The Berlin Learning Curve

It’s hard to understand how many little things go into successfully navigating life, until you’re forced to learn them over again.  Take the supermarket for example.  Over the years, one learns more or less the fair price for an item, where items are likely placed, and how to avoid collisions with other shoppers.  It’s just a matter of experience–when one does something for so long, the procedure becomes self-evident.

But when that experience has to be amended to fit into another culture, often we feel like fish in a new flavor of water.

For all intents and purposes I’m more or less beyond the “newby” designation for European travel.  I know I shouldn’t wear flip flops and “Made in the USA” t-shirts unless I want to bring attention to myself.  I also realize I’m at a huge cultural disadvantage, knowing some but not all of the nuances which make up this culture.

A little knowledge is sometimes worse than no knowledge at all, especially when relating to things like grocery shopping.  On a routine trip to a large-by-European-standards grocery store (about the size of your average Safeway) I found myself lost in a new world of commerce.  The layout of US supermarkets is different from that of this place.  Items are more or less organized by type, though not always together.  For example lunch meat may be in the back of the store, but also scattered through three aisles.

On this day I also had bottles to redeem, earning back the Pfand (deposit) one pays at the original purchase.  For big bottles this can be 25 cents, so it’s worth the time it takes to find the machine in the store.  Sadly, I could not find the machine.  It wasn’t in the front of the store, not near the soda, not near the fish market.  I approached check out and the cashier gave me an odd look.  “Hallo?”  She asked carefully.

“Ja, Hallo.” I returned.  She began scanning my items and before hitting the total button at the end she just looked at me.

“Ist das alles? (Is that everything?)”  She said in a curiously bitter tone.

“Ja, das ist alles, danke.”  I tried to stay cheerful, as my German is still developing.  The total came to 20.05 Euros.  I had only a 20 and a 10 Euro bill.  I have found it best to apologize for any inconvenience before a situation escalates.  This is especially handy if you want to pay with a 50 Euro bill; some cashiers just say “No” and won’t take it.

“Es tut mir so Leid, aber ich habe nur zwanzig und zehn. (I’m sorry, but I only have a 20 and a 10.)”  I said.  The cashier gave me a mean look.

“Haben Sie Pfand, oder ein Euro, oder etwas? (Do you have a Pfand or Euro coin or something?)”  She said.  She was obviously ticked off.

“Nay, es tut mir Leid.  Ich hab’ kein Munzgeld.  Nächstes Mal werde ich das haben. (No, sorry.  I don’t have any change.  I’ll be sure to bring some next time.)” I said.

Fortunately the guy behind me in line volunteered a five cent piece to defuse the situation.  As I bagged my groceries though, the cashier and the gentlemen proceeded to talk about me, and how I could possibly go out without change.  They didn’t know I could understand, I imagine…or didn’t care.

I’m not bitter about that visit to the store, and chalk it up as a learning experience.  It’s just an example of a small task which increases one’s foreign knowledge in a very hands-on sort of way.  As my transatlantic flight miles continue to increase, I pride myself as being able to increasingly blend in (or at least not stand out) while in public.  Thus far, I get the impression locals aren’t sure where I’m from by appearance–I could be European with my red hair, though I’m likely from somewhere else.  Fortunately most folks do speak German to me assuming I understand–that’s a compliment in my book.  Some –obvious– foreigners are given a terse English sentence from the get-go.

Many of these lessons we learn come from being discreet and respectful in another culture.  Though Germany is a Western power, many things here are very uniquely German: the perspectives, practices, etc.

All of this cultural knowledge is being piled on top of my language learning, which is not always easy.  Up to this point, I’ve more or less learned German on my own, or with a one-on-one tutoring session, but now I’m going to school again, sharing a class with 18, 19, 20 year olds who have a very different view of their lives.  I leave school to read the paper and study with my wife and child, many of them leave school to drink and party.

I’m not a complete fuddy-duddy, and we get out and see the sights (or sleep through them in Baby’s case.)  Though things are a huge adjustment.  I can understand German much better than I could even 2 weeks ago, though some days are more or less throw-away.  The other day I could understand someone speaking to me in German, and I knew what I wanted to answer, but the words just wouldn’t come out of my mouth.  My brain said, “Not today.  We’re busy.”

But that’s okay. 

Sometimes we need to slow down to relearn the little things; the things we forgot we learned in the first place.  Watching Baby discover how his body moves and can affect his environment is a good metaphor for how we’re all getting along here. 

We’re all learning to function in the world around us, one awkward baby step at a time.

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