Monday afternoon, just after returning from our long weekend in Belgium, I had to run a few quick errands and pick up a friend from the train station before calling it a day. I grabbed my purse, made my way outside, and just as I was reaching for the car door a strange old man started spattering a bunch of German off at me. Of course, in that moment I thought, "Dang it, why didn't I keep up with my Rosetta Stone?!" because I had no earthly idea what he was asking me. So, of course, being the bad expat that I am, I politely asked him if he spoke English. To my surprise, he said, "Of course, pretty American girl, I know some English!" and crossed the street just to tell me so. I have no idea how he knew I was American (I'm hoping he lives in the neighborhood and has seen D and I out dragging a million bags of groceries 3 blocks to our apartment like only Americans would do), but he sure was excited to be talking to me.
This is how our 10 minute conversation played out:
Old man: America! My sister lives in Arizona. I love to go visit her, but I would never live there.
Me: Oh, why not?
Old man: Too many things wrong with America. I don't know why she stays! It's not the epicenter of the world anymore, you know? Do you like living here in Germany? I bet you do! So different from your country.
Me: I do like living here, but I miss home, too. There are a lot of things wrong with America, but there are lots of great things as well!
Old man: What? Like your gas eating cars? Or your confusing politics? Nothing ever gets done! Do you have a big car?
Me: (As I look down at the Ford Focus car door I'm holding on to)...umm, nope...this is my car right here! Small and energy efficient, just like I like it.
Old man: Oh good, you are a smart one I see. Not that all Americans are dumb, just some of those brand new military kids we've got running around here.
At this point, I'm dumbfounded. Was I on Candid Camera? Is this real life? Did this man literally just stop me on the sidewalk just to tell me everything that's wrong with being an American? Our cars, our politics (not that I can't agree with him on that one), and our "brand new" military members. Really? Was he trying to get on my good side? Because it definitely wasn't working. And I was starting to feel a little uneasy. Lots of suspicious thoughts starting popping into my head. Did he know D was in the military? Is he anti-American and I should probably get in my car and start heading for the base? Not to mention the fact that we were now 3 minutes into our conversation and he STILL hadn't told me what question he was asking that stopped me in the first place! The conversation continued...
Old man: Not that I don't like the military kids being here. They're nice. Brings more jobs to Germans having the bases around. But 20 years ago, you wouldn't want to be here. Or in Paris. You wouldn't want to speak English around Europe. People wouldn't like that. This nice American boy I know lived in Paris for 2 years and said he didn't dare speak English in certain places. Anti-Americans were everywhere! But now, you can live there and speak freely. And here, too. Even though we are all Nazi's walking around! Hahahahahaha---(and then he proceeded put his finger over his lip as if to make a mustache, clicked his heels together, and saluted. Like a Nazi. I so wish I was kidding.)
Ummm...what? Now I was sure I was on Candid Camera. I had no words. Just stood there shocked and lifeless, like all the brain cells had somehow fallen out of my head. He must have seen my eyes go wide as saucers because then he said...
Old man: I am not serious, pretty girl!! Only being saucy.
If that was being "saucy," then he was the first saucy German I'd EVER met. Still weirded out, I fake giggled and said...
Me: Oh you got me! I've only ever seen that salute on TV. (more nervous giggles, I mean, what do you say when something like THAT just happens? And then the conversation turned again)
Old man: So, do you think when you go back to America you will be more like a German?
Me: Umm, how do you mean?
Old man: Drive small cars, be more efficient in your working, drink more beer! Haha!
Me: Well, the beer definitely. But we will see. I'll recycle more, I'm sure.
Old man: Oh good! You will not live in a garbage heap! But you will miss the fresh brotchen (bread rolls) won't you? No good brotchen in America.
And the hits just kept on coming. That man, I swear. At that point, I was trying to think of ways I could just end the conversation...but I didn't want to offend him in any way by abruptly cutting everything off. He definitely didn't need ANOTHER reason to feel superior to Americans. He'd already got that in the bag.
Me: I do love the bread here, but we have great bakeries back where I'm from.
Old man: Oh that's nice. Do you live in New York? I have a friend in New York. I visit him when I go to see my sister once a year. Americans love New York City.
Do they now? Full of generalizations, that one. Although he got me, I do love NYC. Shucks.
Me: I do love New York City. It's a great city. Lots to do.
Old man: Yes. Too big, though. Not like Frankfurt. Frankfurt is the perfect size and just as fun. Not as much crime either. So much better for families.
Annnd then I was done. I grabbed for my iPhone and fumbled with my keys. Abort, abort!
Me: Sir, I'm so sorry, but I must go get my friend...she's at the station now!
Old man: Oh yes, yes get your friend...lovely public transportation we have here, don't we? Not like in America! You have to drive everywhere! Too much!
Are. You. KIDDING. Me! I'm pretty sure I gave him the stink eye as I opened my car door and slipped into the drivers seat...fuming. He was still laughing as he stepped onto the sidewalk across the street. I started the car, ready to get the hell out of there. I looked down for a split second to get the car into gear and as I brought my head up, I saw he was back at my car window, waving for my attention.
*Tap, tap, tap* I rolled down the window. Annoyed.
Old man: OH, quickly can you tell me how to get to St. Joseph's Hospital? I almost forgot that's what I stopped you for!
I died a little inside as the words flew out of his mouth. As much as I didn't want to respond, I said...
Me: End of the street, to the left.
Window went up and off I drove. I could see him waving as I glared at him through my rear view mirror. Old man, I don't know where you came from or why the good Lord chose me for you to stop to ask directions from, but I will never in my life forget that conversation. It's the first time in Germany that I've ever felt slightly unwelcome...although his underhanded approach kept me confused and weirdly aware of my un-American surroundings. Was he just trying to get my goat? As I re-told the story to D, he rolled through the same emotions I did. Shock, uneasiness, confusion, annoyance. Although, laughter was a new component. After having time to think and reflect on his words, all we could do was laugh (and D suggested I blog about it, because it's literally the strangest thing that's happened to either of us since moving here). I really think that old man just wanted to talk. About anything. I just happened to be American and indulged him in his banter. I'm sure some of his words (well I HOPE, at least) were a bit lost in translation and he wasn't intentionally bashing me and my country. Nor do I believe he was aggressive or anti-American. I think that's just how he speaks. And it's often how many Germans speak...unfiltered. They say exactly what's on their minds. Good, bad, or otherwise. Just another one of those social differences between Germans and Americans. I'm surprised he didn't bring that one up himself! Now, even after all silly things that came out of that mans mouth, I know for a fact not all Germans think this same way. He is definitely the exception to the rule. I'm thinking he was a bit off his rocker, so to speak. Maybe that's why he was heading to the hospital? To check himself in for a bad case of the word vomit. Geez. Who knows, but it was a strange afternoon to say the very least. I do hope that old man found the hospital he was looking for. Come to think of it, I prroobbably should have told him to make a right at the end of the street, not a left. Oopsies. ;)