July 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

“The limits of my language are the limits of my universe.”

A very dear friend of mine once used this quote to explain her pursuit of multilingualism. I recalled it tonight in the checkout line of H&M, which was open past midnight for the Mitternacht festivities — a midnight shopping spree at the wonderful Königsplatz, where capitalist splendor takes on gingerbread trappings.

To my American sensibilities, it’s a capital-L Luxury to have two H&Ms within walking distance. With an unidentified twinge in my heart and a universal remedy in mind, I went in search of hair clips and bands and found a glittering heap of them in the sale section. When I went to ring them up, however, no discount registered. And I, isolated in my Anglolinguilism, could only hand over my cash.

Sometimes I have been surprised at how contentedly my days pass here. Thanks to the miracles of Skype and text-messaging, I have seldom felt homesick.  But looking back at a line stacked thirty people deep, my soul wilted; and any frail thought of working my way back through it ebbed away when I considered that I had no words for “mistake” or “refund,” anyway. It was a very lonesome realization.

I wanted desperately to be in my own living room, surrounded by people who understood me without talking, but it was the middle of the workday at home and I was an hour from my computer. So I found myself an Apotheke instead and bought some nail polish, something Mamma always told me to do if I was sad. Sure enough, my mood was brightened by the shades. Isolation is easier to bear in glistening fuchsia.

And then I decided to scorn isolation altogether. I  found my host family, and together we found eis and earrings, and my host sisters told me their favorite Märchen, and I told them mine. I was grateful that, although the language was twice filtered through, awkward and halting,  their stories of der Froschkönig and die zertanzten Schuhe were universal enough so that I recognized them, and could share my own.

We came home, and I pinned my hair back and plastered three coats of pink on my fingertips as I practiced my German pronouns. If language can keep me from customer service, imagine all the life stories it holds me back from. Tonight, my universe was reduced to a 6-hour time difference and an overpriced bow. We need to weather the headaches of circumscription and isolation and welcome the further headaches of datives and nominatives and overcome them.  It’s uncomfortable, but we need to modify the modern fantasy that everyone speaks English, so English-speakers needn’t worry. Perhaps the discomfort spurs us along the way to a less limited universe.

(It’s a toilsome and homesick road, but so be it. E1.95 is a small price to pay for a bit of momentary consolation, meanwhile.)


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