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?

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Thoughts

Germany: Random Useful Facts

Maybe all of this is only true for the North, which I’ve had the most experience with, but it might serve you well elsewhere in the land of Goethe, Mercedes and the Oktoberfest (NOT representative of the whole country), so here goes with some random useful facts about Germany.

Plans of action are appreciated. If there isn’t one, it’s a handy skill to be able to come up with one on the spot. This is particularly true for a night out with a group you might not know too well or organizing events with friends that involve being out and about. Things you can do to polish this skill and feel prepared regardless of decisions to be made at a moment’s notice: check transportation routes in advance, save map search results in your phone, buddy up with another reliable person, make a LIST. I feel joy simply typing this. Not to give anything away about myself, but you get the idea.

Don’t be fooled when you’re getting together with someone, say on a weekend, and they suggest being “spontaneous” or “spontan” in German. Spontan also entails a plan. First of all, you’re agreeing to proceed this way, and you need to know the translation: someone will need to text or call the other person to ask what’s going on for today and therefore make a plan. It’s unavoidable.

It’s a sure bet that almost every packaged item you buy in Germany either has detailed instructions about opening said packaged item, or a (sometimes cunningly hidden) HIER ÖFFNEN (open here) icon printed on it. Keep looking for it and don’t give up. Opening per procedure is often less messy and more satisfying than trying to tear off a layer of covering on your own. Following HIER ÖFFNEN will change your life and earn approving glances from those you happened to invite to brunch and help avoid frowns from locals.

This is true for many countries, but politeness is greatly admired in Germany and saying someone is “unfreundlich” doesn’t just mean unfriendly or rude, it carries a ton of disapproval behind it. I think it’s also characteristic of the northern German character. One might not say outright that someone sucked on certain levels or express anger. But unfreundlich is both reserved and layered with subtext at the same time. There’s a range of German phrases, both long and short, that immediately convey consideration and good manners when spoken.

Daydreaming while standing in line is not necessarily frowned upon, but you will get a louder “Hallo” from staff. Saying you were lost in thought (one of the first phrases I learned when I moved and proceeded to use often, again, not to give away too much) with an apologetic smile diffuses this situation of potential minor time wasting.

These useful facts about Germany are as random as the situations life sometimes puts us in, so you’re covered.

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