A Turk named Marco set up a pizza take-out just after I moved to this small German town last winter, and though his thick slices sold well enough, his business really picked up after he introduced “American Hot Dogs.”
A hot dog is nothing more than a bastardization of the ubiquitous, cheap local wurst on rolls, yet every day at lunch a very local crowd queues out Marco’s door while he hurries to open plastic bags full of fusty American buns with his teeth.
I hated hot dogs in America; now I find myself eating them a lot. For months Marco and I derided the lady bureaucrats of the central Saarland Ausländerbehörde: who among them was the worst? Frau V, we determined, with her crazy assemblage of figurines on her desk, a talismanic army protecting her from us.
The immigration ladies, who’d already tossed me out of the Shengen region once, had Marco’s wife stuck in Turkey, taking German lessons. They wouldn’t give her a residency permit because she couldn’t speak – then, when she could speak well enough, it was because, ostensibly, she couldn’t write. And then one day they relented, and a pretty young woman was suddenly assembling hot dogs next to Marco. Now, when I eat there, all we talk about is the kurs.
The Deutsch Integrationskurs is the 600-hour language course subsidized by the government. It is offered to, and frequently mandated for, non-E.U. foreigners. It is said to turn out half-decent German speakers with industrial efficiency, but there is considerable discretion as to who is forced to take it.
No one at immigration mentioned it when they finally granted me my permit, but Marco’s wife must not only find a spot in the course, which can be hard, but not get sick for its six-month duration, since a small number of absences will flunk you, and pass the exam…
I’ve been trying to get my own spot while limping along in a weekly night class. Before it began I’d studied out of an American textbook containing the sort of German dialogues one would expect: Do you know of anything that stimulates the appetite better than a Bismarck herring?
The night class’s books are more practical and depressing, following the adventures of Nikolai, an underemployed Ukrainian who is forever filling out forms in government offices.
Many of the students’ lives mirror Nikolai’s, darkly. Russian and Kazakh laborers come and go, depending on conditions at the employment office. We had for a while a young Kenyan au pair who ran off, causing the family who hired her to mount a panicked search.
A Kosovar gypsy used to come to class, always without a textbook because he could not read, and though he was handsome and friendly, the teacher shot him venomous looks and cut him off whenever he spoke. He stopped coming. I later recognized his wife, an assimilated Kosovar gypsy, in the gym, and asked where he’d been. “He beat me and left me,” she said. “He’s dumb, he’s a piece of shit, and I don’t care where he is.” It took me far too long to understand what she was saying. “Ok,” I said. “Good-bye.”
That exchange had me so ashamed. Later I thought of what I would have liked to have said: Du wirst einen besseren Mann finden. I see her often, at the gym or once, walking alone across the cold square while I sat in the window of the town’s sole cafe. The sentence returns to me every time, though I am resigned at this point to projecting it telepathically.
There is much anxious talk here about “integration” and “assimilation” of immigrants from the East and the South, but a weirdly permissive attitude toward Americans, a not-insignificant minority in states with a lot of military bases, and some of the stubbornest language-resisters in all of Germany.
We were joined in class for a while by an ex-soldier named Bill, who’d married and raised five children here, managing the whole time with a patois comprising German nouns and English verbs. Our teacher, a Siberian who had arrived three years after Bill, was happy to throw Bill and the rest of us a bone of English when we got stuck, but I never saw her do this for any of the Russians, or, God forbid, the Kosovar.
Bill fled after three classes, and then in recent weeks came Maxtavius, a mixed-race child of about twelve with a delicate face and a small voice. His appearance was a surprise, as this night class was not designed for children, but for adults who filled out forms all day.
The incredibly named Maxtavius had spent most of his life on Army bases in Germany, where, despite having a German mother, he had learned no German. His father had either abandoned the family or died, we never could quite figure it out, and Maxtavius was in the process of becoming German, abruptly. He now attended a local school where he presumably sat in embattled silence all day.
Our teacher seemed floored by the idea that a child raised in Germany would not speak at least rudimentary German, but it seemed to me consistent with the studied insularity of the U.S. military. For miles around any base you find residents of twenty or thirty years who not only do not speak German, they refer to any purchase made outside the base stores, which can resemble anything between a Texas rest stop and the Mall of America, as “on the German economy,” or “on the economy,” a phrase that sounds to me like “breathing the German air.” Oblique radio spots on the military channels advise listeners to “respect local customs and traditions,” with no word on what these might be, or whether the traditions they’re referring to are Germany’s or Guam’s.
Much of the amusement on military bases consists of shopping for marked-up American goods, monstrous faux mahogany bedroom sets and speaker systems sold under rent-to-own schemes that would probably be illegal “on the economy.”
The largest of these companies also distributes credit cards to facilitate the purchase of its products, and is granted the right to garnish servicemembers’ pay and tax refunds just about forever if they end up in arrears.
Taking a quick survey of the dystopian offerings at one celebrated new complex, a $215 million cathedral of double-priced fast food and cinemas now playing “Saw VI,” I wondered: Would anyone ever buy this crap if they didn’t have the German language to fear?
Young Maxtavius was nurtured in such environments, so it is no wonder that he chooses to deflect some 60 percent all queries with “Ich weiss nicht,” a magic bullet of a phrase that, heavily employed, will infuriate one or two teachers and enervate the rest.
“When you really have to learn a language, you will,” said someone I know who learned Spanish in a Mexican prison, and I noticed that this kid’s Ich weiss nicht’s are getting faster and better accented and that sometimes lately, when he is too tired to maintain this defense, some ganglion reflex takes over and the German comes out before he can stop it.