No matter where you find yourself in the world these days, whether in the middle of the Ecuadorian rainforest, on a lonely mountain road in the Caucuses, or on a scuba boat in the Andaman Sea, chances are, you’ll cross paths with a German. Here’s a story about speaking foreign languages while traveling and a badass German scuba diver who felt more comfortable diving into inky oceanic trenches than speaking English.
After having lived in Germany for several years, I now feel some affinity with Germans and am beginning to understand their ways. It’s comforting to know that if you ever find yourself in trouble at the ends of the earth, there will probably be a well-prepared and competent German to come to your aide. Or provide some company. They often welcome a respite from using English, the world’s language, while traveling, and invariably lapse into German with you.
In these types of situations, the conversation often unfolds before introductions. Sometimes these discussions become philosophical before you know your conversation partner’s name. Sometimes the names are first exchanged at goodbye. Or never at all.
But if names are exchanged, there are some that are just brutal. Ulrike, Beate, Irmgard for the women. Hartmut, Helmut, Hermann, Holger for the men. And those are just the H’s. Imagine having a name like that as a child. Imagine being the mother who gave that name to her child. Try cooing, “Baby Helmut” Fo short: Helmutlein? Helmutchen?
Does the man make the name, or does the name make the man? These are impossible names that can only be pulled off by impossible men.
We met one such Holger aboard a scuba speedboat departing from Ao Nang, Thailand, for the Phi Phi Islands. We had reserved our scuba days on the only dive company in town with a speedboat, which would be able to take us to the best diving locations in the area before the big, slow-moving day boats arrived to unload hundreds of divers onto the reefs and scare off the fish.
As we all climbed abroad the boat, there was this awkward moment in which each couple or family was still conversing in their native language. Dominik and I often speak to each other in German during this time, out of politeness, almost, as it is not yet quite time to speak English. It’s often the tour guides who break the ice, giving the introductions or instructions in English. If not the guides, it’s the friendly native English speakers (who rarely speak a foreign language, as they don’t have to). Everyone then hesitatingly switches into English.
But this hadn’t happened yet on this boat, despite the instructor’s pep talk in English. After introductions, everyone drifted shyly back into their native language. The middle-aged but very fit man sitting next to us on the bench, who had been undressing into his red speedo (must be a European), heard me say something to Dominik in German, and his head whipped around, honing in on his native language, but didn’t say anything at first.
This is typical for interactions in German-speaking world —you always have to make the first move. Which is why things like attending parties or dating are treacherous for Germans. It’s no wonder the birth rate is so low.
As we pulled off the beach and headed out to sea, the speedboat galloping along the waves, Railay beach came into view, cloaked in wisps of mid-morning mist. The German guy didn’t seem to notice the scenery, and I peered over his shoulder. He was pouring over his dive log, a very professional-looking and thick leather binder filled with pages and pages of logged dives, including detailed information about dive depth, air and water temperature, amount of air used (to a tenth of a decimal) duration (down to the second), GPS location coordinates, and notes.
He was clearly looking for conversation while trying to appear nonchalant, but his eyes kept slanting over towards us, soliciting a connection as he flipped the pages of his logbook back and forth.
Dominik took sympathy on his overtures and leaned over to start a conversation, using the dive book as fodder. The guy was clearly excited to be speaking German, and once he got started talking in his Baden-Württembürgischer accent, he didn’t stop.
Turns out that that this guy had logged over 200 dives in the past three years, which averages out to about 66 days of diving a year, or somewhere between 5-6 dives per month. He can only keep to this intense diving schedule because he has a job with a Swiss company selling industrial machinery that gives him 30 days of vacation + 24 so-called “flex days,” which seem to just be extra vacation time. Plus national holidays for both Germany and Switzerland, and sick time, though I doubt he ever takes ill.
So he basically has three months off per year, and spends almost all of it diving. As an American living in Germany, I have become accustomed to Germany’s vacation-loving ways, but I was a bit flabbergasted by the amount of time this guy gets off. Plus, he works in Switzerland and lives in Germany, which makes his money go twice as far. He’s got it all figured out.
Being relative Scuba newbies, we quickly recognized that this guy was a trove of information and mined him for stories and tips about where to dive. He recommended a few remote places in Indonesia (“the places where the beaches are filled with garbage are the best places to dive because no one dare goes there!”), but maintained that his favorite spot is Lake Constance (Bodensee), on the border between Germany and Switzerland. He often here dives after work, getting geared up for a solo dive in the light of his headlights and cutting a hole in the ice, slipping down to the cold and dark depths for a brisk post-work dip. In the winter, he told us, you have to be very careful because it gets so cold that the regulator can freeze, cutting off your air supply. “You know, it’s such a wonderful sport, but it is very dangerous, don’t ever forget that!”
We couldn’t have been further away from the icy waters he was describing, here in the middle of the Andaman Sea, where the ocean was warmer than the air. As we were listening to him, I wonder what could possibly be so appealing about diving into a freezing lake and ask him as much. In all seriousness, he replied, with a shiver of delight: “It’s dark, cold, deep, and scary…like diving into a nightmare!”
Apparently we’d found the Werner Herzog of scuba diving.
As we carried on our lively conversation in German, he regaled us with tales of diving to 55 meters, “just to see what would happen,” and sure enough, he was the only one in his group who didn’t get narcosis, a terrifying drunken-like stupor induced by an excess of dissolved nitrogen that can happen at very deep depths. It causes the diver to lose judgment, orientation, and in serious cases, consciousness. He then recounted a clown fish attack, and he demonstrated how much it hurt by pinching Dominik’s arm, sparing no force or theatrics. And then he even feigned a sober mood, lamenting that he had never managed to see a sea horse, and claimed he’d come to Thailand specifically to mark that off his bucket list.
The rest of the people on the boat sat in silence. I was quite aware that we were excluding our fellow divers by speaking in German, and it was making me feel uncomfortable. I even responded once to a question in English, trying to nudge him towards a more convivial atmosphere, to which he replied “Auf Deutsch, bitte!” (“in German, please!”).
Why did I care? Was it because I’m American and we’re taught to create environments in which everyone can participate? Was it because I’m a woman, and we’re conditioned to bring harmony and balance to all interactions, to make everyone feel comfortable? Or is it because this guy was hilarious and crazy, and everyone on this boat would have been having a much more memorable time if he were running the show in English?
It was time for the first dive, as we pulled into the Phi Phi Islands marine park. We were in his group, which meant that nothing bad could happen. I imagine that if a Great White were to attack us, he’d just pull out his dive knife and carve up the shark for our Christmas Eve meal.
Despite his apparent hobby of plumbing the depths of his nightmares, it wasn’t so much courage that he radiated, but the characteristic precision and discipline of the German psyche. Not a god or a hero, no, he was too absurd for that. His infallibility came from being just too competent to die.
Our first dive at Phi Phi was good. To my mind, the visibility was rather poor, but then again, I got certified in Malta’s spectacularly clear waters, and for those who are used to Malta and the crystal clear Caribbean, Thailand will come as a disappointment. But we did see a big sea turtle and a seahorse (our new German friend was busy photographing the sea turtle and missed it!). The second dive spot was a drift dive along a large wall filled with enormous schools of fish. The water was warm, the fish were plentiful, and with this guy around, I knew we were in good hands.
After we got back on the boat, we recapped our dives with him in German. He complimented our scuba skills, and as I have come to learn, Germans do not give compliments away lightly. This made me a little proud, prouder than I would have been if the sentiment had come from anyone else.
He then rather abruptly switched to English after lunch was passed out, asking the others how their dives had gone, and then launched into his scuba-dive hero spiel, repeating much about what he had told us to a new audience, who like we had been, were also captivated with his absurdist extremism and contagious enthusiasm.
The ride back into port was much more fun for everyone, with Holger, as he finally introduced himself, taking center stage, bouncing around on deck in his red speedo and Santa Claus hat (it was, after all, Christmas Eve). With him on stage, a new vibe flooded in, like high tide, sweeping everyone on board along with it.
I wondered why it was that he suddenly decided to make the switch. Despite his protests that his English was terrible, it really was fine. But I understood how Holger must have felt. For people who are dissatisfied with being merely competent, speaking a foreign language is a tall order. Rising above mediocre is already an accomplishment.
There was something else going on, though. I think he must have felt like he couldn’t express his essential self in English, which is why he spoke with us first, at such length, in his native language.
I know the feeling. I almost always feel like the connections I forge in German are fundamentally weaker than even the fast or superficial ones I make in English. Even though I am technically fluent in the language, I have come to believe that I can never truly be myself in German because my essential self is in English. There are just parts that can never be translated or accommodated by a foreign tongue.
And yes, Holger in English was not quite the same as Holger in German.
As I sat on this boat filled with Europeans, all of whom spoke English, I realized that even though it is the world’s language, only a few of us are really at home in it.
Despite the kind of blasé optimism that often flavors conversations about the new global world and English as the world’s language, Holger reminded me that most people remain terra incognita, even to themselves, when speaking anything but their native language.
Part of what I love about traveling is getting to know some essential side of a person in a brief period, making these kinds of intense connections that you have to just as quickly drop when you go your separate ways. And while English is a poor tool for this, it is the only one most of us have.
When we got back to port at Ao Nang, Holger, for his part, saluted us. Still wearing his Santa hat and speedo, he hopped on his cherry-red motorcycle (no scooter for him here) and rode off into the sunset. The rest of us waved goodbye as we walked towards town, each group lapsing back into their native language, heading home.