Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Serious Business

Being German must be pretty serious business. I feel like I sometimes stand out like a sore thumb because, being an American, I grin a lot. It's not always sincere, but when I make eye contact with someone I'm passing on one of the many walking paths around here, or do the awkward "shopping cart dance" with an fellow shopper in the grocery store, I tend to at least pull a half-smile.  If someone would let me in front of him in line because he has a cartful and I have just a loaf of bread (granted, that's unlikely to happen here, but still), I'd smile and say "Danke." But I've noticed that few Germans smile at strangers.

Germans are friendly, but in a distant sort of way. They nod at each other or greet each other when passing with a "Morgen" ("[Good] morning") or "Hallo", but they save their smiles for their close friends and family. We Americans have the reputation of being quite friendly and open, and part of that is probably due to the fact that we grin and smile a lot. We smile at strangers, dogs, babies, flowers, and sometimes at nothing at all. This comes across as friendly and happy to some, but vacuous to others. Do we have that much to smile about, or is it just a habit - like asking "How are you?" just as part of a greeting rather than a sincere inquiry?

Every Wednesday morning, as I wrote earlier, a bakery truck comes to our street. Every Wednesday the same 3 or 4 of us neighborhood women gather at the truck to make our purchases. These women, as well as the baker, are friendly, nice, and chatty. As we inhale the aroma of fresh bread and rolls, we talk about the weather, some strange goings-on in the neighborhood, and where someone is who usually comes to the bakery truck. There's plenty of chatter as we exchange pleasantries, but I'm the only one who's smiling. I feel like a feeble-minded dolt - while the others are grumbling about the cold, I'm grinning pleasantly because...there's fresh bakery at my door!!!

I'm learning that one can be pleasant without flashing the whitened pearlies all the time. For those who are not used to this, perhaps it looks like German people - especially the older generations - are unhappy. That's not it. They just save their smiles for times when there's something really worth smiling about.  It's not too unlike our American use of the word "love" vs. the German use of "lieben". We Americans love our parents, our children, our friends, our country, puppies, swimming, chocolate, sunsets, Christmas, our new laptop, a certain football team, lots of movies, and sometimes our job. Germans love their parents, children, and spouses. They enjoy swimming, they like puppies, they do their jobs, they watch movies, and they appreciate sunsets. They reserve "loving" for the people who truly invoke that feeling.  I like that! I hope my children don't feel the same about chocolate as they do about me...  My American bestie and I say "I love and miss you" when we write, but I would never say "Ich liebe dich" to a German friend.

Come to think of it, there's another German phrase that relays the affection one feels for those still in one's inner circle but beyond the parents, children, and spouse: "Ich habe dich gern." That means, if literally translated, "I have you gladly". The intent is, "I like you a lot." The Germans don't throw that phrase around lightly either, though - there is genuine deep affection attached to that phrase.

Our closest friends here - Martin's former landlords - are absolutely the exception to the "being German is serious business" thing. Granted, we're friends, but I think they are friends and friendly with everybody. I can't help but smile when I see them, in part because there are just not that many people I recognize around here, but more because they are some of the friendliest, most out-going and fun people I know. They are ever-ready with smiles, warm greetings, and invitations to join them for a birthday or garden party whenever there's one upcoming.

But back to smiling at strangers. To me, a greeting and a smile go together. I've been trying to learn the German way for the purpose of blending in, but I actually have to concentrate. It's simply a pleasant but emotionless greeting - shouldn't be all that difficult.  Ok, here comes a German man toward me on the sidewalk. He's a generation older than I am, and walking an unmanly-sized dog. If he were walking a collie, I wouldn't be able to restrain myself, but I don't like little dogs and so there's no danger of it bringing on a smile. They keep approaching, I keep walking - same side of the street. Since he's over 60 he's not staring into his Smartphone, but actually looking up. He gets closer, I keep walking, and remind myself to leave my facial expression as it is - which is actually expressionless. Just then he looks directly at me, and as I am about to deliver my rehearsed and grinless "Morgen" (not "Morgen!"), he beats me to it. He nods, and says "Morgen" barely parting his lips.  BAM! That damn smile is there before I can stifle it. "Morgen!" I say as I flash him my friendly American grin. Ugh.

I'll try again tomorrow.

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