He was ten years older than me, although I wouldn’t find that out until we’d been involved for some time and, in bed, he begrudgingly whispered his age in my ear when I wouldn’t let the subject go. “It’s not something we talk about,” he said. “My own brothers and sisters probably don’t know my age, and I don’t know theirs.”
Sugianto, one of whose older brothers was also, oddly, named Sugianto, was from a small village on the Western end of Java, a place where families had maybe ten kids and just as many chickens running around in the house as pets. He had come to live and study engineering in Germany. He’d been there for seven years and spoke the language fluently, though he didn’t speak a word of English.
I was in Germany on a study-abroad trip for the spring and summer after having taken a last-minute opportunity to go. My German wasn’t so great, at first, as I’d only taken two years of it in college before traveling. No matter: I’d have plenty of opportunity to learn by attending classes, meeting new friends, and having constant arguments with my German-speaking, Javanese boyfriend.
If you want to really learn a language, start dating someone who speaks it and then fight with him or her all the time. And I say this as someone who, after I returned to the US, spent two years teaching German at the college level. You learn a lot about a language through the process of argument, much more than you can learn or can be taught in a classroom. When you really want to hurl words at another person, you can find deep syntactic and semantic resources you never knew you had.
We had our good times, too, of course, or we wouldn’t ever have been involved. He drove me around on his Vespa, cooked incredible meals for me all the time, and brought home case after case of beer from his side job at the local brewery just because he knew I liked it. In the last month of my stay in Germany, when classes were long over, he decided to take me to Paris.
I’d always wanted to go, of course. French was the first foreign language I studied, starting in first grade, and I’d always had dreams of traveling there, but study abroad in France wasn’t an option in college. This trip would be perfect. It would be so romantic. The lights. The little bridges over the Seine. The art. The wine. The food. I could not wait.
Name any of the famous landmarks in the city of Paris (just name them! any of them!) and I can tell you in horrifying detail the ridiculous fight we had there. The Tour Eiffel and the Parc du Champ-de-Mars. The Arc de Triomphe. The Louvre. The flea market at the Porte de Clignancourt. The fucking Métro. And Versailles. Goddamned Versailles.
Language was an issue. We communicated in German very well by this point, but I was the only one of us who spoke English or French, and therefore any interaction with French people had to be done by me. I hate interacting with strangers. Loathe it. But I had to deal with the hotels and restaurants and ticket sellers and shopkeepers and boulangers and everything else. Which was fine. I just ordered whatever I wanted without bothering to consult Sugi. “ENCORE DU VIN, S’IL VOUS PLAÎT!” Easy enough.
But on top of that he wanted me to ask random strangers to take our picture together. For some reason this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had HAD IT with asking strange French people for things and refused to do it. He assumed I didn’t want any pictures of us together because I didn’t love him. Oh my god. It was ridiculous. This was the Jardins du Château de Versailles fight, the most epic of them all. I don’t think I can ever go back to Versailles again, if the fine people there would even consider having me back.
He was bossy and liked to correct my German grammar and vocabulary. He liked to inform me whenever I was breaking some unknown social code like lighting a cigarette without first offering the pack to everyone else in the room. It drove me crazy. We would fight about his bossiness, about whether it was because he was older than me or whether it was because he was a man or whether it was because he came from a more overtly patriarchal culture.
In the end it didn’t matter. I skipped merrily back to the US in time for the start of my senior year and he was left behind, with nothing to do but write me unbelievably long letters. Soon enough I was already involved with someone else back at school, and when I spoke to Sugi on the phone I told him to go ahead and drink the bottle of Bordeaux we’d bought in France; I’d soured on it anyway. I do have to thank the guy for one thing, though: my conversational German is really quite good.