Friday, September 26, 2008

Deutsch. Alles klar?

Six weeks ago I needed a phone. We had not been assigned user names for the Marburg University network and I really wanted to call home. I had promised I would let my loved ones know that I hadn't missed my flight out of Charlotte and I hadn't made an emergency evacuation of my plane somewhere over the Atlantic and was currently holed up near a glacier in Greenland. I wanted them to know Marburg was lovely, even with only a few tumultuous hours of sleep and the other Fulbrighters were very cool people.

So I asked Jason, a graduate student from Northwestern in German History, and someone who apparently knew how this country worked, "Where can I get a cell phone?"

Jason helpfully supplied, "Anywhere you see a Tchibo sign they sell phones and phone cards."

This was seconded by Benjamin, a near fluent speaker of German, "Yeah, it's kinda weird but you go into the store and they sell coffee, pastries and cell phones."

Okay. I had seen several Tchibo signs and I had even seen them associated with bakeries. It did seem weird, but I was in Germany and had no idea what strange customs these German-folk might practice. As I climbed the hill back up to the dorms, I noticed a bakery called Baker Müller which had "Tchibo" prominently displayed next to their business hours. The next morning I would go, get myself a pastry and get myself a phone. That night I rehearsed my lines, "Guten Tag. Ich möchte ein Hany, bitte." (Good day. I would like a cell phone, please.)

The day dawned ripe for practicing German. I strode into Baker Müller, looked the woman in the bright yellow polo behind the counter in the eye and politely asked for a phone. She was roughly 45 years old with short blond hair and an expression that told me she might have just sniffed something rank. After uttering my line she looked positively repulsed. A low warning siren started echoing in the back of my brain.

I then noticed a second, younger Bakerine at Baker Müller. She was about 17 with a perpetually curled lip and a surly expression that told me she both hated her yellow polo and the smell of croissants in the morning. She gaped at at me like I might have just shot her dog. Neither of them spoke. The warning siren in my brain grew louder.

Had I mispronounced my request? As I cast about, literally at a loss for words (I only knew about eight) I noticed there was nothing vaguely resembling electronic equipment anywhere in the establishment except the coffeemaker and the cash register. Maybe they kept the phones in the back?

I then walked to the blue sign in the window, pointed at it and said, "Haben Sie Tchibo?" (Do you have Tchibo?) The older woman emerged from behind the counter, taking the careful steps of a person approaching roadkill that might not be completely expired. She squinted and did the last thing I needed at that moment. She started rapidly German. I started blankly, a deer-caught in the headlights, unable to move or respond. The siren was blaring. I aborted my mission.

I literally left in the middle of her monologue. I spun on my heel and scampered down the street without so much as a "Tchuss!" I still didn't have a phone.

It turns out Tchibo is a company that makes a variety of products ranging from phones to jackets, including coffee. Baker Müller brews this coffee but does not carry these phones and never will. What I did was the equivalent of walking into Home Depot and rattling off, "Hello, I would like a Pizza."

The worst part of the experience was that the next day as the Fulbrighters rolled to our first day of class, we stopped at that Tchibo supporting bakery. I was afraid to enter the place of my most recent Deutsch-slapping. When I got to the counter I noticed the repulsed woman and the surly girl were both behind the counter and they remembered me. Instead of good-naturedly smiling at me, they just stared as I ordered a coffee and Choco-croissant, products that they actually carry.

But that was six weeks ago. Last Tuesday I took my German final where I was asked to write a letter to "a friend" (my brother in this case) explaining what I was up to in Deutschland. I used present, future and past tense. I used subordinate clauses. I used the imperative. I was able to produce the Dative and Accusative cases. I still don't know much German, but I think it's safe to say I'm on my way to finally having a living language under my belt.

I am forever indebted to Mrs. Fogerty, my eighth grade English teacher who drilled her students on Grammar until we could diagram every sentence that crossed our paths no matter how obscure the subject or indirect the object. Because of that rigorous understanding of German, I was confidently able to figure out how to use the dative case and the accusative.

Then there's Latin Jack Emmett. When I took off for Germany I was ready to pitch everything I knew about Latin out the window as I entered into a Germanic rather than Romantic language. As it turns out, German and Latin are pretty close buddies, sharing a similar construction of nouns and verbs. Crazy. German and English share a lot of vocabulary and Latin and German share a lot of grammatical rules. On Wednesday I held forth in class on the similarities between German from the Middle Ages and Chaucer's English. The problem is when I really get excited about a topic, I get ahead of myself. I forget the words I have learned and stumble through a mix of English and German. I guess I should adopt a more stoic German attitude and my language skills will improve.

Today I went to the train station and muscled my way through purchasing a train ticket. I spoke to the guy behind the ticket window who reminded me of the Russian Library Bouncer and got a ticket headed for Bonn at the right time on Tuesday without dropping a word or missing a beat.

I should note that as I write this I am in a cafè in Marburg. Two gentlemen with shillelaghs, wearing three-piece suits and top-hats are trolling the room. One just gave me a lengthy explanation of...something. It made the guy at the next table over laugh and get out a 5 Euro note. I stared blankly. Someone else just laughed and got out money. I don't know who they are or what they're up to. Yeah, it was a good six weeks of language instruction, but I have the German vocabulary of a five-year old.

The title of this post is "German. All is clear?" A play on words because "Deutsch" means "Clearly" and "Deutschland" is the "Land where people speak clearly." It's still not clear to me. There are cultural quirks, such as cell phone shopping and men with top-hats that I have yet to fully sort out, but my six weeks in Marburg have certainly given me the chance to take a plunge and try to sort this place - and this language out. Even if it meant going to getting slapped around a bit.

I hope you've learned a thing or two about a new culture and haven't to run away from it but instead stood your ground. If you have, know that I admire you for it. If you've taught someone something new about your culture recently, I hope you didn't took at them like something a dog left behind on the sidewalk. If you did, you should work at Baker Müller.


Deutsch Heuteworte: Sohn - Son (masculine), Tochter - Daughter (feminine)

In Mittelalter English, das Worte "Sons" und "Daughter" haben "Sohnah" und "Tau-k-ter" ausgesprägt. Deutsch ist sehr gleich. Fetzig.

In Medieval English the words "Sons" and "Daughter" were pronounced "Sohnah" (this is exactly like German) and "Taukter" (also exactly like German). German is very similar. Crazy.

I really want to take a class on the history of this language. Maybe when I retire and can take classes for free... The monastery come University building that is the Academic heart of Marburg.


AML said...

dude, THANK YOU.

i always thought tchibo was just coffee, because i only saw it at backer müller. then i find one here that sells clothes? i thought to myself, "well damn. leipzig IS weird."

Carolyn said...

I can't believe you've been away six weeks already! I'm glad you waited to post this story until you could contrast it with the experience of successfully buying a train ticket. And I don't blame you for not understanding the man in the top hat - it sounds like something that wouldn't even make a whole lot of sense here.