Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wo kommst du?

Spring sprang here in Deutschland, bringing with it flowers, leaves, and sudden congestion on the sidewalks of Bonn. I arrived in this city in early October last year and have vague memories of a few sidewalk cafes, but the last few weeks have ushered in a profusion of stackable chairs and tables that are somehow consistently occupied as the clear sky warms the contented masses.
With the warm weather, I decided to start taking walks in the middle of the day to commiserate with the university neighborhood and ease the digestion of over-sauced mensa (otherwise known as cafeteria) food. Note: The mensa is a State subsidized, pan-German institution that serves lunch and dinner at a cheap price (2 Euro for a “vegetarian” option, though the lack of meat is no indication of its nutritional quality). Every entrée, regardless of ingredients or ethnic heritage, comes with a dollop of sauce. Lasagna arrives tricked out with some kind of tasteless creamy concoction and fried fish is usually swimming in a pool of tartar sauce.

A few weeks ago I decided to stop for coffee as I walked. I sidled up to a newspaper stand near the institute and waited for the attendant to appear. She exploded into view: Brünnhilde’s mother with a brassy voice and braided blond locks.

Me: Eine Café, bitte. (A coffee, please)
Her: Ah, wo kommst du? (Ah, where do you come from?)
Me (unprepared to do anything but take my cup of Joe): Uh, The…den U.S.A.
Her: “Yes we can!” We love O-ba-ma.
Me: Yeah (unsure which language to use). Ich auch…so do I.
Her: But, I worry for him, that he doesn’t last very long.

This seems to be a common concern among Germans, and maybe Europeans more generally. They all think our president will be assassinated imminently. Either they know something they aren’t telling the secret service or the tolerance of American citizens doesn’t count for much in their book. I blame the music the kids were listening to twenty years ago, and thus the Germans are listening to now.

Me: Well, I think he’s protected…Tschüs
Her: I hope, too…Tschüs

This conversation didn’t disturb me for its content, but for being called out as a foreigner. Somehow in three words I made it clear I didn’t belong. I’ve been here a while now. When do I stop emitting un-German vibes? Apparently not on this particular day because...

I went for a run that same evening in the hills near the institute. I got into the groove, and didn’t turn around until I started to get hungry. By the time I had changed, it was nearly 8:30 and I was starving. Instead of riding the tram home and delaying my grumbling stomach’s satisfaction even longer, I walked by a kebab stand near my lab for a falafel pita.

Me: Falafel…sandwich, bitte. (The word “sandwich” was on the menu)
Him (a middle-aged Turkish man): You come from America?
Me: Uh (unprepared for this question for the second time in one day), yes I do.
Him: We like America very much.
Me: I do, too. I also like Germany.
Him: I am not sure about Germany.
Me: Um…Danke (taking my dinner).

Again, there are some issues to deal with in this conversation, such as why Germany is not this man’s favorite country, and what can be done to make his home more…homey, but the real issue was, for the second time in one day, my German efforts were quashed by a service industry employee.

I think I gave myself away by pronouncing sandwich as I normally would instead of Germanizing it with a “S-ah-nt-vish.” Or I could just look like a stereotypical American searching for coffee and falafel with a slight suspicion that my order will not be understood and I will not produce the correct change from my pocket without looking at the coins.

Regardless, I have some work to do before someone asks “Wo kommst du?” and they’re mildly surprised when I supply “Cincinnati, Ohio.” I have a sneaking suspicion flying pigs will be required. Fortunately, I know a city where I can find some…

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