Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Danke Schön

Danke schön, darling, danke schön. Thank you for all the joy and pain.

Joy and pain, indeed. Natasha has informed me that she plans to start taking German lessons. While I admire her desire to expose herself to a new language and raise her cultural awareness, I’m not exactly sure how I feel about her choice of German.

I suppose my attitude stems from my first, and only, experience with Germany, which came while I was studying in Paris during college. While most of our friends were wisely spending their winter breaks in southern Spain or Greece, my friends Mark, Brian and I decided to spend our vacation lounging on the sunny beaches of… Dresden. I can’t remember exactly why we chose Dresden as one of our stops, but I seem to recall that Brian was a big Kurt Vonnegut fan, and I think Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse Five while he was a POW in Dresden. Clearly an excellent logic to use when selecting your winter holiday hotspot.

In any case, our entire trip could be summed up in one sentence: Germany yelled at us for an entire week.

We started our trip in Frankfurt, which would have been great if we had been attending the dental convention, but it’s not exactly what you might call a tourist town. Particularly in January. While in Frankfurt, I bought my first and only souvenirs: a seven-foot long wool scarf and matching wool socks. It was close to sub-zero weather the entire week we were there, so the three of us spent most of our time trying to keep warm. At one point, we contemplated eating balls of suet from a bird feeder to try and keep our body temperatures up.

I’ll say this – I’m certain I would’ve enjoyed our trip much more if at least one of the three of us had known how to speak even a word of German. Fortunately, pretty much everyone under the age of 30 in Germany speaks flawless English. Our first encounter with the multilingual German youth came on the subway in Frankfurt. A teenage German boy heard us speaking English and said, “Excuse me, but vy vould choo come to Chermany in vinter?”

Because ve are, I mean we are morons, that’s why.

This nice German teen taught us how to say “Excuse me” in German, because we had a lot of trouble getting through the herds of people in the subway station. We never quite mastered the actual expression, but Mark noted that it sounded a lot like “chewing gum.” So, for the rest of the trip we screamed, “Chewing gum! Chewing gum!” whenever we had to cut through a crowd, and amazingly, it worked like a charm.

But then again, we also found that in Germany, if you say anything loudly enough and with enough authority in your voice, people figure out what you need. We learned how to count to three in German, so whenever we’d go to a bakery or a restaurant or a store, we would just scream “DREI!” and then point to whatever we wanted. Yes, this did help perpetuate the ugly American stereotype, but when you’re hungry, diplomacy takes a back seat. And we would at least throw in a shout of “BITTE!” and “DANKE!” for good measure.

Our next stop was Munich, which I must admit is really worth a trip to Germany on its own. That was by far the highlight of our trip, although it still continued our trend of being yelled at throughout an entire country. I’ve just never had the experience of having so many different people yell at me for such a long period of time.

The conductor on the train screamed at me because I forgot to give her my blanket earlier. The curator at the modern art museum yelled at me because I was leaning too close to a painting. The director of the youth hostel hollered at all three of us because we got into the wrong breakfast line. The manager at the Frankfurt Burger King screeched at us because we were drinking Jagermeister in the restaurant at noon after only buying a small Coke to split among the three of us. Okay, so maybe that one we deserved. But you see my point. Maybe it’s just that no matter what you say in German, it sounds like yelling.

Being on a tight student budget, we were hoping to eat as inexpensively as possible. But of course, we had to experience the true Bavarian beer hall, so we pooled our Deutschmarks together to buy what we hoped would be an amazing meal.

From our Let’s Go! Germany guidebook, we knew the German word for sausage, so armed with that knowledge, we felt we were ready for anything. What we didn’t anticipate, though, was that pretty much every food item in the entire country contains some sort of sausage. Veal sausage, pork sausage, blood sausage, beef sausage, duck sausage. There were fried sausage patties, boiled sausage links, sausage pancakes stuffed with sausage, veal sausage pastas with duck sausage cream sauce. For breakfast we were given liver sausage spread for our toast. No jam? How about just plain butter? No? Okay, pass the sausage, bitte. I can’t prove it, but I may have even eaten a sausage filled cookie. Fortunately, I’m told that Jagermeister serves as a natural blood thinner, so none of us suffered a major coronary before our Eurrail passes expired.

When we got to the beer hall, we couldn’t understand anything on the menu, except sausage. So of course, to play it safe, we ordered one sausage. Then we decided to make our other selections based on price. I excitedly pointed out some really inexpensive items to Brian and Mark, but got an angry look from the waiter when I tried to order them.

He just shook his head and screamed at me, “NEIN! NEIN! KINDER! KINDER!” and held his hand about three feet off the ground. As I looked back at the menu and saw a cartoon drawing of a little boy in lederhosen holding a lollipop, I quickly understood that I had ordered from the children’s menu.

I was now able to add Bavarian waiters to the growing list of Germans who had yelled at me.

Quickly recovering from our embarrassment, we decided to throw caution to the wind and just pick two random entrees for dinner. We picked one that sounded kind of familiar, and another that was the longest word on the menu. Mark looked up at the waiter and innocently said, “Is this a lot of food?” The waiter chuckled to himself and walked away. The three of us were working on polishing off the colossal beers that had arrived earlier, when the waiter returned with our order. He set down one plate with a four-inch long blood sausage, a cup of broth with one dumpling in it, and a bowl of green peas.

Then he walked off, muttering something that sounded suspiciously like “stupiden amerikanens.”

Now, although we were still a bit in shock from the ridiculous assortment of food in front of us, we all agreed that we had never tasted peas quite as amazing as these. I had also never eaten peas one at a time, but when you have just spent the last of your cash, your senses become heightened, and you begin to appreciate the little things in life.

Needless to say, after a quick stop at the cash machine, we were ever so happy to stumble across a McDonald’s, where we promptly ordered DREI! Biggen Mackens. I got a little misty eyed and homesick as the special sauce dripped all over my wool scarf. He would never admit it, but I was almost certain that I heard Brian humming “God Bless America” as he ate his fries.

So I guess maybe it’s a good thing that Natasha is taking German. This way, if I ever go back, I'll be able to bring her along so she can translate the steady stream of insults lobbed at me by frustrated waiters and angry curators. But it’s only a matter of time before Nat starts screaming at me in tap class: “NEIN! NEIN mit da shufflen ballen changen!