Personal Statement

Personal Statement

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Potpourri: Geister Fahrer

As I have mentioned before, I USED to speak German. Can't really claim to speak it now, as I have only retained a few words over the years, but in high school and college I was fairly fluent. And, in law school (back when I deluded myself into thinking that I would get a PhD after sitting for the Bar, and then sit for the Foreign Service Exam and either go to work for the State Department or a think tank - yeah, that was a LOT of years ago), I applied some of the money that I didn't spend on tuition (thanks, Dedman family, for my academic scholarship!) to a study-abroad summer semester in Austria. Took classes from a Supreme Court justice and his functional British equivalent, as well as from one of the most amazing women I have ever had the opportunity to meet (a Soviet dissident-turned-Russian reformer-SLASH-think tank director-SLASH-young mother of two, much deserving of her own post someday). Traveled a lot, some with classmates and some on my own, and ended my European tour with a prolonged stay in Hungary, which was cool because I was the first out of my generation of Kopcsak descendants to return to "the old country."

I learned so much that summer, and not just in the classroom. Being completely on your own, a half a world away from your support system, represents an advanced course in "being your own person," particularly if you are a sheltered only child, who, as my mother pointed out at the time, "never went to sleepaway camp." The learning curve was steep, but I came back from that summer with a firm sense of who I was and who I was going to be. Probably not a coincidence that I met my husband shortly thereafter - and, more importantly, had the common sense to recognize that he would be my traveling partner from then on out.

But I digress . . . .

One of the less useful pieces of information that I acquired that summer was the idiomatic meaning of the phrase "Geister Fahrer."  Geister Fahrer translates into "ghost driver." It is a term used to describe an idiot who gets on the Autobahn heading the wrong way.  If you've ever been on the Autobahn, I think you'll agree that it's a pretty descriptive phrase (as German phrases tend to be). Getting on the Autobahn facing traffic gives new meaning to the phrase "deer in the headlights." Odds of leaving the scene as an other-worldly spectre, your recently-deceased corporeal self remaining down below: pretty. darn. high.

Except that there's a whole system for getting a Geister Fahrer through his or her ordeal. I learned this one night when I was sitting on the bed in my dorm, reading for the next day's classes and listening to the only English-speaking channel on my radio headset.  And I do mean English-speaking: all of the DJ's (I hate to even call them that) spoke fluent BBC Standard.

Mid-song, a calm and soothing, veddy proper and British female voice broke in with the following:

"Your attention, please. There is a ghost driver on the A5. Please use extreme caution as you approach the ghost driver and make every effort to assure that the ghost driver successfully exits the Autobahn. Thank you."

Um, what the what?

A few minutes later, The Voice broke in again. The ghost driver was STILL on the Autobahn. We should continue to use extreme caution and make every effort to assure the ghost driver's successful exit.

I put together through context clues what was happening, and I marveled at:

1) The fact that The Voice was so blase about the whole thing.  Through professional training, or because this shizz happened all of the time?

2) The fact that, in the US, the news would have been delivered by a gonzo reporter in Chopper 5, shouting "oh, the humanity"-level comments over the WHOPP-WHOPP sound of helicopter blades. Point to Europe in the classiness column.

3) The fact that we were talking about the A5. IN SALZBURG. The A5, for those unfamiliar with the geography of Austria, runs north from Vienna, Vienna being in the northeast corner of the country, and Salzburg being a good bit to the west. However, we're talking about small relative distances here, and we're also talking about the AUTOBAHN. You don't have fender benders and minor two-car collisions on the Autobahn; you have eighty-car pileups. Pileups which, conceivably, could stretch from Vienna to Salzburg, or on in to Switzerland.

[Image of recent 60-car pileup in North Austria.]

So, I guess, conditions on the A5 might be of SOME relevance to folks in Salzburg. But the real reason that I was hearing about the A5 in my dorm room in Western Austria is that THE ONE RADIO STATION BROADCAST TO THE ENTIRE COUNTRY.  Refer to "small relative distances," above. This probably would not have shocked me had I grown up in, say, Rhode Island, but as a Texas girl (where radio stations can start to fade out before you make it from one point in Houston or Dallas to another point in the same city), this was a serious education in the concept of "everything's relative."

Anyway, I continued to receive updates from The Voice, alerting me as to where the ghost driver was along his or her route. FINALLY, The Voice made her last announcement:

"Your attention, please. The ghost driver has successfully exited the A5. Thank you for your cooperation."

And that was that. Cue the music.

I guess I should point out that exits on the Autobahn are few and far between.  And shoulders? We don't need no stinkin' shoulders. So the whole process, from entrance to exit, took a LOOOOOOONG time. I was morbidly fascinated with the entire thing; towards the end, I was eagerly awaiting break-ins from The Voice. It was like an old radio soap opera: would the ghost driver perish? Would he/she prevail to the end? Each update was a mini-cliffhanger.

I never got tired of Ghost Driver Theater.

And I have adopted "Geister Fahrer" into my lexicon. It's such a useful concept, and one that doesn't readily translate into English.  Like Litfasssaeule. Yes, there are three s's in the middle of that word, but only because Blogger won't let me insert the ess-zett symbol (like a capital B with a divot in the bottom) which represents a "ss" sound, nor will it let me put the umlaut over the a. A Litfasssaeule is a cylindrical column to which one attaches advertising and informational material. It's a community bulletin board, really, but a cylindrical one - typically made of concrete. We have these in the US, and when I've been called upon to direct someone to them, I've been hard-pressed to call them something OTHER than a Litfasssaeule.  "Bulletin board?" Refer to "cylinder made out of concrete," above.  "Kiosk?" Well, not really - kiosks are occupied.  "Cylindrical column to which one attaches advertising and informational material?" Yeah, doesn't really roll off of the tongue.

Litfasssaeule rolls off your tongue - if you know how to roll an ess-zett.

Recently, I've identified a lot with the Geister Fahrer. First:  we spent the better part of the month dealing with the fallout of Parker getting bitten by the dog. Apparently, our options were to opt against stitches and hope that the cut on his lip would knit together in an aesthetically appealing fashion or get stitches and jump through
a bazillion compliance hoops with Animal Control. Pick the agency to administer your proctology exam, McGlincheys: Child Protective Services or the dog-bite police?

We opted for dog-bite police. Note to Parker James: you owe Mom and Dad a fruit basket every year on January 2nd, the anniversary of said dog bite, until Mom and Dad keel over, or you do, whichever comes first.

Fun and games with Animal Control will have to be covered in a stand-alone post, but I do feel the need to blog about it eventually, in the name of catharsis. But, for now, I will simply report that . . . our file is closed. Magic words.

The dog-bite ghost driver has exited the Animal Control Autobahn.

On a completely unrelated note, I managed to ALMOST separate a toenail from its corresponding toe back in late October - horizontal cut, passing the midline, just a SMIDGE above the cuticle. Not wanting to remove the toenail at that sensitive juncture, I bandaged the heck out of it, and then departed on our fall hiking trip, fully expecting to be separated from The Toenail in painful fashion at some point. Somehow, The Toenail hung on. Every time I re-bandaged it, I made note of its progress and wondered aloud, would the cut grow far enough up the toe that I could clip it with minimal pain next week? By Thanksgiving? Christmas? New Year's?

For the record, it only SEEMS like your toenails grow fast; like the proverbial watched pot, they take eons to grow when you actually want them to. The whole process took a ridiculously long time. But, on the very same day that our Animal Control-initiated proctology exam began, I looked down at my foot, realized that the bandage had fallen off, and . . . not only was the cut grown out all of the way to the end, but the two pieces of nail had readhered to each other.

The toenail exited the Autobahn without me even realizing it.

Should you find yourself in the role of the Geister Fahrer at some point in the new year (and it's bound to happen eventually), may your exit from the Autobahn be relatively swift and relatively uneventful.  Somewhat on the model of The Toenail.

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