I’ve managed to get my book printed here in Germany, and without the printer’s speaking more than a word or two of English. It went pretty much as it did in the US, when I was first having the book published there. You go in, you get a really low price, and you think “Wow, this is the way to do this!” Then you go home and the printer calls you an hour or two later with a problem. You run down there and fix it, and the price has gone up €100. This happens two or three times, and by the time you are finished, the book ends up costing about twice the original estimate. It has nothing to do with language. This is the printing business. Here and everywhere else.
Except in Germany, you pay about $7.50 to get on the U-Bahn each time you run down to visit the printer, and you waste about two hours getting to the printer and back, what with waiting for buses, and the long walk once you get to the right U-Bahn stop. So figure another $75 or so there, with all the trips, and breaks for refreshment, and so forth. Throw in the $35 you spent on the books at the bookstore you passed on the way to the printer, and suddenly you realize if you sell these books for what you charge in the US, you are going to be subsiding German science. In fact, you could probably have shipped half a ton of books overnight from Colorado and still come out ahead.
The other problem I had was getting all those books home. No back seat of the car to throw them in, that’s for sure. So I called Brian to help me haul them to the U-Bahn station and back to my apartment. We went with our backpacks empty, but the printer wrapped the boxes up in shipping tape, with a little handle made of twisted tape. We could carry them, but our fingers were nearly severed by the tape at the end of the quarter mile we hauled them. We managed to get them here, finally, and I offered to treat Brian to dinner at my favorite Greek restaurant for his help. So add another €35. And since no one knows I’m here, I probably won’t be able to sell them and I will have to haul them all back home with me, so add another $150 in excess baggage charge. Expensive books, is my point. At least twice as expensive as in the US.
Oh, well, it looks nice on the A4 paper.
Learning from the Master
The print shop is down near the University. There are nearly 70,000 students in the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Brian is attending, Germany’s largest university. And there are another 50,000 students in Munich at other campuses, including the Technical University which has campuses both in Munich and here in Garching. Needless to say, the University district is full of shops and restaurants and bookstores that cater to students.
I stopped into an English bookstore on one of my trips to the print shop. I’m perfectly happy with the selection at the Garching library, but I wanted to see what kinds of books I could find here. Apparently, this is a bookstore that specializes in books for English classes at the University, because I found most of the classic American literature there. Nearly the first book I picked up was a travel book, The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain. This book was begun as a series of weekly news reports Twain sent back to his newspaper in New York on his experiences traveling with a group of Americans in Europe. I immediately had to buy it. Here is a chance to learn from the master.
I opened the book at random and the first passage I read was directly out of my own experience. Twain and his eager group had just stepped off the train in Paris, and immediately started talking excitedly to the natives in French. The natives stared at them like the Americans were speaking Chinese. “We never could get those idiots,” Twain writes, “to understand their own damn language.” Yes, sir. I’ve been there and done that! In fact, I’ve pretty much given up thinking I am going to be able to make that ö sound. I just don’t have enough years left, I’m afraid.
I don’t know what to do about homeless people. They make me uncomfortable.
I had gotten paid Friday afternoon. It wasn’t a great deal of money (unless, of course, you consider it payment for writing stories, and then it would have been incredibly generous), but it was in cash and more than I normally carry around in my pocket. I’m not allowed to open a bank account in Germany (wrong type of visa), so I wanted to put the money into Brian’s account, where I’m sure it is going to end up anyway. He checked on the Internet and found his bank was open until 5:30 on Friday.
Brian and I arranged to meet at his bank downtown. But, by the time I got there at 5:00, Brian had already learned the Internet information was wrong and that the bank closed, like most banks in Germany at 3:45 on Fridays. (This is consistent with the general German economic theory of closing everything just when there is a good chance of making some money, but it was still a surprise to me. I don’t know, maybe Germans get paid on Thursday, when the banks keep late hours and close at 5:30.)
There is no way, as far as Brian and I could tell, to make a machine deposit in a German bank. You need to be there in person between the hours of 10:30 and 11:00 on Thursday of an odd numbered week, or whatever the rule is, I’m not very clear about it. Anyway, not when it’s reasonably convenient to get to a bank. (I’m trying to suspend my American attitude while I am here, but I’m beginning to see why six weeks of vacation is standard. You would use up half that just going to the bank and getting an occasional haircut. I’m really not sure when you are suppose to work here.)
The long and short of it was, I had purchased a one-day U-Bahn ticket and I had more than the usual amount of cash in my pocket, so I decided to use the ticket and wander around the Marienplatz downtown, looking for a likely restaurant. I wasn’t particularly hungry, and I dislike crowded restaurants with their thick smoke, so I was just wandering around looking in shop windows, waiting for the dinner rush to thin out. I was half-heartedly looking for an Indian restaurant I had seen once on a walk, but beyond that I was just enjoying the night air.
I passed a church and heard Bach being played on a pipe organ. I peeked in the window and listened for a few minutes, then moved on. I had traveled quite a distance from the Marienplatz, and I had just noticed the sidewalk crowds had thinned considerably. I had just decided I would turn around at the end of this block and go back the way I had come, when I was approached by a poorly dressed and unshaved man.
He asked me something in German. I replied that I didn’t speak much German. He asked me, in English, what languages I spoke. “Uh, English. Just English,” I said. I wasn’t going to get into the little bit of pathetic Spanish I used to speak. He said he lived on the street and could use some money, could I give him some. He spoke with a French accent, so I presume he might have been French, or possibly Swiss. In any case, it was clear that even the homeless in Europe speak more languages than I do. This is really getting to bother me, so I reached into my pocket and gave him a €2 coin, partial payment for American ignorance.
I have a hard time walking past homeless people with extra money in my pocket and knowledge of all the things I own that I don’t in any way, shape, or form need, for God’s sake. And yet I read the Chamber of Commerce literature that advises you are not doing the homeless any favors giving them money. In Anchorage, in April, there were about five Alaska Natives per block looking for money and a sign in every store saying don’t give them any, you are doing them harm! But shoot, I’ve been in situations a time or two in my life when the bottom of a bottle looked like a pretty good place to hang out, given the circumstances. In San Francisco, the women come out on the streets with their dirty children. I suppose it could be a ploy, but even if it is, those folks seem to need the money more than I do. So I usually end up giving them whatever change I have in my pocket, two or three dollars, usually. Occasionally, I’ve given a guy a $5 or a $10 bill, when I’ve felt particularly guilty, or it looked like he was really hungry.
This guy looked dirty, but not particularly hungry. And I didn’t get any sense of danger from him, so I started to chat a bit. He was interested in amateur radio, and if he got a little money together every now and then, he went to an Internet cafe and did some research on the topic. Say what!? The homeless people I’ve talked to in the US don’t seem to have much schooling. This guy was sounding like a Ph.D. in physics, talking about frequency modulators and decoding radio signals, and what not. Well, could be. I studied physics. I could see some of those guys I went to school with ending up here, to tell you the truth. Not the most social people you ever met in your life, some of them.
I mentioned telescopes and adaptive optics. “Oh, oh, oh. Wait a minute,” he says, and starts digging in the bag he is carrying. I look in there. It is his complete office. Folders and notebooks, apparently color coded by subject and date. “You live where?,” I ask him. “On the streets,” he replies, “for 20 years.” “Why?” But he ignores the question and shows me the report. Something ripped out of a scientific journal at the State Library down near the University. In a plastic sleeve, like all the rest of the articles he has in that bag, several hundred, at least.
He doesn’t sound crazy, and I’m pretty sure he would have better luck getting a job in Europe than I would, with just language skills alone, but the longer we talk, the more I notice the same subjects coming up over and over. OK, maybe he can’t hold a job, for whatever reason. But still... this man obviously understands physics. I decide to leave, but before I do I reach back into my pocket and hand him the contents, another two or three Euros probably. He takes the money and sticks it in his pocket, but doesn’t stop talking until I give him a little salute and turn my back and walk off.
I’m two or three blocks down the street, when I put my hand in my pocket to feel for my pocket knife. Not there. Damn! Did I just give my pocket knife to that man along with all my change? I am distressed. I love that knife. I think about running back down the street and asking for it back. Or, maybe that’s too tacky. It was a gift. Maybe I should offer to buy it back. I paid $25 or $30 for it, but it can’t be worth that to him. Should I offer $10?
Oh, for God’s sake, Dave. You had entertained the idea of reaching into your wallet and handing the guy a €20 bill. What possible difference does it make that he has your knife? Buy another one. Yes, but I love that knife.
And this conversation goes on in my mind for the next hour or two. I am shocked, and distressed, at what I appear to be attached to. It is a knife. I can buy another one. But I am so upset that I gave it away. I begin to wonder what it is I think I am giving people when I hand them money. Obviously nothing of value to me. Am I even willing to offer something of value? I don’t know. I’m confused. What is my relationship with homeless people? What are my responsibilities? Carol and I give a fair amount of money away to charitable causes. Are we making a sacrifice when we do this? Or do we just give away what we can spare without feeling uncomfortable ourselves? And does giving away this little bit make us feel comfortable, when the goal of giving may be to feel uncomfortable ourselves?
I don’t have any answers. But in the morning, when I wake up, I still miss my knife. I lay there for a little while thinking about it. Finally, I say, “Oh, the heck with it, you can have it,” to the physics guy, as I get up and gingerly make my way down the stairs to start the coffee. And there, laying on the kitchen counter where I left it last night, is my knife.
It’s a strange place, this world.
Copyright © 2006 David W. Fanning
Last Updated 11 January 2006