The German Test
“That was completely illegal,” I laugh to myself. I look in the rearview mirror as I finish speeding through the intersection. The traffic signal was now glowing a deep shade of red like Snow White’s poison apple. I am confident there will be a ticket mailed to me for running the light in the next few weeks. I glance at the clock, it changes from 6:03 to 6:04 PM as I turn my attention back to the road. “Shit. I only have 25 minutes to get there.”
I’m nervous, I don’t know where I’m going, and I am running late. I hate all of these current characteristics. Zurich’s streets are slammed with people riding their bikes and making their way home from work, so of course, I instinctually turn the radio down to help myself concentrate. The GPS says I’m only 2.5 kilometers but 15 minutes from my destination. “I can run there faster than I can drive.”
Someone keeps calling, but I don’t answer. I can’t focus on anyone else right now because I have to find a place to deposit my gigantic tank of a car. I pass a lot of empty spots – but that one is too small, and so is that one. I try to turn into a parking structure, but the neon sign says besetzt, so I have to keep looking. “Jesus. It’s already 6:18 PM. I’ve got 12 minutes to get there.” I reverse out of the sidewinding entrance and back onto the street where I continue to prowl the road to park my car.
I go around the block and then again. I broaden my search zone with each pass and finally find a free spot three blocks from my destination. I parallel park the massive silver bullet into place and slip coin after coin into the meter, watching the allotted time build. “Two hours should be plenty. It can’t take that long.” I stuff the ticket on the dashboard and lock the doors as I begin the final sprint to my destination. It’s 6:26 PM, and I’ve got four minutes to get there.
I find my destination as a bead of sweat drips from my nape of my neck down my bra. “Classy, Claire. Nothing but class,” I say as I enter the elevator and push the second-floor button. I’m dripping and need to pee. I cannot believe I am late. I step out of the elevator into an empty room lined with muted yellow, orange, and green plastic Eames chair benches. It resembles a 1970’s rainbow. I continue through the doorway and am met by a very tall man wearing persimmon colored chinos.
“Grüezi. Frau Hauxwell?” he says.
“Hi. Yes. I mean… Grüezi. Ja,” I stammer. Those are the last words of English I utter for the next two hours, and the beginning of my German language slaughter session – accompanied by my terrible accent and inability to conjugate verbs into different tenses. I am not a linguist. Before being forced to learn German, I attempted to learn French and Spanish. Let’s just say my children still mock my pronunciation and I once told my Mexican gym class that I couldn’t make it to class because I had a boob infection instead of a sinus infection. Talk about lost in translation.
“Setzen sie sich, bitte,” he says as he points at a desk holding a large tablet. “Wir warden in Kürze beginnen.”
“Thank god they have not started,” I think as I take my seat. I look around the room to find several people nervously awaiting their own personal hell to commence. I turn my phone to silent, pull out my water bottle, and take a chance to find the bathroom before the tall man comes back. “Just relax. What are they going to do, kick you out?” I honestly don’t know what they will do; I’ve never met anyone who has failed.
The tall man returns and begins explaining how the tablets work and that we may watch a short instructional video by pushing the play button. I have deciphered this from what little German I think I know and a lot of guessing. We have up to three hours to finish and will be pulled out individually when it’s our turn for the oral portion. I swallow hard, pick up the tablet, and begin the A1 German exam I am mandated to take for my husband’s Swiss visa renewal process. I am not resentful at all. “Simmer. You only have to pass A1.”
The first question is to fill in the missing letters of the alphabet. I instantly feel my shoulders relax but begin to worry about the Japanese girl sitting across from me. I have never even thought about learning a different alphabet. Two hours later I look up from my table and wonder where the hell all of the other people have gone. I am now completely alone. I look at my watch and realize I finished the oral portion of the test over an hour ago, but I am still prompted to go to the next question. Glancing down at the tablet, I notice B2 in the upper left corner of my tablet and say out loud, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” The language test keeps going as long as you continue to answer 50% correct or better. I must be great at guessing because I have no idea what the hell is going on anymore. My eyes are tired, and my brain is beginning to hurt. I start to randomly choose answers to questions without reading them in hopes of ending this linguistic torture. Finally, the page turns black and says, “Ende.”
I turn in my tablet and make my way to the shelter of my car. I start the car and a voice begins speaking through the speakers of the satellite radio that is set to a US talk radio station. My sense of listening is instantly comforted by the sounds of its native English. I take a deep breath as I look up at the sky filled with dusty pink and orange pillows. I am relieved the test is over, but I am still nervous. I am still holding my breath because I do not feel like I am able to exhale yet. It will be 48-72 hours before I know if I have passed.
“How’d it go?” asks my husband as I walk in the door.
“It fucking sucked.” I put my bags down and walk into the kitchen. “I hope it went well because I don’t want to do that ever again,” I say as I pour a glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc into a stemmed glass. “My brain hasn’t worked that hard since college.”
“I’m sure you did great,” he says. “I know it wasn’t something you were excited about doing, but I appreciate it.”
The days go by like sap pouring from a Vermont maple tree in November. I cannot think of anything else. For over a year, I have been annoyed by the necessity of passing a test to live in a country that I did not choose to live in. I want to finally be done with this looming requirement and get on with my life and rid of this anxiety. On the third day, I open the mailbox to find my results sitting atop a pile of adverts and local newspapers. I pry open the letter and see the letters A2 typed in black ink with a large stamp over it. After I stop jumping up and down with excitement, I see I actually passed some sections with B1 equivalency. I have outdone myself. I am so happy I could kiss a stinking cow, but instead pick up a champagne bottle and let the cork blow. I cheers myself because I am a bona fide #badASS.
I guess the moral of my story is to never doubt what you are capable of accomplishing while living in a place that isn’t your own. Which is ironic because I doubt myself every single day. I even doubted myself while I wrote this blog post. But I’m getting better at pushing those feelings aside. By passing that German test, I have once again demonstrated that I am resilient, skillful, and clever. I am someone who is living abroad and like it or not smashing expat life. I love that after all these years I am not sick of this lifestyle. I love that I can still surprise myself. I love that I can still teach this old dog new tricks. I love being a badASS abroad.
Oh, by the way, do yourself a favor… do not blow a red light in Zurich. That mistake cost me 250 Swiss francs.