Category Archives: October 2009

My Life of Crime

It seems worth mentioning that I still haven’t lost my talent to irritate or even enrage the natives here because I’ve broken some unknown rule or mistakenly broken another rule.  Depending on the situation, I’ve adopted certain styles of response.

Scenario A:  Since it’s gotten too cold to run outside regularly, I joined a nice gym in our village. After I finished my second workout and was leaving the building, the front desk clerk motioned for me to come over to her.  I slowed my gait because I know the look of a German who wants to scold me about something. As I got closer, she pointed at my running shoes.  “These, no good….you must…”  then her sentence trailed off.  Her grasp of English is limited and so is my German so we were at a standstill.  Then, hurray, another club member pipes up.  He’s German but knows English well and offers to translate for her.  I watch her hands rise and fall as she explained my transgression to him.  He turns to me and takes a deep breath. That’s when I decide to just lean on the counter and take my licking, whatever it is.  These people exhaust me.  So, the gentleman explains to me that I should not wear my running shoes outside.  I should carry them with me and wear street shoes to and from the gym.  That to me is a simple (yet very picky) explanation.  But I know well enough that the explanation needs to continue.  They can’t just make their point and finish.  So, that’s why I settled in to hear lengthy instructions.  I nod several times for the next few minutes, apologize profusely, and start mentally composing my grocery list while he continues the translation. At last, we are through, then I smile and thank them for setting me straight.

I’m not the only one who has this strategy. A couple days later, as I’m unloading Jack from the car in a village parking lot, I hear a commotion behind me.  An older German woman is shouting and shaking her umbrella at another woman (who looks about my age) who is in her car.  The woman in the car is responding in English saying “I know, you are absolutely right, I’m terribly sorry….” Apparently she had almost hit the German woman while backing out of her parking space.  Of course, I can’t blame the German woman for being unhappy about the incident but I cringed knowing the sort of harangue the driver was going to get. They were blocking my path so all I could do was stand there and offer a sympathetic smile to the driver. She took her hits and finally the German woman tottered off.  The driver (who is English–we met at a party a week later) leaned out her window and puffed her cheeks at me.  “Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ve actually gotten it even worse than that.” The driver offered me her parkschein (a prepaid parking voucher) which still had time on it and then sped out of the lot.

It’s raining so I pick up Jack and hustle across the lot only to run into the German lady. She spoke to me in German and I told her I spoke English. “Did you see what happened?” she repeated.  I stop in my tracks and adopt my pose.  “Yes, I did and that must have been frightening but I’m so glad you are OK,” I responded. “She could have killed me,” the woman continues.  I nod and commiserate. It’s still pouring rain and Jack is getting heavy in my arms. Suddenly, the woman switches topics and her face softens.  “Are you English?” No, American.  “How do you like it here, are you having any problems?”  Several scenes flash through my mind and I smile, “It takes a while but it’s starting to feel like home,” I responded.  “My name is Frau Müller and my number, oh I wish I had a pen and paper here, is [XXXXXX], please call me if I can ever help you.” She’s a sweet lady.  All she wants is to be understood clearly and that is what so many Germans want.  Now that I’ve figured it out, I don’t mind giving my time to do it.

But, then there is Scenario B: Lately, if we’ve got an open stretch of time, I’ve gotten in the habit of taking Nora, Jack and their scooters to Bad Homburg which is a large town that has a very good fussgänger (pedestrian walkway).  It’s much longer and less cobblestoney (invented new word) than our fussgänger in Königstein.  There’s also embedded toys along the way so that Nora and Jack can speed along on the scooters, then stop for a while to play. I always park in the same garage but one recent day I decide to explore a different place to park.  I turn down a wide street and immediately realize this was a bad idea. I’m going the wrong way on a one-way street.  Crap. I immediately stop behind a parked car and look behind me so I can back out of there but traffic is busy.  There are about 8 cars on my street waiting for the light to change.  I’m not in their way but they decide to entertain themselves during the red light by honking their horns at me repeatedly.  The driver closest to me is a man and he is honking and turning purple screaming at me through his closed window.  I decide I’ve had enough abuse and resort to psychological warfare. Since my car is not rigged with loudspeakers, ready to blast Barry Manilow’s Greatest Hits at my enemies, I use the only tool I have at the moment.  I turn to the purple man, give him a big, dumb smile and a peppy, American-style thumbs up.  It works.  He’s completely unglued. “Oh, Mama, he’s really mad at you now,” Nora said gravely.  “That’s the idea, honey,” I responded.  The light turns green and Purple Man zooms off in a fury and I feel serene knowing that the sadists behind the wheel here don’t bother me anymore.

Hallowhat?

Being American, I forget that Halloween, while recognized in many other parts of the world, is really an American holiday.  In fact, many of the retail stores here skip Halloween altogether and go straight to Christmas. In Nora’s classroom, I’m an assistant room parent (yes, just one heartbeat away from top spot–just kidding, Ika) and we gathered a group of parents to discuss festivities for the year. When the subject of Halloween came up, the other parents shifted uncomfortably.  We needed to carve four pumpkins for the classroom and everyone around the table looked hopeless. They are from Fiji, Australia, Brazil, the Netherlands, Germany, and other far-flung parts and have never carved a pumpkin before. I realized, as the American, it was my duty to get things rolling. “Well, I can carve two pumpkins but I’m probably not going to commit to all four,” I offered. Pretty soon an Australian, a German, and the Fijian gamely offered to do it as well. My little team consisted of Nora and another American girl and 3 German boys. Everyone wanted our pumpkin to be terrifying and the boys decided the pumpkin should have VERY sharp fangs.  I loved showing the boys this new craft except they kept shoving their hands and arms inside the pumpkin while I was carving with a long butcher knife.  Not recommended!

While some step gingerly around this holiday, the American expats make sure that we get in some heavy celebrations.  We’ve already attended 3 Halloween parties and have 2 more to go. If we were back in the U.S., I probably would attend only half of these but, over here, I’m in the business of making new friends so we’re showing up at all of them.   The last get-together is on Halloween and is actually our event.  Gary and I are going to strut our stuff as Trekkies, old-school, polyester style.  Gary will be Spock and I will be the chick with the short red dress (what is her name??).  Anyway, I thought it was the best Target could offer and I ordered them online and Gary picked them up in Raleigh last week while back on a business trip. 

On a random note, I can never think of Star Trek without being reminded of an exchange student my family hosted while I was about 8 years old.  “Juan” was from Columbia, 16 years old, and didn’t know a word of English when he arrived.  He stayed with us about 6 months and cared only about these things: Star Trek re-runs, hot dogs, and our microwave oven.  He was mesmerized by all three of them and we could hardly pry him away.  That was the only remarkable thing about Juan except, after he left, I–being the youngest in the family–was sent in to clean out his bedroom. Under the bed, I discovered a huge cache of soft porn magazines.  So, I guess he cared about more than we realized and, now, I had something to share with my other 8 year old friends!  I was in Catholic school so this was a major score.  However, my mother confiscated the material so that was the end of a fascinating cultural exchange.