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  • Katherine Sirvio

Social Faux Pas #286 and #293

It was back in 1994, just after I got married to my husband Andy. Literally, just afterward. We had gone on our honeymoon - a wonderful place in Abaco islands which is part of the Bahamas. The island is Elbow Cay and the village is called Hope Town. An appropriate name for newlyweds, don't you think. The water is the purest blue and as a small island (7 miles long by a 1/2 mile wide), not many people visit there as tourists - we had the place to ourselves. It was there that I learned to snorkel properly and to really fall in love with the world beneath the sea. But like most of my blogs, I am digressing and need to get back to the story at hand. So, we returned from the honeymoon and I changed out my suitcase and headed to the airport to leave for Germany for a short term assignment working at Opel / Vauxhall in Russelsheim. I left my new husband at home to wait for my return.

Germany had only unified a few years earlier - the end of 1989 I believe - shame I didn't buy a brick while I was there. But, what would I do with it? Back to my previous blog, it is something to have just to have... Anyway, Opel was very independent at that time, at least for my department, there was little to no interaction. For comparison, today it is a fully integrated part of Design and we have weekly conference calls and daily interactions with them. It was also very difficult to communicate if you didn't speak German, which I did not. Most spoke or understood English at work, but in the small village that I lived, Eltville, it was a different story.

It was not until I had been there for a month or two that I realized how important this was and started to learn simple phrases. Going to lunch - boldly state Mahlzeit to the security guard as you depart. This is a German salutation, short for a more formal salutation, "Gesegnete Mahlzeit" meaning Blessed mealtime. I didn't learn the meaning of it at the time, I only learned that is what you say as you head out - I was a copy cat. Ich bin hungrig, durstig, mude. I am hungry, thirsty, tired. Simple things - how much is this? I am sorry, but I don't speak German, do you speak English? You get the gist. I never learned any conversational language, it was only sayings to show I was trying and to get me through the local markets. My teacher was Antje. She was a very German older woman who loved teddy bears. She was strict and direct, but kind in her own way. She taught me the basics.

That brings me to my first social faux pas in Germany. I was staying in a colleagues apartment while they were on the same assignment as me, only in the USA. We couldn't swap apartments though as my husband was still living in ours. So, I was lucky to have everything set up for me. It was the first day and I was settling into the apartment nicely, noticing the differences between German living and American living. The refrigerator in the kitchen was miniature, it fit under the kitchen counter. We would use this type of refrigerator for a university dorm room, to hold beer most likely. There was no control for the heat at night and I froze as we broke into the winter months and had to purchase an additional blanket. Anyway, my first trip to the grocery was where this faux pas takes place.

​​ It was a short walk down the road, through a Fußgängerzone or pedestrian zone and then to a busier road along the Rein with no good sidewalk. Some of the roads were cobblestone and some paved. I was feeling very worldly as I headed into the grocer. My first realization that I wasn't in Kansas anymore (as the saying goes) was that I couldn't tell the difference between hand soap, body soap, dish soap or dishwasher detergent. Unlike living in Korea, the Germans were not big on cartoon pictures on their products. Of course, this was before the internet was readily available or useful and really without speaking German, I had no way to know what to buy. I looked carefully at all the products in each aisle and tried to reason that like uses would be together, so when I found something that may have been dryer sheets, I assumed it was next to the laundry detergent. As I brought my trolly to the cashier, I was feeling pretty good about my selections. I didn't have too many things, but enough to get through the first week - or so I thought.

The cashier did not speak a lick of English, or if she did, she never let on to it. There were no bags. I didn't understand that you would have to purchase a bag if you did not bring your own. There were no bags in site and I politely shook my head meaning I didn't understand, but perhaps she thought I was just saying no thank you. So, I gathered my shirt to create a pool and began placing the items I purchased into it. I then had to take the walk of shame - a different meaning that what it has become to be known for - and walk all the way back through town with my groceries stretching out my shirt. Occasionally, I would drop something which would turn into a dramatic episode, as I would lose more trying to pick up the item that I originally dropped. There was nothing worldly about me anymore.

Funny thing, I never did make it through the week with shopping only once. When I tried, I typically didn't eat much on Sunday when everything was closed for the day of rest. I learned to go to the butcher, the baker, the grocer, etc to get what I needed for each few days. A completely different concept than what was happening in America at that time. Funny, now I tend to do the same as the Germans - run down to the farmers market, over to Bread by Crispelli's and Costco for the staples that last forever and last to Holiday Market for the rest. A few items that I had bought in Germany were never used because I couldn't read the preparation instructions to make it work. There was only so much I could tax my colleagues at work with. I was not a very good chef at that time, just getting me feet wet. So I figured better to just move on. I did have one friend that was a saving grace, Jim Fets, and his wife at the time, Claudia. That brings us to social faux pas no. 293

Jim was an American employed by Opel. He is a fabulous automotive photographer and at the time

my only true friend in Germany. He and his wife were expecting their first baby - Noel who was due on my birthday and who coincidentally had the same intended name as my middle name. They were so gracious. They probably grew tired of me, but never let me know it. Always inviting me to dinner and shopping, and long talks in the evenings about travel and tips on where to go. Jim's studio was in a courtyard outside and during my stay, they began construction to the patio that surrounded it. I frequently visited Jim and brought him film to develop and chat about the day's events or get filled in on the gossip.

At the peak of the construction on the patio, Jim's studio was like a towering mountain island with the entire patio dug out around it. The construction workers had probably dug deep enough for a three-foot pool to go in. There were large boards that created a 'catwalk' to get across to the studio from a couple of different points around the courtyard. At least this made it so we didn't have to go down into the pit they had created. I was in my work clothes, of course, so you have to picture me in kitten heels, some type of skirt or pants - not sure but well-dressed none the less. As I went to make my way across the planks of wood, Jim spotted me through the window of the studio, as did the construction workers. I could see the concern in their eyes. A couple of the workers raised their hands to offer assistance to me. I raised my voice loud enough for them to hear and said: "it is okay, I am good". I didn't want to yell and create a spectacle for all the studios that surrounded the courtyard to see. So just in case, the workers didn't hear me, I made the symbol with my right hand. I put my index finger and thumb together to create a circle and held it high in the air as I spoke. I had no idea that the American okay symbol was not universally understood and definitely did not know that it had an alternative meaning in Germany.

Jim shouted 'no, don't say it is okay', and came running out to the door. By that time, it was too late. I had unintentionally just called all of the workers 'assholes' in the most offensive way. Jim tried to explain, and I did see some smiles but I think there was an air of disbelief that this gesture meant okay in the USA. Jim then explained to me, that not only was this incredibly offensive but also that in public space one could be arrested for such a robust hand gesture.

Of course, this was not my first faux pas and definitely not my last. I just hope that the next one takes place in a region or country that is not quite so strict and has a slightly better sense of humor.

Eltville on the Rein River

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