Here’s a funny rant in the Tagesspiegel by the charmingly crotchety Berliner Dominik Drutschmann, about an unnamed restaurant in the Neukölln district of Berlin where exactly zero members of the four waitstaff speak German. After rolling his cranky ass into the well-reviewed spot for his week’s sole moment of peace, he expects the standard official German server greeting: an angry, wordless glare, followed by Na, und?
He is instead assaulted by the “worst greeting of all time, in any language.” It is Hello, how are you? In English. “This here is the gentrification game, played in full, bonus levels and all,” he laments, after learning that not only does the restaurant not employ any German speakers, but it also has no written menu.
Is he, Drutschmann wonders, a “total reactionary” for wanting to have at least the option to order food in the native language of the city in which he was born?
Anyone who’s spent any time in Neukölln since about 2000 will not be surprised. This district was, until about the turn of the millennium, a sleepy, tourist-free enclave of working-class Germans and immigrants (including a sizeable Turkish and Arab population). But cheap rents (criminal to New York, London and San Francisco) have turned it into ExpatVania, population ninety billion under-the-table tour guides, podcasters, conceptual artists, and composers of “screenplays.”
Most of these people have lived in Berlin for years. Many have never learned to speak German. ‘Member Shit [Whatever] Says? Of course you do. Neukölln had its very own (and it was glorious):
What makes Drutschmann’s rant truly winning, though, is that he’s not a reactionary. Germans don’t readily identify their political affiliations, but if I had to guess I’d put him somewhere in the continuum between Social Democrat and Pirate. A Teutonic version of YOUR IN AMERICA RESPECT ARE LANGUAGE he ain’t.
“I find it great,” Drutschmann says, “that individuals new to the city or the country, who haven’t mastered the language yet, can get a job in, for example, a café.” This, he explains, “allows them to take part in life here, earn a little money, and feel like they belong.” But when, among all four waitstaff of a restaurant, kein Wort Deutsch resonates between them, “the supposed integration becomes its opposite: What helps one group of people be included turns into the boomerang that shuts the other group out.”
The cloistered enclave of Anglophone Berlin hipsters is, of course, nothing new. In fact, a restaurant with only English-speakers on staff it’s just the next step in the fulfillment of a particular sort of Berlin expatriate mythos: Christopher Isherwood; Iggy and Bowie; U2.
Oodles of great pre- and postwar work has come unto us thanks to the inspiration of the city’s unique rubble-chic aesthetic and terminal physical and existential growing pains.
And yet, to move to Berlin, the capital of Germany, on purpose, as a privileged twit out to Find Yourself or whatever, and then not make an effort to learn the language, not for lack of educational resources but because technically one doesn’t have to: That’s an unquantifiably rude gesture. It says: Oh, I’m a (comparatively) rich Anglophone Dickfuck and Everyone Speaks English, so I’m just going to live in my little gated community of expats and complain about how Germans are soooooo meeeeeean.
The reason that I am so obnoxious about this is that I am firsthand evidence that learning passable conversational German is not that hard. I am, myself, a privileged dipshit who was allergic to trying until about the age of 32, and I still managed to figure it out by my early twenties. I don’t, for example, have the iron constitution and quick-thinking resourcefulness it takes to be a good server—I wager anyone who does could learn passable transactional German with about 15 percent of the effort it takes to juggle five tables during the dinner rush. Here, Angiocentric wait staff of the German Hauptstadt, are just a few very easy ways to learn enough German that you will no longer scandalize Dominik Drutschmann by fake-asking how he is:
- Get a tandem. They are free, and it is an easy way to make friends if you are a misanthrope who fears other people (she said, with no personal experience of this).
- Enroll in a class. There are very cheap ones.
- Move in with a German family.
- Start sleeping with a German.
- Do Duolingo for five goddamned minutes so that you can at least learn how to say Na, und?
- Try EVEN A LITTLE.
Immigrants of every other language group in Germany who work in the service industry speak at least a little bit of multiple languages. The guy who runs the Döner stand, for example, speaks his native Turkish, probably some Arabic if he’s religious, and enough German and English to serve delicious falafel to natives and tourists all damn day. That’s bare minimum. And on the occasions that non-English-speaking immigrants to Germany do have trouble assimilating, we never hear the goddamned end of it. Entire books have been written about this Finis Germania (and then redacted from the Spiegel bestseller list for being too racist, which then increased sales). And yet, for some reason I don’t think what these Volk are so pissed about is a restaurant full of Anglophones who MOVED TO GERMANY ON PURPOSE with no intention of learning German. I WONDER WHY THAT IS????????
Yeah yeah, I get it, languages are hard. I understand that Americans, at least, are brutal and defiant in our smug insistence that the world cater to our every whim, and learn to communicate in a language that primarily consists of irregular verbs and homophones with drastically different meanings.
But you know what? The English-speaking world (besides maybe Canada) isn’t exactly the proverbial shining city on the hill right now. This isn’t really the time to go traipsing around the globe revelling in our own ignorance. So please, hipster expatriates of Berlin. For the grannies who still live in your neighborhoods. For the Syrian immigrants who are busting their asses to learn the language of the country that took them in. For Dominik Drutschmann and his one day of relaxation. Bitte. Learn just a little bit of fucking German.