Friday, July 17, 2009

Buying a German Blue Pen: Putting My High School German to Use

Erik is out of the office this week, so we are reprinting a column from 2005.

I recently found myself in Germany on a business trip (Geschäftsreise), and was looking forward to using my German language skills I had learned in high school (Gymnasium). I was looking forward to immersing myself in a week-long cultural adventure.

The lessons learned during the first few weeks of class were still burned in my memory, and I was convinced that, despite their simplicity, the knowledge was still valuable. I mentally rehearsed the various statements so I would be ready to engage in the many conversations my teacher promised we would have if we ever went to Germany.

"Hello. My name is Erik." ("Guten Tag. Ich heisse Erik.")

"I would like some orange juice, please" ("Ich möchte Orangensaft, bitte.")

"My pen is blue." ("Meine Kugelschreiber ist blau.")

"I like your lederhosen." ("Mir gefällt Seine Lederhose.")

You can imagine my disappointment when I arrived and saw that not only was nobody wearing any lederhosen, but absolutely nobody introduced themselves or asked me about my pen (Kugelschreiber). It was for the best though, because I was not carrying a blue pen at all. I only had black one (schwarz).

This was a major problem (Problem). This was Germany, the land of blau Kugelschreibers and Orangensaft. What if somebody introduced themselves and asked about my pen? It would be a horrible social faux pas if I only had a black pen!

I needed to get to the shopping district (Einkaufenbezirk) by way of the train station (Bahnhof), so I hailed a taxi (Taxi). "Deliver me to the train station forthwith, my good man!" I commanded.

Not really. We never learned that in German class, so all I could mumble was a quiet "Bahnhof, bitte."

"No problem," he answered. I had been frustrated all this week because Germans would automatically speak to me in English, before I had said a word. I must have looked American. My Chicago Cubs baseball cap, Budweiser t-shirt, and "Hey, I'm an American!" sign probably didn't help.

I took the next train (Zug) to the shopping district and began to scout around for a pen store (Schreibwarengeschäft). After a stop in a bookstore (Buchhandlung), two coffee shops (Kaffeehaus), and the financial district for lunch (Mittagessen), I found my Shangri-La (Shangri-La): The Faber-Castell pen store!

As I walked into the store, I realized that this was a defining moment in my life. The sort of immersive experience my German teacher hoped for us, from the very first moment we learned about blue pens and orange juice. If this was to be a meaningful event, there was only thing I could do: I had to conduct the entire transaction in German.

"Haben Sie eine Kuli?" I asked the attendant, employing the short from of Kugelschreiber. My German was still a little rusty but passable, and I could understand someone as long as they spoke ver-r-r-y slowly.

Which this guy didn't.

He picked up two of the pens I had been looking at. "Blah blah blah ein blah zwei?" he asked.

Oh crap. This was going to be hard. Wait, he said something about one or two. I'll bet he wants to know how many pens I want.

"Zwei, bitte." Two, please.

"Blah blah blah grau blah silber?" He held up two different styles of caps, one grey and one silver. He was asking which cap color I wanted.

"Ja, beide. Einer ist für mich, und einer is für meine Frau." Yes, both. One is for me, and the other is for my wife. (She was getting the silber Kuli.)

"Blah blah blah schwarz blah blau?" This was it. My big moment. The pen store assistant (Schreibwarengeschäftassistent) was asking me if I wanted a black or blue pen. I pulled myself up to my full height, puffed out my chest, and proudly said, "Ich möchte einen blauen Kugelschreiber, bitte." I want a blue pen, please.

The man smiled knowingly – apparently he had met some of my classmates – and I paid for my purchase.

I had done it. It was my own personal pen victory (Sieg).

The purchase (Erwerb) of my new blau Kugelschreiber was going to be the key to unlocking many conversational doors. Just like my high school German textbook promised, I would meet dozens of new friends, sit in a local Kaffeehaus, discussing our pens, debating the merits of orange juice over apple juice (Apfelsaft).

It would be any high school German student's dream come true. That is, until one of my new friends (Freunde) would lean over and ask me "Was möchten Sie für Abendessen?" (What do you want for dinner?)

Uh-oh. (Oh-oh.)

(Note: Those are the actual pens, four years later. We still own and use them.)

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