We’ve all heard the stereotypes. When you travel in Germany, you will meet Germans who speak English better than native English speakers, and will question you on your incorrect use of grammar, like why you say “I’m good” and not “I’m well”. And all this is true. Germany is remarkably easy to travel in, thanks largely the excellent English language skills of the Germans.
But as with any travel tale, to assume that everyone in Germany speaks English is perhaps one of the common faux-pas of the modern day nomad. And for this nomad, a trip to the Bavarian Alps was the perfect way to get back in check with reality.
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After a leisurely Friday drive from Munich to Mittenwald on a gloriously warm autumn day, I arrived late afternoon, ready (somewhat foolishly in this day and age) to wander around the village and find a hotel room for the night. Of course, I was not the only soul to have the idea of hiking in the beautiful mountains over what would be one of the last warm weekends of the season, and I found myself wandering from hotel to hotel, in search of a room. Resorting to 21st Century tactics, I pulled out my iPhone and got onto booking.com, and booked into the Pension Karner – a great value bed & breakfast joint in the mountain village.
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Early next day, I set off on my mission for the weekend, which was to hike into the mountains, stay overnight in a mountain hut and hike back down on Sunday, ready to fly back home on Monday evening. On Friday I’d learnt the value of booking ahead during the high season, and on Saturday I was to learn that not everyone you speak to in Germany speaks English! Taking the advice of the helpful (English speaking) staff in the tourist office, I called ahead to the mountain hut that I intended to stay the night in to check availability. Again going back to the 1990s, I found a pay phone and called the number I was given for the first choice of huts.
“Hi, I’d like to check if you have a bed available for tonight…?” I enquired. “Waaaaas?” I hear back, in a strikingly Bavarian mountain man sounding voice. Oh dear, I think. Could this person not speak English? “Errr… sprachen zie Inglish?” I ask, in the best German I could muster. “Nein” he says. Nein? I ask myself. Is that possible? I’m in Germany, and he doesn’t speak English!
There are not a lot of options when the person on the other end of the phone does not speak your language. Even the best sign language in the world is of no help, and since he was the only connection between me and my mountain bed, I was in trouble. So I pulled out all stops, and gave it my best German (learnt at the age of 13 at school, and perfected over many a Löwenbräus). “Hast du ein Zimmer?” I ask. “Nein”, comes the exceedingly helpful response. Hast du ein Bett? Again – “nein”. As it turned out, every hut had been completely booked out for weeks, and I was foolish for not also having booked weeks ago. Lesson for Saturday: (1) book in advance; (2) not everyone in Germany speaks German, and it pays to remember your high school lessons.
So plans quickly changed, and I had a gorgeous day hike up and down a smaller mountain, and stayed the night at the Gästehaus Helga, a quaint little guesthouse just across the border in Austria. Having finally learnt my lesson, I booked this in advance this time! On arriving at the guesthouse, in desperate need of a shower having hiked up and down a mountain that day, I’m greeted by a lovely Austrian lady. “Hi, I have a reservation for tonight”, I say. ”Was?” is the reply. Oh no… could this be the second person who doesn’t speak English? I was right, and I was checked in and given a tour of the hotel all in German. No problems, I think, and remembering again my high school German, I ask “Hast du wifi?” Ja, is the response, and I’m stoked with myself to have gotten a working wifi password.
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My proudest moment, when I knew I was a true nomad, came at breakfast the next morning. By this stage I had gotten over my Anglophone ignorance, and accepted (and in fact was pretty happy) that not everyone in the world speaks English. I greet the same lady who checked me in the day before, and she asks “ein Kaffee?” Well that was an easy question, and I respond, “Ja, mit Milch und kein Zucker, bitte.” With a smile that can only say “I appreciate that you are really struggling to speak my language”, she brings out a nice strong coffee, and some pastries for breakfast. It’s a nice reminder of what we read but rarely practice, which is that people appreciate when you attempt, even with the most rudimentary terms, to speak their language.
In a final test of my German (I’m pretty sure she was seeing if my vocabulary extended past the basics of food, caffeine and shelter) she asks “hast du gut geschlafen?” Remembering this phrase from earlier feeble attempts to learn German, I respond “Ja!” I definitely did gut geschlafen that night – I slept like a baby.
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