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Impressions by Priyanka Borpujari

Do you speak German?

By the time I was 15 years old, I could speak four languages. Today, I speak six. But Germany humbled me. I could read the words. I could pronounce the vowels and
 the consonants. Yet, I could not decipher the language. My pronunciations were wrong. In the two months of living in Hamburg, I felt myself becoming meek. Google Translate could help only up to a certain point. 'People are busy, and I am intelligent. I should be able to learn the language through the many phone apps,' I thought.

But not knowing the language frustrated me. Is that bottle in the aisle a shampoo or conditioner? You want money, yes, but how much? I just throw out all the coins I have, and allow the cashier to pick them, causing the queue behind me to get edgy. I would pick my stuff and rush to the door.

A humiliation as this was not something I had expected with my education.

At the train stations in Germany, the British Union Jack would give me a sense of relief, because that meant an English translation: something perhaps my dead grandfather, who had fought against the British with Gandhi, would never have imagined.

One day, at a station where I was buying a ticket, a woman muttered, “Entschuldigen…”

She began to speak in German, and I interrupted her: “Ich spreche kein Deutsch.”

She didn’t stop talking and said “Altona” several times. Then she showed her hand forward, and then backward, several times. She wanted a return ticket to Altona. I assumed she wanted me to buy her a ticket, but nevertheless I typed Altona on the screen. There was no option to choose a return ticket.

I turned to her and pushed my hand towards the machine, and a nod to indicate yes. Then I pulled my hand back, and nodded sideways with a frown, to indicate that getting a return ticket was not possible. I repeated the act a few times, until she got it: she too shrugged and said okay.

She put in a 5 euro note into the machine. Few seconds later, the coins came out rattling. She picked up the coins and the ticket. She was to receive 2.90.

Earlier in the day, around 8:57 am, I had asked someone for a train, and the person had responded in German, but had repeated, what seemed to my ears as “Noin Zero Noin.” I guessed that it meant that the train would arrive at 9:09.

Remembering “noin”, I showed the woman a V with my fingers to show her two, and then I said, “noin zero”. She did not understand me. I picked up the 2 euro coin from her hand and put it into her other palm, and then began to count slowly each of the 10 cents coins. She was happy, smiled, said “Danke schon!” and walked towards the platform.

I was in a daze. Three months earlier, I was illiterate with German. And now I had helped a woman with buying her a ticket.

My anger I had carried within me for two months, towards the German world, for making everything so damn difficult with only German signboards, had been suddenly dissipated with this singular incident of someone asking me for help, in German.


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