Before I came to Germany I was living in Greater London and commuting into Vauxhall or Waterloo every day to do my small part for the endlessly depressing, harried, grey rat race that working in London so often is. Eventually, I decided to make better use of my time on these cramped, overpriced and poorly maintained trains in which commuters were packed like sardines.
I bought myself a ‘Learn German in 3 Months’ book and decided to study it whilst I was stuck in commuting purgatory. I must say, I was actually quite impressed with it. Not only because the Germans within it were presented as gleefully and stereotypically unhelpful, but also because this introductory course to the German language was quite simple to grasp.
However, a ‘learn in 3 months’ course is no substitute for immersion in the language, and I made some howling mistakes once I arrived in Germany. For your enjoyment, I present some of them:
- Accidental Cannibalism
On one of the very first times I came to visit Germany, we went out for dinner with some friends at a nice little bar and restaurant place. The waitress came to take our orders and I, in my very proudest I-learned-this-from-a-book German, said:
“Ich hätte gerne ein Bürger,” which surely means “I’d like a burger”, right?
No. It meant “I’d like a citizen”. Everyone laughed at the stupid, rapidly reddening Englishman who had fallen prey to what I like to call ‘Motörhead syndrome’. Motörhead syndrome is when you think that a German word has to have an umlaut, simply by dint of being German. The German word for burger is “Burger” by the way, no umlauts.
- Accidental Homophobia
I grew up in Britain, so there’s a certain amount of rain and misery that I expect wherever I go. Imagine my surprise when I got to Germany and found out how hot and sticky it can get during summer. My inner thermostat is set for cool temperatures and when the mercury rises above twenty Celsius I start to suffer, especially in business attire. A source of great amusement to my colleagues, I am sure, was my long-running excuse that the weather outside was too humid and hot for me.
“Es ist zu heiß draußen” I would say, “ und viel zu schwul”.
Unfortunately, this means “it’s too hot and far too gay”.
I had fallen prey to that most insidious of traps, which I like to call ‘reverse-Motörhead syndrome’. Reverse-Motörhead syndrome is when you think that a German word doesn’t need an umlaut, because of Motörhead syndrome. It’s also called ‘overthinking’. So ‘schwul’ means gay and ‘schwül’ means humid. It’s all very confusing because the word ‘schwül’ sounds very camp (even though it isn’t).
- No, no, it’s fine. Where’s the crapper?
Sometimes you just have no idea where you went wrong until much later. This is one such event. Whilst queueing at the supermarket like a true Englishman, the lady waiting in front of me noticed that I had far fewer articles to buy than she did.
“Please,” she said “you can go in front”.
“No, no,” I replied “it’s fine. It’s raining outside. I will wait here anyway”.
“are you sure?” she said
“yes,” I smiled, “I must”
(“Ja, Ich muss”)
She stared at me. “… you mean wait, right?”
Almost everyone in the queue was looking at me like I was an utter simpleton or worse, and a few sported a sardonic smile. I had no idea why.
It wasn’t until about a week later that I overheard a little boy informing his parents that he needed the toilet urgently, that I realised my mistake. “Ich muss” literally means “I must” but without anything else on the end it defaults to “I must go to the toilet”.
Which means I had contradicted myself days previously in the queue:
“No, you go ahead. I’ll wait. I’ve got all the time in the world. I need the toilet” I said, smiling.
Bear in mind that I was waiting in line to buy a pre-packaged sandwich, that’s Grade-A lunatic material.
The moral of these stories is this: learning from a book is a great first step, but it’s no substitute for experience. How do you get experience? By making mistakes.