Discomboobled Military Mate

Discomboobled Military Mate

From Chicken Soup for the Military Wife's Soul

Discomboobled Military Mate

Self-expression must pass into communication for its fulfillment.

Pearl S. Buck

If you stay married to your military mate long enough, you’ll eventually end up stationed in Europe. When my husband and I first moved to Bavaria, we were delighted to rent a small apartment in a quaint, little farming town near the American military post. I was ready for culture shock, but I was completely taken aback by the linguistic “discombooblement” I experienced. Culture shock implies a surprise at one’s new surroundings. I wasn’t shocked, I was bewildered, mystified, discomboobled, thrown into a state of confusion and feeling like a boob. I had tried to prepare myself for moving to a new country by listening to a “You Can Speak German in One Easy Lesson” tape. Being able to count to ten in a foreign language is helpful but, obviously, not enough. It is easier to eat crackers while whistling the national anthem than it is for an English speaker to make ich and ach sounds properly.

“Ackkkkk,” I tried, spitting all over myself. My husband came running to see if I had a chicken bone caught in my throat. “Bitte,” I said to him in German, thanking him with one of the few words I had learned.

“What’s bitter?” he asked. “What did you choke on?”

“Ackkkk,” I replied, in frustration.

Normally, my tongue is wagging at both ends. If silence was golden, I couldn’t earn a plug nickel. Lucky for me, there are two languages: verbal and physical. Until I became more skilled at approximating the German dialect, I would have to resort to pantomime. The merchants wanted my money, so they played along. Besides, talk is cheap; I find that the supply always exceeds the demand.

I finally learned to say “Guten Tag,” which is “Good day” in German. No one told me, however, that Bavaria is to Germany what Texas is to the United States—pretty much a separate country. Saying “Good day” in Bavaria is like saying “Good day” in Texas. It’s just not done. One says, “Howdy.” And, in Bavaria, one says, “Grüss Gott.”

I listened to the folks in my German town saying, “Grüss Gott” for about a week before I finally asked my German friend Wolfgang (that’s German for Bubba) why everyone was so interested in each other’s greased goat. The “You Can Speak German” cassette hadn’t gone here. He explained, and I played along.

“Teach me to say, ‘I’m just looking,’ in German,” I asked him. Every time I went into a store, the merchant hovered over me like an assault helicopter. I set off on my next shopping adventure with my new line.

“Yakkitty-yappin’,” said the shopkeeper to me in German.

I answered with the German quote I had learned from Wolfgang to let her know that I was just browsing.

The shopkeeper looked at me as if I were missing a few pickets from my fence and shooed me from her store. Later, Wolfgang told me what he had taught me to say: “I am a crazy American. I am armed. Back off and let me shop.” No matter that I was only armed with charge cards.

I was so green in Germany, you could have planted me and I would have grown. I wanted to speak the native tongue, so I kept trying. I thought it might be easier to skip sentence structure and get straight to the point.

“Vee Cee?” I asked one merchant. I knew this was the way to say “WC” (water closet), and I needed to find the restroom.

“Yes,” the merchant said in perfect English, “we take Visa.”

I wanted to give up. This was more frustrating than eating soup with a fork.

Despite my idiom idiocy, I did quite well the first time my husband and I went out to eat. I knew I wanted water, Wasser, and I recognized Salat as salad. I was proud until my husband had to clarify another popular word. “Not donkey,” he said. “That’s Danke.” There it is, folks— discombooblement: the inability to understand the people around you and their assumption that you are a boob.

Unlike me, my husband seemed to communicate quite well with the natives. Then again, his favorite local phrases sound a lot like they do back home. “Bier!” he’d say, confidently. And a frothy stein would always be forthcoming.

Jan Hornung

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