I expect my blog will average a readership of three: my mum, my dad and a third miscellaneous relative who clicked on this link accidentally. Welcome all.
I should probably pretend that someone is going to read this who doesn’t know me and explain who I am and what I am doing this year. As a third year German student, I am lucky enough to have a year abroad in Berlin, in which I will be working as a ‘Fremdsprachassistentin’ in a school in Steglitz. Remember the cool, exotic language assistants at school? That’s me. This year’s going to be a piece of Kuchen.
Except I don’t know anybody in Berlin, my paralysing Britishness seems to repel assimilation with ‘the German way’ and I look the same age as my students. Still, my situation is not the Wurst.
Let’s face the problems head on:
- I don’t know anybody in Berlin
It’s kind of like Freshers week all over again, except everyone is dispersed over a city (rather than an accommodation block), speaks a different language and is not necessarily interested in befriending a 20 year old English girl. Fortunately, I was able to get to know the other language assistants in my ‘Bundesland’ (Berlin) at the assistantship induction in ‘Maria Von Der Aue’, a picturesque hotel in the middle of nowhere. In these three days, we prepared mock lessons and later delivered them, or imitated cheeky German school children when it was somebody else’s turn to teach. So, thankfully, I now have some friends, but am going to have to somehow seek out friends who actually speak the language I am here to absorb.
Therein lies a new problem; I don’t know how to casually converse in German. The Oxford German curriculum puts little (no) emphasis on the art of socialising. If the foundations for friendships were built on debating the disadvantages of nuclear power or the merits of school uniform, I am likely to be a very popular girl indeed. I fear, however, that my ability to discuss nuances in medieval German poetry may not be a one way ticket to a German circle of friends. In short, I can’t talk normally. For example, my teacher was ill on Friday so I wanted to briefly say “hope you’re feeling better” on the Monday. My attempt at that, however, literally translates as “I wish to you a good healing”.
- My paralysing Britishness
After spending a mere 10 days in Germany, I can confidently summarise ‘the German way’ with three broad categories: punctuality and reliability, bureaucracy and directness.
If someone says to meet at 9.00, 9.01 is unacceptable. The 5-7 minute buffer period before it is acceptable for a British person to be angry about lateness is non-existent in Germany. No excuse is sufficient for arriving late; traffic, public transport delays or the sudden death of a relative are all factors that you should have considered prior to leaving the house. Similarly, Germans have a horrible habit of meaning what they say. If I don’t like something, I will come up with a lovely monologue of contradictory clauses adorned with ambiguous adjectives to cleverly disguise any trace of my real opinion. Germans are too ‘direct’ (here we really mean rude) a people to bother with any of this. For example, after one teacher introduced me as ‘Frau Heitlinger’ to her class, she paused, turned to me and asked what my mother’s maiden name is. When I replied that it is ‘Karp’, she smiled kindly and responded “Why did you not take that? Frau Karp sounds much nicer.” I would have gone for something along the lines of “You are lucky enough to have the option of a second surname which complements ‘Frau’ even more beautifully”.
Bureaucracy is another must-have for the quintessential German experience. When you move to Berlin, you are legally obligated to ‘anmelden’ (register) your accommodation with the local authorities within 2 weeks of arriving there. Of course the only way of doing this is by making an appointment, all of which are completely booked up across the whole of Berlin for the next six weeks. Only with this piece of paper (‘Anmeldungsbestӓtigung) can you open a bank account, join a gym, get a phone contract or sort out your life in any meaningful way. You can see how such bureaucracy is essentially a barrier to any hope of functioning as a normal human being.
- I look the same age as my students
On my first day in school, the teacher took one look at me and said “let’s get the children to guess who you are. It will be funny because they will think you’re a student”. And so, under five minutes in to my first lesson, my fears were confirmed. However, this insecurity was somewhat subverted in a later lesson, when one student asked me, “Frau Heitlinger, did your husband and kids come to Berlin with you?”. I paused, internally smirked and then plainly responded, “no, they didn’t”. Better use this to my advantage.
I feel I should end by assessing this week’s progress with my raison d’être here (pardon my German). I sort of can actually sometimes speak mostly a bit of German-ish. Some days I have produced perfectly executed sentences with verbs all neatly positioned and ordered according to my chosen conjunctions. On other days, there have been conversations where I have been thoroughly incomprehensible. I’ve realised that I can speak German, it’s just that my sentences lack the humour or subtlety that I would have otherwise expressed in English. Maybe I have already assimilated with the ‘German way’ after all…