Chronicles of a writer abroad

Language books vs. Handyman tools


There are certain things that you dread when you move to a new country. You ask yourself questions like, “how will I communicate my needs to a landlord who doesn’t speak my language?” After all, it can be awkward enough to do this in your own Muttersprache – landlords can be hard to nail down, and you have to be very specific about what is in need of fixing, otherwise it can be a fruitless process.

If you’re going to go ahead with your plan of moving to a country where the tongue is one that feels thick and awkward in your mouth, you have to brush aside these kind of concerns. “It will be fine,” you tell yourself breezily. “I’ll simply deal with that problem when I come to it.  I’ll be fluent in German in a few weeks, anyway.”

Since moving into our apartment, we’ve had little to complain about — most things are working beautifully — but we do have a shower enclosure that needs additional caulking, since every time we shower, it leaks a little bit. I decided I had to let our landlord know about this problem, and spent some time carefully composing an e-mail in German to her, asking that a repairman be sent in.

When I received her response, I discovered that my bluff (Ja, natürlich spreche ich gut Deutsch!) had led me into a snafu. Well, wrote our landlord back in German, since the workers are already in the building renovating the attic space, you can just call the foreman at the following number, and arrange for him to come by and fix it…

Quick expat quiz:

Q – How do you call someone who doesn’t speak your language?

A – You don’t. You avoid making such phone calls at all costs.

So, yeah. Here I am, faced with the prospect of making such a phone call. To make such a call is to invite a language bombing of gargantuan proportions. I cannot imagine such a phone call going well, for even if I carefully script my lines, I cannot anticipate what will come back at me, how much of it I understand, or how I will respond. I’m bound to end up asking the foreman to drown my cats.

You understand that my German is currently at the level of a primary school child. In fact, I’d probably be most comfortable in a Kindergarten where the alphabet and numbers up to 100 are prime topics of discussion. As an example of my proficiency (or lack thereof), today I went to a sandwich shop and tried (in German) to order a tuna sandwich, topped with lettuce, tomatoes and pickles. What did I end up with? A turkey sandwich covered with corn and carrots and olives. Stelian stopped laughing at me long enough to say, “Put that on the blog.”

So, Readers, here is the conundrum laid bare. What would you do? As I see it, the only options we have vis-a-vis the shower are the following:

1) Telling the landlord that we are incapable of making the phone call (I really don’t like this one); or

2) Physically finding this handyman in the building and explaining to him, with the aid of two-way dictionaries, gestures, and possibly interpretive dance, what needs to be done; or

3) Learning how to caulk and doing the job ourselves. Can it be that hard?

Your suggestions and opinions are welcome!


7 thoughts on “Language books vs. Handyman tools

  1. in my experience, caulking isn’t that hard of a task, so if you want to give it a go on your own you’d probably be alright. you could also try talking to the foreman in person? I find that just about everywhere you go people speak a bit of english so if you can’t do the whole conversation in german you could try talking to the foreman in english? maybe take him to your flat and show him the problem? good luck!

  2. How about taking a photo with your digital camera so that you could at least point to the caulking in the photo, and ideally point to some water leakage on floor or whatever in the photo, and then if you are lucky enough to find the foreman he/she might be able to figure out to come and see?
    good luck!

  3. I think you just greet one of those nice workmen one morning, take him by the hand and walk him to the bathroom…….on second thought, maybe Stelian should be the one, to avoid any misunderstanding. 🙂

  4. I think you should be as diligent as this guy is serious about caulking. He spends about 3 minutes showing how to create the perfect bead of caulk. It’s a must-see performance.

    That or explain the situation to one of your classmates, maybe they could speak enough German/English to help you out!

    • I love all the suggestions! Somewhere in between finding that vid of Patrick’s and showing it on your smartphone, or go to a hardware store and take a picture (on your phone) of caulk, then take a photo of your shower.

      Keep us posted … we’re all waiting for your strategy! love you both!

  5. I vote for learning to do it yourself – if you are successful than you could add that to the list of accomplishments you have while learning to live in a new country; if you’re not successful, then just take comfort in knowing you take after your Dad! Alternatively, I like the option of finding someone to translate for you. Good luck!
    P.S. – did you at least enjoy the sandwich?

  6. Pingback: Google-translating my way through expat life | Milchtoast

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