Hagen tries to explain to me how he constructed the large graceful patio on the back of the Brandt family home in Bad Duebin near Leipzig. He is a joyous man, large, fleshy in a pleasing way, strong, capable, deep of voice, teeming with energy, a man with a hardy laugh and a ready sense of humor. A man who chooses beer over wine. (His preferred beer comes from the north of Germany near the Danish border. It has a plastic cap held down by a complicated wire mechanism, which when released makes a dramatic popping sound as if it were a champagne cork.) The signal announcing an incoming call on his cell phone is a revving automobile engine. He cruises the autobahn at a hundred and sixty kilometers per hour, but rigorously obeys all speed signs. As a boy in the former German Democratic Republic he had been a competitive fencer and one of the many things he still does is referee matches. A husband, the father of two, busy with work, you got a problem, Hagen will be the first to jump up and take care of it.
And he built the patio on the back of their house, built it by hand. As the two of us stand beneath the eves on its inner edge, our backs to the sliding glass doors just out of reach of a passing thunderstorm, Hagen tells me how he did it. Except he doesn’t speak English and I understand virtually no German.
The surface, now being splashed with rain, I learn, is composed of tiles made from rosy granite. (At least I think whatever word he uses means granite, though it could be a kind of marble. He’s clear that it was very expensive.) Beneath the granite (or whatever it is) is a thick layer of crushed rock, the preparation of which he explains to me in detail but I cannot understand, though I am convinced it took a lot of time and effort. He swears there is no glue or cement holding the tiles to the crushed rock, though how they are secured, or if they are, is a mystery to me. The only cement used was in the perimeter foundation, which he tells me rises a meter above the ground and is set a meter down in the ground. The trench for the foundation was dug by him with a pick and shovel, and it was not easy. I try to formulate simple questions but even if he understands them, only rarely can I understand his answer.
So it goes when you are in the language gap. Here information is fragmentary and frequently wrong. I have known Hagen for almost twenty years, and Margaret, his wife for more than thirty—she was thirteen I believe when I first met her and Knut her older brother and Renate their mother, who is my wife Nina’s first cousin. I have known Hagen and Margaret’s son and daughter (Erik and “little” Nina) since they were babies. I knew Ernst and Elsa who were Renate’s parents, Margaret’s grandparents and Erik and Nina’s great grandparents. I have stayed in the homes of these people, eaten at their tables, showered in their bathrooms. I am part of their extended family and they are part of mine. I know something of their trials and triumphs. I care about them and they about me. And yet I cannot talk to them and I understand very little of what they say to me.
Another fellow is Rolf, the husband of Inge, Nina’s half sister. Rolf is a gregarious one. He has a springy, leg-swinging walk as if he were a sailor who had just come ashore and was ready for some action. He likes to keep the top buttons open on his shirts to display his hairy chest. As we go about our day, take an outing to a lake, or drive into Poland for lunch, or visit their charming garden, he chats with neighbors and passersby. He talks and they chuckle and I know the exchange is charming and clever and I get none of it.
When Rolf drives I sit in the passenger seat and listen to him. His commentary about the road, the traffic, the other drivers, is, I suspect, at times angry, at times hilarious, and I understand almost none of it. He probably thinks I understand more than I do, but even if he knew I understood nothing he would still talk, I think, because that is what Rolf does.
Through Nina I learn something of Rolf and Inge’s recent trip to a spa in Poland. I learn the latest news about their grandson Leonard, and how Inge’s delicious herring was prepared, or that the nest we are staring at is that of a stork. But it goes by too fast. Nina cannot translate every sentence. And even she, bilingual by most definitions, does not understand everything. “Where are we going now?” I ask, confused as usual. “I think…,” she begins.
What a strange phenomenon language is, how profoundly complex and subtle. Fluid, always in transition, immersed in the dynamic culture from which it springs, a language is ever on the move. Even a conversation between two native speakers is, I suspect, less precise, and more clumsy than we suppose. We think something, then we try to express it, and what comes out is only an approximation of what we were thinking, and what the listener understands is only an approximation of what we said. And yet it is an amazing skill, a delicious gift, the sharing of which gives us some of our greatest pleasures. Indeed, a language is all but useless unless it is shared.
And a “foreign” language? Is it a bit of a myth, or an exaggeration, to say that a “foreign” language can really be learned? When we say that the waiter in an Italian restaurant speaks English, what we really mean is that he can explain the menu, talk about the wine, take your order, chat a bit about the weather or the countryside. Ask him for an analysis of his country’s political structure, or his and his family’s relationship with the Catholic Church, or his thoughts about the immigrants flowing into his country and you will soon run into the gap. His thoughts, assuming he understood you and that he chooses to share them, will come out as hard, narrow slivers of the complex rush of ideas coursing through his mind.
There are degrees of skill, of course. People are said to be bilingual, or multilingual. They flow from one language to another, mix them up, can give and take. But the ones I have met confess that when they venture outside their native tongue, they feel themselves skating on the surface of a lake, the depths of which mystify and confuse them. “A Dodger? What is a Dodger? And a Brooklyn one?” “Daffy what?” “Duck? Daffy Duck? What is that?”
My father-in-law, who grew up in Germany but who has lived in the Unites States for seventy or more years, speaks English in such an eloquent and seductive way that listeners are held in thrall. And yet it is always an effort for him; he feels himself often talking from the edge. And now, after all these years, his German threatens to fail him. The skills that without a conscious thought he learned as a child have become blunted. The language itself has moved away from the decade and the village where he learned it. On the phone talking with relatives back in Germany he is a man rushing to catch a departing bus.
The language gap is a painful place to be. I want to understand this family of mine. I want to catch the nuance, the joke, the worry. I want to give voice to my own personality. I want to show them who and what I am. And yet none of this can I do.
As I was writing the above words of self-pity, I remembered the two attractive young women we met on a bridge over the Seine while we were in Paris. Each of them held a clipboard and a pen, and on the clipboard was what appeared to be a petition. The document was in French, of course, with a title followed by a paragraph of text and below it lines for signatures and addresses and perhaps space for a donation. The young women were aggressively seeking signatures on the busy pedestrian-only bridge. They would step directly into the path of an approaching person, shove the clipboard at them and shout something. I assumed I could not understand because they were speaking French, but then I realized that the harsh, forceful demanding sounds were grunts more than words. To get free of them we each signed on the clipboard, having no idea what it was we were signing. It was only as we were leaving that I realized that the two young women were deaf-mutes. They could not speak to anyone in any verbal language. The sounds they made, the aggressive physical mannerisms they displayed were desperate attempts to communicate, to break through the wall of isolation, to cross the language gap that surrounded and imprisoned them, that spread in every direction they looked and extended as far as they could see.