A COUNTRY OF CLOCK WATCHERS
Sitting on the train, still at the station, as the diesel engine is fired up and the doors close, everyone turns to look at their wrists. They’re checking the time. If the train is pulling out on time, they pull their sleeves back down and carry on with their newspapers and magazines or conversations; they’re satisfied, happy and contented.
This is a place where you can actually rely on things to be on time. It is not just an intrinsic hope; it leans more to “fact of life” status.
Today we had a three minute window to get from tram stop to platform and to get on the train. In Australia this wouldn’t even be attempted. You’d get the earlier tram. You wouldn’t risk it. But the Germans don’t like waiting around. They like to walk straight from tram onto train, without having to stand around in the cold looking at the clock.
I was on the tram, eyes fixated on my watch. “We’re going to miss it,” I had told myself, with five minutes to go. “There’s no way this tram – sitting here in the middle of the city, idly letting people on and off – is going to make it. It just can’t be done.” This, however, is the thinking of someone who, at home, is known to rely on a ten minute discrepancy in the time table to get places.
I think I could live with this system of things running on time, but I wouldn’t want to see the people here if something went bung – I’d bet they’d be ropable.
‘WOULD YOU LIKE SOME SCHNAPPS?’
It was once observed that in Britain and Australia if you listen to the sound in a restaurant you’ll hear laughter. In Germany, normally you’ll hear talking.
Perhaps this doesn’t apply for trains here.
On the train back from a Carnival event, which saw motor bikes on high wires and more marching bands than you’d think a small village would be home to, in Breisach am Rhein – a town that is able to hold spitting contests at the French, if it so desired – a group of old ladies suffering bouts of uncontrollable laughter produced a small glass bottle.
“Would you like some schnapps?” one offered. I declined, so another in the merry, and a little tipsy, crowd had to consume it for me. I was left thinking that I had definitely, without any further shadows of doubt, arrived in Germany.
It emerged pretty quickly that I was from Australia and was on exchange. “I didn’t know teachers did exchange programmes…”
“No, no. I’m a student.”
“Aren’t you a little bit old?”
“Er, 15 isn’t that old.”
“Really? 15? Well, no more offers of schnapps, young man.”
Here I was apologising for terrible German and managing to keep up the conversation. Perhaps it would be best for all language learning endeavours to be conducted around drunk, older ladies – it limits their vocabulary and topics of discussion, distilling them to a digestible strength for linguistically incapable foreigners like me.