Here’s a short tableau for you that illustrates the difficulties of living in a foreign country and learning a foreign language.
I have the flu and have been off work for three days. I am bored rigid sitting around my flat or lying in bed. I bought the complete ten hour DVD boxed set of “Jewel in the Crown” at the weekend. Normally it would take me a month to watch it all. I finished it last night.
So I clean, I dust. I wash up. I prepare my lessons like a good Scottish English teacher should do. Still I am bored. Still my flat smells of infection. I decide to walk up to the high street, get some fresh air and do some shopping. I will always find something I want because I only moved here last year; there’s always something the house needs.
During the ten minute walk into town I remember that I need a doorstop. Whichever country you live in, doorstops are not easy things to come by. It seems that you either own one or you don’t. They don’t seem to sell them anywhere. I mean, which kind of shop would you go in to buy a doorstop?
Well if there is such a shop then Herne is the place to find it. We have any number of shops selling brightly coloured cheap plastic household goods from the former third world. I reckon my chances are good.
But then it happens. I realise I don’t know the German word for “doorstop”. Now I know I told you that I speak German without an accent, like a double agent in a bad spy film: and I do. I’ve bought a flat in German, translated medical texts into German, started and ended relationships in German. But like the double agent with the near flawless language skills, every so often I give myself away with fatal consequences.
In shops, this happens to me every five years. Mr Bilingual goes in, speaks to the lady behind the counter, then has to admit he doesn’t know the one word which lends the dialogue any meaning. It’s like Casanova having an off night. “This has never happened to me before”.
For what it’s worth, the last two times it happened to me were in 2005 when I wanted raffle tickets (German: Lose) and 2009 when I wanted a kazoo. The last one was embarassing: the German word for “kazoo” is actually Kazoo.
So anyway, I walk into the first cheapo shop, Tedi. The place is piled high with cut-price junk. Lime green furry dog baskets, neon pink lamps for the garden, fans that you can connect to your mobile phone. “Can I help you?” says the lady. “Just looking, thanks.” She cannot be allowed to know my weakness.
I spend three quarters of an hour in Tedi. I find nothing. I go next door to Euroland and go through the same procedure. Bright blue cake moulds they have. Orange breadknives that bend the first time they touch a loaf of bread they have hundreds of. I buy a week’s supply. But door stoppers? Not that I can see, and I’m sure as hell not going to ask. I wander around for half an hour, pay for my breadknives and leave.
By this time I am beginning to question myself. Is “doorstop” the correct English word even? Or is it “door wedge”? It’s so long since I used that word that I can’t quite remember. Have I heard the German word somewhere before? Türstopfer maybe? No: as a compound noun that would mean something that gives a door constipation. Türstopper? Better, but I cannot be sure. I go into Kodi.
Kodi has a bright pink and purple sign and is full of colouful paraphenalia for your home, including…doorstops. I find that out after half an hour when I see one. Unfortunately I can’t buy it. It’s not just any doorstop: this one has a built-in alarm. By now I can understand why doorstops need alarms: They are so difficult to find that people resort to stealing them. But I want mine for the kitchen door and I don’t want it to go off in the middle of the night.
At least now I know the German for “doorstop”: it’s Türkeil. Now I just need to know if it takes the masculine, feminine or neuter definite article. Der, die oder das? I decide that doorstopping is quite a manly activity and so choose der. Now I can apply the indefinite article (ein Türkeil) and, because my door stop is masculine, phrase the sentence using the accusative case. “Ich suche einen Türkeil”: “I am looking for a doorstop”. Help is at hand.
I ask the lady, who shows me the one with the alarm on. I’m ill, tired and don’t want to repeat the whole story so I say it’s too expensive (it costs €3.49). I go back to Euroland. I ask. They understand. They don’t have them. I go back to Tedi. They know me in there by now. I ask. The lady seems genuinely sorry for me when she tells me they don’t sell them.
I take the tram three stops to the DIY shop. Knowledge is power. I head straight for the section where they sell the kind of door stops you screw to the floor and there I see my prize. I pick up a grey, rubber door wedge and take it to the counter. It costs 59 cents. I go home and try and find out whether my new possession is der, die oder das. The internet doesn’t know. Probably no German would know. Very often they don’t.
The whole process has taken the best part of a day. Time is money: precious when first pushed into your hands, but ultimately far too easily misspent.