People are more willing to talk personally when it’s not in their native language. I’ve rested my posterior on soft-backed chairs in stuffy boardrooms all over this city. I’ve tasted what brown swill they’ve called coffee and asked generic questions like, “What kinds of projects have you been working on?” and “Oh, could you tell me more about that?” I’ve listened and nodded where appropriate.
And the amount of insider information and downright secrets I’ve been told is amazing. The higher up the student, the juicier the details. It’s like a magic power. But it’s not just corporate hush-hush that has found a willing ear. People tell me all sorts of things about their lives. About their kids wetting the bed. About disowning their children and being disowned. One of my students once told me about the stint in prison his father did for running illegal cigarettes across the border. We had a lovely conversation. Practiced all our prison words.
Today’s was the saddest though. Set the scene:
South of Aachen green hills give way to low mountains which stretch for miles. It’s the Eifel, and it’s everything you’d imagine of picturesque rustic Germany. Cobblestone streets stitch together villages made of half-timbered houses and pimpled with old stone castles. Volcanic lakes, garroted by walking trails and nature hikes, offer vivid scenes in summer that draw thousands to the hills. One town in particular, Monschau, is famous for its medieval buildings and its ramping streets that rise to ancient fortifications built atop the highest nearby peak. One goes there to relax. You sit in a cafe, listen to the Rur River and its tributary Laufenbach swim by on its way to a far away ocean. You might even eat mustard if that’s your thing. The town is famous for it.
In the winter, in the mountains, snow gathers in meters. A place for fairy tales.
This morning, my student began: “In the past I had three children.” It even sounded like a German fairy tale. They never have happy endings. A retired doctor, he got a call that a patient needed him. He kissed his wife goodbye, climbed into his SUV, and backed down the driveway. But their son had slipped the mother’s attention and raced after him. “He loved his daddy and driving with his daddy,” my student said. But the snow was so high around the driveway that it topped the little boy’s head and the father didn’t see him charge behind the truck. When I teach tenses I like to use real examples from students’ lives. We were talking past tense. I went to school in New Orleans. I visited England in 2004.
But sometimes the tenses can be heartbreaking. “In the past I had three children.”
People tell me all sorts of things. Some of them stick to me, and I can’t shake them away.