Moving to any foreign country can be disorienting. The British author of "How to Be German in 50 Easy Steps" reflects on his first days in what could be the quirkiest culture of all.
Day 1 in Germany
Dear Diary, guess who moved to the Fatherland? Me! Yeah, crazy, right? I was born to live here. I can feel it in my Seele. That was the German word for soul, diary. You’re welcome. I have secured a room in what the Germans call a Vegay, sharing with this guy Arno. He’s from Beelafeld, I think. A place he said Germans know doesn’t exist. He’s, hmm, kind of particular. He does something very, very specific with bolts and pistons. It seems like everyone here has a doctor title. Even their qualifications have qualifications. Told him about my BA in marketing; he chuckled.
I moved in. The room was so bare it didn’t even have lightbulb fittings. Arno said it’s very normal that the person before you takes the lightbulb fittings. That when people here move they take absolutely everything they own, even their kitchen. Germans are like turtles, I guess. He wrote a long word down for me and told me to go to a Baumarkt.
Glühbirnenfassung. I awoke full of endeavor. Baumarkt I would find. Food shopping I would do. Foiled I was. Sunday . . . nothing open. Anywhere. It’s like they lock up the country on Sundays. Went home. Asked Arno. It’s the law, he said. Didn’t have any food. Borrowed some of Arno’s yoghurt. Didn’t ask. I’m sure it’s fine. In the evening Arno’s friends came over to watch Tatort. It’s a detective show on television. We watched it together in the kitchen. Everything important here happens in the kitchen. I think because it’s the most practical room in the house. I asked if Tatort was good and Arno froze, like he’d been paused. Eventually he said "It’s Tatort . . ." as if this made it clearer. It didn’t. I talked during the show. Was sent out to my bedroom. It was dark.
Went to Baumarkt again to find that long word. I can see why Arno likes it there. It’s full of incredibly specific things. I tried to find a staff member. There were none. I guess Germans know what they are doing. Why do they always seem to know what they are doing? Why don’t I? Hmm . . .
Arno noticed the yoghurt was missing. Left a passive-aggressive note taped to fridge door. Apparently it wasn’t just yoghurt, it was Quark. Which is yoghurt but German and so automatically 8,000 percent more serious.
Came home to find Arno waiting for me in the kitchen, sitting in the dark because of Umwelt. It was an intervention. Apparently, the night before, I’d accidentally put paper in the plastic bin!?!? Arno held a 45-minute seminar on the German approach to recycling. Less of an approach, more of a pathology, I’d say. I’ve started drinking now, most nights, in bars. Beer here is wonderful, and so cheap that they even have something called the Apple Juice Law, which requires one other drink to be cheaper than beer in any bar.
I’ve been here a week already, diary?! Wunderbar! That’s another German word, you’re welcome. I’ve been thinking about it and I’ve decided Germans are nice, but that niceness is beneath an outer crust of measured indifference. Maybe it’s a language thing. Today a man shouted: "Halt!" at me when I crossed the road on a red Ampelmännchen. I wanted to give him a piece of my mind, but I only had English parts that he didn’t understand. Then the woman in Lidl scanned my stuff really, really fast. I wanted to ask her to slow down but the only word I had was halt. It worked. Too well. Everyone turned and looked. Awkward. I guess I need to go to German class.
Well, I survived a week of German class, diary. I think. Just. Ugh. Yuck. It’s like the German language lives only to mock me. To make me feel inferior. I now know why small talk isn’t a big part of this culture; before you make jokes, you have to make grammar. It’s just not worth it... If I ever hear the words Akkusativ or Dativ again, I’m going to punch someone in der das den dem Kopf. I missed class today for the first time. But I have kein Angst, diary, I’ll totally be back there tomorrow.
I’m sorry to say that I didn’t end up going back to class, diary. I missed a few with that really bad headache . . . more of a migraine, really . . . probably an untreated brain tumor affecting my foreign-language-learning nerve center. But it’s cool, I’m totally going to study at home. If I just do one hour a day, every day, I’ll be fluent in six months! Other than that, life is great!! I have a girlfriend!!!! We met in a bar (so Arno was good for something after all). She just started talking to me. Women are forward here. It’s awesome. Her name is Sara. She’s from Chemist or Chemnitz. She doesn’t wear makeup, and she fixes her own bike. She knows all about philosophy and Neatche and stuff. She can open a beer bottle with anything. We went to a lake today. We swam naked. She called it FKK. It was wonderful. I think I’m in love. She said she likes how I’m fun and uncomplicated and not full of existential Angst, like German men. I said that sounds a lot like hard work. She said I’m like a puppy. I barked. She laughed.
Sara came back to my place, she said it fehlt etwas. We went to Baumarkt together to buy that long word. She installed it and now I have light!
And furniture!!!! Sara built it. I am in love (not with Arno). Then we made a Kartoffelsalat together, although I think we forgot the salad part since it seemed to be 99 percent Kartoffel and the rest mayonnaise. It was delicious.
Today was my birthday. I invited everyone I know. All seven of them came. In Germany, you’re supposed to bring the cake! Didn’t bring the cake. No cake. In the end, someone put a candle in a Brötchen. It was cute. Then, at the end, I was supposed to pay for all the drinks!!?! Next year, I’ll just not tell anyone it’s my birthday. Cheaper that way. Sara laughed at the plan and said: "Gute Idee, Geiz ist geil." Not sure what that meant, either.
Lying in bed, after sex, high, I asked Sara if it had been good for her, too. She said it was "perfectly satisfactory." I think, in this country, if you might not like the answer, you should probably not ask the question. Forgot to pay the rent last month. Arno paid it for me, it turns out. Paid him back.
Sara and I had our first fight. I was an hour late to meet her because I’d said: "Let’s meet at half five." She arrived at 4:30 p.m., the German half five, I now know. Sara asked me when I’m going to go back to German class. I said irgendwo. She frowned and said: "Exactly."
After a Pfand bottle accidentally found its way into the recycling bin (8 cents nearly lost!), Arno repeated the entirety of his recycling seminar, and gave me a condensed version as a handout. I told him I’m trying. He said: "Try harder." I told Sara about it. She took Arno’s side, though, and said that recycling is important because of Umwelt.
Sara and I had another big fight while biking. It was about how I don’t treat our relationship, or anything, seriously. She said that I’m just drifting. I said that it’s probably a problem with my bike and could she fix it again? She said not everything can be a joke. I told her that in England, it can. She asked me what I’m doing with my life. I told her marketing. She told me to grow up. I barked. She didn’t laugh.
Sara and I fought again, and she asked me what I wanted from life. I said her. She said this isn’t a Hollywood movie. I told her I thought she might be my soulmate. She told me souls are an artificial construct of the religious patriarchy. I nodded. She said she didn’t think she could be in a relationship with someone who didn’t even have Haftpflichtversicherung (liability insurance, I now know). She left. Since then she hasn’t answered any of my messages. I’m going crazy. What did I do wrong? I was nice.
I learned a new expression: Nett ist der kleine Bruder von Scheisse (nice is the little brother of shit). Explains a lot. I feel like in England we’re into intentions. You can get away with anything as long as you meant well. Here, it’s not so much about why but what and how. I guess that makes sense?! Makes people accountable for their actions?! Hmm. Also explains why the road to hell is paved with good intentions, not with Germans. Left the window open, it rained into the kitchen. Arno was mad.
Came home to another note from Arno. He told me that we "want different things." I think by that he means we both want each other to no longer be here. Only he was here first. I have to find somewhere new to live. Ate some of his Quark when he wasn’t looking. Revenge: A dish best served cold (and pasteurized).
I found a new place, furnished, extraordinarily expensive. No roommates = heaven. No lightbulb fittings = predictable. No Sara = hell. Still no word from her. I drink most nights now. Last night, I biked home drunk from a bar and accidentally scratched a new black BMW. Scheisse.
Took out that liability insurance and four other kinds of insurance as well. Sicher ist sicher.
Moved into new place. Went to Baumarkt for Glühbirnenfassung. In and out in five minutes. Sara would have been proud. Still no word from her. Is no news still good news? Signed up for German class. Es war genug. Es ist Zeit. Wir schaffen das, Angie.
In the Hof, someone had put Biomüll in the paper bin. Ugh. Umwelt. Moved it. Everything needs to be in its place.
Ninety-nine days already, diary? Unglaublich. See how I said unbelievable in German there? You can have that one total kostenlos, Bitte schön. There were lots of loud American types in the Kneipe tonight. Annoying. I’m getting really tired of all those expats coming in and gentrifying my Kiez (neighbourhood). They don’t even like try to fit in or learn German or anything. I mean, I’m not like fluent or anything, but I can speak genug. Just the other day someone confused me for a German while my back was turned to him and I hadn’t said anything and I was wearing a hat.
I saw Sara in the park today. With Arno. They were holding hands. Scheisse.
Adam Fletcher is a bald, 34-year-old Englishman in Berlin. He has written 4 books about Germany. Read his first one; he says everyone likes it the most