Chance or Destiny: A Personal Essay by Helga Gruendler-Schierloh

Sufficiently bilingual and completely broke, I was finally back in my native Germany.
After having spent an entire year as an “Au Pair” in London, UK, to mold my school English into an employable skill, I was still not all done with my language studies.
My next step was to add French, the language of love, to my linguistic repertoire of foreign grammar and vocabulary. That meant lining up a Parisian family who would trust me with taking care of their kids and pets, and possibly with some other household duties. But to be able to set my plan in motion, I first had to get a hold of some sorely needed cash. Of course, getting a job seemed the most logical solution to that problem.
One hot summer afternoon, after enjoying the buzzing downtown activities of my beautiful, two-centuries-old home town in the foothills of the Bavarian mountains, I was bone-tired and ready to head back to my parents’ home. On my way to the train station, I decided to stroll through the intriguing, tunnel-like passage adjacent to the local newspaper.
To my left, the narrow enclosure donned a dismal, blank cement wall. However, to my right, the exterior of the old building was awash in a sea of paper slips pinned and taped to it.
As I glanced curiously across that huge, black-and-white chaos of ads, announcements, and other miscellaneous messages, two words suddenly jumped out at me.
“Bilingual Secretaries” headlined the message of a known, local manufacturing company seeking bilingual secretarial support for a German-American program. I eagerly copied down the contact number and, a few days later, I succeeded in securing an interview—and a job.
I planned on staying with that company for the few months still remaining, to the end of that year, before heading to France. I pinned high hopes on three languages to launch a career as a translator, interpreter, or possibly both.
Christmas neared, and as I was agonizing over giving my notice to quit, everything suddenly changed when a whispered rumor circulating through the company caught my attention. Since ours was a bilateral program between the United States and Germany, people of both nationalities were working together at our facility. But now it was apparently time for a role reversal—with the Americans returning home and taking a number of Germans with them.
I quickly decided to wait and see who would or wouldn’t be chosen to go. And, not too much later, I signed a two-year contract that would allow me to explore the United States on a free or rather “most expenses paid”- ticket. France just had to wait a while. I could always tackle that country and its language later on. At least that’s what I thought at the time.
I found the USA fascinating, and at the same time quite different from how I had imagined it. I kind of expected every big city to be filled with lots of skyscrapers. However, much to my surprise, the metropolitan area where I was to live and work for the next two years didn’t have many tall buildings. It also happened to be flat as a board. Besides, on the day I landed there in the middle of June, it was blistering hot—which made me wonder if I had arrived in the tropics.
However, I enjoyed checking out my new surroundings as well as traveling to Florida, New York, Washington D.C., and Mexico.
Toward the end of my second year, one of my German coworkers and I decided to attend a Halloween celebration that was staged within our work environment. We had the address, wore plenty of makeup, but weren’t sure about the BYOB printed on our invitation.
Arriving at the party, we soon figured out what it meant. Everyone but us had obviously heeded the advice to “Bring Your Own Bottle.”
The gathering was also sparsely attended and anything but lively. Faced with nothing to drink and to do, my friend and I decided to leave. Suddenly the door swung open and two young men entered. I instantly spotted the beer in one of the newcomer’s hands. Like a lightning rod I was at his side, pointing at the brew. Laughing, he handed me the entire six-pack.
“Here you go,” he said. “I don’t like that stuff anyway, but since we were already running late, that’s all I could grab in a hurry.”
My friend impatiently pulled on my sleeve. “Hey, what about getting out of here?”
“In just a minute,” I told her, holding up the bottles. “We are actually in pretty good shape now to stay a little longer.”
I don’t recall what she ended up doing after that. I for one was busy chatting with our generous booze donor. He was really cute, and the alcohol must have further enhanced my vision. In any case, I was quite taken with him—and the same thing seemed to apply in reverse.
When it was time to go home, he asked me for my phone number—and I was happy to give it to him. But when he didn’t even bother writing it down, my excitement instantly waned.
Oh, well, I thought, pegging him as one of those dazzlers who merely pretend to be interested. I consoled myself with having had a really good time for one evening anyhow.
Days later, my office phone rang. It was my Halloween flirt, asking me out. Amazed that he had retained my number, I agreed to meet him for dinner. Our first date went well—and so did the many others that followed. And before long, we were in love.
A few months later, my contract was up—and he was classified A-1. So, in spite of how we felt about each other, it was time to part—with a mutual promise to stay in touch.
I went home to my country—with my plans of going to France still being very much on the backburner. He was about to be drafted and possibly sent off to war. The likelihood of the two of us ever meeting again seemed rather remote—if not impossible. As once before, I took comfort in the wonderful time we had been able to spend together.
But fate obviously wasn’t done with us yet.
My returning household items were still at sea when the bilingual administrative assistant of one of our affiliates in the United States needed to be replaced. Of course, I was keen on going back. About the same time—because of his unique employment status—my American love was granted a deferment from military service.
Two months later, I was on a plane again—anxiously anticipating HIM. Although we ended up in a long-distance relationship for a while, at least we were on the same continent and in the same country. Just before my contract was to expire this time, we got married.
My company transferred me back to the city of his residence and then—one bureaucratic step after another—I immigrated to the United States.
I have been here ever since—because of two words peering out at me from the midst of a huge paper jungle. Was it all mere chance, or is there actually such a thing as destiny?
Oh yeah, and France?
My husband and I eventually visited Paris for one day, taking a sightseeing tour through the city. Needless to say, that was hardly conducive to mastering French.
So, for whatever it is worth, my language of love turned out to be English.

Helga Gruendler-Schierloh is a bilingual writer with a degree in journalism and graduate credits in linguistics. Her articles, essays, short stories, and poetry have appeared in the USA, the UK, Canada, and South Africa. Her debut novel, Burying Leo, a Me Too story, won second place in women’s fiction during Pen Craft Awards’ 2018 writing contest.

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