"Another Newbie Story" by Chuck Smith
This article originally appeared in Esperanto USA, December 2001.
I step off the airplane in D√ºsseldorf and find myself immersed in German airport signs directing me to passport control and baggage claim, when the memories of planning this trip return to me. I had been wanting for several years now to go to the Internationale Spieltage Spiel, the largest board game convention in the world. I remembered thinking back in February that if I learned Esperanto I would be able to stay with a family near Essen and not only save money, but get the feel of what day to day life is like for a German family without having to speak German fluently.
I was lucky enough that one of the first bags out was mine and I passed through customs and started looking for the familiar green flag as I was instructed. After walking up and down the terminal a few times, I finally found my host, Heinz, and three others waiting for me. "Saluton!" I didn't expect to find four Esperanto speakers waiting for me and I was a bit overwhelmed, not to mention exhausted from the flight, but was pleasantly surprised to find communication easy enough in Esperanto, which was a good thing since none of them had much command, if any, of the English language.
After Heinz dropped the others off at their houses, we went back to his house and I promptly went to bed, which is an uncommon luxury for international travelers, since hotel rooms often do not let new guests into their rooms until the afternoon. After I woke up, I was a little surprised when I met the family and realized I would be speaking a mixture of four different languages in the same house. Let me explain: Heinz's wife is from Spain, so all of their children are bilingual Spanish and German and when I arrived I assumed that my Spanish was better than my German, but after being greeted in Spanish, I realized that it was quite a struggle to speak because I hadn't practiced it in about half a year. By the end of the trip, I realized that my German was a lot better than my Spanish even though I had no formal German lessons and had three years of Spanish in high school.
The next morning, Heinz's son, Mike, drove me to the Essen fair and said he would pick me up that afternoon. I was a bit frustrated being thrown into an environment hearing people speaking German all around me when I only knew barely enough German to get by. I quickly learned "Sprechen Sie bitte Englisch?" and "Kann ich da√ü enkaufen?" to use to speak with the vendors at the game stands. About half could speak English and half of them answered that they spoke only a little. I also had great difficulty trying out the games that were available to play for free because I couldn't easily find a group who would want to speak English to play.
At the end of the day, Mike came back and picked me up and said that I could join him for his friend's birthday party tonight at the pub. Luckily, he spent a month in Canada last year so he knew English well enough to communicate with me. I couldn't believe that knowing Esperanto would let me be able to find out what it is like to hang out with friends in Germany. I also learned a lot about living in Germany from two of his friends who were willing to try their hand at English and I tried to speak German as much as possible even though I felt like I barely knew how to say anything. Afterwards we went back to Mike's apartment and watched The Matrix in German and listened to a few German CDs and went to bed.
A few days later, I went up with Otto and Elena to Krefeld for an Esperanto day. This would be my first gathering speaking Esperanto where I wouldn't be able to fall back on my English, so I was a bit nervous. I found it quite pleasant to be able to speak Esperanto all day and not have to speak German except to order my meal at the Italian restaurant. Of course I also enjoyed the bit of extra fame that comes with being from the United States at a small gathering and I was wearing my USEJ t-shirt.
Our day started with a quick snack followed by a walk through the city with a tour guide who spoke German and an interpreter for Esperanto. One Esperanto beginner in the crowd asked the interpreter if he was really necessary because she believed that everyone in our group could speak German. He replied, "Ne cxiuj" and I heard myself saying, "Jes, mi ne parolas la germanan." It seemed to me that about 10% of the group could not speak German. There were about 60 people there from 7 countries: Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Russia, Bulgaria, and me from the United States.
After this we went and watched a professional make pottery which he explained in German with an interpreter to Esperanto. It was very interesting, but the room was getting hot and, not really liking the idea of listening to an interpreter, I left and talked a bit with a man from the Netherlands who explained to me that he was used to listening to interpreters frequently. He also explained that one reason that more people in the Netherlands can speak English is because they use subtitles on our movies, so they pick up more English words, whereas the Germans dub theirs.
Finally, I was very impressed at the end of the day by the bilingual (Esperanto/German) Catholic mass for those who wished to attend. The songs were sung in Esperanto and German at the same time and different people spoke to us in German with Esperanto translation or in Esperanto with German translation making for a very interesting worship experience. After this, a few of us went back to the Ebel's and had Russian soup for dinner and a few concluded the day by visiting the Karelia Internet Esperanto chatroom (http://karelia.komputilo.org/).
My final day in Germany, I traveled to the University of M√ºnster because I am considering studying linguistics there next fall. One of my friends from the USA is studying there and their professor of linguistics, Dr. Rudolf Fischer is an Esperantist! Rudolf met me at the train station and showed me around the city and was surprised how well we could communicate after I only had eight months of study in Esperanto. He showed me the best places to buy stuff and I enjoyed the private conversations we could have in the stores there.
I was lucky that he was having an Esperanto seminar that evening (unfortunately for me, in German), so he let me sit in on his class and he announced to the class that they had a visitor from the United States who speaks Esperanto. After the class, another student, Uli, came up to me and we talked in English and she told me that she plans to take the Esperanto course that Dr. Fischer offers. Today, a month later, I received a letter from her in Esperanto, and although it was not perfect, I was able to understand her well and that was only a month after she started learning!
After this, I met my friend Steve from the college I attended in the states and although I enjoyed his company, I felt frustration at places because neither of us spoke German well at all. I realized what non-Esperantists must feel like when they visit other countries and hang out with people from their own country. Everyone I met was very helpful and friendly and now I can't imagine visiting another country without knowing Esperanto.
With that I jump into the deep end of the pool. What will this Nova Esperantisto find? Stay tuned for further reports in future issues of this newletter.