‘Ich hätte gern die Rechnung’, I asked, shakily. The girl behind the counter giggled. ‘You’ve just asked me for whipped cream,’ she said, ‘but I suppose you’d like to pay.’
Before insulting the German public with my lack of linguistic skill, the first phrase I decided to learn prior to my trip to Berlin was ‘Ich kann keine Deutsch sprechen’, or ‘I cannot speak German’, just to cover my back. I hadn’t anticipated that my first week in Germany would render me confused and tongue-tied, like a baby learning how to pronounce it’s first word. We forget about the nuances of phrases and pronunciation in other languages when we’re so used to speaking our own. I figured that just getting the words out right was the first step towards conversation. Who knew that a slight mispronunciation of a vowel could have rendered me a laughing stock.
There’s nothing like visiting another country to make you appreciate your own culture, and how it differs so much from other places. My Englishness is all too apparent even when I do manage to get the German words out right. A prim and proper girl from the South of England, they all seem to think..’Your accent is so nice’, they say in their strict Germanic sound, but all I feel is ashamed for my inability to converse.
‘That’s a whole new kettle of fish’, I found myself saying to my English-speaking German friend on my second week here. He roared with laughter at this. Having uttered an English idiom completely by accident, I had forgotten where I was in that moment. Situated in Germany, I had managed to tie myself inescapably to my Englishness in just a collection of words.
English politeness, while a stereotype, is real and it’s something I battled with in my first few weeks here. As much as we British like to think it is, it’s not common to say please and thank you and sorry a million times, and people’s lack of reciprocity of my excessive manners made me think them rude or ungrateful.
One of the first words I learned here was ‘entschuldigung’ for ‘excuse me’, or ‘sorry.’ Can you imagine my frustration as I attempted to utter this? I’d tread on somebody’s foot on the underground and by the time I’d even tried to pronounce this long, obscure word the person would have already walked away. My lowly, over-polite, english-speaking heart was broken.
Language is absurd, but it bridges the gaps. If anything, it makes us more expressive. Confused faces are often met with grand gesticulations when trying to communicate in public. My lack of German has made me adept at miming.
The grandma of my host family and I have certainly perfected this art. She doesn’t speak a word of English. We have brief conversations in my very limited German, and we fill in the gaps with a game of charades, literally. My favourite of her mimes are dancing, gardening and an elaborate series of sunbathing movements. We bond over minimal conversation as we play a game of ‘snap’ while trying to match the children’s pairs of odd socks. We make meals together and embrace, chanting ‘sehr lecker’ to congratulate ourselves on our brilliance. Oftentimes, we sit in silence. We may not be able to communicate in words, but her warmth, her energy, her maternity, even for a stranger – (I once got stung by a ‘pferdefliege’ , or horsefly to you and me, and she spent at least ten minutes holding an ice pack to my wound and rubbing my back) – and her humour makes me understand on a human level what a kind heart she has.
If my last few weeks in Germany have taught me anything, it’s that people are, ultimately, good. While I have come up against conservative Germans who will refuse to speak to me in English, identifying me as just another tourist that doesn’t give a sh** about the culture they are trying to preserve, I have met people who want nothing more than to help me settle in.
My German is limited, but it is growing by the day. I confidently ask for the bill, say ‘entschuldigung’ profusely if I do end up treading on someone’s foot, and I can say ‘Nein, danke schön’, quite kindly to the advances of German men.
I have been asked out on three dates since landing here in Berlin. I say this not to gloat or pat myself on the back as each of these experiences have been no less than entirely awkward, but more to illustrate the different dynamics of heterosexual dating in Germany than in England.
The German guys I have met have all been honourable, if not very forthcoming, and charming. I don’t pretend to be able to read men’s minds but they have always been honest and direct with exactly what they are after. ‘I’ve seen you in Potsdam quite a few times and I like you. Would you like to go for dinner sometime?’, or something along those lines, was my first offer. I haven’t yet had this experience in England. Mostly men seem to observe you from afar for weeks on end before shuffling over and making very weak advances, or the total opposite.
While this guy could have touched up on his techniques in subtlety, at least he stated directly, in a very practical, to-the-point, no beating-round-the-bush kind of way, (which I might add is very typically German), at least there was no misunderstanding. Englishmen, you are not all bad but you need to up your game.
The result of this was, however, nothing. I panicked, probably went a bit red and scuttled off but this was my first, if not entirely fruitless, lesson in German dating conversation.
Up until now, I have been the new girl on the block in the tiny city of Potsdam. I’ve been told that au pairs often assume the ‘girl next door’ trope. ‘You’ve been the discussion of the next door neighbour’s dinner table’, my host mum said to me in my first week. I immediately started scanning my brain for any heinous crime I could have committed. She laughed, ‘They have two boys in their twenties who were eager to check out the new au pair’…
Berlin is one of the most international cities on the planet, and Berliners are used to meeting people from all over the world. What’s nice is that people are always sensitive and inquisitive. I’ve spoken about what I love about England down to the last bourbon, and I have experienced everything about German language and culture that has enlightened me on what we could improve on back home. My skills in German speaking are still much to be desired. I only dread when I have to get a hair cut…