Tag Archives: language

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.

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under Berlin, expats

The Wedding

So we had a pretty big June.

13497966_10154232457036730_8657267581497824817_o

Yep! We got ourselves hitched!

As followers of this blog may know, I’m not a huge fan of the wedding industry. I’m also not a massive fan of the history of marriage or the modern institution, capitalist romance and the performance of said-romance (see also previous blog entries).  So, it might seem a strange thing for a gal like me to be getting married.

And, honestly, it was a strange thing. I know a lot of people view me as hopelessly romantic and whilst that is certainly an aspect of my personality that I may have accidentally cultivated with my interest in Jane Austen, BBC bonnet dramas and flowery clothing; but I assure you the other part of me is a hardened, crusty and angry cynic. I can only describe it as the effects of having been a young and hopeless romantic who came into late and unwelcome contact with the real world. I never really thought I’d get married. When I was in a relationship I couldn’t see a good reason to get married – as a young 20-something it didn’t seem to make a difference to my life. When I was single… well, I just thought I’d never be with anyone ever again. And, that was also… fine.

But, that all kind of changed when I met Alex. I don’t mean (*orchestra playing*) I finally met the love of my life and I suddenly saw the point of marriage. I mean, that because we are citizens of different countries, getting married seemed to make a lot of sense. At some point in our relationship we had each, individually and personally, decided that we wanted, and expected, to be with each other long-term. But that’s not so easy when you don’t have rights in the other’s country. So, getting married was an official way of saying to each of our countries: ‘we come as a package.’ Of course, that explanation doesn’t get rid of all the icky baggage that marriage is carrying around with it, nor does it acknowledge the fact that for many people, an official marriage is still not possible. But for better or worse (ha!) getting married did become very important for us.

Now, I can’t pretend I was impervious to all the traditional wedding stuff. Sure, I wore a red dress and not white, but do you know how much stress I put myself (and many others) through to get that absolutely perfect, one-of-a-kind dress? Sure we only had a civil ceremony in a town hall, but if, for language and visa reasons, you decide to get married in a faux-gothic, early twentieth century Danish town hall that happens to be holding said civil ceremonies in the goddamn clock tower on the day of your wedding, you will still have 6 year old girls looking at the photos and squealing, ‘Jenny! It’s your palace! You’re a princess!’

I think my attitude towards the whole thing was that it should be special, of course it should be special, but if anyone dared suggest that this was, or should be, the happiest day of my life, I would come at them with the unnecessarily high heel of my wedding shoe. Apart from anything else, it simply wasn’t true because we were having a ‘reception’ on a different day (and in a different country) to the ceremony (and possibly another reception in Australia next year – we’re calling it ‘The 2016 – 17 International Festival of Jenny and Alex’. Good God, what were we thinking). So, I deliberately tried to buy things that could be used after the wedding ceremony (and specifically, on the day of the reception). Not only the dress, but the headband, the shoes (which can be died a different colour than spill-attracting white-cream), the make-up (which I bought and did myself), the curlers that I used to set my hair (though I must acknowledge the stupendous help of my best friend Erin who stepped in both days and pinned my hair when I suddenly panicked and couldn’t figure out how to do the back of my hair when I couldn’t see it).

The reason we chose Denmark was that we had it on good authority that it could be very complicated for foreigners to get married in Germany. Also, the service had to be done in German or it wasn’t official and if we couldn’t understand properly we had to provide a translator. Denmark, however, has made a cottage industry of marrying absolutely anyone to anyone else, quickly, efficiently and in the language of your choice (provided that your language of choice is Danish, English or German). We contacted ‘Getting Married in Denmark’ who gave great advice, were warm, helpful all along the way (no matter how annoying or stressed the questions!) and got us exactly the wedding that we wanted.

We got into Copenhagen two days beforehand, with enough time to drop off our official documents as well as to visit the fantastic Tivoli Gardens – an historic and beautiful theme park. I can definitely vouch for rollercoasters and an 80m -high swing roundabout thing for getting rid of your pre-wedding anxiety.

StarFlyer

Yup. Went up that thing and lived to tell the tale. ‘Star Flyer’ image found here .

The ceremony was at 10:30am on Saturday, but when we gave in our official documents the woman at the desk had been very disparaging of the notion that we were getting married in the clock tower (way to up the pre-wedding anxiety, random Danish City Hall worker), so we had decided to get there extra early just to make sure that we were actually, really, truly getting married where we had been told we were getting married.

I spent the hours beforehand doing make-up and hair with the help of my stepmum and the the aforementioned Wonderfriend, Erin. I was anxious enough to get approval on almost every brushstroke. Not only is Erin a whizz with the hair, but she is luckily a theatre person and so knew how to attach fake eyelashes – a thing I had bought thinking they looked great but had failed to practice actually attaching to my face. Little tip – 50mins before you need to be at your own wedding is not the time to make your very first attempt at attaching false eyelashes to your face. One does not even know where one should attach fake eyelashes 50mins before one’s wedding – the upper lip? The outer rim of the ear?

Anywho, despite taking way longer than expected, I was ready on time, jumped into a taxi with my parents and wasn’t even the last one to arrive. The City Hall staff on the day were, without exception, friendly, polite, welcoming, happy for us and just generally wonderful. Each staff member showed us to a new section of the City Hall where we would wait a few moments before being shown to another section. The place is stunning with loads of interesting stuff to look at, from nautical and octopus themed wall paintings to exhibitions on WWII in Denmark, so this game of ‘pass-the- wedding-party’ was actually highly enjoyable. The only real issue was when it became increasingly obvious that there was no lift. Not even a little lift for just a little bit of the upward journey. We were to power ourselves all the way up to the clock tower with our own two feet. I mean, it was terribly romantic climbing up all those spiral staircases, but petticoats really do get in the way of making certain that your feet are going where you think they are going.

I can barely remember the ceremony, it was over so quickly. I’m told I squealed. I really hope not. But, then again, I can barely remember the amazing view from the clock tower because I was just so darn excited. So, maybe I squealed. I hope everyone can forgive me. The staff who conducted the ceremony were wonderful and even though we’d never met our celebrant before, she was just perfect – both funny and sincere and just generally warm and empathetic. The little speech she gave in English, of what I can remember, was lovely: something about making sure that we strengthen our relationship by making sure we remain individuals and strengthen each other as individuals. Ah, it was just so perfect. Like I said before, I’ve got issues with romance and public romance, but, I tell you what. This was spectacularly, fantastically, beautifully romantic. Alex was crying (from happiness – I swear I didn’t force him into it). I couldn’t stop smiling.

When we got down to the ground, I dropped our newly minted wedding documents off to be translated and made official (or something) and then we gathered our wedding group together for the post-wedding lunch. We had a bit of time and I was still worked up, so I insisted that we all ‘had to parade’ to the restaurant. In reality, all that meant was walking for 20 mins over cobblestones (though, in hindsight, I should totally have forced them all to play music and throw streamers over me. Missed opportunity). Everyone was extremely kind and all agreed. Nobody even tried to protest. The power of the bride.

Luckily we got to the restaurant just as everyone’s feet were giving out. We had chosen the most Danish restaurant we could find, which served open faced sandwiches and schnapps: Told og Snaps. Again, the staff were wonderful, so friendly and so helpful, considering what a big group we were. They explained we couldn’t possibly drink schnapps without first having beer. This was the way of things in Denmark. So, we all ordered beer and then a schnapps was selected from their long list (‘I will choose a good one for you – if you have never had schnapps before it is difficult to choose’, said the wonderful waiter). The sandwich menu was incredibly long and each one we ordered was incredibly delicious. Who knew a bit of toasted bread with some stuff on top could be so gourmet? The Danes, that’s who.

All the excitement of the past 24 hours: the emotions, the happiness, the stress, the make-up, the hair, the rollercoasters, the lack of food (I’d been unable to eat dinner or breakfast before the wedding) and then the sudden food (so much sandwich! So much cheese!) was starting to take it’s toll. Alex and I went back to the hotel and, in all honesty, all we had the energy to do was watch Danish nature documentaries. Alex fell asleep. Really. I don’t know how couples who do the ceremony and the reception all on the same day do it. I was exhausted.

After about 4 hours of lying down, we had enough energy to go out and get dinner. Around 8pm, people started coming to our hotel room and we had a good ol’ fashioned hotel room party just like in the old days. My brother had brought us lichen liquor from his stop-over in Iceland and we forced everyone to drink it. It was great. I mean, not the liquor, that was pretty awful, but that my brother had brought it and that everyone felt compelled to try it. That was great. Thanks to excellent Danish hotel design, absolutely none of the other guests complained, because absolutely no one could hear anything outside of the room. Spectacular.

On Sunday, Alex and I got up late and then wandered around Copenhagen trying to see a few sights before our flight. Copenhagen is really pretty. That’s my verdict. I would highly recommend it as the place of your next wedding or holiday.

Well, I was going to try and do wedding and reception together but I think it’s getting a bit long. I’ll write the next bit tomorrow.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Berlin, Dating, Wedding, wedding dress

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

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Berlin, Uncategorized

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!

4 Comments

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

On Not Speaking the Language

Unexpected consequences of not knowing German whilst living in Germany:

1) You miss jokes. Or to understand the joke takes so much effort on your behalf that it ceases to be funny. Or you understand the meaning so broadly and with so little nuance that it just seems like someone is stating the obvious, rather than saying something witty (‘have you ever noticed that men are men and women are women?’ HA OMG LOL) Or it takes you so much time to understand the joke that everyone’s moved on by the time you’re ready to laugh. If you happen to get the joke, with the right amount of impact, at the right speed, you inevitably laugh too loudly and too hard and too desperately just to make sure everyone realises you got the joke.

2) If you happen to manage to make a joke in German everyone laughs really deliberately and encouragingly, like you’re 6 years old and you’ve just managed to tell the one about the chicken crossing the road without screwing up or peeing your pants.

3) In fact, you spend a lot of time feeling like a child, because:
a) children are generally the only people you can properly understand (and the really young ones especially. Like, the ones that talk one word at a time and most of those words are ‘dog’ or ‘mama)
b) adults talking to children are generally the only adults you can understand
c) people don’t talk to you anymore, they talk around you and about you and make decisions on your welfare and happiness without your input
d) you have to take people with you to the scary official places to talk to them on your behalf
e) things are usually confusing
f) you feel completely helpless, unable to fix or influence the world around you, because of your inability to explain yourself, your opinions, desires and beliefs with other people
g) waiters and shopkeepers and other people who want to ask you questions are terrifying (was anyone else terrified of telling the waiter what they wanted to eat when they were a child? No? Just me?)

4) Every day chores like grocery shopping or buying a post stamp become complex and intimidating, something that you can procrastinate for days over, just because you’re worried they might ask you, ‘Do you have a loyalty card?’ In a different way to what you’re used to and how on earth would you respond then? Probably by flapping your arms like a circus seal and crying, probably that’s how.

5) You find yourself rehearsing conversations with people before attempting them, repeating phrases over and over again in your head so that you don’t trip over your words or hesitate or use the wrong gender for a noun (seriously, what gender is Nutella?) or the wrong conjugation or the wrong word order when you get into the real conversation. Getting asked an unexpected question is both distressingly confusing and heart-breakingly disappointing because you’re pretence of competence and fluency has been destroyed.

6) Paranoia levels increase ten-fold. Hundred-fold. Everyone is talking about you at all time forever and all they are ever saying is bad things, because they could talk about you if they wanted, they could say all the bad things about you and you wouldn’t understand it one little bit and that’s probably what they’re also saying after they’ve said the bad things, is they’re probably saying, ha ha ha, she can’t even understand the bad things we’re saying about her, ha ha.

7) You find your own English becoming stilted and weirdly accented through a combination of hearing other people speak a differently modulated and rhythmed language all day, and from hearing them speak your own language with their accents when they speak to you.

8) You spend most of your time around people feeling guilty and apologetic for not speaking their language. When I’m not rehearsing potential German conversations in my head, I’m just saying sorry. All the time, forever.

9) When someone speaks to you socially in English, you get so ridiculously excited that you are basically this puppy:
And so you tell them all the English thoughts you’ve been having since the last time a person asked you an English question, at full speed and in a weird, high-pitched, desperate voice, thereby ensuring that nobody ever speaks to you in English ever again.

10) When people do speak to you in English it’s hard-work and awkward for them, so they look uncomfortable, or unhappy, or scared, or anxious, and then you think, ‘oh god! What have I done to make them look so uncomfortable/unhappy/scared/anxious? I bet they don’t even WANT to talk to me! I bet they don’t even LIKE me! I bet they think I’m really strange because I’m doing the weird, high-pitched fast nonsensical English talking again!’

11) You read out-loud any sign you can understand because you’re so proud you understood it. You read out-loud signs that you almost understand, hoping that by saying them out loud their meaning might become clearer. You read out-loud signs that look funny and have stupid long words, which let’s face it, is a lot of German. You spend a lot of time on public transport reading advertisements to yourself under your breath and looking like a crazy person.

12) Your brain somehow manages to alter all German conversations into German words that you already know, either ignoring words that do not make sense or making them sound like words that you do know, which only becomes awkward when you have to respond to something that someone has said and instead of helping them to go down the slide, you offer them a lollipop.

13) You realise that a lot (most) of the German you understand is only understandable through the added assistance of context, body language and facial expressions and then you feel sad.

Language learning is going swell you guys!

An acctual photo of me studying German

An acctual photo of me studying German

Leave a comment

Filed under Berlin

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!

Leave a comment

Filed under Germany

Bilingualism: The Uphill Battle

I am a fan of bilingualism. I think people who can speak more than one language are intelligent, empathetic, funnier and just goddamn sexier than those of us confined to the monolingual.

I have made a couple of attempts at becoming bilingual in my lifetime. The first attempt was forced when my parents, in their constant, adorable quest to raise well-rounded super-human children, enrolled me (6 years old) and my brother (4 years old) in Japanese lessons. Proving they were not, in fact, fortune-tellers, my parents fully expected Japan to be the economic powerhouse of the 21st century and we were to be given a head start in our future business careers (HAHAHA, I mean, unpaid artistic careers) by learning Japanese early, when our brains were essentially sponges and just soak up and retain everything that they come in contact with, rather like tampons with that blue liquid in tampon commercials (I mean, that is my understanding of how a child’s brain works, and I DID take science classes RIGHT UP UNTIL THE FIRST MOMENT I was allowed to drop it at age 15). I often wonder if Dad looks back on those years of private Japanese lessons (in light of the 1997 Japanese economy crash and subsequent stagnation; and in light of the fact that all I can now say in Japanese is ‘My name is Jenny and I’m sorry, I don’t understand’) and, claps his hands together happily and thinks, ‘ah, yes, money well spent. Money well spent.’

The second attempt at becoming bilingual, when I headed to Norway for a year on exchange, was a little more successful. By the end of the year, I was amusingly forgetting the English words for things and demanding my hapless brother help me translate pølse (it means ‘sausage’, by the way). But my attempts to keep the bilingual dream alive have faded over the years, with my opportunities for practicing Norwegian few and far between and the dawning realisation that most of my knowledge of the language was confined to phrases appropriate for a night out and not, say, to the intricacies of climate change, philosophical debate on the Social Democratic state or even, say, what a good piece of music made me feel (beyond, ‘It was good and I liked it’). My skills were rather lopsided: I could listen and understand, I could read and understand (and if you ever need an alternative translation of Norwegian cartoon Nemi please don’t hesitate to ask), but attempting to speak my own thoughts and feelings in Norwegian (and I do like to speak my own thoughts and feelings, preferably in as convoluted and round about way as possible) is a whole other kettle of salmon.

Despite my happy little post a couple of weeks ago, I’ve gotten to that point in my German language learning where everything is suddenly getting hard. The first month is very exciting. You’re learning many things! You remember the things! You use them appropriately! The things make sense! Then gradually you start to realise: You don’t know many things. The things you don’t know far outweigh the things you do know. There are many, many more things much more confusing than the things you do know still to learn. You’re forgetting the things you did know to make room for the things you’re now learning.

On top of which, there are all these, incredibly sexy bilingual German people about, who insist on speaking English to you at the drop of a hat. Hey! It’s not hard! They cry. Look at us! We do it all the time! German-English-German-English! Whatever! Any language! It all means the same to us! Some of them are even trilingual! Oh, sure, I speak Portugese as well! Spanish, why not? Yes, I speak Italian, tra-la-la-la-la. Oh, look at you, you poor darling thing trying to speak German properly, I can’t even begin to understand you, why don’t we just switch to English? Because that’s not a problem for me, la la la la *skips away with a basket of flowers*

Look, I’m not saying they’re rubbing it in my face, but… well…

I think they’re kind of rubbing it in my face.

And, here’s the thing, you lovely, sexy, German bilingual speakers. I agree with you. You’re so much cooler than me with your many languages. I bow to you with your language superiority. I admit it, all us English-speaking monolinguals are ignoramuses. And we’re terribly annoying coming to your city and not learning your language. It must be terribly irritating to have us all stomping around and not spitting enough whilst we talk and ordering Cheese Kitchens instead of Cheesecake, but all I really want to say is, I’m never going to get to be a sexy bilingualist if you keep talking English to me. Yes, it’s probably not your job to teach me German and yes, it might take a little longer to explain things to me and maybe I’ll get the wrong end of the stick once or twice, but we can do it! Together! I swear! I know it doesn’t sound like I could possibly understand anything, but mostly, if you speak slowly and clearly I will figure it out! I promise! And the upside is, that the more you do this for me now, the quicker I will start to learn German and stop being a general pain in your rear-end. Besides which, the slow, simple speech and pantomime act can be quite fun if everyone enters into it in the right spirit. Let’s work out together how many words the other person can understand and how we can get them to understand!

It is always so devastating when someone hears you order something and then immediately switches to English. It is so disheartening. I understand why they do it and I know that pretty much everyone is doing it out of the goodness of their hearts and they probably just think I’m a tourist so there is no point in trying to help me learn the language if I’m only here for a few days, but when it happened on Sunday, the last time in a long line of, ‘let’s just switch to English, sweetheart’, moments, it genuinely made me want to cry. There’s a lot more in that then just my frustration at not being able to speak the language – general loneliness, feeling out of place – but, not being able to speak the language certainly contributes to those feelings. I’ve written before about my desire, as a tourist, to blend into a place and not have anyone guess that I’m not from the country I’m visiting. Imagine how much stronger that desire is when I’m actually living in a city.

I’ve had two bitchy waitresses over the past 4 weeks who have refused to switch to English when they’ve seen me attempting to force my mouth into German pronunciations. And I know that they were doing it deliberately (one served me tea with a biscuit swimming in tea – I had to spoon it into my mouth, it was so soggy) and attempting to make me feel like an idiot, but these were actually some of the happier interactions I’ve had. Because I had to listen to what they said and figure out what it meant. And I could do it. Yes, if they had started discussing the finer points of Marxism, I may have struggled, but ‘What do you want to order?’ ‘Where are you sitting?’ were all fairly easy to figure out. And, to be honest, continuing to understand what they were saying when they were attempting to make me not understand just added to the victory.

But don’t worry, I’ve come up with a plan. I’m going to learn how to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t speak English. Do you speak Finnish?’ in Finnish so that the next time someone starts talking to me in English, I’ll just whip that phrase out and see what happens.

Of course, I could just learn the phrase for, ‘Could you please keep speaking German, I am trying to learn,’ but that seems less fun.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Germany