Language Learning: Disaster in a German Kitchen

Rothenburg, not far from my university in Würzburg.

Early on, when I was learning German, I got a part time job. 
It was at the university kitchen in Bochum, Germany. 

I figured it would be a good way to practice my German.

They had tens of thousands of students. 
I worked the lunch shift, 12–3:00.

My job was "Trays". 
Placing lunch trays on a conveyor belt. 

Over and over.

I must have done a good job. 

After a few days, I was promoted to "Sauce". 
I poured sauce over the meat, with a ladle.

This ladle had a VERY long handle. 
The sauce cart was on wheels. 
It was about a meter deep. 

I had a pretty good rhythm going. 
Suddenly - I DROPPED the ladle into the sauce.

Deep. Gone.

Now what?

I wasn't going to reach down in there. 
And: I didn’t know how to say “ladle” in German.

(The German word for ladle, by the way, is Schöpflöffel.
-Even if I KNEW it, I couldn't pronounce it.)

So I did nothing. 

I hoped no one would notice.

Pretty soon, the students began to complain. 
The whole system—conveyor belt, trays, meat, sauce, veggies— stopped. 

They traced the problem back to me. 

I stood there, feeling pretty stupid. 

So they gave me a clean ladle, and a few dirty looks. 
A LOT of grumbling. In German. 

Soon - everything started up again.

But the next day, I was back to "Trays".

- Not exactly a stellar career move. Even if I did learn the word for ladle.

(From the book - Meanwhile, Back in Los Ranchos -)

Kenya: Dancing at the Starlight Ballroom in Nairobi

"My band is playing tonight. Starlight Ballroom,” Jomo said. “I’m drumming. Why don’t you come?
Starts about 9:00.”

The open door unleashed music into Nairobi's tropical night air as we paid our entrance fee. Seeing us, Jomo waved a drumstick from across a massive hall. Hundreds of swaying, laughing, pulsing black bodies filled the room. There were no chairs, no tables, only dancing.

We joined right in. The beat of the African Highlife music was irresistible. Lighthearted and hypnotic, the steady rhythm went on and on. There were no partners. Everyone just danced, hips moving, feet shuffling, heads swaying with the continuous beat. The spirit was contagious.

As I danced, I closed my eyes. Two singers in the band blended voices in two-tone harmony, singing the Nigerian and Senegalese pieces which always started on a high note and descended, sometimes in French, sometimes English, often indecipherable, and always compelling.

“It’s easy to find you in here.” My girlfriend Lisa laughed, as she danced past. “We’re the only white faces!”
It was true. Of the hundreds dancing, only my three friends and I were not African.

“I’ll be back,” I shouted in reply, and pointed toward the ladies’ room.

It was quieter in there, but still hot. The women wore skimpy tops and lapas, long colorful skirts. When I closed the door, conversations stopped. The small room was crowded, and smelled strongly of sweat and perfume. I waited for a stall, suddenly unsure of how welcome I was. The atmosphere became heavy. All eyes focused on me, either directly or surreptitiously. Finally one woman stepped forward and spoke. She took my hand in both of hers, and looked into my eyes. Everything stood still.

“Sister,” she said softly. “Thank you. Thank you for coming. Welcome.”
The others nodded and smiled, and began to talk again.
I returned to the dance floor, and my friend from the women’s room waved as she went by.
Smiling, I joined the dancers again.

From the book:

Meanwhile, Back in Los Ranchos