December 24, 2009
Americans (And Others) Abroad

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.


Posted by Jennie Erin Smith at December 24, 2009 06:10 PM
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My dad was career military. He was stationed in Frankfurt from 1959 to 1963 and we joined him 3 months after he left the US. Both of my parents spoke German, my mother better than my dad, as they had met and married in Austria in 1953. When we first arrived in January 1960, we lived "on the economy," in an apartment in downtown Frankfurt, moving onto the base some time later. I attended German kindergarten so I would learn German. I haven't heard the expression "on the economy" since I left in 1963; had no idea it was still in use! It dates from the time after the war (WWII), of course, when American military personnel controlled that part of Germany.

Posted by: Nora Carrington on December 25, 2009 3:46 AM

We used the phrase in Laos back in the day. To avoid the horrors of the economy there was an embassy housing compound with an Olympic-size swimming pool six kilometers out of town which was called, you guessed it, K Six. In town there was a large USAID compound with another, smaller swimming pool, a bar, a PX for such necessities as baby-bottom-soft toilet paper and iceberg lettuce, and a movie theater. The ambassador, G. McMurtrie Godley II (you can't make this shit up) had a private swimming pool built at his residence, billed to the taxpayers as an emergency reservoir. The Mekong River was larger than all these put together and then some, but was considered unacceptable for swimming, being infested with tiny fish that swam up the human urethra and had backward-facing spines that made them impossible to remove without disfiguring surgery. These fish were apparently racist fish, as the Lao were never attacked.

Posted by: Jerry Doolittle on December 25, 2009 11:20 AM

Thanks for your story. Interesting stuff.

I don't have many stories of Germany, although my Grandfather was stationed there briefly after WWII, he was in military intelligence. He was having a discussion with some officers and there were some German ladies there and many of the officers were talking about the 55 gallon drums of silver and various other antiques that they had bought from the Germans who were desperate at the time. The black market for American money was quite active then I suppose.

Many of the officers, according to my granfather, said they shipped dozens of these 55 gallon barrels of German treasures home. My grandfather said he didn't do any of that and one of the German ladies asked him "vy did you not do dat", which is how he pronounced what she said. He didn't respond in the presence of the others.

And I know he didn't take any loot home, because he had some minor treaqures collected during his 30 years in the military, but they were all minor things and he could tell you who gave him which as a gift, and the only German thing of any value that he had was a German Luger which he got when each officer was allowed to make two or maybe three trips through a German artillery bunker to take home a war trophy. He sold the Luger some years later but left the German people alone. Which would have been his character as he was a jerk in the way he treated others (maybe his genes or something Martha but probably military training although all his sisters said he had a mean streak), but he never "stole" anything (unless you count the Luger and whatever the other thing was - I forget as he considered the antique buying looting. I donated his things to the Army War College in Carlisle a few years ago, stuff that went back to the early 1930s (like Army menus that were published at Christmas, Easter and other occasions) , although the Luger was sold when he went in a retirement community.

No doubt we helped Germany after WWII but some of the officers and Generals were despicable men who took all kinds of treasure home, and it came from who knows where, perhaps ultimately from the homes of those killed in the ovens.

Posted by: Buck on December 25, 2009 12:08 PM

I'm guessing that the U.S. military communities are more isolated where the structures erected to contain them are the most elaborate. It would make sense that in the 1960s there were fewer obstacles to living as a quasi-German, or quasi-anything, than there are now. I just want to know why they feel the need to build all this stuff.

Posted by: Jennie Erin Smith on December 26, 2009 8:17 AM

The same reason a dog licks his balls. Because he can.

Posted by: Nugatory on December 26, 2009 9:32 AM

Oh, and by the way, since I didn't read my own links, there have been books written in English of the episodes as the song doesn't reveal that it actually happened all up and down the lines. I see two at Amazon, perhaps others know of more or better ones.

Posted by: Buck on December 27, 2009 8:28 AM

I never understood why somebody should want to live in a foreign country and not learn its language.

But it's the same with Germans in Spain, where I spend part of the year. Most of the Germans who chose to live there for the healthy climate twenty, thirty years ago still don't know more Spanish words than "Gracias", "Hola" and "Adiós", if any. And they get really, really pissed-off if these stupid Spaniards don't speak German. Of course they do, they just like to pretend otherwise sometimes ;-)

Naturally there are German supermarkets now, German bakers, German hairdressers, Swiss dog groomers, British butchers - oh, did I mention the British are just as bad? I heard told that wherever two Britishers meet on foreign soil, they found a British Club. I can confirm that rumour. We had rented a house right accross the street from a British Club in Spain and my, were they loud! If they didn't blast us off our balcony with Karaoke every second night, they had Bingo-evening or Auction-afternoon. You must know, most Britishers and Germans in this part of the world are retirees and often very hard of hearing.

And none of them knew a word of Spanish. One night (after a bottle of vino tinto or so) I found myself shouting them down in Spanish, ending up with calling them dirty, loud-mouthed Nazi-swines. I guess I was pretty drunk at the moment. Call that two bottles of wine. Still, I was sober enough to become a little worried. After all, it was in the middle of the night and there were two of us against forty or sixty of "them".

Suddenly the British Club accross the street went dead quiet. We saw them having some hushed discussions, pointing our way, and made ready to escape through the backyards. Then they all smiled and waved and turned up the volume again and went on like before.

What did I want to tell you with this story, I wonder? Happy New Year, probably ;-)

Posted by: Peter on December 28, 2009 7:45 AM
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