Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Honeymoon is over ...

In exactly two weeks I’ll be back in New York for an extended stay. I can’t deny that this thought has been with me nearly all the time I’ve been here in Germany, in the back of my mind when I am doing just about anything. It’s like a psychic escape valve of sorts. No matter how difficult or frustrating or odd things get for me, I have always been able to stop and say to myself, “Look, soon enough you will be back in the states for a nice long visit, you can buy all the things you can’t find here in Germany, you can have long esoteric conversations in your native language and you can go just about anywhere you want and never, for even a moment, feel out of place.” I have to tell you this knowledge has made the difference between despair and simple frustration more times than I care to mention. Like this week when I sensed for the first time that the honeymoon period with my local merchants was beginning to end. The first indication that things were not completely copasetic, was when I entered my local Post Office and asked for a form to transfer funds from my account to the kindergarten His Holiness has just entered. The postmistress told the man who ended up interpreting, to inform me that my German just wasn’t good enough, that my one crash course wasn’t sufficient and that I needed to learn the language. I was crushed, floored really. Here I was feeling all integrated and slam!

To compound this insult to my already bruised sense of expatriate self, I also sensed a distinct difference in the service I was receiving at my neighborhood butcher. For the last few weeks I have been coming in during the middle of the week, when things are slow, and tasting from the truly amazing variety of items offered for sale. For those of you who have never visited a good German Metzgerei let me tell you, the assortment of foodstuffs derived from the pig is beyond the imagination of the average American pork enthusiast. I can’t for the life of me figure out which label in the meat counter refers to which pork product so when things are relatively quiet in the shop, I have been tasting and I had no idea I might have been considered something of a pest. Well, this week when I stood before the counter three of the four butchers on duty said hello then retired into the back before the owner finally came out, grim faced with cleaver in hand and grunted, “bitte”, the bare minimum required in polite German grocery shopping culture. Oh, and I was the only person in the store!

So the honeymoon is over, and my one crash-course German language class has finally worn thin at my regular haunts. I guess first–person-present-tense isn’t the “one size fits all” that I hoped it might be. I have every intention of taking more courses it’s just that I’ve been with HH full time since the New Year and I’ll be in New York until the late summer, so it just wasn’t feasible to begin a new course. In September I am going to dive right back into it and by Christmas Eve 2006 I pledge to deliver my Holiday greetings in the correct tense and person to all people young and old, formal and familiar.


Blogger Lisa said...

I have no doubt you'll do just that. What unpleasant people you encountered this week! I'm sure it's not your fault, though. The snow and cold are wearing everyone's nerves thin.

12:40 AM  
Anonymous megan said...

The first time something like that happened to me, I remember how many times some idiot would say 'learn English' (or worse: learn to speak american) about a foreigner in California. Then it really hit me: I am now that confused mexican grandma in the grocery store, I am now that quiet, shy Laotian woman trying to understand the line at the DMV.


It's so easy to be stupid and cruel. For me the first time was in a bank, trying to make a deposit. It in the middle of the city with the heaviest tourist traffic per square meter in all of Munich. I was speaking broken German, peppered with English. The woman at the counter said that if I lived in Germany, I needed to speak much better German and that i should go learn it.

It felt like a huge slap in the face. I only went back once to tell them that we were taking our business elsewhere and why.

11:01 AM  
Blogger christina said...

Oh god, people can be SO ignorant and insensitive, can't they. I'm very sorry this has happened, but once again I'll say that it doesn't surprise me one bit and it's certainly NOT your fault nor does it have anything to do with your German ability. These people are simply not willing to make the little bit of extra effort it might take to understand someone who is trying his hardest to communicate and that makes me *really* angry. It's just not right.

Anyway, one suggestion I have would be switching from the Postbank, which has a pretty crappy reputation (although you may have good reasons for dealing with them) to somewhere else, seeing that the Deutsche Post/Postbank employeers are all Beamter and not always the sharpest knives in the drawer. Another thing I used to do is to write down everything I wanted to say, getting the right vocabulary and sentence structure from my husband if need be, and practice a bit before I had to go face some public employee.

Good that you at least have the trap door in the background to escape. I often find myself counting the months between vacations in Vancouver. A little more than four months to go this time...

1:39 PM  
Blogger the Big B said...

at least you are trying, my husband just started last week a german class after 5 years of marriage.....

9:35 PM  
Blogger J said...

Although I am sorry for the rude awakening that you've had, this post doesn't surprise me.

At least you have an escape plan for a while. Most of us don't.

9:50 PM  
Blogger piu piu said...

i thinkits good u get a break. i think germans can be a bit much to take to be honest. i didn't find it particularly easy in munich and most of the ones i met insisted on speaking english to me. i dunno, its just weird to be plunged headlong into german culture.....i think in berlin it would be less of a culture clash because its so much more of a 'city' with all the multi cultural trappings that make u feel at home

have fun in NY.i'm jealous!

11:25 AM  
Blogger Berlinbound said...

Lisa ... True - but the sun was out this week! So there is hope.

Megan ... And I recall the times at JFK airport that the person greeting the incoming flight spoke only English! Big help that was to the arriving Europeans!

Christina ... It was actually pretty easy opening an account with them ... so that's why I'm there and it's free.

B ... I try yes, but I could have started earlier I suppose ... I had a pretty good idea we would settle here a long time ago.

J ... And I intend to enjoy my time at home - eat familiar food (although less of it) - and run my mouth!

Piu ...Don't be too hard on the Germans - they get a bad enough wrap - and often enough from me. Hope all is going well with you among the French!

2:50 PM  
Anonymous Olaf said...

I found you in the comments of eleven47.

I'm Olaf, work in Dusseldorf and live 50km further north. If you want, give me a notice when you're back and I'll try to teach you some German. I work in an all-world-environment, so I'm used to speaking english on an every-day basis, but would like to help. I know how my colleagues suffer when they're over here.

I'n not joking, if you're unsure ask Sarah and Guy.

olaf AT webpage below.

6:39 PM  
Blogger Berlinbound said...

Thanks for the offer of help Olaf ... I have lots of German course options here in Cologne -it's the time that's the issue. I hope this Fall I'll have the time to finally settle in and learn the language.

7:48 PM  
Anonymous Ivan said...

Long esoteric conversations... I haven't had one of those in about 4 years... and I miss them.
As for those people.. well, I am having my own storm in a teacup with some rude idiot myself so there we go!!

7:00 AM  
Blogger Sarah Mackenzie said...

Hey, you got a comment for our friend Olaf. He is a really nice and cool guy. And endlessly patient thereby breaking any cultural stereotype that we have of the "Bosch".

France seems to be different. Here we never got the super friendly welcome deal. Only now, after 6 months, are people starting - and I mean "thinking about starting" - to be friendly. I think that they don't want to complicate their lives. And being friendly with a foreigner seems to fall into this category, especially as we have limited French skills.

Here we live in vineyards. But we're urban, travelled people. That creates difficulties. It's hard to find common ground. We talk about the weather a lot. Easy for me being a Brit - it's our national topic after all. But boring for my husband who hails from your side of the pond ;-)

Have a great trip.

2:55 PM  
Blogger susan said...

It is so hard. I remember the first time I went into a bakery and felt I can do this. I forgot,started in English, ended up pointing and well the woman didn't understand my English pointing!
I have never been so quiet as at a party in Germany. But most experiences have been kind and understanding.

1:08 AM  
Anonymous desyl said...

Piu- it's actually more difficult in Berlin than it is in Munich, I have found. When I was living in East Berlin it was far more difficult to find people who spoke english or who were patient with crappy german. While they may be more "urban" there they are not better educated, wealthier, more traveled or open-minded. In fact they tended to be very defensive and xenophobic.

I find living in Munich so much easier, despite being country bumpkins in the eyes of northerners, and the almost impossible Bavarian dialect, people are far more friendly (relatively speaking) here. Customer service is a topic all its own.

I too miss conversations deeper than "the sky! it rains!" or "a half loaf, sliced please!" Maybe that's a reason germans think americans are shallow. Maybe "substantial conversation" comes at level B2 and we just have to be patient.

10:47 PM  

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