Tuesday, August 24, 2010

German Physics Class

(Notes from my journal)

Monday, November 23, 2009:

I sat in on a class at the University of Zurich today. It was one of those impulsive, not-so-well-thought-out decisions that ended in more than a little embarrassment and what I’m sure will be a few recurring nightmares. Not that I wouldn’t totally do it again if given the chance. I’m beginning to think that it’s just my nature to head straight into situations that are guaranteed to be uncomfortable. Maybe I should see a shrink about my destructive tendencies...

Anyway, when I passed by a sign proclaiming the stern grey building that I was about to pass to be the Universit├Ąt Z├╝rich, I couldn’t help myself: the Swiss happen to be my intellectual idols, so any chance to get behind the scenes is like dangling a cake in front of a fat kid. I remember thinking “So this is where all the Swiss learn their tricks, huh?” The next thing I knew I was inside, trying to look as academic and inconspicuous as possible. I casually asked a student where the largest classroom was. She looked a bit confused for a few seconds (she must have been a newbie), but she eventually pointed me towards a set of large, imposing wooden doors. Luckily it was just about 11 am, so people were starting to file in for the next class. I moseyed on in (casual and cool as always), and was relieved to see that there were a few hundred seats in the classroom. Perfect, I thought, this will be a piece of cake: I’ll blend in at the back of the class and watch my very first Swiss lesson. I instantly imagined myself as a cool, sophisticated EU representative, able to speak at least 10 languages and heading up the intercultural relations department. I could see myself looking back at this moment and laughing. “It all started with that random class at the University of Zurich” I would say with an ironic smile when the press asked how I’d come so far.

Then I snapped back to reality when it dawned on me that they would probably be conducting the lesson in German, of which I only know three words total: “Guten tag” and “Bier.” These are the minor details that usually get me into trouble. It’s ok, I told myself, I’ll just pretend to understand and try to make it through one hour. No one would be the wiser, since it was such a large class anyway. Right? Right? Wrong again, Captain Nincompoop.

With a few misgivings, I settled down in my usual spot: back row, closest seat to the door. Ah, it brought me back to the old UW for a few seconds. I waited for the room to fill up, but to my increasing dismay, after the first twenty people filed in the doors were shut. I gulped so loud that someone in the front row turned around to give me a curious look. This was not good: I’d assumed it would be safe to crash the party since it was a 200 person classroom, but 20 people does not a party make. Before I could pull a runner, the professor looked right at me, spouted off an impressive spiel in what could only be German (the spit was flying- I’m sure the front row caught the brunt of it), then motioned for me to join the rest of the students. Great, I thought, I’ve gone and done it now. At least I have protective eye gear, to shield me from the worst of the spray.

As I slowly made my way to the front of the class, debating the likelihood of making it to the door without falling back down the stairs and making a donkey out of myself, the professor turned and wrote a series of what looked a lot like physics calculations up on the board. Oh, goody; physics, my favorite. Could I have possibly chosen a worse class to sit in on? Try as I did, I couldn’t think of anything more agonizing. But I sat down closer to the front, calling myself all different kinds of idiot.

The clock struck 11, and class began (right on time, of course. This was Switzerland, after all). Luckily the professor launched into a lengthy explanation of the alien drawings that he’d written on the board. I felt like a cave man trying to grasp the concept of the internet. It just wasn’t going to work. I really wish I spoke at least a little German, so I’d have a fighting chance at comprehension. But hell, even an English Physics class would be well beyond my intellectual capacity, so I really had no chance at all here. I made it 35 blessed minutes before getting called on. The kind-looking professor spit a series of what I can only assume were questions at me, and I panicked. All I could think to say was “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand” in Italian. There was a split second of complete silence after I spoke. The professor looked at me quizzically, then burst out laughing as understanding dawned. Of course, everyone in the room understood what I had said, even though I was in the dark the whole time. The professor said something that sounded suspiciously like a sarcastic pun at my expense, and then the rest of the class was torn up laughing all over again. Thanks, guys, I’ll be here all week.

I took that as my cue to leave, so I quickly gathered my things and left with my usual grace and poise (and by that I mean that I tripped my way up the stairs, just managing to avoid the classic book-dropping move). I heard the professor shout a parting comment as I left, but I was too mortified to turn and address it. When I reached the door five years later, I tried in vain to pull it open before belatedly realizing that you had to push it. Thank God- for one horrifying second I thought that I was locked in. Free at last, I made it out of the building in under five seconds.

Well, that was joyful and all, but I think I’ll stick to teaching English from now on. It turns out that German physics is not my cup of tea. Who knew? So much for my daydreams of ruling Europe. That’s ok: I’d settle for being a chocolate taste-tester.