Auf Deutsch

Um, Not Asleep…German Language Moment

“Schlaf nicht, Mädchen!” Which translates from German as “Don’t sleep, girl!” Well, thanks for reminding me I can still feel like a teenager. Backstory and then some…

I was walking along a beautiful street in Hamburg called Milchstraße and stopped to get a shot of this gorgeous, mysterious villa. It’s January, but as is often the case, Hamburg has a semi-permanent, cloudy autumnal vibe going that is impervious to calendar months and their conventions.

I had vaguely registered the older lady with a small dog making her way towards me, but I was lost in the moment due to the house. Suddenly this bristly criticism comes out of nowhere and it took me a few seconds to realize it was from her. She was shorter than I and by the time I located her, she and the dog were already several meters ahead.

Habitually deconstructing yet another daily German moment after more than 11 years of living here, I figured out what earned me her attention. I was just standing not quite, but almost in the middle of an already narrow sidewalk, and I clearly should have been mindful of the fact that other people also wanted to pass. I’m guessing these other people might have schedules, timed walks, routes faithfully followed for decades, even on a Sunday. I respect traditions and rituals, especially in these times. I love to-do lists. I affectionately accept the national attitude of Not. Wasting. Time. Ever. Everyday life included. Especially everyday life!

I’ve been hearing some version of “Nicht schlafen!” (“Don’t sleep!”) since I arrived in Hamburg every now and then. We hadn’t covered this in German class back home, so the first few times I took it literally. Needless to say, I was confused. Wasn’t it obvious that I wouldn’t fall asleep standing up while waiting for a traffic light (so what if it took me a second to register it had changed to green), walking slower down the street because I was admiring something or trying to see if the long line to the cash register at the supermarket led to the nicer cashier? I have saved so much time elsewhere, can I just have this one?


Random Struggles in German

Even after many years of living here, I have a list of words and phrases I still need to look up. That’s actually fine by me. First of all, I’m not a computer. Second, learning a language never really stops, because it’s a process and languages are living things. Wouldn’t it be boring if you just knew all there was to know? Third, it creates interesting conversations. Fourth, it gets me my regular dose of laughing. So off we go…

Fordern and fördern – one means “to demand” and the other means “to support” or “to sponsor”. I routinely forget which is which and sometimes end up using the wrong one in a sentence. Neat trick: at the same time it’s easy for me to remember that Förderung means “sponsorship” etc., so I can make the appropriate conclusion if I catch myself in time. Otherwise I just opt for a synonym or still do that thing where my voice kind of sinks, I don’t finish my sentence and expectantly look at my (usually) native German-speaking conversation partner.

Schnurren and schnüren – well, the first only has one meaning, “to purr”, and the other one means “to tie”. Sometimes I’ll use the first one, but pronounce it like the second, and then I’ll forget the ü when I’m talking about shoelaces (a subject that pops up more often than you’d expect), which, incidentally, in German are called Schnürsenkel. They might also lose an ü when I’m trying to kindly tell someone their laces got untied, and I spend 5 seconds remembering whether the plural gets an n at the end or not. The answer is no. By the way, a friend of mine once offered a lovely solution, and since she’s German, I tucked away the phrase she used with total confidence. “Oh,” she said, pointing at my undone shoelace, “deine Schleife ist auf.” This translates as “Your ribbon came undone.” Wonderful.

Tablett and Tablette – the first one means “tray” and the second one means “pill”. The second one was easy to remember, because the Russian word is very similar, not to mention the English one. But these are also the reasons the first one confused me at first. At the same time, the article of Tablett stuck in my memory from the first time I heard the word. Go figure.

Schnacken – this is northern German, which means I was hearing it very soon after arriving in Hamburg. Another example of how far the textbooks in class can take you before you have to dive in for real, whereupon the lessons start all over again. Was this the German pronunciation and adaptation of “snacking”? Nope, it means “to chat”, but it’s also used in a work context between colleagues who either know each other or assignments they are expected to work on together well.

Two examples which showcase my inventions basically influenced by translating English from my head into my German speech.

Relativ neulich was “pretty recently”, but it’s not used. Just neulich or vor Kurzem. Noted. I’d gotten away with it for a couple of years, though. So either no one noticed, or they were all patient and polite, not wanting to offend me, waiting it out, taking their time, analyzing what I’d said and making lists…

Ein ernstes Stück Fleisch – this innocent literal translation of “A serious piece of meat” while describing a fantastic hamburger (yeeeesss) dinner caused a lot of mirth and became a, dare I say, beloved quote. Ein ernstes Stück Kuchen (cake), ein ernstes Stück Käse (cheese). You name it, it works.