Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"America Day"

So I’ve been living in ze Deutschlandz for quite some time now, and every once in a while I like to have what I call an “America day.” On this day, I intentionally disregard all my acquired knowledge about German cultural norms, and act like a good, God-fearing, American citizen. There are a few standard operations on “America Day,” and I would like to share them with you, so you, too, can potentially alienate yourself from friends and/or strangers during your stay in Germany.

-       Wear athletic clothing on a day in which you do not exercise. Running sneakers, an old T-shirt, spandex and maybe a baseball hat, for good measure. Not leggings as pants, but spandex athletic pants. And it can’t be a fresh, new Yankees hat, not only because as someone wearing such a hat you have no soul, but also because Yankees hats have somehow become socially acceptable in Germany, especially amongst people who like hip-hop and have no idea how the game of baseball is played. In your new, awesome, and comfortable outfit, go to: a mall, a grocery store, and/or a bar.

-       Eat peanut butter directly out of the jar, preferably in a public place in front of lots of strangers, but at the very least, in front of your German roommates. Most Germans are woefully unaware of the delicious glory that is peanut butter, and even if they are, eating peanut butter directly out of the jar is simply unheard-of. Blow their minds.

-       Make faces at adorable German babies/small children riding on public transportation with their parents, but only if the parents are fully aware of what you are doing. If and when the parents give you dirty looks, try to begin a typical, American-style “smalltalk” type conversation with them.

-       Approach strangers who have cute dogs in public places. Again, try to begin a typical, American-style “smalltalk” conversation by asking to pet the dog/asking what breed it is/how old it is, etc.

-       Do not separate your trash. At all.

-       Go to a restaurant and order tap water for your table instead of mineral water. Also, try to order a medium-rare burger as part of your meal. Refuse to eat your French fries with anything other than ketchup, because you are an American, goddamnit, and mayonnaise is not for French fries, it’s for potato salad.

-       Speak English loudly while riding on public transportation.

-       Go see a movie at a German movie theater. Do not sit in your assigned seat. Also, order popcorn, but not just any popcorn. Order salty, buttery, delicious American-style popcorn. If and when they tell you that only sweet, kettle-korn style popcorn is available, demand a refund for your ticket.

-       Drink a Hefeweizen style beer directly out of the bottle, not out of a Hefeweizen glass. This, too, is best done in a public place.

-       While in line at the register of your favorite grocery store, place your groceries on the register’s conveyor belt next to your neighbor’s- but DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT put the divider down to separate your groceries from those before/behind you in line. Patiently wait until either the customer before or after you puts the divider down with a nervous sense of urgency on his/her face. (What if your groceries somehow got mixed together!?! That would be a complete disaster!) Savor this moment. I would like to thank the German language for coming up with a word for the satisfaction you will receive from the distress so clearly marked on the face of your fellow grocery shopper: Schadenfreude.

-       Do not wear house shoes.


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why You Should Tip the Foreign Delivery Guy

We’ve all been there. You’re hungry, maybe you’re ordering delivery, or maybe you're going to that place down the street, it’s not too expensive. You place your order. The person on the phone, or behind the counter, or with the brown paper bag full of deliciousness on your doorstep, asks you a question. Then, all of a sudden, there’s something standing between you and satisfaction… a language barrier.
You have no idea what that person just tried to ask you, so how should you respond? Was he asking a question to clarify what you just said, or was he asking about something else? What possible questions could he even have? I mean, really, how complicated is it to understand a simple food order?
I have a proposition for anyone faced with this situation: before making assumptions about the intelligence of another human being based purely on his knowledge of a second language, take a minute to consider the circumstances. In other words, before you get frustrated, try to put yourself in the shoes of the foreign delivery guy, or girl.
Have you ever lived in a foreign country? Vacationing does not count. I mean living and working in a foreign country with a language barrier and a culture barrier. Yes, the delivery guy made the decision to move to the U.S., so he has to deal with the consequences and difficulties made by that decision. Americans speak English, and so should he- but how do you know he doesn’t speak English? You’ve hardly spoken with him. You aren’t used to his accent, and it’s almost impossible to learn a foreign language so well as to speak without an accent. And do you speak clear American English, without a regional dialect of any kind? Very few people do, and the English people speak in language learning classes is very different from the idiomatic phrases and slang more often used in casual conversation in the United States.
As for assumptions made about the foreign delivery guy’s intelligence, let me ask you this: are you bilingual? Learning a foreign language is difficult. This man could just be an unintelligent, lazy person uninterested in learning English… or he could have multiple university degrees in his home country. We don’t know his motivation to leave his home country and move to the United States, and we don’t know how long he’s been learning English, or even if he had the opportunity to learn English formally in a classroom setting before moving to the United States.
I’m no foreign delivery girl, but I do work in a bar in Germany. I have a degree and speak German fluently, albeit with an accent. So when someone orders a large beer from tap and makes ridiculous hand gestures, one for “BIG” and the other for “BEER,” lifting a hand to his face as if he were holding a beer and drinking it, it’s more than a little frustrating. Other than the absurd hand gestures, another common, irritating tendency people have upon hearing my accent is shouting. I mean, literally, almost shouting their order at me, as if being a non-native German speaker somehow makes me hearing impaired. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed people in the U.S. acting exactly the same way toward non-native English speakers in the food service industry. Although I’m sure there are some foreign delivery people in the U.S. who actually do have hearing impairments, I think I can go out on a limb here and make the assumption that it’s a small minority. So please, America, be patient, and quit it with the ridiculous hand gestures and shouting. I know you’re hungry. But please try to stay respectful in dealing with non-native English speakers in food service- it’s a hard job, and a language barrier makes it harder. And don’t forget to tip the foreign delivery guy. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Why Dresden? (+ a walk along the Elbe...)

A lot of people, both Germans and Americans, ask me why I live in Dresden. I mean, if you’re going to live in Germany, you might as well just move to Berlin, right? Or Munich? Maybe even Hamburg or Cologne, but Dresden? I must have moved here for a German boyfriend, why else would a nice American lady like myself move all the way to eastern Germany?
The people who ask me these questions have clearly never been to Dresden. If they had, they would know that I don’t need a boyfriend, because I have Dresden. There is not enough room in my heart for anyone else. (But if a nice German man wants to take me out to dinner sometime, that’s just fine by me…)
I've spent a long time imagining ways to explain my feelings about this city: what it’s like to walk home over the Albert bridge, completely alone, the moon reflecting the ripples in the currents of the Elbe river, the great churches of the old city in the distance; what it’s like to watch the sun set over Löschwitz in the Summer, to explore the Great Garden on a Sunday, full of happy families doing the same. I came to the conclusion that it’s impossible for me to describe my feelings about this city in normal language. Although I love poetry, this blog is not the place for it. (I mean, really, one of my firsts posts was about toilets…) But then I had a truly brilliant thought: photographs! So here is my first group of photographs, documenting a walk along the Elbe River. I spend a lot of time on the banks of the Elbe, and I took these photographs in 2009, shortly before the end of my semester of study abroad in Dresden. 
A good starting point: the Old City, or Altstadt, in the distance.
A beer garden in Johannstadt.
A small vineyard.
I may or may not have been trespassing on this vineyard... but it makes for a great picture!

An elevated view.
Again, possibly trespassing? 
Oh hey, castle, what's up?

My walks always end with the appropriately-named Blue Wonder Bridge, a bridge that connects Blasewitz with Löschwitz. The last picture is a view from the bridge looking over into Löschwitz. I know I was going to try not to wax poetic all over the place, but even these pictures aren't enough. There is an incredible feeling of calm that passes over me every time I walk the banks of the Elbe. Everything just feels perfect, somehow. I can take pictures, write poetry, and write songs as much as I like to attempt to explain this feeling, but in end effect, you just have to try walking the Elbe yourself. Soon enough, you'll be writing poetry too.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Lesson in German Verbs: buchen vs. bumsen

So I work in a bar in Germany. It's an Irish bar, but most of my co-workers are German, so I end up speaking a whole lot of German at work, which is, on the whole, a good thing. I get to practice my German and earn money at the same time.
Speaking German at work has its disadvantages, though. Sometimes I make (minor) mistakes.

We have a little machine at the bar with our entire menu on it, and every time we give out a drink, we're supposed to book the drink in the machine, which keeps track of the tab for us. Unless a customer wants to pay up front, we open up a tab for him on the machine and keep on booking drinks until he asks for the check. The verb to use for booking drinks in the machine is "buchen."
Last week, toward the end of a particularly long shift, I meant to ask a co-worker if he had booked an order. Unfortunately instead of using the verb "buchen," I accidentally used a very different verb: "bumsen."
There are many translations for this unique verb, really too many to list them all, so here's just a few: "to bang," "to shag," "to screw," "to have it off with so.," etc....
Real Life Scenario:
Me: "So did you have it off with that pint of Guinness yet?"
German Co-Worker: "um..."
A thing of beauty.

And if the initial mistake was not awkward enough, imagine the aftermath. Like any kind, native German-speaker, my co-worker attempted to explain my error. Needless to say, I will never make the same mistake again.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dresden's Complicated Legacy

            While many Americans are preoccupied with February 14th, either making plans or decisively not making plans for Valentine’s Day this year, I am preoccupied with a different date. I live in Dresden, Germany. Between the 13th and the 15th of February, 1945, four Allied air raids created a firestorm, destroying the city’s center. Many Americans know of the firebombing of Dresden during World War II, at least marginally, through Kurt Vonnegut’s famous novel Slaughterhouse Five.
A sculpture overlooking the ruins of Dresden, shortly after the firebombing.
This year will be my third February in Dresden. Every year, on the 13th of February, the largest Neo-Nazi rally in Europe takes place here. Neo-Nazis gather for what they call a “Trauermarsch,” or funeral march, in “memory” of the victims of the firebombing. Counter-protesters, a collaboration of leftists, centrists, students, citizens of Dresden and ordinary people, arriving from cities and towns all over Germany, form a rally of their own. While the majority of the protesters and counter-protesters are peaceful despite being on opposite sides of the political spectrum, some, unfortunately, are not. Last year I watched as a group of radical leftists threw cobblestones at police officers clad in riot gear and set fire to trash cans in the middle of the street. The police presence on February 13th is powerful; they keep the radical left from the radical right, and often become targeted for “protecting” the Neo-Nazis (those protesting against the Neo-Nazi rally greatly outnumber the Neo-Nazis and their supporters every year.)
It’s easy to see why this day is so controversial. Should the police protect Neo-Nazis? Should Neo-Nazis even be allowed to assemble here? Was the firebombing of Dresden a war crime, or a necessary measure made by the Allies to ensure the terror of the Third Reich would end? Even the use of the word “victims” to describe those who died in the bombing can be controversial. The death toll is contested as well; the Nazi Regime estimated 200,000 deaths, a number inflated for use as propaganda. More recent estimates range from 25,000 to 135,000 deaths.
Does the death toll really matter? There is an inscription on a memorial at the Heide Cemetery in Dresden that reads, “how many died? Who knows the number? In your wounds one sees the anguish of the nameless ones who were burned here in hellfire made by human hands.” (“Wieviele sterben? Wer kennt die Zahl? An deinen Wunden sieht man die Qual der Namenslosen die hier verbrannt im Höllenfeuer aus Menschenhand.”)
At Dresden’s City Museum you can see photographs of human bodies piled upon Dresden’s Old Market Square after the firebombing. Words cannot describe the veritable mountain of human suffering, of lives lost. The photos were taken by the Third Reich to be used as propaganda. Those bodies are still being used today. Radical left or radical right, I have never seen a true “Trauermarsch” here.
I do not care about your political leanings on the anniversary of the firebombing of Dresden. I do not care about your opinions on the police presence, on the radical leftists, or on the radial right. I, too, have strong opinions on all of these issues. But I would like the people of Dresden and, more importantly, all of its visitors (wanted or unwanted), to try something new this year: putting politics and personal agendas aside. Something terrible happened here, something we all, as human beings, should remember. Why? Because the firebombing of Dresden was “made by human hands.”

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

You speak German well... for an American

Contrary to popular belief, the above-mentioned phrase is decidedly not a compliment, regardless of the intentions of the speaker. These words can be said in English, in German, or with any variety of well-meaning tones of voice. The phrase remains the worst sort of backhanded compliment: an unintentional one.
            The unsaid statement behind the phrase is, “I’m surprised you can speak a foreign language well, because most Americans can’t.” My immediate reaction is to refute such a claim: What the hell does my Passport have to do with my knowledge of German? Since when does citizenship determine foreign language proficiency? Unfortunately, when my righteous anger died down, I came to a terrible realization. They might be right.
My Massachusetts public education first exposed me to foreign languages in the 7th Grade, when I was 13 years old. We had a trimester of French, Spanish, and German, giving each of us a taste of the language so we could better decide which introductory language course to take in the 8th Grade. In most European countries, students start learning a foreign language when they are eight years old. For most U.S. eight-year-olds, learning a foreign language is not even an option. Only 24% of public elementary schools in the United States offer foreign language courses, according to the Center for Applied Linguistics. Among those schools that do offer foreign language instruction, 79% focus on introductory exposure rather than overall proficiency.
As someone who values foreign language education, I have a huge problem with these figures. But am I just biased on the issue? Europeans come into contact with foreign languages much more often than U.S. citizens, simply by living in a part of the world where so many countries with different cultures, languages, and dialects of language coexist. Of course someone from Luxembourg is going to need to speak multiple languages; Luxembourg has three official languages and borders Belgium, France, and Germany. And isn’t English a so-called “world language” anyway? To achieve international success in either business or science, a strong grasp of the English language is crucial. At least, that’s what my U.S. upbringing has led me to believe.
I cannot disprove the usefulness of English as a first language; on the contrary, I can only confirm from various traveling experiences that my knowledge of the English language allowed me to communicate when I otherwise could not. And yes, from my hometown in Massachusetts the nearest non-English speaking country is Canada, in the Quebec province, and that’s quite a trip. So why should U.S. citizens bother to learn a foreign language when “everybody speaks English anyway,” when opportunities to use foreign language skills are few and far between?
Studies have shown that learning a second language benefits students in other academic subjects. Students in the U.S. who study a foreign language statistically perform better on standardized tests than those who do not in core areas such as math, reading, and English language literacy. Even problem solving skills are positively affected. If enhanced academic performance is not reason enough, let’s look at the “global dominance” of the English language. In terms of global population, the percentage of native English speakers is on the decline. With a worldwide decrease in native English speakers, it is only natural that other languages, like Mandarin Chinese, will grow in proportion to their native-speaking populations. While I’m not suggesting we all begin learning Mandarin, I am suggesting that the U.S. needs to re-assess its values in education. We cannot simply assume English is the “world language,” or that English will indefinitely remain vital in global discourse.
Personally, learning the German language has shaped and enriched the person I am today. Since moving to Dresden, Germany I have met so many wonderful, patient people not only willing, but excited to help me learn German. Even after all the embarrassing mistakes, misunderstandings, and unintentional backhanded compliments, at the end of each day I’ve learned something, and it’s not always language-related. Learning a foreign language has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, a learning experience from which all people, regardless of citizenship, can benefit.

Monday, February 20, 2012

I understand only train station.

Here's a useful idiomatic expression, especially for all those times a drunk German regular begins slurring his words at the bar you work at: 
"Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof." 
Literally translated, it means, "I understand only train station." What it actually means is, "I didn't understand a damn thing you just said, I'm cutting you off. I'm serious this time. You're not getting another freaking pint of anything in this bar unless it's water." 
Actually, I may be exaggerating. (I'm exaggerating, how could a phrase that short in German, the most wordy language in the world, somehow end up that much longer in English?) The phrase does come in handy, though. It's a somewhat impolite way of saying you did not understand something, also perfect for day-to-day situations amongst friends that do not take place in bars. 
Use wisely, and enjoy!