Dinner with the In-Laws

Dinner with the in-laws is an age-old anxiety. It’s the cardiac event that occurs the moment a partner announces a Pizza Express voucher or that they have purchased just about anything new from Lakeland:

 “I keep saying we should have them round. Now we can use the…”



[Ravioli attachment for the pasta-maker I bought with my ex-boyfriend, just before he had that unrelated nervous breakdown.]”

It is a night of hypertension, an evening when skills you mastered during infancy suddenly require a lot more thought than they did before. For instance, where to put your hands when not in use, locating the hole in the middle of your face into which to insert food, drink or your foot after a miscalculated joke, not setting your hair on fire (tried and tested), or standing up from beneath a table cloth and taking it with you like a wildly inappropriate parody of your future wedding to the offspring of said in-laws.

It is a night coloured beige by the irrational desire to appear virginal in front of elderly relatives. This is frequently communicated with aggressive leg-crossing, pastel cardigans, or the offering of baked goods.

It is a night that guarantees an actual handshake with another person, something a student like myself won’t have practised since that interview with CostCutters back in 2010. As if to make matters worse, cliché decrees that you will be judged upon the strength of its delivery. Well, it didn’t get me the job.

In short – a minefield.

But what about when that conversation isn’t in your first language?

Meeting Your Partner’s Family in your Third Language

My partner and I have been together for three years, long-distance (UK-Germany) so I guess that’s one and a half years in real time. Newly graduated, we’re on a year’s road trip, starting in his homeland – Germany.

We’re currently in Konstanz, Baden-Württemberg, visiting his older brother. My last post ended with an idyllic bicycle ride into the old quarter, somehow stuck for the entire duration on 1st gear.

We were on our way to meet Valentin’s extended family, who were holidaying in the area. This would mean dinner in my third language. (I never learnt German at school and can just about carry a conversation in French.)

It was a nice restaurant. You could tell, because the ivy on the façade looked like it had been invited. Because of corona, they’d seated everybody in the courtyard under the trees. It was my first time eating out since before March; it was clandestine, delicious. I’m a sucker for fairy lights.

We were a group of six: Valentin and I, plus his aunt and uncle, his older brother, and his grandma.

Now I was a little disorientated after cutting up an approaching car on the last road crossing (it’s difficult to judge how long you need to get to the other side when your legs are spinning at 70 miles per hour), but I remember a lot of white clothing and tanned faces, thinking I must look out of place. Last year, I got a singular freckle after three weeks backpacking in Northern India.

The tablecloth was very white. It hurt to look at. They were sat waiting in the courtyard of the restaurant, smart in a kind of effortless, Mediterranean way, not the stuffy way I’ve seen in restaurants in the UK, where Percy’s being asphyxiated by his ironic bow tie and losing circulation in his lower half every time he bends his skinny jeans.

Pre-Exorcism Spaghetti

We sat down. Suddenly none of my limbs seemed to look normal where I placed them, sort of like when you put a puppet down for a moment.

We made the usual greetings and I went through some of my stock German phrases – the ones I know I’m not going to fuck up: “How are you?”, “What have you been doing today?” “It’s nice to see you.”

It was going surprisingly well; I hadn’t dropped anything or set myself on fire. On looking through the menu, someone realised most of the vegetarian dishes were on the specials list. A waiter came over to explain them, reciting a three-page document in the same way small children show off their times tables. I felt myself lean into the machine-gun fire of “Pilsen,” “Salbei” and “Muscheln.” His words were muschelled alright. Staring with psychotic intensity, and mouthing to myself, I assume he thought we were there for pre-exorcism spaghetti.

Processing Speeds

You’re a different version of yourself when you’re not speaking in your mother tongue – something I’m finding more and more challenging, the further this relationship goes. Getting to know my partner’s family members is like having to read Sappho at uni; every other line seems to be missing. I find that I meet people in a haze, an understanding of who they are, fragmentary, at least 50% speculation.

Comparing myself to my personality in German is like comparing a MacBook Pro to the old Dell banger you keep resurrecting: the one that wheezes when you open too many tabs, responds to commands 30 seconds too late and has a severely reduced processing speed.

Valentin sits down at the restaurant table, and with a dull thump and a rising cloud of dust from my filter, I join him, simultaneously ejecting my disk drive, which sticks, and remains ejected for the duration of the meal.

Mental translation is exhausting. I find myself identifying with Sherlock from the BBC adaptation. To search for the meaning of his clues, Sherlock returns to his “Mind Palace”, a mental space where he stores every word and meaning he has ever learnt. I quite like the idea of a Mind Shed, somewhere dark and musty, something full of crap.

The Mind Shed

The Mind Shed

Valentin’s uncle cuts into his veal and asks me something:


I lean across the table, nodding philosophically as I consider the word I have discerned from this – “Schaf”. I eat up the letters. It tastes familiar. I imagining time slowing, as I fling open the door to my mind shed.

“SCHAF,” I shout into the dark interior. “SCHAF.”

Silence. Then the bleating of a sheep from behind a lawnmower. I drag it by the horns to the door and let it go. WRONG. We weren’t talking about sheep, were we? Perhaps we were…I rifle through shears, a seedling incubator, fertilizer, “SCHAF, SCHAF, SCHAF.”

Out pops a shepherd from under a floorboard: “Schäfer?” he suggests, pointing sheepishly to himself in the chest. I grab his withered arm and march him through the doorway. WRONG. I turn back as a ticket inspector claws her way out of a bag of compost like that scene from Lord of the Rings where the Uruk-hai claws its way out of the slime.

Source: 1Account2RuleEmAll, Youtube, Gfycat, Created Apr. 2017.

“Schaffner,” she says, mid “choo choo” action. I grab her by her whistle and launch her through the glass window. She lands on the shepherd outside, who adjusts his tea towel headdress and blearily commends me on being “sehr schaffig.”

I lob a biscuit tin full of old seeds at him and feel a sense of achievement. Then suddenly – I did it. It was…achieved.

“SCHAFFEN,” I exclaim – “to achieve or complete! “SCHAFFEN, SCHAFFEN, SCHAFFEN.” Valentin’s uncle was asking me whether I’d completed my university course, which, as it happens, has nothing whatsoever to do with sheep. I slam the door of the Mind Shed and throw the key over my shoulder. Somewhere distant I hear bleating, as I race back to the conversation.

Valentin’s uncle has finished his sentence, and also his veal. I appear to have arrived with the second course.

His aunt turns to me with an encouraging smile, and asks another question:

“Also, wie ist es mit…[lost in translation]? und ja natürlich, wenn du willst….[lost in translation]…. Fahrplan.”

Fahrplan?… Fahrplan?


Fahr. Plan.

I pause, and with a sinking feeling, trudge back to the mind shed.

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