Tag Archives: German

German Customer Service

As I mentioned in the last post, I avoided speaking in German as much as possible while in Germany. Which is probably why it took such a long time for my German to improve and that it never got to a level that I was happy with. But, there were times when I couldn’t avoid it. Some of those times were when I had to ring up a service provider to complain, or ask about my contract, or something like that. An Australian friend advised to always make ‘them’ speak English to you – it puts them on the back foot and gives you an advantage, instead of making you stressed, sweaty and struggling for words from the get-go. Good advice, even if it made me feel slightly dodgy and entitled expecting all Germans to speak English  well enough to provide customer service in that language whenever it was convenient for me.

Unfortunately though, these days, there is usually a computer on the end of the phone which guards the entrance to human interaction. So, whether or not I was going to ask to speak in English, or whether or not I was going to alert the customer service provider to my terrible German, but assure them that I would try to speak in German and could they please speak slowly, I still had to make my way through an automated, voice-and-language activated system before I could get to a (hopefully) understanding person.

So, there are a few problems with the computer-bot on the phone if you’re not confident with a language. First of all, the computer speaks unbelievably fast. Sure, it’s probably a decent speed (maybe even too slow!), for a native speaker, but for a beginner, it is like the computer bot’s mouth is galloping faster than a thousand hyper-speed horses. In daily interactions, there was a good chance I would not understand 50% of what was being said, so I relied on context and body language to clarify people’s meaning. I would use the movement of a person’s mouth to help ‘hear’ German words and woe betide if someone was trying to explain something complex to me while a child was having a meltdown and a rubbish truck was passing and the music was on too loud – too many sound distractions essentially shut down my brain’s translation mechanism. Of course, all these things are extra difficult on the phone – there is no mouth to watch, no body language to follow and phones seem to never be loud enough (I felt like I was already 90 years old with a dodgy hearing aid). Finally, because it’s customer service, they are using super polite German, which means using far too many words to say very simple things. I would have been far happier with a service that just barked slowly and loudly, ‘Kundennummer!’ at me over and over again until I finally worked out they needed my customer number and entered it.  All of the thank yous and we’re here to helps just meant that I’d still be translating a greeting in my head when computer-bot would have moved on to what information I needed to provide for it to continue.

And that brings me to the other side of the problem. Not only do you have to understand computer-bot; computer-bot has to understand you. Man, I’ve never had a harsher German teacher than these automated voice services. Most of the time all I had to do was list numbers (a relatively easy task), but the computer-bot would be all, ‘oh, I have no idea what you just said! Was it a drei? Was it a zwei? So confusing your ‘German’ is! I will shut down now.’ When computer-bots first became popular on phone services my father despised them. So, he came up with a system for avoiding the computer bot and being immediately transferred to an actual human. It essentially involved him getting on the phone and yelling, ‘No!’ or ‘Help!’ over and over again until the computer bot gave up trying to understand him and transferred him to a human being. I’ve tried that trick on numerous German customer service lines and in Germany, it seems that if the computer-bot can’t understand you, computer-bot hangs up. Even if you are genuinely trying hard, if computer-bot tries to understand you more than 3 or 4 times, sometimes computer-bot will just hang up anyway. Presumably because computer-bot is tired and has more important things to do than try and understand your ‘German’.

computersaysno

Found here

The absolute worst experience I had with German phone customer service was having to ring DHL earlier this year. My Dad sent me a Christmas present and because it was electronics, he decided to order it from Amazon Germany, as it would have the right power socket and because he thought the shipping would be cheaper. One half of the present arrived, but the other half, in a separate packet, never did. I kept waiting for a packet, or a delivery note but after 3 weeks, I decided to ring Amazon Germany. I got on the phone and explained, very politely, that my German was not very good, but that I would try. The woman on the other end of the phone sighed very dramatically and said, in German, ‘Oh my God.’ So far, so good, Jenny’s feeling super-dooper. We managed to get through the interaction and she explained that as far as Amazon was concerned, the packet had been delivered and I would have to contact DHL. So, I rang up DHL and the phone call started off with an extremely complicated list of potential actions that I might want to do or may have enquiries about. I had to make computer-bot repeat itself about 3 times before I made a choice. It turned out to be the wrong choice, as computer-bot gave me a lot of information that I couldn’t understand and then hung up on me. So, I called again. I decided to make a new choice, which was ‘packets’. After that, computer bot asked me if I needed international or national packets. I ummed and ahhhed and decided it was international. I got put through, did my spiel on my bad German and then explained that my father in Australia had sent me something that had not arrived and I wanted to know where it was. The man took the number from me and told me that, unfortunately, this was a national packet, not an international packet (it had come from Amazon Germany), so I had to speak to national packets. Instead of putting me though to national packets, he hung up on me, which was a bit of a surprise, but I figured I knew what I needed to do now, so I called up DHL again, made all the choices and got through to national packets. I explained, again, how very sorry I was but I didn’t speak German very well, but that I would try. I explained that my father in Australia had sent me something and without listening to the rest of the story, the man on the phone started yelling, ‘No, you’ve got it wrong, this is national packets, no, you don’t understand, you’re in the wrong place,’ continuing to talk over the top of me, as I tried to explain, in more and more desperate (and terrible) German that the packet had been sent from Germany, that I’d already spoken to international packets and that they had told me to speak to national packets and then, as he continued to say, ‘no no no’ over the top of me, he hung up.

(At this point, I was so furious that I flung my phone across the room and hit a cupboard. I was also at work, so I had some concerned colleagues come in to find out if I was ok, which resulted in a strange story going around the kita that I had been scammed on the internet – I was so mad at that point that I don’t know what German I was speaking but it was clearly very confused and not in anyway accurate)

I took a few deep breaths and called DHL again. I got through to domestic packets and, even though I had spent the last 5 minutes repeating to myself over and over not to tell the person on the phone that ‘my father in Australia’ had sent me a packet, of course, my brain was on automatic, it had worked out a nice German spiel and it wasn’t about to work out a new one now when it was angry and stressed and sick of the entirety of the German language, so, I said it again. Immediately, IMMEDIATELY, the woman starts telling me I’m in the wrong place, that I need international packets. I’m so panicked that I’m about to be hung up on for the 4th time in half an hour that I yell, desperately, at her in German to ‘Wait! Please! Wait!’ And, because she is a good human (unlike the other man), she stops talking long enough for me to explain, as slowly and calmly as possible, that I have already spoken to international packets they sent me to domestic packets and that the packet comes from Amazon Germany. Of course, she is now furious that I yelled at her, so she takes the packet number from me very grudgingly. So grudgingly, in fact, that she doesn’t listen properly, enters the number incorrectly and then tells me that this packet doesn’t exist and it’s not coming up. She’s so angry at me that she doesn’t even suggest that maybe she could try again, I have to beg her in my terrible German to listen to me list the number again (‘Please. Once more. Please. Please. You try. Please. Once more.’) This time, either my German is clearer, or she’s listening better, who knows, but the packet comes up and she is delighted to tell me that it has already been sent back to Amazon. I ask her why and she tells me that they tried to deliver it, but when we weren’t at home, they took it back to the depot and then I didn’t pick it up in time. They only keep packets for two weeks. I tell her that DHL never left me a note to say that they had tried to deliver it and she gives me the phone equivalent of a shoulder shrug and a comment along the lines of it’s not her fault, that’s the policy and the packet is gone.

Of course, Amazon being Amazon, they just sent me out a new one, but that experience of DHL phone customer service still makes me so angry and anxious that I am currently jittery.

I’m really not saying that I should have my own special customer service line in English (though, as a side note, my health insurance – TK – did provide that and it was awesome). It’s Germany after all. But what was amazing to me was, first of all, how terrifying and intimidating customer service by phone is if you’re not confident with the language and secondly, the level of contempt some people aim at you if you can’t speak their language properly, even when you apologise, even when you’re trying very hard.

Of course, not everyone is terrible. Trying to cancel my electricity a couple of months ago, I got on the phone to my provider Stromio. I did my usual spiel of speaking bad German but that I would try. I explained that I was leaving the country and needed to know how to quit my contract. The guy rattled off a lot of information at top speed. I said, I’m so sorry, I don’t understand what you said. Could you please say it again, slower? At which point, with great gentleness and kindness he said, ‘Of course, of course Frau Williams. Of course I can speak slower.’ And then he repeated it all, nice and slowly, nice and clearly and answered all my follow up questions with great patience. The whole interaction kept me on a high for several hours. It really doesn’t take much.

 

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Filed under German, German language, Germany

German Contracts

Here’s a thing.

If you talk to the English-speaking migrant population of Berlin about living in Berlin, they’ll tell you, ‘Oh, of COURSE you can live here without German. It’s NO PROBLEM. Absolutely FINE.’

This is true to a point. You can definitely go into a restaurant in Berlin and order in English. You can buy U-bahn tickets from the little automated machines and you can do it in English. You can use google translate on German web pages and basically get the gist of what’s going on. You can even find work in English, watch English films, buy English books from English bookstores and find English-speaking friends (in fact, it may be impossible to find friends who speak any other language except English).

But, if you want to live there, actually, live there, on your own, without someone in your household who speaks fluent German and is forced to translate all your documents for you (forced because they are married to you, or love you, or just can’t get away), then you are going to find it rough. And you are going to find yourself paying a lot of money to a lot of people for reasons that you cannot fathom and seem completely unfair.

The main reason I’ve gotten into trouble is because of the Germans’ obsession with having everything written down. If you want to end a contract, it must be written down, signed and sent to them, usually, 3 months in advance of when you want to end a contract. Contracts can only ever be cancelled at the end of the month, regardless of when you started your contract.

I first encountered this problem when I tried to end our rental contract. I knew we had to give 3 months notice, so I sent an email to our realtor with, what I thought was, 3 and a half months warning. The realtor emailed me back saying it would have to be in writing. Something about her broken English made me assume that I had to sign a specific form and as she also wanted to come and see the house the next week, I assumed she would bring the form to me and I would sign it then. When she came to visit, she informed me of the cancellation ‘only at the end of the month’ issue. She then pointed out that it was now too late for me to cancel when I wanted to cancel – there was no special form, I just had to write a letter and I would’ve had time if I had sent the letter the day I received her email requesting a written cancellation.

There are many misunderstandings there, not least of all that an email actually IS acceptable – I checked with a German lawyer – but the only way to get the realtor to agree to that would have been to involve the lawyer and we decided we didn’t want the hassle. In the end, an extra month turned out not to be a bad idea – what with all the stress of my visa being rejected, I don’t know if we would have managed to get the place empty and clean in time.

But, in the last week, I’ve just noticed another massive error on my behalf. I checked my bank account to make sure that I had no standing orders left to various vendors in Berlin. That’s when I saw that a yoga studio I had signed up to for a 6 month contract in 2015 was still taking money out of my bank account every month.

Why didn’t I notice it earlier, you might wonder. Well, getting into my German bank account was quite stressful. Part of it was the language and part of it was that I could never remember my password (yes, if I’d signed in more regularly perhaps the language wouldn’t have been stressful and I would have remembered the password better). I had no German credit card, so I didn’t need to organise payments to it, which is one reason I kept a pretty careful eye on my Australian bank account. But, also, the design of the bank website was not very user friendly. When you sign into the account, it tells you the general overall statement. If you want to know about actual transactions, you have to type in the dates of the period you want, instead of just clicking on the account and having all transactions appear. I know that sounds like a pretty poor excuse, but it meant that I would look in a very specific window to find a specific transaction and wouldn’t just scroll through my transactions like I do with my Australian bank account. When I scroll, I often find things that seem suspicious – usually it’s just that I’ve forgotten the transaction or it’s a weird name of something that I did actually buy, but it’s a good habit. The design of my German bank account didn’t encourage that. So, my usual behaviour with the German bank account was, if there’s still money in there, then we’re all good. Not great for picking up yoga memberships you didn’t know you still had.

So, I feel an absolute tool. When I signed up in 2015, the woman could tell that my German was no good, so she offered to do it all in English. I originally requested a 12 month contract, but she said it wasn’t possible (they had 12 month contracts on offer, but weren’t signing people on to them for some reason), so I would have to sign up to a 6 month contract. She took me through the important conditions of the (German) contract in English. At no point did she tell me that it would be automatically renewed after 6 months, unless I cancelled (in writing) – and it seems bizarre in hindsight that she wouldn’t sign me up for a 12 month contract, when the 6 month contract was actually ongoing. Most likely to do with price changes, or the minimum amount of time you had to keep the contract, of course, but still. It was another huge part of my misunderstanding of what kind of contract I was signing up to.

SO, last October, I got very busy applying for universities (I developed a plan. A misguided plan, but I wasn’t accepted into university, so it was all ok). I stopped going to yoga and by the time I had got my applications in, it was 6 months from the start of my yoga contract. Ah well, I thought, I’ll wait until I get back from Australia in January and then go renew my contract. Of course, I never set foot inside that studio again. The yoga studio also didn’t contact me in any way – didn’t send me receipts every month (as my internet provider did), didn’t send me emails thanking me for being a good customer (as my gas & electricity companies did), didn’t send me a letter on the one year anniversary of my signing up to the studio (as… tumblr did). Anything, any kind of contact or marketing that could have alerted me to the fact that I was still, as far as they were concerned, a member of their gym.

I’m pretty disgustingly mad about it all. Especially as I am currently unemployed in the UK and I could really do with the all the excess cash they’ve taken from me. I also don’t sign up for ongoing contracts like this, because I know, I KNOW, that it is how gyms screw you over. I’ve always signed up for fixed-term contracts because, yes, they might be a bit more expensive, but at least you know in advance how long you’ve signed up for and you don’t have to argue with the company about ending the contract.

But, as I said at the start of this post, you might be able to order a coffee in English in Berlin, but trying to do things that are more complex are going to get you into trouble. As all the highly aggressive people on the Toy Town Germany forum would tell me, ‘IT’S GERMANY, OF COURSE EVERYTHING IS IN GERMAN, YOU ABSOLUTE TOSSING SHIT-FOR-BRAINS’ (it’s a really supportive forum of English speakers in Germany, offering sound advice and abuse to people who dare to ask for help).  To which I say, ‘yes. Yes, I agree with you.’ Yes, I don’t think it’s easy just to live in Berlin without German. I don’t think people should just assume they can have everything translated easily into English, on the spot. However, when someone offers, of course your natural instinct is to go, ‘oh! You speak the language of my people? Oh, please, yes, let us speak in that language for I love it so and also don’t understand your language in anyway and it makes me red-faced and sweaty trying to speak it.’ It’s kind of hard to have people act very kindly towards you, assure you that everything’s fine, and of course you can sign this German contract, here, let me explain it to you in English, and then have them to turn out to have screwed you over. Sure, I shouldn’t trust everyone. But, also, why shouldn’t I trust them if they seem like they’re being kind and helpful and reassuring me that I do understand the contract that’s been put in front of me? It would be SO RUDE and inconvenient to tell them otherwise. Besides, how often do I read the T’s and C’s of contracts/companies/internet data-scraping apps even when they’re in English?

angry-man-1

‘HOW DARE YOU ASK FOR HELP ABOUT DOING THINGS IN ENGLISH IN GERMANY ON AN ENGLISH-SPEAKING FORUM DEDICATED TO THAT EXACT PROBLEM. I LEARNT GERMAN FOR 15 YEARS BEFORE ARRIVING HERE AND IT WASN’T TO EXPLAIN THE GERMAN-SPEAKING WORLD TO SCUM LIKE YOU’ every person on the Toy Town Berlin forum. Image found here.

Up until recently, government offices have refused to speak to foreigners in English. It seems harsh until you realise it actual protects the office from accusations that they have mistranslated something (and people have been disadvantaged because of it) and it protects the foreigner from signing something they haven’t properly looked at. Sure, I couldn’t understand a lot of the German forms that were handed to me. Yes, I needed an evening with them, plus some Google translate, plus a German friend to help look them over again. But, that’s a GOOD thing. That meant that I had really looked at the goddamn thing and kind of understood what was going on.

I spent a lot of time in Berlin being highly anxious. Part of that was the circumstances of my job. Part of it was that daily interactions were sweaty, panic-attack inducing mumble fests of wrongly pronounced words and misunderstandings. And part of that was the feeling that I was maybe, probably, absolutely definitely missing *something* that was going to get me into trouble somewhere down the line. And that was because, due to my lack of German, I kept myself distant from so many things that happened in German. Another, less anxious person would have confronted that anxiety head on, tried to be proactive about stuff and refused to sign things unless a German-speaking friend had looked it over for me. But, that would require making requests of people, spending time doing difficult things and possibly telling people, ‘no, wait, I don’t understand.’ All of which are things that I don’t do very easily.

So, yeah. You can live in Berlin with no German. But don’t think it will be easy. And best be prepared with some big ol’ pockets.

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FOMO and David Bowie

Leaving Australia at the start of January was difficult. 3 weeks at my (old) home was pretty spectacular. It was sunny, I got to wear as many summer dresses as I liked, all these wonderful people that I hardly get to see were there and they are all still very nice and we had more than our fair share of avocados and life was good.

But apart from having to give all of that up, I had also decided I really, truly, hated Berlin.

Of course, that was a bit of an overstatement brought on by sun-mania, dehydration and hyper-avocado-enemia, but there is at least a little nugget of truth at the heart of it.

I’ve had a lot of problems moving to Berlin. I’m terrible about the language thing. Not necessarily that I can’t speak, but that I can’t speak PERFECTLY. That really bothers me. There are some ex-pats who live here very happily knowing no German and there are some ex-pats who live here and work hard and become fluent. I fit into neither category. I’m too lazy to learn German properly, but cripplingly embarrassed about this moral failing in a typically Anglo-Saxon middle-class way.

Plus, I’ve really struggled to find things here that I like to do. I go to work, I come home, I watch Netflix. Seriously, this is my glamorous ex-pat life. The only difference between me and people I grew up with who stayed in Australia is that I get German subtitles on my Netflix and, also, that there are some pretty awesome looking foreign films on offer (that I can’t understand because there are no English subtitles available and because of, you know, the aforementioned language problem).

You’ll be pleased to know that I am taking steps to try and rectify the situation. I’ve turned one of the doors in our apartment into a ‘Berlin To-Do List’, covered in post-it notes that can be easily removed and thrown in the bin (in a most satisfying way), once the activity has successfully been completed. I don’t actually think the To-Do List is that great. Don’t get me wrong, it’ll keep me occupied and it’s stuff I do want to get done, but it still feels like I’m kind of missing something.

Berlin is such a byword for the creative and the avant-garde, the interesting and unique and revolutionary. And yet, in direct contrast, here is my dull little existence, basically indistinguishable from my dull existence in any other city that I’ve lived in (apart from the exciting/cripplingly embarrassing language thing).

Of course, some of the things that make Berlin ‘Berlin’ are uninteresting to me anyway. Taking drugs and staying at clubs all weekend long. That’s a thing, apparently. Working as a kitchen hand and making art in all your free hours and still living comfortably. That’s also a thing, as I found out when I first moved her and stupidly asked Berlin people ‘so, what do you do?’ generating many sniffy responses, which pointedly delineated between paid work and ACTUAL work and that my lack of understanding of the difference made me fairly lacking in value. But neither of those lifestyles, for all their Peter Pan-like appeal, particularly interests me.

I guess this is the problem. Without realising it, I had some strange, perhaps pathetic expectations about how Berlin ‘should’ be and what would happen to me when I got here. A place that was meant to be inspiring and motivating for so many artists, I just kind of assumed it would just naturally inspire and motivate me too. Part of it was my state of mind when I moved here (I GIVE UP! THEATRE IS DEAD TO ME!) But I think I had a secret hope that somehow I would be motivated, inspired and full of words and writing without having to do anything about it. That hasn’t happened. There is nothing I have created here that people will be able to point to and classify my ‘Berlin oeuvre’. And, I have to admit, it’s kind of disappointing.

Certainly it’s hard to be inspired when your main connection with the culture of a place is through a shared obsession with baked goods (so many bakeries! so much fresh bread!) but I’m also at a bit of a loss as to where to find this inspiring, interesting, revolutionary Berlin culture. Is it still there? Was it ever there? Is it something you can actually pinpoint in a moment, or day-to-day, or is it something that you look back on and say, ‘ah, yes, there it was. That time there.’

I certainly haven’t met a contemporary Nabokov or Isherwood or Bowie or Iggy Pop to hang out with, or if I did, I didn’t recognise them (more fool me). Similarly, I haven’t come across an equivalent of the Rote Armee Fraktion (not that I’ve been looking, I swear, CIA). I have visited the ‘trendy’ areas where every young person wants to live and, quite frankly, to me, they seem insufferably full of tourists and ex-pats and pop-up shops selling crappy knick-knacks with moustaches on them. Certainly nothing that’s radically changed my life, or opened up my point of view. I’ve tried to go to artistic nights of poetry and music. I tried to set one up, which we just won’t talk about. I’ve attended a ‘storytelling’ night where various ex-pats told highly ‘moving’ stories of all the drugs they’d taken in countries across the world. But I just can’t find an ‘it’ to satisfy whatever early stereotypes I had formed before I got here.

I don’t want to complain that nothing here is ‘authentic’ any more and I’m certainly not claiming to be some kind of ‘authenticity’ arbiter pointing to bits of the city and declaring this part worthwhile, whilst this over here is valueless. But I just can’t seem to get excited about this place. And so many people are so excited about this place. I just feel like I’ve somehow been left out of the party for the past two years and I don’t quite know what to do about it.

Princess

 

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On Speaking the Language

A few weeks ago I wrote a self-deprecating, whiny post about the fact that I hadn’t learnt German yet and that barmen still switch to English even if I’ve managed to get through ‘One big Radler and one big Dunkels beer’ in German without stumbling over my tongue. A few people at the time (possibly sick of my whiny, self-deprecating writing style) reminded me that I was still doing pretty ok with my rudimentary restaurant German and at least had a head start on all those monolinguists out there.

In all honesty, that didn’t encourage me to be easier on myself, but after another barman switched to english in a busy bar last week and as I mentally and verbally kicked myself out the door and down the street and on to the U-Bahn, A. finally snapped and reminded me that I still, at most, only had 12 months of pretty scrappy language learning behind me and was contending with people who had been learning English for, if not all their lives, most of their lives and, in the nicest possible way, could I please just give it a rest for the trip home, it was quite late and we’d drunk a lot of beer. Ignoring his tone, I realised that he was right and have subsequently put my rose-tinted glasses back on and think only happy thoughts about my German. I’ve also started trying to practice more, which I had stopped doing, on the grounds that I was no good and therefore there was no point in trying to learn anything. It made sense at the time.

Furthermore, I also had a very amusing conversation with a fellow ex-pat and he told me a story about one of his friends who had visited him in Germany. The poor girl had scraped together all of her high school German and attempted to order a beer, in German, to which the barman had replied by glaring at her and then demanding (in English), ‘Why is it MY job to teach you German? Just SPEAK ENGLISH. It’s EASIER.’ Which is harsh, but I can see his point. If you’re in a busy bar and you’ve got a stuttering, mumbling ex-pat in front of you and a disgruntled queue of people waiting for drinks behind, yeah, just SPEAK ENGLISH. It’s easier.

Nevertheless, haters aside, I have been trying to practice more. I went to Frankfurt to meet an old friend from my au-pairing days and as she is German, I attempted to speak some German to her, which was… slow and painful and embarrassing but I got more confident as the days went by. Mainly I just annoyed her with lots of questions in English like, ‘So, how do you say the ‘o’ with the little dots on top properly?’ And ‘Is it true about the difference between the two German past tenses?’ and just a lot of ‘What’s that in German? And that? And what’s that in German? Right, cool. What about that?’ I basically treated her the way my pupils treat me.

She did teach me lots of awesome German phrases. Some of these I had seen/heard before, but she let me say them over and over to her until I was pretty certain I had them right. I present them to you now, because they are absolutely awesome, especially if you translate them directly into English:

Ich glaube ich spinne (literal translation: ‘I believe I spider.’ Meaning: ‘I think I’m saying the wrong thing.’)

Jetzt haben wir den Salat! (literal translation: ‘NOW we have the salad!’ Meaning: ‘We did all that and tried so hard, and THESE are the results???’)

Bring mich nicht in Teufel’s Küche! (literal translation: ‘Don’t take me into the Devil’s Kitchen!’ Meaning: ‘Don’t get me in trouble!’)

Mal nicht den Teufel an der Wand (literal translation: ‘Don’t paint the Devil on the wall.’ Meaning: ‘Don’t jump to the worst conclusion’)

Du gehts mir tierische auf den Keks! (literal translation: ‘You go me animally on the cookie!’ Meaning: ‘You make me crazy!’)

Du bist auf den Holzweg (literal translation: ‘You are on the wood way’ Meaning: ‘You’ve got it wrong’)

Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof (literal translation: ‘I only understand train station’ Meaning: ‘I don’t understand anything’)

Ende gut, alles gut (All’s well that ends well)

Das ist mir Würst (literal translation: ‘That is, to me, sausage’ Meaning: ‘It’s the same to me’)

And if that has whet your appetite (or you’d like to hear some of the above phrases spoken, at speed, by actual Germans) watch this hilarious video.

I’ve been practicing them ever since, muttering them under my breath as I fall asleep, exclaiming them out loud when A. least expects it, hoping that passerbys will think I am genuinely German (A. thinks I sound like I’m in some terrible ’90s sitcom and there should be a laugh track played every time I say one, like a character on TV show who has an annoying catchphrase). I think of them as good German exercises for my poor English tongue and that maybe practicing them and getting them perfect will make me not only appear to be German to passerbys, but sound German when the time comes to create sentences of my own.

No, but, seriously, I went into an incredibly intimidating German couture wedding dress shop today (just to see what it was like, just to see if they’d kick me out before I opened my mouth, just to see if all the precious white dresses would explode in my face like some kind of fancy alarm system if I touched them the wrong way) and I spoke entirely to the woman in German. And she spoke German to me. THE WHOLE TIME. And I understood everything! And it was complicated! And she kept speaking German even though she could tell I wasn’t German and she kept speaking German even when I told her I was from Australia because I UNDERSTOOD! And she UNDERSTOOD that I UNDERSTOOD!

Of course, the wedding dresses were ridiculously expensive and I don’t think I’ll be going back again, but the main point here is, I spoke German! And I made sense! Oh happy day!

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Filed under Berlin, expats, German, German language, German phrases, Germany, learning, speaking, teaching, translation, wedding dress

And then it makes it all worthwhile…

I had a good ol’ complain earlier this week, didn’t I? Everything was dreadful and German was hard and I would never, ever, ever fit in here.

Well, just as you can generally expect to hit a wall at some point during a new adventure, things turn around just as quickly.

On my exchange in Norway in 2002 I struggled for the first few months. This isn’t unusual: most exchange students are told to expect the first few months to be tough. Of course, the main problem was my inability to communicate properly. Either I had to struggle along in pitiful Norwegian and feel embarrassed; or I had to force people to speak English to me and be a burden to them and feel even more embarrassed at my inability to be a successful exchange student (one who would, of course, pick up the language QUICKLY, NATURALLY and WITHOUT EFFORT OR EVEN BREAKING A SWEAT).

Because I wasn’t speaking Norwegian much and just switching to English whenever things got too tough, my language skills were, understandably, developing slowly. I was discouraged and felt like I’d never fit in properly. With few plans over my Easter holidays, one day I decided to borrow some cross-country skis from my host family and go on a ski on the hill behind our town. Despite the snow covering the ground, it was a sparkling, sun-shiney kind of day and I didn’t want to be inside. I was going to be a true Norwegian! One who would go out skiing the way other people go out walking!

Of course, not being a true Norwegian, I didn’t realise that the lovely warm weather we were having would affect the conditions of the skiing. It melted the top of the snow, making it incredibly hard for me to get any kind of traction and to progress forward faster than, say, hair growing. It was two steps forward, one step back, except more like two glides forward, three glides back. I was red-faced, furious and completely confused as to why I had suddenly lost my (recently discovered) ability to cross-country ski. I was also, by this time (a couple of hours in), on the middle of the track, and the only way to get home was to continue on, or to backtrack. Off the track was very thick snow (in my memory, if I had walked off the track, I would have sunk completely into a snow drift, never to be found again). I was completely disheartened and exhausted and stopped to consider my options, if I had any.

Behind me, I noticed an old man speeding up the hill. Not wanting to be out-done by a pensioner, I threw my 17 year old thighs into action on the small slope. When that didn’t work I started using my ski poles to dig into the snow and desperately drag myself up the hill, which worked until one slipped and I slid all the way back down and rear-ended myself on the old man’s skis. He was surprisingly upbeat about it. He started chattering away in Norwegian to me, asking me how I was going, if I was ok, if I needed help and a bunch of other things I couldn’t understand. I explained, in one of my only confident phrases, that I was Australian, that I was an exchange student here and that I didn’t speak Norwegian. He smiled and told me he didn’t speak English, making him one of the very few people I met that year that spoke no English at all. He started pointing at my skis and making a swiping movement. He repeated a word over and over that I didn’t recognise: ‘skismøring’. Eventually, tired of my blank stares, he grabbed my ski and yanked it into the air (with my foot still attached). He made an exaggerated gesture of understanding. Then, giving up on the pantomime, he started unbuckling my shoes, releasing them from the skis. Then, from out of his pack, he brought ski wax. He started applying it liberally to the bottom of my skis. As he did so, he started talking to me in Norwegian about his family. He told me he was a grandfather. He told me his grandchildren lived in Hammerfest. He told me that his grandchildren spoke English. He told me that his grandchildren would love to visit Australia. He talked and talked and talked and I realised gradually, amazedly, that I understood most of what he was saying. Of course, I couldn’t think quickly enough to reply, but I suddenly didn’t feel so badly about my Norwegian skills. When he’d finishing coating my skis in wax, he gave me a big wave and a smile, got up the hill in double speed and disappeared on the path ahead of me. I never once saw him again that year, which was remarkable, really, in a town of 6000 people, but I suppose we moved in different circles…

Anyway, whoever this was a magical little man was (over the years I’ve come to think of him as some kind of helpful snow elf and/or leprechaun), he gave a boost to my confidence at just the time that I needed it. I suddenly realised I wasn’t as hopeless, nor as alone, nor as far from fitting in as my self-pitying brain had thought.

Snow Elf. Artist's impression. Found at: http://imgur.com/gallery/W5NDX

Snow Elf. Artist’s impression. Found at: http://imgur.com/gallery/W5NDX

I had a similar little boost today. After a week of feeling low about my slowing rate of learning; a week of German lessons in which I struggled to make myself understood, made mistakes, didn’t concentrate and generally was terrible; a week of waitresses insisting on switching to English, I was feeling more than a little sorry for myself. Then, on my way home from school, I went to a ticket office to buy some concert tickets for next week for a friend and myself.

As I got in, I realised with a sinking feeling I hadn’t checked the German word for ‘ticket’. But, the gentleman at the computer was older and I decided I wasn’t sure if he would even speak English. With as much confidence as I could muster, I told him (in German) that I wanted to tickets to ‘Charity Children’. He looked it up for me. After a few minutes he asked (in German) if it was on the 10th of June? I said yes and he told me the tickets cost 13.90 Euro. I said that was fine. He then said something very quickly that I didn’t understand. So, in English he asked how many tickets I wanted. I asked for two and he repeated back in German, ‘two tickets, which will be 29.80 Euro. How would you like to pay?’ I asked (in German) if I could pay with my card. When he saw my card and I started to swipe it, he asked ‘Doesn’t it have a chip?’ (in German) I told him it didn’t. He asked ‘warum? (why)’ in an overly shocked voice. I said didn’t know and that it was an old card. He took it from me and said (in German), ‘Ah, ‘Commonwealth’- yes, the Commonwealth IS old!’

And THAT guys, is A JOKE. A JOKE TOLD TO ME IN GERMAN. A JOKE A GERMAN TOLD TO ME IN GERMAN. MOREOVER, A JOKE A GERMAN TOLD TO ME IN GERMAN THAT I UNDERSTOOD. BANTER, people! I had GERMAN banter! Laughing hysterically, I agreed with him that the Commonwealth WAS old and told him it was an Australian card. He let me swipe the card and asked where I was from in Australia and after I told him he said, ah, so you are spending the summer here to avoid the winter in Australia. I said no, I am here a year (because I can’t describe the future yet). He asked another question in German that I didn’t understand and he repeated it in English: ‘How long will you be here for?’ In English I explained I would be here a year and I had only been here for 4 weeks. His mouth dropped. No! He cried, in German. You’ve only been here 4 weeks and you speak SUCH GOOD German?? I went bright red. I said (in German) no, no, it’s not that good. I’m learning. He said, yes, it is VERY good. There are people who live here 5 years and they can’t speak any German, because they don’t want to give up ‘Mother English’. I said I knew and I didn’t like that. He said, yes, he agreed. He handed me my tickets and he told me in German, you are doing very very well, it is very good what you are doing, so if we have to speak a little bit of English with you, that is (in English): ‘No worries!’

And oh, my, did I ever laugh about that!

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A Haircut in German

Well it’s been a week and I’m still here. I haven’t booked the next flight home to Australia, I haven’t attempted to sneak back into the UK via the (lets admit it) rather flimsy Northern Irish border.

I quite like it here. I’m very much enjoying my German class, which gets me up and out of bed for 9:15 every morning. I eat a banana, I have nutella on crackerbread and a cup of tea then walk to school, which takes 40 mins and wakes me up. Like every good kindergartener, I am completely in love with my teacher, whose praise and attention I am constantly searching for. The truth is, I was always a much better student than I have been at anything else I attempted in life and going to German class every morning has allowed me to regress to those happiest of days. This isn’t me rewriting history through a haze of nostalgia, by the way, I was always aware of how much I enjoyed school, even as a teenager. Except for a couple of rough transition years at the start of high school, I never wanted sit at the back of the class and ignore the teacher. I liked the teacher. Even the teachers that didn’t like students anymore, due to years of yelling and reprimanding and putting up with being the butt of jokes, the teachers who didn’t trust students anymore – I was determined to like them too. I felt sorry for them. I secretly wanted to convince them that I was not like all the others, I was a student who respected and wanted them to like me and would like them back. Yeah, there’s all sorts of psychological issues bound up in my feelings about teachers and people of high status and importance, but let’s just leave that for the moment, and get back to the point.

loved being a student. I loved learning. I loved essays. I loved grades, for God’s sake. Sure, when I got bad ones that was a bit unpleasant, but it got to the point when I could stop doing the subjects I wasn’t interested in and just do the ones I liked and then everything was easy. Even when it wasn’t cool, I loved being a student.

I’m not trying to crow here, I know school wasn’t a bowl of cherries for everyone. Also, saying I was a good student essentially tells you that I was very good at completing tasks with defined rules. I was good at following an authority figure. I was good at learning accepted knowledge and regurgitating it on demand. I was good at being a subordinate. None of these things are good for life. None of these skills are ones that are going to assist you when you drop out of college and found your multi-billion dollar tech company. I don’t think it’s that great I am so good at being student. All I’m trying to do is give you and idea of the  undeniable bliss I am experiencing right at the moment.

It certainly helps that I’ve convinced myself I am some kind of German genius. That me and the German language are connected on a deep, personal level. That I understand this language. It’s strange rules make sense. There’s a family myth that somewhere in my mother’s lineage there are German- Australian settlers from the late 19th – early 20th century and for the past week I have become more and more convinced that this true and my latent Germanic heritage is finally rearing its head in the form of my UNBELIEVABLE, UNEXPECTED and UNNATURAL FLAIR for the GERMAN LANGUAGE.

Of course, I’m cheating a little. There was that year of German study I did back in high school that I thought I remembered nothing of. More importantly, there’s my basic Norwegian skills that give me a slight edge – not only can I easily pick up the German words that sound and look similar to English, German words like ‘reise’ and ‘bild’ and ‘kunst’ hold no mystery for me, due to their exact transfer from/to Norwegian.

Also, I’m actually, probably, not as good as I think I am. This was made clear to me yesterday when I started happily writing out all of my vocab (colour-coded for gender) and I realised I’d written down a hell of a lot of wrong meanings that I thought I had understood and Collins’ online German dictionary was telling me I hadn’t:

Look at all my pretty pretty colours!!!

Look at all my pretty pretty colours!!!

Nevertheless, I’m doing my goody-two-shoes act at school. I’m the student that everyone hates. I pretend I am the Hermione Granger of German class. I yell out answers to possibly rhetorical questions just to fill the silence. I am ridiculously over-enthusiastic about participating in games. I chuckle knowingly at the ridiculous dialogues we are meant to translate (‘Das ist kein Geldautomat! Das ist ein Fahrkartenautomat!’ Oh ho ho, silly fake German man who is trying to get money out of a travel ticket machine, how that did tickle my funny bones). I read animatedly with what, I assume, is some kind of accurate German accent, but is probably more Norwegian-laced Australian.

Das ist kein Geldautomat! Das ist ein Fahrkartenautomat!

Das ist kein Geldautomat! Das ist ein Fahrkartenautomat!

What has been boosting my confidence is the tiny little interactions I am having with ACTUAL GERMAN PEOPLE outside of class. I’m not going to lie, they’re not perfect by any means. But they DO take place in German. I went to a fancy supermarket the other day to buy cheese. The lady at the counter spoke very quickly in German to me. I apologised (in German) and said I spoke bad German. She said that was very good German! I asked her if she spoke English. She didn’t. So I proceeded to order my cheese in German. There wasn’t much ordering. She asked me if I wanted all of a piece of cheese. I said no, ‘small’. She asked if I wanted it in half, I said yes. I picked up another cheese, she told me it was Goat’s cheese. I didn’t do a lot of talking, but what I said was understood and I got all the cheese I wanted. We were both very pleased with ourselves.

Another day I bought beer at the store (I DRINK BEER NOW, WHAT IS THIS), I came to the counter and the man told me the price. One trick I always use to stop people speaking to me in English is to look at the cost on the till. However, it came up on his till as a price that I didn’t expect. I said to the man, Sorry, 3.20? and pointed at the till. He said no, it was the price I expected. Yes, ok, it’s not like I’m reciting Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in German, but, hell, I’ve been here a week, ok?

Today I got a haircut in German. I did some preparations beforehand. I made sure the hairdresser I went to had ‘Frauen’ out the front so I knew they cut ladies hair. Then I looked up, ‘Can I have a haircut?’ on Google translate and ‘I don’t have a Reservation’ and ‘to the chin.’ I wrote them down in my smartphone notes and then headed out. I won’t lie – I was nervous. I mean, telling someone what you want them to do to your hair is a delicate business even when you speak the same language. But everyone assured me everyone spoke English in Berlin, so surely, if worse came to the worst, I could speak English to them. Surely?

I got to the hairdressers and stood outside, looking at the windows nervously. There seemed to be a side for men and one for women. The men’s side was full. The women’s side was empty. Luckily, a gentleman walked out and smiled at me in a friendly manner. He said something in German that I failed to understand. I said that I was sorry I didn’t speak good German. He said that wasn’t a problem. So I said, in English, ‘Could I have a haircut?’ He looked worried and ummed and ahhed, then gestured to a woman down the street. So, I pulled out my phone and showed him my note, ‘Kann ich einen Haarschnitt?’ He smiled and said, ‘natürlich’. The woman approached and greeted me. I showed her my phrase too. She said, not a problem. Then, as all hairdressers do, she attempted some conversation. She asked where I was from. I was delighted. I knew this phrase. This was definitely one of the German phrases I had been taught and knew off by heart in the past week. I said I was from Australia and she nodded and made a sound of interest. She said it was cold and closed the door. I agreed, delighted with myself. She asked how much I wanted off, making a small sign with her fingers. I shook my head and said, ‘zum Kinn’ and showed her. It all went very smoothly. She asked if I wanted my fringe cut. I said yes, she took a little off and showed me. She wanted to know if I wanted it shorter. I did. All up, it took about 15 mins. Ok, it wasn’t 15 minutes of German speaking, but, come on. You’ve got to be impressed – I’ve only been here a week! I’m impressed, even if no-one else is. And to top it all off, it only cost me 10 Euro. Best afternoon ever.

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