The assignment that took me to Europe in the first place was to write about a NASCAR race in Belgium. (There’s NASCAR in Belgium? you ask. That’s what I was there to write about, I answer.)
Upon arriving at the track called Circuit Zolder, I met a German journalist named Andre Wiegold, who, like almost everybody else I encountered, speaks fluent English. Within five minutes, I told him in German what I was doing and started practicing on him. He welcomed my questions, which set me free to ask anybody and everybody anything I wanted. (Well, that’s how I interpreted it, at least.) His encouragement launched this do-over into places it never would have gone otherwise.
For my NASCAR story, in English I interviewed Joerg Bensemann, a dentist who works on scheduling for a track in Germany. In German, I told him that when I visited in 1988, everybody talked too fast. He said, in German (at a reasonable pace), if I talk slowly, can you understand me? I did … and it felt like someone ran their finger down my spine. That was weird, I thought, but it also felt good.
By the time I left Belgium, I had already spoken and understood more German than I expected to in the entire trip, and I hadn’t even visited German-speaking areas. I felt something like a dopamine hit every time I spoke to somebody. My confidence soared, maybe more than it should have.
I don’t want to say I got obsessed with this project, but ich will diese Artikel alles in Deutsch schreiben ... aber niemand werde es verstehen, especially not any Germans. I started to try to translate my thoughts into German, I translated song lyrics into German, and I told myself my plans for the day in German.
I told the night clerk at my hotel in Vienna about my experiment, and she insisted that she speak only German to me. The day clerk teased me because I asked her two days in a row how to say, “Can I have some change?”
I walked around all day every day exhilarated, wired, jonesing for another fix -- who can I ask what next? I asked moms at a park in Vienna what swings and slides were called. I went into the equivalent of a Best Buy and asked how to say flat screen TV. I asked a woman walking with hiking poles on a bridge over the Danube River what hiking poles were called. I took solace in being able to understand her when she said she didn’t understand me.
A beggar asked me for money at a train station, and I gave him some as a reward for the fact I understood his question. I got my buzz, he got paid.