First Impressions

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A number of years ago I was an exchange student in Estonia. International student life is not without its rigours, one of which being awkward mixer events, like national cuisine evenings. National stereotype evenings would seem like a more appropriate description of such affairs. In any case, I was unfortunate enough to arrive at my dormitory in Tallinn - the capital city - on such an occasion.


The evening itself was as uncomfortable as could be expected. Nervous guests and anxious conversations. All participants descending into the type of mutual criticism that forges makeshift friendships at such events; once an appropriate amount of alcohol has been consumed at least. Somewhere in the midst of all this a young German asked me a question. This young man would later become a good friend, which is how I eventually learned of my linguistic faux pas.


He simply asked me if I knew any German, to which I replied that I did not. He parried with a congenial smile, declaring everyone to know at least a few words in German, even if they're somewhat inappropriate.


'Don't worry, I can take a joke' he reassured me, pointing out a Belgian across the room. 'When I met him earlier, the first thing he said to me was: "Ah, a German! You bombed my city twice."'


We laughed together for a moment and I began to think.


The only German that came to mind was a sentence from the first chapter of Bram Stoker's Dracula; a quotation from Gottfried August Bürger's poem, Lenore. I had recently re-read the first half of Stoker's novel whilst in Estonia's north-eastern county of Lääne-Virumaa; it seemingly being the only English book in the isolated village where I was passing time at the end of Summer. The sentence, 'Denn die Todten reiten Schnell' - literally 'for the dead ride quickly - was mistranslated by Stoker as 'for the dead travel quickly.' Or, perhaps it was not Stoker but Jonathan Harker - a protagonist of the novel - who inaccurately records the words uttered by another coach passenger in the journal that he kept in short hand.


In any case, I attempted to recall the sentence, though my imperfect memory of the novel and the remnants of relaxed German lessons at school offered me little assistance:


'Denn die Todten riechen Schnell.' ('For the dead smell quickly.')


'Excuse me?' the young German said, almost laughing.


Looking at him straight in the eye in a vain attempt to cut through what I assumed to be poor pronunciation, I said, slowly and seriously:


'Denn - die - Todten - riechen - Schnell.'


For a moment he fixed me in a steely gaze - one part wariness, another bewilderment - before nodding thoughtfully.


'Yes, that is true.'


An equal look of confusion spread across my own face.


Before I had the opportunity to say anything, the young German motioned to another group of people across the room.


'Excuse me' he said, politely retiring from the conversation.


Still slightly taken back by what I'd just heard, I nodded, as though giving my concent for him to leave.


All I could do was look on as the young German who believed that the dead rode horses, and rode quickly at that, crossed the room. In turn, he cast back a suspicious glance at the Englishman with an apparantly intimate knowledge of matters concerning the decomposition of corpses.

Created: Mar 07, 2014

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