Friday, July 22, 2011

Auf Deutsch!

Written at Munich Airport while in transit to Romania:

I'm tired as I write this. Munich thinks it’s 11 AM, but my body knows better. A flight on Lufthansa (there’s no other way to travel) has just shot me six hours into the future.

What do you do in at the airport in Munich while you await your connection to Romania? Well, you have a beer, of course! I mean, you’re in Germany. They invented beer, didn’t they?

While that seems that it ought to be true, it really isn’t. Beer making probably developed in the Middle East in the Bronze Age and may have even antedated the development of bread.

But for Americans, the German beer making tradition is something we have an inferiority complex over. Most of our own native beer production is openly marketed as being of German origin.

But obviously I digress. And that’s because I’m so tired. Where was I. Oh, I remember the point I was trying to make. It wasn’t about beer, but about the German language. As I’m standing in line to order my beer at Wiener’s Der Kaffee (, a German ahead of me orders food. And the attendant behind the counter ask, and I understand ever syllable of it, “Und zu trinken?” “And to drink?”

Now, an English speaker should be able to understand that, especially with all the paralinguistic clues flying around. Not to mention the fact that the exchange was composed entirely of cognates. But even so, I had a thrill of pride about being in a foreign country and understanding a bit of the language there.

Now, my background in the German language goes pretty deep into my childhood. As a young boy singing in the choir at the Lutheran church of my nurture, we had sung a piece that contained both Latin and German, Michael Praetorius' Psallite:

Later, in pre-confirmation catechism classes, I learned the German original to Luther’s famous quote, delivered to the Diet of Worms, “Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders” (Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.)

In my particular case, and this would certainly have never been the intent, I believe that the memorization of Latin was not insignificant in my eventual draw to more historical expressions of the Christian tradition, leading to my current constitution within the Orthodox Communion.

But that wasn’t the end of my German studies. I would eventually self-study and pass an exam for my doctoral studies, “German for Graduate Reading Knowledge.” There was a course and everything for this, but I didn’t take it. Instead I studied hard and passed the test all on my own.

At the time I passed that test, I had created a thousand hand written vocabulary cards for German, memorized them German to English and English to German. And then I let it all fade away. Now, in my defense, in the years after passing that test I would go on to learn Arabic well enough to serve at the Top Secret National Security Agency in the capacity of an Arabic linguist.

But even so, I regret that I did not, from time to time, read through those cards and keep my German on some semblance of life support. Maybe it's not too late.