On Saturday we attended an 80th birthday party of a prominent German Theologian. It was an intimate gathering at a restaurant of 23 individuals. There was a fabulous harpist playing before and after the meal, 4 courses of fine food with speeches in between each course. The host introduced the individuals at the meal in his first speech. Most of them were either famous in their own right or descended from some prominent politician, theologian or scholar. We were invited because my husband now occupies the academic chair that this man once had here in Munich. I, on the other hand, had only met him once before briefly and was by far the least known being in the room.
I smiled and listened.
I was already well aware that I was out of my league. My mother had graduated high school, but never had a career. Both of her parents never had more than an 8th grade education. Her father was a butcher and her mother a school janitor. My father had graduated from college with a degree in chemical engineering. His mother had a degree from a teachers college, but only ever taught Sunday School. His father was a salesman who supplied trucking companies with air conditioning filters (much needed in Kansas and Oklahoma).
The three guests with whom I shared a table and conversation at one point started talking about the beautiful landscapes of their childhoods in Germany. All I could think of was this picture my father had sent me of the trailer my parents lived in at the time of my birth – in the oil fields of Texas. I don’t have any actual memory of this place as we moved into a newly-built home in Oklahoma when I was 3. Most of the year, the grass in Oklahoma was brown from the intense heat. I spent a great deal of my childhood chasing grasshoppers and bringing home stray box turtles – and dancing, trying to fill up all that lovely empty space around me.
Again I smiled and listened.
Then my table companions began a discussion about which of their grandchildren had chosen to take classical Greek and which had chosen to study Latin – in high school! Of the two high schools I attended in America, neither taught classical Greek. I can’t remember if the high school in Michigan offered Latin, but I don’t think it did. In Houston, there was one teacher who could teach Latin, but she was so busy with her French and Spanish classes that she didn’t have time to teach me Latin. Yes, I had enquired. In Germany, nearly every town has a high school where the children can learn these two important historical and literary languages.
Again I smiled and listened. Actually, no I didn’t.
I praised their country for offering still such wonderful, solid educations to their young people. Surprised, my dining companions wanted to know how come I spoke such fluent German. I had to admit it was because of the friends of my in-laws in Tuebingen, who gladly taught me their language when we were there on a Fulbright Grant 27 years ago. The conversation then turned to my husband’s research and travels. His knowledge of ancient languages is incredible, but he also has quite a grasp of modern languages and is constantly learning new ones. He clearly expects me to keep learning also. I told them that just the day before, my husband had plopped a Modern Hebrew textbook into my hands with the directive ‘Learn it’!
Sitting on the rim of a society looking in can be very intimidating, especially if it is a society with very high standards. I am not going to pretend to be one of them, I can’t ever be. The lesson I learn from these occasions is that where you come from is not nearly as important as where you are right now, and the experiences that brought you there.