When I was kid, we had a next-door neighbor named Helmut. He was from Germany, and many times I didn’t understand him. But I liked his kind smile and tone. One day, I was playing basketball in the driveway with a friend, and Helmut came past, heading home from a walk. He stopped to watch for a few minutes. I made a basket and called to him, “I’m going to win!” I jumped up and down, my pony tail bouncing.
“Ah, Jeanette,” he answered with a shake of his head, “man soll den Tag nicht vor dem Abend loben.”
I had no idea what he had said, let alone what it meant. So it was lost in the excitement of the game. Which I ended up losing. My friend made a comeback and was ahead when it was time for her to go home.
The next time I saw Helmut outside his house, I remembered he had said something to me in German, so I asked him what he’d said. “Hm,” he replied, pursing his lips. “Man soll den Tag nicht vor dem Abend loben?”
“I … think so? What does it mean?”
Helmut chuckled. He told me to wait; he went inside and then came back out holding a scrap of paper with that sentence written on it. Handing it to me, he said, “You find out and tell me vhat you think, eh Jeanette? And what it had to do vith your game.”
Well, being a youth, I totally forgot about it. Maybe Helmut did, too. I thought about it once in a while when I saw him, but I’d instantly be thinking about something else.
Months later, I came across that slip of paper in my room. Having nothing better to do, I got on a laptop and looked it up. “One shouldn’t praise the day before the evening.” What now?
At least I had the translation. Having gotten that done, I closed the laptop and went away to do something else.
The next time I ran into Helmut, I said, “You shouldn’t praise the day before the evening.”
“You know, that thing you said to me in German about basketball. That’s what it means.”
“Ah,” he said with a smile, “so vhat does it mean?”
“Um … I have no idea what praising a day is about. I’ve never heard of people doing that.”
Helmut chuckled, his deep crows’ feet creasing his temples. “Hm. It means … don’t throw a party too soon. Eh?”
I could see what that meant for my basketball game.
The message didn’t sink in immediately. It sunk in a little more a couple of years later on the day I found out I hadn’t gotten a job I was sure I would be offered—and was so sure of it that I had started telling friends I was going to work there.
I really learned the meaning of “Man soll den Tag nicht vor dem Abend loben” after I had dated a certain young man for over a year. Fully in love, I became convinced he was going to ask me to marry him. What else could possibly happen? I secretly started shopping around for a wedding dress, made a guest list, and identified a reception location. It was then that he broke up with me. It had become something of a pattern with me to think I had it in the bag before I actually did.
Am I bitter and cynical? No. I’ve learned by experience what a little German saying means and, I hope, gained some wisdom along the way. Helmut never said not to celebrate. He said instead not to count a victory before it’s won and to celebrate at the right time. It took me a long time—years—to come to a real understanding of what he meant. But now I like to think I save the party until it’s justified and savor it all the more.
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