Finding the Words.

Keith Dale tells a good tale at HeroicStories:

In 1985 I lived near Stuttgart, West Germany. I had taken a semester of German in college, and the standard Department of Defense introductory language course, but wasn’t fluent in German. We lived in an apartment in a quaint village. I could navigate towns, find the Bahnhof (train station), and order from simple menus. But a “real” conversation was beyond my abilities. Days I cared for my 4-year-old son while my wife worked as an Army officer. Then I worked as a DoD contractor on “swing shift”, 4:00 p.m. until midnight. By midnight, driving home was a tired chore. I fought sleep by looking for objects beside the road.

One night I spied a tennis shoe and sleepily thought, “A shoe!” Next I noted, “Some paper.” I observed a body in the middle of the road. “A body.” I saw the other shoe. “Aha, a pair!” Then I shouted out loud, “A BODY!?!” I swerved right and screeched to a halt. I sprinted up the road to the person lying prone. Suddenly I realized: this could be a setup. Terrorist activity against U.S. personnel was increasing in Germany then. Feeling misplaced invulnerability, I kept running.

The “body” was very much alive, German, in his early 40s, and clutching his chest fearfully. Walking beside the road he had experienced chest pains. He purposefully fell down in the road where he would be spotted.

I reacted to the terror in this man’s eyes by wanting to comfort him. With fingers on his pulse, I used a calm voice. Had he had heart problems before? Any existing medical conditions? Was he taking medication? Had he been drinking or taking drugs? Did he live nearby? I told him that he would be just fine. His pulse calmed from 180 to 120 beats per minute. I told him that I’d been a lifeguard for five years and just finished a CPR refresher course. In answer to his heart-wrenching question, I told him that he would NOT die while I was there!

Then I heard a bus coming down the hill. I needed to flag it down, so I tore away, ran up the hill and stood in the road waving. The startled bus driver agreed to drive ahead 300 meters to the Polizei (Police) station for help. In three minutes a German police officer arrived and took control. He took my information, then released me. I was glad to step back! I told my newest best friend that he’d be fine. He repeated, “I love Americans. Thank you!”

Back in the safety of my car, my body shook as I relived the last 10 minutes. Everyone had spoken fluent English …but no, I realized that the conversations were in German!

Funny how emergencies can bring out unsuspected abilities. Thanks, JC!


  1. I had a similar experience living in Barcelona in 1970. I had studied Spanish for six years earlier in the sixties, at a time when there were no language labs and instruction only in English, and was very uncertain about speaking and understanding Spanish. Spanish friends, concerned about an Irish sailor street-bum’s coughing, arranged to smuggle him at night through a hospital back door for examination, and asked me along to translate. It went better than I expected; the doctor said he had ‘benign’ TB (he smoked only one cigarette a day), and sent him on his back-door way. Two years later, back home, a doctor asked if I’d been in contact with anyone with TB. On hearing my story, he said he was unconcerned.

  2. A question raised by reading the Italian papers on coronavirus — when did “-under 50” become the way to say under 50 in Italian? And how? Did it carry over from youth soccer,, since all kids are classified as u-12, u-14, etc?

  3. The Italian papers are using the English word “under”? Odd.


    The subhead reads:
    Tra i ricoverati in terapia intensiva quasi il 12% ha meno di 50 anni. Sei decessi under 50

    And they use “under 50” more than once in the text.

    I saw the usage another time in the last week, in a different paper, probably La Repubblica, because that’s the only one I ever set out to read. This Corriere article I found via a Twitter link.

  5. Very odd!

  6. I found an article where “under” is used with apparent meaning of young (“underage” in bureaucratic-American) athlete.

  7. It’s also funny that they talk about under 50 as i giovani. Only in Italy.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Didn’t iuvenis in Latin extend all the way to 46?

  9. Huh! So it does. I would have thought Latin iuvenis and Italian giovani were both equivalent to Spanish joven. It’s a routine problem of my Italian – I’m often starting from Spanish cognates and assuming the same semantic range. Does giovani carry over from ancient usage? Did iuventus carry the same range in its meaning? Odd to think some of the youth encompassed by Iuventus might be in their 40s, past their prime for football.

  10. Juventus was famous for this over-40 giovane.

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