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:
Feel free to talk shit here?
Let your poo do the talking?
If I were a turd, what would I say…?
Poo has the right to freedom of speech?
A poo is worth a thousand words?
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).
Eight Hungarian men have moved into my apartment block. Thankfully, the only hot one moved into the apartment opposite mine. He has a propensity for walking around half-naked which I find pleasing. We have mildly flirtatious conversations that I can barely understand as he only speaks Hungariman. They don’t seem to go to bars but, instead, enjoy knacker-drinking on the roof of the parking garage which is just below my balcony. I feel like a bit like Juliet some nights, if Juliet had had eight Hungarian Romeos, that is.
On one such occasion, they offered me some Hungarian moonshine. (If you want to know what that tastes like, go and swig some petrol.) We all ended up at a party in one of their flats and I immediately impressed with my one word of Hungarian – “egészségedre!” Where I could have picked up the word for “cheers!” in Hungarian (and around 15 other languages) is a mystery…
Anyway, on Sunday, I decided that a major blitz of my flat was necessary. I had amassed enough paper over the last year and a half to start my own recycling plant. Five sacks of paper and general rubbish (separated, of course) sat in the hall and I proceeded to lug them down to the bins one by one. On my fourth trip, I bumped into the Hungarian who acts as an interpreter for the rest of them. He looks a bit like Chris Evans, unfortunately not the hot Hollywood one.
He also likes wearing socks and sandals.
He kindly unlocked the front door for me and I trudged back upstairs. I was hoping he’d have finished his cigarette by the time I went back down with bag number five but no, he was still there.
András: Wow, so much rubbish.
Me: Ja, heute ist Putztag.
Luckily, he hadn’t seen me schlepping down with the first three bags. He opened the door for me again and then paused on the steps.
András: Em, Linda, can I ask you something?
Me: Sure, (whatever your name is).
András: I’m looking for someone to practise my German with and I was wondering if you’d be interested.
Me: I’m not sure I’m the right person for that job. I’m pretty sure your German is better than mine. (Educating someone on the art of the Sitzpinkel does not make you an expert on the German language; it merely means that you have a rather unhealthy fascination with the peeing habits of German men and like talking about it when you’ve been drinking Hungarian moonshine.)
András: (peering at me intensely through his black-rimmed glasses) I’d like to try though. I can cook dinner for us. Monday?
Me: Erm, no, I can’t tomorrow. I have a pub quiz.
Me: Erm, erm… Maybe. I have a late lesson though so… we’ll see. Maybe. Byeeeeeee!
On Tuesday, I arrived home, put on my slippers, spooned some beans into a saucepan and started up my laptop. I hadn’t even had time to enter the password when there was a ring at the bell. Scheiße.
Me: Oh. Hi.
András: Are you coming?
Me: Well, I’m really tired and I’ve just got in the door. (He lives directly under me so he had obviously heard me coming home.) Would you mind if we left it for another night?
His face fell. More.
András: But I’ve already cooked.
András: It’s 20 minutes out of your life and I’ve already prepared everything.
Me: (Sigh.) OK, then.
I then flopped around the flat, sighing loudly, sulkily taking off my slippers again and angrily bunging my poor beans into the fridge. I gave the bottle of wine in there a last wistful glance and walked wearily downstairs.
When I stepped into the living room, I was comforted to see that András had his laptop on and was currently browsing a website full of terrifying-looking knives.
Me: Em, what’s that?
András: Oh, it’s a hobby of mine. I make knives.
Me: … Cool?
He then opened a cupboard and proceeded to show me his collection. Just in case I wasn’t convinced by the glinting blades, he then shaved a chunk of hair off his arm to demonstrate how sharp they were. Tufts of ginger hair floated lazily to the floor.
Me: (Hmm, I wonder if I should throw myself through the window or try to make an attempt for the door…) Um, wow, impressive. Oh, is that a photo of your family?
Immediate crisis averted, we sat down to eat. To be fair, he had gone to quite a bit of effort. He’d even bought wine. I tucked into the goulash while making what I felt were appropriately appreciative noises. We chatted a bit about his family in Hungary, his work here and the joys of learning German. He pulled out the book he was using. It was quite possibly the most boring book I’d ever seen.
András: I’m using this book.
Me: (Say something positive, say something positive) Bah hahaha! That’s probably the worst book I’ve ever seen! It’s just table after table of conjugated verbs! It’s so dry!
András: (Peering at me over his goulash) You think your books are better than my books?
Me: (Say no, say no) Yes, for sure. They have pictures and dialogues and useful everyday German. I can lend you a couple if you like?
I polished off my goulash and got ready to make good my escape.
András: I’ll get the main course.
He set down a plate of grilled chicken and a pot of vegetables. I refilled my glass.
Me: Mmm, this is really good, thanks.
András: You know, I don’t want to be… wait, I don’t know the word.
He started typing the Hungarian word into the translator app on his phone. The German word appeared letter by letter:
Me: (Gulp) Violent? You don’t want to be violent?
Me: And are you?
András: I don’t want to be. But when you said you didn’t want to come tonight after I’d prepared everything…
At that moment, I knew exactly how Julia Roberts had felt in “Sleeping with the Enemy”. Door it was.
Me: Well, that was delicious but I really must be going now. Thank you for dinner!
András: Next Tuesday?
I scarpered back upstairs and gave Manfredas the abridged version over Messenger.
Manfredas: Double lock your door.
Manfredas: And your balcony door.
Me: Also done. I mean, he has a wife and kids, but then, so did Fred West.
The real tragedy of the story is that I never did get around to eating the beans.
Step number 59,248 in becoming a proper German is getting yourself a .de email address. Having noticed that a lot of Germans email me from a web.de account, that’s what I decided to go for. There are two things you assume when you sign up for an email account called FreeMail:
You get an email account;
It is free.
I like free.
You can imagine my surprise when, a month or so later, I received an invoice (Rechnung) from web.de for around €15. Assuming (clearly very dangerous in Germany) that it was a mistake, or possibly some optional extra that I was under no obligation to pay, I deleted it. A few days later, I received another one. About a week later, I got another one and, shock horror, the amount had gone up. It seemed they were serious about this payment malarkey.
Finding it hard to believe that every German with a .de account is paying for it, I emailed my old German teacher to ask if she was paying for hers:
What!? No, I don’t pay. Maybe you accidentally agreed to open up an account where you have to pay. They could have inserted some button that you can hardly see and pressed accidentally.
I heard a similar story from a friend. You should call and complain and tell them it wasn’t your intention to open up this account.
Crap. The one thing I dislike more than making phone calls in English is making phone calls in German. I decided to take the coward’s way out and, instead, replied to the email I had received and sent another message through the Customer Service page – not easy to find. I got a confirmation that they’d received my query and waited. When, after two days, I had got no reply, I knew I’d have to bite the bullet and call. Crap. (Again.)
The telephone number is buried somewhere in the site – I guess they hope that you’ll just give up and stump up whatever it is they’re asking for.
They hadn’t bet on the intrepidity of Frau von Grady, however. I trawled every inch of that blasted site and eventually found what I was looking for. The first victory. Amazingly, the automated system recognised my nervous muttering of my contract number – when had I signed up for a contract? – and I was put through to an actual person.
I explained the reason for my call.
Herr Helpful: Ah yes, I see that you’ve sent us two emails about this.
Me: (Grrr.) Why, yes, yes I have. Aaaaaaanyway, I didn’t sign up for a contract, I don’t understand why I’m getting invoices and I don’t want membership to anything. I just want the FreeMail account that I registered for.
Herr Helpful: I see. Let me just check… (tap, tap, tap)… yes, it seems that on the (insert random date) at (insert random time), you clicked on a button that activated your premium account.
Now, because of the way web.de is set up, with things moving around the pages, pop-up ads and various buttons that appear randomly, this is actually very possible. However, as I hadn’t handed over any bank details, given a credit card number or even double-clicked to confirm, I hadn’t given it a second thought.
Me: Well, that was a mistake. I didn’t mean to click anything. All I want is the FreeMail account.
Herr Helpful: OK, I understand. I’m cancelling your “contract” now. You won’t receive any more invoices from us.
Me: Great, thanks. But do I have to pay the previous invoices?
Herr Helpful: No, you don’t have to pay anything.
Me: (Phew.) Fantastic. WAIT! Can you please send me that in writing? (Because Germany…)
Herr Helpful: Yes, of course. You will get an email shortly.
As I sat clicking refresh and waiting for the confirmation, I contemplated how much entertainment value the staff at web.de would get out of my “recorded for quality purposes” German over the next 90 days. The email arrived. It was over.
Yeah, right. This is Germany. The following week, I received a “Mahnung” in my inbox. This is like a final demand before things get nasty. The next day, there was one in my letterbox.
Me: What’s “on the warpath” in German?
Manfredas: Auf dem Kriegspfad. Why?
Me: Because I’m on it. It all started a month or so ago. (Approximately four hours pass…)
Unwilling to waste another second of my life on the web.de automated telephone system, I decided to go down the email route again. Two extremely harsh, most likely very rude and, even more likely, in hilarious German, emails were despatched.
On day three, I received a very apologetic email saying that there had been a mistake in the system, that everything was now resolved and that I wouldn’t receive any more invoices or demands. This time I didn’t bother with a reply.
A couple of days later, I received an email asking me to rate the customer service at web.de.
I printed it out and used it to wipe my Arsch. Maybe I should send it back to them after all – if I can find their postal address…
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)
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sailaway from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” ~ Mark Twain