The expat sitting on the lonely flight from their homeland to a country where they don’t speak the language is confronted by a dizzying array of emotions, ranging from the standard to the strange and surreal. Nervous excitement and trembling anxiety are the most common. Both have overt physical manifestations, characterized by darting eyes and a startling cough, an octave higher than it should be. But between these two emotions is something different. It is defined by a stillness which overcomes the body, and once sweaty palms now move through a perceptibly lighter air to rest steadily upon a small glass of Jack Daniels.
I don’t know what it is – a contentness in the face of the unknown, an evolutionary survival mechanism procured through moments when homo erectus stood between the precipice of a cliff (the rock) and a leviathan-rhino mix (the hard-place) and yet somehow survived, or maybe, to quote Nicole Richie, reality TV star and philosopher, you ‘just can’t deal’ anymore.
Whatever it is, it is a moment when the body abandons all emotions and the conscious is clear. Logically and coherently, the mind races through scenarios with the precision of an expert surgeon. Lists are formed, options are weighed, worries are clinically cast aside. For most of us, it is the closest we will ever come to being a sociopath and yet it is this involuntary process which truly prepares the sky-bound expat for life in a country, where, while they have the commonality of a tongue (we hope), they lack the common tongue.
Because there are times in places like the local supermarket, when you just look at the cashier and he looks at you and there is just no understanding. You can’t understand how he doesn’t understand, and you are left staring at him for a few seconds in sheer bewilderment. There’s no anger, there’s no shock, there’s just you not getting it. So you ignore the question, nod your head and hand him the money and he just shrugs his shoulders, takes it and hands you your change.
So life in a country where you don’t speak the language can indeed be hard. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the movies we’re talking about. You don’t just snap one day and walk alone through the twilight streets, clad in your crumpled workaday suit, as old men smoke and play chess, and streetlamps flicker above a group of teens, (also) nonchalantly smoking the cigarettes so delicately stolen from their sleeping parents’ clothing, and laughing about something you hope isn’t you. But then again, I suppose it’s not as romantic either, the movie stars always find love. Can you imagine a movie where Meryl Streep sits by a Parisian canal at twilight for two hours, the most French thing about her a reflection of a melancholic Marcel Marceau? Probably, but that’s not the point.
The point is that cinema shows us a monolingual life abroad is defined in one way. You land in Vienna, don’t speak the language, become utterly depressed, are saved by a handsome Lothario, or Lotharia as the case may be, and suddenly your life gets better. You learn a few words, form a solid grasp on body language, and your life becomes mostly about your exotic lover.
But for the vast majority of us, this expat life is not about someone else, it’s about us. Even if we initially moved for work, the reality is we are in the strange position of both having language and being without. Language, how we order our thoughts, create our stories and communicate experience suddenly becomes a very insular act. One is forced into self-reflection and life becomes about the great ‘I’.
And then you settle into your new life in earnest. You begin to find new friends from all over the world. Joined in expatriation or mutual interest, a bubble is formed. It is one created from common language and the foreign tongue of which you know little or none melts into the background like a park bench. Or maybe you are the park bench, so inconsistent to its habitat and yet so comfortably present that it does not draw thought. No one is ever sure when it happens, but at some point you simply forget you are living in a country where you don’t speak the language.
But there are moments of the surreal, times when you become painfully aware that you are far from home. You once more realize that for all you know, this remains a land of the unknown. They can be few and far between or come rapidly. It can occur when two utterly irreconcilable things, the mundane and the horrifying, are brought into direct conflict. Like when playing classic Halo and an excitable German spectator suddenly roars Schnell, Schnell! Memories of Schindler’s List invariably float to the surface.
Or it can happen with cultural differences, like casual references to the Krampus. A very German way of adding a dark undercurrent to a happy time, the Krampus is Santa Clause’s antithesis, carrying bold children back to his lair while Santa rewards the good. It’s almost like a Disney Christmas set in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
And yet, for all the 6’s and 9’s, you realize one thing. You love every part of this country and the person who you have become.
Sam Malone is an Irishman living in Munich, Germany. As a masters graduate in continental American literature, he is qualified in two things: being a nerd and reading books.
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