I Don’t Speak German
I ran into them at a party, a husband and wife team. He teaches German at one university, she teaches it at another. They hail from San Diego, but they speak flawless high German, all their declensions in perfect order.
The husband was going on about their recent trip to Germany, how he corrected the German of native speakers in Munich, Dresden and Bremen, waitresses and streetcar conductors and porters. They were speaking English at the party of course, but now and then they’d throw in a six-syllable German word to intimidate anyone present who thought they knew a little German themselves.
And then the woman I was with blurted out, “He speaks German!” She meant me.
The German-language professors turned their heads slowly in my direction, like cannon turrets on the Siegfried Line.
“Oh?” the husband said. “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
I stared at him.
“Did you understand my question?” he said. “I asked if you speak German.”
I lit a cigarette and blew out some smoke. “Du bist ein Arschloch,” I said, and his smile faded.
Everyone around the table was beaming. A real conversation in German was about to get underway.
“Wie bitte?” the husband said. He couldn’t believe his ears.
“You heard me,” I said. “You’re an asshole. You don’t speak German, you speak German words. Talk to me after you’ve had to talk down six German riot police who’ve just kicked in your door. After you’ve done a ten-hour shift washing dishes in a Munich restaurant and are riding home on the Strassenbahn talking German with a Turkish co-worker, the only language you have in common. After you’ve picked up your four-year-old son from your parents in Newport News where you left him for a month, your son who’s never spoken anything but German, and while walking to the corner and back with him, trying to explain how things got so fucked up and why you left him alone in a strange house in a strange land with strange people, he cuts you off and in heavily- accented English says, ‘I don’t schpeak German. Schpeak me in English,’ and you can’t say anything in any language for the lump in your throat…”
There was silence after that. And then the husband said, “Try saying all that in German. I’ll bet you make thirty grammatical errors.”
Everyone at the table looked down, except the man’s wife, who was staring at him as if she’d never seen him before.
I got up from the table and walked out onto the patio and across the dark lawn, that lump in my throat from so long ago back again, as if no time had gone by at all.