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Outside of our comfort zone

By Paul Knowles (first published in the New Hamburg Independent)

Let me make it clear, right off the top, that it is a terrific assignment. I’ve been asked to write a major feature for the United Church Observer about Martin Luther, on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation. This meant I was sent to walk in Luther’s footsteps in Germany for a week, trying to learn everything I could while we were there. It’s a great gig.



But it also meant stepping a long way outside our comfort zone, from landing at (and finding our way out of) Frankfurt airport (or, as they say, flughafen), to driving on freeways with no speed limits, to living for a week in what was formerly the German Democratic Republic (or East Germany), where not many people speak English.

All distinctly uncomfortable.

It was a challenge, and it was wildly fascinating.

We were a bit spoiled. In most of the towns, we had terrific, bilingual guides, so this wasn’t “no English, 24/7”. But there were moments…

We were on our own to find food, most evenings, so we tried to find restaurants that might have translated their menus into English. Sometimes, though, we spotted English only to realize that the translation had been courtesy an internet translator, leading to garbled menu offerings that, although allegedly English, made less sense than the incomprehensible German.

I’m not complaining – it strikes me that German people have the right to speak German in Germany. It’s entirely right – if nonetheless challenging to a Canadian, English-speaking, come-from-away.

Perhaps my favourite evening was a ridiculously lavish Medieval-style feast where our host was costumed as a minstrel, and very expert on the lute, the hurdy-gurdy, and sundry other period instruments. It was a lot of fun.

Part of the minstrel’s job was to kibitz with the diners – and when he approached our table, we had to tell him we spoke no German. Nor did he speak English.

Then his face lit up. “Francais?” he asked. “Oui, un peu,” I said – I can speak a bit of French, and Nancy is close to bilingual. He then said something in what appeared to be Spanish. So we had swapped not communicating in English and German to not communicating in French and Spanish. He went back to singing, we went back to eating, and we smiled heartily at each other from time to time as the terrific evening progressed.

Other meals were ordered on the “guess and point” principle. The good news? “Beer” is may be spelled differently, but it’s pronounced the same in both languages.

The driving without speed limits was not a huge challenge – as long as I remembered to pay as much attention to my rear view mirror as I did to the highway ahead. At times, we were travelling around 150kph – speaking of being outside one’s comfort levels – and were often overtaken by cars that appeared to be going between 50 and 100 kph faster.

Driving on the Autobahn demands a lot of concentration and moment-to-moment attention – and I’m proud to say I negotiated 1300 kilometers without mishap.

And we even found our way back to the rental car return at Frankfurt’s Flughafen.

Truthfully, we enjoyed every moment of our German adventure. Which just proves that it’s a good thing to step – or drive, or dine – outside your comfort zone, from time to time. Prost!