Letter No. 3: Bullshitland
Antipodeans suffer terribly from instant-expertism and I – with my shaky command of German – am a case in point. But it is only when I buy into the myth that Herr Klein seems to want to construct around me as a peerless example of capital i Integration that I truly cross over into bullshitland.
My grandmother’s tendency for pronouncements fuelled by pure spirits (see post: The Wrong Language) is a trait shared by our Hausmeister here in Hamburg, Herr Klein. It is down to him that the shared areas of the building are kept clean. To this end he has devised a cleaning roster for the entrance way and stairs which he carefully rotates each week. The roster - which hangs prominently in the entrance hallway of our apartment building - is studiously ignored by at least 50% of the occupants. Herr Klein bemoans this lack of community spirit loudly and belligerently in the Treppenhaus whenever he, with bat-like accuracy, detects the scrape of a key in the front door lock.
Like most Hausmeisters, Herr Klein lives on the ground floor, a fact which makes escape from him rather difficult. He’s been living in the building since the year dot and says loudly and frequently to anyone who’ll listen; the only way they’ll get me out of here is feet first. As his lease predates the rental market reform - he still pays what he paid in 1965. This modest sum is about 10 percent of what the apartment will be rented for when he is carried out feet first, when his penchant for clear spirits does finally gets the better of him.
The fact is, unlike most Hausmeisters, Herr Klein likes a post-breakfast tipple usually followed by a liquid lunch then an afternoon snifter before he moves onto a serious evening of TV while he snaffles the rest of his daily dosage of clear spirits. I often see him walking back from the bottle store at about 8am, chinking along carefully with several large bottles of Schnapps. By midday he’ll be haunting the Treppenhaus, lying in wait for someone to pass by so he can regale them with tales of his late wife, who he affectionately called ‘Die Siziliaranian.’
Die Sizilianerin was, by his account, a volatile and passionate woman who frequently threatened to kill him, should he ever succumb to the charms of another woman. "Meine gestorbene Frau," he said to me one day as I edged past him in the Treppenhaus, "hat Mir immer gesagt, wenn Du fremdgehst, bring ich dich um!" The sense of this being if he ever so much as looked at another woman Frau Klein would have no hesitation in killing him, probably with her bare hands.
However, despite his obvious potential fremdzugehen, he remained happily married to die Sizilianerin until her untimely death. I suppose it was her death that pushed him over the edge into the convicted dipsomaniac he now is, however, the fact that Herr Klein is permanently blotto in no way interferes with the orderliness of his life. A stickler for rules, he gets about in all weathers in a uniform consisting of a spotless white t-shirt, red braces, pressed jeans and if its raining a yellow raincoat and hat of the kind worn by Paddington Bear. I often wonder if his natty and slightly nautical sartorial bent isn’t a hangover from his days as a sailor. After the death of his first wife he spent many years at sea, wandering the globe from Amsterdam to Australia.
Eventually however, he returned to exactly the same life he'd left behind - with one major alteration. In the Philippines, Herr Klein found another potential candidate for the post of Frau Klein. Without further ado he quit his seafaring life and set about arranging the import of his new bride. The house gossip unfairly suggests that Frau Klein II was actually a mail-order bride, but I have it from the horses mouth that this is not so. On one of his trips to the ‘South Seas’ Herr Klein met Frau Klein II while she was working as a cook in a port side tavern of the kind only frequented by weeping Russian and stoic North German sailors.
A native speaker of Tagalog, Frau Klein II, who is as lovely as Herr Klein is addled, also speaks excellent Spanish and English but unfortunately after twenty years in Germany, her command of Deutsch is still poor. I am sure she would concur with Mark Twain's thesis on learning German in his most well known phililogical lecture 'The horrors of the German Language.' This is a source of great chagrin to Herr Klein who complains to me that although she is a good cook, his wife cannot speak good German. ‘Even you speak much better German than she does.’ he says as we pass on the stairs. It’s tempting to be flattered but then it’s a question of relativity. I speak better German than an already multi-lingual 65 year old woman with no need or desire to speak German. I shouldn’t let it go to my head, but I am weak.
Herr Klein, on account of his having had not one, but two, foreign wives is known amongst his contemporaries as a paragon of open-mindedness and a ‘friend of integration.’ The current government run by Angela Merkel, is very big on integration. It should be the one and only aim of all immigrants to integrate fully and by this it is meant - Learn to Speak Good German. This isn't just empty rhetoric and I myself am a graduate of the heavily subsidised state run 'integration course.' During this intensive course which ran for 6 months full time I managed to learn enough idiomatic German phrases to fool most people into thinking I can speak the language far better than I actually can. I do understand just about everything that I read or hear but the rub comes when called upon to describe either how something works or what it looks like. At this point I am often greeted with either an offer to switch to English whereupon my conversation partner will shame me with their excellent command of my puny language or by a slightly embarrassed head tilt which is German for, oh well, we’ll just let her go, she’s on a roll and trying so hard.
Most of the Germans that I encounter are of the opinion that one ought to stick to ones specialities and are mystified by any kind of let’s-just-give-it-a-go fervour for the unknown by the unskilled. This new world attitude just doesn’t compute. Antipodeans suffer terribly from instant-expertism and I - with my shaky command of German - am a case in point. But it's only when I buy into the myth that Herr Klein seems to want to construct around me as a peerless example of integration that I truly cross over into bullshitland. I have no more inclination to integrate than Frau Klein II but I just don't have it in me to correct him when Herr Klein goes off on a rave about my language skills compared to Frau Klein II's. Being as I am complicit, I am in no position to blame Herr Klein for his complete lack of understanding of his wife's plight, marooned as she is in a bubble of non-communication. I'm just glad when I manage to make a quick getaway without the spectre of the cleaning roster rearing it's ugly head.
Until next time,
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