Pat and I are in downtown Karlsruhe finishing delicious slices of cake. It’s 4pm and we are meeting Pat’s family, including two uncles and their wives, at our hotel at 4:30. We finish up the final bites and quickly and rush to the closest S-bahn stop. The S-bahn is not exactly a high-speed train, stopping every couple of blocks or so, but it still gets us back to the stop by our hotel at 4:20.
We walk the short block to the hotel. No sign of the family in the parking lot yet. We dash inside and upstairs to our room so we can change clothes, brush our teeth, etc. At 4:29, we are counting down trying to get out the door. We finally get outside, walking out the front door of the hotel about 2 minutes late, and find a family gathering in the parking lot plus one man. When we step outside, Jim (Pat’s father) and the stranger walk over to us, reaching us while we are still halfway between the hotel and Pat’s relatives. He’s a very friendly man who speaks English well. It turns out he is a friend of Jim’s. He greets us both and the starts talking. I find myself torn on whether it’s more rude to stand there talking to him and ignoring Pat’s family or more rude to cut him off. Fortunately, Renate joins us and end the dilemma by saying that we need to get going. We tell the friend good bye.
We walk the rest of the way across the parking lot to greet Pat’s Uncle Horst and Aunt Elvi as well as his Great Uncle Erwin and Aunt Emmi. I have met all four of them once before, but our greeting is awkward. It’s been many years since we’ve seen each other–it was before Pat and I got married, actually–and with limited ability to communicate, it’s not like we really got to know each other at the time. The lack of familiarity makes it hard for me to decide if the customary cheek kisses are appropriate or not. I follow each of their leads and go with handshakes for the men and cheek kisses for the women. The four have come in two cars since each car will hold only 4 people. We are meeting Pat’s cousin Claudia and he new boyfriend at a restaurant on the Rhine that is difficult to get to other than by bike or car. Pat and I ride with Horst and Elvi while Renate and Jim join Erwin and Emmi in their car.
When we arrive at the restaurant, Claudia is already there and her boyfriend has just pulled into the lot. He introduces himself as Alfonso and as we arrive at the table, because he speaks English well, I am seated on his left, across the table from Pat who sits next to Jim. Claudia sits in the corner across from Jim and on the other side of Alfonso. Pat and Claudia catch up in German. Alfonso, it turns out, is one of those chatty, entertaining people who likes to tell funny stories. It also turns out that German is his first language in spite of his Spanish genes and English is not as comfortable for him. As a result, the stories are told in German and Claudia and Pat have a good time while Jim smiles along and tries to look like he understands. I am too tired to pretend. Alfonso periodically turns to me and speaks English, clueing me in to the subject of the conversation.
After a while, Pat decides to change seats and catch up with the other end of the table. I use this as an excuse to walk down to the river and shoot the sunset. As I stand there watching the light change, a man walks by with a similar camera to mine also trying to capture the perfect angle of the sun to the bridge. I notice that neither one of us has a tripod. We exchange only smiles as he passes me by.
When I return to the table, everyone is cold and has decided to move to a table inside. It’s actually colder inside that out, but since the temperature continues to drop outside, I guess we figure it will eventually be warmer inside and sit down. We have had dinner and drinks and it is only about 6PM now. Even though I ordered the smallest dinner on the menu, I am so full from our late lunch that I feel like there is a giant anchor in my belly. I have no desire to eat or drink anything else. The conversation continues in German. No one has the energy to make the effort to speak English by now–the conversation is flowing and trying to speak a second language always disrupts social events. Pat occasionally translates for me and I follow the conversation as best I can, knowing what they’re talking about whenever Pat is telling a story simply because I was there. Sometimes I laugh before the funny part of the story because I am playing the story in my mind and it’s moving faster than Pat is telling it. But, at least it keeps me from looking bored. It’s hard to make a good impression on your husband’s family when you don’t speak the same language. I want them to feel comfortable having fun and catching up with Pat in German without having to worry about me–I figure it’s the best I can do.
After a while, Horst invites everyone back to their house. Alfonso has to go do something related to his children and Claudia takes off, but the rest of us caravan back to Horst and Elvi’s house. They have an amazing collection of things from Africa. Horst also has butterflies that he used to collect, although I am told he no longer believes in killing butterflies. He also has a collection of bird books. This gives me an opportunity to check on some of the birds that we’ve seen throughout our trip. Pat translates a description, Horst makes a guess at what we saw and shows me the bird in a book. I agree that it’s the correct bird and then google the Latin name to find the English name for the bird. In this way, I discover we have been seeing Gray Herons all over the place along with a hawk that Europeans call a “Buzzard.”
In the end, it’s a lovely evening. I entertain myself flipping through bird books and exchanging information with Horst even though neither of us speaks the same language. Pat has enjoyed catching up with his relatives–they are all favorites of his. We walk from Horst’s to the hotel–he lives only a few blocks away. In the cool, night air, I am revived. I start thinking about trying to learn German again. This happened the last time I met Pat’s family. I regret not speaking German and get motivated to learn it, but then have little opportunity to speak it again and lose interest until the next visit. We’ll see.