When I was a teenager, I used to get into trouble for wandering off, even though I never got in trouble for much of anything else. I was the kind of “good kid” adults ignore. I could have gotten away with murder. But when our youth orchestra went to Berlin, I got my chance at being a bad girl because of my habit of wandering off. I didn’t know any other kids who liked to walk around as much as I did. And anyway, who needs the company of some other American kid when you’ve got a whole foreign city to check out? Going out alone meant freedom, and I needed that freedom to focus all my attention on my surroundings. The English term for my sin is a loan word from German: Wanderlust.
Once I took the Berlin underground out to some kind of botanical garden and got stuck in a bit of rain, so that my feet got soaked. I took off my wet socks before heading back downtown, but decided I needed a dry pair so my feet wouldn’t slide around in my wet sneakers. So I went into a department store. Not a KaDeWe or anything like that; this was an old-fashioned downtown establishment that catered to older women. Nothing like the American department stores we have now, where you’ve got to practice evasive maneuvers to keep from being attacked by make-up ladies armed with cologne bottles and makeover kits. No, this was the kind of place where you asked the three gemütlich ladies on the floor for what you wanted, and they would show it to you. It was also the only place I found in Berlin where nobody spoke any English.
I had some high school German, but not a word for “socks.” Google Translate now informs me that I should have tried “Socken,” but either I didn’t or I butchered the pronunciation so badly that the ladies didn’t understand what I was talking about. I tried gesturing and saying I needed something “für die Füße” or “für die Beine” (for the feet, for the legs), but for some reason they kept showing me everything but socks:
Other pants? “Nein, nicht Hose–unter die Hose.”
The three of them just looked at each other, more confused than ever, repeating “unter der Hose?” (Correcting my grammar first, of course.) They were so cute, like three German-speaking Monty Python old ladies trying to work out whether I was looking for panties, some kind of foundation garment, or just a nicer pair of pants.
Finally I pulled my wed wad of socks out of my bag to show them. The ladies were all sunshine then. “Strümpfe!” And so I bought my pair of socks–a little scratchy, but dry.
Now that my brain’s all mooshy and old, I wonder how I’d do in a foreign country. One time I asked my German nieces how to say squirrel, and they went into hysterics at my attempts at pronouncing Eichhörnchen. (It didn’t help that I kept trying to say “Einhörnchen,” which if it meant anything would have to be some kind of miniature unicorn.) Besides, my hearing these days is terrible. I have trouble figuring out what people are saying in English. Still, I remember how to ask old German ladies for socks.
I still like to wander, but now that I’ve been on my own for years, the need for freedom isn’t so pressing. In fact, there’s no kind of freedom that beats a day at home just doing whatever I feel like. I could see myself turning into such a slug.
That’s why no matter how much I grumble whenever I get shoved out of the nest, in the end I’m grateful for it.