Many birds have flown their native nest in pursuit of border-busting love. And yet it still seems to remain a novelty to people I meet when I disclose that my girlfriend is not English, but German. This invariably leads to a swift interrogation that almost always begins with the same question: and which language do you speak with one another?
The answer to this question has changed on a fair few occasions, but I admit sheepishly that it has overwhelmingly been English. On the evening we met we sat side-by-side in an underground bar in Valladolid, Spain. I had seen her a few times before, a blond beacon in a sea of olive skin and mahogany locks, and now I nervously attempted to prove my wit and wiles by moulding cheesy chat-up lines into stilted Spanish. She would then decode these into English and repeat them back to me. I would feign flattery, narrow my eyes, try to look intriguing. This is how Hollywood actors from the ‘80s always seemed to seduce the girl. Somehow it worked.
Amongst friends we spoke Spanish, and alone we spoke English. Her English was already just splendid when we first met: proper, clean and conspicuously correct. I knew she wasn’t English because she spoke it so well. Sometimes we conversed in Spanish to level the lexical playing field, and over the course of two or three months I mastered my first complete German sentence. It contained two clauses and a verb which shuffled furtively to the end: habe ich dir heute gesagt, dass ich dich liebe? Have I told you today that I love you? I remember how this initially paraded as an innocent provocation. I exploited it to party-trick her into awarding me a peck on the cheek. I could say the word “love” without ever having to say it, because for me it was Liebe, not love, and this word floated in a semantic abyss, insulated from any real association and thereby its fullest meaning.
To paraphrase a great man, when you speak someone’s language you speak to their heart. I confess I was fully aware of this. It was all part of the game of seduction, the conquering of a heart. But as my proficiency with this sentence grew, so did the sincerity with which I said it, and I curtailed its use so as not to dilute it into an automated platitude. I have always struggled with sincerity in a second language, and I have always desperately admired it in others. It is achieved in the moment that every vehicle of communication collides: the ordered thoughts, the purposefulness and vigour with which the words condense and burst from the mouth to express those thoughts, and their accompaniment by gestures and expressions that so precisely match the words as to deliver an unequivocal, communicative whole. I remember retreating to that eerie third-person perspective the first time we argued. I could not help but pause in geeky wonderment as she brought all these elements together.
When she returned home to continue her studies the giddy light-headedness of young love in foreign parts turned into a debilitating, heavy-hearted realism. The only way to subdue the mania that overcame me was to weave my roots into a knapsack, fill it with my belongings and supplant myself once again.
Much as I had become a near constant and unitary source of English in our Spanish enclave, so I became the only person with whom she would speak English in Germany. I knew every word she knew and every word she didn’t, and she knew I knew. Now and then there would be a sparkle in her eye as she edged an obscure idiom into an inappropriate context and I would call her out on it. Every so often I would throw in a new word and await her reaction, out of playfulness or the joy of teaching or the simple fact that no other word could encapsulate what I wanted to express. And I would revel in her delight for those most quaintly English of words that bumble from the mouth, deliciously and unavoidably camp: fluffy, floppy, chubby, podgy, squidgy…
As my German improved and we fell increasingly into a bilingual relationship, I encountered the beautiful juxtaposition of knowing someone so completely in one language and getting to know them in a second. She came across differently in each – perhaps less discerning and deferential in German – but this could merely have been a consequence of my exposure to shabby English stereotypes of the dastardly Germans. I perceived two personalities, and toyed unfairly with preferring one of them, but as time passed and the bilingual became the norm, so I became virtually unaware of when she switched and why, and the personalities reunited to simply become her again.
One of the most exciting things in any new relationship is to share your past, to show him or her the avenues on which you walked, how these led you to who and where you are today. This often involves strolls around the neighbourhoods of your youth, encounters with friends and relatives, and stories pulled from silos of stories for such occasions. It is extraordinary to do this with your language, to teach someone the words with which you express yourself, and to see her pick these words up and wield them in new ways, in all their fluffily floppy wonderfulness.