You expect to feel humbled when you travel. Strange public transit, alien customs—add a language you don’t speak and it’s an immediately chastening experience. When the residents are so inured to your national arrogance and laziness that they don’t even visibly resent conducting transactions in English, it is more galling still. It’s sort of like being a baby—helpless, barely verbal, sleep deprived—except you can’t throw a tantrum. On the contrary, you are often expected to conduct business.
All this I expected. I was even impressed and charmed, on my first visit to Berlin, to find people eager to discuss Spinoza in restaurants and quote Schiller on the plane. Here is what (or who) I did not expect: my cab driver to the airport. It’s not that I was shocked by his exquisite English, his verbatim recitations of Kleist, or his strangely in-depth knowledge of the Frankfurt Book Fair (“I wondered about the Finnish literature they featured … Well, I try to keep up with such things.”) Here is what was deeply intimidating: he had actually read Patrick Modiano. And not just La Place de l’Étoile! “But not all thirty,” he said.
On the plane, I was seated between the aforementioned Schiller scholar and a teenage girl. I watched Maleficent and devoted considerable thought to the derivation of the term fruits of the forest, as used to describe that one mix of luridly red berries occasionally found atop old-looking tarts and cheesecakes. The teenager appeared to be writing diligently in a journal; I felt abashed anew. Then I glanced down at the page and, from her rounded, teenage-girl handwriting, I could see that it was a list of German words: a food diary. Before I looked away, I clearly saw a sentence beginning “Mein chicken nuggets.”