The Window, the Slot Machine, My Uncle and the German I Can’t Speak
After all the times I’ve been in Germany, I could never learn a single word except for that one sentence.
I look at my bedroom window and suddenly regret I can’t speak German.
My mum and her five brothers taught me the only thing I can say in German, which is: I can’t speak German. Simple but handy.
When they were young, they all lived not far from Cologne, working in a factory. Some of them settled down and since they were paying taxes there, they also got married and decided to never come back.
Me, I’m the only one who can’t understand a word of German in my family. And today, with the window looking at me, that’s the only thing I can think of.
When I didn’t know what to make of my life, I decided my second language would have been French. My Uni offered a scholarship to get Masters in a small town in the East of France. You had to study an extra semester compared to your peers but you got a paper written in French saying that you’re good to dive into your miserable working life. Procrastinating with a purpose. It sounded like the worst idea possible, in fact I was the only one to apply. So I got it. And that’s why I lived for nearly two years in France. Studying in French. Speaking French. Kissing in French.
Looking back most of your memories always give you a stupid sense of nostalgia.
Then one day I’m sleeping with this French lawyer who has to take a thirty-minute shower before and after we had sex. This was when you showered for pleasure and not to wash away a deadly virus. The lawyer is scrubbing her back with a bar of soap and my parents ring me up to say that my German auntie found a tiny swell under her armpit. Nothing to worry about, we all have one of those. It’ll disappear. Reabsorbed under your skin. Auntie went to see a doctor and it turned out she had hundreds of them sprouting all over her body. There was nothing she could do about it, anymore.
Auntie passed away studded with cysts and everyone got drunk crying their eyes out for days. After that my uncle slipped into a long sad silence. At home by himself. Smoking two packets of Marlboro Red every day. Waking up and waiting for his bedtime. Mum checked on him every now and again. On those international calls his answer was always the same. “The TV is watching me,” he’d say. Mum’d tell him to get out of the house, a walk in the park or something. And Uncle, he’d go to the arcades. Those rooms with flickering lights stuck in time, where you can still smoke inside without getting kicked out. Sitting by his favourite slot machine, Uncle would drop coin after coin and pull a lever. Smoking another cigarette, waiting for the three same signs to align on screen and make it rains tons of money. He tried and waited, but he never won a thing. The TV kept watching him, and a few months later, we got a phone call saying that my uncle was also dead. Just like that. Reunited with Auntie. The two of them, suddenly happy ever after where no one can see them.
Then everyone jumped on flights and trains for the funeral. Covering the three thousand miles that separated them to the last goodbye. Everyone overcoming their fear of flying and clearing their busy schedules. Finding time for once, when before they never could. They always planned to catch up. When this problem was gone, they’d say. On this holiday or that wedding. Postponing the event, because time is the only thing you always think you have. It turns out that funerals in my family bond everyone more than anything else.
I caught a train from France and two days before the funeral we all met in this town with an unpronounceable name in the West of Germany. Me, my mum and her other four brothers. I asked everyone to teach me some words and the only thing I got out of it was how to say “I can’t speak German”. Ich sprecht nicht Deutsch. And also some random cursing. That always comes handy. We have dinner. Telling stories, drinking beer, eating food I can’t pronounce. They all laugh around a table, and me, I always have to elbow someone asking what the joke was about.
The day before the funeral we go to the arcades my uncle used to go to. They knew him and somehow they recognise us. Sometimes you’re a foreigner just from how you’re dressed. We pick my uncle’s favourite slot machine and pull the lever. Signs keep rolling on the screen. My mum and her brothers talk with some old men and I’ve no idea what anyone’s saying. Then the machine stops, three signs aligned and lights flashing all over. There’s a ding, ding, dinging and a shower of coins starts to rain everywhere. In my hands, all over the floor. And everyone is there, watching with a side smile holding their cigarettes. We ask for some plastic cups to gather the change and Mum whispers to my ear, “Sure, that was him.” If reincarnation was a thing I doubt that a slot machine would be your first option. But I squeeze my mum’s shoulder and say, “I know, that was Uncle who did it.”
Half of the money, we gave it to the man behind the counter. A tip. A massive tip, if you’d ask me. Apparently my uncle used to do that. The man says something I don’t understand and a tear spurts from his eye.
Then we all got drunk. After the funeral, the sobbing and the tears. Everyone’s drinking and telling funny stories about my uncle. At least I think they are. I’ve no idea what they’re saying. When someone talks to me, I nod idiotically and say, “Ich sprecht nicht Deutsch.” I don’t speak German. They keep talking and I don’t speak German. They hug me and I still can’t speak German. In the end I just got drunk, laughing when everyone laughed.
Sometimes you just wanna fit in.
After all the times I’ve been in Germany, I could never learn a single word except for that one sentence. And looking at the window that’s the only thing keep repeating in my head.
Then my phone rings. This is my mum and her daily video-call check. These days of lockdown she makes sure our calls last long enough to see if I have a cough. If I’ve washed my hands long enough until my skin starts peeling.
Mum’s face appears on screen with a smile. I smile back and she says, “What’s the situation like down there?”
No one’s walking outside. The traffic light’s turning red for invisible cars. It’s must be sunny and warm, but from inside your flat is hard to tell.
And, to my mum, I say, “Ich sprecht nicht Deutsch.”
Mum squints on the screen and says, “What the hell is wrong you?” She says, “This virus gets your lungs not your brain. Don’t be an idiot.” I laugh and I tell her that everything is great. I’m fine, as usual.
I say, “It’s just the window.” Mum frowns with a wrinkle carved in her forehead and I say, “The window. Today, the window is watching me.”