Sunday, October 17, 2010

So many beautiful things (excluding public toilets)

Every weekend, I make a point of taking in at least one tourist attraction. So far, I've spent an afternoon in Cologne, visited Bonn's botanical garden, hiked to a hilltop castle, seen a modern dance performance, spent a day in Dusseldorf, strolled along the Rhine River, checked out the Beethoven Museum, and walked through Konigswinter's wine region.

It's good to do these things in small doses. Setting aside a few hours on a Saturday to see the sights is better than spending the entire weekend rushing from museum to castle. But this has nothing to do with a preference for quality over quantity. This is all about a lack of public toilets in Germany.

I would love to spend more than three hours wandering around Bonn on a Saturday afternoon but my bladder won't let me. There are no free public toilets anywhere.

There are public washrooms in the train stations but these usually come with a one-Euro cover charge. Unless you limit your sightseeing to a one-kilometre radius around the train station, you'll be nowhere near a public toilet when the urge strikes. And don't make the mistake of thinking McDonald's is a toilet safe haven -- the one place where you don't have to buy anything to use the bathroom.

I made that rookie mistake in Dusseldorf. I had been walking up and down the same street five times desperately looking for the "WC" marked on the map (this was before I realized the "WC" symbol dotted all over the map didn't refer to the location of a "water closet" but to "wheelchair" access).

So I ducked into a McDonald's, where I was surprised to see a toilet attendant stationed outside the stalls. She sat on a chair beside a table with a small pile of coins on it. There were no signs but the message was clear -- pay up if you want to use the toilet.

I mean, I probably didn't have to pay but this woman was a professional and she knew how to play the guilt card. I was washing my hands in the sink when she jumped up and handed me a paper towel. It was a strategic move. I couldn't get a paper towel with my hands still occupied under the running faucet. She had anticipated my needs and provided a service (albeit a service I didn't want or need). My conscience wouldn't let me walk out of there without adding a couple of coins to the pile.

This wasn't a five-star hotel. This was a McDonald's. A place where homeless people and non-paying customers should be able to use the bathroom for free. I'm not opposed to paying to using the bathroom in general. Just not at McDonald's. Multi-billion dollar corporations should give something back to the community. Free public toilets is the least they can do.

So I limit my sightseeing to a few hours on the weekend. But no matter where I go or what I do, there is always one common theme -- a desperate need to use a bathroom and an inability to find one.

Toilet troubles aside, I have seen so many beautiful things on these little sightseeing trips. Trees wrapped in misty morning fog along the Rhine River. Frank Gehry buildings sparkling and shining in the afternoon sun in Dusseldorf. Trees blazing in the throes of autumn beauty in Bonn's botanical garden. Grapes growing under rocky mountains in Konigswinter.

I only stayed a few hours in each of these places. I would have stayed longer but I had to use the bathroom and there were no toilets in sight. This is the story the photos don't tell.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ausfahrts and dinkelpops

I am ashamed to admit that after more than one month in Germany, I still can't speak a single word of German. Unless you count the words that are already embedded in the English language. Kindergarten, hamburger, doppelganger, lederhosen, schadenfreude, sauerkraut and strudel. That's about the extent of my not-so-wunderbar vocabulary.

It's not something I'm proud of. I feel anxious and exposed when someone tries to strike up a conversation with me. I feel like I'm being rude if I reply to them in English when they ask me a question in German. I get self-conscious if I place an order at a restaurant without attempting to do it in German. It's like I'm saying, "Yeah. I'm living in your country but I can't be bothered to learn your language. So I'm going to force you to speak my language."

It's not that I don't want to learn German. It's just easy to survive without it. Pretty much everyone here can speak English. And no one seems to mind making the switch when they realize I have no clue what they're saying. There's not a lot of motivation to break out of the English-speaking bubble.

Except every time I leave my apartment, I get all stressed out when someone tries to talk to me in German. So I figured it was time to master a few uber-essential phrases to ease my angst. I came up with a list of expressions I wanted to learn:

1. "Sorry" (because I always seem to be bumping into people);

2. "Excuse me" (because I always seem to be trying to squeeze past people);

3. "I can't speak German" (because there's no excuse to keep saying it in English);

4. "Three buns, please" (because I'm tired of the mime routine. I always order three buns at the bakery and I feel like an idiot when the woman behind the counter asks what I want and I silently hold up three fingers and point at the buns instead of just asking for them like a normal person).

Learning how to say "sorry" was easy enough. It turns out the German word for "sorry" is "sorry." Learning how to say "excuse me" involved too many tongue-tripping consonants. So I decided to use "sorry" for "excuse me" like the way we do in Canada. Two birds, one stone.

As for the more meaty phrases, Google Translate taught me how to say, "Ich kann nicht Deutsch sprechen" (I can't speak German). But no matter how many times I nail it in practice, I can never remember how to say it in real life.

Like when I was in line at the grocery store and the guy ahead of me turned around and blurted out a few sentences in German. I smiled, thinking maybe he was just making a comment about how long it was taking to reach the cash register. But he repeated it again. And again. I stood there desperately trying to pull out the German words from the deepest recesses of my brain. But my neurons were taking a nap. I wasn't going to be able to fake my way through this one by smiling and nodding. He tried one more time before I broke down and told him I couldn't speak German (in English, of course).

And, so, in perfect English he told me he was waiting for a friend to add a few more things to his cart and I was free to jump ahead of him. I thanked him in German because, well, I've got to start somewhere.

My first real victory was learning how order three rolls at the bakery ("Drei spitz Brotchen bitte"). This was easy because it was strictly mechanical. I just had to memorize the phrase, repeat it in my head 100 times on the way to the bakery, stand in front of the counter and spit it out like a robot. It worked perfectly.

Although the second time I tried this, I asked for three buns and only got two. I felt defeated. Until I returned home and found out the numbers two (zwei) and three (drei) sound very similar, especially if your pronunciation is as embarrassingly bad as mine is. (I'm too self-conscious to attempt the back-of-the-throat gargling sounds.)

I'm slowly picking up other words here and there. Every time I see an interesting word, I make a note of it and look it up later. Like this one.

There are ausfahrt signs everywhere. And, yes, it's pronounced exactly the way you think it's pronounced. But it doesn't mean what you think it does (it means "exit"). I'm sure Germans are tired of their ausfahrts being the butt of juvenile jokes so I'm going to leave it at that.

Another one of my new favourite words is "dinkelpops."

How adorable is that? Puffed wheat is such an uninspired description of the world's most delicious cereal (after Grape-Nuts, that is). Dinkelpops is exactly what they are. Cute with a little touch of naughtiness.

Ausfahrts and dinkelpops. I'm making progress one word at a time. At this rate, I'll probably be able to string an entire sentence together before I leave Germany.

My German may be terrible but bad German is a whole lot better than no German.