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.