As I write this, it’s a pitch-black 6 AM and I’m sitting on a train bound for Gatwick, where I’ll catch a plane to Hamburg.
This is an exciting trip for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s the first time I will have been back to Germany since leaving there 7 years ago. I think 7 years is actually the longest I’ve ever spent away from Germany in my entire life, and it seems kind of silly that I haven’t been back, seeing as it’s really just a hop across the Channel. Jeremy’s had the chance to go back twice for work—once even getting to Freiburg—but I couldn’t make it either time. And for some reason—I guess after living there for so long—it seems strange to think of going there as “tourists”, so we never have.
I’m also excited to finally be getting to Hamburg, a place I’ve only ever heard good things about, and somewhere I’ve been promising my friend Schorsch I would get to ever since he moved there from Freiburg years ago. Jeremy and I never managed it while we were in Germany, and since moving to England we’ve been spoiled by Schorsch always coming to visit us. But now I’m finally reciprocating.
This is a particularly special trip because I’ll be going to see the culmination of over a year’s worth of work by Schorsch and myself on something very close to both of our hearts: a new documentation center at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp memorial. Our work for the Neuengamme memorial turned out to be the start of a string of other projects for different memorials around Germany—and actually, the Neuengamme thing is still going on, as I’m in the throes of translating their very extensive website.
The invitation-only opening of the Bergen-Belsen documentation center takes place on Sunday. Since I didn’t make it to the Neuengamme opening, and since I’ve been privileged enough to receive an invitation to what is actually a rather momentous event, and since I have the time and wherewithal to get there, it seemed crazy to pass up the opportunity—so here I am.
If I’m being honest, though, I have to say that there’s no small amount of anxiety associated with this trip. It’s largely linguistic anxiety, which may sound strange coming from a professional German translator who’s actually pretty darn good at her job (hey, if I don’t toot my own horn, no one else will). But while I’ve confidently translated hundreds of thousands of German words since moving away from Germany 7 years ago, I haven’t really spoken German at all during that time (bar the occasional work-related phone call, which usually consists of me just going “Ja…ja…nein…ja…OK…”).
Even when I lived in Germany, I was never confident about my spoken German. Heck, I find it difficult enough holding a conversation in English sometimes—and I’m not just being funny when I say that. I think it’s a social anxiety thing which causes me to struggle to find words on my tongue which would easily flow from my pen. Whatever it is, I tend to get lost in mid-sentence in conversations—and that’s particularly bad in German, because by the time you get to the middle of a German sentence, you usually haven’t even reached the verb yet…
Another huge issue with me speaking German is my horror at Saying Something Wrong. God forbid I should use the wrong case with a preposition, or mess up the ending of an adjective, or get a verb form incorrect. This is the perfectionist in me coming out, the part of me that causes me to beat myself up if I can’t do something perfectly and brilliantly the first time and every single time after that. It’s the much-hated part of myself that tempts me to avoid doing things I think I can’t do really, really well. Perfectionism can drive you to do great work, but it can also be crippling, and when it comes to my oral language skills—in German and English—it’s definitely done me more harm than good (well, perfectionism, and an increasingly painful self-conciousness). Better to say nothing at all than to say something stupid…
Anyway, those are my deep, dark personal anxieties. A much more practical anxiety is the fact that I’m going to be spending what’s bound to be a very intense day at a former concentration camp, with survivors of said camp, and historians, and representatives of international organizations, and the fruits of my and Schorsch’s labor are going to be on display for everyone to see. If that’s not anxiety-inducing, I don’t know what is. But it’s thrilling at the same time, and that’s why I’m facing my anxieties head-on and making the trip to Hamburg rather than falling back on avoidance strategies—and then sitting in Brighton and kicking myself for being such a coward.
Feel the fear and do it anyway!