Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf

Back in 2004 I went to Verona to study Italian for a month. One of the biggest things I learned there is that the Italian I spoke at the time was full of mistakes. My Italian sounded great but wasn’t. It sounded great because I’d spent a lot of time with a family of native speakers in Zürich and I’d been in Italy several times. I’d studied on my own as well, using a great CD rom that was actually interesting.

The problem with my Italian was Spanish. They are very similar, and I’d spoken Spanish most of my life. In fact, when my soon-to-be teachers read my written test, they didn’t know if I was a native English speaker or native Spanish speaker.

I was placed in the lowest class for grammar and stuff. I got to hang out with the smart kids in the afternoon for an art history seminar. BUT, outside of school, my schoolmates shunned me. My schoolmate from Austria even said in plain Italian on a field trip to Padova that she didn’t want to talk to me because she’d only learn bad Italian from me. I don’t think she imagined I understood almost everything people said in Italian. Maybe she didn’t realize I understood her.

And that was that, except for a British woman from Manchester with whom I made friends.

After about three weeks into the month, we had a field trip to Giardino Giusti, where I’d already been. I hadn’t gone to Verona to hang out with classmates and practice grammar, anyway. I was following Goethe and seeing the city, especially the paintings in the churches. Italians I met on my peregrinations didn’t care that my Italian wasn’t perfect, so I practiced a lot. I was obviously a foreigner it wasn’t a great time to be an American, Iraq war and so on… Italy had allied with the US and many Italians didn’t like this, evidenced by the rainbow colored “Pace” — peace — flags hanging from balconies.

Giardino Giusti is an old formal garden, so old, that Goethe had been there. He had loved it and had cut branches from the cypress trees to take back to his hotel/apartment. This act of German instinct was met with condolences as he walked home. The Veronese thought someone Goethe cared for had died or why else would he have branches from cypress trees?

Language isn’t just words.

In Giardino Giusti, beside a cypress tree, is a little plaque (one of several I saw on that trip) attesting to the fact that Goethe had been there. Clearly I was not history’s only Goethe pilgrim.

That afternoon, I wandered around the garden with my school mates. The Austrian woman assiduously avoided me. As is the case with many formal gardens of the times, there was a labyrinth. We decided to “do” the labyrinth and as we strolled through it I said, in German, “Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf.” This is from Faust, the prologue. The poet/playwrite bewails the wrong turns he’s taken in his life but comments that they are good fodder for drama. It says, according to my translation, “Life’s labyrinthine course of error.”

That phrase had become a kind of mantra for me, an explanation of my own labyrinthine existence that made no sense whatsoever.

“That’s not right,” said the Austrian woman in English. “Why are you trying to quote Goethe? What could you know of Goethe?”

I shrugged. It was right, and I knew it. I also knew that Goethe is a kind of demi-god in German speaking countries, and I wasn’t in a position to prove anything.

“I brought Faust with me. I will look it up when I get back to my apartment. I’ll show you tomorrow,” she continued.

I’d already decided she was just kind of a linguistic Nazi. And she was wrong.

The next morning, she came to school and brought Faust. Instead of showing me that I had been wrong, she showed me that I had been right. I thought that was pretty cool of her. I also liked how the little interchange illustrated Goethe’s assessment of life. After that, she and I began a friendship that lasted a couple of years.

One of the things I learned on that journey was the low esteem in which Americans are held in Europe. Most of my schoolmates (and teachers), at first, didn’t understand why I was there. Few Americans had ever attended that school. Then, they assumed I was a war-mongering, imperialistic, arrogant American. My Austrian friend confided to me later that she never imagined an American who had read Goethe. The list of their assumptions about Americans was pretty long. When they learned I’d already attended the opera (which is held in the Arena and is absolutely amazing), they wanted to go, too, so we all went to see Madame Butterfly. They weren’t totally wrong about Americans, but not totally right either except maybe the learning languages part. In any case, that summer I found it easier to let strangers think I was a German tourist.

A blog post about Goethe’s Faust that I wrote a while ago

RagTag Daily Prompt, maze

15 thoughts on “Des Lebens labyrinthisch irren Lauf

  1. Enjoyed reading this post. It sounds like such a wonderful experience- travelling to a country to learn a language. Your anecdotes made me chuckle.

  2. I was reflecting on this, thinking that with such easy access to other cultures (both online and through easier travel) why some people seem to have such strong preconceptions of country-types. But I guess the same things that make it easier to learn about others makes it easier to learn the bad, in addition to the apparent backlash against multiculturalism in the insular, I’m the best attitude of many, not just Americans. I’m sorry, but I’m just Canadian, eh?

    • I understood my schoolmate’s attitude — a lot of it was based on the Iraq war which was not a popular move anywhere, IMO, and dragged other nations into something the US had decided to do. I’ve also experienced when I was traveling a very arrogant attitude on the part of Americans, as if what “foreign” people did as a matter of course was nothing but perversion. I even heard a bunch of middle-aged American women in a bathroom in Interlaken holding forth on the inferiority of Swiss toilet paper. Interlaken! One of the premier tourist destinations in the whole world. But this stuff isn’t just Americans. In Italy, during a transportation strike, when a subway official announced to a bunch of us who’d just gotten off the train that there was a strike and there would be no subway travel until 3 pm and we would have to take taxis, two British girls said, “We want to speak to someone in charge. Someone who speaks English!” I went over and told them what the guy had said and they responded with, “How would YOU know?” I’ve had Japanese friends who said, “We aren’t like you Americans. Japanese are polite.” My only thought is that dealing with people from different cultures threatens people’s idea of normal and they fear losing their identity. I really don’t know, though.

  3. Fascinating story. It is hard to gauge how Americans are viewed – is it via the news media or what is going on – such as the Iraq war. When a friend of my daughter did a backpacking trip – alone – through Europe in the early 2000s (not sure if it was before or after 9/11), she sewed a Canadian patch on her backpack to dissuade people from thinking she was American. I’m impressed you did the labyrinth. I’d be petrified of getting lost, but then I always am. 🙂

    • The labyrinth was only 3 feet high and not very hard. I think popular culture has a lot to do with how Americans are viewed overseas, but in these times, with social media, it might be a combination of factors. There was no Facebook in 2004 and people still used Internet cafes and no smart phones. That Canadian patch idea is smart.

      • Oh, I could deal with 3 feet – as long as I could see over it. Yes, I thought it was smart of her at the time as well. I think she was just shortly out of high school. It would have been before 9/11 now that I think about it. I’m not sure what would have been going on to spark anti-American sentiment then.

  4. The image of the Ugly American has been around for a long time. I only hope that by the time I am able to travel that the POTUS is someone that can inspire a better relationship among the global community… Sadly it will take a long time and a shift in American culture to make a difference in the perceptions of people in other countries.

    • Yep. Have you seen the movie, The Ugly American? It’s really good and the “ugly American” is far far far from what we use that term for. It stars Marlon Brando.

Comments are closed.