How the Russian language saved me many times
By Muiz Ogunwomoju Moab
When I moved to Germany in 2014 for my master’s program, almost everyone I met spoke English. The master’s program was taught in English, so at first it was not necessary to learn German. Not learning the language early was one of the mistakes I made. I was mentally exhausted from learning a new language. All I wanted was to earn a living after living six years in Ukraine without earning a penny. Talking to locals in their language gives you an advantage; it is the window through which one could penetrate the soul of a people.
You know how your phone automatically connects to your Wi-Fi when you get home, that’s how talking to locals in their language. It connects you to them; you are at home, connected. It gives you confidence and creates a weak point in their heart. And, honestly, it works everywhere. I experienced this during my days in Ukraine but did not take the lesson with me to Germany. A big mistake.
In 2015, as summer approached and I had spent more than half of the 8,000 euros I had in my blocked account, I had to look for a solution. Use. The antidote to being broke. I started looking for temp jobs, any kind of job that would make money. I applied as much as possible. All in futility. No answer. And when they finally answered and called me for introductory meetings, they asked me if I spoke German. When I said no, it’s the end. One day I accepted an introductory meeting with a logistics company in Leipzig. I said yes by email. Arriving, after the small presentation of the company, the manager calls me. I take my place thinking of signing an interim contract. Instead, the woman gave me a piece of paper and asked me to read what was written on it. I read it. She then pointed to a word in one of the paragraphs and asked me what it meant. My heart jumped. Zweifel! That was the word. How could I know? What does it mean? She asked. I did not keep silent. It’s something I’ve learned over the years. Better to say something than nothing. I said something. I do not remember anymore. But that was far from what the word meant. She pointed to another word: Flughafen. Airport, I told him the meaning. Correct! She says. She then pointed to another word: Verpackung. I mumbled something but of course nonsense as usual. She shook her head, gave me her contact card and told me to contact her as soon as my German improved. I left. But those two words got stuck in my head. I immediately checked the meaning on Google and these words have not left me since. Doubt. Wrap.
A few weeks later, I finally got a summer vacation job with the second largest automotive company in the world. VW. The factory is located in Wolfsburg. But I was afraid. I didn’t want what happened last time to happen again. But I can’t learn German overnight. This will, of course, take some time. I needed the money, so I went to the introductory and contract signing meeting.
In Wolfsburg, inside the VW factory, many students had come from different cities for summer vacation work. The salary was good. 16€ per hour. No unskilled job will pay that much. Especially for students. But there was a problem. It seemed like I was the only one who didn’t speak German and that made me even more tense and scared. As they called my name to introduce me and sign the contract, I was shaking inside but didn’t show it. The woman who called me asked me to fill in how many days I had worked before that date. I didn’t understand what she said. I could have said zero if I had understood what she said. I simulated a thinking posture, touching my head with my index finger. And then say something. When she realized that I didn’t understand what she was asking me, she confronted me. You don’t understand, she said. I understand, I replied, regurgitating the German words I had memorized a few days before. She asked me again. This time, by chance, I understood faintly. I counted my fingers and showed him. Five, I said. She did not ask for more and allowed me to sign the contract. I was relieved.
Every summer, VW and Daimler (Mercedes) hire students to fill the space for their full-time assembly workers who would later go on summer vacation. This will help them achieve their daily production goals.
Two weeks later, I returned to work. We were already divided into teams and departments the day we signed our employment contract. So on the first day there was a short PowerPoint presentation and the presenter spoke German and asked questions. I understood nothing. My heart was pounding and I was praying that the man wouldn’t point at me and ask me questions. When he pointed to a guy sitting next to me, my heart raced. I almost pissed myself off. I wanted to use ofe, the Yoruba teleportation technology that was never realized but only imagined in words. I wanted to disappear but I couldn’t.
When the man finished his presentation, he then directed us to another man who would give us basic training on how to handle different types of power screwdrivers and how to screw without hurting us. There is a technique to this. There is a technique for everything on automotive assembly lines. While the man was explaining, he called me to practice what he had just explained. He was explaining but I didn’t understand what he was saying. Then he asked me if I understood. No, I confessed. What language do you understand? He asked. English and Russian, I say confidently. Russian? He asked me, surprised that I speak Russian. He continued training. And when we were done, he divided us into groups. He took each group to his department, leaving me. He then came back and told me that he would look for the department where there are Russian speakers. He took me to the door fitting service. When we arrived, he greeted everyone. He took me to the team leader and told him that I only spoke Russian. Ты говоришь по русский? Do you speak Russian? asked the team leader. Ha! Yes! I answered. His eyes beamed with pleasure. A connection was born. I was delighted, relieved. He took me to the team and told them I spoke Russian. They are surprised and happy. The team leader assigned Kcenia, a Russian-German girl, to train me. Kcenia trained me and I understood everything. The job was difficult at first, working in three different shifts: morning afternoon and night shifts. But later it became routine. The salary was good. You get 25% more for night shifts. Before I knew it, news that a black man spoke Russian had spread to other departments. Thus, other Russian-speaking workers came to our department to greet me and talk. I felt at home. I worked at VW in Wolfsburg for four months without speaking a word of German. If there was an announcement or information, Kcenia would translate it for me. The factory is a magical place. I was curious about many things. Planning. The machinery. The structure. The thinking that presided over the creation of each department. The techniques. etc
It was at VW that I realized there were a lot of Russian-Germans. Their history is intimately linked. Unbeknownst to many, Germany and Russia have shared a long, twisted history through marriages and other human and economic relationships. Now that I speak both languages, even though my German is dominant due to its frequent use, I still find myself in situations where Russian still works for me. It saved me in 2015, and it saved me in other situations that I will share one day.