The Neglected Visitor

Time marches on. I have been here a week tomorrow and I still have not met up with my sponsor, although I had a e-mail from him yesterday with baby pictures and promises to come rescue me today. I sat stoically in my office waiting, but no luck. And meanwhile, work that remained unfinished when I left the US is not going well in California. I’m thinking I might be able to rush back there, sort it out, and return before I am missed here. Sigh.... “Ein bier, bitte.”

It really is not as bad as that, but Germans (or maybe Europeans, I’m not sure everyone here is a German) are not the most outgoing people in the world. In the village, no one looks you in the eyes as you pass on the narrow path. There are no quick smiles from young girls on bicycles that stir an older man’s imagination. There are no cheerful “Guten Morgens!” among strangers waiting at a bus stop. To have a conversation you almost have to be in a business transaction with someone. I understand now why there are no large supermarkets or department stores. People need to go to the bank, the druggist, the bakery, the Post Office, the flower shop each and every day to be social. In my daily accounting of money spent, only a third of it is going for food and transportation. The rest is going for German lessons. In less than a week I have accumulated nearly a year’s worth of laundry soap, shampoo, kitchen gadgets, and other assorted cleaning supplies, all in the name of loneliness.

I asked Brian about it, because it is striking. Even in New York City you can get people to look at you and smile. In a place like Fort Collins, you would be hard pressed to get people to not smile at you. Here, I haven’t received a single smile or hello yet, while I walk back and forth miles each day, smiling brightly all the while. Brian claims this is in keeping with the German character, and that in their own way they are being respectful to me by not pretending a relationship that doesn’t exist. He says the same is true in offices, and I believe him. In the Institute people sit in their offices with their doors closed. They do not expect to be approached by someone they don’t know. Nor would they poke their head into my office or any other, he explained, even if the door was open, because it would be considered rude to do so.

On my floor of the Institute everyone works in their own office. There is very little of the water cooler kind of informal talking you see in American offices. Germans would be dumbstruck, I believe, by open floor plans and low cubicles that encourage informal relationships. And now that I think about it, maybe that is the purpose of this strange building I am in, to keep people isolated and separate from one another. I was remarking about the building to the one person I did encounter today, an Englishman, I believe, who works on the Help Desk of the Institute. He told me the building had won a design award for the builder. I was surprised. I would have ordered the man shot had I been on the award committee.

So I have kept to myself at the Institute, but keep my eyes and ears out for opportunities to interact. Yesterday, I heard a conversation, in English, outside my doorway in the hall. After five minutes or so I walked out and introduced myself. Neither of the two scientists in the hall, a German and a Canadian, offered their names. One did offer to show me the secret passageway to the Auditorium, where a seminar was getting started. I went, sat silently, and came back to my office. No one there remarking, or even noticing, my presence. Even for someone who spends a lot of time alone each day, this feels extreme to me. And as much as I grumble about going up and down those stairs at home 50 times a day, letting the dogs in and out, at least they are someone to talk to and interact with. I miss them tonight.

German Lessons

Without Brian around, and with no one to talk to at work, the only way I can practice my German is to shop, shop, shop. So I make my rounds, picking up a couple of pretzels here, a döner there, a box of milk and some fruit over there. It is part of both my morning and evening routines. And I’m getting much better at it. The trick is to relax, sort of let the words mumble out of your mouth. Go with the flow, is the idea. This afternoon there were no other customers, so I started chatting up the girl in the bakery. “So, ist diese brot sehr gut? Ja, ja,” and so forth. It’s not much of a conversation, but it’s something to pass the time, and it makes me feel better about myself. Makes me feel like I am learning something. We even started discussing the pluses and minuses of some of my other choices this afternoon. And, of course, to keep talking, I keep buying. I used to go in there to get a sandwich. Today, I got a sandwich, two pretzels, and an apple something or other, that was better than (besser dan) something else I was pointing at. Even with all the walking I’m doing, I’m going to gain weight if I keep this up.

I also stopped a couple of people on the street today to ask for help finding a particular address. Both of them seemed to know what I was talking about, so that went pretty well, although I failed to find the address of the print shop I was looking for. I did find the Student Center of the Munich Technical University, which is part of the University complex where the Institute is located. I can have lunch there if I don’t want to call on my friends in the bakery in the morning.

The walk to the Institute takes a half hour, and sometimes I walk back to the village for lunch, just to have something to do. Since no one talks to me along the way, I don’t feel guilty about putting my earphones on and playing my German language CDs. I think this is really a great way to learn the language, because phrases I practice just seem to appear when I am speaking. Today’s lesson was on weather, which was appropriate since the weather has changed and I had to break out the jacket this morning. Tomorrow, for example, I’ll ask the girl at the bakery what the weather is suppose to be like today. Really suave conversation, if you know what I mean.

But here is the embarrassing thing. I don’t know if it is just about being lonely or what, but I’ve been listening to these tapes for about five days in a row now and I am developing a serious crush on one of the women teaching the lessons. I mean, she just has the most cheerful sounding voice. “Yes, it is hot and I would love to go swimming with you!,” I remember saying at one point. (In German, of course.) I mean, I’ve heard of being in love with your teacher, but with a CD?! I’ve really got to start doing something to break the ice around here.  

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