This is how old I am now – whenever I meet mums under 30, they seem like teen parents to me. Also, the other day, the U-Bahn driver looked like a teenager too – actually, to be honest, he looked like he was about 12. This is how you know you’re getting old, you notice the U-Bahn drivers and other parents look like high school kids.
I met a British single mum at a playground in Lichtenberg the other day.
“How old are you,” I asked her. “You look about 12.”
“I’m 26,” she said.
I gasped in horror.
“You poor thing. A single mum – and so young – and your baby is so young – and your family are all in Britain and you don’t even have a man to rely on!” I looked at her with so much pity. “What are you going to do? How are you going to cope? Have you told the Jugendamt you need help? You’re so young, you’re so vulnerable, how is anyone ever meant to cope in a position like this?”
Suddenly, I remembered that I had been in exactly the same position she was in now, all those years ago, back when Tempelhof was still a running airport and all the Nettos were called Plus. It hadn’t seemed that bad at all. It had been kind of fun. I can’t remember much, but I don’t think things were that unbearably horrific to tell you the truth.
We sat at the side of the empty playground, shivering, and made small talk.
“Don’t you think the Germans wrap their kids up too warm?” She asked me. “Like, just because it’s winter, doesn’t mean it’s Games of Thrones-type weather? They always insist on the kids wearing hats and scarves and gloves and a thousand pullovers? And they keep the heating on too high in the kitas? This is why their kids are always getting sick! Libby hasn’t been sick once this year. I come from a family who lives in a really draughty old house, you know.”
Something about the way she said the words ‘family’ and ‘really draughty old house’ made me decide she was secretly an aristocrat and had grown up in a stately home.
“That’s something I could blog about,” I said.
Her face turned to stone.
“Do you blog for Exberliner?” She asked.
“Yes,” I said. I could tell she was, like, physically shaken, visibly paled, all that sort of stuff.
“Your rant made me cry,” she whispered bleakly, and honestly, I don’t think I have ever felt more guilty about anything.
“Which one,” I whispered back.
“The German one,” she said. I took in a deep breath. “The German one?” I asked incredulously. “Are you sure you read it properly?”
“I KNOW I should learn German,” she said, breathlessly. “I know I should. And I know I would, if I tried to. Well, I think I would. But I just don’t have any money – I have no money – I am a single mother on benefits!” She exclaimed, looking at me angrily. Secretly I added the words with an aristocratic family who all live in a mansion in my head. “If I have any money left over from raising my child,” she paused dramatically, “I spend it on things that are, you know, good for my mental health. I don’t think paying for a babysitter and a Volkshochschule course and then spending, like, Thursday night struggling with der die and das would be very good for my mental health!”
“No,” I agreed. “It sounds like that would be terrible for your mental health.”
“And I don’t have the money at the moment.”
“You shouldn’t have cried,” I said feebly. She was really pretty, and blonde, and delicate – like a teenage, fragile porcelain doll version of the secret spy woman out of Sherlock. “It wasn’t having a go at people like you. It was having a go at arrogant men. Not people like you. You’re not arrogant about it. You see not being able to speak German as a failure.” Which it is, I added secretly in my head, but not out loud. I didn’t want her to start crying right there in the playground.
“It made me cry for half an hour,” she said.
“Blimey,” I said and sat there and thought about what I had done and how I could make amends.
So: This is the thing. I am so fucking priviligiert on the German-speaking scale, the only people more privileged than me are people who are naturally good at languages and grammar and accents and stuff (bleurgh) and those secret bilinguals you meet at parties sometimes and they pretend to come from Dorset but it turns out their dad comes from Dorset, they spent a year there when they were four, but they actually grew up in Hamburg. We’ve all met them. I know I am privileged, I have German GCSE, German A-Level, a German Bachelor’s, I have lived here for half my actual life and my entire adult life, I have two German-speaking (more or less) kids and I am, basically, practically German now. I don’t want to make any less privileged people cry, this is the opposite of everything I want to achieve in life and through writing. BUT: I don’t think you necessarily need money to learn German. Here’s some top tips for learning Deutsch umsonst bitte:
1. First up, there’s this 100 percent totally free course you can do online with Deutsche Welle: There are videos, audios, podcasts – and classes ranging from A1 to C!
2. Second up – sign up for this e-mail course at Learn German with Oliver! Oliver will send you daily exercises, written texts and apparently addictive online games. Why not spend that time you waste on Angry Birds on the U-Bahn improving your German skills
2. Watch dubbed movies. I am not a sociopath – I know you’re not about to go and watch Last Christmas in German, or put the Marriage Story or Working Moms on in German. I mean, the only way I would ever ever EVER do this is if I fell in love with some non-German person (not being racist, I am imagining a Mongolian here) who for some reason had an eye infection and couldn’t read sub-titles and he was really really REALLY good-looking and there were no German movies on for us to go and see. MAYBE. I am not suggesting you do anything WEIRD and UNNATURAL and BARBARIC and HORRIFICALLY DISGUSTING here. But – and, like Nicki Minaj’s, it’s a big but – if you have kids, you can go and watch shitty cartoons in German, can’t you. And by shitty cartoons I do not mean Frozen 2, obviously, I mean Cars and stuff. AND: you can watch all your old favourite movies – the kind of films you know off by heart – Dirty Dancing, Pretty Woman, Home Alone, Blink in German. Just for fun, I am not sure if fun is the right word. Watch Dirty Dancing in German with English sub-titles. Then watch it in German, with German sub-titles. Then watch it in German WITH NO SUB-TITLES. Okay this might sound like a bit of a basic hobbylose activity but let me tell you, when you are done, you will be able to say “ich habe eine Wassermelone getragen” like a pro.
4. Watch German stuff. I know, I know. It’s hard and it’s depressing. The trouble is, any German stuff which is actually artistically worth watching is linguistically pretty highbrow and often a lot of the characters have cancer and/or get betrayed to the Stasi by their families. I personally think if you want to learn German, you should watch one tacky reality TV show/soap a day. I am sorry for being such a Basic Betty here. They are AWFUL. In a way I find those tacky shows on German TV worse than the British or the US-American ones, because the English-speaking ones are all about how can we bitchily yet subtly suggest that you’re not quite good enough, whereas the German ones everyone just spends the whole time going: “das geht gar nicht soll das einen Geburtstagskuchen sein?” But the language is simple enough for you to follow, and the central conceit of the shows is always so clear and simple to grab hold of that you can use logic to make up for what you’re lacking in linguistic comprehension. If you watch German TV online, like on the official ARD website, you can put sub-titles on, by the way. And of course Netflixers have sub-title options too. A show I really liked – I didn’t love it, but I really enjoyed it – was Dogs of Berlin. It was fast in a way German shows often aren’t, and a bit silly at times, and relatively unjudgey.
5. Give yourself a new word to try out each day – or even seven. Try and shoe-horn random German words into a sentence and say it to a stranger in the street or a neighbour or a German mum at the kita. Your word for today is Backpfeifengesicht – the kind of face you just have to slap.
6. Integration courses. This tip is only free if you are on Hartz-IV, otherwise, they give you half your money back when you pass the integration test. Contact BAMS to find out the integration course nearest to you. Warning (I know this from a friend of mine who did one) they will tell you that the German flag is black, red and gold. IT IS NOT GOLD, IT IS A HORRIBLE YELLOW.
7. Don’t worry about grammar, fuck that shit. Honestly, either you’re good at grammar, in which case you don’t need to worry about it, or you’re like the rest of us, and it’s totally hard, and you’ll never get good at it. Fuck it, man. I once interviewed a little old Turkish lady who had lived here since she was 20 and been evicted from her flat and I don’t think she got one of her ders, dies or dasses right the whole interview but you know what IT DIDN’T MATTER HER GERMAN WAS BRILLIANT SHE WAS BILINGUAL. Don’t worry about grammar. It’s meaningless. Germans are never going to use the present, perfect or continuous properly and we are never going to remember when you say das Teil and when it’s der Teil and it literally could not matter less all you need to do is get those words out your mouths, baby.
8. Put on the radio. There’s not just telly, you know. Put the radio on and half-listen. Do the washing up. One day, when you’re bored, you’ll listen more. And then one day, when you didn’t even notice you were that bored, you’ll suddenly notice you listened to an entire documentary about Ernst Thälmann and okay maybe you didn’t understand every word but you kind of understood every sentence. And that, my friends, is a beautiful feeling.
9. Duolingo. I don’t need to explain too much here. That owl’s a bit of a smug cunt, though.
10. (This is the hardest bit) Read in German. Don’t read anything too hard, or the words will just close up like you’re Sylvia Plath and the German language is enclosed in a Dornröschen thorn bush of impenetrable black letters. Don’t read anything written before the late 20th Century, except Kafka. Kafka’s good. Read (don’t kill me here) read the B.Z and the Berliner Kurier. Unlike the UK equivalents, the Sun and the Mirror, these are written so that people with limited language skills can read them, there’s hardly ever any crazy puns or weird rhymes and alliteration. Please take everything they say about Lanternefest with a pinch of salt, they have to sell papers somehow. If you are too left-wing/cool for skool and you would rather die than read a proper tabloid, you can read taz in simple language, go to the bottom of their website and click in einfacher Sprache. If you’re a bit of a gossip girl, read InTouch magazine. Try to read Spiegel, but not too much. You don’t want to get a headache. I wouldn’t want to make you cry.
The reason English-speakers don’t learn German is not just laziness, I think. It’s a really interesting mix of laziness and cowardice. As English becomes more and more important, our linguistic dominance gets clearer and clearer, and then the idea of being weak, being rubbish, making a mistake, words not flowing off your tongue becomes an even more uncomfortable one. Let go of your ego. Learn German. And have fun. It is a horrendously difficult language – but speaking it is a lot of fun, too.