Wednesday, October 20, 2010

See Jamaica on five German words

The only promise I make to myself when I travel abroad (I make this deliberately pretentious because it happens so seldom) is that I will not be -I must not be - that same ugly American I am at home. As a result of that firm resolve, I become the recipient of inept service, inflated checks and cold food. I refuse to permit the native population to add me to the statistics which, when summed, present the profile of "the American tourist".
But quite serendipitously (aren't all great discoveries?) on this trip to Jamaica, I stumbled across a formula for not further eroding (perhaps improving by comparison) the image of the American and at the same time preserving intact my basic churlish nature - a proposal so simple that any American of World War II vintage should be exiled for not having apprehended immediately: Blame it on the Germans! It's so easy and so practical!
After several days of near groveling before Jamaican hotel clerks, bartenders and even telephone operators who refuse to be understanding or understood, the ugly American in me was tearing at the bars of his cage. The waiter or waitress approaches and says: "Mon, youcanhave desaladandanappetizer, youcanhave deseafood platteroftheyday? Only the question mark at the end is clear. The question is patently designed to humiliate me for being an English-speaking person who refuses to understand plain English. I feel like the immigrant to America who lived on apple pie and ice cream because that was all he could order. 
But at last the critical accident occurred. After a spectacularly mediocre dinner at a highly touted restaurant in Montego Bay, the waitress arrived to, as I later learned, explain that the dinner check and the bar bill were separate. At my blank stare of complete lack of comprehension, she turned to my wife and in a lilting cadence inquired, "Doesn't he speak Engliesh?" Before my wife could respond, the flash of genius struck! "Ich speache Deutsch" I replied with some authority. The waitress looked hopefully at my blonde Aryan-looking wife: "Do you speak English, then?" "A little" she responded with the best German accent she would muster. Thereafter, dealing with the native Jamaicans was a piece of rum cake!
The very next waiter who confronted me with a run-on sentence in accents totally alien to the midwest, was confronted with "Was sagen sie?" His air of supremacy was shattered. We were equals at last. His German was no better than my English.
And so ("und so") some twenty years after the fact, I begin to collect my first dividends on tuition paid for a near-major in German at the University (make that Universitat) and the discomfort my father-in-law felt crossing the Rhine in a rubber raft under shellfire.
I could never understand a hotel or restaurant bill in my best English-speaking days, even in my own country. But now as a German, disadvantaged in an "English" speaking country, I felt completely at ease demanding detailed explanations of all charges, and believe it or not, those explanations were in such clear and concise English that the real me inside the German me, understood completely!
Dealing with street peddlers became an absolute joy! To the man offering the hand-carved coconut in the form of a man with an enormous penis, "Nein, ich hat das gekauft" was an absolute stopper! Those readers who really speak German have already discovered that an actual command of the language is completely unnecessary to play the game. I found "meine mutter muss butter kaufen" (my mother must buy butter) perfectly satisfactory in most situations.
There are a few caveats of course. First, if the menu contains a notation "Wir Sprechen Deutch" the ploy may not work. Someone on the premises might in fact speak German. Probably not, but why take the chance? Just fold your menu and go to a different restaurant.
The same course of action is recommended if there is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed couple at the next table who are speaking in a language you are reasonably sure is not English.
Apart from my previously announced prejudices you may ask, why pick on the Germans? Well, as everyone knows, Joyce Cary in his celebrated Memories of Bogate, describes the Germans as "the friendliest of travelers." (If you don't believe me, look it up.) Why should they enjoy that reputation while we are "ugly Americans".
And besides, should World War II involve (as such numbered wars traditionally do) the U.S.A. and Germany as foes, I shall have done my bit to insure that Jamaica throws in with us. In addition, I don't speak any French (or, apparently, English).
If these reasons do not satisfy you or if you can't afford a crash course in German at Berlitz, there is the easily memorized sign language of the hearing impaired in the appendix of every Boy Scout Manual.

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