October 30, 2010 | German

Tourists Beware

I trap two German tourists in a café and talk to them.

Yesterday I went to Café Margot with my German grammar books. While in line waiting for my coffee, I scouted out seating opportunities; seats are generally hard to come by in New York City establishments. It is competitive here to find a place to place one’s bottom.

Me, Lying in Wait for Tourists

Me, Lying in Wait for Tourists

As I surveyed the room, I saw a man and woman who looked distinctly German. Next to them was an empty table. Conversation opportunity! I rushed over there and dumped my stuff to ensure no one else got to the table (and them) before I did.

Once I had my coffee, I sat down next to them, got out my German dictionary, got out a German magazine, and began conspicuously making German-English flash cards. The usual outcome, if people are indeed speakers of the language I am trying to learn, is that they notice and then comment on my language efforts. But in this case: nothing.


I was nonplussed. I couldn’t hear them very well above the hubbub in the café, but I was pretty sure they were speaking German. Continuing to be ignored, I finally gave in. “Sind Sie aus Deutschland?” I asked. (Are you from Germany?)

“Ja,” came the answer. From Cologne. Köln, in German. They were work colleagues here together as tourists.

We chatted a bit, and they told me they had so far been surprised by a couple of things about their trip to New York.

What, I asked.

Thing number one: they were surprised Americans were so thin (dünn), as they had been told we were all fat. They were finding some of the women especially thin, they said. I was shocked. “Have you been on the subway?” I asked.

The second surprise for them was how slowly people walk. They were having to walk around New Yorkers to get where they needed to go, and they had expected it to be more like Hong Kong. Their surprise once again amazed me, because I feel as though people walk really fast here. I pointed out that in other parts of the country, people move much more slowly. They said they would find that hard. (I definitely do.)

I thought I’d maybe get 10 minutes out of them, but we talked in German for about an hour and 20 minutes (!), covering the state of the economy, various Manhattan neighborhoods, Germany, German high schools, and many other topics. I felt bad keeping them from their tourist adventures, but it was so great for me—so many thanks to them! To other tourists: if you are determined to see the sights, beware…me.

Truck Seen Near Goethe-Institut

Truck Seen Near Goethe-Institut

Later, in SoHo, I talked in German for another two hours at the Goethe-Institut. It was a great day for German conversation.

And then came an interesting juxtaposition: from there I went to the B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue on 88th Street for Shabbat services, as it is the weekend of a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah. Our bags were checked by security as we entered.

It was a phenomenally moving occasion, seats filled, an atmosphere of warmth and camaraderie, a gorgeous interior and balcony, beautiful music alternating between haunting and joyous, people smiling, people laughing, even people dancing through the aisles at one point, and my friend’s son sitting up in front looking like one of the more self-possessed 13-year-olds I have ever seen in my life.

As I surveyed this scene, I thought to myself in amazement: I don’t think I have ever been in a synagogue before. How could that be the case? But I think it is.

An elderly man in front of us, tiny and bent, held hands with his wife for much of the service. Probably about 95 years old, he waved and smiled at a small child dancing up and down the aisles before him, and pounded out the rhythm of the music with his cane. 

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