I speak pretty good German. Fluent but not native. People always assume it’s because my parents were German or at least my grandparents. But that’s not it. They’re not. Speaking German is my one talent. I can’t play an instrument or create great art but I can order pommes (french fries) like a native (rot-weiss*, for those keeping score). And I do so. Often.
But speaking German well has its disadvantages. When I was single and would meet people in bars, I had the impression they couldn’t figure out why a grown German man wouldn’t always know the right articles and sometimes needed an extra beat or two to find a simple word. They relaxed once I told them I was American but until then it seemed like they were trying to decide if I was a psychopath with homicidal tendencies. They kept their distance.
“That’s true,” a girlfriend told me once. “It’s a good thing I was really attracted to you because I couldn’t figure out why you were so strange in the beginning.” We met in a techno club. That might have been part of it.
There were other problems. At my first job in Berlin I would often get coffees for the whole office at Kaffee Einstein on Friedrischstrasse. I started to get the feeling the baristas got a kick out of my visits, but not in a good way. They always giggled after I placed my order. I finally had enough and stomped back to the office and announced with a flourish that I would no longer be getting coffee there.
“They just laugh at me,” I announced.
“What did you order?” my co-worker wondered.
“Zwei Cappucino, ein Americano und ‘ne Latte.“
I realized my mistake even before my co-workers collapsed on the floor in laughter. Three times a week I’d been asking the baristas at Kaffee Einstein for an erection (Die Latte – slang, erection; der Latte (Machiatto) – coffee). It all lay in the conjugation of the article.
There’s also a great German saying about some things in life being tough: Mühsam ernährt sich das Eichhörnchen. It means, it takes effort for the squirrel to feed itself. You’re right. It does sound better in German.
Speaking German well
For years I said: Langsam nähert sich das Eichhörnchen (the squirrel is slowly approaching). Since I understood the message of the German saying, I thought the saying was referring to an animal show where the squirrel was carefully approaching a nut, as though the nut were living pray. Now that I think about it, my saying is way cooler.
“You know,” my wife said after 10 years of marriage, “You say that saying wrong.” She then filled me in on my mistake.
“Why didn’t you tell me that 10 years ago?” It became clear to me that now half of Berlin thinks I’m some kind of idiot savant American who’s great with languages but has trouble with colloquialisms.
“I just thought it was cute,” she said.
The good-speaker pitfall has hit my friends too. My buddy Marc once marched into a pharmacy in hopes of finding a new kind of painkiller for his migraines. After about 20 minutes of discussion with the pharmacist she suggested something he’d never heard of before. But he couldn’t admit his ignorance because he was single and she was cute and had a good sense of humor.
After talking about this mysterious medication for 10 minutes he went home and opened a German-English dictionary. That was the day he learned the German word for suppository.
Unfortunately he’d already swallowed two.