Much “Achtung!” about nothing. Episode 3

The Great Escape

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”

-Albert Einstein

Among the more than 500 positions I had applied for as I planned my escape from Centralia Re-education Camp 0871, was a six month traineeship in Germany, with the German government funded “Auslandsender” (literally, “outlands broadcaster”), the short-wave radio station which broadcast around the world in 30 languages. Their target audience was mainly Germans living abroad and anyone who secretly wanted to be German. I imagined them studying the short-wave schedules and then slinking down to the cellar or up to the attic to don Lederhosen and nibble at sausage in a dark space, while twiddling the knobs of a shrieking short-wave set.

The trainee program supposedly only took the best and brightest from community broadcasting in Australia and gave them the opportunity to get some overseas experience and see and taste the wonders of the Fatherland first hand. I had heard that it was extremely competitive, and hadn’t rated my chances particularly highly.

Now the Sydney-based co-ordinators of the Radio Free-Rheinland traineeship program were on the other end of the line asking if I would be available for a job interview over the phone. I was surprised. It was at least four months since I had sent off the application. I’d heard nothing, not even an acknowledgement that my application had arrived, and I had long since given up hope; in fact in the intervening months I had forgotten my application completely. I told them I would be in Sydney on Friday and would be able to attend an interview in person if that suited them better.

The interview resembled nothing so much as a train derailing at high speed. My palms sweated, the room spun, my mind screeched and squealed and threw out sparks as it left the rails. I had a complete mental blank over what was going on in the news in Europe, and my rusty schoolboy German had barely helped me to stumble my way through the part of the interview which was conducted in the language of poets and thinkers. I had thought I would be able to remember at least something of the language that I had learnt for four years in high school.

THE GREAT ESCAPE, Steve McQueen, 1963.

On the finer points of German grammar and vocabulary my mind was blank. I stumbled and dragged my way through a tangle of German grammatical constructions like Steve McQueen in the wire at the end of The Great Escape. I contemplated attempting a spectacular jump, but we were on the fourth floor. Eventually, bloodied and humiliated, I fell silent. Traffic noises filtered up from the street. Someone coughed in the corridor. The panel members rose to their feet as one, shook hands stiffly, and allowed me to leave the room.

In the hours it took me to cross Sydney by bus, I had plenty of time to rehash that terrible interview, reliving in slow motion all those fumbled answers and moments of mute embarrassment and terror.

What do you think is the big issue in the German news this week?”

Umm… bird flu?”

Forget the fatal Taliban attack on a busload of Bundeswehr soldiers in Afghanistan, which had reignited the whole debate about German involvement there and indeed the entire constitutional mandate for Germany’s defence forces. The autopsies on a couple of dead swans found floating feet up in the Baltic showed traces of something scientists thought may be bird flu.

I licked my wounds and swallowed my pride and sent a long email that afternoon apologising for wasting their time. I mentioned all the things I should have said during the interview, and spent the weekend trying to forget about the whole thing.

On Monday morning I began looking for a job on a building site. I made a few calls to previous employers to see if they needed my services as a truck driver again. At least I figured I would have no trouble falling back into that line of work.

That afternoon the telephone rang.

Do you still want to go to Germany?” squawked the voice at the other end.

“Of course, but… well, yeah.”

Good. You’ve got the job. We want you to start at the beginning of May.”

The interview panel had told me on Friday that the successful applicant would start in October. That would give me about six months to get things organised and raise some money to go to Europe with. Perfect, I had thought.

After four months of waiting, I now had less than three weeks to sort out my loose ends in Australia and be at Radio Free-Rheinland in Bonn. I sold what I could of my belongings in Sydney, put the fatally mauled 1960s gooseneck lamp out on the kerb for council cleanup and worked desperately to gather up the few remaining strands of the German language which I still retained. I also did a little reading on German history and culture, to try and prepare myself for a new life on the other side of the world. I was going to the land of Gemütlichsitzen! At that point I didn’t even know what Gemütlichsitzen meant.


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