Germany – where formal is normal

Last week, as I was arriving for a lesson, I met the Managing Director of the company on the way in.

Me: Hey, how’s it going? 

Bertilda: Frau Schmittendorf and Frau Ottovordemgentschenfelde will not be in the lesson today. 

Me: OK. I have no idea who you’re talking about. So, how are you? 

Bertilda: Fine.

Me: (makes mental note to do a lesson on small talk)

That day, however, the lesson was to be on “Greetings and Introductions”. Only four women work in the office, two in their mid-forties and two in their mid-twenties. With the absence of Frau Schmittendorf and Frau Ottovordemgentschenfelde, I only had two students – the MD and her assistant. After establishing once again that Germans are protective of their personal space in business (and pretty much all other) situations, we moved on to the discussion questions.

Me: How do you address the other person? Mister? Ms? First name?

Bertilda: Always Mister or Ms. Never first names. 

Ediltrudis: Yes, never first names.

Me: Never? Not even after you’ve known the person for a while and have a good working relationship? 

Bertilda: NEVER! 

Me: OK. But surely in the office you call each other by your first names? I mean, there are only four of you…

Bertilda: We use Frau plus surname.

Ediltrudis: Yes, always.

Me: So, as soon as you leave this room, where you’re Bertilda and Ediltrudis, you switch back to Frau such-and-such and Frau such-and-such?

Bertilda: Yes, of course. Immediately.

Ediltrudis: Immediately. 

Me: Wow. How long have you been working with Haduwig? 

Bertilda: 16 years. 

Me: And you still call her Frau Ottovordemgentschenfelde?

Bertilda: Yes, of course. 

Me:Frau Ottovordemgentschenfelde, could you pass the stapler, please?” Wouldn’t it be easier and faster to just use her first name?

Bertilda: (shoots me a look that suggests that the words “easier” and “faster” are not in her vocabulary)

Me: Is it weird for you that I call you by your first names? 

Bertilda: A bit but we are get used to it. I think it is different for English speakers. 

Me: Getting. Yeah, I’ve worked in America, Australia, New Zealand, England and Ireland and I don’t think I ever called anyone by their surnames. 

Bertilda: (disapproving sniff) 

Ediltrudis: (obviously trying to throw me a bone) Our Azubis (trainees) – they mostly work in another office – they call each other by their first names and use “du”.

Clearly this was news to Bertilda.

Bertilda: (lowering her glasses and picking up her pen) They do?

Ediltrudis: Well, I mean… I think that… sometimes they might, yes…

Bertilda: (scratching angrily in her notepad) I think we need to have a meeting. 

I knew I should probably wrap it up here but I was enjoying myself far too much.

Ediltrudis: Well, you know, they’re young and…

Bertilda: It is a sign of respect. Using surnames and “Sie” is our office culture. 

Me: Oh, but in Berlin it’s so hard. Almost everyone immediately switches to “du” and uses first names. Even my Hausmeister told me to call him Burkhard the first time I met him and he’s in his fifties. (gleefully waits for response)

Bertilda: (flatlines) 

 

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Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman

In my 39 years on this planet, I’ve been groped, flashed, wanked at, had a knife held to my throat for telling a would-be molester what he could go and do to himself and his mother and, in one particularly memorable incident, I got punched in the face by a drunk Russian.

Luckily, my mouth more than makes up for my diminutive size and I’ve been able to talk (or yell) my way out of most precarious situations – apart from the Russian who blindsided me and left me sporting a rather fetching fat lip for close to a week.

Still, I’ve always been of the opinion that if I have to go down, I’ll go down fighting, thank you very much. You know, if life gives you lemons, keep throwing them at the bastard until he either realises the error of his ways – or kills you. While having a big mouth and no inhibitions when it comes to using it is all well and good, being able to back it up is even better. So, when Berliner Unterwelten offered an intensive, two-day self-defence class to its female employees, I jumped at it with the speed of a drunk Russian attacking a small woman.

Lemme at it…

The course took place in a boxing club and was being given by a giant of a man and his son. There were around twelve of us taking part and, interestingly (or maybe sadly), every woman there had had some kind of negative experience. There was quite a bit of talking in the beginning about the amazing concept of using common sense – seemingly it’s not all that common – and also trying to talk your way out of danger before getting physical. However, if that doesn’t work, there’s nearly always something you can do.

We warmed up a bit by walloping some punching bags and then learned what we could do with our hands, elbows, feet and knees in various situations. Gigantor asked me if I’d boxed before. I hadn’t but seemingly was something of a natural. It might be an Irish thing. Gigantor Junior then went off and got kitted out in full-on combat gear.

Uh oh…

He charged each of us in turn with a boxing pad in his hands. We had to shout “NEIN!”, or pretty much anything else that came into our heads, block him and then start beating the crap out of the poor guy. Unfortunately, I got a little over-enthusiastic when it came to the kneeing part of the exercise, kneed my way past the boxing pad and hit one of his protection guards.

Oof. I had a feeling that it was going to be pretty bad but even I couldn’t have imagined just how impressive the bruise would be.

Ouch.

By day two, my knee had swollen up to three times its normal size and was a stunning array of colours. I basked in the oohs and aahs that it received from the other participants, and the guilty look it prompted on Gigantor Junior’s face, and limped about my business.

The first exercise was to revise what we’d learned the day before, which meant that GJ would be coming at me again. I did consider sitting it out – one of the German girls came and sat for four hours because of period cramps (Germans do like to take care of themselves) – but what the heck, in for a penny, in for a pound(ing).

GJ charged me. My knee buckled a little but I somehow held my ground and then went at him hell for leather with my hands, elbows and other knee. He went down. Woop!

I probably deserve a place here…

For the rest of the time, we learned different manoeuvres for various scenarios, including what to do if someone comes at you with a knife or if a maniac comes into a bar with a machine gun. Any kneeling exercises were unfortunately out for me, but I limped my way through to the bitter end in spite of the pain.

It’s hard to describe how empowering the whole experience was and I can’t recommend doing something like this highly enough – to both women and men. Not only was it incredibly useful, it was also a lot of fun – and it gave me a chance to practise my kick-ass German.

God help any drunk Russians in the future.

Sacré vert! It’s Green Day in Paris!

A random Tuesday night in the local bar:

Me: I think Green Day are coming this year. I’d love to see them live.

Manfredas: I’d be up for that. When are they coming?

Me: Not sure. Hold on, I’ll check… Aw crap, they’re coming on Thursday! There’s no way I can make that. 

Manfredas: (Sad face)

Me: Oh well. Guess I’ll just have to wait until the next time they’re in town. (Sigh)

The next morning, I woke up to a Facebook message:

Manfredas: Do you fancy going to see Green Day in Paris? 

Me: ??? Mais oui, bien sûr! 

Within the next couple of hours, flights were booked, concert tickets were reserved and an AirBnB apartment in the centre of Paris was found. German efficiency. Stupidly early on the 3rd of February, we were off!

We got to Orly Airport and made our way outside to wait for the Orly Bus to the city. The first one was too full to get on, with passengers’ faces squished against the windows. We managed to squeeze onto the next one, where we stood like sardines the whole way into the city. There was no chance to validate our tickets so it would be a free journey back. Irish rule-shirking.

We navigated the Métro easily and were soon standing in front of our apartment building on a postcard-perfect, cobbled street in Saint-Michel.

PARIS!
PARIS!

We had been sent a list of quite detailed instructions by the owner of the apartment, Julien. Unfortunately, he had failed to include the correct code for the front door. Luckily, another resident was leaving just as we were punching in the wrong code for the fifth time so we finally managed to get in.

After that u have to cross the yard : dont climb the first stairs but the last. The flat is at the 4th floor (without elevator) and it’s the door in front of the stairs, the last possible.

The door is sometimes a bit hard to open.
The lock to open is the lower one. The tip to do it easily is to push the key until the end and to take it back a little. Then turn a quarter round unclockwise and it’s done ;).

I wisely let Manfredas grapple with that.

Please don’t throw anything anormal in the toilets, it’s getting blocked really easily. There is a bin under the bathroom sink.

Poor Manfredas would refuse to poo in the loo for the whole of our time there. He figured, using flawless German logic, that a lady poo would probably be OK but a manly poo might be too much for the delicate French plumbing. It was actually quite hilarious having a German in a French apartment; if he’d had his tool kit, I think he would have spent most of the weekend straightening the crooked shelves and replumbing the entire apartment.

Thankfully he didn’t and it didn’t seem like Julien possessed anything remotely practical so we were able to leave the apartment and start exploring. The narrow, winding streets around the apartment were just so pretty and so French that I may have had a tiny orgasm. We certainly wouldn’t go hungry or thirsty as practically every second building was a bar, restaurant or café. The chances of going broke were far higher.

€20 for two scoops of ice-cream...
€21 for a lemon tart…

We managed to find a place that wouldn’t require taking out a loan and enjoyed our first croque monsieur and bottle of wine in Paris. We strolled around for a while, scoped out where the bus to the concert venue went from, and I exclaimed “Sacré bleu!” and “Oh là là” sporadically and for no apparent reason.

After a little rest (and some wine) in the apartment, we made our way to the bus stop. Upon overhearing our conversation on the bus, a lively debate sprang up among the locals about which stop we should get off at. Yeah, the French are soooo unfriendly…

We got off, got half-heartedly frisked on the way in, and made our way to our seats. Manfredas went and got us a couple of beers and then Green Day were on.

Billie Joe! It's me!
Billie Joe! It’s meeeee!

Having been a fan for quite a long time, my expectations were high. Green Day surpassed every one of them – they absolutely rocked the house. There was a lot of audience participation and one girl even got to keep the guitar that she played on stage. Manfredas had the added bonus of listening to me roaring along with the band for over two hours. Lucky devil.

We stumbled out of the stadium on a total high, jabbering on about how amazing it had been and how cool it was that we were actually in Paris and had seen Green Day. I wondered if I should hang around and wait for Billie Joe to come out so I could creepily stalk him but decided that a celebratory glass of wine was more important.

Coming across as a complete “Basket Case” probably wouldn’t have endeared me to him much anyway.