There was a time when ordering 20 grams of ham at my local SPAR made me break out in a nervous sweat. Red-cheeked, robust ladies at the meat counter intimidated me with their Austrian dialect. Poking a piece of Fleisch with meat prongs, they demanded answers from me: "Wü vü hättens denn gern? Woins as gschnittn oder ois a gonza?” Back then, when I was still learning German, it all sounded like gobbledygook to me.
The procedure was the same each time; I smile, point to the ham, and pray the meat lady doesn’t ask any questions. “Nehmans hoid glei fünf-a-zwanzg deka, donn sporns ina wos!" she says. I agree “Ja, Bitte!” but I have no idea what she said or why she’s putting too much ham on the scale and I can’t find the words in German fast enough to stop her. “Passt’s eh?” she asks. I nod and smile like an idiot. (Did I just order Pate?)
My Australian friend was proud of his improving German skills, charming the meat ladies with his new found confidence. Even the harshest meat lady understood his lame, beginner German. I was quite jealous of his success.
One day he told me the ladies were unfriendly again and not responding to his German chit chat. “Perhaps I said something wrong?” he said. “What could possibly go wrong at the meat counter?” I lied.
“The meat lady rolled up a slice of meat for me to try” he said. “I just want to smell it, so I lean in to give it a whiff and say ‘Darf ich rauchen?’ The meat lady yanked it away and said 'Na auf kan Foi! Des geht ma ned ein!'" and has ignored him ever since.
I point out his false use of the verbs riechen (smell) and rauchen (smoke), but was secretly happy that he wasn’t making any more progress than I was.
My German steadily improved and I began accepting rolled up samples of ham handed to me with a pronged fork.
If I accidentally ordered too much or went home with an unwanted chunk of Gulasch meat, I was still proud because I was making dialog in a foreign country, in a foreign language. Besides, once I got used to the harsh dialect, I realized they were saying nice things while jabbing meat prongs at me.
Years later, I’m at the SPAR meat counter with my 2 year old son in the shopping cart. He flirts shamelessly with customers left and right. An old, leathery-faced woman breaks into a giant smile while poking my son's blonde curls "Na so a liabs Kindal, a richtiger Wuzi!" My son soaks up the sweet-talk but I’m overcome with old insecurities again. What if she speaks to me?
The meat lady hears all the fuss and joins in “Und so schene blaue Augal, mei, host Zähnt a scho?” She leans over the vitrine to give to my son a slice of extrawurst. He fearlessly reaches out to her, grabbing the wurst in his chubby fists. Like two old chickens in a barnyard, the ladies burst into a cacophony of dialect-filled chatter with my son. I have no hope of understanding a word. Instead, I surrender to the moment and enjoy the absurdity of it all. Laughing with two old women and a happy baby in the meat section of the SPAR, my fear of German gently melts away.
© Marie Motil 2020-05-25