By the nature of having an office that covers all of Europe in a multi-cultural city like Berlin, my colleagues are quite cosmopolitan. Maybe we don’t tick the definition’s “sophisticated” box, but we’re well versed and worldly on the whole. The fact that I speak only English with an educated-but-not-so-practiced understanding of Spanish makes me feel quite inferior at times. (The fact that I keep our translation projects moving is another story.) More importantly, I have constant opportunities to learn, and I value that personally.
On paper, I’m learning German, but in reality I’m learning much more. While we’ve been on a break for most of April and May, I’ve taken classes in levels A1 and A2 over the past seven months. (Europe has a standardized system for measuring language proficiency and designated courses: A1, A2, B1, B2, etc.) I’ll be resuming lessons again soon with the same teacher, and I am honestly eager to return to having my brain re-wired with German vocabulary and grammar in the 8 am sessions. Nothing like the mind-wrenching confusion of 30+ German articles for a breakfast buffet, am I right?
While business predominantly happens in English, the conversations around me at work are peppered with Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and French, and German pops up everywhere in my life. As someone who’s highly attentive and observant of my environment, it helps to have conversations around me in other languages. For one advantage, there’s no need, desire, or ability to be distracted by eavesdropping. When I step out of the office at the end of the workday, I sometimes surface a conscious reminder: “Stephen, you’re in Germany. Be prepared to hear German.”
Admittedly, I’m rarely prepared enough, but I try! I would benefit from a tattoo on my forehead that reads: “I’ll try to understand your German if you speak slowly for me.” Fortunately in Berlin, I can almost always switch to English in public interactions. When I’m out and about and want to practice my German pronunciation, I simply read the signs around me and listen to other peoples’ conversations, merely to train my ear in hearing the sounds. I think it’s working, more or less.
Nonetheless, I socialize quite a bit with my colleagues, and I’m pretending to fit in to each of their backgrounds and languages. I’ve learned one Italian sentence: “Posso havare un panzerrotto per favore?” (Can I have a panzerrotto, please?) An affirmative response – “si” – should be followed by “grazie mille” (thank you very much). All of this must be said with grandiose Italian intonation and gesture. While that’s all the Ital-lingo I’ve learned, there are some critical lessons about Italian culture that I wish to impart on my non-Italian readers:
- If you want to order a sandwich, order a panino. Panini is plural, and we ignorantly look like hungry misfits when ordering “a panini” in Italian.
- Don’t serve cheese with fish. Ever. And if you’re offered cheese – for example, grated parmesan – on a seafood dish in an Italian restaurant, you better second guess their origins.
- Don’t serve chicken with pasta. Ever. This one blows my mind. What was my American childhood? According to my sources there is no chicken pasta primavera in Italy. I’m sorry for all of us who have been wronged.
- And if your heart isn’t broken yet, I’m sorry. Fettucine alfredo (and the whole concept of alfredo sauce) is an American invention that you won’t find authentically in Italy.
I’ve got a short trip to Malta coming up in July. Maltese? Italian? English? If I’m not lucky, my brain will switch to Spanish when I return to Germany, like in 2011 when I returned to Denmark from a weekend in Germany. And if I am lucky, I’ll avoid any culinary sins and misconceptions.