"There you are!" he said, as he presented my meal.
"Thank you," I replied.
He smiled. "It's so nice to hear someone who can pronounce theta. Nobody in Germany can do it."
Of course, he didn't say Germany. He said "Dzermany".
Flourishing a perfectly-voiced dental fricative, I added. "That's right."
A gentleman from Barcelona eavesdropped from the next table. "Other languages use theta, too" he corrected us. "Don't be thilly."
"Without doubt," I replied, "but nobody sticks the tip of his tongue up to his front teeth and blows like a Greek or an Englishman." I basked in the word teeth.
A nearby German became quite piqued.
"Sagen Sie mal", he asked, "sind Sie Französisch?" Tell me, are you French?
"Nein, ich bin Französisch nicht," came my reply. No, I'm not French.
Of course, I didn't say ich. I said "ick".
He sneered. "Ha! That was the worst ich I have ever heard. Your nicht sounded like a chihuahua trying to shit."
"Harumph" I grumbled, in my best English.
He chortled over his spanakopita. "Oh, you Englishy types with your thinking and your theories and your thumbs! But none of you can say ch!"
I shouted to a Scotsman across the room, easily identified through his kilt and tam o'shanter. "Hey Jock, wazzup!"
"Och, laddie..." he began.
"That's enough, thank you." I said, and turned back to the German chap. "See? English speakers can ach and och like the best of you."
"You're completely wrong!" he replied, with a directness the world so admires in his countrymen. "Any one can make a ch when it follows a nice rounded vowel like an ah or an oh. But not when it follows a delicate sound like an ee or an ih that you actually have to make with your mouth and not your throat already."
He had a point. One can sound consonants in different ways. Think of the humble L. It sounds a bit different when you use it to say line and when you use it to say hall. This is known as a "light-L" and a "dark-L" respectively. .
We English native speakers hear the two Ls as the same. Polish—a fiendishly complex tongue—actually uses separate letters for the two sounds. Natives of some other languages can struggle with one L, and not the other.
My husband, whom you may recall is Japanese, has mastered the light-L. I often hear him say a perfect let's take the lift, with none of the R/L confusion that afflicts speakers with an Asian mother tongue. Not so the dark-L. Should you meet him in a hotel, don't ask him where the ballroom is. Nor should you discuss the movie star, Errol Flynn. Nor require him to use the word uncontrollable.
Conversely, it's the light-ch that gives us English speakers trouble. We end up saying ich—a common sound in German—as an ish or an ick. It mainly occurs at the end of syllables. Which gave me an idea.
"OK, Mr. Gescheithosen. You may think you're pretty smart, with your lippy th at the beginning of words. So tell me. What do you enjoy at the end of a hard day?"
"A bath," he replied.
Except he didn't say bath. He said "bus".
"Perhaps you have a particularly nice ride home, so I'll allow that", I said. "But here comes the clincher. Say the word clothes...in one syllable!"
"Clozes." he fumed.
Others around him tried to help. "Clothis", interjected a lady from Berlin. A gent from Schwabing tried "Clodzes". A fine attempt came from a rural Rosenheimer with a "Clozzess".
Ha! Our Greek waiter merrily celebrated by putting his tongue up to his incisors and letting out a big "Thththththththth!" .
I joined him in a jolly "Ththththththththththth!", too. Soon, all the English speakers in the room pitched in with a nice big, long "Thththththththththththth!". Except for the Scotsman, who was arguing over his bill.
What does it take to unleash your indignation? Eight years ago, a calendar and a couple of beers did it for me.
It came to my attention that some busybody proclaimed the second Monday in January as National Clean Off Your Desk Day. This impertinence provoked me to declare the following day, January 13, The International Day to Bite Me.
The busybody in question was one Anna Chase Moeller, daughter of Bill Chase, who co-founded the Chase's Calendar of Events in 1957. Rumour has it that Anna helped in the family business, and in so doing, shared a desk with her father. As is the case with pretty much all entrepreneurs, forward-thinkers, creative personalities, and productive people of every stripe, the desk was a mess. In a snit, Anna declared National Clean Off Your Desk Day to humiliate her father's habits. Once a year, Bill was forced to sacrifice a day of personal productivity to appease his daughter, who no doubt could have worked on the goddamn kitchen table if the sight of actual work upset her so goddamn much. Neat-freaks have used it to shame us normal people ever since.
On Friday, August 13 1982, a sleepy Michigan woman found that her alarm clock had failed to ring. This set off a cascade of lateness and bad luck that hounded her throughout the day. The National Blame Someone Else Day commemorates her string of excuses and apologies. In truth, it should be National Blame Fate Day, since the mechanical failure likely had no human source. Unless it was the woman herself who failed to set the alarm on August 12—in which case we should celebrate National Sorry, It's My Own Damned Fault Day.
Who was this unfortunate woman? None other than a certain Mrs Anna Chase Moeller.
Clearly, this amounts to an abuse of privilege. Anna's way to vent petty annoyances was to declare a day after them, because in the days before the internet, she was one of the few who could. Well, two can play at that game now, eh?
By the authority vested in me by Typepad blogging software, Deutschland über Elvis declares The International Day to Bite Me 2017 open for all. The ritual Flipping of the Bird will take place across Germany and the rest of the world, perhaps flipped all the harder because it might occur over Friday drinks.
As you approach Stuttgart, the A8 Autobahn takes a precipitous dip. A big, menacing sign warns you that the speed limit is reduced to a lousy fifty miles an hour, under the headline Gefahr Danger Pericolo.
I drove past that sign weekly for two years, intrigued. The road connects Munich and Vienna with Strasbourg and Paris. Why would the authorities write a sign in German, English and Italian, and neglect French?
OK, I'm kinda slow. But many fellow English speakers assume that when you see an Ungerman word in German, it's been borrowed from English. Though less prone to lexicographical thievery than our own tongue, German has stolen quite a bit from west of the Rhein.
This adds une complication for those of us whose mother tongue doesn't inflect—that is, doesn't change grammatical rules depending on whether a noun is masculine, feminine, or neither.
All other things being equal, German assigns a neutral gender to nouns borrowed from a foreign tongue; das Sushi, das Curry, das Handy, das Big Mac. On the other hand, if a word sports a gender at the source, then it carries over into into German. Latin words hopped directly over the Alps into scientific usage without a detour into English; that's why der Radius looks butch, but das Radium sounds like it's had the snip.
Tricky for those words which come via English rather than from it. A credit card arrived this week and the issuing firm urged me to download die American Express App, turning this petite slice of software into a woman. I hadn't thought about it until an online pal prompted me to ask why it should be so. Surely, the term app came straight out of Silicon Valley. It ought to be gender neutral.
But Silicon Valley is fond of Latinate terms, which English sucked up from Norman French. La application enters German as feminine, die Application. This shortens into the rather girly term, die App.
So it didn't surprise me to overhear two bemused people in the supermarket, wondering aloud in German, whether the product pictured above was das Pain, or der Pain. And if the latter, should it not be im Bäckerei?
My husband, who you may recall is Japanese, thought this was a stupid name for a hot sauce, too.
In the Meiji era, Japan imported many exotic foods, along with the words to describe them. Sensibly, they chose most of their new Western diet from France—let's be honest, if you could choose among global cuisines, would you choose any from the English-speaking world? To him, pain (パン) will always mean bread, no matter how much American marketers boast of the agony their condiments inflict.
When speaking German, you cannot be laissiez-faire about such things.
For your information, every open container has been weighed!
Please, on hygenic grounds, use our one-way gloves.
Please put only organic items in organic bags (Bio-logical!)
!!!Attention!!! The Federweißer is not provided with a fermentation lock, so the cover is not completely closed. We therefore ask you NOT to lay the bottle on its side because otherwise it will run out. Many thanks, your Supermarket Team.
Please always line up at the Meat Counter! Thanks. (Clown Smiley)
Honoured Customers! Please lay your entire shopping on the conveyor belt. Thanks.
Trust is good, checking is better No sale of alcohol to youth Young people often don't look their age. Please understand if, when selling alcohol and tobacco, we ask for age identification—for the protection of all children and youth.
And note the excellent checkout belt divider hygiene.
Peace. We heard that word a lot over the recent holiday season. Prayers for it, wishes for it, regret at how little of it seems to abide. Heavenly peace, peace on earth, the prince of peace, peace to all men, peace was on everybody's lips.
Isn't it ironic that the new year always begins so peacelessly?
That goes double for our otherwise genteel neighbourhood. A mere 5 doors away from us, we find the Europaplatz; a noble public space which the city government, for one night of the year, surrenders to hammered arsonists with explosives. They're so drunk, most of them can't even find the place, and begin to blow shit up anywhere handy. This was the view from our front window at one minute past twelve.
That jars with my customary New Year's resolution. From the previous sentence, you might conclude that I make the same, unsuccessful resolution every year. You'd be right.
My new year's resolution would appear to fit the definition of insanity often attributed to Einstein: it's crazy to do the same thing year in, year out, when the only result so far has been failure.
Personally, I prefer a different definition of insanity: Giving fireworks to drunks.
An afternoon walk on New Year's day, as always, revealed a the detritus of the night before. But the sun, low in the sky, cast a light that made the trash, abandoned atop some recent snow, seem almost poignant.
Cars tried, and failed, to keep their dignity under the snow dumped on them.
Buildings and trees schemed which pals to tag for the Ice-Bucket Challenge.
The usually sombre St. George's Church felt quite perky. Under fresh snow, even their graveyard shines with optimism.
By the time I reached the Maximiliananslagen, our local park, I was primed for a good mood. Mind you, the park lifts your mood no matter what. Its visitors have mastered the very skill I lacked; an unselfconscious ability to hang out, and enjoy simple pleasures. Especially on the sledding hill.
Yes, Rover, the yellow snow always smells more interesting, doesn't it?
It was then, I stumbled on an impromptu lesson in being present in the moment. Three hung-over-looking men decided that the best thing to do this fine day, was grab a few shopping bags, and in an ass-chilling fit of madness, go for a slide.
I shall use these men—clearly too old to find joy in anything so childish as losing control of the direction in which their butts are travelling—as my example for 2015.
This year, the resolution might stick, mildly. I'll keep you posted.
The first photo is entered in the PhotoFriday Weather challenge.
This helpful sign tells us what German youth are allowed, and not allowed, to do. It clarifies the regulations under the Federal Jugendschutzgestez, or Youth Protection Act. Hey kids, don't get excited over the word "allow"; the first sentence makes clear that just because it's legal, parents don't have to agree to it. So none o' your lip.
Naturally, many of the provisions concern alcohol. Thirsty adolescents should note in §9 that one may drink legally at the age of sixteen, as long as the drink contains no fortified spirits. Germany recently declared college education free for all students, including those from abroad, and this loophole makes the deal even sweeter for many American youth who need to wait 'til they're twenty-one for a Miller Lite. Dichter und Denker, meet underage Trinker.
You may even do this in a pub—before midnight according to §4—but not in a nightclub. Because there might be dancing.
Youth dancing is controlled as strictly as alcohol. §5 forbids those under 16 from entering a disco without the buzzkill of adult supervision. And kids under 14 can't even do folk dancing past the hour of 10.00 pm.
Bavarian Tanzangst reaches a peak next week when we celebrate the Feast of All Souls on November 1. Halloween parties for all ages need to clear the dance floor on the stroke of midnight, lest it run afoul of the notorious Tanzverbot, or dancing ban. The Church, still a powerful influence on German life, insists that the day remain solemn. No dancing, public or private, for people of any age.
Because dancing might lead to sex. That's probably why the sign tells us, in the grey highlight near the legend, that none of these restrictions apply to married youth under 18.
The Tanzverbot turns adult citizens into adolescents. Flout it. Who wants to join me for a quick Madison in the Stachus next Saturday?
Where is he gay today?Edinburgh Thirty years ago, I found myself wishing bagpipes had a snooze button.
Those sleepy mornings—over two dozen of them—took place in Edinburgh in the summer of 1985. Seeking cheap digs, my pals and I bunked out at the Leith Nautical College, on the Firth of Forth. A visiting pipe band from Canada, in town for Royal Tattoo, had the same idea. They used the sports field outside the window to rehearse their drill. Every morning, promptly at six forty-five.
We spoke to management. We explained that we were a comedy troupe from Australia, playing the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Jet lag was eating our brains. Lights went up for our show at midnight. And we drank a lot after the curtain fell—in Scotland, we reasoned, such an argument held sway. Could the Canadians please keep the noise down until lunchtime?
"And you know that this college is an arm of the Royal Navy, and as such, is a military institution?"
Yes, we said.
"And you imagine that militia, in Scotland, might march to tunes played on a bagpipe?"
Um, yes, we said.
"Well..." he concluded, with a phrase that betrayed a schooling in classics not uncommon among east-coast Scots, "caveat emptor."
* * * * *
Leith Nautical College closed its doors in 1987. One of my fellow troupers quipped that had he known, he would have delayed his visit two years.
But bagpipes before breakfast were a small price to pay for an extraordinary several weeks.
Our band of undergrad comics regularly played the fringes of the festival in our native Adelaide, and sought to open our gills in a bigger pond. We came as rubes from halfway across the world, and left as actual, minor-league almost-professionals. (Up to a point. Only one of our troupe went on to earn a crust in showbiz.) At the Fringe, both competition and opportunity ran hot.
The Royal Mile. As ever, packed with patrons of the arts
Millions crowded into a city which, under normal circumstances, held barely 350,000. To squeeze the maximum number of butts on seats, most performances ran less than an hour. Audiences sprinted from show to show, through as many as eight or nine in a day. As you dashed to make the next curtain, performers plied their witty ways to get a playbill in your hand—a practice known as flyering. It was chaos. Energetic, inventive, brilliant chaos.
Billing ourselves haughtily as the Australian Comedic Revue, we touted that we were a hometown hit on the Adelaide Fringe—an exaggeration: we were less a hit, and more a mild slap.
Several of us threw together a show called Wagga Wagga High High. From memory, the blurb went something like the tale of a school so evil that it can turn children into accountants. I played a character called Zeldor Fitzgerald, Teen from Another Planet. The costume included my own high school uniform, into which I still fitted. Yes, 1985 was a simpler time.
We gave an even milder slap to the Edinburgh Fringe, but felt we acquitted ourselves well enough. Thanks to a not-unkind review in The Scotsman, we sold out our season. Russell Harty wanted to interview us, too. But that fell through, because his phone at the BBC didn't allow Subscriber Trunk Dialling, or something.
Edinburgh has since grown to half a milllion souls, but can still barely contain the beast. In the first three weeks of August 2014, the Fringe sold 2,183,591 tickets to 49,497 performances of 3,193 shows in 299 venues.
If you divide the number of tickets into the number of performances, one gets an average audience size of a little over forty. Few impresarios count this as a real figure. In 1985, rumour put the median audience size at twelve. This year, word on the street tipped nine.
In the decades since, I'd wanted to return, simply as an audience member. This year, encouraged by friends who now live in Edinburgh, we did. The promise of some fine travelling companions clinched the deal.
When I told people in Edinburgh that I'd performed on the Fringe thirty years ago, they grew curious. It must have been very different back then, surely.
I shocked them with my reply. No.
In my observation, here's what's changed.
Lager drinkers can choose from a wide array of bottled craft beers.
American university students majoring in theatrical administration or arts publicity often work on the Fringe as a course requirement. We met several flyering.
Edinburgh's quality broadsheet, The Scotsman, once provided the most authoritative critiques. The paper remains an authority, but nowadays a mammoth website called Broadway Babyovershadows it. Curious, since the Fringe is about as un-Broadway as you can get.
That's about it. Here's what hasn't changed since 1985.
Busking bagpipers on the Royal Mile love the theme from Star Wars.
Tickets are pretty cheap, but dedicated cheapskates pick up bargains at the half-price box office.
Snooty, sensitive, arty types hate the atmosphere. Australian acts thrive. American and Japanese artists enjoy the looser rules.
An act lives or dies by its reviews—if you get a decent review, you put it on your flyers and flog the hell out of it.
Modern times have seen the rise of the professional publicist. But still, the best way to get an audience is for an artist to wear out some shoe leather, press some flesh, and perform on the street.
Never sit in the front row for a stand-up comic. When he asks "And where are you from?"—and he will—whatever your answer, he will mock you mercilessly. He will mock you mercilessly, too, if you decline to answer at all. Too often, the where-are-you-froms displace actual jokes. It's heckling in reverse. Hey, buddy, I'm your audience, not your material. Lookin' at you, Fred McAulay and Scott Capurro. I repeat, never sit in the front row for a stand-up comic, unless you crave attention.
You can take your drinks into the theatre, or indeed, anywhere. Restaurants in most parts of the world will bundle leftover food in a doggie bag; in Edinburgh, pubs decant leftover drink into a Starbucks-style doggie cup. Have you ever sipped beer through a straw? Not my preferred means of suckage.
Scots like to vomit. Billy Connolly's most famous routine even jokes about it. Drinking Scots should be required to carry airsickness bags, in the same way dog-owners must carry plastic bags as a measure against their pets fouling the pavement.
With 20,000 performers in a city the size of Edinburgh, the Fringe thrusts artists and audience together in ways you simply don't find elsewhere. Many performers mingle before and after the show—given the set-up of most venues, it's unavoidable. If you want to talk to your comedy heroes face-to-face, go to an Edinburgh pub.
Umbilical Brother Dave Collins clowns with the public in the foyer after his show —which was superb, by the way.
I've changed. But the Fringe hasn't. Every year, it finds new sources of energy, originality, and outrage. Perhaps I shouldn't leave thirty years between visits. Nowadays, I can afford a quieter place to sleep.