I’m in the boathouse locker room after an evening row, and I’ve just come out of the shower. There’s another woman in here who I haven’t met yet; she’s on the other side of a row of lockers getting changed.
I hear her voice reach me from behind the lockers—something offhand, something German. I can’t really make out the words except for two that sound like “fruh” and “dunkel.”
I don’t reply because I’m not really sure if she’s talking to me or to herself, and of course I don’t know what she said.
“Dunkel” reminds me of chocolate, the kind I like, dark chocolate, and I think about how hungry I am, and then it hits me – “dunkel” means dark!
And from out of the blue—whether from the one German class I audited in college (who does that??) or an opera reference, I can’t be sure—I realize that “fruh” means early.
And I look out of the curtainless locker room window and it hits me, Wow! It’s really getting dark early! And I realize Oh! I know what she said!
But by now a full minute has passed, and it seems silly to say anything at this point, and even if I did, what German words could I piece together to respond? Besides which, I’m standing here dripping and half-dressed. I can’t do this now, try to mangle a conversation in a towel. So I say nothing, and the silence starts to feel a little prickly.
I think, maybe she’ll think I’m deaf, or mute, or maybe both. I can live with that. Yeah, I’m ok with that.
I finish getting dressed, and gather my things. By now a couple of other women I don’t know have entered and are talking to my would-be conversation partner. I’ll have to acknowledge them now—in this kind of community setting there is a quotient of politeness that cements civil society, and I know I’ll have to drop the mute act.
I grab my bag and head for the door, and I turn and wave with a friendly “Ciao!” to them all, and the woman who had tried to talk to me gives me a puzzled look and a “Tchuss!” in return, as do the others, and I reach the hallway and shut the door and breathe a sigh of relief.
Hungry, I walk down to the second floor where the café is, and I pull open the wooden door and step inside. It looks lovely, with paneled wooden walls and candles burning on the tables, mostly empty, with a group of men clustered on the glass patio facing the lake. But as hungry as I am, I cannot make myself go further. I am frozen at the magnitude of the effort—to figure out where the menu is, what to order, how to pay; whether to sit alone or join a group of men I don’t know, and so I turn and go downstairs and out into the dark.
The outer gate was locked, but thankfully a young boy had taught me on Saturday that the buzzer to open it was about five feet before the gate, a big red button about the size of my fist, partially hidden by the bushes. I’d overlooked it in broad daylight, and I never would have figured out how to get out in the dark. But there it was, and I buzzed myself out, and began the trek through the fruh dunkel streets up the hill to the S-bahn station, eating every last pretzel stick in my purse that I’d brought to accompany my Dramamine on the way down.
In spite of all this deer-in-the-headlights behavior, I realize there are little successes I’m not mentioning. Such as the fact that I identified a club, charted my mass transit path and found it out on the edge of town; that I have had several fine rows, and am in email contact with one woman who is outgoing and speaks very good English, and knows where the rowers do circuit training in the winter. With time people will recognize me and know I speak English, and they’ll accommodate me without my trying to wade into the conversation with my handful of German words, only to have to back out immediately because I can’t keep up. They’ll just know to speak English with me. And we’ll all be a little more comfortable.