In my quest to learn this Germanic tongue, I’ve found that most Berliners speak English. After just over two weeks here, I can walk confidently into a cafe and butcher an order in German with gusto, but the jig is up as soon as the cashier responds. Then there’s little choice but to proceed in English, particularly if there’s a queue behind me and I’m not trying to make everything more difficult for everyone.
So far the best bet has been identifying other immigrants who don’t speak English. My greatest act to date took place yesterday afternoon while I was waiting for the U-8. I sat down on a bench next to a middle-aged Turkish lady, who called for my attention. She was waiting for someone on the platform, and that someone was clearly running late.
She wanted to know if I had a phone. I told her I did and that she could use it. She couldn’t read, so this involved a concentrated effort in repeating the numbers while I dialed. After a few attempts negotiating the area code we finally got it to ring. No one picked up.
I missed a few trains – not a problem in Berlin as they seem to appear every three minutes during rush hour – and talked to her for a while. I respected how unperturbed she was about being abandoned on the platform without a phone. I insisted several times that we try to call again but she smiled, laughed, and made clear her damned relative had better turn up or there would be hell to pay.
At the end of our conversation she apologized for speaking bad German. She was surprised when I insisted that I didn’t speak it, either, and I felt like we shared a moment of camaraderie in our mutual incompetence.
Who knows. Maybe she thought I was a dunce.