Fooling the natives

Long-time readers of might remember a post from 2008, in which I was so proud to be able to use my beginner German skills to interact at a German food store in Phoenix.  The victory in that day was not that I spoke German well, rather that I survived even a few sentences in a foreign language.  I would go on to have proper training, and focus myself more fully on actually learning the language and not just phrases from a guide book, and as one’s skills progress so do one’s goals.

For a long time my goal has been to speak German well-enough so that a native speaker doesn’t immediately think I am a native English-speaker.  A Northern German might think I am Bavarian, a Bavarian might think I am Austrian, and Austrian might think I am Swiss, a Swiss might think I am German.  To me, it doesn’t matter how wrong the guess is, so long as the native German-speaker doesn’t say “American” or “British” when guessing where I am from.  Why?  Well, it is a badge of honor to speak well-enough to even superficially fool a native speaker, and I find interactions with people are a little less mired in stereotypes or assumptions when people don’t think you are from a superpower across the pond.

So when a line cook who prides himself on identifying accents was stumped, and his mouth dropped to the floor when I told him where I am from, my day became a lot better.


It must be said, that German as a core language is common in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, but the accents and phrasing can differ noticeably.  I have always concentrated on sticking with “High German” (or “Written German” as the Swiss defiantly call it) because Hochdeutsch is the actual language, just as French, Italian or English are languages.  Swiss German is a dialect.  As is Bavarian. Or Schwäbisch.  Because there are so many accents, native speakers often can (try) guess where someone is from, just by listening.  This helps someone like me, whose accent is just strange enough to throw some people (who are not paying close attention) off the scent.

I walked into the local grocery store for lunch the other day.  It isn’t as sad as it sounds: bigger stores here have proper restaurants, cafeteria-style at a “decent” price.  Decent is subjective, and in Switzerland that means a big sausage and fries is CHF12, or thereabouts.

I walked up to the counter and said, “Hallo.”  In Germany this is an okay greeting, but in Switzerland it is often used to show annoyance.  Mothers use it to tell children to pay attention, or hurry up.  I did not mean it that way.

“Ohhhh,” chuckled the server to his colleague.

“Sorry,” I said in German. “I didn’t mean to offend you.  Did I do something wrong?” It was at this point I remembered the thing about mothers saying that to kids, and I felt bad.

“No, we just hear that all day long,” the guy said, noticing I was being earnest. “You’re Austrian, huh?”

“No, no,” I said.

“Really!??! No, you’re Austrian.”

“No, really I’m not,” I said.

“Okay, then what will you have?”

“Bratwurst and fries.”

“Ohhh, come on, you are Austrian,” he said, visibly confused.

“Honest, I am not Austrian.”

“German? From Thurgau (in Switzerland)?” He threw out regions, and I shot them down as my fries cooked in the oil.  I finally rested the debate and told him I am American.  He put down what he had in his hands, his mouth opened, and he shot back in disbelief,

“No you aren’t! No.  No. No. Not American.  No. Really?!?”

“Yes, American,” I said, amused.

“I see Germans, Austrians, whatever.  But Americans?  They are either arrogant or scumbags.  Nobody is like you.  Respect, man.  Respect.”

There is a lot going on in that last exchange.  He didn’t say scumbags (in German) though he referred to the alternatives as drug users or crazies, which I distilled to scumbags.  On one hand I want to defend my countrymen, and say no we are not all like that!  But I think my speaking German, and playing along made that point for me.

Americans, and the British it should be said, have terrible reputations as tourists.  Germans might be intrigued by Americans, especially those who live in Germany and are sharing a bit of the life, but tourists tend to be different animals.  Tourists roam in packs, shuffle quickly from site to site, and have often not learned much about where they are visiting.  From a practical stand-point: no, you probably can’t learn 5 languages and histories for a whirlwind European vacation.  But that doesn’t mean locals wouldn’t want to see you try.

I have to assume this line cook was just tired, and on any other day would finger me as an American.  In Greece a German woman thought I was British right away, despite my having a pretty good “German day” for language.  You can’t, and I don’t, win them all.

But at least from that one guy, cooking fries and a bratwurst on the third floor of a grocery store, Americans got a little more street cred.  I am not sure what that will bring in the long-run, but it has to be a good thing.  It shows we are trying to integrate, trying to respect our current home.  And trying to show sometimes judging a nation on its MTV or on its tourists doesn’t tell the whole story.

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