Haunted By Homes

Der Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher: A stunning example of the magnificence of the German language.

“No matter how you get there or where you end up, human beings have this miraculous gift to make that place home.”

Creed Bratton, The Office

Luci and I halt abruptly in front of the kitchen/toy/hardware store window display on Hauptstrasse, because I’ve spied a familiar word.

Beside an elegant box containing three ceramic egg-cups and a strange metal tool, there is a sign, advertising “Der Eierschalensollbruchstellenverursacher.” Roughly translated, it means, “This thing should break the egg at a specific point.”

German words fit together as endlessly and seamlessly as Lego bricks, so there are perhaps hundreds of words like this one, most of which I lack the proficiency to interpret. This one, too, would have been out of reach, if not for one simple circumstance: This massive word was the name of my first Upward Bound team, in the summer of 2010, the summer before I moved to Kandern. Instantly I’m dragged back to that July, the start of all these adventures, when I still thought of German as a quirky novelty, to be explored and tasted, like new flavors of cheese or chocolate in this new land.

Today, German feels different; less novel than useful, less foreign than familiar. Luci and I have been running errands out on the town, weaving a circuitous route of the greatest hits of life here. We first evaluated our park options, settling on the Merry-Go-Round Park over the Slide Park, after which we kicked a soccer ball around in the gravel and traversed the stump forest, pausing only for a brief spin on the colorful rope carousel. Then, we navigated empty stroller and walking Luci down to the thrice-reopened bakery for a chocolate croissant and pretzel, which we munched happily at the only public picnic table in downtown Kandern. We went to try on shoes from the sale rack at the local shoe store, and after 10 solid minutes of German-only discussion, left with two cookies and new hiking shoes for this summer’s adventures. We returned bottles at the store, stopped by a massive, community-wide garage sale, then returned for our groceries on the way home. A busy, productive sort of Saturday.

Arrested by the familiar, bizarre word in the window, reflecting on the morning I’ve just spent with my daughter in our town, I’m struck by how very much home this village has become. There is still so much more German to learn, so many more people to know, but today Kandern–even Germany–feels like a well-loved sweater, the one whose smell and softness have almost become a part of you after so many winters spent together.

Yesterday, one of my students–a bubbly, Korean-American girl–lamented that we didn’t have an Arabic class. “If I could just take AP Arabic, if that existed,” she said, “I would be awesome at it.” Surprised at this declaration from a student I didn’t know well, I asked her where she’d learned Arabic. “Jordan… and Syria. We lived there for eight years.” I nodded, thinking about the events behind her pause, about the turmoil she’s left behind to live in Germany. Still, I suspect that if I asked her where home was, our little village might not make it into the top two.

This season has been haunted by homes. My own, the beautiful two places I’ve been fortunate enough to live and love. But mostly my students’ homes, places around the world that they’ve loved and lost, places that have made indelible impressions on them, so strong that they mark their lives not by grades, like most children, but by where they were living back then.

When I lived in Kenya. We had just moved to Moldova. When I was a kid in Bangladesh. Right before we left Pakistan.

Though our students sometimes encounter real trauma from those places, what continues to surprise me is that, more often than not, they also bring a strong sense of belonging and identity, even from places where they have never–will never–look, speak or believe much like the people who surround them. They will refer back to their North American passports once in a while, missing Chik Fil A or Tim Hortons. But they’ll also tell me that passion fruit reminds them of being kids in Tanzania.

The long and ridiculous word in the window, and all of the memories it recalls, provokes a flash of understanding. I think about today, the little interactions in this little village that would have been impossibly difficult and foreign eight years ago. I think about how there will be a loss in letting go of this mastery and the belonging that came with it, even in exchange for a place that is almost as familiar. Someday, like my student, I’m sure I’ll find myself saying, “If I could just take AP living-in-a-tiny-German-village, I would be awesome at it.”

Instead, I’ll let these courageous teenagers inspire me with their flexibility and curiosity, their marvelous capacity to, as Creed Bratton of The Office says, “make that place home.” There are more words to learn, more people to know, and there always will be, in old homes and new ones.


Of Prayer {From A Puddle of Yogurt}

“Do you know what this means?”

He pushes his workbook over to where I’m sitting on a couch in Maugenhard’s living room. I’ve helped set up an ice cream sundae bar tonight, and made a blueberry coffee cake now in the refrigerator, ready for Maug’s dorm mom to toss in the oven tomorrow morning. Now I’m sitting in a busy rectangle of boys, all in various states of studying. I squint down at the workbook, and realize the instructions requiring interpretation are in German. That’s a new one.

“Actually… yes. It means… Complete these sentences. Actually, it means Make whole these sentences,” I comment with a smile. The nuance of the language isn’t as interesting to him as it is to me, but he seems emboldened by the translation. He asks about a few more words, and I ask him how he, a French speaker living in Israel, came to be in second-year German.

“Took it in France. Seventh grade. So… I’m missing some words.”

I nod, understanding, and he points down to a new word.

“How about this one?”

“Um… dauert means lasts, sort of. Like, How long does it last?”

“You know your German, Mrs. Gaster.”

I can only laugh and shake my head, because lately that’s not how I’ve been feeling. At all.

Flash back a few days, to when I ran errands around town after school. There was the insurance agency, where I needed to cancel insurance I thought I’d already cancelled, before I got a bill for said insurance in the mail. Then the cobbler, who told me he could not fix my defective new Birkenstocks, at least not with the original… whatever the German word for buckles was. I never found out. In any case, I’d have to return them, a mail-order process involving a double-sided form I can’t really read, all to explain that yes, I’d like the same model in the same size, just not backwards-buckling.

This errand-venture ended at the grocery store, usually a haven of mastery. I understand this place, Hieber’s, which is a size of an average Seattle local grocer. I know where most things are. I even negotiated–in German–the exchange of a bag of quinoa a few weeks ago, when a newly-purchased supply proved full of moths. I’ve got this, I said like a crazy person, reassuring myself that I know something of the language and culture I’ve spent four years with.

Except that when I reached up for a pail of yogurt, on a top shelf well above my head, it brought its poorly-placed neighbor crashing down to the floor. This second pail exploded, sending yogurt and plastic shards everywhere–the floor, the dairy shelves, my feet in their flip-flops. I was marooned in a white sea, speechless.

And every German word escaped me. What does one say, stranded in a puddle of yogurt? What would I even say in EnglishJogurt… um… fallen? Gefallen? Kaput? Who even knows?

I stood there for a while, catching the raised eyebrows of other customers, but unfortunately no store employees. Several minutes later, an off-duty cashier spied my predicament. Just as I opened my mouth to ask the question I didn’t know how to ask, she said, in German, “I’ll get someone to help.” Hilfe–help. That’s the word I was looking for.

I stood around a while longer, stood in the yogurt as friends, neighbors, colleagues walked by, eyeing me sympathetically, until a large floor zamboni and roll of paper towels came to my rescue. I went home crestfallen, yogurt-covered, tired.

This week at Black Forest Academy, Dr. Richard Alan Farmer has been speaking with our students–each morning in a special chapel before school–about prayer. Different types, postures, reasons for prayer, which he calls “conversations with Papa.”

I love this. And my struggles with language lately make me think of prayer and its many varieties. On occasion, like with the quinoa, I know exactly what to ask for, with just the right words, and I am overjoyed when God responds to me, right away, exactly as I expect. More often, though, I find myself crying Puddle-of-Yogurt Prayers, cries of my heart when I can’t find the words. And while I may find myself endlessly frustrated with my own inept grammar and sparse vocabulary in German, God isn’t so picky. How marvelous to know that He hears, He knows, He understands.

Even when I’ve been feeling particularly speechless.

Things (And Mostly People) That Made Life Better This Year: 2012 Edition

Black Forest Academy–this ever-changing community of staff and students that flow in and out of this little valley on the edge of the dark hills–is a place of tradition. Do something once, whether it’s dumping someone in a pond on their birthday or granting crazy Christmas wishes, and it’s likely that you’ll be asked to do it again this time next year.

In honor of the many BFA traditions and in gratitude for the truly splendid year that is ending shortly, here is my third annual list of Things That Made Life Better This Year. I understand that many of them aren’t strictly “things,” but for now the mixed-media format works best to express the twelve factors that most played into 2012.

From Kandern, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  1. Students working in Oradea, Romania, on the Habitat For Humanity house we built for Caminul Felix

    Students working in Oradea, Romania, on the Habitat For Humanity house we built for Caminul Felix

    Community. Sometimes it came in passing, on a building site in Romania or a shared blanket at the London Olympics. Other times, I returned to familiar places, in Seattle and Kandern, to find beloved friends and family, people whom I’ve grown to know and love. In all cases, 2012 has been a year of learning to love and live with others, for however long God gives me the opportunity.

  2. German Language. While traveling in France and Romania this year, I found myself often thankful for the haphazard mastery of the German language that allows me to speak to neighbors and friends in this country I call home. Huge win for high school language study!
  3. Classic American Literature. In my fourth year of teaching eleventh grade English, I am still surprised and challenged by the depth of discussion and inquiry that are present in our most beloved texts. So thank you, Hester Prynne, Huckleberry Finn, Jay Gatsby, and George and Lennie, for the dreams you chase and the questions you ask, these tricky mazes that I get to walk through each year with new juniors.
  4. Growth. From co-leading a mission trip to heading an English Department, this has been a year of new roles and new challenges, all of which have helped me to grow as a teacher and a leader. Thankful for the opportunities, and the excellent managers who have helped me growth through them.
  5. Class of 2013 goes to France!

    Class of 2013 goes to France!

    The Classes of 2012 and 2013. Two classes more different than any I’ve taught, the junior and senior classes have delighted with depth and humor, inspired with questions and energy, and overwhelmingly impressed me with their love for one another and Jesus Christ. I’m thankful for discussions and essays, adventures and imagination. Two great groups.

  6. Technology. Easy to take for granted–especially when it’s broken–I still maintain that the Internet and its many tools have aided in life and learning, facilitating communication with faraway loved ones and providing English reading material for this English teacher.
  7. Dahlstrom siblings at Noah and Lindsey's rehearsal dinner.

    Dahlstrom siblings at Noah and Lindsey’s rehearsal dinner.

    The Dahlstrom Family. Between two visits from my parents and sister, and a busy summer at home in Seattle, I have finished the year doubly thankful for the now-five other Dahlstroms that make up my family. Thank you for hikes and climbing trips, two graduations and beautiful wedding. Most of all, thank you for your love, humor, support and understanding. I couldn’t do this without you.

  8. Asking For Help. Never easy for me, this has been a year of asking for rides to the hospital and train station, along with seeking mentorship and financial support. Thankful for the God who provides friends and family who are happy to step in and lend a hand (or a car) when needed.
  9. Kristi, Emily and Anna

    Kristi, Emily and Anna

    Roommates. Anna and Emily, the dear roommates with whom I’ve lived since moving to Kandern, have been constant sources of wisdom, safety, humor and friendship. I am endlessly thankful to God for arranging these beautiful households.

  10. Supporters. I had the privilege of visiting both Concrete Community Bible Church and Bethany Community Church this summer, along with meeting many of you individually. At the end of this year, I’m struck by the encouragement that so many of you have been to me, along with the incredible financial support that has allowed me to continue in ministry here. Thank you for your involvement!
  11. Timmy and I at Bodenseehof

    Timmy and I at Bodenseehof

    Fishbowl Dating. A year of dating Timmy Gaster in the BFA community has meant many opportunities to model a Christ-centered dating relationship to the always-watching students in our community. Which, in the end, makes all of the giggling, questions, photos and “Mrs. Gaster” jokes worthwhile.

  12. Seasons. Both the more-extreme temperatures of Kandern–from 0˚ F last February to over 90˚ F in the days before school starterd–and the changeable seasons of life, I’ve been more aware of seasons this year, thankful for both those past and those ahead, and that I serve a God who is with me through them all.

For more of 2012, check out some of my favorite photos from the year below!

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At the Ghost Fair: Wealth and Education

The Ghost Fair: Abandoned Expo 2000 World’s Fair site in Hannover, Germany

Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:11-13

When class ends, we pour out into the hall. Back at school, our students get only five minutes to take themselves to the next destination, wherever on campus it may be, whether from gym to library or back again, madly squeezing stops to lockers, water fountains and rest rooms into the truncated passing periods. Five minutes to pick up late homework, ask a girl out, print a paper, settle plans for after school, change for PE class. Five minutes. We, their teachers, get fifteen minutes today.

We also get coffee and tiny muffins, we realize with glee, coming back together from the hotel conference rooms of various sizes, where we’ve just been learning about topics ranging from “magical maths” to social networking safety for students. Ten representatives from BFA’s three campuses, we’ve come to Hannover this weekend to attend the conference of the Association of German International Schools, a gathering that includes some 250 teachers from all over the world.

Balancing the muffins on our saucers, we stand around tall tables in an anteroom full of commerce. Booths and tables, decorated with various educational products, line the walls. A few sell books, with stands displaying brightly-colored, multilingual material for students of all ages. Most of the exhibitors, however, peddle technology. There are Smartboards, student multitouch tablets, systems databases, online courses, online essay revision services, and hundreds of e-textbooks. It’s full of promise, and for a while we watch, pondering what we could do with it all.

It’s only later that I realize my fascination with all the products lies in the reminder that education is a lucrative business. The displays give us multiple points of access–flashy ones–to make learning available, accessible and fun for a digital generation of learners. I’m tempted to scoff hypocritically, forgetting about the iPad on which I’ve been taking notes all day, but I realize it’s not so simple. None of these machines are innately awful, and a great deal of them are quite useful. I remind myself that expensive, technology-rich private schools also contain teachers who love their students, students in pursuit of truth and meaning just like ours.

Still, I have never associated teaching with money. First in a chronically underfunded public school district, and now in a missionary school that operates without paying salaries, I have become a teacher who believes that money, while useful for buying important things like food and shelter, is by no means paramount to the learning experience.

I have known more public school teachers than I can count who remained in jobs paying them far less than their experience and education would earn them elsewhere, committed to their students’ success even in the most difficult contexts. Here at Black Forest Academy, we consistently see the fruits of having a staff who not only aren’t earning a traditional salary, but feel strongly enough about our work that we spend non-school time seeking the support of others for our ministry. In both cases, the budgets for curriculum and technology are far less critical than the commitment of teachers to the welfare and nurture of their students.

I don’t want to oversimplify. I know from experience that public education in the United States faces unbelievable deficits that threaten thousands of teaching jobs every year. Education has real costs, and cutting those costs has real consequences. But I remember returning to my classroom in Seattle in September of 2009, just months after being laid off due to budget cuts, and finding three new computers, a new media center, and replacements of the projector and document camera I’d had for only two years. I couldn’t help wondering then, as I do now, if we should have spent those resources on keeping the teachers who were investing the most in our students. For most kids, a committed teacher is more useful than cutting-edge technology to the journey of growing into mature, thinking adults.

Throughout the weekend we learned, from our colleagues in major German cities, of laptops for all students, of Smartboards in every classroom and commissioned screenwriters for filmmaking classes. I could feel envious, but I find it impossible to look up in the socioeconomic hierarchy of education without also looking down, thinking of Central Asia, where many schools lack buildings and several villages share materials and even a teacher.

We leave the conference on Sunday morning, walking through the site of Expo 2000, the World’s Fair held on the outskirts of Hannover. The campus, once resplendent with international displays of innovation, is abandoned now, a ghost fair grown over with weeds and graffiti. I think about how much this place cost to build for its heyday of 90 days, now more than a decade ago, and it strikes me as chilling metaphor for the temporary nature of so many of our investments.

The best days of class lately–of reading plays around picnic tables, declaiming our paraphrases of the Declaration of Independence, reflecting on nature and transcendentalism under autumn-blazing trees–could have happened anywhere, without even electricity, let alone iPads for each student. I’m thankful for the resources that teachers today have, ones that save us time and energy and allow for communication unheard of fifty years ago. Still, I’m even more thankful for the two schools that have helped me become a teacher that can navigate, but doesn’t require, the latest materials to create a positive space for learning and growth. Blessed by a community committed to serving Christ and our students, surrounded by colleagues who care deeply for what they do, how wealthy I am.

The Bells

Männerchor sings for Glockenfest on Pfingsten

Oh,  from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future! How it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells,bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!

Edgar Allan Poe, from “The Bells”

They are heard and seldom seen.  They are locked away in towers, ancient and nearly invisible, their beauty declared only in their voices now.  More even than foreign languages, so varied in their cadences and emotions, they are the soundtrack of our continent.  They woke me on my first morning in Europe, almost ten years ago, when I swung the window open on its wide hinges, letting in the morning air and peering up at the grey fortress above Salzburg.  The bells have followed me ever since.

On Pentecost Sunday (Pfingsten in German), I wander up to the Stadtkirche (local Lutheran church) for Glockenfest, an ill-defined “Bell Festival” that I’d thought sounded interesting.  Kandern hosts an unlikely number of festivals for such a small town.  Someday I imagine I’ll understand and expect them all, but living in “downtown” Kandern this year has led to many games of What Are We Celebrating Today?  Most of the celebrations are fantastic parties, their jubilant music, lively booths and cheap, delicious food drawing locals from all over the area.  On festival days, our tiny town generally fills to the brim.

So I’m surprised when I emerge onto the sleepy, empty streets of a normal summer Sunday.  I wander across the Marktplatz up to the square in front of the church, where I find several dozen tables and a few tents full of food for sale.  Since I’ve already eaten and come alone, I linger at the edge of the crowd, people-watching while I wait for the “bell blessing” ceremony that’s meant to begin soon.  Though I recognize only a few faces in the crowd, I get the sense that they all know each other, as if I’d wandered into someone’s church picnic.  Children decorate balsa-wood crosses in a craft tent, while parents in traditional clothes lean laughing across the long tables.

After a few minutes, the Männerchor (Men’s Choir) lines up on the church steps to sing.  I spot an elderly woman that I know from the Frauenchor, and stand beside her.  She grins when she spots me, squeezing my hand warmly.

“Ah!  Toll dass du da bist!” she cries.  “Great that you’re here!”

We chat for a while as we wait for the bells.  She tells me that her son is in the Männerchor, and we listen to the men singing Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty in German, their voices rising over the hushed whispers of the crowd.

The bells come trundling out after a few hymns, riding on a decorated trailer behind a decorated tractor, all trimmed in leaves and purple crosses in honor of the holiday. We watch as the bells make a slow circle through the small crowd, and people get close enough to snap pictures. One bell says “Peace” in a dozen different languages. On the other, Jeremiah 29:7 is engraved in German beneath our town’s name and crest.  When the photos snap to a halt, the pastor and bishop dedicate the bells, reading psalms and saying prayers, leading us in a hymn of blessing.

I didn’t get the words to the hymn, so when I can’t read over the shoulder of the man next to me, I watch the crowd.  Many of them know this hymn by heart, and sing it with the lusty voices they’ll later use in chorus to the hearty German love songs in the Männerchor’s next set. I watch families singing together, watch the pastor presiding over this momentous occasion, watch the women I know from the Frauenchor, celebrating with their children and grandchildren in this, their city.

"Seek the best for your city."

“Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile,” Jeremiah once wrote to the Israelites. Exile is a dark word, and hardly appropriate for my time here in Kandern. I don’t know fully what it means to seek the welfare of this town, how best to know and love my neighbors, where and when to invest in the local life here.  But today, standing in the sunshine with these people who begin to look familiar, singing German hymns to a common Lord, seems like a beginning.

“Pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.”  I do, and will, pray that the love of Christ will infuse our city, as prominent and ever-present as the bells that sing us through the day and night.

Sie Versteht Alles

Kristi, sie versteht alles…

I’m seated at a table at the Ochsen, a guesthouse at the end of town, where I’ve just finished my first rehearsal with the Kanderner Frauenchor, or women’s choir.  I’ve been invited with the rest of the choir to the 70th birthday party of one of the other singers, so I find myself seated with a dozen middle-aged German women, trying late in the evening to follow the thread of conversation.  After a while I catch my name.

“Kristi, sie versteht alles, ja?” It’s only in German that anyone ever says this.  Kristi, she understands everything.  It’s a flattering assumption, and entirely a false one.  I don’t understand everything.  This evening has been a constant sprint to keep up with new routines and vocabulary.  I leave with new friends, new words, and a head full of another language.

Learning and speaking German, whether at the Frauenchor or at church or simply in the grocery store, has been one of the richer and more humbling aspects of this last year.  I am frequently vague or inaccurate in my speech, or unable to communicate my true feelings, personalities or experiences, even as it becomes easier to converse with new acquaintances.  This has been important for more than just the convenience of asking where I can find vanilla beans or contact solution in the grocery store.

This week, while reading Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, I assigned my English students to retell the story of Dürer’s Rhinoceros in a dialect.  Twain’s Southern dialects have proved challenging for many of my students, so I thought we would benefit from breaking down what it means to write out an accent with words.  Instantly, my international students selected varieties of accented English, from Irish to Korean, to write out on the page.

When they share their work a few days later, I realized how much more conscious of language are my students than many of their monocultural, North American counterparts.  One French student, fluent in English, reads his story in a thick French accent before returning to the open Korean homework on his desk.  A German student, studying Spanish, reads in the heavily accented English of a Turkish-German immigrant.  More than any other place, BFA is a place where virtually everyone is learning a new language.

For me, learning German is more than improving the ability to connect and communicate with the people around me; it is also a way to identify, ever so slightly with the challenges facing my students on a daily basis.  A great number of them are learning in their second language, and many of the native English speakers are experiencing school in English for the first time at BFA.  I remember this every time I bemoan the difficulty of conjugating a German verb properly.

I’m thankful we share English at BFA, thankful for the common language that joins us, but I’m just as thankful for the moments of confusion that remind me, again and again, just how much I respect the linguistic bravery of our multicultural students.  I don’t understand everything, in German or otherwise, but my adventures in language-learning are helping me to understand, little by little, the enormity of their challenges and victories in English class.

German Lessons

“Tock, Tock!  Willst du mit mir tanzen?”

I’m sitting on the floor of the Bistro at Tauernhof, watching five-year-olds ask each other to dance.  This “dancing” actually means a challenge to a hopping-on-one-foot duel.  One boy asks another, they hop for a while, but the challenger cannot overcome the reigning champion.  He continues around the room, on a quest for a match to his hopping skills.

It’s Family Week at Tauernhof.   For me, this means that instead of leading eight young adults I am assisting a professional preschool teacher in playing with five children under age seven.  In other words, life is slower and… smaller, with significantly more squealing, clapping and jumping.

All of this sounds easy, I know.  And it would be, except that every word of Family Week–spoken or written, sung or thought–is in German.  Just a moment ago, I made the announcements at dinner.  Earlier in the week, I’ve had to explain to a three-year-old that she had to sit down entirely in the stream to wash off the rest of the mud, and five-year-old that really the only way to get down from the top of the rock was by leaning back and walking down the wall.  All in German.  Zu mir, auf deutsch das ist nicht so einfach.  (For me, in German this is not so simple.)

To be fair to the staff who gave me these responsibilities, I do actually speak German.  A bit.  Enough that I understand what’s going on most of the time, and generally can communicate enough to avoid catastrophe.  Still, there are giant holes in my German proficiency, far greater problems than vocabulary.  For example:

  • I only know about half of the prepositions, and use very few correctly, instead guessing as many times as it takes for someone to nod at me (“We will have breakfast until 7th hour tomorrow?  On 7th hour?”).
  • I’m also lost with pronouns.  So many of them are the same for he, you all, hers and others that I forget what I’m saying, so usually I look for the simple-sentence way around these words.
  • German has three different gender-specific articles, but for me most things are female, possibly because this article, die, sounds the most like the.
  • Until recently, I couldn’t refer to any event in future tense, and expressed all plans in the urgency of the present (“Tomorrow, we hike to Riesachsee”).

All of this is troubling to me.  By now I know the language well enough to hear what I’m missing.  Yet with many voices and accents and dialects speaking one language I’m trying to understand, I can’t hear how to correct my mistakes.  So I continue to communicate in my version of German, reinforced by the fact that most people understand and a few even nod encouragingly back at me.  For better or worse, however, I know that I am learning.

I am learning that, to a great extent, I define myself by how I use words. Whereas in English I can with grace and precision say exactly what I mean, in German I don’t know another word for that, or how to fix the broken sentence.  I speak slowly and often incorrectly, with the careful, anonymous plainness that conveys meaning without frills.  Though I’m probably the last to know, I’m surprised by how important this is to me.  Without the ability to express myself fully, I feel like the color layer of me has been taken off, leaving only grey shapes behind.

I am also learning that words are not as important as I usually believe. Out of necessity here I listen quickly and speak only a little, and am finding that I see and hear more when I am not planning what I can add to the conversation.  Free from the option of speaking, I’m able to truly listen to those around me.  It is humbling to realize that discourse continues without my terribly clever contributions, that I can be more involved by not speaking than I would have had I started the conversation.

And of course I’m learning German, a word and phrase at a time, more each day. Today, I came home with a handful of verbs and nouns connected to climbing. Seil, gurt, helm, auf staunten, binen… I’m still untangling compound verbs in my head, pulling them apart like a knotted rope so I can use them next time.

After the evening meeting, parents retrieve their children and I go outside to play on the slackline.  Within a few minutes, a crowd of children arrives and one of the boys comes and shakes me off it, laughing, then asks me a question.

“Kannst du das schaffen?” I think for a moment, try to remember the verb he’s used.  It takes a moment to connect the two, to realize he’s asking me, a second after he’s knocked me off, if I can walk the length between the two tree.

I nod, hop back on the line and walk halfway before falling off again.

“Und…” I begin, uncertain of nouns and verbs, “Machst du das?” He shakes his head, and I have an inspiration. “Mit… ein Hand?”

I hold up my hand, and he climbs onto the slackline, gripping my outstretched fingers for balance as he makes his way across.

I’m struck by how few words we’ve exchanged, and how few we needed.  At the end of the evening, it won’t matter much that I did not speak German correctly; what will matter is that I laughed instead of scowling when he teased me, that I offered a hand to cross the line.   I hope to get better at the language, to grow in both confidence and accuracy in my time here, but tonight I’m content to do my best, to sound foolish and let my actions do most of the talking.