Every new language learned gives us the chance to mess up royally and sort of get away with it. Not that we necessarily want to, although I did recently watch a well known TED Talk in which a 35 year old talks about his fluency in 10 languages, achieved because he approached each language with the idea of making at least 100 mistakes a day. That thought alone is brave and commendable, and I’ve even tried to implement this rule into my own German learning each day, but by the first mistake I fumble for words then laugh nervously when I come up without a save.
Will and I have had a few great laughs over something we’ve done or said, or haven’t said, during this time of figuring out day by day how to converse in German-speaking Europe. Thankfully, thankfully, we haven’t said anything offensive, or if we have no one’s told us about it. We haven’t told anyone we have a hangover instead of a male cat, nor have we accidentally, I don’t know, asked for a bra when we meant to say glasses. Bra and glasses aren’t anywhere close to the same words but hey, weird things happen when you’re not speaking in your mother tongue. So yeah, luckily we haven’t done those things, but we have definitely messed up – two in particular that probably could’ve gotten us arrested or at least detained by security.
If you follow us on Twitter, you may remember the constant sorrowful, fairly aggravated tweets about us being at IKEA for hours upon hours while we moved into our new apartment. That was during our second month here, so at that point we were without German classes or much experience in the outside world. During that stretch of IKEA trips, we made one trip to OBI – a store similar to Lowes or Home Depot. Will had his backpack with him because we had come directly from work but neither of us realized this would pose a problem for the store. While we were checking out, the cashier muttered a spew of words that neither of us understood. In cases such as that, which happen often, our rule is to just say “Nein” because we don’t want to accidentally agree to something we don’t want like a lifetime membership card or a subscription to a magazine. The cashier, still looking down, mumbled her sentence one more time since neither of us had responded the last time she spoke. We looked at each other, totally lost, and Will said “Nein”. The cashier shot her head up and looked at us very intently and said “Uh, ja..” then motioned to a sign behind her. That didn’t help us because we couldn’t read the sign, so Will said “Nein” to the frustrated cashier one more time, picked up our purchases, and we left. It wasn’t until much, much later that we found out it is a requirement in most stores for one to open up his or her book bag for the cashier in order to show nothing has been stolen. So, translated, Will’s conversation with the cashier sounded something like…
“Open your book bag please.”
“Mmm…no thanks. Have a nice day.”
A similar thing happened to me at IKEA, only I was alone and there were 6 or 7 other customers waiting behind me as I paid. Whenever I’m alone and in a store, I have to plan out what’s going to happen once I get to the register because, if you’ve never been to a store in Austria or Germany, checking out is a race against the clock. No one bags anything up for you and there’s no such thing as a slow cashier, at least that I’ve encountered. So prior to checking out, I plan out how it’s going to go: Ok. Money’s in my pocket, coin section of my wallet is open, grab 3 blue bags and send them down the belt first, pots and pans will go in one bag, bathroom stuff will go in another, and sheets will go in the last one. She’s going to ask me if I have an IKEA Family card, I say no, then I pay, have a nice day, and run. Let’s do this.
My plans never leave room for spontaneity, meaning if something I’m not ready for happens, it’s probably the end of the world for the next 3 minutes. During this IKEA trip, I decided not to pay with cash and instead paid for everything with my American debit card. I put my card in the little device and waited for everything to go through. The device made a loud beeping noise and the once bored-looking cashier then looked very alert and slightly concerned as she whipped my card out before I could even think to get to it. She asked me a question and I heard “karte”, so I said “Nein” thinking she was asking about the Family IKEA card, you know, going along with my plan. “Nein” was the wrong answer because suddenly she was on the phone with her manager eyeing my card, me, my purchases, and the line of angsty customers. She asked me a different question that I didn’t understand. I asked her auf-Deutsch if my card wasn’t working for her since that’s what I thought the problem was. She stared at me for a second then her face softened and she gave me a “Oooh… you’re not from around here are you?” look as she realized I had no idea what the problem was. Still on the phone with her manager, she flipped my card over and pointed to the plain white strip and said “Kein Unterschrift”. I hadn’t signed the back of my card which is a big no-no in Europe. All at once I realized how our conversation had been playing out:
“Is this your card?”
“This card doesn’t belong to you?”
*ALERT THE MANAGER*
“So this card doesn’t belong to you?”
“Is it not working?”
“……ah. There’s no signature.”
“Oh. OH. OH MY WORD YES THIS IS MY CARD. IT’S DEFINITELY MY CARD.”
I pulled out every card I had with my name, signature, and photo I.D. on it. The cashier was no longer concerned and believed me. She comforted her manager by saying I had a photo I.D. and something about me speaking English. I had to sign my card in front of her, sign the receipt, and I was good to go. I was mortified to say the least.
We haven’t denied a book bag search and I haven’t tried to look like a thief since those events. We’re to the point in our German where we can actually hear and understand 80% of the time what a cashier is saying to us. And if we don’t, we know better now to just admit that our German isn’t great but we would appreciate it if the question could be repeated, please. We’d much, much rather look silly in a store and succumb to mild embarrassment by admitting our Deutsch is “nicht so gut” rather than phone one of our church members from jail, though I’m sure that would be an amusing conversation.