German lessons

Stop smiling

Stop smiling!

"There are three things in life you must learn", my Swiss-German friend confides to me, suddenly serious.

Or rather, more serious than usual, as the distance between easy and hard-going is, in his particular case, shorter than a trip across the Elbe.

To compound cultural stereotypes further, he is more German than Swiss, well-meaning but with a Bismarckian bluntness in manner.

To my German readers, let me by way of immediate reparation admit that I am on occasion mistaken for being German. Which I mean as a compliment! Complete strangers, presumably secure in my apparent Germanic character, have more than on one occasion started conversations with me in "Deutsch". Very funny indeed to my definitely not German sense of humour (I don't get cabaret either), which on occasion perpetuates itself through barked sideways commands in gatherings of my inexplicably kindred non-countrymen ("stille!"), amusement gained in watching them snap to sudden attention. "Ja, ist es verrückt!"

To borrow a maxim from the public relations industry, they say bad press is better than no press. Intrigued at the thought of three hither-to unknown life-lessons, I'm a glutton for attention, and all ears.

Despite a personal tendency towards the amusing rebuttal and sarcastic retort, a semi-habitual quickness of mouth and mind learned via scar tissue's pressing spur, I am at core more defenceless puppy than snarling rottweiler, albeit one who's learned a little bark. I am quite open to another's perspective of myself, when well-meaning, and think it prudent to be so. An indecisive, harmony-at-all-costs Libran nature perhaps, but to turn the coin, in a spiritual sense it could be called cultivating wisdom, for those who are wise know how little they really know. Truth can often be learned inadvertently through the mouths of others.

"First, you must learn to smile..."

He is referring not to my serious nature—he hasn't known me that long—but to my inability to muster the pearly whites in front of his foreboding, weapons-grade video camera. We are shooting a small piece of video, and I am the mustered at the last minute, more than inexperienced presenter, wireless microphone down shirt on the steps of a tourist enshrined Japanese temple. I am sweating profusely—more from the height of summer sun than any nerves, and attempting a poised, semi-literate camera voice and personality despite simultaneously writing the script we don't have in my head, and ignoring the growing crowd of locals gathering for a glimpse of apparent celebrity.

Unlike the orthodontist I visited at the age of fourteen, this cameraman is unable to offer a solution to the train-wreck that is my dentistry. I wasn't born with it—a horrendous aged two fall on face collision with a metal pot-plant holder smashed my future modeling (and presenting) career into bloody pieces. It wasn't accidental officer—I was pushed from behind...

Twelve years later, approximately 30 minutes of which were spent gagging on a mouthful of refrigerated plaster, I politely but firmly refused the opportunity to have my molars rearranged with enough wire to tune a piano, an outcome I aided and abetted by emphasising the obscene cost of three years of orthodontistry to a financially strapped mother. The result? Violently misaligned incisors and a large mouthful of vanity have left me habitually disinclined to broad smiles. It's not really a foreboding grimace.

"Secondly, you must learn the value of persistence."

My Swiss-German friend, a paragon of persistence even on an off-day, is referring to the fact that he has just managed to secure some quite outstanding video footage of Japanese kyudo archery, captured in the face of difficulties including the pervasive lack of English in this country and a no-show by our pre-arranged contact. Not to mention that his presenter walked off location several hours earlier.

Rather than a lack of persistence on my part, I would rather my epitaph call my behaviour in this instance "Japanese character", for, being as I am uncannily at home in this culture despite speaking a minimum of it's words, I felt a keen sense of discomfort at, camera and microphone in hand, staging an apparent cultural blitzkrieg through the protocol-bound dojo. Praise God we were at least aware enough to be bereft of our shoes. Apprehension, misguided or otherwise, and a desire to do more than just work whilst on holiday saw me decline politely the invitation to return to the next scheduled archery demonstration, which, thanks to his persistence rather than mine, was a great success.

From another perspective, and in praise of my friend's "bullish" nature, the point could be made that a culture of protocol bound harmony and enforced obedience, if remaining static, is a hindrance to forward moving progress, a necessity in the life of spirituality. In this sense bluntness, when moderated by persistence and determination, can take you a long way.

There was no third point. I think he got sidetracked...