January 3, 2009

This German life

Here are a few scenes to give you a feel for (my) daily German life.

Vignette 1: Marktkauf

I’ve already blogged about Tengelmann, an expensive German grocery store with unhelpful (by American standards) employees. But to be fair, the rudeness you encounter at Tengelmann is the higher class sort of rudeness, or the, ‘Oh, very well, if I must,’ sort of rudeness. Today we'll take a look at Marktkauf, an enormous supermarket with reasonable prices that also has clothing and household items. Marktkauf offers its own special brand of rudeness.

Yesterday the whole family headed for Marktkauf to stock up our sadly empty larder. The Jambalaya I made earlier this week tapped out our provisions and thank goodness K liked it because it was pretty much all we had. Also, next week Ralf is headed for the mother ship in California (a.k.a., our company’s headquarters) and a friend of mine asked me to buy her some German make up. So after we had loaded our food into the cart I browsed the cosmetics section with no luck and the kids were getting tired.

Seeing a Marktkauf employee go by I waved and said, ‘Entschuldigung, haben Sie Jade?’ ('Excuse me, do you have Jade?'). Not my best German sentence but perfectly understandable. Without breaking her stride she replied, ‘Schaun Sie. Ich hab’ auch keine Ahnung,’ ('You look, I don’t have any idea either'). Alrighty then. When I stared at her she sighed wearily and called out to a colleague: ‘Oi! Haben wir Jade?’ ('Hey! Do we have Jade?') and I was escorted by the colleague to the appropriate aisle with much hair tossing and eye rolling.

Ralf thinks I exaggerate about German rudeness but the fact is that he rarely encounters it. Cashiers, bank clerks, mechanics, travel agents, doctors, handymen and everyone else immediately size up his height and maleness, register his boyish charm and confidence and for all I know smell his testosterone and suddenly all these helpful people materialize out of the woodwork. When they see me coming, they take in my shortness (5’8’’ is nothing here) and register my femaleness, mousy looks and lack of confidence that I will be helped, as well as various linguistic imperfections that mark me as foreign, and write me off as someone they don’t have to do any extra work for. Of course not everyone is like this but I encounter it a lot and remember I’m an LA girl so I grew up coddled in the milk of insincere human kindness. On rare occasions when I felt my children’s lives to be in danger I have successfully imposed my will on the odd reluctant German but you really have to be in the zone.

I sometimes wonder if New Yorkers have an easier time?

Vignette 2: ‘Ich moechte Deutsch reden!’

I remember when I was first learning German it took about 8 months of intense language training before anyone would bother speaking to me in German, even if I spoke German to them. I would say something in German, even something as simple as ordering a beer, and the answer would invariably come in English. Finally after 8 months I’d had enough and vowed that the next person I talked to would speak German to me. As it happens the next person I talked to was Claus, a very sweet German consultant I worked with, one of those good-looking, ambiguously gay types that always marry a supermodel and have three kids.

Anyway, I asked him something in German and he answered in English and I responded in German and he came back in English and so on and so forth until finally, blushing with the strain of continuing to speak German to someone who was ignoring my efforts I glared at him and said, ‘Claus, if you don’t speak German to me I’m going to smack you!’ He looked surprised, as if he hadn’t even noticed me speaking German, then shrugged and said in a kind voice (in English, of course), ‘Well, I would, Laura, only your German is so terrible.’ This was a long time ago and there did eventually come a day when Claus and I switched to German but it left its mark.

Vignette 3: Threading the Bobbin

Now that I have a sewing machine it is expected that I can use it to sew things. And to a limited extent I can – I just made a third pillowcase, this time with ribbon trim! But now I’m starting to get helpful suggestions from various people about what I ought to sew next, including my husband. While in California for a conference not too long ago Ralf and I bought a ski suit for L. Although it’s supposed to fit a six year old and she just turned three it’s a bit short so Ralf asked me to pluck out the Velcro patches on the shoulders and move them up a bit to give it more length. I reached for the suit but he was strangely reluctant to let go of it. ‘Do you think you can do it?’ ‘Well,’ I answered honestly, ‘it does mean threading the bobbin.’

Threading and re-attaching the bobbin is still something of a challenge for me but I gamely reached for suit again, which continued to be withheld. ‘Do you know what a seam ripper is? Do you have one?’ he asked, holding the suit away from my outstretched hands. Well that was just insulting – after 4 sewing classes I can’t do zippers but I know what a seam ripper is! I grabbed the suit and glared at him.

Two triumphant hours later I had successfully moved two Velcro patches a whole inch.

I can't believe how much I rule!


  1. I enjoyed this. I lived almost twenty years in Germany. When I came home from shopping I would remark if someone was nice. Now I live in a very friendly place. A couple of times a year I remark about someone being rude.

  2. I enjoyed this. I lived almost twenty years in Germany. When I came home from shopping I would remark if someone was nice. Now I live in a very friendly place. A couple of times a year I remark about someone being rude.


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