By a rare stroke of infernal good fortune, I chanced to tune a German program on Radio Natick (Mass.) just as the weekly lesson Auf Deutsch gesagt commenced. The last time I participated in a German lesson was in the park in Passau, where I fell in with a true grandfather who, like me, had come to sit on a bench and watch the dogs exercise their masters. It was a Sunday, and every dog in Passau was out with his family. He was what may be termed a dear little old gentleman, and he seemed to have title by seniority to the bench, which overlooked the Inn River, for he spread his hands and welcomed me with a proprietary gesture when I approached. I joined him with a feeling I was being honored, but decided curiosity was on my side when he asked if I were an outlander.
In the postwar days of my sojourn along the Danube and environs it was no great trick to tell an American from other people - you just looked at his shoes. As this old gentleman lifted his eyes from my feet he had an expression of I-thought-so. He asked why I should be on a park bench in Passau on a late fall afternoon (which is all one word) and I told him I was learning German.
He took over, and in about two-and-a-half oom-pah tunes by the musicians in the bandstand he taught me more German than I had learned in two years at college. He began with reisen, fahren, gehen, and various derivatives and compounds that have to do with moving about, as in go, walk, ride, travel, run, pass, voyage, perambulate, and similar English locomobilities by foot, wagon, bicycle, train, boat, and balloon.
The afternoon passed apace, pleasantly and profitably. After he shook hands and shuffled away, I sat there sorting his lessons for future reference. In the weeks to come I was amazed at how many useful things he taught me in so short a time. The German lessons I had in college ran largely to conversations I never had. The same with more recent tilts such as this Auf Deutsch gesagt.
In college, the only Germans I met were Karl and Anna, and both were
always engaged in curious pursuits and talked of strange things. One of my lessons in college had the sentence, ```Fire! Fire!' shouted Karl, `the whole house is ablaze!''' This is a handy thing to have at your tongue's end under certain circumstances, but it is not geared to German affairs.
I have spent many months in West Germany, and have seen all parts closely and have mingled with the people. And such is the nature of German architecture and the extreme caution of the German people that I have never seen anything more dangerously aflame than the candles in sugar beets during the St. Martin's Day parade. I have never had occasion to shout ``Feur! Feur!'' Since learning to shout ``Feur! Feur!'' cost my father some 10 acres of potatoes (tuition was cheaper, then), the value of college German may be moot.
Another sentence I remember from undergraduate days ran like this: ``How sweetly the birds sang in the garden last evening, Anna.'' (As I recall, Anna answered, ``Ja, how sweetly they did, indeed, Karl.'') Just why Anna and Karl were engaged in this stimulating conversation was never explained to me, but I do remember that I thought at the time the textbook was undoubtedly written by somebody who lived near a fire station with a garden out back.
Another gem from college went: ``Why don't you apply to the old farmer, Karl?'' I can't remember what Karl replied, but later in Germany I found there is little percentage in applying to an old farmer. One old farmer I talked to was a Torbauer, a man whose soil was so poor he didn't crop it, but cut it up and sold it for fuel. The peat farmer, in Germany, is a joke, ha-ha.
Having now found, by chance, this German lesson on the Natick radio, I settled back to refresh myself, and the man teaching the thing said today we would start with a new German word: Taxi. He said the German word for taxi is taxi. I think it is also the word for taxi in any other language.
Next I learned that I have two suitcases and I wish to be driven to Alpstrasse drei. I tell the taxi driver that my English is good, but my German is bad. I also tell him I am a Swiss, which is not so. Next I realize I'm in trouble, and I ask (this is not in the lesson) to get out, with my two suitcases. It has occurred to me that I don't know anybody who lives at 3 Alp Street.