German Lessons

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It’s weird experience, falling in love with a place that isn’t your own. You feel grounded and, in a way, “at home”, but you also don’t feel completely settled, knowing that you’ll always be a little bit alien and detached and out of the loop. Sometimes, I’ll sit on the tram or in a cafe and realise I’ve no idea what anybody around me is talking about. Which is fine – it’s like being abroad anywhere, I suppose – but the thing is, I’m not on holiday. The foreign voices stopped sounding foreign after a while and just blurred into the background as part of the hum of everyday life, but sometimes I’m on my own, moody, and looking at my friends’ Instagram Stories and I realise that I don’t know when I’ll next be in a pub with them talking about crap TV over a Sunday roast. Ugh. Being an expat is odd.

But I chose to move here, and I love Germany most of the time. It’s a beautiful, occasionally bizarre place to be, as hopefully the following points will capture. Here’s what I’ve learnt from a year in Germany – mostly things I wish I’d known when I arrived, as it would’ve made the transition phase much smoother…

The supermarket shop is a sprint, not a marathon

We have Aldi and Lidl in England, so we kind of understand the German Way of grocery shopping: whizz through the checkout, pay, throw your things into the trolley, bag it up afterwards in the area near the exit. It turns out that British Aldi and Lidl are watered-down iterations of the German OGs. Everyone in Germany dawdles in the supermarket (presumably being v. German and thorough when weighing up their dinner options, I don’t know), but the country’s famed efficiency comes into its own at the checkout, where the cashiers throw things past the scanner at a speed that, surely, makes them unscannable. But, alas, no – they’ve dealt with your weekly food shop in all of a minute, and you haven’t even had time to get your purse or reusable bags out. Never go to the supermarket if you’re feeling on edge, because the ruthlessness of it – and all of the people behind you in the queue staring at you, waiting for you to move the fuck on – will break you.

Everyone speaks English – and they’d probably rather you did as well

Once I started language lessons and built up a bit of chat from having the same interactions in shops and restaurants, I decided I would try to do better with German. I’d order breakfast in Deutsch, ask for the bill in Deutsch, understand and give yes/no answers to questions such as “do you need a bag?”, “are you a member of [X loyalty-points-scheme]?”, “do you want a receipt?" and I got by. But, occasionally, someone would go off-script and ask me something like, “would you like the shoes packed separately?” and it would throw me off, thus exposing my Englishness. Then the other person would happily speak to me in perfect English. My pronunciation tends to give the game away, so I often get shut down, and forced to switch to my mother tongue, as soon as I attempt to order a Butterbrezn. Pretty much everyone speaks brilliant English in Munich and enjoys showing it off so, while it’s good to have the basics down to get you through day-to-day life, you can afford to be lazy if you prefer.

The scarf is everything

As a Brit, I love a good scarf. Is there anything nicer than a bit of wool draped around your neck when it’s a bit nippy? I think not. Cosy accessorising is a treat when the weather calls for it. You know what I don’t get? The Summer Scarf. To me, it’s an oxymoron – “as good as a chocolate fireguard,” as my dad would say – but in Germany it’s legit. For every conceivable climate and occasion, your German friend will present you with the scarf to suit. It’s not, I’ve been told, just a fashion thing. If you have a cold or a sore throat, for example, there’s no need to take painkillers, because The Scarf will prevent and/or cure all. You know a German is poorly when they’re rocking an Indoor Scarf and knocking back herbal teas. Which brings me to my next point…

USING PAINKILLERS IS A SIGN OF WEAKNESS

Anyone who’s watched a Netflix documentary on Big Pharma – or hung out with people who smoke a lot of weed – knows about the pitfalls of pharmaceutical drugs. Maybe they’re a scam, and of course you’re not going to die if you battle through your menstrual cramps/headache without painkillers, but what’s wrong with taking the edge off with a couple of ibuprofen? You’re an adult, after all! Or, in the eyes of your most neurotic German pals, an addict. This NYT op-ed neatly sums up the German attitude to healthcare in this regard but, to put it simply, they see painkillers as a last resort. Herbal teas, scarves and well-timed Spezis are everything.

Staring contests aren’t just for kids

Stare at someone on the Tube and you’ll get a slap; stare at someone on the U-Bahn and they’ll stare right back. During my first few weeks in Germany, my (already high) self-consciousness levels peaked, and I spent a great deal of time wondering if I had something on my face, as I felt that everyone was staring into my soul on the reg. A couple of months in, I no longer even wondered why, as I sat innocuously on the train to work, I felt that squirming sensation that only comes from being observed. Because every time I looked up, the person opposite me – usually an older woman, a man, a small child, sadly very rarely a hot boy – would be scrutinising me. The funny thing is, when you return the eye contact, it’s very rarely broken. I have learnt that a roll of the eyes or a frown often gives the starer the hint. The Germans are shameless, steel-willed people and, as an awkward Brit, any attempt to stare back – throwing you back to the days of doing staring contests at school – will inevitably result in a loss on your part. Oh, and never smile politely if you inadvertently make eye contact with a guy; in this country, it’s basically a non-verbal indication that you want to have their babies.

Public toilets are often cleaner than your own toilet

Germ-phobes, rejoice: you can use public loos in Germany without fearing for your life. To use most of them, you have to pay (either a nice attendant – who’ll sometimes have a chat to you and tell you your dress looks pretty – or a machine), which means that, nine times out of ten, they’re supremely clean, and there’s always loo roll, soap and paper towels. German efficiency at its finest!

Cash is king

My German bank sent me a push notification recently letting me know that my account was now compatible with Apple and Google Pay. It’s a shame that I probably won’t ever be able to use it in Munich, because so many places don’t even accept cards. And sometimes, when they do, they’ll only take EC cards (I’ve no idea either) and my MasterCard gets declined. Kind of annoying when you’ve just committed to buying stuff or paying the bill in a restaurant and then have to run off, tail between your legs, to the nearest cashpoint (always miles away) while the waiter rolls their eyes. Maybe the tap-and-go lifestyle will segue its way over here eventually, but for the moment it’s definitively Not a Thing.

SMALL TALK ISN’T A THING

Germans get a bad rap for being humourless and, for an outsider trying to adjust to their many unspoken societal rules, it can seem that way. My sad realisation after a year of interaction with the locals inappropriately: Germans just don’t believe in small talk or faffing about, British style, with empty pleasantries. I’m still adjusting, because I see hidden meanings in everything and take every brusque answer to a question as personal attack, but most people here are very pleasant and kind when you actually get to know them. They just won’t apologise for walking into you in the street or cutting in front of you in a “queue”.

SUNDAY SILENCE IS GOLDEN

I write this from Munich, where Sundays are a holy day wherein nothing is open and the streets are empty, so this point is probably Bavaria-specific but, guys, you really need to shut up on a Sunday. I’ve been told off for recycling my bottles, and also asked by one of my neighbours if I, bitte, could not hoover my apartment on this day designed for rest and relaxation. The intolerance for noise is generally taken seriously come nighttime, too, where it’s completely fine to call the police if someone’s bass-heavy music is bothering you during the wee hours of a Saturday morning. I can get on board with this and, recently, I’ve found myself wanting to snitch on my neighbours for having house parties at the weekend, only to realise that I’m becoming Germanised.