Getting to Know Our Neighbors
It’s Thursday night. Andy is out with a couple of friends for a much needed guys night. I’ve just finished eating dinner, chicken and pasta with a lemon-butter-garlic sauce, and I’m about 25 minutes into Love & Other Drugs, a movie I know Andy won’t like. Suddenly I hear the doorbell ringing. Before I can even make it halfway to the door, it’s ringing again. I hesitate to answer since my German’s not good and it’s even harder to understand people on the intercom phone. But I pick it up anyway and say “hallo?” trying to make it sound German, and not like the English “hello.”
The harsh yet slurry voice of our 88 year old neighbor Frau Baumgartner comes through the phone. “Why are you not down here?” Only it’s in a heavily accented regional dialect of German so all I really understand is “Why are you not…” and I just imagine what the rest is. Our building and the building next door are having a grill behind the buildings in the shared driveway in front of all of our garages. Since Andy is hanging out with friends, I decided to stay in because I’m a bit shy about muddling through my horrible German with the neighbors.
But here is Frau Baumgartner, the matriarch of the building, insisting I grab a jacket and come down stairs. I tell her Andy is with friends, but still she asks why I’m not downstairs. Having no real excuse, “funf minuten” is all I can manage to tell her. I’ll be down in five minutes. “Ich warte…” is all I can make out of her response, I’ll wait.
I quickly put on some shoes, turn off the TV, and send Andy a text. I don’t even put my dinner dish in the dishwasher for fear of taking too long to get downstairs. I don’t want her ringing the bell again. She’s a kind and friendly woman, but she can also be a bit scary. As I’m coming down the stairs, I can hear her say “hallo” from the bottom. She really is waiting for me.
Once I’m outside, she hands me a plate. I try to tell her I already ate, but later I realize I was actually saying “I eat” not “I ate.” Like a grandmother who insists you have just one more serving, even though you’re stuffed, she starts pointing out the different side dishes on offer. She says something about meat, and I assume she’s reminding me everyone was to bring their own meat for the grill. “Ich esse” I say again, I eat, though I mean I’ve already eaten.
I scoop out a little bit of tomato mozzarella salad, and as I’m going for the potato salad, she shakes her head and says “Das ist nicht so gut.” That is not so good. I laugh as she’s insulting someone else’s potato salad, but I take some anyway, as well as a little Greek salad. Just a few bites are on my plate, but hopefully enough to satisfy her.
I see an empty seat next to Sabine who is about my age and lives above me and Andy. Our conversation goes back and forth between German and English as we both struggle to find words in each other’s language. Johannes, one of the hosts of the evening, asks me if I need something to drink. I tell him I brought water down with me, but he waves me off and puts a beer in my hand.
I manage to have a few simple conversations in German, alternated with little bits of English from the 40 and under crowd who all speak at least some English. I can pick out plenty of German words from their conversations, but still not enough to make sense of every sentence. Though it’s entertaining to listen to people from different parts of southern Germany tease each other about their accents and different words they have for the same thing. Three completely different words for the end of the bread, none of which are simply “end of the bread” like we would say in English.
After about two hours and two beers, Andy comes home and, seeing the lights are out in our apartment, he comes around to the back to find me. We continue talking to our neighbors as the crowd starts to dwindle. We talk about language, travel, work, and how in the US we would never have a grill like this with our neighbors. Finally around 1:30AM the five or six of us still outside decide we should call it a night. Luckily only one in the group (not Andy) has to work in the morning. Johannes insists he will clean up the next day, so we leave the folding chairs, tables and the rented grill outside.
Nervous as I am about my weak German skills, I am reminded once again that Germans understand how difficult their language is, and that so many of them speak English. I’m glad Frau Baumgartner insisted I come downstairs. I’m happy to have met some of our neighbors in the other building, and maybe even made a few new friends.
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August 19, 2013 @ 9:35 AM
I originally found your blog while madly searching on the Internet for English instructions on how to sort the garbage in Germany =) I’ve been here since March from Canada. I always find it funny hearing about the old lady in your building as I also have such a neighbor who I find equally hard to understand but realize that it’s important to try and stay on friendly terms and make-out her instructions/warnings. I also appreciated your recent blog about not having a job in Germany and why getting one just isn’t as straightforward as some make-out.
Anyways, if you ever come to Ulm/Neu-Ulm I’d love to show you around.
August 19, 2013 @ 12:32 PM
Thanks Emma! It always makes me laugh when people find my site while searching for trash sorting instructions for Germany! I think we all have *that* neighbor. She’s very nice, but between the harsh-sounding German and the fact that she’s probably going deaf and speaks louder, she seems scarier than she is. I’m glad you could also relate to my previous post about not having a job here. I hope you’re adjusting to life in Germany, it can be tough, but you’ll get there. I’ll definitely keep you in mind if we make it out that way, thanks!
August 19, 2013 @ 9:44 AM
I hope I will manage to chat with my Armenian neighbours in their language one day…(we do chat in Russian but longer I’m here, more I want to learn….I have my first class tomorrow!I guess I will be able to maintain a simple convo in about 10 years:-)))))))))))))
August 19, 2013 @ 12:33 PM
Wow, Armenian can’t be an easy language! I have a friend who spent some time there, and she speaks some Russian, but I think she took some Armenian classes while she was there too. Impressive! Good luck with your class!
August 19, 2013 @ 12:44 PM
Sounds like an interesting night! I can just imagine you hustling out of the apartment quickly so that she didn’t tell you off haha. Also, how annoying that things like that happen when you’re halfway through a movie 😉 And I know how protective the Germans are of potato salad, although in fairness they do make it really well.
August 21, 2013 @ 11:24 AM
They do make good potato salad, and the one she said wasn’t good did taste good to me! It was a fun night, as much as I wanted to watch my movie, I’m glad I went.
August 19, 2013 @ 2:05 PM
So funny the different cultures in Europe. Here in Italy, the Italians are incredibly friendly, but they would never invite a random neighbor to a cookout like that. Social circles are developed pretty much from birth and mostly revolve around the family. They don’t really invite strangers into the group.
My landlord’s house is right across from ours. They have big parties in summer cooking out and such. In four years, we nor our other two American neighbors have never been invited.
Hope you did make some new friends and that you’ll now be able to practice your German a bit more!
August 21, 2013 @ 11:26 AM
I think it’s more like that in the smaller villages in Germany. They’re not used to outsiders being there and they’ve known each other for generations. But here in Freiburg there are so many students and other people from other parts of the country or other countries altogether. Have you ever tried inviting your neighbors to your place for a party?
August 19, 2013 @ 9:56 PM
I love this story, Ali! I would have been intimidated to join them, and as an introvert, I would love a night in just doing my own thing 🙂 Three cheers for Frau Baumgartner for encouraging you to come out to join everyone and good on you for going out! I’ve found that I’m usually so glad I do these types of things after the fact (even if I’m initially wishing I was home recharging my introvert batteries).
August 21, 2013 @ 11:28 AM
Thanks Heather! I’m an introvert too, so I was definitely looking forward to my night watching a movie, but like you said, I was glad I went. I just need a push sometimes, whether it comes from myself or someone else.
August 20, 2013 @ 10:08 PM
What a memorable experience! I met a great group of German girls while I was living in London. Like you said, they realize that their language is not easy and are always really enthusiastic when they get to practice their English with me. Great post.
Happy travels! 🙂
August 21, 2013 @ 11:35 AM
Thanks Lauren! It was a fun night, even if I resisted going at first. Yeah, lots of people do want to practice their English with me, though I do need to practice my German too!
August 20, 2013 @ 11:15 PM
I”m glad you went out! And I bet that one of the best ways to learn German is to speak with the people of German. Your neighbor sounds so cute!
August 21, 2013 @ 11:36 AM
Thanks Kim! I’m glad I went too, I did have fun. She’s definitely a character!
August 21, 2013 @ 3:33 PM
That’s so nice that you know your neighbours! I don’t think we can say that about any of the places we have lived in the last several years. More problems than good stuff…
August 22, 2013 @ 11:11 AM
Thanks Andrea! Sorry to hear you’ve had problems with your neighbors. Usually I just don’t know who my neighbors are, so living here where we know who they all are is quite a change!
August 22, 2013 @ 1:46 PM
Aww – this was such a nice story. Glad to hear you’ve got a matriarch willing to look after you in your building.
August 24, 2013 @ 1:07 PM
Thanks Adam! She is a really great woman, even if she can be a bit scary at times!
August 25, 2013 @ 1:19 PM
I must admit that I am a tad bit jealous of you. I remember when I used to be really small, back in the 1980s, people in Australia used to know and be good friends with their neighbors and invite them around for barbecues and dinner. They were really good times that we had back then. People nowadays here in Australia are much more individualistic and distrustful of one another to the point that if you invited somebody over to your house for dinner or a “barbie” (barbecue) as we call it here, they would think something was up. It’s the lack of sense of community and interconnectedness that we have in Australia now is something that I really lament, something that makes me feel like a foreigner in my own country.
August 26, 2013 @ 1:49 PM
That’s really sad Matthew! In many places, the US is like that too. It is really nice to be in a place where are neighbors, at least in our building, are so friendly. I wonder if people just see too much negative stuff on the news and everyone is becoming suspicious of everyone else. Ugh.