The best description of the German, his environment, and his soul has already been written. To read the most accurate artifact anent the modern Teuton, visit my previous article , or circumvent the middleman altogether by purchasing Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men on the Bummel. For an exact and unbiased treatise on the German language, seek “The Awful German Language,” located in Appendix D of Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad.
A dark-haired woman-porter approximately six feet in height, with the shoulders of an experienced dairy farmer and wearing a red jacket with gold fringe, growled at me in what seemed like the Yiddish of a professional wrestler.
“Fahrkartenkontrolle,” she snarled again.
Not long after that I felt a large hand persuade me out of the train and provide thereafter a hefty push. It was when I was lying on the main train station’s platform and staring up at the bottom of an enormous brown boot, behind which the milkmaid’s face could be seen laughing deeply, which earned the laughter of her male comrades, that I knew I had reached Bonn, Germany.
Or, at least that is how my memory had recalled the event. I realized later, however, that this is just called “not knowing the language.” In fact, I’m beginning to doubt that I ever was pushed at all.
Anyone who’s taken an American train or been in an American train station will know that, although he or she might have never been to Germany, Germany’s is better. This is true. Bonn’s train station is a work of some admirability, nearing perhaps the architectural grandeur of at least a half-respectable American museum or public metropolitan library.
But the American Imagination, at some point, went one step further, conjuring up Germany as one sleek, uncut unit of clean lines, smooth rides, and punctual pink heads moving swiftly and logically in and out of crisply closing doors. But this apt metaphor of German automotive expertise does not seem to have yet translated to the railway sector.
The next two trains for which I was scheduled were both delayed—significantly and ignominiously. The next one didn’t show up altogether. A few moments later, the announcer over the loud-speaker, in so many words, expressed that we suck it up thusly.
Soon after, reliable word was relayed to me from an authentic German source: “Welcome to Germany.” Perhaps in another epoch, was this true: Germans are punctual. No longer. I know no less punctual a people.
Typically, where there are trains, there are homeless. This naturally leads me to my first observation on Germany’s homeless population: there aren’t any—at least by American standards. Sure, perhaps they don’t have a home, but this isn’t enough to suffice the definition of the term. I’m looking for something closer to my face, screaming, and ostensibly in-touch with things beyond our corporeal world. In any case, it’s easy to dislike, indeed grow Scrooge-like to the American breed.
Here they read books, speak two or three languages (not one of them German), and place their offering plates out of their own reach, their heads lowered in the Old Style. And they’re polite as well. I don’t always give money to German bums, but, when I do, there’s some Dickensian satisfaction about the whole thing. I should forsooth sooner trust your standard German bum over your standard American landscaper or roofer any day of the week. Your standard German bum has yet some class.
And, speaking of good bums, I’ve realized why there is precisely zero crime in Germany. Apparently, the entire German police force is entirely comprised of beautiful, young women. And who would want to put his hands on a beautiful, young woman? You’ve never lived until you’ve seen a young German policewoman make a U-turn at a busy mid-day intersection. She is in her habitat; she looks right doing it. Her tight ponytail reveals a German face in its rightful place of intensity, her German body covered in what looks most correct on a German: a uniform. To what crime she is reporting, however, is of great mystery to me. There are statistics online stating that crime indeed occurs in Germany. I’m certain, however, that one could walk drunk across Germany in a suit made of legal tender and only come out of it the richer. It is my assertion that someone in Sector 5 had been reported seen without his daily ice cream.
The Hindus worship the cow in their way, and the Germans do it in theirs. In a fashion hitherto by Yours Truly unseen, everyone is eating ice cream. They flock from all around just to gawk at it religiously through the glass. It borders on a cultish feeling. And the weather and its temperature seem not to affect how the Germans prefer ice cream: they want it cold and by the bucket. I heard one German mother ask her toddler daughter what she wanted to do that afternoon, and the little tike said, “look at the ice cream.”
I praise Germany’s treatment of children; the children here are treated as adults. In the United States, an independent, well-adjusted, un-murdered child who walks home on his or her own is an extinct species. Everyone in the purlieu of an American child is only there to either end its precious, innocent life, or in some way make it permanently much worse. In Germany, children are walking home en masse. They’re wandering the streets. Taking trains. Frequenting bars. Adults are talking to them—petting their heads. And who wouldn’t want to pet the head of a German child? Barring Asian competition, German babies inhabit the role of cutest babies on Earth—pink, smiling nuggets already in perfect step with the authority of their parents and eager to learn the laws of the land. As Jerome K. Jerome reports about German children in his book Three Men on the Bummel: “‘you get yourself born,’ says the German government to the German citizen, ‘we do the rest’.”
One does not merely follow the rules in Germany, rather the rules simply exist and to follow them is to follow the highest ideal. And, against all my contrarian sympathies, there’s something to that. I know not if one must trade freedom in order to be safe. But, it must absolutely be said that the German world is a safe one. Imagine a universe where, upon staring at someone in the eyes, no one’s looking to “knuckle-up” or “run it.” “Moin!” Anna says at 9:00. Not much of a morning man myself, I notice this immediately. “Abend!” Hans chimes in at 18:00, and the good fight continues for the Germans. And they’re winning. There is a quality of life here that the Americans cannot touch. I’ve never felt like the biggest scallywag of the populace before, but it is as such now. The people here remind one of a dairy products advertisement: broad-shouldered, trusting folk who work hard, tell it straight, and smell of high-brow cabbage.
There are other kinds of curious effects from this law-abiding soul that one may witness within the populace. This is most readily observed at German crosswalks. If it is your desire to see an American soul squirm, tell it to stand at an empty crosswalk and wait for the red light to turn green. You’ll sooner see it take up arms and storm the Capitol than wait the duration. Germans, however, “are willing, nay anxious” to obey the supreme law of the traffic light. It is, in fact, a curious thing to see a group of Germans, with no cars for miles, waiting for the crosswalk sign to turn green. And they’re all doing it with that unmistakable German Look, which has simultaneously something vacant yet intensely preoccupied about it. A German either stares into your soul or doesn’t notice you at all. And they do it all in the middle of the sidewalk, especially if they’re over sixty years of age. An inordinate number of Germans are also contemplating water, perhaps because they have none. In the faces of these Germans looking at creeks, one can see how the German mind, so many years ago, saw a lake and said contentedly to itself: “See.”
In crosswalk finality, if you cross during this time, the shibboleth has been uttered, and you certainly feel the biblical stare as you safely glide from one side to another, looking back from your final destination, wondering at the big German bodies.
And I must say that the people here certainly are large. The broadness of the American shoulder is one of worldwide acclaim, and, in more recent years, the broadness of the American waist. But I speak now of pure size. About fifty percent of the women in this country rival my height, and the other half take careful daily measures not to step on me. The men are giants, plain and simple. It’s no wonder that they gave the Romans such a hard time, and why it took the entire world, twice, to persuade them to have a seat. And those coming from countries even farther north look almost majestic in their height. Nordic women could be mistaken, to the pragmatic American eye, for something mythological.
But make no mistake: they desire to be governed. And the German government is happy to oblige. The bureaucracy in Germany is something of an ultimate test of patience. I really do believe Sigmund Freud to be essentially entirely a charlatan, but I have noticed your standard German citizen to possess a goodish degree of impatience, and I believe that to be due to his relationship to the parental unit: the government. If I were born with the name of Sixty-Four And One-Quarter, I should still feel less like a number than I currently do. It is rumored that Kafka is a humorist. To me, he’s merely German journalism. Franz Kafka is not known for his particularly exuberant feelings about bureaucracy. Kafka’s 1926 “novel” The Castle (itself a reliable visitor’s guide to Germany) is no exception to Kafka’s stark commitment against that stinky, French word, even going so far as to die in order to spare himself the displeasure of having to write a second draft. Notions of the like are apparent in the interactions amongst the populace. I’m waiting for someone to hand me a form to Commence Conversation, and, at its end, another to confirm Conversation Termination.
But there are obvious positives to this. The sense of perennial hierarchy in Germany keeps in-tact many things that, in the United States, are now but relics of a lost, better time. There’s still the idea of class in Germany, which is generally desirable, knowing intimately the effects of a society without any. The system of contemporary American values currently runs things in quite the opposite fashion; the better one’s lot, the more one tries to prove one’s egalitarianism, and those already at the bottom beat their chests and scratch their loincloths accordingly. Indeed, it is here where the noses of difference can be most seen peeping over the cultural fence. And the German lifestyle, in this case, is far preferable to the American one. Moreover, things work well, there’s enough to go around, and people respect the nighttime hours as hours of sleep.
As for classroom and educational culture, Germany’s respect for authority and hierarchy takes over. The teachers are the experts, and the pupils are there to learn from them. Students of all ages assume teachers masters or mistresses of their subjects, and, as such, it is poor decorum to interrupt the learning process by interjecting, imposing upon, or otherwise derailing the learning process. And, if a teacher is proven incompetent, then he or she is shown the door and put back on the excellent German unemployment whence he or she came. In the United States, the teacher is often something of a walking target for physical and spiritual pranks. In the inner-cities of The United States, one is better off with a degree in cage-fighting than of any academic subject. To some more “progressive” souls, the German system might seem intellectually limiting. I ask you, then, to compare the success of a standard German education to an American one. You will find it difficult, as there is not one. The Germans drag us through the mud. And, to me, that says something.
But, under the weight of all this German quality and control, one inescapably ugly variable reigns supreme.
How does it happen? Who allows it? How do German minds conceive it? Why is it not cleaned up? The graffiti, of course. It biffs the foreign eye with great heft. Amongst such genuinely gorgeous villages and landscapes, the cacographic scrawlings of the bottom tenth percentile lay thereon with the omnipresence of a short man at the helm of a governmental structure. What’s more amazing is that the populace seems not only to tolerate it, but rather to embrace it. In the middle of the day, “professionals” of the aforementioned trade take up arms, take it to the streets, and undertake masterpieces. Cars drive by, but the “artists” continue. Pedestrians look on with indifference. The elderly dodder by unphased as Germany is tattooed to the teeth. Here, I side with the Yanks’ take that graffiti is to be contained to areas in which graffiti is the best that area can conceive, and if it occurs elsewhere, shoot it dead with the biggest gun possible.
Notwithstanding her take on graffiti, Germany’s is a culture that seems to value logic—this championing of logic undoubtedly playing a role in its being the highly detail-oriented culture that it is. It might also claim some stake in the German’s reputation for being humorless.
But to suggest that the Germans possess no sense of humor is a joke. Everything that these people do is for the sake of humor; they sacrifice themselves at the altar of it. They’ve got humor here down to a science and are committed to it on a societal level. Leather shorts? They must be putting it on. Try it. Tell a joke, make fun of someone, make fun of yourself, turn a good phrase, use irony, satirize something, understate the absurd: your average German will best you with his deadpan face. And, just to prove his comedic superiority, he will up you with the ultimate: “I don’t think that’s true.” Indeed, everything that they do is funny, for they are, without a doubt, one of the goofiest groups of people I’ve ever seen. All jokes aside, they’re definitely laughing about something out here. I hear them do it. About what, I’m not sure.
I have a decent guess, though. There’s a practice here called “walking,” which, auricularly, I have difficultly differentiating from the English “walking.” In practice, however, the distinction is tacit. Germans claim that the poles they use to thrust off the ground exist as practice for whenever cross-country skiing is again possible. It is my belief, however, that this be not for the off-months’ practice for skiing, rather more in line with the well-known German past-time of waking up, eating something with mayonnaise, and saying to herself, “but, how do I make it goofier?”
As regards a quick note on food in the main, as previously noted, you better like it with mayonnaise. Or pork. If not, you’re liable to starve. Waking up on Sunday in Germany to an empty refrigerator is another surefire way, as “Shoot On Sight” laws have been applied to all grocery-seeking patrons on Sundays. And, in those grocery stores, which are closed on Sundays, there exists a race therein called “cashiers.” There’s something akin to this race in English-speaking lands, but it is not identical. Your German cashier can be found sitting behind the register in any store where legal tender is accepted. Their language is a simple yet consistent one: “Hallo. Kassenbon? (or) Beleg? Schönen(es) Tag/Abend/ (or) Wochenende. Tschuss.” They do not waver from those words.
Thereafter, a shopping cart is thrusted into the back of your knees, and you are swiftly shown the door. Indeed, whenever one enters a German register line, one’s priorities should be sorted not unlike in manner as those of the military officer’s a few days before the big charge, for there’s no going back. But Germans always play it fair. They foreshadow, indeed, warn you of the forthcoming experience the first moment that you enter the store, with those gates that open on the righthand side and close after you go through them. Even the stores have a German personality: start on the right and move to the left. If you try to leave through the entrance gates, thus disrupting the order of things, the gate growls. If you do not buy anything, then you must go through the shameful experience of squeezing your way past the people in line at the cash register, as empty register-lines are always cordoned with a steel turnstile. This aids the German economy significantly.
German dogs, unlike German humans, possess significant autonomy in Germany, indeed enjoy a great deal of freedom here, for dogs always walk sans leash. To see a dog on a leash here has the same effect on the eye as seeing a child on a leash, which always renders an effect of disbelief. Bicycles here are one way for a human to experience the same joy as a dog. There’s an air of superiority exuding from those riding them, and, if you’re in the way of one, expect no clemency.
German windows are also of an unprecedented nature. Someone in Germany, at some point, must have said to another: “let’s have the best windows in the world.” And then, like a German, he did what they said.
Unlike those in the Anglosphere, Germans like get to the point. Goofy or not, Germans do value directness of communication. This can lead one to interpret them as rude or perhaps soulless.
I, for one, am not certain of this latter diagnosis. I side a bit more with Jerome K. Jerome’s scientific take on the matter:
“The Germans are a good people…I am positive that the vast majority of them go to heaven… [that the] the soul of a single individual German has [however] the sufficient initiative to fly up by itself and knock on St. Peter’s door, I cannot believe. My own opinion is that they are taken there in small companies, and passed in under the charge of a dead policeman.”
In today’s case, the policeman might be some sort of high-standing bureaucratic official, like a Vodafone representative.
In every case, however, the Germans are, without a doubt, lovely, passionate creatures who try their little, Döner-filled hearts out every day to be the model of what I imagine the closest thing to a Good Person looks like. And, they often succeed. I, too, am certain that the overwhelming majority go to heaven–as long as they don’t have to make it there by train.
Main Points of the German Language:
- “Huh?” is “hää?”; “um” is “ärhm” ; “ow” is “owuh.”
- “Excuse me” is “hmph.”
- “Hallo” is reserved for shop-owners or done entirely with the eyes—and everything is “schön.” In fact, I’m convinced that one could get away in German with word alone.
- Or “ja,” which is used in all cases whenever another word cannot be found. In English-speaking countries, the “yes” system is a trifle more varied. We use various “yes types” to convey various moods or indicate certain various forms of subtle information. The German, “ja” is not only sufficient, but a sign of fluency.
- Only educated German women speak German. German men utter collections of grunts very near German; it sounds like it, rings the same consonant-gilded bell, but ultimately falls short of intelligibility. As regards the German language in the main, they both make it up as they go along.