I have a little corporate apartment in Berlin, in an unfashionable neighborhood called Moabit, right across from the main train station, Berlin Hauptbahnhof. My business partner, Mark, also spends half of his year—the warm months—in Berlin. He fell for the city while an exchange student in high school and he’s fluent in German.
While Mark and I have known each other since 1988 as college undergrads in DC and as fellow rowers, Mark and Frank, a Berliner, are best friends. They’re like two peas in a pod. A big part of their friendship is dinner partying. Mark and his girlfriend and Frank and his girlfriend routinely gather at Frank’s apartment and create the kind of urbane feast you assume only exists in romantic comedies—feasts prepared by idealized men who really don’t exist.
Mark and Frank have always been generous to me—partially because I’ve been friends with Mark forever, but mostly because I’m outrageous and highly amusing to sophisticated Berliners. When I first arrived in Berlin to live, I was completely new and a community novelty. Since I was a newcomer, the artists, writers, and diplomats who would attend these haute cuisine dinner parties were very willing to turn off their ability to be charming and funny in their own language, German, so as to make me feel comfortable. After I’d been there for six months, though, I was no longer novel. No matter how well Germans speak English, they’re always at a disadvantage in their second language. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been let in on a joke by Frank, in English, and it never translates. Language is culture. Learning a language like German through Rosetta Stone TOTALe is just an entrée into the culture that lies behind it. So, while learning German allows me to understand what people are saying, spending time with them—like at a dinner party—is what helps me learn what people actually mean. It enlightens me as to their humor, their nuance, their subtext, and their cultural innuendo.
Before I left Berlin in May, we had a dinner party. It was the rare harmonic convergence when Frank, Mark, and I were all in the city at the same time.
When everyone arrived, I stood up and said I didn’t want any of them to speak English for my benefit, and that I would do my best in German. I quipped that it was my goal in life to be able to be charming in German at a dinner party, to which Wolf, a friend, responded, “How do you expect to be charming in German when you’re not even charming in English?”
See, I told you that Germans aren’t funny in English—it must’ve lost something in translation.
In preparation for my debut speaking German at a dinner party, I decided to bone up on my foodie vocabulary in much the same way one might study Business German before attending a first meeting. As you know, my sole and single-minded goal for learning German in the first place is to continue to be invited to Berlin dinner parties. So, for me, learning small talk in German is as important as learning finance-speak might be to hedge-fund managers who’ve come to Frankfurt in search of investments. Serious business.
As the risotto simmered, it was my job to greet people at the door. When friends meet in this scene, things are super-informal. When you meet someone you love and adore, you don’t say, “Guten Abend! Wie geht es Ihnen?” When I greet my buddies I usually use the contracted form of “Wie geht es dir?”: “Wie geht’s?”—“How’s it going?” With my female friends, I tend to class it up a bit, while keeping it informal: Abend (evening) or hallo (hello), and then a kiss on the cheek and maybe a hug.
Frank has wired his apartment for sound, and a high-capacity iPod serves music to set the mood of the soiree. Socially, Berlin dinner parties are very casual affairs. A level of pomposity is reserved for the quality of the food and the care with which it is prepared. Germans are obsessed with organics, which they call Bio. But, Berlin itself is a hyper-casual town and all of our guests and hosts, including yours truly, sport the Berlin uniform: jeans, T-shirt, and a hoodie.
Nobody cooks saltimbocca alla romana, risotto with scallops, and jamón serrano like Frank and Mark in the kitchen. Tonight, fate brought us the risotto, a rich buttery combination of risotto rice, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and pan-seared sea scallops.
During dinner, the conversation generally sticks close to the food, especially food like this where es schmeckt gut is the phrase of the night, meaning the food tastes good. Likewise, at this dinner, everyone wanted to know where to get all the ingredients and wines at the meal. “Wo bekommt man das zu kaufen?” or “Woher hast du das?” Which are, basically, “Where can you buy that?” or “Where did you get that?”
The amazing thing was that I could understand the small talk. Since words like Parmigiano-Reggiano are the same in Italian, they were good points of reference. I found I could follow the food preparation, too. In der Pfanne kochen means fry it in the pan. Leicht aufgeschlagene Sahne is lightly whipped cream. I didn’t learn all of it from Rosetta Stone, but once I unlocked German a little bit, my confidence grew and I started learning things on my own.
After dinner, Frank brought out after-dinner drinks and two decadent deserts. One could choose either the moelleux au chocolat—amazing little chocolate lava cakes with some whipped cream, gelato, or das Eis, served in ramekins—or my favorite, zabaglione, an exceedingly light custard, whipped to incorporate a large amount of air and served with fresh figs.
After dinner, when the wine took hold, is when the real conversation happened—when it always happens. When the tongue loosens.
You know the saying that it’s impolite to discuss religion and politics in mixed company? Well, in my experience, this is not the case in Europe. Everyone wanted to know what I think about the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, of course, about US health-care legislation and education. Since all Germans are entitled to government-subsidized health care and education, including college, our pay-to-play system always comes up.
Since Frank’s sons are just at the right age to be deep in the public-education system of Germany, there was also a lot of chat about the strict system of tracking children as young as ten or eleven into being either university bound, by way of the Gymnasium prep schools, or into one of what used to be three tracks: Realschulen (middle), Hauptschulen (lowest), and Gesamtschule (comprehensive school).
By midnight or one, the party began to wind down and the guests picked up their rag-doll sleeping children, threw them over their shoulders, and headed out. Looking back at the evening I realized I’d spent all night speaking my new language! I may not have been as witty as the Berliners but I was able to follow the conversation and even understood a few of the jokes. Next trip, maybe I’ll attempt to be amusing in German and then I’ll be a novelty once more.
Find more posts about: German