“Vo ist der Bahnof?”

I was ready. I could do this. My friends had sent me over to the front desk of our hostel in Leipzig, Germany, to ask where the train station was. I had been training for weeks for this in Scotland. I was finally going to do it. I was going to speak in German, to a German person, singlehandedly undermining the stereotype that self-obsessed Americans never bother learning any language other than their own. This was my moment.

I approached the front desk. “Hallo!” Ok, off to a good start. Keep your nerve.

The young woman at the front desk smiled. “Hallo.”

I took a deep breath. “Vo ist der Bahnof?”

Marcella Leaping in GermanyAnd for a split second, everything was perfect. I had pronounced it correctly, I had spoken in German, I had communicated. Not just in a classroom, but in the real world, to find my way through a different country. Could anything be better? I was victorious.

Until the woman replied with a string of fast-paced, unintelligible German with a lot of pointing that went on for five solid minutes.

My smile froze on my face. I was silent for a moment too long, and then I managed a quick “Danke,” before I backed away slowly, nodding at no one in particular for no reason.

“Did you find out where it was?” Becca asked when I returned to the kitchen.

“Um—” I picked up my bag, trying to remember any of the words the woman said. Zentrum. “It’s in a place. Near… the city center. So, I guess… let’s start walking.”

Not all of my interactions in Germany ended so abruptly in miscommunication. I had started learning the language a few weeks before my trip, with a mix of Learn German in Your Car mp3s, Collins German Phrasebook, and even the help of my linguistics notes on pronunciation. But nothing could have prepared me for the sudden, feeling-like-you’re-swept-up-in-an-underwater-current-and-forgot-how-to-swim kind of immersion that I experienced in the different German cities. Suddenly, something as simple as ordering a coffee or reading a train schedule was nerve-wracking. Even walking down the street, looking at signs and shops and notices required more thought and effort than I could ever have imagined. It required a lot of hard work and extra studying. It was difficult.

It also was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

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I recently got my certification to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL). I’ve been putting together lesson plans and looking at summer jobs teaching in Italy and France. I thought I understood how learning a language works after my experiences learning French in a classroom and with my friend’s French family. But after being in Germany for two weeks, navigating through cities and making conversation with locals, I realize that I completely underestimated the amount of work that goes into learning even the minimum viable vocabulary of a language.

I’m going to look at my teaching strategies, and my own language learning, completely differently. Sometimes in the strangest situations, I learned more than any book or tape could teach me. Talking to a man on the train for two hours—me in German, he in English—both of us learning new words and better grammar. Communicating with my Brazilian roommate with a combination of pointing, Google Translate, and an annotated book of Europe. Attempting to read a German children’s book with help from a woman in Leipzig.

Even though a lot of what I will remember from my trip has to do with language, some of my favorite moments were when the seemingly unsurpassable language barrier was completely dissolved. Sitting in the common room of our hostel, playing ukulele, and having other people start singing along with me. Climbing up the endless steps of some of the highest church steeples in the country, standing beside people from all over the world, sharing a moment of awe at the view. Kind strangers showing us the way on the map, getting us home safe without even needing to speak. And especially, the food.

When JFK addressed West Berlin, saying “Ich bin ein Berliner,” he failed to realize that a “Berliner” is also a jelly-filled donut. But I don’t think there was a reason for him to be embarrassed—they’re delicious. I look forward to returning to Germany, slowly improving my language skills, and not caring how many times I accidentally refer to myself as a breakfast pastry.