Archive for July, 2011

Out of the fish bowl, into the sea
July 26, 2011

Leaving the big Berlin city behind, I spent the last week in a small village in Southern Germany, thinking about all the fun things I could be doing (sailing, hiking) if it weren’t for the weather (raining, sucking). All was not lost, however, since the time away from Berlin meant I had to really rely on my German skills to get my daily Brötchen, as opposed to just pointing and flailing like I normally do in my neighborhood Turkish bakery. Turkish immigrants and hipsters predominantly inhabit Kreuzberg, my little corner of Berlin, meaning my German skills needn’t be very good, as long as my wardrobe is sufficiently flea market chic.

While down in Überlingen I somehow ended up at a Klassentreffen, or class reunion, in the middle of a water logged field. Since everyone else was German, I decided to blend in a little, so I pulled my boots out of the mud enough to offer a few firm handshakes and “wie gehts?” to those around me. All was going swell until a rather short German fellow decided to make up for his stature by squeezing my hand unbelievably hard, causing me to cry out in pain. This may have been what gave me away as an outsider, though it might also have been because of the thirty people present I was the only one not to have attended high school with them. Possibly also my inability to speak German. Or maybe the fact that I threw a piece of cheese on the BBQ next to thirty bratwurst sausages (anyone else for a vegetarian delicacy, ja?) The evening turned out to be a resounding success for practicing German, and a total failure for blending in. Na, ja.

In an attempt to learn more German I spent some time babysitting die kleine Marta, a blond Polish/German hybrid, who, at 3, is learning to speak just like I am. Impressed by the amount she’d learned since I’d seen her only a few months before, I decided to imitate her learning style, which seemed to include repeating everything others said, giggling tremendously, and eating boogers. Our swing set study sessions were going great until she started using vocabulary beyond my years, telling me I had a “sehr große Popo.”

Having to use a dictionary to learn that a 3-year-old just told me I had a big bum, I returned not long after, discouraged, to Berlin. I’m back in Kreuzberg, pointing madly at croissants in Turkish bakeries, hoping their buttery goodness won’t all go to my derrière, and sporting sufficiently bohemian looking Ray-bans. In a big city neighborhood where everyone is as foreign and confused as I am, I fit right in, in spite of my alleged sehr große Popo.

My accusser

How to be polite in Germany
July 15, 2011

German’s have a reputation for being rude. While it’s impossible to know exactly why, it’s certainly due to a number of factors, including their over-politeness, formal mannerisms, inclination toward invading neighbouring countries, so on and so forth.

In contrast, Canadians have a reputation for being polite. Having spent some time living abroad I’ve come to totally disagree with this stereotype. Canadian’s aren’t polite. Canadians are friendly. Very friendly. So are Americans. But smiling and chatting with the check-out lady at the supermarket is not a sign of politeness. For Germans, our over-fondness for the word “sorry” is symptomatic of a lack of determination when pushing through crowds, rather than any real sense of courtesy.

Indeed, for Germans, our habit of showering everyone with faint praise (Keep it up! You’re doing great! You’ll hit it next time lil’’ slugger!) doesn’t show politeness, and certainly doesn’t help little Tommy get any better at baseball. According to comedic ambassador Henning Wehn, it “indicates shiftiness, insincerity, and lack of spine or purpose.”

German’s have no time for this ridiculous friendliness and praise. They’re too busy observing rigid social and linguistic customs that ensure everyone knows their place in society. Like French, which has both a informal you (tu) and formal you (vous), German maintains a distinction between how one speaks to little Tommy (du) and how one speaks to Herr Boss (Sie). Indeed, in the unlikely event that your German university professor has more than one PhD, you may end up in the very awkward position of having to refer to her as “Frau Professor Doctor Doctor Meyer.”

Let us not forget that English once held this distinction between the informal thou and formal you, but gave up on it somewhere in the 17th century due to confusion as to how to address one’s barmaiden after a few too many swigs of ale.

Ask "How are you" here and expect a real response.

Unlike French, which uses “vous” as a sign of respect, “Sie” is used to create distance between speakers. When I asked one boss why he Sie-d an employee he’ been working with for years, and with whom he had shared many a meal and business trip, he insisted he wouldn’t be able to ever to criticize her if they called each other by their first names and used “du” (for calling someone by Sie must be accompanied by a Frau / Herr relationship).

While after the annual office Christmas party in Canada you might be worried about facing your colleagues after getting a little too hammered, this situation is additionally awkward in Germany, where you may have inadvertently started “du”ing a colleague in your drunken state.

The German’s aren’t rude; they’re just overly polite, stuck in an antiquated language system that forces them to observe rigid social hierarchies. So next time you’re over here, be prepared to share a firm handshake, and a steady gaze. And don’t try any of that ridiculous French cheek kissing stuff.

Royals dazzle Yellowknife crowd
July 5, 2011

The freezing crowd gathered in Yellowknife hardly needed more reason to dislike the royals, but got one anyhow – the unilingual Princess peppered her speech with Aboriginal languages, noting both the inhospitable climate and lack of chic boutiques in the territories in her speech in Inuvialuktun. “Sorry about that time people form my country came and sort of stole your country” she said, switching back to English, “I do hope we can all be friends, though.”

Greeting the crowd, her husband wore a cream coloured suit by his favourite British designer, Nyles Berger, with matching tie and shoes. Standing on the sidelines, his attire was highly fashionable, though not particularly functional. Many noted his modest diamond encrusted maple leaf cuff links.

“It really shows how in tune he is with Canada, and how sensitive he is to Canadian culture” said a woman who had recently received a hockey puck in the head.

The crowd really erupted when Catherine ended her speech: “William and I are deeply honoured. We have been here 2 hours and we’ve already sensed the extraordinary potential of this region,” she said, ignorant of the economic challenges facing the permanently frozen Northern badlands.

The Princess then offered some concrete suggestions as to how to improve the quality of life in such a cold climate, “perhaps you could try serving tea in thermoses?” added the princess, her new husband nodding devotedly beside her.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge then boarded their magic chariot and went back to their castle on an island, across the ocean, far, far away – heaps of taxpayer money lining their pockets. They are expected to tour the colonies again soon.

Here is the original article, though after waiting eight paragraphs to find out what Kate was wearing, one can hardly consider that “journalism”: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/europe/the-royal-wedding/politics-and-protocol/prince-william-dazzles-yellowknife-crowd-with-a-nod-to-local-languages/article2087118/