Tower of Babel

A common theme I have heard for years is “everyone speaks English in Germany”. I always quietly pondered that statement when it was said to me. My husband’s family speaks very little English. When I am in his hometown in Germany, I rarely have anyone speak English to me. I have come to a conclusion since living here. When you are American and you fly into Munich, yes, everyone speaks English. When you go to a major train station, yes, they speak English. However, when you are in the trenches and living outside of the city then you may not find that “everyone speaks English”.

Let’s take grocery shopping in Germany as an example. The cashier yells at me in German when she wants me to pack my bags faster. And then there was the time my son left his scooter in the bakery line and someone tripped over it. An old lady behind us took it upon herself to lecture me about my kid and his scooter. She lectured me all in German, not one word of English. Lucky for me I didn’t understand over half of her lecture. I did give her the stink eye though.

I even went to the immigration office for my visa and the caseworker for foreigners that I was assigned did not speak English! That’s fine, I get it, I am in Germany and I have to pull up my big girl panties and get fluent quick. But please don’t tell me everyone speaks English. I’m in the trenches people!

The following week, I had to go down to register as a new immigrant with the city hall, I had my big girl panties on and I was full of confidence. I had to wait in a long line to get a number, then wait in a waiting room for my number to be called. I was freaking out trying to read the signs in German and understand what process was. The sign said to go to room 215 when your number is called. Ok, easy peasy as my son would say. My number was called and I headed to room 215. Oh my god, where is room 215? I went up the elevator, drat it all, I forgot I was in Europe. The floor numbers are different here. I drag my son and his scooter back downstairs. I finally walk into room 215 and find my assigned number, desk 6. I say to the women behind desk 6 with quivering confidence “Anmeldung, Bitte”. And she says in English “Are you American?” Why yes I am! Her English is flawless. Turns out she lived in Virginia for awhile! I almost dropped my head on her desk in appreciation of her flawless English. She and I then chit-chat! I hadn’t chit chatted in three weeks and it felt good. And it turns out her first boyfriend was from New York! I daydreamed about asking her to be my new best friend.She told me I had to come back in a couple of weeks with my son’s passport. She added to come back when they are not busy. I thought perhaps this was code for “come back when I have plenty of time to chit-chat with you” . I was thinking to myself, I might show up next week with some donuts and coffee and wait for desk 6 to be open. Or is that too much? She says on my way out “Good luck and welcome to Germany, I am sure you will manage. Most people speak English after all”. Ughh, no donuts for you desk 6!

Fun with German Insurance

My husband, who is a native German, has been having trouble getting us on the state run health insurance (Gesetzliche Krankenversicherung). Because of a loophole we will need to go private, and the private insurance wants each of us to have a basic health form filled out by a doctor.

So I marched down to the doctor’s office my first full day in Germany with my five year old on his scooter. I practiced words like versicherrung (insurance) on the way. If you say it fifteen times it just rolls off your tongue. I was nervous to try my german out but also channeling some of that foolish cockiness of my youth!

I made it through the receptionist ok and the nurse helped me out with a bit of english. She even measured me when I didn’t know how many centimeters I was. Why does the US still go by feet and inches? Even the Brits adopted metrics! I was feeling all brave and fluent as they lead me into the doctor’s office. He was sitting at a desk very business like. Ok, that’s different for me right there. It was so formal. I explained that my German was a little rusty and he didn’t crack a smile. Hmm, this was strange for me, people usually warm up to me.

So he begins to ask me the first question from the form. I hear the first question as if I have never spoken German before. My mouth is hanging open and I am stunned. I squeak out a little, “What? Could you repeat that?” (in German) He rolls his eyes and throws the papers up in exasperation. Well, I thought; this is off to a good start. He tries again to move down the list on the form. We are kinda moving along well I think, I try to crack a little joke, nothing, nada, not even a hint of a smile from him. My charms on him are dead. We struggle with my German and his impatience. He examined my eyes, ears, and throat. I felt horribly uncomfortable. I was just glad to get my form and go.

And I leave there wondering if that was a cultural misunderstanding or was he an insensitive jerk. I think a little of both. I mean I’m not in Texas anymore right, people aren’t going to be sugary sweet. But no matter the culture, I think someone in the healing profession should try and make his patients comfortable.
I’m thinking it’s all behind me and next time I will just go to another doctor. Then Markus comes home and tells me the paperwork is not correct and I must go back. Whaaa! No way, no how, I’m not going back to Dr. Smiley. What’s wrong, I ask. “Marie, he was supposed to do a gynaeklogie exam.” I’m staring at Markus dumbfounded and its slowly, dawning on me. Let me get this straight Markus, “In order to have insurance in Germany I need to show my vagina?” Markus looked a bit nervous but got brave and answered, “It looks like it Marie.” I went off on a tirade and was ready to pack my bags and go back to the states. Poor Markus. It wasn’t even his fault but he stepped in it. Then Markus looks defensive and tired and says well I had to pull down my pants too! And Max did as well. Ok so let me get this even straighter, “I have to take one for the team?”
I realized I was getting all Francis Macdormand on my husband and tried to chill out before I stormed the insurance office and burned it down.
Then the best part came, my husband decided to take me down to the Dr’s. office himself and try and straighten this out. I felt kinda proud “Okay, yeah, Dr. Smiley, I have a native speaker with me now!” And if you know my husband, well then watch out! If we were a cartoon I would have been depicted with fist bumps behind Markus shouting “Go Get EM!” Markus argued back and forth as the office staff were trying to send me to a gynecologist, just to check off the form to confirm that I have a vagina. Seriously! So we finally get in to see Dr. Smiley and it turns out he is kinda on our side and doesn’t really want to look at my vagina anyway! But nonetheless, he won’t check off the box that says “genitale” because that is not his specialty.
It remains to be seen still if I will have to have a gynecological exam just to be insured in Germany. Poor Markus is trying to figure that out. As it turns out I will need to show proof of insurance to get my Visa. So all feminism aside , I might be pulling my pants down faster than you can say Krankenversicherung.

The Journey Begins

In 1988 I left college in Texas for a year study abroad in Vienna, Austria. Looking back on that I have to laugh a little at twenty year old me. The version of me in 1988 had four years of French in High School and two years of college French. I marched into the study abroad office and for some unfathomable reason I signed up to go to Vienna, Austria instead of the program in Nice, France. I do remember thinking I definitely want to go somewhere where they speak a foreign language but I’m tired of French.  I might as well have thrown a dart at the wall and picked a place. I quickly went and signed up for a German class at my Texas college. I remember the professor literally rolled his eyes at me when I said” I need to learn German quick, I am headed to Vienna next Fall”. I think back on all that and wonder about that Marie. She was foolishly, wonderfully, confidant.

Fast forward twenty some odd years and I am living in Texas. I have had a job that I have hated for 5 long years. Never even wanted to work there but I felt grateful for the opportunity in a bad economy. I hate where I have lived for the past 8 years but felt grateful to own such a lovely home. And along came an offer to move to Germany with my husband’s company. Wow, amazing right! Leave my hated job, and the community that I never feel comfortable in. Old Marie would have jumped at it. But this Marie  has been freaked out every step of the way. I think I must have driven my friends crazy with the endless discussions of “what if”. What if my German is not good enough? What if it’s too expensive? What if the rule oriented Germans are mean to me?I don’t follow rules well. Are we sure we will get the cat thru customs or will she languish in a German kitty jail?

Well I decided to jump off the bridge once again and move at least temporarily to Germany. Ok it is less of a jump and more of a slide down slowly holding on tightly to a rope kinda thing. Unlike my first experience going abroad this was a nightmare to prepare for. The first time I overpacked two large bags and got on a plane. This time I prepared for two months; preparing the Texas house to rent, getting my son ready for the move, getting the cat microchipped and throwing away beloved items that just seemed frivolous to move or store.

So let’s see how I will handle this adventure twenty years later  with kid and cat in tow!

Thanks for joining me!


Marie and Elizabeth Circa 1988
Me and my friend Elizabeth on our second day in Austria, circa 1988