The first time I went to a doctor’s office here I noticed a German trait I really like. I went to the waiting room, sat down as usual and tried to find something to read, which was hopeless at that point because I knew very little German. Anyway, a moment later, another patient walked in and said “guten tag” and then sat down. And, so did the next patient, and the next. As the minutes rolled by, everyone greeted each other. Such a simple act of civility totally impressed me.
In America, I always found it a bit awkward and cold to walk into a room of strangers and no one acknowledges each other. Sometimes you share a nod and smile or a “hi” with someone but, otherwise, it’s mind your own business. There may be good reasons why that is commonplace in America….so many people, so little time. Or, frankly, as a woman, you can attract a lot of unwanted attention greeting a stranger. Like one time in college, when I missed my ride from Ohio State back to Saint Mary’s (this was in the days before everyone had mobile phones), and my only choices were to hitchhike (no way) or take a Greyhound bus back.
I knew the bus trip was going to be bad–6 hours, stopping at every little town along the way. But, I didn’t know how bad it would be until, a few stops away, a gang of 15 year old boys climbed aboard. I learned from their chatter they were on furlough from a reform school and they were ready for action!! It was as if a pack of starving wolves had been released onto the bus. They immediately started hassling the driver, leaping from seat to seat, all senses were engaged. Being the only other passenger, it took a millisecond to determine I was on the edge of catastrophe. Did I also mention I was a bit hungover from a great evening with friends the night before? It was turning out to be a bad day.
I buried myself in my book, hoping to avoid notice, which naturally didn’t work. I felt the gaze of the ringleader lock-in on me and I stared at my book harder. I spent the next several minutes doing that while the ringleader and his friends sat on their knees on seats all around me and stared at me. Do not let them know you are scared, I thought to myself. I was seriously terrified and decided acknowledging them would only open the floodgates. Make no eye contact. But, they were determined. And, there was nothing else for them to do on the bus.
So, they stared. It felt ridiculous to ignore them anymore so I gave a casual nod to the ringleader and said “Hey.” That was all they needed. The questions came from all directions…”can I sit next to you? do you have a boyfriend? what’s your name?” I felt the sides of the bus closing in, grabbed my stuff, head down, elbows out, I pushed my way through the gauntlet and sat near the driver. He didn’t look much tougher than I did but the boys kept their distance. So, the next few hours I only had to suffer through their schizophrenic shouts to berate me and then plead for me to come back. That was the first and last time I ever rode Greyhound.
Back to present day, I still usually forget to say “Guten Tag” when I enter a waiting room. Then, when I realize my error, I overcompensate by greeting all the newcomers with a big smile and “GUTEN TAG!” However, this is still Germany, birthplace of the scowl, so I’ll have to tone it down a notch next time.
By the way, another greeting here that surprised me originates in Bavaria, the most southern state in Germany, which is also home to Munich. “Grüss Gott” they say for any occasion that requires hello, good morning, good evening, etc. The literal translation is “say your greetings to God.” So, wherever you go in Bavaria, from the bored shopclerk to the neighbor to your best friend, you’ll be greeted this way. It’s highly unusual to hear “Grüss Gott” in Frankfurt (most here scoff at the expression and would say “hopefully not soon”) but, one day recently, I was greeted that way by two different people. Here’s a short discussion of the origins: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grüß_Gott. (sorry, the hyperlink isn’t working so you need to just copy and paste that into your browser.)
Another German courtesy I appreciate is often (but not always) a stranger sitting next to you at a restaurant will say “Guten appetit” as in “I hope you enjoy your meal.” My Father just visited (thanks for coming, Dad!) and, after I had to leave him at security in Frankfurt Airport, I decided to eat at a Thai place on the way to the parking garage. All the tables were crowded so, as soon as I sat down with my tray, a man asked if the seat across from me was free. As we tucked into our food he said “guten appetit” and then we both noticed we were eating the exact same thing–green curry chicken. He kept talking and, after a while, I got lost in his German and asked if we could speak English. Pretty soon, I was on my way to hearing his entire life story but then we both ran out of time. It’s a simple expression but it was the key to making an otherwise anonymous meal in the airport more engaging. (P.S. There’s an even better Thai place at the airport but it’s only for take-away. It is outside of Terminal 1, in a shack next to the little McDonald’s.)