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The Egg and “Ei”

by Joyce McGreevy on October 24, 2017

When four teenagers and a writer, Joyce McGreevy, meet in the Volksgarten, Vienna, Austria, they share the fun of speaking two languages. Image © Joyce McGreevy

Finding our voices in Vienna: Catrina, Cedric, the author, Nicky, and Adah. (Oh, and “Albert.”)
© Joyce McGreevy

What Four Viennese Teens Taught Me
About Speaking Two Languages

I was sitting on a park bench in Vienna when they approached me, speaking two languages.

What’s more international than the Volksgarten? An Austrian park in formal French style around a replica Greek temple, it attracts visitors from around the world.

The replica Temple of Theseus at the Volksgarten, Vienna gives a group of visitors an opportunity for speaking in two languages. (Public domain image by Norman Davies)

The Volksgarten (“people’s garden”) blooms with roses and buzzes with languages. 
Norman Davies (public domain)

I’d been thinking about language, about the surprising fact that I’d found it easier to speak Hungarian than German.

Let me explain. One of my travel pleasures is taking language lessons and then practicing every day with native speakers. Picking things up little by little. Savoring the taste of new words.

Permission to Speak

When I did this in cities like Budapest, or countries like Malta, Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey, native speakers responded with encouragement. It’s not about ego boosting—the nearest toddler could out-debate me—but genuine human connection.

People overlooked flaws in pronunciation, eased me past mistakes, and enriched my vocabulary with the aplomb of chocolatiers proffering boxes of pralines.

Alas, when I spoke German in Austria, native speakers switched to English. Politely, but irrevocably. How to negotiate, to explain that I missed speaking two languages?

So what if I strode in one language, limped in the other? I’d happily hobble along in order to learn.

A street scene in Vienna reminds a writer of the pleasures of speaking two languages. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

I longed to steep myself in another language to the point of dreaming in it. (Vienna)
© Joyce McGreevy

A Wanderlust for Words

I became a silent student of German. I read food labels and environmental text,  listened to opera and watched local news. At a thrift store near Sigmund Freud’s historic apartment, I found a 1970s children’s book and carried it home like it was Mozart’s lost sonata.

Whenever I rode the metro or shared an elevator, my ears fairly twitched like a dog’s toward familiar sounds.

Assorted German-language reading materials inspire a writer in Vienna who misses speaking two languages. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

A language learner’s improvised library. 
© Joyce McGreevy

Talking Points

I marveled at close connections and vast gaps between German and English.

I fell in love with the word arbeitslust, which artist Gustav Klimt used to discuss the will, indeed the burning desire, to do one’s work.

But I wasn’t speaking two languages.

It was like viewing a feast, but never tasting it. Maybe there’s a German word for that, too.

Cakes on display in Cafe Demel, Vienna, Austria become a metaphor for speaking two languages. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Cakes on display at Café Demel, Vienna. The sweetness is hidden inside. 
© Joyce McGreevy

Teen Talk to the Rescue

Then I met four Austrian teens on a mission.

Their teacher had sent forth small groups with an unusual assignment: Go to the Volksgarten, find a friendly foreigner, and make a trade using English.

Their teacher was helping her students acquire language functions.

Language functions are specific purposes we address every day: We summarize a movie. We compare and contrast our baseball team’s wins and losses. We greet neighbors and ask questions to get to know them. We persuade a friend to help us move.

A market in Budapest reminds a writer of reasons for speaking two languages. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

We negotiate everything from groceries to relationships. (Budapest)
© Joyce McGreevy

A Good Egg

“What are you trading?” I asked.

“Albert,” they said.

“Excuse me?”

Albert, it turned out, was a total egghead. Hard-boiled, I was assured.

Cedric, Catriona, Adah, and Nicky persuaded me that I would benefit from the trade, because:

  • Albert had purple hair,
  • a nice smile,
  • a pleasing shape,
  • and was very portable.
  • Besides, how often do you meet a purple-haired egg named Albert in a 19th century park in Vienna?

Sure, they might have mentioned that eggs are a reliable source of protein, selenium, and vitamin D. But when the egg in question has a big goofy smile, why go there?

For my negotiation, all I had was a pen. So I told stories about, well, writing stories with it.

And since negotiations entailed that all stakeholders should benefit, I suggested they each use the pen to record English expressions.

“It’s a deal!”

A deal that got sweeter: The teens spoke German with me. Vielen Dank!

People conversing near water in Vienna, Austria become a metaphor for speaking two languages. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Languages reflect our universal impulse to connect.  (Vienna)
© Joyce McGreevy

Trading Ideas

We traded pleasantries and then we traded languages. Like ei for “egg.” And glücklich for “happy.”

Ich bin glücklich, I ventured.

“We’re happy, too,” they said. “This was fun!” When four teens say they’ve enjoyed meeting a woman old enough to be their grandm—uh, mom, that’s a good day.

Suddenly, it didn’t matter who was the native speaker. Only that we were speaking. In two languages.

These confident-looking teens admitted they’d felt nervous approaching strangers to start a conversation. Some folks shooed them away.

As for the trade, anyone who’d been willing to negotiate offered . . . a pen. So why had they accepted mine?

You made it into a story,” they said.  “What about us?”

“You made an egg into ‘Albert.’ An ei into an I.”

An egg character set against a scene of urban crowds becomes a metaphor for the fragility one can feel when speaking two languages. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Feel fragile when speaking two languages? C’mon out of your shell!
© Joyce McGreevy

Oh, I see: We’re all speaking two languages. Words, and whatever gives them meaning. Imagination and negotiation. Curiosity and discovery. Trust and connection.

Is there a word that means “a love of communicating with others”? With practice—and the encouragement of fellow travelers—we just might find out.

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.


3 thoughts on “The Egg and “Ei”

  1. Another great OIC, Joyce! Really love the story and how you conveyed it. So refreshing to soak in teen spirit, in Vienna, in 2 languages, with an egg named Albert, no less.

    We all benefit from your “arbietlust” of writing!

    PS …what became of Albert?

  2. Great report on how any of us, traveling in any country, in any price-range, can have a fun, joyous, meaningful and memorable experience anywhere, any day! I’m wondering if I have to wait until I travel to a foreign country; my town plaza and wharf are packed foreigners speaking many languages. I might just try my hand at this right here at home!

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