As you may have noticed, my “count-down to Leipzig” expired a few days ago, meaning I finally made it! I’ve been in Leipzig for the past 3 days. I arrived on Sunday morning, exhausted from my 3-legged flight. I don’t remember much from the day, only that I struggled to keep my eyes open past 5 pm local time. I’m told that we toured regions of the city where we would be looking for housing, but I honestly don’t remember much. I have an incredibly difficult time trying to sleep on international flights, which makes no sense because I normally conk-out on a 2 hour flight with no problem. Fortunately, I’ll have many flights to perfect my sleeping technique, we can only hope.
On Monday my dear husband had to spend the day at work, so I was tasked with a few items to help him get situated in the city. My main task was to find him a cell phone – or rather a local sim card with international calling to use in his current phone so he can make calls in Germany and to the US. I gladly accepted the challenge and made it my day’s goal.
The first part of the challenge was getting myself out of bed. Not because I was exhausted (I probably slept for 10 hours after not having slept the previous night), but because it is no small feat to succumb to the embarrassment of struggling through a language barrier. At 9 am I finally garnered the courage to give it a try. I walked two blocks to the T-mobile/Telekom store only to find that they were not yet open. I returned to the store an hour later, took a deep breath, and opened the door. The man at the desk said, “Hallo” and I used the most useful phrase I know, “Hallo, sprechen Sie Englisch?” (Hello, do you speak English?) He responded with “bisschen” or “a little.” It was better than nothing. I carefully chose my words and slowly asked the man for what I needed. He told me flat out that T-mobile does not offer any international calling, but to try a few doors down at Vodofone. I found it odd, considering how inundated Americans are with T-mobile advertisements, that they wouldn’t offer any US calling capabilities, but I followed his advice and tried my luck at the next store.
At Vodofone I was fortunate to find a teller who spoke perfect accented English. Here he was able to tell me everything I needed. I asked for him to give me a print out of the pricing details and told him that I would return later in the day with my husband to purchase the necessary sim card. He stopped and said, “No.” I’m sure I had a very confused look on my face. He followed up with, “We don’t have any sim cards. The shipment will come in at the end of the week or the end of next week.” Apparently they don’t have requests like mine very often. I kindly thanked the man and left, feeling a bit defeated as I had apparently failed at my one assigned task.
Later in the evening after Craig had returned from work, we were taking a stroll around the town after dinner. We stumbled upon yet another, larger T-mobile store and decided to try again. The tellers were assisting other customers as we entered, so we did the typical American thing and started playing with the display phones until they were finished. At one point we looked up from what we were doing to find several new customers had entered the store and had started a queue near the sales desks. Apparently the German thing to do was to line up, so we took our place, now several people behind where we thought we would be. When we finally approached the first desk, we used our handy little phrase, “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” and got a cold-hard “Nein.” We gestured at the man currently helping another customer, and she shrugged indicating he was probably a better choice. We waited and waited until finally all the other customers that were in line had been helped, and our first teller was available again. As we were waiting, we had looked up a few key phrases on our phones (Google translate is awesome), so we decided to try our hand at broken-German. Surprisingly, through most of our interaction, my minimal recollection of high-school German, and Craig’s recent practice on DuoLingo, was sufficient to get us the information needed. We spoke in short phrases rather than sentences, but knowing the words for “How long?”, “How much?”, “higher” and a few hand gestures had us ready to make the sale. As she began collecting our information, a gracious customer overheard our struggle and kindly offered to translate. Eventually, she arrived at the question of our address. It was a hard question, as we were on this trip to find our Leipzig residence. She decided to leave it blank and proceeded. The next question was about our bank. Well, we haven’t set up a bank because we need a local residence to do so. At this point, our translator friend was invaluable. We asked if we could use our American bank, but were told only a German bank would count, as they have to establish our German credit. Alas, we had completely failed the day’s task, but not without trying.
So the moral of the story is to have patience, be brave, and that your elementary German can actually take you quite far. The people of Leipzig were all very friendly and helped us where they could. As Leipzig was part of the former East Germany, a decent percentage of the population does not have any knowledge of English. In fact, we recently learned that in the time of communism, which was not too long ago, learning English was completely forbidden. In the beginning, I saw this as a negative. Because, as I’ve told you, it takes a lot of courage to step outside your comfort zone and feel foolish as you, a highly-educated person, has to struggle to put a simple sentence together. But, it is also a humbling and rewarding experience. I now can appreciate how others must feel entering into another country where they have minimal knowledge of the local language. Those people are very brave and we must give them more credit. As a positive, living in a part of Germany where I can’t rely on English will force me to practice my German, and I will likely emerge from this experience with a much better working knowledge of the language than if I had been in Western Germany where English is much more prevalent.