Julie Colthorpe on why she’ll never eat brunch in Neukölln again.
Last time I checked, German was the language spoken in the German capital. I moved to Berlin 12 years ago. Back then, if you didn’t speak German you were up shit creek. My friend Sarah made the mistake of asking, “Can I have a bag, please?” at her local Kaiser’s in Prenzlauer Berg. “WIE BITTE!?” screeched the cashier. “WAS WOLLEN SIE?” Sarah tried again, still in English. She couldn’t understand most of the rant that followed, but gathered it was something like, “Speak German or go back to England!” (she’s Scottish).
Fast forward to Silvester 2013. I’m with a group of Italian, French, Spanish, Russian and American expats, and two poor German girls struggling to get into the English conversation. My friend commented, half-joking, half-apologetic: “I guess we should all be speaking German.” Her innocent remark was met with a scandalised roar from across the table. “And why is that?!” inquired the offended party, an American musician. “Well, I mean, we’re in Berlin after all,” my friend replied. Said the American: “Last time I heard the sentence ‘you should’ it was from my mother. I don’t think I want to be subjected to such imperatives any longer.” Needless to say, he doesn’t speak a word of German and doesn’t intend to learn.
The problem is the blasé nonchalant attitude that some expats adopt when it comes to speaking the language of their adopted country: they don’t.
Don’t get me wrong: nobody’s expected to know the der-die-das of it all the moment they step off the plane. The problem is the blasé nonchalant attitude that some expats adopt when it comes to speaking the language of their adopted country: they don’t. It’s bad enough to hear these smug shirkers yapping away on the U8 every Friday night. What’s worse is when they start opening restaurants.
A year and a half ago, the Tagesspiegel published an article expressing the general outrage felt by Berliners at being forced to grapple with their rusty school English in American joints like The Bird and White Trash. Wally Potts, the American owner of White Trash, does in fact speak very good German – it’s just his staff that don’t, or won’t, or didn’t.
But that’s nothing compared to Neukölln – aka Little Melbourne.
Recently, my German boyfriend and I tried out a new Australian place in Reuterkiez. Not only was the food lousy and overpriced, not one of the staff could speak any German. Even the menus were English-only – I ended up translating practically the whole thing for my boyfriend. When the waitress came over, I asked for “zwei Kaffee, bitte”. She didn’t understand a word, and she wasn’t even embarrassed. So while waiting for our food (it took forever) we bitched about her in German. No one noticed.
Later, I quizzed the owner when she brought us the bill. “Do any of your staff speak German at all?” They didn’t. She herself, however, had started to learn it. Really? Have a medal! “We are an Australian restaurant; we want it to be authentic,” she explained. Well, if you’re going to be Australian, be bloody Australian. I want kangaroos and bush hats and shrimps on barbies, mate! And imagine if two Berliners opened up a German-language-only Berliner Küche restaurant in Australia – they’d close within a week.
Afterwards, I took a walk around the neighbourhood. It seemed like every café I passed had a chalkboard written solely in English, inviting me in from the cold for a cosy cuppa and a piece of homemade cake. Even the pet shop had “Pet Shop” slapped across the window in big white letters, lest clueless locals walk in looking for groceries and wind up with a puppy.
Ultimately if you don’t learn German, you’re the one missing out. It’s a giant city out there, and you’re shrinking your life to an expat minimum. You’re thrown a curveball every time someone says something you don’t understand. My American friend and I were in a bakery and she asked for one “Schrippe, bitte.” I was surprised, as she doesn’t usually like white bread. She explained that she doesn’t know how to order what she wants, so she just repeats the preceding order. That’s just pathetic.
My advice to all these Deutsch-denying dilettantes? Go back to your mum for some extra nursing or an extra kick in the Arsch. Or better yet, move to Brandenburg and see how far your English gets you there.