Everyone Knows This
The journey from loving, adoring father to crazed, frazzled lunatic, it turns out, is about as long as the ride from Universität station in downtown München to Olympiazentrum, where we live. We rode the U-bahn home today, after a long day out with Ella. Laura and I were exhausted, and Ella was fussy. It had been a long day fighting German bureaucracy and our own cultural ignorance. We had decided to explore the area around the university where Laura will be studying and to avail ourselves of some of the services they offer.
We have a map that the student aid organization, Studentenwerk, sent us. In addition to being a great street-level map of München, marked on it, in brightly colored little bubbles, are all the Studentenwerk office locations. The little bubbles contain symbols describing the services provided at each location. Or so we thought. I should mention that there is a key to the these symbols, but they give only a vague description of what they mean. The globe, for instance, means “internationalische” a strange word, even in German, but which we took to mean the more common auslander, or foreigner. Clearly this is the office for foreign students. We thought this might be a good starting point. They probably have primers on the German university system, tips on registration, getting your library card, etc. Instead we found it was just one of the little jokes Germans play on emigrees. The office didn’t exist.
Here in Germany, they play football; in America, we play football. The games have the same name but they’re not the same. That’s what it’s like trying to do the simplest things here. There are simple rules, for everyday things, that everyone knows that we don’t. For instance, here it’s okay to push through unmarked doors leading to dark hallways. The bureau you are looking for is probably down that hallway, and the lights are off to save energy. You are expected to simply check that the door is unlocked, turn on the light switch and head down the hall. Of course, you should know ahead of time when the sprechstunde (office hours) of the bureau are. You should also know that they don’t have offices for foreign students. There’s a phrase that english-speaking Germans have that explains it all: “Everyone knows this.”
We were hungry and grumpy so we decided to get something to eat. The cheapest thing nearby was the student mensa. Even cafeteria food sounded good at this point. We should have known better. We thought we knew the drill–the prices listed on the TV screen downstairs, and the sheet of paper upstairs of the mensa hall clearly listed student and guest prices. We’d probably need to buy mine at the guest price, but no problem, it was still cheap. We loaded up our multi-sectioned white plastic tray with flatiron steak with gravy, fried potatoes, and the Bayerish equivalent of the French roll, a pretzel.
When we got to the cashier and she read out €4.85, Laura handed her a €10. “Haben sie kein Karte? Ach. Ach! Kein Karte. Kein Karte.” This literally means “You don’t have a card? Oh no, oh no! No card. No card.” But her expression clearly said “Oh my God! Have you never been to a cafeteria before? You don’t have the special cafeteria card? Are you an idiot? Why are you doing this to me? My life is hard enough sitting behind this register. First, my seat is uncomfortable and my manager won’t buy me a new one. Second, my fingers hurt from pushing these buttons all day. Third, I have to eat this food all the time because they give it to me for free. So, you see, my life is hard enough, and now you arrive without a card!”
She told us to wait there while the patient people behind us came through and our cashier asked each one in turn if they would buy our food with their card and take our cash. Eventually a young woman took pity on us. We sheepishly handed her our Euros , apologized, and told her to keep the change. She wouldn’t though, and went around to everyone in the cafeteria until she found someone who could give her two €5s. Then we crawled into the woodwork to eat our steak. It was surprisingly good, actually. All the food here is surprisingly good.
The cards required to pay for your meal are sold downstairs, through a set of imposing looking doors marked “University Personnel” (with an implied “only”) at an office that is only open when university is in session. Everyone knows this. We arrived during spring break.
Though we wanted to give up, it was only noon. We decided to tackle the library. Laura will be doing a lot of work there, so we thought she should go get a card. We walked just over a kilometer down to the library, past a 50 foot striding man, through the München arch, and to the München Staatsbibliothek. Ella no longer had the patience for this kind of activity, so we took a walk around the block while Laura went to get the card. We saw an old villa behind the library built for Frany Von Whatshisname as an office. A retreat where he could escape the hustle and bustle, and do some work. It was a relaxing place. Not so for Laura, inside the library.
She first waited in line for 20 minutes to talk to the single information officer who directed her to another 20 minute line where they issue library cards. Though she had her papers saying she was to study here for 10 months, and she was a Fulbright scholar, they informed her that she had to first matriculate at the university. Then she could get a university library card. Only then could she return to this line and get a card for the München Staatsbibliothek. I will remind you now that it is spring break, and it is not possible to register at the university during break. Everybody knows this.
That was all we could take. We needed something comfortable. I’m not sure then why we decided to return to our apartment, but we did. With all three of us tired and irritable we hopped onto to the U-Bahn. Ella was fussing, wanting to be out of her stroller, and neither Laura or I had it in us to entertain her. We were sure it was going to be one of those rides where the rest of the car hates us because our baby won’t stop crying. But then our angel came. The door opened and this woman crowded on right in front of Ella, and she just stared. She smiled and stared. Ella was rapt. I kept looking up at the woman to give her the usual smile of thanks that parents give when the person has run out of baby faces. From them, a silent “I did what I could,” or if you’re lucky, “cute baby, thanks for letting me make googely eyes at her.” In response, “Thanks, anything helps” or “Thanks, we think she’s pretty cute too.” But she didn’t look up.
For stop after stop she didn’t look up. She just stared and smiled at Ella, and Ella smiled and stared right back. I’d look up at the woman, look back at Ella, and eventually it became clear that I was neither needed nor particularly welcome in this conversation. I was a voyeur. At some point, the woman noticed a stuffed cat toy with a little plaid ribbon sticking out of Ella’s diaper bag. She looked down at it. Then slowly, with great affection, she stroked the ribbon. It was done with such care that I couldn’t help wonder about the woman. Were her children grown up–out of the house–and she missed having babies around? Did she follow her career and give up the idea of having kids long ago? Did something tragic happen to her own daughter? The woman started, as if she’d crossed a line, and quickly pulled her hand back. She seemed embarrassed as she turned around to face the doors, never looking at me, or again at Ella, until she got off three stops later. Ella didn’t fuss the rest of the way home.
I still feel uneasy about the experience, as though I witnessed something private, something I shouldn’t have seen. She showed such gentleness, such kindness, and so much affection, in view of everyone, on the U-Bahn, the most impersonal space imaginable, simply because of my little baby and a stuffed toy. I suppose that is the transformational power of children. They don’t know the trials and tribulations of your day. They don’t care if you’re homesick, tired, and frustrated in a country where you don’t speak the language. Just to look into their eyes and you return to an infantile, carefree state where the simple pleasure of looking at one another satisfies your every need.
Everyone knows this.