I wouldn’t wanna call my mum a hypocrite or anything, but when she came over to see me last time, she was seriously impressed by everyone’s English skills. “Your – English – is – so – good,” she said warmly, to my friend Julia. “You are so good. I – am – seriously – impressed. I – am – seriously – impressed – by – your – English – s kills. We English are so lazy, so complacent.”
My mother turned to me, and spoke at a normal speed. “Does Julia know how lazy and complacent we are?” Then she turned back to her and said: “It’s because we’re an island, you know. We have an island mentality. I’m so ashamed. We’re so lazy. Your English is so good. Sorry, I mean: your – English – is – so – good!” “It’s not all laziness, though, is it Mum?” “No,” she agreed with me. “It’s laziness, complacency and an island mentality, that’s what it is.”
But of course, it’s not all laziness. The thing is, when a Swede wants to communicate with an Italian in a German youth hostel, they’ll do it in English. Now, any conscientious native English-speaker, hanging out in the hostel bar, desperately hoping to join in their conversation, will have to do it in English. There’s no point practising your Swedish if it just means excluding that perfectly nice Italian. This isn’t a mixture of laziness, complacency and island mentality – it’s just a mixture of laziness, practicality and basic etiquette.
On to the TV Tower at Alexanderplatz. I was waiting with my kid out the front in the foyer, while my mother took a very long time in the loos. I really actually don’t know what she does in there. The only other people I know who take so long in the toilet are actual drug addicts. My son kept on calling the TV Tower the DVD tower and trying to shoot tourists with a little stick. “Ich bin ganz schön böse!” He’d cry out every three minutes. I am pretty evil.
All of a sudden I heard a big commotion from inside the TV Tower toilet area. “Fünfzig cent müssen Sie zahlen!” Yep, the toilet lady was having a go at my mum for trying to sneak out without paying the necessary fifty cent toilet fee. And my mum was staring at her, helplessly and blankly, and not understanding a single, solitary word. Did the woman translate? Nope. I went over and laid a fifty cent coin down on the table. “You have to pay to use the toilet,” I told my mum, as we walked off in the direction of the lifts. “You were in there so long, I’m surprised she didn’t charge you twice.” We got in the lift. My mum looked at me, all astonished, sceptical, defiant. “Why didn’t she just speak English?” “I guess she couldn’t,” I said. “Oh, come on, Jacinta. This is the capital of Germany. They’re the most important people in the EU. And this is, like, the German version of Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower or what have you. You mean to tell me that lady could not speak any English? I don’t believe you.” “Oh, Mum,” I said airily, “please don’t be so lazy or complacent in front of Rico.” “She was just putting it on, Jacinta. You know she was.”
But I think that’s the best thing about Berlin. It’s like there are two cities here, co-existing simultaneously. On the one hand, it’s hard to get anyone to speak German to you at a dinner party sometimes. But on the other hand, there are all these hard-as-nails toilet attendants and bakery workers, who actually cannot speak English. They’re not being all Paris on us. They actually don’t know the words. And I, for one, love them for it.