englishman abroad, german language

Motörhead syndrome: 3 things I didn’t learn from the ‘Learn German in 3 Months’ book

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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).

  1. 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?”

“Yes….?”

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.

englishman abroad

How to fail at shopping

On Sunday, we had a friend over for an authentic British Sunday Roast Dinner ™ 

Normally this would not be a big deal, I’d go to a British supermarket, go to the aisle that specifically has all manner of roasting joints in it, and choose a nice rib of beef or shoulder of lamb or large chicken to roast. But I live in Germany, where nothing is ever as straightforward as it should be. Here is the story of how I failed at food shopping. 

 First thing Saturday morning, I made a shopping list with all the ingredients I needed for the Sunday roast. The list included a roasting chicken and some roasting potatoes e.g. Maris Piper. I grabbed my debit card for some cashless shopping and zoomed down to my local supermarket… 

Problem number 1: you will need a pocket full of shrapnel to go shopping. 

While it’s true that most supermarkets take card payments, not a single supermarket seems to trust its customers with the trolleys. Therefore, if you don’t have a euro or some other small change to hand you cannot use a trolley. Cashless payment, Yes. Cashless shopping, No. It makes no sense. Never mind, I thought, I’ll just get as much shopping as I can here and go to the market later. I went to look at the potatoes… 

Problem number 2: German conformity strikes again. 

The supermarket I went to had ten different brands of potato for sale. All of them were white, small, and ‘Festkochend’. Exactly the sort of potato you want for boiling and mashing, not baking or roasting. I asked one of the assistants if they knew what sort of potatoes they were and she read the sign to me as though I was a simpleton. “yes, but are they Maris PiperKing EdwardPink Fir Apples or what?” 

Unfortunately, she merely pointed me toward the apples and muttered something pejorative. Consoling myself with the thought that they would have a much better selection at the local market, I moved onto the fruit and veg… 

Problem number 3Would you really eat this? 

I like some greens with my roast dinner and it’s too early in the year for kale, so I looked for a savoy cabbage. Good news: they had Savoy cabbage! Bad News: It was of a terrible, yellowing, moth-eaten quality! The supermarket had just hit strike three, so I left and went straight to the local market, which takes place in a small square outside a church. I looked for a decent butcher’s stall and found one with a large chicken, exactly the sort I wanted to roast.  

Problem number 4No. 

“Hello,” I said. “I’d like to buy this chicken for a roast dinner”

“A what?” 

“I’d like to roast this chicken” 

“No” 

“Excuse me?” 

“You can’t roast this chicken. It’s too big. This is a soup chicken, it’s for soup” 

I looked long and hard at the chicken. It was far too large for even the biggest pan I own, it would have fit comfortably into my oven, though. 

“Are you sure? What chicken can I roast?” 

“Here” she said, showing me the tiniest, gangliest-looking, little runt of a chicken I had ever seen. 

“I really would rather buy the larger chicken, there’s lots of people coming…” 

“No, I can’t do that” 

I looked at Chicken Lady. 

Chicken Lady looked at me. 

“I see. Goodbye.” 

“Goodbye” she said, impassively. 

Thankfully, the market had a few vegetables I wanted, including parsnips and savoy cabbage. I decided to take my daughter with me to the much larger market outside the registry office. 

Problem number 5A sable cloud athwart the welkin flings 

Then it started to absolutely bucket down with rain. Child in one arm, umbrella and shopping in the other, I pressed on as it rained heavily. Not a blasted chicken to be seen, although I managed to pick up a few fresh-looking vegetables. Before finally…

Solution: Make do and mend 

It turns out that German stallkeepers can be quite canny, despite the ineptitude of Chicken Lady. One of them cunningly offered my daughter a slice of sausage which she took immediately. “Don’t talk to strangers” I’ve always said, but did she listen?  Well, you can’t just take the free sausage and keep on walking, can you? Sausage Lady had won this round and so I decided to opt for a joint of beef instead. We had a pot roast and it turned out very well, except for when I forgot how to make Yorkshire puddings and nearly set the kitchen on fire. Advice: don’t use too much oil. 

My shopping trip took over five hours. When in Germany, do as the Germans do – eat boring food.