Here is chapter four of Christobel, wherein the (other) titular Chris moves to Germany to work and live with his German girlfriend Frieda. The present-day part of the book is set in 2014-15, back in the halcyon, non-xenophobic days of European togetherness when people could fall in love with someone from elsewhere in the EU and freely move to live and work with them in either of their native countries (a situation which might no longer obtain when British divorce from the continental mainland is triggered; please excuse the political point, but I feel strongly about it).
Chris is blissfully happy; he feels he’s made the right move. He meets Frieda’s wider family and settles into his new job in nursing well. But he isn’t to know that dark clouds are gathering . . .
If you would like to begin reading from the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family.
Chris gazed out of the open apartment window. Being on the third floor, if he stuck his head out it gave him a commanding view along Pfeifferstrasse. To the west the sun was still bright in the sky, coruscating through the leaves of the pavement trees on this August evening. The street was quiet, but then suburbia was pretty much the same in any city in Europe, he supposed. In the Protestant north of the continent, anyway. Not a lot happened. People just lived their pedestrian evening and weekend lives away from the buzz and gravitational pull of the city centre.
But it was still a novel experience for him, all the same. Osnabruck didn’t compare for size with London of course, but on the other hand it was far bigger than sleepy Crewkerne, and the Friedrich Schiller Klinikum was far more impressive than Yeovil District General. And it was only one hospital amongst many, he’d found. German patients really were spoiled for choice. He’d been amazed at the plethora of medical facilities. But then this was the richest country in Europe, after all. Perhaps it wasn’t so surprising.
It had been his first day at the hospital, the first somewhat nervous dipping of toes in employment in a different land, a different culture (for all the similarities between Germany and Britain), and certainly a different medical system. The thing that had most worried him of course was the language. Would he be able to get by, understand what the patients said, the vast majority of whom, quite reasonably, unlike the friendly medical staff, particularly the doctors, spoke only German? And even if some of them did have some English, they could hardly be expected to speak it for his benefit.
He had been on an unofficial home-tutored (except that the tutor was miles away in Germany, unfortunately) crash language learning course with Frieda over the past six months. So with books, videos and her face on frequent Skype, increasingly, and with increasing proficiency on his part, they had quite soon been able to conduct entire conversations in German. He was still nowhere near as fluent as she was in English, but he had gained a reasonable command of the language.
It was one thing though to practise with infinitely-patient Frieda, who could prompt if necessary or stop him to correct pronunciation or grammar, but quite a different matter to be thrown to the lions and have to face German speakers in real life, alone and unsupported.
He need not have worried though. Day one hadn’t gone too badly at all. The hospital was modern, sleek, all stainless steel and glass and calm-inducing pastel colours. He’d been assigned to a mixed, general medical ward, similar to what he’d been used to, although he’d been surprised by the high staffing level and general air of unhurried efficiency.
They’d very kindly given him a mentor in the comforting chubby shape of friendly, motherly Helga, a nurse who spoke English as fluently as Frieda and could show him the ropes in practical job terms, and could translate his stumbling German if patients gazed blankly, not understanding. He had followed her around gratefully, like a dependant puppy, obeying her instructions, finding that much of the practise was similar to what he was used to, steadily gaining confidence as the day unfolded. And he’d got on surprisingly well, with no serious or embarrassing communication problems. Helga had kindly complimented him on his performance at the end of the shift, anyway.
So things were looking really promising. He thought back to the nerve-wracking (in the anticipation of it, at least) interview six weeks earlier, under the pretext of a week’s leave, for a job at the hospital where Frieda worked, after applying by letter drafted with her considerable help. But it had gone remarkably well, after he’d got over his initial nervousness, and the interviewers, a lady superintendent of nursing and a male administrator of some sort, had put him at his ease and excused his stumbling over words with great understanding. And the job offer and its attached significantly higher salary than before had arrived by efficient email just two days later, with predictable German efficiency.
Only then had he been able to give notice of leaving at Yeovil, to the thinly-disguised disappointment of his seniors there, although they’d wished him well. With the staff shortages they had, he’d felt just a little guilty. But not for long. It was just the way of the world, he told himself. After all, the NHS had no ethical problem about recruiting staff from Europe and the wider world, so it was simple reciprocity. And anyway, a few years down the line, if Frieda and he were still together (he fervently hoped they would be) they might decide to settle in Britain, and then his home country and the NHS would make a net gain. But that was for the future.
He sighed happily. Whatever it might bring, it certainly looked rosy.
Frieda emerged from the kitchen bearing steaming plates of food, preceded by delicious smells. She set them down on the pale pine table that she’d previously enlisted Chris to set. In a few days’ time, when he had fully settled into his new life, the deal was that they would share culinary duties.
‘Mm; smells wonderful,’ he enthused. They were speaking in English for a while to give him some respite from the strain of speaking German all day, but they would go back to it later. Chris was keen to practise all he could. He sniffed theatrically. ‘What is it?’
Frieda, flattered, beamed. ‘Gulasch. Not traditionally German, really; it’s from Hungary, but it is very nice. Served with bratkartoffeln, which is potatoes fried with onion and bacon. That is authentic German though. It is very wicked and fattening!’
‘Sounds good!’ Chris said, his mouth salivating in anticipation, smiling at Frieda’s lapse into British vernacular. She was far more fluent than he. Perhaps always would be. It was a bit depressing, really.
She returned to the kitchen to fetch a bowl of salad and a chilled, sweating bottle of spätburgunder, to celebrate Chris’s first day at work. He opened it and poured. Frieda raised her glass for him to clink. ‘Prost! Congratulations on surviving your first day at work, liebling!’
‘Danke!’ he said. ‘Danke schön. Or do I really mean vielen dank?
Frieda laughed. ‘You can use either. Vielen dank is a more exact translation of English “thank you very much” though. And it’s a more . . . emphatic than danke schön really. I thought you knew that?’
He sipped his wine, set the glass down and helped himself to salad. ‘Yes, I suppose I did, sort of. There’s so much to learn though; all the nuances. Danke schön is the one I knew before I knew any German. It’s the well-known one. It’s confusing when there’s more than one way of saying something.’
‘Well that true of learning English too! Or any language, I suppose. You have so many variations and inconsistencies, especially in English. It is not an easy language to learn. Sometimes it is a pig!’
‘Yeah, okay. Touché. Well you’re much better with your English than I am with my German.’
Frieda finished the mouthful she was chewing. ‘Ah, don’t be hard on yourself, Chris. You have only been speaking it for, what, six months. I have had years. You’re doing very well.’
‘Mm; well I want to get a whole lot better. And yes; I think I meant vielen dank then.’
‘Right. And your day really went well then, did it?’
‘Yes, it actually did. Better than I thought it would. I was dreading it, to be honest.’
‘Well, it is always difficult starting a new job. And when you have got an unfamiliar language to contend with too, it makes it much more so.’
Chris emptied his mouth. The gulasch, goulash, really was delicious, and so were the potatoes. ‘Yeah, I used to think that about the foreign staff working in the hospital back in England, the new ones who appeared on the ward. I felt really sorry for them. After all, good communication’s so important in our job, isn’t it?’
‘It is. Perhaps it is not quite so bad for the British, or other English speakers, to work in continental Europe because more of us speak English than you speak our languages. Because English is more universal than, say, German or French.’
‘Yes, well anyway; let me practise some more. Let’s Deutsch sprechen.’
Chris had met Frieda’s parents twice before: back in April and the previous Christmas, the first time he had visited Germany. They had been hospitality personified and made him very welcome to share their festivities. He was growing to like them very much: tall, portly, silver-haired (in spite of being only fifty-four) Andreas, with his rather academic air, although he was actually a financial journalist; and petite, blonde Birgid, a strikingly similar older version, apart from the hair, of Frieda. He envied his girlfriend them; he who barely knew his own father and whose mother was becoming an ever-distant memory, not that it was a particularly fond one.
Frieda and he were sitting close together on the Ernst’s sofa in their comfortable house in a smart suburb of Osnabruck, across from Andreas and Birgid, fending off the friendly attention of Fanny the young family Doberman Pinscher. It was the following weekend and they were replete after Birgid’s Sunday lunch, which would have fed a small army, never mind the three of them. Birgid did not stint when it came to food, which probably explained Andreas’s ample physique. Chris, feeling distinctly bloated, slightly regretted having had second helpings of both the sauerbraten and the Black Forest gateau.
His hosts had politely speaking English for his benefit since their arrival, although Chris had told Frieda beforehand that he was quite happy to struggle along in German. He couldn’t expect everyone to keep making allowances for him, although he was secretly relieved when they insisted on doing so.
‘So, Chris,’ said Andreas, offering a topic to break the silence, ‘the job is going well then, is it?’
‘Yes, it really is thank you. I’m finding it easier than I thought I would. With the language, I mean.’
Andreas laughed. ‘Yes, I know that it isn’t always easy though. I found that myself when I was over in England many years ago. But it would have helped you to spend the last few months learning the basics, at least, before you came over. You weren’t completely thrown into the deep end, as you English say.’
‘Yes, that’s true. And I was lucky to have Frie – Frieda to help me learn. That’s better than just learning from books or videos. She’s a big help.’
‘I’m sure she is.’ Andreas glanced affectionately at his daughter. ‘She can teach you normal, colloquial speech and give you lots of practise. That’s the best way to learn; submerge yourself in the everyday language. It will quickly come then.’
‘Mm, I suppose so, Herr Ernst. I hope so, anyway.’
‘No, please, Chris. Call me Andreas.’
‘And please call me Birgid,’ Birgid put in. Her words were much more heavily accented; her command of English less assured.
‘Right, thank you, Andreas – Birgid. I gather from Frieda you were in England in the eighties?’
‘Yes, that is so. Well, the late seventies and early eighties. From September nineteen seventy-eight until July nineteen eighty-one. Did she tell you? I was a student, of economics. At the LSE. Learning all about oiling the wheels of filthy capitalism! But it stood me in good stead. I’ve earned a good living in financial journalism – still do. Back then I was probably very dull and serious, not one of the rebellious world-changing young, like in France. Not a hippy. But it was a wonderful opportunity to live abroad for a few years, in another culture. My parents, who experienced the war of course – as children, at least – always encouraged my sisters and I to reject the stupidity of narrow nationalism, of nativism. Germany had been seduced by that, and look what a disaster for the world it led to.’
‘Yes, she did. I mean, Frieda did tell me. And I’m sure you weren’t dull.’
Andreas sighed reminiscently. ‘Well, I think I probably was. Embarrassingly so, when I think back. Yes, things were very different all those years ago. Europe was a very different place. And Germany too, even more so. We were still divided then, of course; two distinct countries.’
‘Ah, right. What were you called now? I forget. I’m not very good at history.’
A slight shadow of disapproval flitted across Andreas’s features. His ice-blue eyes regarded Chris coolly. ‘Western Germany was the Federal Republic,’ he said patiently, ‘because that’s what we are: a federation of mainly autonomous states, like America. The east, behind the Iron Curtain, was the Democratic Republic, so-called. That was a misnomer, if ever there was one. It was in no way democratic; it was an authoritarian puppet of the Soviet Union.’
‘Oh yes, I remember learning that now,’ Chris said, abashed, feeling foolish and ignorant being taught history by his educated, sophisticated host.
‘Mm, it was crazy situation, Germany being divided like that. While the federal republic gradually picked itself up after defeat in the war, with a lot of support from the Western powers, especially America, and went on to become the biggest economy in Europe after reunification, the east stagnated under repression.’ Andreas was clearly into his stride now. ‘My father was absolutely right; capitalism with all its faults, tempered by liberal democracy and the western sphere of influence, was far better, far more successful than the stultifying life and stagnant economies of the Eastern Bloc countries. That was why the people over there were always trying to escape to the west. You could not blame them for it, really.’
‘No, I suppose you couldn’t.’
‘Yes,’ Andreas continued with a faraway look in his eyes. ‘It was pretty bad especially in Berlin. The wall was terrible: an inhumane barrier, dividing families as well as a nation as it did. I remember when communism finally collapsed and it came down in nineteen eighty-nine. It was such a tremendous liberation for the people in the east. Those scenes on the television night after night of them tearing it down with sledgehammers and pickaxes, and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy playing. He, or Schiller, could never have foreseen the inspirational use to which their sublime music and words would be put. It was almost as though they had been able to foretell the future and write it specially. Ah yes, they were heady times. Particularly for the east Germans, of course!’
‘Reunification was expensive for us in the west of the country for a few years though, Andreas,’ Birgid pointed out mildly. ‘It cost us a great deal of money.’
Andreas smiled. ‘Yes, it did, because the economy in the east was in such an appalling state, and their huge debt became ours, but it was worth it to be reunified. But I am forgetting my manners in front of our guest. I hope you find your experience in Germany as stimulating and rewarding, Chris, as I did mine in England.’
‘I’m sure I will, Andreas,’ Chris said. ‘Thank you for the good wishes. Vielen dank.’
‘Yes, he will’, Frieda confirmed, finally able to get a word in.