“Wie, bitte?” Ranting back at Exberliner

by Guest Blogger

Lauren Oyler responds to an Exberliner rant about the lack of German fluency among Berlin’s expat community.

I moved to Berlin for myriad reasons, all of which are, seven months later, still difficult to articulate. I had spent two weeks here in May 2011, and while I was certainly technically aware that the city is the capital of Germany, the things I associated it with were tangentially German at best. Instead of sausage and Spätzle, I remembered picnics at an abandoned airport; the first bicycle that didn’t give me flashbacks to the traumatic handlebar accident at age eight; a laid back, noncompetitive atmosphere in which you can live happily on little income and people are generally accepting of whatever weird artsy soul-searching you’re there to do. Obviously not everyone in Berlin does these things, but not everyone in New York wants to be an actor, either. Both are massive cities with many different realities.

I came back in August of last year, and before I did, countless sources — and the existence of several English-language newspapers, blogs and other publications — told me my lack of German skills would be no big deal. This is true and, apparently, infuriating, particularly so for the people who landed here before me.

Julie Colthorpe, who wrote “Sorry, no German!” in this month’s Exberliner, came to Berlin 12 years ago and longs for the days when expats would get kicked out of supermarkets for confusing their datives and accusatives. Calling out an unnamed but obvious brunch-serving Australian restaurant in Neukölln, she argues that all-English businesses and expats with no German skills have no place in the city. Although her complaints weren’t directed towards me — I dutifully brave the umlaut to save myself from accidentally ordering anything pickled — I feel attacked nevertheless. I’m American, I live in Neukölln, and German fluency is almost as fathomable to me as paying more than 1.30€ for a beer. I’ve been to Melbourne Canteen and breathed a sigh of relief when I realized I didn’t have to furrow my eyebrows in despair at the thought of trying to convey a dropped fork.

By contrast, Colthorpe’s clearly proud of her German, so it’s likely she’s unaware that getting a blunt “WIE, BITTE?” in response to a valiant attempt at communication is a cultural tradition alive and well here in the capital city. Add to this the sense that your best accent only comes out when you’re drunk or transforming into your parodic German alter ego, Frau Schadenfreude, and you understand why expats everywhere struggle to learn the languages of the countries they live in. It’s scary and hard. Here, you can avoid that if you want to, but people — usually non-native German speakers — will scold you for it.

Should English speakers take the bait, be ashamed? As Colthorpe says, a German-only restaurant would fail in Melbourne (or New York, or Vancouver)… but not because English speakers are too stupid to grapple with café-level German — or even because they would be unwilling to do so in a reasonable circumstance. But knowing German in Australia will do you about as much good as a first-edition copy of Jane Eyre — nice if you’re into that kind of thing, but otherwise kind of useless. It’s a paradox, sure, that being constantly abused for speaking little to no German can make a potential Berliner less willing to stick around and learn it, but the harsh economic reality is this: it’s just not necessary.

by Josh Bauman

by Josh Bauman

English, on the other hand, kind of is. A series of historical events — uncontrolled by the well-meaning people at Melbourne Canteen, überlin and any given Sameheads party — has made English the lingua franca among the people in Berlin who are here because it’s Berlin, not because it’s Germany. Colthorpe says she spent her New Year’s Eve with a group of people from Italy, France, Spain, Russia, America, and Germany, and instead of appreciating the cosmopolitanism, cooperation and progress that has allowed them to share any common language, she cries “HIPSTER BULLSHIT!” in the face of more than a half-century of diplomacy. If only we could have shown her piece to someone living in 1941. The irony that it’s published in an English-language magazine that caters to the exact audience she risks alienating is apparently completely lost on her; even funnier is that Exberliner suggested going to the Melbourne Canteen in its January 2013 issue (“Where to go in Neukölln,” pg. 50).

The exclusively-English-speaking expat population may indeed be “missing out” on one kind of Berlin experience, but anyone who can read a Wikipedia entry and memorize some definite articles is not some kind of Culture Crusader making the world a better place, one well-pronounced “CH”-sound at a time. The idea that culture consists of an immutable combination of foods, sayings, and historical anecdotes is a perfect definition for those who want to assimilate for the chance to say they have. Expat culture is a part of Berlin’s culture. You can’t praise the city’s international draw in one breath and condemn expatriates as tourist scum the next. If you’re disturbed by the Melbourne Canteen, you’ll have to get over it.

I don’t think learning German is pointless, and as I improve, however slowly, I feel better about whatever it is I’m doing here. More than once I’ve been embarrassed when an American or British friend forgoes even the barest minimum of effort, skipping the regretful-but-polite, “Sprechen Sie Englisch, bitte?” in favor of an unfathomably lazy, “Can I get a Berliner?” That sucks. It’s rude to go into a German restaurant, bar, café or terrifying governmental bureau and speak English to the people there because, despite the way Colthorpe writes about it, the vast majority of cafes, bars, restaurants, and performance/coworking/women’s-only gym spaces in Berlin function fully in Deutsch.

No one’s forcing anyone to go to The Bird, and we all know too well how interchangeable the bars in Neukölln are; if you find one unpleasantly Anglophonic, go to the one next door. Enclaves of English — and French, and German and etc. — exist in any semi-significant city; that’s called globalisation. It’s not going away, and a misguided rant about one of its fairly harmless symptoms accomplishes nothing but animosity. Explicitly English businesses hurt no one, and Colthorpe’s piece is as unthinking, boring, and selfish as an American who lives in Germany for six months without bothering to learn how to order a multi-grain roll. You’d think the constipation would eventually drive her to Google Translate, but that’s her Kreuz to Berg.

For more from Lauren, check out her website laurenoyler.com or follow her on Twitter: @laurenoyler. For tips on learning German, read “Ask überlin – Do I need to learn German?”