Germany - Learning German, by Larry Gorton (1966)

Image: bea

In July 1966, I took up my first foreign posting - unless, as a Lancastrian, I count the four years I served as a sales representative in Leeds. My first real foreign posting was to be station superintendent Bremen, in North Germany. It was also a ‘first’ in other ways, as although Bremen had been added to the IGS (BEA Internal German Services) network in 1964, it had until then been managed by an engineer who also acted as official-in-charge, as there was some doubt as to whether the Bremen-Berlin route would be profitable. This was not, of course, explained to me when I sold my house in Yorkshire and moved with my wife and two young daughters to take up my new appointment in Bremen.

Although I had learned some German many years before at school, I certainly had no proficiency in the language. However, it had been explained that a condition of the posting was that I should obtain reasonable fluency within a year, which concentrated the mind wonderfully, and I immediately enrolled for three evenings a week at the local Sprachschule.

It subsequently transpired that the owner was a confidence trickster who vanished a couple of years later owing a lot of money, but I was fortunate in having as my teacher a very serious and pedantic young man named Herr Frosch, so ‘hostilities’ commenced immediately. I did not find the language easy, but the ladies in our small airport office decided that I should learn some colloquial German from them, and I was only too anxious to co-operate.

Among other things, they taught me to say “Jedenfalls ist der Kopf dicker als den Hals, und die Füsse so gestellt, dass man nicht vorne fällt.” After practising for a week I was word perfect, but had no idea what the sentence meant, only that it sounded very convincing. My German colleagues told me that my pronunciation was very good as ‘I came from the North of England which was an advantage’ and I was very proud of my progress.

A week later I was invited to a formal reception in the Bremen Rathaus (Town Hall) and was approached by a small rotund gentleman who asked – in German of course – if I spoke the language? I replied – in English – that I was sorry that I did not, and he remarked that as I was the new BEA Geschäftsführer, I must surely be able to speak some German. I had never been addressed as a ‘Führer’ before – it means ‘leader’ or ‘manager’ – so I gave him my one German sentence.

It transpired that I was addressing the Lord Mayor of Bremen who seemed very astonished to be told: “Anyway, your head is wider than your neck and your feet are so arranged that you don’t fall flat on your face” and he backed away somewhat nervously and never spoke to me again.

When I explained the following day to the ladies in the office what I had done, they took me in hand so that my German gradually improved with a combination of conversations at work, the ministrations of Herr Frosch and attempts to follow some of the programmes on our TV. Our daughters were attending the local school and they progressed extremely rapidly, as did my wife, even though her tutor was a White Russian who spoke no English, so they conversed in French.

The company rented flat was sparsely furnished, and my predecessor had left a collection of old mattresses in the corner of one of the bedrooms. Finally, our new furniture arrived from England and I went along to see the head of customs, who – naturally – spoke no English. I did my best to impress upon him the urgency of having our furniture delivered as soon as possible but he, being a good bureaucrat, insisted that it might take several weeks to complete the paperwork.

I then played my trump card and informed this startled official that there were ‘six sailors on top of each other in the corner of the bedroom’ having managed to confuse ‘Matratze’ (mattress) with ‘Matrose’ (sailor). Doing his best to keep a straight face – he was indeed a very polite man – he asked, “and what does your lady consort say about this?” I replied that she was grossly dissatisfied, whereupon the whole of the customs office exploded into laughter and I was told that the consignment would be released the very same day. My first victory against German bureaucracy, albeit due to a simple linguistic misunderstanding.

After only eighteen months in Bremen, I was suddenly promoted to become District Superintendent Hanover. Whereas Bremen had just three Viscount services to Berlin-Tempelhof, Hanover had ten and one to Heathrow. I have to say that I found Hanover extremely boring, particularly as, at least once a day, some know-all would say, “Herr Gorton, you should congratulate yourself that you are in Hanover as we speak the purest German in the Federal Republic”.

Fortunately, after only six months, before I was tempted to strangle one of them, I was again moved, this time to Hamburg, and here my battle with the German language really began. About a week after moving to Hamburg, I attended the monthly luncheon of the local Skål Club, the worldwide association of travel and transportation managers. It was June, the weather was hot and sticky, and I arrived somewhat late and found myself on a table with three rather elderly German shipping managers. Believe me, there was at that time nobody as serious or conservative as a Hamburg shipping manager.

The conversation was flagging, and for the sake of something to say, I remarked, “Schwules Wetter heute, meine Herren?” (The weather is somewhat close today, gentlemen?). One of my companions dropped his soup spoon, the second gazed at me in absolute astonishment and the third said in perfect English, “Herr Gorton, you have just informed us, using a slang adjective, that it is good weather for homosexuals!”

I was about to protest that this was not what I meant when he continued, “I assume you wish to tell us that the weather is somewhat oppressive; in this case the word you are vainly seeking is ‘schwül’ – it has two dots over the ‘u’ which is called an Umlaut and is pronounced ‘ue’. May I suggest you practise the correct word while we continue with our soup!” Another glorious failure.

I eventually spent some ten years in Germany with BEA and British Airways and in due course was even responsible for carrying out salary and contract negotiations with the trades unions in respect of our 1500 local staff. Looking back, I really do worry about some of the things to which I finally agreed, so maybe I never really did understand the German language!

Other pages:

This is the text-only version of this page. Click here to see this page with graphics.
Edit this page | Manage website
Make Your Own Website: 2-Minute-Website.com