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.

 

What I Didn’t Know before Moving to Hamburg/ Germany

As it turns out, the information in the textbooks we used in my German language class back in the day (YouTube was in its baby years) and the actual move to Germany were two vastly different worlds. I had the grammar down pat, or at least most of it, and the next step was diving in. But the things I didn’t know…

Universal greetings worked, but local phrases worked better. Guten Tag was immediately and obviously formal, while the Hamburg Moin was a joyful discovery, since I love short ways of saying Hello. Then there’s the quintessentially German Na? This basically means How are you, what’s up? Works best among people more familiar with each other and a slight question mark intonation, but it’s important to not overdo it, otherwise the probably more reserved northern German you’re speaking to might feel threatened.

Sounds elementary, but I really didn’t think of (patiently) standing to the sides of subway train and bus doors to let anyone who needs to get off exit first.

Clearly visible lines painted on the floor beyond the counter in various places where you have to stand in line, advising discretion/ keeping your distance and reminding us all about the wonderful concept of personal space.

Anything that impends someone’s progress or gives them the feeling their time is being wasted causes immediate tutting (whether internal or external), frustration and sometimes even blame. But not if you apologize, for example for jostling someone or blocking the path. Then you usually get a polite headshake, maybe even a smile and a “Alles gut”.

Contrary to some perceptions of northern Germans, people are actually friendly, but you’re sort of expected to understand how things work on your own if there are signs around. Still, asking politely for directions or information never fails.

Humour in the workplace or academic settings should be distributed in small doses, at least at first. The same goes for sarcasm.

Mett is a thing.

It’s important to learn your verbs and how to use them correctly in questions, especially those meaning like, love, want and want less categorically. I once asked a classmate at university, “Magst du mit mir in die Mensa gehen?” What I thought I was saying was “Would you like to go the cafeteria with me?” What I actually said was something along the lines of “Could you follow along to the cafeteria?” She gave me a look and said, “Nein, mag ich nicht.” Well. I actually didn’t like her that much, anyway, so whatever, ha!

If you like making plans and lists, you’ll fit right in.

At work or an internship it’s common to bring a cake or something sweet for your coworkers on your birthday, or even after your trial period is over. There’s really no pressure and not all Germans do it, though I’ve been told by multiple expats they consider it a weird tradition.

Getting caught without a ticket on public transport is not an experience I would recommend pursuing.

Surprise, surprise, the German recycling system is well-known, but not all locals believe in it.

And finally, the biggest thing I didn’t know was how much I would love Hamburg, quirks and all. Moin!

 

Things You Learn in German Swimming Pools

Disclaimer: most of these experiences relate to Hamburg and they are my observations only.

Well, I guess the first thing I learned was that without some kind of subscription or membership card, this beloved activity was going to be expensive, so I got one and it’s been with me for almost eleven years. I feel like I’m getting my money’s worth.

What threw me during my very first pool visit as I navigated my way to the changing rooms, trying to remember all the turns, was that the hair dryers were attached out in the open, no partitions or walls of any kind between them. For some reason, before I had confronted any other elements of the swimming pool experience which have much more shock potential for someone who didn’t grow up with certain elements of the German culture (keep reading), seeing people blowing their tresses dry with other visitors just passing by was unexpectedly intimate. Even if everyone was, thankfully, clothed. To paraphrase one of my favorite scenes from Criminal Minds, sometimes a girl just wants to dry her hair alone, you know?

I was feverishly deciding, calling forth my Russian upbringing, whether it would be safe to ditch the hair drying after my swim and cover up snugly with a hat, because regardless of the season, you should never ever go outside with wet hair, when I arrived at the changing rooms. Yeah. So, this is not always the case, but it’s good to know that it might be. Sometimes the only thing separating the women’s changing area from the men’s is apparent trust in the fact that no one will peak around locker row corners or turn their head that extra inch when walking to the pool entrance. It’s also customary to murmur a Hello or Good Morning when you come in, regardless of the fact whether fellow ladies present are changing or not.

And thus we come to the final point of this story, namely the showers. Basically all of the above made it clear to me that I either had to find a mental, sometimes physical, way around it, or not go to the pool at all, which would be a pity. Greetings also take place here, as well as small talk, such as: comments on the water temperature in the pool, the strength of the shower gush, asking to borrow someone’s shampoo, observations on how crowded it is. What’s more, people make eye contact here. I. Can’t. Do. This. I can’t even look at my friends if we go to the pool together and then to the shower! We seem to understand each other without additional explanations: stop talking as soon as you enter the shower area, eyes up and focused on your goal at hand, then when you’re done, discreetly ask, “Are you finished?” OR, in my case, quote Governor Swann from the first Pirates of the Caribbean, “Elizabeth? Are you decent?”

But these are all strangers, some of my other friends will say, you don’t know them, what does it matter if they are all naked in there? Precisely, they are strangers! And I do mind! But I have, after all, lived here for a while now, and I’ve become tougher in some respects, milder in others, added a dash more sarcasm and a pinch of simply being practical where I used to be stiff with terror. In the end, a blissful hour in the water far outweighs a few minutes spent in two other places that are just stops on the way and back.

But you won’t catch me in a sauna, nuh-uh.

The French and German Way of Life

Germany is where I live and France is where I go regularly. True, I don’t know all of Germany, I know a certain part of Northern Germany best, and there is still so much to discover. I don’t know all of France either, as I mostly travel in one particular direction when I do go, though I have been to a few different cities. But in the last decade, through this combination, I have been fortunate to experience for myself parts of the French and German way of life. And for me one of the most telling bases of comparison for the two is the impression I’ve gotten from both nations in their approach to managing time.

I think those last two words, the choice of them, is already indicative enough of the strength of the German influence on me, which joyfully melds with my own character set-up. It seems Germans see time as something to be treasured, respected, a luxury to strive for, a tool to plan with, a sought-after component of leisure, an opportunity not to be wasted. For there is nothing more frustrating than time that is wasted. The French, meanwhile, always seem to be sure that whatever happens, there will be more time, becase la vie est belle and so is France, and why don’t you sit down, have a glass of wine and some cheese while you wait, you uptight German person.

In my French class we recently started a new lesson built around the subject of le train. Much was said while we collected the vocabulary we already knew. Our teacher explained the one marked difference between the German Deutsche Bahn and the French SNCF. Punctuality? Non. Plus, plenty of people in Germany complain about Deutsche Bahn. Non, it is le ticket! If you have your German train ticket, your platform is printed on it, and usually c’est vrai! Meanwhile, in a French gare you have to go stare at some information screens to find out where you board your train. It is not unusual to not have these details even 15 minuts before departure (being German). This was precisely my first experience taking the train from Paris-Est station to Strasbourg and the memory still makes me snort like an impatient horse.

I had to ask my teacher one burning question. Are the French relaxed about this fact and all Oui, c’est ça, or are there actually people in the country who are irritated by this? My teacher shrugged with that characteristically elegant, but nonchalant air, her eyebrows going up and her lips puckering in sync with the movement of her shoulders. Certain circumstances allow you to get a refund for your train ticket, she said. But what about your destination, the plan to be somewhere at a certain time, I sputtered. Another shrug.

I was recounting this story to a German friend, after we had made lunch plans, which we neatly laid down like we always do, despite knowing each other for ten years. We had included the possibility of being SPONTANEOUS in deciding where to go if it rained, because we planned to walk. But in case we didn’t get to, we were prepared!

Being a middle child, maybe this is what it’s about for me, a constant melding and co-existence of the stable and the new, the tried and tested injected with occasional joie de vivre, the satisfaction and gratitude of something working our as planned (or better) against arriving somewhere two hours later, but your favourite cafe is still open, and you get dessert on the house because your group is friendly and happy about seeing each other.

I know that the French and German way of life will both stay as they are. I know that I will continue feeling as if a bus or a subway train arriving on time as per my prior checking online is a present just for me. I know that (sometimes) it’s OK to stop thinking about time as such and live in the moment. And occasionally I will prepare dinner as a three-course meal. After that I will memorize the platform number printed on my train ticket AND check it on the information screen in the station.

Becoming German: My First Packstation

Ever since I started to shop online, which actually did happen when I moved to Germany (late, but happy bloomer), I have become my own post office. There are so many stories I can tell about recovering packages delivered while I was at work.

Going to the real post office (and you are lucky if you have one nearby) after getting the nice notification in your mailbox is, of course, a conventional route that doesn’t make for a particularly spectacular story, unless your nice friends patiently listen to you chanting “I picked up my package!” like a five-year-old or you relate amusing things you heard while waiting in line.

Then there’s the neighbors, who you don’t want to inconvenience, but you also sometimes sign for their packages and it’s just a part of modern life. There are also the shops downstairs where the staff might be nice enough to hold on to your boxes. There might be an office that reacts slightly grumpily when you finally do manage to come by, so you feel a little guilty since they have signed for your stuff multiple times and leave them a box of chocolates. And there’s the notification about your package being dropped off at a place you never go to and you have to find out how to get there. Time is running out, your package will soon be sent back and the opening hours aren’t too accommodating either. All in the name of consumerism and not wanting to enter an actual shop after getting almost addicted to all the psychological comforts online shopping offers.

It was time to get organized, I thought one morning, or even more organized – because make no mistake, I was a freaking good post office. But I did not want to be dependent on so many different receiving channels anymore. So after asking around and doing some diligent reading in German, I signed up for the so-called Packstation, already fantasizing about the changes this would bring to my life.

As with most things nowadays, you have to get an online account first – cue additional emails to customer service about not getting the confirmation email and therefore not being able to proceed with my enthusiastic readiness to conform, despite encouraging reminders from the service that I had “only one step left” to complete. This step was indeed finally completed. After that I had to physically go to the post office. And after that I was waiting for an envelope in the mail. Just when I was starting to wonder, it arrived, containing a shiny new gold-coloured plastic card. With new numbers on it that I had to identify.

After my first initial nervous excitement was over, I realized one very important thing – I had no clue how to use a Packstation or what it looked like, despite the instructions included with my envelope. This information was, of course, easy to research, and it was also comforting to confirm that there were other people before me who had googled “Wie nutze ich eine Packstation”.

With shaking fingers I placed my first ever order to be delivered to this new hiding place. The package arrived. I breathed out. And then I jumped again when I got a text message saying “Your package has been at the Packstation for TWO DAYS.” OK, I’m going. I successfully located the Packstation – two yellow walls of identical cells row upon row and a slot in the middle of one where I was to swipe my magic golden card. The touchscreen in front of me was very friendly and very clear. My only moment of panic came when I heard a click and a distinct sound of something opening behind me. Just as I thought I was afraid to turn around and search for fear this would CHANGE EVERYTHING IN FRONT OF ME FOREVER, the screen told me “The box is located behind you.” I turned around and saw one little door ajar. The sun was shining, there was almost no one around and it was all like something out of Chronicles of Narnia or Labyrinth.

I’m a fan now.