The Real Thing

Unfulfilled ambitions, to dream in a foreign language

The first time it happened, I had no idea it could actually happen. I had never heard of such a thing as dreaming in a foreign language. I was sixteen and I was in Kent for the summer, trying to catch up and learn some English because I had studied only French before then. I can’t remember the name of my landlady but I remember her little girl, her name was April and on the first night I could hear her crying herself to sleep in the other room, while her mother tried to comfort her. She missed her room, I was staying in her room I discovered. The front garden was dead, the cat was called Pudding and was allowed on the kitchen shelves, the backdoor was never locked, and once April’s father called on the phone and April’s mother let the answering machine go and while we listened she said to me in a grim voice “and this is my bloody husband”. There was also a very long, black leather whip in her room, maybe for decoration, maybe not. On Sundays we would have brunch with her friends in the back garden, which was not dead. On normal days beans, toasts, cucumber salad, vinegar chips, or microwaved deep-frozen things in front of the tv (microwaves were uncommon in Italy back then). On Saturday I would take the train and go to London, wearing my London Calling t-shirt, or my Paul Roland t-shirt, or anything that could make myself known to fellow new-wave people, at least in my naive imagination. For example my purple shirt with a Gothic pattern. That was when I discovered that pressing the laundry is not a useless bourgeois activity after all. It turned out that sporting a nice Gothic shirt required a lot of dedicated ironing.

I started dreaming in English.

In my dreams everyone was talking using quotes from new-wave songs, or singing lyrics by Nick Cave, and everything was completely surreal, while the bee carousel hanged on my bed kept on turning round and round because of the wind (the window wouldn’t close properly). April wasn’t crying anymore. The recreational whip kept on adorning the wall.

I was having the time of my life.

When I moved to Berlin years later, I was prepared. I knew. Or rather, I though I knew. In a couple of days I was dreaming in German. At the time I could understand and write German correctly enough to pass my first German exam at Uni, but I wasn’t fluent at all. In order to build a sentence I always had to think about every single word ending, every single inflected form, so I was dead slow. Everyone was very patient and extremely polite with my poor attempts at the German language, no one would correct me except for kids or teachers, so I wasn’t really improving. Dreams were killing me. In my dreams everyone was talking German with my German vocabulary, my grammar knowledge, and of course my fluency. So there was no action at all because we were all just sitting inside my dream trying to bloody complete our sentences. I was waking up feeling exhausted. So I decided I had to find a way to boost my German output, otherwise there was a risk I could remain trapped in my maddeningly slow dreams and surely one day I would never wake up. So I tried to place the verb randomly in the sentence, but that wasn’t a good idea, because if you do that no one understands you, no matter how polite they struggle to be. Then I tried to guess at word endings, instead of thinking hard about each one of them, and that did the trick. Nobody seemed to mind my bad word endings (except for kids and teachers obviously), and I was able to talk at a reasonable speed, both in real life and in REM life. I was painfully aware that I was using a lot of incorrect endings, but I discovered I was also improving. The problem was that while in real life I was the only one using bad grammar, which was acceptable, in dreams everyone was using my bad grammar, now at normal speed. It was an aberration, it felt horrible. I would wake up very early in the pale blue morning, listening to the crashing sound of the municipal waste truck emptying the twelve different bins down the road (there was no recycling in Italy then), feeling completely helpless. Then the naked guy in the flat opposite would start his morning gym routine, I would cheer up a bit, talk to flatmate Petra, have some Milchkaffee, and go to class.

Murakami Haruki once said that learning another language is like becoming another person.