Thursday, March 24, 2011

Brides, Grooms and Swiss Lightning

Some of you who read my post "What did you say?" from March 5 have sent messages to me this week asking how things went this weekend. If you happened to miss that post, on Sunday I had the honor of translating a wedding sermon at our church in Steinenberg. I had concerns as to whether or not I would be able to do this without any problems. I certainly didn't want to risk ruining a very important day for someone.Then again, I am always my worst critic and often underestimate myself.

Luckily, the Pastor gave me a copy of the sermon two days beforehand. That gave me adequate time to look over it, look up any unknown German names, and find the direct quotes from the Bible that were listed. I went to church on Sunday fully prepared.

The bride is the daughter of one of my VHS English students and the groom is the man she met while working as an au pair in St. Louis, MO. In actuality, the two are already married. They were wed in September in the U.S. In Germany they were recently married Standesamtlich (in a civil service at the Justice of the Peace). Standesamt is the necessary, legally binding ceremony in Germany. A church wedding is optional and comes at some time, not always directly following, the civil service. So this was really their third wedding, serving the purpose of including the German family and friends in the celebration. The bride looked lovely in her sleeveless wedding gown and the groom looked dapper. The church was full.

After the Pastor welcomed everyone and said a few words, a friend of the bride sang. She had such a beautiful voice, so strong, clear, and full of emotion. It actually gave me goosebumps. Then it was time for the sermon. I stood up front, beside the Pastor. As decided shortly before the ceremony, we took it in turns. He would say one to three sentences and I would translate. This wasn't a difficult task because I had the text right in front of me. I had read it before. I knew what was coming. Except about three minutes into in, he suddenly started added things that weren't planned. He looked over and said, "Sorry, you'll just have to improvise." No problem. It somehow gave it a more personal feel. Later he began skipping sentences. I just followed.

Once, my translating quicker than my tongue, I stumbled over my words. I started the sentence again, this time more slowly and clearly. All in all I was doing fine. I wasn't even nervous after the first two minutes. I tried as often as possible to look around the church delivering the words directly to people's faces.

Then we came to one of the humorous lines. There were a few. In this one the Pastor made a sign with his hand and asked, "Do you know what this is? This is Swiss lightning." The next line was that the Swiss are considered by the Germans to be slow or to take things slowly, but Swiss lightning is a rocket compared to the pace at which the two of them came together. They first met at a Super Bowl party but never had any direct contact. Six weeks later they finally spoke to each other. Another eight weeks later... well, you get the point. I copied his hand motion for Swiss lightning, and then it happened. My first mistake. Instead of saying, "This is Swiss lightning" I said "This is German lightning. Uh, I mean Swiss...SWISS lightning."

The Pastor replied something to the effect of "Freudian slip? Perhaps the Americans think of we Germans as slow." Everyone started laughing. Then he continued and I went on translating whatever was said until we were through. The sermon was followed by a few songs, then the exchanging of rings and vows which our Pastor did in English. That we had practiced together beforehand. He was concerned about his pronunciation, which in my opinion, was fairly good. Yet, practicing this before the wedding served a bigger purpose. It prevented him from making a major mistake. He had written on his paper, "MP (the groom), do you take MF (the bride) to be your lawfully wedded husband? So we corrected it. Could you imagine the shock and laughter had he said husband instead of wife? Instead, it was I who faltered. I'm sure that good 'ol Swiss lightning will follow me around for a while.

I spoke with the groom's mother and father afterwards. They thanked me and said I did a wonderful job. They seemed like wonderful parents and I think MF will be loved and welcomed into the family regardless of cultural differences. I wish her much luck in her new life in America.

MF and MP are the flip side of Stefan and I. The bride is German. My husband German.The couple remaining in America. Stefan and I living in Germany. But we came together under similar circumstance. Those circumstances were not accidental. As their selected wedding verse (Proverbs 16, Verse 9) says "In his heart, a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps." I certainly never planned on marrying a foreigner (honestly, I wasn't even sure I ever wanted to marry), never planned on leaving the States (though I had planned to high-tail it out of P-town at my first chance),  never even planned on translating at a German-American wedding. Things just happen, and as my mother always says (yes, Stefan and know what I'm going to it comes....) everything happens for a reason. Whether or not we always understand the reason at the time is a different thing. Perhaps my translating at the wedding was merely to show me that I could do it, that my German has come a long way, or that I, too, have a purpose in this world. Who knows.  I was just happy to help.

My friend Mandy wrote to me. She said "So glad that you enjoyed yourself. So next time you get asked there won't be any hesitation or doubts on your part - cos you know that you are a star!"  Well, she's right about one thing--I won't hesistate to do this again--but I would never consider myself a star. I am "just a regular gal in a crazy world." The bride--she looked stunning and, as it should be, she was definitely the star of the day.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Books, Twists of Fate, and Sushi

TV.  If kids are entertained by two letters, imagine the fun they'll have with twenty-six.  Open your child's imagination.  Open a book.  ~Author Unknown

I was an avid reader as a child. My husband was as well. So it is no surprise that our daughter, Katarina, shared our love of books at a very early age. By the time she could sit up on her own, she was holding books and flipping pages. As soon as she could string sentences together she was memorizing her favorite stories and "reading" them to us almost word for word. 

When Katarina was two and a half, we moved to Germany. Therefore, she first learned to read in German. Imagine my surprise when she came to me near the end of first grade and proudly announced, "I can read in English, too". It's terrible to admit this--right here in print for the whole world to see--but I didn't believe her. I responded, "Really?" Then she opened up the new English book I had planned to read next as our bedtime story , and she started rattling off the text as if she wrote it herself.  I guess she simply applied the reading techniques she learned in school to help her do the same in English. 

She in now 12 and in the sixth grade. Her love of reading, in both English and German, results in many local library trips and I had to resort to the policy of "whatever you check out you must carry yourself" or else she'd bring 20 books home every week. Not only does she read them to herself, she also reads to others and she is very good at it. So, when her class was considering who to pick for the "Lesewettbewerb", we hoped she would be the one.

Lesewettbewerb translates as reading contest. I guess you could say it is like a spelling bee but a bit more involved. It takes place every year in Germany in sixth grade only. It is a big event. The children must read a book, prepare a short speech about what happens in the book, and practice a passage from the book (about 5 minutes). There is also a question and answer phase. In the second half of the competition, the readers are given an unknown book and told to open to a particular page and start reading. This is the harder portion of the contest.  The students are not just judged on how efficiently they read but also on the way they read. Do they have good intonation? Do they make the book exciting for others to hear? The judges are looking not only for children who entertain themselves with books but for children who entertain others while reading.

Katarina's class needed to choose a girl and a boy to represent their class at school. There was much debate as to whether Denise or Katarina should be the one. In the end, the teacher picked Denise. I had one very heart-broken girl to cheer up that day. I reminded her of the year she didn't get a lead role in the Christmas musical at church. I told her to approach the supervisor and let her know that if anyone became sick or unable to fulfill their role she would be willing to step in for them. Lo and behold, one child's family opted to take a winter vacation over Christmas time and she got a part.

Funny how fate steps in at times, isn't it? Three weeks before the school reading contest, Denise became ill. Even worse, the problem affected her vocal chords. One week before the event, her still weak voice gave Katarina the opportunity to step in for her. And to top things off, she won the school competition. She received an award certificate and (appropriately) a gift voucher to the local bookstore. For the next round she would need to read a new book by a different author.

Two weeks ago she represented her school in the county competition. We needed to drive her there and no one from the school accompanied us. Unfortunately, parents and others were not permitted to be present during the contest. For two hours we occupied ourselves in the town, looking at the old buildings, walking up to the church, having an espresso at a cafe'. All the while, I wondered if she had read well, if the others had read equally well, if we would bring home a happy girl or a disappointed girl. 

When we reached the building, they were just finishing. The children came out to join us as the judges discussed. Twenty minutes later the kids were told a decision had been reached, and we were ALL asked to step inside. Katarina whispered, "I think Monica will win. She read very well." As mothers do, I secretly wished they'd call my girl's name instead.

The announcement came. Apparently the judges had a difficult time chosing between two of the candidates but had finally decided to pick a winner, that winner being a girl.  This narrowed things down and filled me with hope (and a bit of nervous tension).  Katarina said when they called her name, she almost couldn't believe it. She shook the judges hands, said her thank-yous, and commended the other participants for their good performances. Each child received a book for participating, and Katarina received an extra book. The newspaper took photos, there was a brief moment of good-byes, and then we took one extremely proud and happy daughter home. On the way she began talking about finding a good book for the state competition. She also spoke about her reward. We had told her if she won we would take her out for a victory dinner. Of course, we couldn't go immediately. Not only was it already late on a school night but the restaurant she picked was an hour from home . She wanted to go to Aalen to the all-you-can-eat revolving sushi bar at Kyoto's. We went there this weekend and I've got to say, not only is she a wonderful reader, but she's damn good at using chopsticks.


Saturday, March 5, 2011

What did you say?

No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby, - so helpless and so ridiculous.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Imagine traveling to another country, a place where you have no idea what people are saying. Perhaps you've had this happen to you already. I know I have. I remember clutching my French-English word book like a Bible during my stay in France. With its help, I managed to order meals, ask for directions, and buy stamps at the post office. However, I must admit that several times I needed to point to the words on the page because my efforts failed. My pronunciation was obviously way off. Many times the words I needed were not listed or I didn't have enough time to flip through the book to find all the necessary words. At those moments I just smiled and relied on the ol' hand and foot method. Yes, I felt ridiculous. Even after trying to prepare by listening to French language tapes before the journey, my skills were less than adequate.

When I went to Hungary to attend a wedding, I didn't even bother to try learning, because it seemed like an impossibility. No offense to my Hungarian friends but it is a hard language. Besides, I don't think I even had access to a course or materials. I figured it was only a few days and then I was off to Germany and Switzerland where my then-boyfriend (now husband) could translate for me. We were completely lost at times in Hungary and ordered our food by what I call the “good luck method” which is basically holding the menu, pointing to an entree, and saying a little prayer. One night three of us poked our orders to the waiter and when they arrived, none of us were happy until we switched the plates around. In the end, we all ended up with a suitable meal, but it didn't always work out like that. And when my boyfriend ended up with a severe kidney stone, we only managed to get help by phoning the groom who just happened to be a doctor.

Words are wonderful when you can understand them and use them. Imagine sitting through a church sermon and not understanding one single word. My pastor said to me yesterday, “If half the people can't understand what I am saying, then who am I preaching to?” He's absolutely right. His words are wasted on deaf ears and that half of the congregation is bored. My pastor's dilemma is that he will be officiating a wedding this month with a German bride and American groom. Many of the groom's friends and family will be attending. After much thought, he called and asked if I could translate so that the foreign guests would also understand what was being said. I've never done anything like this before so it is rather exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. Translating menus for my mother when she visits is a normal task and simple enough but the thought of translating a sermon is a bit scary. It is much more involved, not only in regard to vocabulary but also in feeling and tone, and the whole atmosphere is different. Yet, I know I'll get through it. And if I stumble somewhere along the way, really...I am in a house of God. I guess he'll help me out, right?

Habt ihr auch Geschichten über ein Fremdsprache Problem? Erzähl es mir. Oh, sorry. Just trying to make a point there. What I asked is if you also have a story involving a foreign language dilemma. If so, please share it in the comments box. Go ahead. Give me something to laugh about.

To give you my own example, when I first starting teaching English, I knew very little German. One night in class I brought a snack and knowing that some of the participants are very health conscious I tried to explain that there were no artificial sweeteners or preservatives. I knew the word for sweeteners but not preservatives and it wasn't in my book, so I said in a German accent “No sugar and no--preservatives?” Everyone started laughing and said “I hope not.” You see, Präservativ in German is the word for condom. When they explained what I had said, I am sure my face turned red, but I learned a new word that night...

and it is one I've never forgotten.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Welcome to the new blog!

I've been wanting to start this blog for some time. Most of my friends have blogs. The majority write about the nuances of their lives---how the children are growing and changing, family gatherings, vacations, local events, being snowed in for the Super Bowl. Other friends have less personal blogs, ones with a particular slant—book reviews/literary discussions, culinary adventures, musing about music or the arts. Themed blogs are quite the rave these days. Do a search on themed blogs and you'll discover blogs dedicated to all aspects of tatoos, highlighting one food, or offering tips on ice sculpting. One man even blogs exclusively on railroad photography.

Considering that anything goes these day, one would think it is easy to start a blog. So, what has taken me so long, you might ask. Lack of time? long can it take to type some thoughts into my laptop. Proscrastination? Definitely not. More the opposite. Over the past few months I've spent plenty of time thinking and planning the ideal blog topic. That's more the root of the problem. I could identify the criteria for my blog but was unable to find a topic to fit.

Here is what I wanted.
  1. Not a regular blog. After all, as my friend Anke says—normal is boring. That doesn't necessarily mean that I wanted an unusual theme but I wanted more than just the this-is-me/this-is-my-life type blog. In fact, I wanted to talk as little as possible about my life.
  2. I wanted to focus on a topic which featured something I love (but somehow tiramisu didn't inspire any words of wisdom).
  3. I needed a topic that would offer flexibility. I don't want to constantly post about the same thing. The theme needs to be broad enough to allow for diversity and perhaps a bit of creativity.

So, what do I love that involves flexibility? (a-hmmm....get your mind out of the gutter, folks) Words. (yes...I really said words.) I am a bit of a word junkie. While others are moving to the beat of a song, I'm groovin' to the rhythm of the words, rolling the rhymes off my tongue, lost in the sentiment of the lyrics. Good literature, word puzzles, puns, or meaningful conversation with friends are all drugs I can't resist. So, what will you find here? That depends on the muse—one day a book review, the next my thoughts on a quote, maybe even a bit of poetry. But one thing is for certain: you'll always find words. After all, what are blogs made up of, anyway? Words.

If words, language, and literature are not your things, I understand. Perhaps you'd be more interested in something more spicy like chicken wings or sweeter like cupcakes. Ice carving? Tatoos? There's always that railroad photography blog for you train buffs. If those things are more your style, here are the links.

Feel free to visit my other blogs at: