Tuesday, May 01, 2012

First impressions (second time around)

When you live in Japan, it's easy to forget how chatty people in other parts of the world can be. Striking up a conversation with the cashier as she scans your groceries simply isn't done in Kyoto. I've never seen anyone ask a clerk at 7-Eleven how his day is going. I've never seen a train attendant stop to chat with passengers about the weather. I've never overheard a salesgirl crack a joke with a customer. There's a distance and a quietness among strangers in Japan, rather than the jovial, overly familiar banter we're used to in the west.

So it came as a shock when I arrived in Germany and found myself surrounded by people who made small talk seem as natural as breathing. At the Frankfurt airport, I had more conversations with random strangers in 30 minutes than I'd had in three-and-a-half years in Japan.

The customs officer asked me questions about what I was doing in Germany and how long I planned to stay (technically, this conversation may have been part of his job but the tone was more chatty than interrogative). A Brazilian passenger told me about his ski trip all the way to the baggage area. At the baggage area, an airport employee took it upon himself to give me the weather forecast for the week. On the train to Bonn, the guy sitting next to me gave me an impromptu lecture on German cuisine. He described the many varieties of German bread and told me that apple juice mixed with sparkling water, not beer, was his countrymen’s beverage of choice. When the train attendant asked if we would like some chocolate, his eyes shone and he knowingly said, "Ah, German chocolate. Best chocolate in the world." His face fell when she handed me a Snickers bar (presumably not the kind of chocolate he was referring to).

But the chattiness doesn't end there. It's a constant thing. When I walk down the street, people stop me to ask for directions. When I stand in line at the grocery store, someone will turn to me and make an offhand remark about the length of the line up or last night's soccer game or their eye medication or who knows what.

This friendly banter among strangers is nice but the problem is that all of these conversations are in German and I can't speak German. Smiling, nodding and saying, "ja, ja, ja" will only get you so far. The small talk I dread the most is the kind that comes with a raised voice at the end of a sentence. A question means I have to come clean and admit that I can't speak German. I hate having to say that I can't speak German in English. It makes me feel self-conscious and rude. Whenever I say, "Sorry, I can't speak German" I'm worried the other person will interpret this as, "I will live in your country. I will work in your country. But I won't learn your language. I will speak English and so will you."

So, learning German is a priority. In the meantime, I asked a German colleague to teach me how to say, "I can't speak German" in a way that implies I want to learn German but haven't gotten around to it yet. She wrote down the following phrase: Ich spreche noch nicht gut Deutsch, konnen wir Englisch sprechen? I've memorized the words but the pronunciation (a roller-coaster of larynx-twisting sounds that gargle up from the throat to the mouth and back down again) is another story.

Aside from the chattiness and the language barrier, there are other things that are still new and exciting. Like the bike lanes on almost every street (and the cute little stoplights just for cyclists with their red, yellow and green bicycle lights). Or the fact that you can get organic food pretty much everywhere, even at the drugstore. Or the fact that my apartment has a shower inside the apartment and you don't need to feed coins into a machine to use it. Also, I now have a stove with four burners instead of one. It excites me that I can cook pasta and sauce at the same time. Cooking with a one-burner stove and no oven for three-and-a-half years was tedious, time-consuming and required a lot of creative energy. Now that I have a four-burner stove again, I have no idea how I survived without it.

On the negative side, I was surprised to discover that there is a thriving neo-Nazi scene in Germany. But here's the shocking thing: not only are there neo-Nazis but they also have parades and actually show their faces in public. I would have thought being a neo-Nazi in 2012 was the sort of thing you'd want to keep on the down low. Isn't it kind of embarrassing to march through the streets and publicly out yourself as a right-wing extremist?

There was a neo-Nazi parade in Bonn today and I went because I didn't know that neo-Nazis still existed and I wanted to see them with my own eyes (and to support to the counter demonstration, of course). However, I didn't actually get to see any neo-Nazis because there were so many anti-neo-Nazi demonstrators blocking the parade route that police put up barricades to prevent the anti-neo-Nazis from getting within 50 metres of the neo-Nazis. Thousands of people turned up to try to stop the neo-Nazi parade so that's a good thing. Here they are giving neo-Nazis the finger.

On a lighter note, I was also surprised to learn that there are cherry blossoms in Bonn. I was upset about missing the cherry blossom season in Japan. But when I arrived in Bonn, the blossoms were already here, waiting to welcome me to my new home.


don said...

It is because you are a hot chiqua. People usually ignore me no matter where I go. Well, except for the seniors centre, everyone wants to talk to me there. Sigh

Sarah said...

Haha! I'm not so sure about that. Don, stop hanging out at the seniors centre and get out there and meet some cute Okanagan men! I'm sure they'd be falling all over a cute, interesting, funny, intelligent, athletic guy like you!

Anonymous said...

Wow, you are in my hometown now - this is weird to me because I've been (silently) reading your blog for such a long time! It is funny that you think Germans are so open to small talk - in over 20 years of living in Bonn I have NEVER struck up a random conversation with a stranger. Germans are actually pretty closed-up, very similar to the Japanese. I have just returned from living in NZ for seven years, and I already miss the lovely chats I used to have there!

About the "thriving neo-Nazi scene." Please, do not make such statements after only having been in Germany for such a short time. It really isn't true at all! The reason these people are allowed to demonstrate (it is not a parade as such), is because we are a democracy and as such groups are allowed to demonstrate freely (unless they start rioting or propagate unlawfulness), unfortunately that includes groups with terrible agendas. Usually, the anti-nazi demonstrations are MUCH bigger and much more colourful!!! These are small, random groups that do not get any support whatsoever from the majority of Germans, and political parties that are truly fascist are forbidden. Please, do not present these groups as "thriving." Neo-Nazism is a problem primarily in the East, but even there we have an even stronger anti-Nazi movement.

I hope you like it in Bonn - who knows, we might bump into each other one day. :-)


Sarah M. said...

Hi Ulrike! Thank you for this. I didn't know I had a reader in Bonn. Nice. :)

Maybe the small talk among strangers isn't all that common in Bonn. But compared to my experience in Japan (generally speaking of course. There are many exceptions!) people in Bonn seem more chatty. It's nothing like the U.S. or parts of Canada though. That's sort of extreme random conversations.

I sure don't mean to imply there is a thriving neo-Nazi scene. Again, just shocking to me to even see that they would be allowed to have a march and that they have supporters. Again, this could be my Canadian sensibilities here but this was quite surprising. Like you said, the anti-neo-nazi crowd was much, much bigger and much more vocal! Happy to see that.

Perhaps we will bump into each other :-)


Anonymous said...

Well, see, my German sensibilities towards fascism and anti-semitism are - I am 100% sure - even more attuned towards rejecting these neo-Nazis, as we are thoroughly educated in school about our terrible past and learn why these people were disgustingly wrong, sadistic fools. You learn it not only in History, but also in German Literature, Philosophy, Political Studies, etc. And most of the time you will have visited at least one Holocaust memorial, concentration camp or history museum during your time at school to see firsthand what your own people did not too long ago.

But, you see, there are idiots everywhere in the world, and unfortunately a democracy means freedom of speech for ALL citizens, even the idiotic ones, sigh.
Again, I am fairly certain this is the same in Canada as well, and I would be very surprised if there weren't white supremacists doing their thing there as well - I know they do in certain parts of the US (not wanting to mix up the US with Canada though!). I know that other European countries have the same neo-Nazi marches and demonstrations at certain...um "tender dates" (Hitler's birthday being one of them), so it's not a German thing.

I just wanted to make the point that this is highly unusual for my country, and that it is only tolerated because freedom of speech is a basic right here, as is the case in every democracy. If the government were to forbid these demonstrations, these people could sue (I believe they actually HAVE done that in some cases were city councils tried to stop them). The law, unfortunately, is on their side until they do or say something that ACTIVELY promotes fascism. They are also not allowed to carry any Third Reich symbols such as the swastika, etc. This is all forbidden, due to our past. So, what they do is they usually very carefully plan the whole thing so that it is offensive enough to piss all of us off but NOT offensive enough to make it possible to arrest them.

Yes, maybe we will bump into each other and I can experience my first random chat here in Bonn! :-)

Sarah M. said...

Thank you for this! I like that I'm getting some lessons through my blog. This is great. Yes, there are idiots everywhere. I guess that is the point. I'm sure there are neo-Nazis in Canada. I guess maybe we limit our freedom of speech because I don't think they would be granted permission by the city to hold a parade (not basing that on any facts. I could be wrong. That's just my feeling).

Looking forward to a random chat! That would be nice. By the way, it's so funny that you don't find random chatters in Bonn because again last night the cashier at the grocery store started telling me what seemed like a very long and very funny story (based on the fact that people behind me were laughing too). Too ashamed to admit I couldn't speak German, I just smiled and nodded. :-)


Michael Hanson said...

Excuse me, just a independent critical thinker here. Well, I suppose left-wing extremist don't exist in your oh-so-perfect 'democratic' world. I hope there aren't any 'nazis' here trying to censor me. @Anonymous even more attuned? don't your mean more 'reflexive' as a result of a lifetime of state institutionalized propagandizing? Surprise girlies! Germany is free as long as your are ANTI-German. It's funny that you speak of 'education' when I know you mean; indoctrination, brainwashing, regimentation, etc. Yes, I've been there. In literature, philosophy, and in other courses, demonizing our past heroes in every sphere of life. Basically, anyone who was pro-German is demonized, nazi or not. "disgustingly wrong, sadistic fools"? lol I guess you haven't meet our fellow freedom-loving communist 'Allies'. The same one that exterminated over 30mill and sadistically raped, killed, tortured millions of German and eastern European women and children.
Any chance you visited the the Dresden, Hiroshima 'holocaust' museum? Or how about Palestinian Holocaust museum? They don't exist? I wonder why. Are they not 'chosen' enough to merit one? By supporting the 'holocaust' you ALL support the oppression and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians! The lesson of the whole tragic event of WWII should've been a total aversion to war and civilian atrocities. You know, bombing women and children to 'free' them. Not, that Jews are infallible and have the right to Palestine.

"unfortunately a democracy means..." Yes, how unfortunate! Why don't we lock-up anyone who doesn't agree with us. Like the exemplary USSR or China. When Gov. restricts freedom of speech, that means they've lost the legitimacy to rule fair and truthfully. It also means Tyranny. It's absolutely laughable that you think Germany today is a real 'democracy' or has any meaningful tinge of freedom of speech. China and Iran have more freedom of speech than Germany does today. There are hundreds of political prisoners in Germany today whose crime was their 'words' and opinions.
If atrocities and killing, in principle, were the reason this people counter-demonstrate - and not all the propaganda people got imbued with - why not stand against the atrocities in Gaza whenever Zionists come to town. Or why not against overt Communist or pro-Marxist groups? Whose ideas murdered over 100 million people.

"is only tolerated because freedom of speech" Is tolerated because they don't DO or say anything 'illegal' according to German law. Which is btw are the most Orwellian law in the world. "Truth is not a defense". Once you get acquitted with it, you'll appreciate the Anglo-Saxon tradition of common law. "True and fair view". Germany has been defamed, humiliated, for so long and is a practically at the beck and call of Israel. A vassal state complete with monthly tributes.
Do you know how many people with stupid political views offend me? Including the dimwits who believe people should be imprison for not conforming to social 'norms'? A lot. When 'feelings' triumph, reason, morality and therefore freedom loses.

Freedom is the only way truth and understanding can prevail. There are, still enough people who value freedom more than 'feelings'.
As the great German poet Ernst Moritz Arndt wrote: "Der Gott der Eisen wachsen ließ, der wollte keine Knechte... Drum gab er ihm den kühnen Mut, Den Zorn der freien Rede"

Sarah M. said...

Thanks for your comment Michael. I don't think anyone was suggesting that we lock anyone up for differing views. Nor should we restrict freedom of speech. It's a thorny issue and I'm glad to see the range of different opinions happening here in the comments.

From what I've been told by German colleagues, there was a time when people here wouldn't have hung a German flag out their window. To be seen as pro-German would have been shameful. But I was told that recently, that's not really the case any more. You could see it by the huge number of German flags that were being flown out of windows or on car doors during the Euro Cup last month. Today's Germany is a much different Germany that the one in the past. And the new generations weren't alive in WWII. Yes, we should feel bad for the past, but only so that we can learn from it and not make the same mistakes again (though that doesn't really seem to be happening). Just some general thoughts off the top of my head.


Michael H. said...

Thanks for you reply Sara. I must say, I follow a wide range of blogs, and this one is very intriguing indeed. Unfortunately, there is this pervasive - I might even say extremist Liberal - idea all over Europe and even Canada that 'force' is necessary to 'protect' people feelings. I understand is a very complicated issue, but to me freedom to freely exchange ideas is the way to truth. Only those who fear truth and human nature, choose regimentation, force and coercion.

Doesn't it sound strange that to be patriotic is/was shameful? Especially here in America, that would sound strange. God knows, I've meet plenty of very patriotic people around here. I do really hope that we learn from our mistakes. But as you can see, people in power never tire of war. There is always an excuse. Maybe one day good people will put a stop to all this nonsense. One can only hope.

Sarah M. said...

Hi Michael. Yes it can get pretty complicated, especially when freedom of speech crosses over into what could be deemed hate speech or libel, etc. These days you won't find an extreme liberal bias in Canada. In fact, we seem to have gone in the other direction but that's a whole other blog post about our Prime Minister that I think is best left for another day! :)

Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it.


Michael H. said...

Just a quick thought. It is dangerous when people start to determine what is 'hate' or 'libel'. I would think only a perfect, totaly unbias, spotless individuals can do so. Because, eventually, people who want to remain in power can use it to criminalize anyone for speaking against their wrong doings. The key here is 'criminalizing speech'. Kings and tyrants used it in the past, now a whole political system uses it.
When freedom reigns, you can refute hate speech or libels with truth and honesty. When it doesn't, one can criminalize its very existance, making people prisoners of their own mind.

Much more can be said of course.

Anyway, thanks for you time, Sarah.

Sarah M. said...

You're most welcome. And, thank you.