Thursday, December 11, 2008

Notes from my Europe Trip

Sitting on the plane heading home from Hamburg, here are some random thoughts from the last few days:

• Daily life entails many more interactions with random people than one realizes until one is self-conscious about language. It turns out that we have short conversations with people all the damn time: the flight attendant; the taxi driver; the chick that you bought an Orangina from at the bodega; the bellhop; the maid walking down the hallway. Usually when I am traveling to Europe, I’m either with Teresa or local management and they do the talking. This time, I was mostly alone.

• My initial inclination upon reaching France is always to begin these conversations in French, especially if it is as simple as “bonjour!” Most people recognize a foreign accent immediately and helpfully revert to English. Some don’t recognize the accent, and continue to say something, often incomprehensible to me, in French, and then I have to figure out what to do: either stupidly nodding my head, pretending that I know French better than I do, or saying “excuse me?” in English. Either way, I feel stupid.

• This time, I only spent two days in France and then sped onto Germany. The change in language threw me for a loop, and thus I was generally mute with a nod of the head when greeted with a “guten tag.” Most people recognized the difficulty and continued on with comments about the weather or something in English. Again, I felt stupid. The strangest thing happens to me in this situation, though: when I respond to them, I’m speaking English with a weird German accent, as if that’s going to help them understand me. I can’t do anything about it. I sound like Mike Myers or some other silly comedian doing a parody of a Nazi. I can only shake my head in disgust after the short meeting is over.

• Germans, in Hamburg at least, are painfully polite. The best way to describe this is their behavior at crosswalks. Hamburg is a big, bustling city with even more pedestrians than cars. Stoplights and crosswalks are very carefully marked and lighted. The funny thing is, everyone obeys the crosswalk lights, all the time. I happened to be at a crossing of two one way streets, both very narrow, with no traffic on them at all. As I approached the intersection, people started piling up at the corner, obviously waiting for the light to change. I got to the corner, and looked down the tiny street – it could not have been more than 15 feet across – and saw that there was not any traffic in sight, anywhere. And yet not a single person was venturing across. About twenty people had piled up on the sidewalks on either side of the street, and they all stopped and waited, some picking up their cellphones and looking at email or something. The light changed, and they all flooded across the street. Having lived in New York for many years, it was very odd.

• I stopped by my grandparent’s old house from 1955-1959 at 47 Harvesthuderweg, right on the lake just down from the American Consulate. The street was gorgeous, and I can only imagine that the Finlays led a charming life back then. The house itself was under construction, so it was hard to see what it might have been like in its former glory.

• If I have time, I’ll write a funny story about the plane ride to Paris, where I suffered uncomfortably close living quarters with a French couple for about seven hours.

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