Spatula (Pfannenheber) The thing used to turn over Palatschsinken (crepes)

Fertilizer (Dünger) Plant vitamins

Weeds (Unkraut) Bad plants

Garden Hose (Gartenschlauch) the long thing for putting water on plants

Matches (Streichhölzer) Sticks to make fire

Lice (Läuse) Small animals in the hair


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