Twenty-five years ago, I walked out of my old life and into New York.
I was an earnest young German who had just earned a master’s degree in social work from a university in West Berlin and was here on a brief vacation. But from the moment I first stepped out of the Hotel Earle, at Waverly Place and MacDougal Street, and into Washington Square Park, I was smitten with the city.
It was a Saturday afternoon, a time when German cities turn into graveyards. But in the park, blasting radios battled one another for dominance, elderly men played speed chess with youthful contenders, and dope peddlers, fire eaters and aspiring folk singers competed for the public’s attention. Children on the swings shrieked with delight, while hyperactive small dogs engaged in rough-and-tumble play. I was 25, love-struck and delusional, and I decided to stay. Ignoring all the illegal immigrant’s red flags (no health insurance, no green card, no work, no savings), I cashed in my return ticket.
In New York, my vocabulary was that of a 10-year-old. I could barely read a tabloid like The New York Post. But I was confident that I’d conquer the English language in no time. I decided on a strict immersion regime: no hanging out with Germans, no German books or movies.
Men found my accent mysterious and my errors endearing. “Just continue to talk, go on about anything, even the weather,” one admirer pleaded. I was often the funny foreigner. En route to a dinner date, the zipper of my skirt broke and sent me rushing to Woolworth’s. My question — “Do you carry security needles?” — drew blank stares. “For when you need to hold it together!” I insisted. More blank stares. Finally, I took out my pen and drew two pieces of fabric held together with a safety pin.
But if my 10-year-old’s grasp of English was funny to others, it was often mortifying to me. I was enamored of a handsome sales clerk at the Spring Street Bookstore. Mustering my courage, I stepped up to the counter and asked, “Do you sell Granta?” I had seen the magazine before and remembered the edition devoted to Germany.
“What issue are you looking for?” my heartthrob asked.
Issue? Issue? Unable to understand, I blushed and fled. At home, I scavenged my dictionaries. Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language listed nine definitions of “issue.” What was it: a point of debate, or a discharge of pus? Then again, what was pus?
Humor almost completely disappeared from my life. Imagine the anguish of sitting with a group of people, all of them roaring with laughter, while you, the oddball foreigner, struggle to grasp the jokes. I consoled myself with Buster Keaton silents at Film Forum.
Reading, too, deserted me as a source of pleasure. Someone recommended Thomas Pynchon’s novel “The Crying of Lot 49”; flummoxed, I gave up after the opening sentence. In Germany, I had published some poetry and personal essays, but here I stopped writing. Who, other than Samuel Beckett and Vladimir Nabokov, could compose literature in two languages?
I grew terrified of leaving telephone messages. Words like vegetable, refrigerator and schedule tortured me. And how did Americans manage to press the tip of their tongue behind their front teeth to produce the proper “th” sound?
Children learn their first language naturally, without formal instruction. But what about those of us who must learn a second language at 20, 30 or 60? Today, almost half of all New Yorkers speak a language other than English at home. I don’t know what the percentage was 25 years ago, but I recall that my manicurist, from Uzbekistan, had a master’s degree in sociology; a livery cabdriver had been an engineer in Senegal; the doorman of my friend’s high-rise was an anthropologist from Colombia.
To make a living, I sold nuts from a pushcart and cleaned houses, mostly for elderly Jewish ladies from Poland, Ukraine and Russia who had lived in the East Village for decades. My favorite was Ms. Rabinowitz, 82, from Odessa. Her children lived in large houses in California and New Jersey, but she refused to join them. “You’ll see,” she told me. “Once New York gets into your blood, you won’t be able to leave.”
When I felt truly homesick, I traveled to East 86th Street, then the heart of the city’s German community, to visit the Kleine Konditorei restaurant, which served Black Forest torte that was almost as good as my mother’s. The customers, elderly men in Tyrolean hats and ladies with hair resembling corrugated sheet metal, spoke a strange mixture of German and English. “Willkomm, mei ladies,” one would say. “Du lukst wanderfull mit dem neuen hairdo.” “Try the Mohnkuchen,” said another. “So lecker!”
It took five years before I mastered The New York Times, seven years before I started to dream and think in English. By then I felt confident enough to work as a psychotherapist, one profession in which a German accent was no hindrance, and began a three-year training program in Gestalt therapy.
But only after a decade did I feel wholly comfortable speaking English, an achievement I paid for by a gradual loss of fluency in my mother tongue. Now, whenever I spoke German, I had to switch my brain from English to German. “Meine Arbeit ist zu stressful,” I used to say on the phone to my mother, just like the émigrés at the Kleine Konditorei. “Ich brauche unbedingt vacation.”