“My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years.” Mark Twain, ‘A Tramp Abroad –That Awful German Language’
There was a long sweeping and exceedingly sociable waterfront where we walked for a while and before very long selected a table at a bar with an expansive view of the water and in the full glare of the midday sun. A glance at the menu confirmed my excellent judgement in earlier purchasing a German phrase book at the airport because the menu interpretation looked especially tricky with very few words that meant anything to me. I have become familiar with French and Spanish and even Italian menus and can order food with some certainty but there was room for serious selection mistakes to be made here.
My only real knowledge of the German language is what I learnt as a boy from the Victor, which was a jingoistic publication for boys that featured stories about British gallantry in the two world wars of the twentieth century, and as these were stories about British heroes the comics were restricted to a handful of often repeated German phrases ‘Achtung’, ‘Luftwaffe’, “Hände Hoch!’ and my personal favourite ‘donnerwetter!’ which translates strictly as ‘thunder weather’. What does that mean exactly? I suppose it was meant to be a curse and realistically it was a kids comic so I don’t suppose they could use the more appropriate ‘fücken hölle’ without getting a postbag full of complaints from angry parents.
My first attempt at the German language proved a total failure. I ordered two beers and got three from a slightly confused looking waitress who couldn’t distinguish between my zweis and my dreis – anyway we didn’t complain and drank them all anyway so perhaps it wasn’t such a linguistic catastrophe after all, but mindful of the possible dangers in being too adventurous with food choices from an unfamiliar menu we restricted ourselves to a simple salad for lunch.
This was a wonderful spot for a lunchtime sojourn and we sat in the warm sun and looked out over the water towards the snow capped Swiss Alps with a razor sharp blue landscape with a bright intensity that made me squint just to look across the calm waters of the lake that reflected and intensified the perfect cerulean sky. The water was busy with ferry boats either crossing over to Switzerland or simply stopping off at all the little towns that border the lake so later we walked along the promenade to check the schedules for our planned trip to the other side of the water.
The timetables were even more difficult to understand than the menus so after quickly running out of patience we returned to the waterfront and walked back along the promenade past the zeppelin museum and with the afternoon sun still pleasantly hot we found another bar and sat and enjoyed another beer. Being blonde we were constantly mistaken for Germans by the waiters who when they realised that we were hopeless with the language then took a guess that we might be Dutch before they finally came to understand that we were English. Once this was established they gave up all together!
We sat and enjoyed the beer and the wine in the afternoon sun and watched the people walking back and forth along the lakeside boulevard stopping frequently to buy ice cream or to stop like us for refreshment in one of the many bars overlooking the lake.
Even on this our first day, I found that I was being forced into a reassessment of the German people. Here in their own country they were so obliging and polite and not at all like the loud pushy archetypes that I had encountered before usually on holiday in Spain or Portugal where in the 1938 style of Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland they notoriously commandeer the best pool side seats. I have to say that it was a real pleasure to be here and not really what I was expecting, it felt relaxed, refined and cultured and I was glad of that and to have my national prejudices so quickly readjusted.
As afternoon dissolved into early evening we were soon back on the streets looking for an evening meal and not feeling especially adventurous we returned to the same restaurant where we had enjoyed our lunch and on a warm pleasant evening we sat outside again and enjoyed a simple meal washed down with beer and wine. We were a little perplexed however when the place started to close down around us and the staff dragged buckets of water from the lake to fill the plant pots and to start to chain the tables and chairs down. When the lights went out we felt uncomfortable and under their feet so we finished our drinks, paid the very reasonable bill and sauntered back into the city.
We planned to get a last drink before going back to the hotel but everywhere was closed by now which was a little surprising because it was only nine o’clock! Opposite the hotel we found possibly the last place open in the city, a bier kellar that was not particularly welcoming but at least it was still serving so we ordered drinks and sat outside in the warm spring evening. Even here they started to chain the furniture down so we took the hint and returned to the hotel where the good news was that clearly the church bells had stopped ringing for the day so we went to bed and slept looking forward to another excellent day tomorrow.