Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Acculturation fail

Today began with a vaguely Greek-looking man in front of my husband at a bakery having trouble ordering, and the person behind the counter attempting, in vain, to bond with my husband about those foreigners... My husband, that is, who's not German, and thus is only mostly sure that this was the nature of the interaction.

Later I walked the poodle around an area dedicated to public daytime drinking by 15-year-olds. While I'm not convinced that 21 makes sense, given that it makes effective criminals of otherwise upstanding college students and others college-age, and while I was 15 recently enough to remember that this is the age at which not-especially-troubled kids (11, say, is a different story) will sometimes begin that part of their lives, it hasn't ceased to surprise me each time I see this (which is every day) that everyone, including kids who look practically like middle-school students, can drink this publicly. Beers are clutched during sporting activities (and there are always sporting activities), vodka bottles are passed around, all with no particular sense of taboo, by what appear to be all the different teenage cliques, freaks, geeks, and cool kids alike. This approach to alcohol is, I am assured, and my own experience of France confirms, not a European thing, but a German one. And I have no particular opinion about it, other than that it makes walking a dog trained (inadvertently) only to "go" on mowed grass somewhat difficult.

This evening, once my husband was home and thus able to watch Bisou to verify that she was staying as silent as an inanimate object lest the neighbors complain, I went out to get some meat. While I'll make sure to know enough to ask for whatever it is I've gone somewhere to buy, when there are follow-up questions, that's when things become more difficult. I had set out to get steak, ideally not the one that was 60 euros a kilo. I said which one I did want, and asked - all of this is in German - for 300 grams, bitte.

Somehow this ended up being nearly a kilo of a different kind. I think the guy thought I wanted three large steaks? Given that the last time I was in Germany, a request for a "Bretzel" (pretzel) was understood to mean that I wanted a "Latte Macchiato," this wasn't so surprising. The meat was all somewhere in the back, so the default point-and-hand-gesture option was out. As was the other butcher, where I'd had no particular issues making the very same purchase, because that one closes at six, this one somewhat later, and my husband gets home at 6:15, and leaving Bisou alone for ten minutes - during which time it's not impossible that she'd bark - isn't an option.

After a great deal of looking hopeless, and seeing this massive steak (I at least was able to convey I didn't want three such slabs), I finally gave up pretending to know what was what and uttered one English word, kicking myself for the trillionth time this trip for having forgotten, in the poodle-centric packing, my German phrasebook, yet remembering that whatever I said, even if the correct expression came to me in time, it would sound incomprehensible: "Cost?" 14 euros. I tried, in Germanglish with hand signals, to ask whether I could have half, or at any rate less. No! This was evidently an outrageous question to ask, one that revealed me to be a forest child new to civilization.

I suppose I was prepared to accept this and buy the whole cow if need be, but it didn't to go in that direction. Another man who worked there - the boss? - said it was OK to cut me a smaller piece. I tried to explain no, no more cutting the slab of meat, I don't want problems, but sure enough, there it was, what I'd set out to order, more or less. Awkward, but over, or so I thought.

When I was paying, I apologized, this time fully in English, thinking some apology was better than none. The guy who'd cut the meat took the opportunity to explain to me (in English, which he'd until that point given no impression of speaking with such fluency) just how much I'd screwed up, he now can't sell that other piece he cut, really driving the point home. I then included in my continuous, flustered apology my best attempt at an explanation, namely that I didn't know the procedure, didn't enunciate, didn't gauge quickly enough that an irreversible meat-slicing was underway, or some babbled mix of the above, but it was clear what I had to do was get out of the store as quickly as possible and never return. No worries there!

Given that I'm not even such a fan of meat in the first place, I may choose to interpret this as a higher power telling me to eat entirely vegetarisch. Maybe I should pick up some trendy food restrictions as well. If I'm going to be a difficult American abroad, it's only right.

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