Me: If your house was on fire and you could only take one thing with you, what would it be?
Student: My insurance policies.
Now, don’t try to tell me the Germans aren’t a sentimental lot…
Me: If your house was on fire and you could only take one thing with you, what would it be?
Student: My insurance policies.
Now, don’t try to tell me the Germans aren’t a sentimental lot…
I’ve just had one of the funniest lessons I’ve had in a long time. This was in no part due to my amazing skill as an English teacher, but rather due to the Germans’ amazing lack of skill when it came to something I think most six-year-olds have probably already mastered. (Not that I know anything about six-year-olds. Or want to.)
We were doing a lesson on comparatives and superlatives – you know: good, better, the best/bad, worse, the worst (or bad, badder, the baddest if you’re German and new to the language). The book wasn’t overly inspirational on this topic, so I thought I’d spice things up a bit by bringing in a game I’d found on the internet.
The game consists of a series of squares with one adjective in each. The students roll the dice and move their marker to the correct square. Once there, they have to flip a coin – if it’s heads, they have to make a comparative sentence; if it’s tails, they make a superlative sentence. Simple, right?
Bertha: Um, I don’t think I can do that.
Me: Do what?
Bertha: Flip a coin.
Bertilda: Can you show us again?
Betlinde: Yes, please show us again. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before.
Slightly incredulous and wondering if they might be taking the piss (unlikely, given that they are German), I placed the coin on my forefinger, deftly flicked it with my thumb, neatly caught it and slapped it onto the back of my other hand. Triumphant, I looked around at the blank faces before me.
Bertilda: Can you do it one more time?
After another flawless demonstration, it seemed like we were ready to start. I passed the coin to Bertilda and we were off. She threw the dice, moved her marker, read out the adjective, picked up the coin and… regarded it dubiously.
Me: Go on! You can do it!
The flip was more of a flub – the coin hopped about a millimetre into the air before crash landing on the table with Bertilda snatching at it wildly.
Me: Bah hahahahaha! Oh my god! Sorry, yes, erm, heads. Make your sentence.
Sentence made, the coin worked its way around the table.
Me: Come on, Betlinde! Flip that coin!
Me: Or you can just fling it at the table. That works, too.
I can best describe what Bertha did as fist pumping the coin into the air. She bungled the catch and the coin tumbled to the floor, rolling under the table. Ensuing “flips” saw the coin land everywhere in the room except for where it should have, including other people’s laps. I looked at the open window, wondering if I should close it before the battered coin made its getaway. I thought it might be a good idea to end the game before things got to that point but I was laughing too hard to speak.
Bertilda: My turn.
By now, she had developed this method of bouncing the coin between her hands as if it was burning her. Through my blur of tears of laughter, she seemed quite proud of herself.
Bertilda: “Interesting.” Umm. This English class is more interesting than my job.
Me: Aww, thank you! Wait, I don’t know how boring your job is. Maybe that’s not really a compliment.
Bertilda: Yes, my job is very boring.
While the German gift for the coin flip was a flop, it seemed the German talent for ego-piercing directness was still alive and kicking.
On Monday, I got rained into a bar – my worst nightmare, as you can imagine. However, I really did mean to stay for just one but then the heavens opened. Google had (oh so reliably) informed me that there was a 0% chance of precipitation that day, so I’d set off in a summer dress and flip-flops, without any of the all-weather paraphernalia the Germans are famous for.
While a lot of people might look at this as a fail on my part, these people clearly do not know me very well. First of all, it was a chance to confuse a whole new set of Berlin pub regulars with my intoxicating Irish accent. Second of all, a trip to the bathroom provided unexpected gold. (“Really, Linda? Toilets again?” I hear you groan.)
Now, I’m all for “WC” signs throughout the establishment directing me towards the floodgate unleasher, but never have I seen a “WC” sign directly above the loo. Maybe this was the kind of pub where people got so drunk there was a chance they might mistake the sink/floor for the toilet? Or maybe the local clientele just weren’t that bright to begin with? There were no signs over the bin or the sink but I guess it’s not so important if you miss those…
Anyway, I figured out from the clever signage that the WC was, in fact, the toilet. I’m a smart cookie…
As I approached, I noticed the little picture on the toilet lid. I rubbed my eyes. Nope, the glass of wine hadn’t gone to my head – it really was a poo in a speech bubble. But what could it mean? I started coming up with some ideas:
The only talking poo I’d ever seen was on South Park so this was a bit of a mystery to me. I’m shit out of ideas so does anybody else have any? Is this some kind of German thing I’ve never heard of? Answers on a postcard (i.e. in the comments below).
Me: I accidently hit on the right verb in German class – wegwerfen – to throw away.
Manfredas: Well done!
Me: My initial thought was “auswerfen” – to throw out – but I thought, “No, German… It has to be something else.”
Manfredas: See? You’re getting better and better. “Auswerfen” is also a verb though. It means “to output”. “Rauswerfen” is to throw out, like to throw someone out of a bar.
Me: Huh. That will probably come in handy. Is “einwerfen” possible?
Manfredas: Yep, to throw in. Like to throw a coin into a machine.
Me: Oh yeah! That’s on the washing machines downstairs. Choose the programme before throwing in the coin. Can I throw in my clothes after I throw in the coin?
Manfredas: NEIN! That would be “hineinwerfen.”
Me: (Sigh) OK. Abwerfen?
Manfredas: Yep, if you’re thrown off a horse, for example.
Manfredas: Yep, to start something up. Like a machine.
Me: Can I anwerfen the kettle?
Manfredas: Yep. To reject or discard something.
Me: Zuwerfen? I’m sure this isn’t annoying for you at all…
Manfredas: Zuwerfen? Yep, it means “to toss.”
Me: Can I zuwerfen a salad?
Manfredas: NEIN! Geht gar nicht.
Me: How do I toss a salad then?
Manfredas: You don’t.
Manfredas: Before you ask, no, you can’t use it for “toss off” either.
Me: I’m offended. I would never ask something so crass…
Manfredas: Yep, to accuse or blame someone.
Manfredas: Yes, to pelt.
Manfredas: Yep, to subdue.
Me: Bet you wish you could unterwerfen me but I’m going to keep going. Hinwerfen?
Manfredas: To throw something down.
Manfredas: Yes. To reflect or echo.
Me: Huh. I think I’m out.
Manfredas: (runs for the door)
A few days later, I was with a student. I like to share the misery around so…
Me: I’ve been having great fun with “werfen” this week.
Me: You know – abwerfen, auswerfen, einwerfen, hinwerfen, verwerfen, wegwerfen…
Gundula: Ha, oh right. Yeah, Germans never really think about that. Do you have “entwerfen”?
Me: NEIN! What does that mean?
Gundula: To draft something.
Me: Man, is there anything werfen can’t do?
Anyway, I will never throw in the towel when it comes to this language. Incidentally, that also works – das Handtuch werfen.
And now I’m off to toss a salad. So there, Manfredas.
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?
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?
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.
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)
If, like me, you’re about as cuddly as a cactus, then a rather different way to spend four hours of your Saturday evening is to go to a cuddle party. “A cuddle party? What’s that, Linda?”, I hear you ask… Don’t worry, I’d never heard of the concept either – that is, until the lovely Jenna sent me an article about them. Sufficiently weirded out but curious at the same time, I toyed with the idea of going.
Me: I’m thinking of going to a cuddle party on Saturday.
Simone: I think I’d rather have my uterus extracted through my nostrils.
That decided it – I was going.
I located the building easily enough, got into the rickety lift and ascended to the fourth floor.
Despite the rather crumbly exterior, the room was really nice. As I paid my €20 (I know…) and got a sticker with a little heart and my name on it (eye roll), I looked around. Colourful mattresses were laid out in a circle on the floor and candles and warm lighting made the space look cosy. The thing that surprised me most, however, (apart from the fact that I was there) was how many people in Berlin were in need of a cuddle. There must have been around 50 people there and there was very little room left on the mattresses. A few people were younger than me but most were in their forties, fifties or sixties, with a roughly 3-1 ratio of women to men. A quick glance at the refreshments table confirmed the worst – no wine. I was diving headfirst into the weirdness stone cold sober.
I squeezed into a free spot just as proceedings started. After a brief introduction, Gottfried, the “Cuddle Trainer” passed the “Cuddle Elephant” to the person beside him. (I swear I’m not making any of this up.) We had to say our names and why we were there.
“I just really like giving cuddles.”
“Cuddling makes me feel good.”
“I was feeling really sad today and thought that cuddles might give me some comfort.”
When it came to my turn, I said that I’d seen an article online and was curious. This got a scathing look from Gottfried which became outright hostile when I said I’d seen the article on thrillist.com. Clearly he doesn’t put thrills and cuddles in the same category. I passed the “Cuddle Elephant” along. When all of the introductions and freaky reasons were done, Gottfried ran through the rules. There was a lot of blah blah about knowing your boundaries and not being afraid to say NEIN! He pointed out the “safe mattress” at the back of the room where you could sit for a while if you felt overwhelmed. Kissing was VERBOTEN and touching boobs, crotchal regions and arses was also out.
Once the mattresses had been stowed at the back of the room, Gottfried put on some airy-fairy, shite music and we all had to dance around a bit. I shook off the pressures of the outside world by shuffling awkwardly with my hands by my sides, while other people looked as if they were undergoing some kind of demonic possession. The next song started and this time we had to move around the room, making eye contact with the other lunatics. The third song got the touching bit started. We could hold hands, feel hands and stroke hands as we moved around but, unfortunately, nobody HOCH FÜNFed anyone. People were already starting to sweat and the smell of B.O. was overpowering. I half-heartedly touched a few moist hands.
Next we had to dance with each other, choosing a different partner every so often. I ambled around, getting increasingly freaked out by the glazed, blissed-out eyes and serene smiling. If these people weren’t high on life, they were definitely high on something. One guy, who looked like he’d be at home with Jack in the Cuckoo’s Nest, started trippily waving his arms around in my face. Another caught me around the waist and started to sway with me.
“How close is too close?”
As I didn’t know how to say “If I feel an erection, then you’re too close and you’re going down”, I just mumbled that where he was was fine. Presently, we had to find a partner to hand grope. A middle-aged woman caressed my hands and gazed at me lovingly. I watched the seconds ticking by on the wall clock. Each pair found another pair and then there were four people mauling each other. I found my head sandwiched between braless boobs. Then the four had to find another four and engage in a group hug.
I looked a bit like this guy:
After unsticking my face from a man’s back, I had a time out behind the refreshments table. Ah, a solo exercise. OK, back in. We stood with our eyes closed (mine were open) as Gottfried talked us through a load of nonsense about feeling the energy come up through the earth into our stockinged feet. As the cuddle party took place in Hasenheide, one of the dodgiest areas in Berlin, I didn’t even want to think about what my feet were absorbing. We raised our arms and started walking forward until we were one massive, 50-person cuddle. I checked to make sure everyone’s eyes were closed and ran. I had lasted an hour and twenty minutes. Pretty impressive, I thought. I couldn’t even imagine how they were going to fill another two hours and forty minutes but I had a feeling it would probably end like this:
I washed my hands repeatedly and left the building. Safely back in my local bar with a large glass of wine in front of me, I achieved a level of relaxation that cuddling fifty strangers could never give me.
I’m sure the lingering stench of B.O. will wear off any minute now…
I spend quite a bit of time in my local bar, perhaps too much some might say. It’s owned and mainly staffed by Croatians and features a motley crew of locals, all of whom have been very friendly and welcoming to the weird Irish chick who showed up in their midst one day. In fact, it’s where I learned a lot of my German as the men there seem very keen to talk to me – probably because I lower the average age by about 20 years and wear a dress sometimes.
Over the course of several months, I noticed that the “Club Room” adjacent to the main bar was empty most evenings and, over a few glasses of wine, I came up with the idea to start an “English Club”. As there are so many interesting ways for foreigners to learn German in Berlin, I thought it might be nice to give the Germans a chance to learn English in a slightly different way.
I spoke to the owner and ran the idea past him. He was all for it and, most importantly, using the room would be free of charge as I’d (hopefully) be bringing in new customers. I spent a little while mulling over the Club and how it would work and put together a poster to publicise it in the bar. I was pretty pleased with it but sent it to Manfredas anyway to get a German’s opinion.
Manfredas: NEIN! Das geht gar nicht! Germans want details. They want to know WHY they’re going somewhere and what to expect when they get there.
Back to the drawing board. I added every possible detail I could think of and, this time, it got the Manfredas seal of approval. I stuck the posters up in the bar, and posted a couple of notices on local websites. Manfredas had stolen some flipchart paper for me (Germans can be quite wild…) and I set off to the bar on that first Tuesday evening at around 5.30.
The idea behind English Club is that people can come and practise and improve their English in a relaxed environment, over a couple of beers, once a week at 6pm. I’d pick a different topic every week and we would discuss it together. I stuck the flipchart paper to the back of the door, took out and lined up the 20 pens that I’d bought, prepared my materials and waited.
Two people came. Success! The topic that I’d prepared – ordering in a restaurant – proved to be woefully inadequate. Like a lot of Germans, these guys were waaaaaaaaaaaaay beyond that level. I had no idea that the people who showed up would already be so good at English. Still, we chatted away merrily for the hour and all was well with the English Club.
The next week, I had a rethink and picked some more advanced materials. A few more people showed up and we had a grand old time.
I’ve since bought a whiteboard which I use to write up new vocabulary and do corrections at the end of the hour. The next day, I email any new words and the corrections to participants, or post them on the Club Facebook page.
I’ve been doing it for a few months now and a little while ago, a journalist from Kiez Report (a video blog on the local area) said that he’d like to do an interview about the English Club with me. My desire to boost English Club’s popularity won out over the horror of seeing myself on camera and I decided to do it. After all, the journalist’s name was Patrick – what could possibly go wrong?
I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting but whatever it was, it didn’t involve tripods or professional lighting. Patrick said that he’d like to ask me the first question in German and then we could continue in English. ARGH!
Squinting into the light, I mumbled something that sounded vaguely like German, albeit with a strong Irish accent, and then we switched to English. It was actually…fun! Patrick stayed for the whole hour and interviewed one of the participants at the end who, thankfully, was very complimentary about me and my little English Club.
If you want a chuckle, you can watch the video here.
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