January 25, 2007

The Barbarians at the Gates

When you move to a foreign country, you become suddenly afraid that everything you do is wrong and gives great offense to the locals. Take too long bagging your own groceries at the supermarket checkout line, and you start to think that everyone behind you is rolling their eyes. Leave only pocket change for a tip at the neighborhood café (as is said to be the custom here), and you’ll spend the next twenty minutes agonizing over whether the waitress thinks you’re generous or a cheapskate. And that time when you were late for your train and had to run through the station and that woman followed you out onto the platform shouting “Rudi! Rudi!” … Was she yelling at you in German for being “rude” or did she just have a son named Rudy who’d suddenly gone missing?

To help right the perceived slights, you may even go out of your way to offer your seat on the streetcar to some decrepit old lady, but she’ll grunt and sniff and walk on by. Has the word already gotten around about your rudeness? Do you smell? I’m sure most of these mix-ups are merely internal insecurities playing themselves out as paranoid delusions – but not all. Some are very, very real.

For instance, my shortcomings were made abundantly clear to me the other day by my landlord, Herr Hartmann. At the appointed time (every first and third Monday between 7:00 and 8:00 pm) Kevin and I went down to the basement to exchange our linens, having taken great care to separate the hand towels from the bath towels from the sheets and duvets, placing each category of laundry in its own clear plastic bag, thinking this is the way the Germans would do it – this is, after all, how they sort their trash – but to no avail!

After exchanging the soiled linens for fresh ones, we started back up the stairs when Herr Hartmann ran after us waving a dishtowel. “Die handtüche sind für die Gläse trocknen, nicht fur wippen,” he said angrily, fanning each side of our stained dishtowels in our faces. For once, I understood German perfectly: “The hand towels are for drying glasses, not for wiping things.”

I apologized profusely, “Es tut mir leid. Es tut mir leid” (“I’m so sorry”). And Kevin, who seemed to get his meaning as well, tried explaining what had happened: “Der Kaffee, der Kaffee hat ...” But Herr Hartmann didn’t seem satisfied. He sighed and shook his head as if to say, “What do you expect of dirty Americans?” and then he walked back into the laundry room. I’m quiet sure that he would have taken back the pristine linens he had just given us if we hadn’t already beat our retreat up the stairs.

I know that I’m too sensitive – these people will have forgotten my mistakes long before I will. And I know that my bad behavior is hardly the worst they’ll see. I’ve watched American tourists walk into gift shops in Frankfurt, speak only in English, and insist on paying the cashier in American dollars, without thinking for a second about how rude they’re being. Still, I can’t seem to ignore the trouble I think I’m causing.

At dinner with Cissy and Sanders the other night, I explained my anxiety about all of this, to which Cissy replied something along the lines of: “Honey, you can’t let that bother you. Locals always look on foreigners as complete barbarians no matter what they do.” Then she and Sanders told of their experiences living in Japan, which has perhaps the strictest code of social behavior on the plane: “Step on someone’s foot on a crowded subway, and they’ll bow to you and apologize for getting stepped on, but what they’re really saying is, ‘I’m so sorry you are a stupid barbarian and can’t be Japanese like me.’”

“We’re all like that,” Sanders explained, and right then and there, in the middle of a crowded restaurant, he began grunting and hooting like a chimpanzee – his impersonation of the barbarian invaders. I laughed so hard that I nearly spewed my wine all over the table, just like they do in the movies – and yet, not once did I feel embarrassed.

Since then, I’ve tried to think on this whenever I’m feeling insecure. But occasionally, when I forget and start pouting over some mix-up on the train or in the grocery store, Kevin will stick out his bottom lip, jump around the apartment, and holler like an ape, until I'm laughing so hard that I'm quiet sure Herr Hartmann will be at our door any minute to see what mischief the barbarians are into now.

1 comment:

Aunti M said...

Sweetheart, these are the people who brought us the Holocaust. Now that's rude. Do you have an apartment yet. Send me Cissy's email. love Aunti M