pnuemonia: a language lesson


I’m typing this by the blue glow of numerous electronic devices. If I close my eyes it sounds as if I am in an aquarium. I hear bubbles rising to the top of the tank and imagine colourful fish swishing past me, casting me disinterested looks on their way to the next piece of seaweed.

But then the choking cries of an almost two-year old boy break the spell and when I open my eyes it’s not the walls of a tank I see but the corner of my daughter’s hospital bed. For the moment she sleeps soundly beside me, and covered by blankets she could almost be simply in bed, but if I look closely I can see the tubes and wires snaking out from under the blankets. They connect her to an IV stand and a machine that monitors her pulse and breathing. I’ve helped her negotiate these wires all day. We go from bed to the table to the toilet and back to the bed again. We become tangled and sometimes I ask her to walk in circles so we can untangle ourselves and she does not become wrapped up in plastic wires like a birthday present gone wrong.

The life of a mother certainly has its ups and downs. And pneumonia fits the down category perfectly. We’ve been here two days now, and I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve had to explain myself. Yes, I say, I speak some High German and my daughter speaks Swiss German. I answer questions, I ask questions, I hear diagnoses and I chat with the mother of the two year old. And no doubt I do it all quite badly. But it’s as if someone has cast me a line to safety in a raging sea: I am actually communicating in a language not my own!

After every conversation (every sentence!) I give thanks that I am able to understand and speak at least some German. I’ve met so many people in the last two days, and only a fraction of them have willingly spoken in English or felt comfortable doing so. Sometimes it’s been obvious they understand or at least partly understand me when I do speak in English (just because I really have no idea how to say certain things in German), but there have been numerous times when they haven’t. As expats we hear over and over again how easy it is to get by without German or with only a few choice phrases. But I don’t like to think how much worse this hospital stay would be without it.

We’ll be going home soon, hopefully. My daughter still has some fluid on her lungs and sounds like she’s just run the Zürich marathon after walking to the toilet and back, but she has been deemed well enough to be sick at home. This morning, she turned to me and said wasn’t it amazing that we didn’t know anyone when we went in but that we now know the little boy in the bed next to us and his mummy, originally from Kosovo. And she’s right. We’ve taken it in turns to get cups of tea, told each other our horror stories leading up to our trip to the hospital and generally given each other support over what have been some very long days (and nights).

And we’ve done it all in German, a language not native to either of us. The first morning she asked if I wanted to come to the cafeteria with her. The shy monolingual me curled up in horror, but the new just a little bit bilingual me said yes, why not! After fifteen years here, she’s a pro, and sympathetic to my struggles to get the words in the right order. But I spoke enough that we could truly get to know each other, a blessing in an environment in which everything is foreign and scary, yet terribly mundane at the same time. Hand signals would just not have cut it.

So my advice to anyone coming here to live whether it be for six months or six years, is learn the language. Think of it like taking out an insurance policy; you never know when you’re going to need it. And for me, lying here on an uncomfortable fold up bed beside my sick little girl, this has most assuredly been one of the times when my regular insurance payment of homework, lessons and incredibly awkward and embarrassing conversations has paid off. Don’t be caught without it.