There’s nothing quite as groovy as being invited to visit far-flung lands and conventions to burble about books. In the last few years, I’ve been made welcome and treated like a princess by book-lovers in Estonia, Spain and Poland, and from the past a few other countries besides.
There are few things that make a scribbler quite as happy as realising that there are people who have enjoyed your books in other languages, and who have taken the time to come and tell you – it’s hard to really explain the rush of gratitude and delight.
As if that wasn’t wonderful and flattering enough, it’s an adventure. Adventures to places you’d never have been before, with wonderful people, who are frequently generous enough to help you have the best kind of adventure as a traveller – to help you see their home, as it is in their eyes, as well as with your baffled tourist’s face.
There’s only one snag. I don’t speak Estonian. Or Polish. Or Spanish. The last time I went to Spain, I’d just done an intensive Mandarin course the week before, and my ‘buenos tardes’ became ‘qing ni bang zhu wo?’ at very high speed. In Estonian a very kind translator tried to explain ‘palun’ and ‘tanam’ to me, but I still kept getting it muddled, and in Poland I walked around for days thinking I was saying ‘English?’ in my best hopeful voice, and being so wrong it’s on that cusp between funny and sad.
In other words: as I travel around and meet people with infinitely more linguistic skills and fluency than me, I begin to find myself annoyed that the cliche of the Brits who don’t learn languages is being reinforced by my actions. And of course, now we’ve decided to shoot ourselves in the foot by leaving the EU, the desire to really prove that not all of us are Euro-skeptics marching across the continent with a cry of ‘sausage egg and chips!’ is that much greater.
You’ve been publishing my books for decades. German advances and now German royalties have helped keep me in baked beans since I was 14 years old. I applied for German citizenship after Brexit, and at the embassy I gotta tell you I was never prouder than when the official congratulated me on how organised my paperwork was. (Alas, citizenship may not come courtesy of a bit of the same law that could let me in which also says you can only go by paternal blood before 1953, but it’s ok. I blame the patriarchy, not you….)
I cannot lie – my GCSE level German is pretty poor, and very rusty. My Dad, who was fluent in German, only ever taught me three things:
“Mensch! Wir haben gelitten!” – usually exclaimed first thing in the morning.
“Mochst du ein Hallenbad mit mir?” – for romantic entanglements.
And… “Ich habe die Nase voll!” For life in general.
That and his sage advice never to play poker with a man called Doc, constituted most of his philosophical contribution to my childhood.
But guys! I can still order a hot chocolate! I can apologise for how much German I’ve forgotten. I can buy a railway ticket (and boy, rarely have I been more smug than buying a railway ticket in Poland, even though we only achieved it by sitting in the chair for foolish people in Warsaw Centralna and hoping someone would take pity on us).
I’m ready to go to the one place on earth – apart from possibly Beijing – where I can at least understand the scale of my ignorance, and know which bit to apologise for. And sure, I’m gonna come visit anyway, because of the awesomeness, but just in case you’re wondering how I feel on this subject, and whether I’d really be up for going to a place where I wouldn’t humiliate myself relentlessly (if gratefully) – Deutschland – ich blick auf Sie.