Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The German lesson (T 8 - Austria 1960s)

(Eighth traveller’s tale – April 1965) 

The Youth Hostel wasn’t where it was supposed to be, so we pulled up beside an inn, in this small town in Austria. I rehearsed a little speech in German and asked the girl behind the bar for directions. She in turn asked the customers at large, and while they were reaching a consensus a man at the back called out, in German, “Give him a room; I’ll pay for it.”

I ignored the call, but she repeated his words in English. What to do? He and his female companion, both in their forties, were well dressed and appeared respectable, but who knows? In German I told him, “My girlfriend is waiting in the car, but thank you.” The offer was immediately extended to my girlfriend. There was no polite way out, and the waitress nodded her assurance that the couple posed no danger to our virtue, so Linda and I hustled our basic luggage upstairs, washed and brushed, and came down to thank our host.

For the next ninety minutes, though it was probably only twenty, I told him our life stories and answered his questions in the most brutally mutilated German grammar he and his wife could ever have heard. Linda always supplied words that I couldn’t call to mind, in any language, but I had a better feel for pronunciation, so most of the dog work was mine. The couple were patient, and the wife sometimes supplied words that Linda didn’t know. When I finally stumbled to a halt from mental exhaustion, he said fluently, “We can speak English, if you like.”

The bastard! Why had he let me stammer on so pathetically for so long? “It was good practice for you,” he smiled; “Your German’s not all that bad.” Why was he paying for our room, so kindly? “Somebody did it for me, once, when I was about your age and travelling around Europe. I’m passing on the favour.” We ate and drank and enjoyed each other’s company until the bar closed; we never saw them again.

In the places we’d been before then, German was not a popular language, though a lot of older people remembered it from the wartime occupations. We had used it from time to time, from Turkey up through Bulgaria, Rumania and Czechoslovakia. Our German number-plates misled people, so every conversation with a stranger began, in the local language, “We are not German; we are English.” Only then, could I speak my ungrammatical German without fear of rejection. I had permitted a mechanic in Rumania to rip the car apart and replace the differential ball-bearings, because I happened to know that German kugel meant “ball”, and I figured out the rest of it from his gestures.

The only other time the car needed attention was months afterwards in Minsk, in what is now Belarus. Fed up with pumping up the tyres every morning, we decided to get them fixed by an expert. (My January blog post titled “Ararat” told how they had gotten so soft.) A young Intourist translator drove with us to the city’s sole car-repair shop – a vast yard that catered for every car in the entire country, it seemed. Well! All the workers rushed over to inspect our tubeless tyres. No tubes? Impossible! What keeps the air inside? Ah, well, that was the present problem...

In the end they cheerfully put tubes inside the hitherto tubeless tyres, and I tipped them generously with our illegal roubles (“Russian Roulette”, March blog), and Linda made the girl cry by giving her a new pair of nylons, carried unopened since London. (Nylon stockings in the USSR were as rare as tubeless tyres.) Did we speak English or German with her? I honestly can’t recall. If German, we would no doubt have taken a quiet moment to salute the efforts of our mentor back at the Austrian inn.