Friday, December 16, 2005

Master Of Sauerkraut

Okay, I've met my match. A guy contacted me the other day and we started corresponding, and it turns out that not only has he been around here nearly as long as I have, he's also got pretty much the same complaints. In fact, he sent me a long e-mail so drenched in sauerkraut that I'm going to be posting it here, bits at a time.

What set this all off was his comment about how people here shop in pairs, so that one stands in line while the other dashes back and forth putting stuff in the shopping cart. As far as I can tell, this is the only good reason people form couples in this country; it makes this maneuver easier. Many's the time I've gotten in line behind some guy with four things in his cart, only to watch the number swell to forty by the time his girlfriend's added the rest of the shopping and he finally reaches the till.

Further shopping sauerkraut from The Master, with my comments underneath.

1. Massive carts block access to entire categories of food while the workers stock the shelves during shopping hours.

This is because nobody works a second past closing time. Nobody. That's why, back in the old days when a 7pm closing was mandatory (Federal law, and 2pm closing on Saturdays), stores would close at 6 instead, so that their employees would have time to shop and shut the place down. I was once blocked by a huge woman at the door to a supermarket because it was 5:55. I knew what I wanted -- a liter of milk, which I could see past her underarm hair -- but she refused to let me in. Anyway, they have to stock the store sometime, so it's during peak shopping hours.

2. One check-out line will be very very long while the next will be bizarrely short (the ones in the long line are herding)

Germans love to stand in lines. I don't know why this is, but it's definitely true. One Saturday I saw a guy look around until he found the longest line at the grocery store. After joining it, he reached in his pocket and produced a newspaper, which he began to read. Me, I'd rather get out of there and read the paper at home, but I don't fit in around here, as you may have noticed.

3. When it comes time to pay for the purchases, Germans behave as though they aren't quite certain they'd have to pay this time, taking forever to dig out their wallets/purses; taking forever to find the exact change; then taking forever to bag their things after paying (oblivious to the logjam they generate this way)...and THEN come back to dispute the cost of some item (a difference of 5 cents) 70% of the time.

Amen to this. They stand there while the clerk rings up dozens of items and then, presented with the total, they reach behind them, take off the backpack, untie the compartment, unzip the pocket, reach into it, and produce the wallet, out of which invariably comes a card of some sort. This is a novelty, using plastic at the store, and boy, do people like to do it. This means that the signature has to be scrutinized heavily by the cashier, too. After the receipt prints out, the tape gets handed to the consumer, who, as the Master notes, will stand there and tot up every item on it, after which comes the five-cent complaint (and it's almost invariably wrong).

The Master then passes on to the matter of cafes and bakeries, two places I don't spend much time in.

1. If a German lunch companion miraculously picks up the tab at a cafe he will NOT leave a tip; and if YOU then leave one in embarrassment he will pocket it with the comment that the service wasn't THAT good (I've had this happen twice)

And you're now 70 cents down. I should, however, say that overtipping is something I see Americans do a lot of here, and it's almost impossible to convince them that the server's making a decent living without the tips. Really: dinner cost €38? Leave 40. Nobody'll get angry, really.

2. You're sitting at your tiny table, minding your own business...and a stranger takes a seat at it (after asking if it's all right...50% of the time); the table does NOT come with the price of your purchase, no matter how small it is.

Meanwhile the other three tables in the place are empty.

3. Bees all over your future bakery purchases in the summer (no technology for closed cases); counter help hands all over your future bakery purchases all year round.

Technically, those are yellow jackets or wasps, but I was completely grossed out by this the first time I saw it: there were dozens of them in this pastry display at an outdoor market. Bad enough these beasts can't stay away from you when you're eating outdoors in summertime (although they seem not to like alcohol), but why people put up with them all over the cakes and so on I can't say. And yeah, sanitation isn't a big deal in bakeries, is it?

Journey with us now as the Master steps onto our fabled public transportation system!

1. Talent with a moderately in-tune instrument, or being able to sing at all, are mere formalities in the mind of the German busker.

Hate to break this to you, buddy, but those buskers aren't German. The Russian Mob has a monopoly on buskers -- the licensed ones, at least -- because they have a deal that they pick up the daily permits at 6:30am or whatever hideous hour they're handed out. The illegal ones in the summertime seem to all come from Romania, even the ones trying to play "Lady of Spain" as a tango.

2. German beggars are exasperated at your grotesque unwilligness to shell out; small contributions are considered a provocation; they are never cute or witty about it; they represent your CONSCIENCE.

Which makes me wonder: doesn't the German social net cover these people? That said, I once knew a woman who got so tired of beggars that she went out and tried it herself for a day, just to see how much they could make. She came home four hours later, with DM 25 in her pocket. Along Friedrichstr. of late there've been some Middle-Eastern-looking guys with identical laminated computer-printed cards with their supposed malady and sad situation printed on them. Organized beggars? Can you say Fagin?

3. The s-bahn is absolutely packed to the limit: jam that bicycle in ANYway (because you have a right to)...there's no reason that YOU should have to look for an emptier wagon or even wait four minutes for the next train (if you're German, that is: let some Ausländer try to cram in there and see the looks given...).

One more reason I'm glad I don't own a bike, although my main complaint is that I somehow always manage to land on the train about 2pm, right as school lets out. I think they should have separate cars on the trains for children and teenagers, and ones for human beings...errr, I mean adults.

4. If you're German, run to the front or back of the train before entering because the station exit at your destination is nearer the front or back of the train and this will save valuable time later; do this even if the train is seconds from leaving the station and you're far from the wagon you is imperative!

I'm guilty of this to some extent, because trains are long and who wants to buck crowds headed in the opposite direction once you get into the station, but I don't make it stress me out. But this phenomenon you've noticed may actually be an expression of the superstition that the controllers, the guys who check the tickets (you just buy them and stick 'em in your pocket here, folks, on the honor system, and sometimes guys with laminates whip them out and ask for them, but usually not), never ride in the first or last car. I've had this repeated to me as gospel many times, along with a similar superstition that they quit at 5pm. Nope.

5. Germans react to scary crypto-fascist packs of soccer hooligans rocking the train with loud songs and deafening chants with shared glances of boys-will-be-boys bemusement; if you are uncomfortable with this, it's because you are weak and must die.

My worst encounter along these lines was in Hamburg, when the train stopped on a bridge over the harbor, and the, uh, sports fans who'd been bellowing out their team song started jumping up and down in unison. It's always a lot of fun to be in one of these situations with an American friend who still believes that Hitler's ghost is lurking around somewhere, because the volume and the vehemence with which these songs get delivered can be pretty intense. Best advice: stay off of trains running to the Olympic Stadium. And leave town before the World Cup gets here in June!

6. Kebabs

"You are going on U-Bahn? I give you extra onions, no charge!" Passive aggression against his oppressor by the wily Turk? Or simply a sad reflection of the small number of fast-food choices here. It could be worse: it could be Asiapfanne.

And some miscellany:

Exits, entrances, escalators, aisles, sidewalks:

Germans like blocking them.

On the money.

At least once in your life, a German with a few years of English under his or her belt WILL attempt to gainsay your knowledge of...English.

Happened to a friend of mine who was reduced to writing for the old Tourismus & Marketing handout Berlin/Berlin, their allegedly bilingual quarterly what's-going-on mag. This woman had a long journalism career behind her in the States, and was working for a couple of prestigious publications as their Berlin stringer, but somehow her copy didn't please the German woman who was editing her. She was finally asked not to contribute any more because her knowledge of English was so bad. I wish I had a copy of Berlin/Berlin handy so I could quote some good English from it. They had some howlers in there, but I think the thing's been discontinued.

If you want a German girl to respect you, dump her first; THEN have sex with her

After all these years I find out what I've been doing wrong.

If you're German, and something is not illegal, but merely anti-social, you have a perfect right to do it...and complain about it bitterly when others follow suit.

See what I mean? This guy -- errr, I promised confidentiality, so by no means should you assume that this person is male, incidentally -- has obviously been here, as claimed, for ten years.

I feel better, cleansed by sauerkraut. Now there's the question of whether or not I should go out into the world and gather some more material for more, or just rest on the accomplishment that the Master has given us for today's meditation.

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