Sprechen Sie English?

I stepped off the plane after a 9 hour overnight flight. I walked, somewhat wearily and warily, towards the long line at “Passport Control.” A new world of possibilities waited outside the door, but first, I had to go through customs, collect my bags, and pick up my rental car. Sitting in a booth was a gentleman in his 30’s, wearing a uniform and a badge on his chest that said “Polizei.” He greeted me in German, probably something along the lines of “Welcome to Deutschland.” I handed him my passport, and said, “Sprechen sie English?” He chuckled and said, “yes,” for probably the twentieth time today. After asking me what my plans in the country were, he stamped my Passport with a nod and a smile, and sent me out into the world.

Picking up my car, I was informed by the concierge that my Audi rental has in-dash GPS. “There’s an option to switch the language to English,” he volunteered. I went out to the garage, found my car, and did just that. I programmed in my first destination of the trip, Dachau. I also popped a prepaid SIM card into my phone that was supposed to provide me with data service. It didn’t seem to be working, but I figured it was because of the parking garage. And, the GPS was working fine regardless. So, off I went.

The Dachau Concentration Camp is free to visit, but you have to pay 3 euros for parking. I knew this ahead of time, so I was prepared with a 5 euro bill. I greeted the attendant, got my change back, and found a spot at the back of the lot. It was at this time I noticed my phone’s data was not working at all. Slightly problematic, as I was hungry and had hoped to find a restaurant to eat lunch at. No worries, as it turns out that Dachau’s Visitor Center has a cafeteria. It’s clearly geared towards people like me; there were a few German staples with long, tounge-twisting names on the menu, but also…”Sausage. With Fried Potatoes.” Which is what I ordered. It was only 5 euros. Fried potatoes means French fries, as it turns out. 

Nothing puts your troubles or your fears or your meals in perspective quite like walking through the gas chambers, furnaces, and hanging grounds of a former concentration camp. Large signs with foreboding bold print tell the story; how economic struggles and anti-immigrant attitudes led to the rise of an extremist faction, one that eventually decided that others who weren’t like them should die. Gays. Jews. Jehova’s Witness’. Street beggars. Political dissidents. The Polish. On and on. On the main gate, wrought out of iron, “Arbett macht frei.” Work sets you free. I was humbled and chilled to the core.

Back to the present world. It was time to check into my room, so I plugged the address of my AirBnB rental into the GPS, and off I went. I knew I’d have to resolve the phone situation at some point, so I drove until I found a place that looked kind of like a supermarket, and pulled in. I walked in the door, and there it was; a magical, bright sign that said “Vodafone.” I stepped up to the counter, and the gentleman said something that of course, I didn’t understand. “Sprechen sie English?” “Ah, yes, a little bit. What do you need?” 10 minutes later, and for only 30 euros, I walked out with a month of prepaid cell service and a working phone. He set it up for me, no problem.

After dropping my bags off at the room, and a quick nap thereafter, it was time to seek out dinner. I knew it was best to walk; I’m staying on the south side of Munich, and parking is scarce sometimes in the city. I started out at a place I’d seen on Google Maps, about a 10-15 minute walk away. Turns out, it was a restaurant on the upper floor of a store that seemed to be the German equivalent of IKEA. “KARE.” It appeared to be a fast casual, walk up and order kind of place. I couldn’t interpret what a single food item written on the chalkboard was, so I left. It’s the kind of place you go when you already know what you want. 

I walked another 20 minutes to my other option, a traditional German restaurant called Alter Wirt. I examined the menu that was posted outside, and again, didn’t understand a single thing that was on it. I shrugged, and went inside. “Hallo!” “Hallo. Sprechen sie English?” “Ah!” The host raised a finger, and then returned with a young lady who led me to a table. She sat down with me. “Hi, yes. I’m sorry, my English is not so good, but I do the best I can! I’m not sure how to explain all that is on the menu, so just tell me: what food do you like to eat?” I ended up with roasted pork, a potato dumpling, and a dish of slaw with a tomato on top. It was delightful. 

I was ignorant. I had heard and read that tips were mostly included in the bill in Germany. I had also heard that leaving a tip on the table could even be considered offensive. I tried to look up more info while I was at the restaurant, but my cell service was not good enough to do so. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I paid my bill and left. I found out while writing this article, that the custom if you are satisfied with your service is to offer a 5-10% tip when the server brings their change purse over to settles up your bill with you. She won’t see this, but the waitress at Alter Wirt deserves an apology; she was so gracious, and I didn’t respond appropriately. All I can do is learn from it.

Walking back to my AirBnB, I passed a grocery store. There is so much you take for granted being at home; you can always dash into any store and grab something. When you are traveling in another country, language, and culture, it isn’t so simple. I went into the store to buy some bottled water to keep in the car. I brought a pack and some dark chocolate up to the register. The cashier spoke a few phrases to me, and I didn’t understand anything he said. I didn’t want to bother him with asking to speak English, so I just nodded, paid, and thanked him with one of the few words I know. “Danke.” Did I come off as aloof? Rude? As a tourist? A foreigner? Dumb? Who knows? The cashier handled it with grace, regardless of the fact that I didn’t. 

I’ve spent one day in Germany, and it has already changed me in some way. Being in a place where you don’t fit in and you don’t speak the language humbles you. Quickly. Hopefully you noticed the common thread in the stories from today, though. And it’s kindness. Everyone I’ve met today has gone out of their way to help me, with a smile. I’m a foreigner. I don’t speak the language. I’m different. I don’t fit in here. And I’ve been graciously welcomed by everyone I’ve come in contact with. 

Something to think about, next time you run across a stranger that strikes you as different. Smile. Help if you can. Be welcoming. Way over on the other extreme, on the dark side of humanity, are Dachau and places like it. There are many differences between us, but we’re all members of the same human race at the end of the day.

Sprechen sie English?

About Brian Keith Wallen

Singer-songwriter and guitarist from Indiana. Proud dog dad.
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5 Responses to Sprechen Sie English?

  1. Marilyn Upchurch says:

    So enjoyed your blog. Can’t wait to read the next one! Brings back memories of my going to Germany at age 18 for a year and speaking no German. The older Germans would always say no they did not speak English. Actually, even in 1969 the children in school took mandatory English, so you shouldn’t have too many problems with those 40-50 years old and younger. About all I still remember is how to go to the grocery and ask for a pound of hamburger please!!!

  2. Gill McBride says:

    Brian, sounds like you are doing fine and you are learning. I have never traveled out of the country and can only imagine how intimidating that must be to feel like you don’t fit in. I am anxious to hear what kind of reaction you will get once you put on that guitar and start entertaining in a universal language.

  3. Kris Potrafka says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience, Brian. Keep venturing into the unknown!

  4. Marcia says:

    Love reading of your travels!! Stay safe and have fun!!!

  5. Karin Lewis says:

    Thank you for this walk down memory lane. I am so glad you are taking the time to deepen into your Deutschland experience. Enjoy every moment! Viel Spaß!

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