05:52:17 am on
Saturday 20 Jul 2024

Language Barrier
AJ Robinson

German Beer Garden circa 1935

When he was nineteen, my dad took a bike trip across Europe. It was 1932, the Depression had a firm grip on most of the world and he wanted to travel before going to college. My dad sailed to Cherbourg, France hopped on his bike and started pedaling.

Germany is the location of this story.

His trip took him across France, down to Northern Italy, up into Switzerland and, finally, through Germany before heading home. Yeah, quite the little adventure. In fact, he had quite a few adventures during his trip and that’s what this little tale is about: one of them.

My dad was a big man, even as a teenager. He was over six feet in height, good solid build and fair skin and hair. As he journeyed across Europe, he was often mistaken for a German, even in Germany itself.

This had its pluses. He was warmly welcomed in shops and restaurants, most especially, the beer halls, which he greatly enjoyed. The downside to it was that the locals would often try to engage him in conversation and there he was lost. He knew a little French, but his German was virtually zero.

My dad adopted a means of avoiding any unpleasantries, with the villagers he encountered. It was easy. He’d go in a beer hall or inn, order food and then make sure his mouth remained as full as possible the entire time he was there. If people asked him something, he’d just smile and nod. It usually worked quite well.

Except for once, when his ruse didn't work so well.

He’d ordered lunch and, as usual, asked for a beer. The waiter looked down at him, smiled, and said, “Dunkel, oder heller?” The phrase meant nothing to my father; he was hard-pressed to deduce what it meant.

Of course, the fact that the waiter had a thick accent and spoke very quickly didn’t help much either. Sitting there, trying to figure out what to say, my dad asked himself, “Did this guy just insult me? Should I punch him in the face?” He decided to stay calm, yet also be quite demanding. He tried to figure out what a young German man would do in this situation. The answer came to him.

He slammed his fist down on the table and growled, “Ein glass beer!”

The waiter, while a bit startled, didn’t react negatively. He just sighed, nodded and walked away. As he past another table, where a couple locals were eating, he leaned close to them and said, “Hamburg.” The three men looked at my dad, studied him a moment, and nodded.

My dad was a little worried. Was the waiter trying to enlist their help in throwing him out, beating him up or something worse? Fortunately, the answer was “none of the above.” Dad got his lunch, including the beer, and ate in peace.

Eventually, my dad figured out what was what.

He remained unsure what they all seemed to understand, but, a while later, he figured out what was what. They thought he was from the City of Hamburg and, according to the locals, that city was known for its hot-tempered citizens. That was why they’d given him a pass when he got angry over a question as simple as, “Dark or light?”

Yeah, that was it, the waiter wanted to know was did my dad want a dark or light beer. Given the language barrier and the way the words sounded to him, it’s no wonder my dad thought the waiter might have insulted him.

Fortunately, no international incident resulted. No, merely a funny little story told, often, to his children, grandchildren and finally shared with others. Sie können jetzt lachen.


Combining the gimlet-eye of Philip Roth with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Working, again, as an engineeer, after years out of the field due to 2009 recession and slow recovery, Robinson finds time to write. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true. His teen vampire adventure novel, "Vampire Vendetta," will publish in 2020. Robinson continues to write books, screenplays and teleplays and keeps hoping for that big break.

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