I came across a blog in German today that reminded me of an experience I had about a year into my LDS mission to Germany. It took a good six months before I felt comfortable discussing topics besides the missionary discussions I’d memorized in German. But at the one year mark I was feeling pretty good about my ability to to communicate. I think it had less to do with my study habits and more to do with the fact many Germans invited us into their homes to watch Dallas and Baywatch.
In hindsight, Baywatch isn’t the best conversion tool although it certainly helped me learn the language!
Missionaries spend a good portion of their day knocking on doors looking for anyone interested in hearing more about our beliefs. One afternoon my companion and I knocked on a door, and a woman in her mid 20’s answered. My companion was Austrian and spoke fluent German. It was my turn to give the pitch so I asked her if she was interested in hearing about our church.
I should have paid closer attention to the dark blue robe she was wearing. She was polite and said we could come back later when she was done moving. Trying to be helpful, I replied back, “Konnen wir helfen?” which means, “Can we help you?” As soon as the words left my mouth, the woman glared at me and slammed the door shut. I stood there on the doorstep in a state of confusion.
As we made our way to the next house my companion couldn’t control his laugher. When he finally gathered himself he said, “You asked her if you could help her get undressed”.
That day I learned I had a way to go before I’d perfected my German. I also learned the difference between umziehen (to relocate/move) and sich umziehen (to get undressed). Had this experience taken place during the first couple months of my mission, I doubt she would have been so upset given my shaky grasp of the language. My utter confidence in offering assistance is what likely resulted in her reaction.
Another time we’d finished teaching a family, and they were asking what it’s like to serve a mission. This was about a year before the East German wall came down, and the father was curious to find out if we had missionaries serving across the border.
I jumped right in and told him that missionaries were not allowed to serve in East Germany because we were “restricted” from teaching there. This time, instead of getting the door slammed in my face, I was greeted with laughter. My companion gave me a strange look. I knew I’d used the wrong word (beschrankt) again.
I’d just told this family the reason missionaries couldn’t serve in East Germany was because we were “dim-witted imbeciles”.