Laughs in Translation


A little moat, flowers blooming up from cracks in the ancient bricks, a flag lazily blowing in the breeze: a classic German schloss through and through, placed casually on the verdant landscape like a dropped toy. We stand together at the top of a tower on this castle, my new German friend Florian and I, and we squint out at the huddle of buildings in the distance.

“What’ s that cloud of smoke? Is that a factory?” I ask Florian.

He blows a lock of sandy hair upwards with a practiced puff. “Ja, it’ s a food factory.”

“Was machen sie?” I ask. What do they do? I regret my attempt at German almost immediately, but the damage has already been done. Oh well. Florian cuts me some slack and responds backs in his perfect English.

“Oh, they make starch. From mice.”

There’ s a long pause. I imagine goggled scientists in white lab coats squeezing starch out of scurrying lab-rats. As a student of history and literature who barely survived the introductory life-sciences course my freshman year, I’ m not sure exactly how that would work, but I’ m pretty sure that the production of bread and pasta doesn’t involve the consumption of small rodents. But Florian studies biology here at RWTH University Aachen, and this is his hometown, so I trust his judgment and hazard a further inquiry. “From dead or living ones?”

Florian looks confused. One of his blonde eyebrows inches so high on his face it’ s in danger of vanishing into his bangs. “What? You know. Mice. Yellow, tall, you know.” He trails off and checks a dictionary on his phone. “Yes, mice, it’s correct?” With slightly less certainty, he shows me the word. It’s ‘maize,’ in German a perfect homonym with ‘mice.’ I burst into laughter and so does Florian until we’re both weak with mirth and need to steady ourselves on the railing.

Some of these miscommunications are hilarious; some are tragic; all embarrassing. I scrape through day-to-day life with a crumbling German textbook published in 1965, wondering how much yogurt and bread it’ s physically possible to eat, wandering around churches and trains, and dancing attiny mahogany bars with my motley crew of friends hailing from as far away as Kazakhstan and as close as Köln.

Welcome to the life of a bumbling Bostonian in Germany. It’s gonna be a wild ride.