I came to Germany without a coat

I came to Germany without a coat

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"Thanks to the international sign-language for 'Does my bum look big in this?', I left happily with a hooded coat I could take a wolf to visit Grandma in." Expatica reader Anna Cigolini comes to terms with shopping in Germany as a foreigner.

I came to Germany without a coat.

Somewhere, very deep, in the back of my mind, I knew snow played a role in German winters. But what's cold for a girl who wears spaghetti-strap singlet tops to barbecues in the middle of an Australian winter? No – mind over matter should do it. And so, poor planning led to my first, and rather hasty, shopping experience in Germany…

At this point, 'Ich spreche nur ein bisschen Deutsch', or even, 'Sprechen Sie Englisch?' were but combinations of incomprehensible grunts and vowel-sounds. But I figured this shouldn't be too much of a hindrance – I had my boy hanging off one arm, and my credit card in a handbag hanging off the other.

Perplexed and deserted

Having been warned of every possible German stereotype before leaving Australia, I was told that this would never happen. But as I was standing in the coat section of a store, intimidated, perplexed and deserted (the boy was checking out jeans on the other side of the store) the unthinkable happened. I'm not really sure how - she just snuck up on me, without warning, a string of unfamiliar syllables oozing from her lips.

In hindsight, she was probably asking if she could help me. At the time, she was telling me that I was clearly not stylish enough to exist in the shop, let alone the country, and would I mind kindly removing my person to the other side of the nearest border.



 This may look like a simple clothes shop to you, but to expats it's a nightmare 


Bolting for safety

She looked at me. I looked at her. She looked at me. I looked at her. She looked at me, and then I bolted, straight across to the men's section where I hid in the safety of the boy's shadow. His hysterically laughing shadow.

In the end, she was more embarrassed at not speaking any English than annoyed at my undeutschness. And thanks to the international sign-language for 'Does my bum look big in this?', I left happily with a hooded coat I could take a wolf to visit Grandma in.

Sort of an ordinary experience

In a country where the answer to 'Sprechen Sie Englisch' is invariably 'Ein bisschen' right before the respondent proceeds to debate existentialism, explain double bypass surgery and give you directions to her uncle's house in France in that very 'bisschen' English, shopping became a pretty ordinary experience. Sort of…

The grocery store is still an endless source of humiliation for me. Thankfully, the days of 'surprise shopping' are over. I no longer think that I've bought, say, plain old frozen spinach, and in fact have come home with yet another bloody sort of Kohl…

Never again will I randomly grab one of the billions of cheeses and hope it's the yummy one that smells like month-old unwashed socks instead of year-old unwashed socks.

Hard-learned lessons

And I've learnt that doing the shopping for a dinner-party at 3.30 pm on a Saturday afternoon will leave you with no option but to make your grandmother's spinach and ricotta cannelloni with quark and the aforementioned Kohl. (Which, if you ever happen to be in that position, is not all that shabby when served with enough vodka.)

But I still occasionally forget to pack my own groceries at the checkout. And then the nightmare begins again. The checkout-frau looks at me, I look at her, she looks at me… I grab my Kohl and bolt.

Or perhaps more humiliating is when said checkout-frau corrects my miserable attempt at German with Schwäbisch. Which, when later repeated, thinking that at least I've learned from the humiliation, causes every northerner from here to Hamburg to burst into violent peals of laughter.

A successful expedition

I also have mixed feelings about the Postamt. Yes, they bring me a seasonal five kilo box of my grandmother's Christmas biscuits (because, of course, we're short of Plätzchen here in Germany).

But I've also had encounters with some poor man who, possibly thinking that I'm a moron or perhaps doing his job a little too conscientiously, censored my purchase and insisted that I buy plain envelopes rather than envelopes with windows.

Three days into my German course, and I managed something along the lines of 'I no child. I no dumb. I only English speaker. I want windows now. Please. Thank you.'

When I came home, exhausted and exhilarated from my successful envelope-buying expedition, my flatmate gasped with horror as she realised that throughout my exchange with the poor postal worker, I used the informal 'du'.

The joy of other Ausländers

I avoid him now. I choose my postal workers carefully. And so I realised the joy of other Ausländers. They slow down to talk to you, without getting louder or almost popping a blood vessel in their foreheads. They draw you diagrams when you look somewhat confused.

And it's when I think of myself as one of the many Ausländers here that I realise how lucky I am to be able to mosey into any old store and request that we speak my language when some high-frequency term like, say, 'sequins', or even 'envelopes with windows', is beyond me.

I'm not sure anyone would have as much luck as me if they walked into a random Sydney post office and asked 'Excuse me, do you speak Swahili?' Or Thai, or even German…

So, even when I'm thoughtless enough to travel coatless, and move to a country knowing only the words Hähnchen, Hund and Milch (which would make for an interesting time at a restaurant), I'm really quite lucky to have experienced such tolerance while I wrangle my way through the shopping process, and shop my way through what I'm told is the integration process.

23 February 2006

Anna Cigolini / Expatica

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