An inexplicable attraction
Tour guide and Germanophile John Kennedy relates how, as a teenager living in the west of Ireland, he fell in love with a far-off land.
I’m still at a loss as to why it fascinated me so. Forty years ago, in the west of Ireland, Mass was the centre of every Sunday, but I looked forward to the German language programme on the TV; the ‘filler’ for that time of the day that could never attract advertising.
My siblings donned their Sunday best but I squatted on the floor immersed in the images and sounds emanating from the box in the corner, enthralled by the regular rhythm of hochdeutsch, transfixed by the sun-soaked, cobbled streets of medieval cities.
I seem to have drifted after that. I envied the girls attending the local convent school; they could choose German; in the Christian brothers I was caught between Latin and French.
Then Cologne happened. I say ‘happened’ because it hit me like a hurricane. I was only 16, and abroad for the first time with my school. The people I met there were universally helpful and polite. Everyone seemed to speak my language, while I was ignorant of theirs.
At the time, Ireland was a basket-case. My father was unemployed, and the emigrant boat beckoned. In Cologne, I looked askance at the cleanliness, the punctuality, the opulence of a country dripping with prosperity. I resolved not to get jealous, but to get even.
What happened next was inevitable: the degree in German History and Politics, the college holidays working in Munich, the thesis on Konrad Adenauer. I even tried to learn German again, but with only limited success. It’s not easy learning German in Dublin.
At 26, I ditched my teaching job and bought a ticket to Vienna, where I had found a language school that wouldn’t break the bank. I had decided I was going to learn the language even it killed me. I avoided English-speaking expats, the loneliness had me crushed and was for a while was so short of money that I was reduced to stealing potatoes at the end of my shift in the restaurant where I washed up. I truly climbed the Nietzschean hills, fighting my way through the briars before eventually enjoying the view from the top.
And what a view: the books, the newspapers in German, the ease with which I found employment once I could converse.
These days, I work as a tour-guide, trying to inspire in Germans the same admiration for Ireland that I feel for their country. And not just Germans; on one occasion, I accompanied an elderly Romanian couple to our national museum. We stood around awkwardly until the gentleman broke his silence with: “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” It turned out his village had a large German-speaking population. So there we were: the Romanian in his 80s and Irishman in his 30s, communicating in German.
I return to Germany every year, where I have made many friends. My family find it weird and they have a point: how many people do you know who grew up in a little village in the west of Ireland, heard German only from television, started learning at 23 and not only mastered it but developed a deep love of the country and its people?
It’s a funny old world.
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