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Navigating Food, German Language

Tyler Hardcastle ’15 – A cafe?

As soon as we entered the cafe we felt out of place, but not unwelcome. The two waitresses were busy near the back of the shop and there was no sign to indicate that we shouldn’t simply seat ourselves. We made for a small table near the front and the four of us sat down. Then we waited.

Our small cafe at dusk.

Our small cafe at dusk.

This wasn’t your average trip to the Brew. Along with the rest of our class and led by Professors Hollander and Mikek, we had landed in Frankfurt, Germany Sunday morning at 6 a.m. The class, two separate courses dedicated to the Economics and Politics of the European Union, had involved two hour sections, meeting three times a week. During that time we’d unpacked the concepts of the economic and monetary aspects of a common currency, the Euro. We’d also examined the complex political interactions that led to the role out and shortly thereafter, support for the new currency.

Spending the Euro, would be a completely different challenge.

As we waited for one of the waitresses to approach our table, we took stock of the dining room. First, to be sure we hadn’t made some mistake in the seating process and that we were indeed supposed to wait to place our orders. Second, to see others dinner’s meals, hoping for a clue as to the menu. The handful of menus on our table were completely in German. This should have come as no surprise, we had simply set out with new direction and stopped at the first place we saw. We were far from the typical tourist haunts and began to wonder, if perhaps we’d been a bit overconfident.

Each of us had prepared a few phrases, but they went no further than the requisite ‘sprechen sie Englisch?’. Despite our handicap, we had each decided what we would order based off a partial decoding of the menu. I’d found ‘lachs’ to be promising (which I presumed correctly to be lox), one opted for a Cappachino, and the others found what seemed to be ham sandwiches.

In the end it was a useful exercise, but largely unnecessary. When our waitress came she was very nice and did speak English. She also brought us an English menu and offered a number of recommendations and guidance when we ordered.

European Union logo.

European Union logo.

Once the anxiety of ordering food faded, we were able to notice other things. Aside from being very well dressed, not a single dinner – of the nearly 30 – had a smartphone out. Neither did they carry laptops, tablets, chargers, or any other electronic device. No one seemed to be in a rush and in the same spirit, no one rushed us to leave (you have to ask for your check in Germany, they won’t bring it!)

There was still significant confusion when it came to paying. We had a shared check for which we first put down far too many Euros and then not enough. Though ultimately, the experience was pleasant. Unsurprisingly, we found that simply speaking to people offered more help than any phrase book or our typical crutch, smartphones.

We’re hoping to continue this practical learning tomorrow morning as we travel to the European Central Bank and through the week at the European Council, EU commission, and the lectures in Brugge and Belgium. Though even early on, it seems that the most informative experience is not speaking the language. Having to point, use gestures, and generally rely on others takes you completely out of your comfort zone. I usually feel a fair amount of comfort or control in dining and social situations, but had to give that up here.

I’m thankful to Professors Mikek and Hollander for leading this trip and for the Rogge Fund for sponsoring our travel.