The Art Of Losing

I haven't been in Berlin an hour before I've moved us here, mentally picking up our lives in California and setting them down in some charming apartment with high ceilings and wide windows, a view onto a sidewalk cafe, the sound of church bells every morning. I'm fickle like this with new cities; it is, after all, how we ended up in San Francisco. I fall in love with a place easily, impetuously, often to the point of distraction. Perhaps because I've never really belonged anywhere for long, I always immediately see myself belonging.


My German is rusty; I've been out of practice for ten years. There was a time, somewhere around early-to-mid 1998, when I might have called myself fluent, or at least fluent enough to have an impromptu conversation without flinching. Most of it's gone now, lost to that cluttered back storeroom at the back of my brain, the place we keep old trigonometry formulas and dead pets and poems we used to know by heart. I picture the words I've forgotten, see them printed on reams and reams of paper, long lists of loss. I'll get them back, I vow, reclaim them one by one. It seems an easy enough plan: I'm in Germany. I'll speak German.

I stage a mock dress rehearsal in the cab from the airport to the hotel,  silently repeating the one thing I need to say when the taxi stops: Kann ich bitte eine Quittung haben? I pause. Is it right? I'm pretty sure it's right. Verb to the end, I think, verb to the end. We wind through the streets of Berlin in the bright afternoon sunshine and I practice, again and again, in my head.  Kann ich bitte eine Quittung haben? Kann ich bitte eine Quittung haben? 

The taxi stops.  I glance at the meter, pay the fare with my crisp new Euros. It's time, I think. I take a deep breath. "Kann---" I begin.

"You need a receipt?" barks the taxi driver. "I'll write you a receipt. Hold on."


It gets worse.

The bellboy brings my bag to my room. I hear the knock on the door and grab a few coins. Vielen Dank, I practice, Vielen Dank, Vielen Dank, Vielen Dank. I can't mess that one up, I reason; I've been saying it on the plane for hours.  I open the door confidently, and the boy smiles at me, hefts in my bag. Gracias! I say brightly, handing him the money. I have officially made the world's most awkward transaction even more awkward.


At dinner, I sit next to the hotel manager, who has never been to America. "You know what," I say, "you should go to San Francisco."

The hotel manager shakes his head. He wants to go to St. Louis.

"St. Louis?" I say. "Well, yes, St. Louis could be nice."

His friend has told him marvelous things about St. Louis, explains the hotel manager: about how beautiful it is, how sunny it is, how the beaches are absolutely wonderful.

"Hang on," I say. "Are you sure you mean St. Louis?"

"Yes!" he says. "Right on the border of Mexico!"

My grasp of U.S. geography is not particularly stellar, but I do know this: I know that the hotel manager cannot possibly mean St. Louis.

"San Diego?" I say. "Could you maybe mean San Diego?"

"Oh, yes!" he says. "San Diego!"

We laugh. I tell him not to rule out St. Louis.


Everywhere I go, I hear the voice of my grandmother, my Omi, whose faint German accent has never quite abandoned her, despite six decades in England. When she still lived on her own, I'd wake early in her flat on the weekends to hear her chatting on the phone to cousins in Frankfurt, nieces in Stuttgart, her voice hushed but happy. And I was happy too, drifting in and out of sleep, the comforting cadence of her words creeping under the bedroom door like a safety net, a guarantee, a promise. She'd laugh, talk, laugh, talk, laugh again. People say German isn't a pretty language, but it always was when she spoke it.


Camels & Chocolate
Jun 09, 2008

I loooove Germany, too. I can see myself living there. Though I've never been to Berlin, so I think I might relocate to Munich instead. I'll come visit you and Sean in Berlin, though!

Glad you're having fun! And I actually really like the German language, though I imagine it never sounded prettier than when spoken by your grandmother.

She Likes Purple
Jun 09, 2008

Such a beautiful post.

Jun 09, 2008

Your posts always seem to make me want to laugh and cry at the same time. I hope your trip is wonderful.

Jun 09, 2008

I was so temporarily excited that someone all the way over THERE actually would want to come HERE. But yeah, the minute he started talking about the beaches, I thought, "I don't know where this poor man thinks he's going, but he is about to be VERY DISAPPOINTED."

Unless he'll be satisfied by the beaches of the Missouri River. And ... well, probably not.

Jun 09, 2008

I love this post!

I agree on wanting to move to Berlin, I'm partial to Heidelberg, myself but really any country in Germany is pretty fantastic and Berlin is certainly at the top!

I laughed out loud when you said "gracias..." only because I've done the same thing myself, sadly on more than one occasion.

Don't you hate it when you try to practice the language and they just bark English at you? Happened to me all the time...I just wanted to reply, "but no, I'm trying to learn the language, stop speaking English."

When I was living over there as a student/nanny, I told this to my employer and he replied, "but we're trying to practice English with you!" Oy.

I completely agree with you re: hearing the language spoken by a native. I've always loved the sound of German, but I guess it all depends on where you come from.

Jun 09, 2008

This is a lovely post!

Jun 09, 2008

that's so infuriating! i was in paris a few years ago, ready to try out my 5 years of french, and whoever i was speaking to either immediately spoke english to me or LAUGHED AT ME. granted, my french was most likely abysmal (not a lot of great french programs in rural kentucky), but at least i tried! ugh, just thinking about the whole experience makes me turn bright red in embarrassment. it was then that i vowed my kids would learn at least a second language from the time they were small. their mom might be a stupid american, but they wont' be!

Jun 09, 2008

I have an affinity for falling in love with every new place I visit, too. Last year I wanted to move to Mazomanie (Maze-oh-mane-e), Wisconsin--population under 2,000.

Jun 09, 2008

Beautiful. Made me well up a bit.

My mom was "Omi." She came to America in 1953 with my dad and my friends always imitated her German (Bavarian!) accent. You made me miss her.

Say HI to Germany for me!


Jun 09, 2008

I know you're travel-weary these days, but lately you've exhibited some of the best writing I've read on and off the Internet. Thanks.

Jun 09, 2008

Ahhh, the wanderer's heart. I recognize yours like my own. Lovely post.
House of Jules

Jun 09, 2008

yes, st. louis can be nice but alas, we have no beaches. lots of germans immigrated and settled here in the past. perhaps they thought there were beaches too?

Gi in SC
Jun 09, 2008

eat some kinder eggs for me and Macht Spass ( doesnt that mean have fun?? i was fluent ... er... 15 yrs ago)

Jun 10, 2008

Your post was lovely, as always.
June is possibly the most enchanted time in this city, and it's no wonder you want to stay! To make matters worse and fall in love with the city a little more, I recommend you go to Schlesisches Tor by U-Bahn, wander down Schlesische Strasse, and make your way to the BADESCHIFF, a swimmingpool and lounge located in the Spree river.
Early in the day is a great time to go, but the evening allows you to take a swim and check out all the lovely bars and restos(San Remo, for instance) located nearby.
This would me my idea of a perfect evening, as well as one of my Geheimtips, although it's not so secret anymore.

Brother Tom
Jun 10, 2008

Beautiful post Holly. This is your best writing.

So, Berlin it is. 12 months from now Ill be there with my Czech girlfriend and my high ceilings.

By the way, I owe you some money! hahahaha.

Jun 10, 2008

Oh, people are wrong. German is a beautiful language. So glad you are loving Berlin. It's the best, best, best. I recommend having brunch at the original Cafe Einstein on Kurfuerstenstrasse (not the one on Unter den Linden).

Jun 10, 2008

My brother is marrying a lovely German girl (who happens to also speak English without a hint of accent), when she started speaking German to her parents I was struck by how lyrical it was and not harsh sounding at all.

I fall in love with places to move to as well. Current obsessions are Milwaukee and Boston. Perhaps also Portland (which I've never visited but feel I would fit in.) OH and Boulder.

Jun 10, 2008

Guten Tag!

This post made me want to work on my German again. I wouldn't say that I was every fluent but I did take three years of it and tested into second year in college on my AP exams.

I hope to get there someday, at least I remember how to ask where the bathroom is :)

Jun 10, 2008

Luisa, I am in complete agreement about the original Café Einstein (and the beauty of German), but... the Einstein is currently undergoing renovation and only the cigar lounge is open to the public. Sadly, they only serve croissants, no strudel, no brunch, nothing!

Jun 10, 2008

my grandmother only spoke german (well, and yiddish too) and you're somehow always sounded prettier when she spoke it.

great post.

ps. St. Louis. hahaha.

Jun 10, 2008

I bet Rachel only wants to move to Mazomanie for the nudist beach. But hey, another reason to come to Wisconsin Holly! Right behind all the glorious cheese.

Jun 10, 2008

I've been reading your blog for quite some time now and have always enjoyed the read. However, I must note as others have -- your writing continues to grow more exquisite, more evocative. What a wonderful post.

Jun 10, 2008

Before my trip to Paris a couple years ago, I learned some basics so I wouldn't sound like a complete ass. I was so excited to tell someone in French that I didn't speak French, and did they speak English? While waiting in line to see a movie, a man approched me and asked me a question in French. I was so excited/flustered that he thought I was a native (!) that I totally forgot everything I had learned, and just shrugged like an idiot. He then turned to the people in front of me, and asked them the same question in English, which they answered in English. I was seething at myself throughout the whole movie.

Jun 10, 2008

Lord, I didn't know you spoke German too, although it shouldn't surprise me.

Picturing the famous "beaches of St. Louis" really made me smile.

Jun 10, 2008

AHHHH. I feel the same way about Berlin & German. A friend of mine might be moving there. I already have dibs on the guestroom. And I felt the same way about practising my German while there too. Also, I was with a friend who spoke none. So everyone assumed I didn't either (or that I WAS actually German, with my little bit of German and excellent accent, not to brag but it is excellent). She went around saying 'Ich liebe Dich!' and 'Auf Wiedersehen...Heidi Klum' while they looked on in confusion. Sigh. I wish I were there now. It must be gorgeous.

Rachael W
Jun 10, 2008

I laughed out loud when I read your "Gracias" response to the bellhop. Something similar happened to me when I was in France for the first time. Even though my dad is straight-up French, I'm not fluent, so I spent a lot of time repeating phrases in my head before I actually said them -- not that it helped. When I approached a woman in Alsace to tell her "I have the same dog as you!", what came out was: "I eat your dog!"

Since I'm fluent in Spanish, I fared better when I lived in Madrid, but people still thought I was from Poland (which is okay, since my dad's dad is from Poland and I don't look Spanish and all) and a servant (not okay).

Gail at Large
Jun 10, 2008

I'm leaving for Germany on Thursday, my fifth trip there, and every single time I go I can't remember any German from the trip before.

Nothing. Nada.

Every other language I can remember something, but I hit a mental block with German, for some reason, and it's totally embarrassing.

Jun 11, 2008

Beautiful post.

I have developed this little theory why Americans think German is such an ugly language. I think it's because all they've ever heard is a recording of Hitler barking at the crowds. Seriously, I've talked to so many people who believe German generally sounds like a Hitler speech.

While this is not true, I have to admit that German might not be the Language of Love. After all, who wouldn't rather hear "Ti amo", or "I love you" rather than "Ich liebe dich."

Yet the prize for the worst possible sound goes to another word. "Schmetterling" is what German speakers use to describe a beautiful, dainty little butterfly.

Jun 11, 2008

Great post! Your taxi story reminds me of the first time I went to France. We were at a restaurant in Alsace, and I finally got my courage up to put my little bit of French into practice. So, I walked up to one of the employees (who was wearing a bright green sport coat I will never forget!) and said "où sont les toilettes?" He replied, "Upstairs and to your right!" Ha!

Jun 11, 2008

This reminded me of calling my mom from my first trip to San Francisco and her exasperation asking me, "So are you going to move there now?" (I was, at the time, just about to move to NY from DC.) I said, "I might." Haven't yet, but still may.

I wasn't even very excited about going to Berlin a few years ago, and then I wound up falling in love with it. There is no immediate danger of me moving there though. Of course, I wouldn't say never.

Jun 12, 2008

I want to finish learning German - I have the rudimentary high school stuff, and I have an Oma, too, with a lovely thick accent and those wonderful European mannerisms even after 60 years in America. It's a wonderful language, I think, with the neuter nouns and the way your mouth feels when you roll the word "Ich" around on your tongue, getting the gutteral Berliner pronunciation just right. Your post is making me think it's high time I got around to finding that German class or buying some of those "learn to speak another language!" CDs.

Jun 12, 2008

Love your blog! I had a omi too. The older I get the more I miss her. She had that lovely soft german accent.

Jun 17, 2008

Thanks so much for a beautiful, beautiful post. You know, so often places like France or Australia are reason for people to gush about, or romanticize them, or just generally miss the fine details about them.

I love how for once my native country has caught someone's attention and then resulted in such great observations...

Truly a wonderful post! :)