It was in March 2000, I was 23 years old and had just finished my chemistry studies. Before starting my first job, I went travelling with my so called ‘Round The World Ticket’. All on my own! My English was ABSOLUTELY rubbish at the time. I was far too shy to speak it and hadn’t been very good at school due to that, as well as never really having practiced it.
I flew from Frankfurt to Sydney and after a few days with a German family, and getting over my terrible jet lag, I set off for my Australia-tour along the East Coast. My first stop was somewhere down the coast, called ‘Byron Bay’, with lots of lovely beaches.
I was only able to speak a few sentences in English that I had practiced and known off the top of my head. I stayed for a night in a youth hostel. One of those cheap ones with loads of people in a dormitory room. There was a big leisure area to hang around where one could also find quite a few computers that were for everybody to use. Most people probably regularly wanted to write emails home.
I had arrived in the evening. The next morning, I got up just before 8am. I was the only one in that leisure area with those computers as it was early. I went to the reception to ask whether I could use a computer and the staff there usually took one’s first name as well as the starting time for using the internet. Once one was finished, they had to go back to the desk and pay. As a German, I always used the very common sentence ‘Im Internet surfen’ for browsing the internet, translated into English: ‘Surf the internet’.
I wanted to check my emails and see if I had a reply from people back in Germany. No single soul was sitting at any of the computers. It was all quiet everywhere.
I stood by the reception and came out with one of my prepared English sentences. “I would like to go surfing,” I said. The man at the reception looked at me. “Okay, when would you like to go? Today or tomorrow?” he asked. I was puzzled. I looked over to the computers and couldn’t see where the problem was. “Today,” I said. “And at what time?” he asked. “Now!!” I said. My English vocabulary didn’t include “for crying out loud, what the damn h*ll is the bl**dy problem??” as I was looking once again over to those unoccupied computers that all appeared just to be begging to be used by me. “Well, let me check,” he said and picked up the phone. He dialled a number and made me think that the World down-under was indeed turning the other way round as he seemed to need to phone somebody to find out whether I could use a bloody computer or not.
He talked on the phone. I didn’t understand a thing. I just waited, being confused. He hung up the phone and looked at me again. “Alright, you can go at 9 o’clock. Your private teacher is going to pick you up,” he said. “Private teacher?” I said. I didn’t need a private teacher to be taught how to use the internet and write some simple emails!!!
And then, finally, the penny dropped. I pointed to the computers. “No, no! Surfing the internet! Emails, please!” I said, pointing over to all those many desks available. The guy at the reception, his colleague and me, we all had a sudden and massive laugh. It was clear then what I wanted and that I didn’t need a teacher for it. The nice man, still laughing, picked up his phone again as he was going to cancel my surfing lesson. Well, that way, I never learned how to ride the waves.