Arts & Culture(Archives)
Help Me… I'm Foreign
You Canadians have Nickelback , the Boreal Forest and Canadian Bacon. We Germans have Rammstein, the Black Forest and sausages. So we are quite similar aren’t we? I was wrong. He was wrong. We were wrong. We that is Michael and me. Two years ago I came to town in order to research a film. We met at a party. Michael told me about the musical ‘Hometown’ he was going to write and I told him about the film I was going to make. We liked each other instantly. A few days after our first meeting I had to go back to Germany. “I guess that is it”, he said, but I shook my head. “I will be back in February”, I smiled. I did not have a clue how I would finance another trip to Fort McMurray but I did and that was the start of our intercontinental relationship. Yes, yes, we had it all: butterflies, locking up from the outside world and endless conversations. Cultural differences? No way!
You irritate me!
One evening our Canadian-German cultural bliss started to stutter. Just one sentence was enough to shatter the similarities. “You irritate me”, I mentioned to one of Michael’s friends over dinner. All of a sudden there was silence in the room and two pairs of eyes stared at me. “Some wine?”, I asked but the friend shook his head and said: “I think I have to go now”. He grabbed his jacket and left in a rush. “Why did he leave so abruptly? Does he not like the wine?”, I asked innocently. “Are you seriously asking me that?”, Michael responded. I did not understand what he was referring to. “You can’t call someone irritating,” he said.
English is a Germanic language so English and German share many words and have several words that sound the same. The German word ‘irrtierend’ sounds very similar to the English word ‘irritate’ so I assumed they had the same meaning. ‘Irrtierend’ is a harmless word that means something like ‘confusing’. How could it be that two so similar words have completely different meanings?
The problem with our two cultures which have so much in common are not the differences but the similarities. English and German have the same roots but have developed totally different meanings for similar words during the centuries. Words like ‘irritate’ are very tricky for a native speaker of German because the spelling is nearly the same as ‘irrtierend’. I thought I was on safe ground by using it as I would in my language. To cut it short: Words like irritate are false friends who smile into your face and gossip behind your back.
Chainsaws in the Black Forest
Soon after the mishap with the irritating friend, I departed for Germany and took Michael with me. I had seen the Boreal Forest and it was his turn to explore the Black Forest. Luckily enough my friend Sarah lived there so Michael and I paid her a visit.
Sarah and I had not seen each other in a long time so we had a lot of catching up to do. She is a writer and after a while we started talking about writing theories. Her opinion was completely different from mine and so we got into a heated discussion. I knocked over a glass as I hit the table with my fist and shouted “HOW CAN YOU SAY THAT CHEKHOV IS OVERATED?”, Sarah shouted back, “YOU ARE STUCK IN THE CLASSICS! CHEKHOV IS BULLSHIT JASMIN!”
The bottle of wine in the middle of the table trembled and a hand quickly grabbed it. It was Michael’s and his face was as white as chalk. I did not know if he was sick or drunk or both at the same time. Sarah and I continued to yell a bit more until she said: “Oh it is already late. Maybe we should go to bed now”, and she kissed me goodnight on the cheek. “How wonderful that you guys are here and what a great evening”, she said. “What is wrong?”, I asked Michael whose face was a bit rosier than before but still paler than usual. “I cannot believe it”, he said. “You guys shouted at each other like if you were at war and then you kissed each other goodnight! I thought we had to find a hotel for the night!” This evening Michael found out about the ‘Streitkultur (The culture of arguing)’. You discuss a matter, argue about it, sometimes things get heated but not personal and then you just forget about it.
On the other hand Germans are quite formal. I remember that I was deeply offended when Michael did not hear what I had said and responded with the German word ‘Was?’ (‘What?’).
“That is rude!”, I said. If you want someone to repeat their sentence you say ‘Bitte’. ‘Bitte’ is an amazing word which can mean ‘please’, ‘you are welcome’ ‘Pardon me?’ ‘Excuse me?’” The word is like a U-Boat within the German sea of kindness. Even ads have ‘Bitte’ as slogans ‘Bitte ein Bier’ (Please, a beer).
The burger affair
Nine months went by and I was awarded a grant to produce my documentary film about Fort McMurray and Michael received a job offer from the Municipality. So we departed Deutschland and came back to Fort McMurray.
One evening we were visiting friends in Calgary who had invited us for dinner at a fancy restaurant. The waitress served us our meals. I had ordered a burger, but what was served to me looked like something that was freshly scrapped off the highway. Sometimes looks are deceiving like a bad cover to a good book. So I took a bite. It was Danielle Steele with extra cheese. Everyone finished their meals except for me and when the waitress asked, “Did you like it?” I responded: “No, it was terrible it made me want to vomit’. Suddenly the music stopped, it was so quite that you could hear the fish flopping with their fins in the aquarium next to the counter. I smiled and repeated the sentence again because I did not want to cause any misunderstandings, “I just did not like it. It made me want to vomit”. My friends looked at me in terror.
“Thank you. It was great!” said Michael as he gave the waitress a tip as big as politician tithing on his deathbed. When we went outside I asked him if I had said something wrong. He shook his head. “You cannot say ‘You wanted to vomit. This is a very impolite thing to do’.” “I did not know that”, I said, because in Germany you say what you think. We walked silently to the car as my stomach loudly growled.
The Canadian way
Nickelback-Rammstein, the Boreal Forest-the Black Forest, Canadian bacon-sausages, similar yet different, I find myself in a cultural depression. There are so many codes of conduct in Canadian Culture I do not know. I’m scared of stepping into word traps or getting lost in the sea of unknown social interactions. Sometimes I feel like a social infant. Wanting to say and do the right thing but not sure how but then again don’t we all feel that way sometimes? I mean don’t we all occasionally say the wrong thing, wear the wrong outfit, or drink beer in the dog park? Nobody can constantly exhibit the correct behaviour especially a foreigner from a country where beer has replaced water!
Sometimes when I am not sure if what I am going to say will offend I start with “Hey I’m German, so I’m sorry if this seems direct”, or “Sorry I do not know this” or “What do you mean I can’t drink here?” This helps me a lot because then people explain the Canadian way of doing things and that is how I learn about your beautiful country and the learning never stops.