"One day it occurred to me that it had been many years since the world had been afforded the spectacle of a man adventurous enough to undertake a journey through Germany on foot. After much thought, I decided that I was a person fitted to furnish to mankind this spectacle. So I determined to do it. This was in March, 1878." Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad


Communication 101

Shopping in a grocery store always poses a great many obstacles to the foreigner. The produce section is filled with fruits and vegetables that you are unfamiliar with and lacks those fruits and vegetables that you are accustomed to. The packaging looks different, and you don't recognize any of the brands. The brand names you do recognize are imports and therefore five times the price. The products are arranged in a way that makes no sense to you, and it therefore makes it all the more difficult to find what you are looking for.

There are also the unspoken, assumed ways of doing things that everyone expects you to know. Here, in Germany, that includes remembering to bring a 1 Euro coin so that you can get a shopping cart, and to return the cart to its proper location so you can get the coin back. You must also remember to bring your own bags to put your groceries in after buying them so that you don't have to pay for each of the store's bags. And don't expect them to bag your groceries--that is your job.

Then there is the language. Oh, the difficult German language. Now I understand why companies are so careful to put colorful, descriptive pictures on their food packaging. If it weren't for the pictures, who knows what food I would come home with. But pictures can only get you so far. For example, after doing a little celebration dance when I found peanut butter in the store, I was then confronted with the choice of just which type of peanut butter I would buy. I could see from the pictures that one was "crunchy" and one was "smooth," but then there was one jar that said "ohne salz." I figured "salz" meant salt since it was so similar, and peanut butter tastes better with salt, so I bought that one. It was only when I brought it home that the father remarked, "Why did you buy peanut butter without salt?" Oops.

As a language teacher by profession, I tend to take note of how people try to communicate with me in German when they know I don't speak German. I find myself often thinking of the students I teach who come to me not knowing a word of English and struggle so hard to understand and make themselves understood. After working with students with very little English for awhile, I am familiar with what strategies work and what strategies don't work. Gestures, rephrasing, pictures, acting it out, breaking it down--those things work. Speaking fast, repeating the same thing over and over again, raising your voice and speaking louder, and louder and LOUDER--those things do not work.

This past Monday I found myself in the check-out line at the local grocery store. Half of the town happened to be at the store with me because the grocery stores had been closed for the two previous days. (Grocery stores are always closed on Sundays, and Saturday was a national holiday.)

After waiting in line for 15 minutes with a fussy Penelope, it was finally my turn. The store clerk started scanning the items. And while she was doing this I quickly stuffed them into my bags. Suddenly the lady stopped and held up the tomato and said "blahblahblah." I stopped and looked up at her quizzically. So she held up the tomato and said "blahblahblah" again, but with an annoyed sound to her voice. I said in English that I didn't understand. Then she said "blahblahblah" again but this time louder and with an exasperated sigh at the end. I stood helpless, trying with all my might to understand the word she kept repeating, but all to no avail. So, with another sigh, she took my tomato and put it on the counter next to the cash register. Oh well, I guess I didn't need that tomato.

But then it happened again when she got to my cucumber. "Blahblahblah." "Blahblahblah." "BLAHBLAHBLAH." More confused looks from me, and again she gave a sigh and placed my cucumber next to the tomato by the cash register. Guess I didn't need that either. She scanned a few more groceries and then got to my bag of carrots. "Blahblahblah." Here we go again! What am I doing wrong? Am I not allowed to buy vegetables here or something?!

It was then that the guy behind me intervened. He grabbed the tomato, cucumber and carrots, pushed through the lines of people, and set them on a machine. Then it clicked! I was supposed to weigh the vegetables myself, push the corresponding button, and adhere the printout with the price onto each bag. If only the lady had pointed to the machine when she said "Blahblahblah" or said it in a different way, maybe I could have figured it out on my own. This could have saved me some of the embarrassment and saved the people behind me in line a bit of time.

Dear Reader, let this be a message to you. Next time you come across someone from another country who looks as lost as I was, think of me and lend them a helping hand.

1 comment:

  1. i had a very similar experience like that in Barcelona, so I totally sympathize with you. I love reading what is going with y'all over there...it makes me want to come so badly! -julie