How hard could it be buying bread at a bakery?
My rideshare dropped me off in the city centre of Braunschweig, West Germany. It was 1987.
Eva said this driver’s exchange service was the cheapest way to get to see Andrea, our mutual friend, though it was a good chance that the driver would not speak English. I was ok with this, though it seemed weird that strangers would offer to drive strangers in their car.
A few days earlier, I had met up with Eva from the train from Amsterdam, gotten lost despite her pitch-perfect instructions, but yet still ended up meeting her in Frankfurt. She was waiting at the station, cigarette in mouth, hands on hips. She had lost weight since I last saw her, but then again so had I.
We had a beer at the bar in the station, me forty minutes in Germany, and I pounded the bar like the guy next to me had done and I also ordered, “Ein alt, bitte.” I imitated the way he did it, using the only talent I had, mimicry, for good.
The bartender pulled the alt and slid the pint my way. Then she began chatting me up. Eva flicked the end of her cigarette in the glass ashtry on the simple pine bar and told the bartender, in German, “She’s never spoken German before those three words. She’s American and just got here.” Bartender laughed and laughed and poked the other bartender and pointed to me. I nodded and smiled. The beer was delicious. I decided that I liked West Germany.
Eva gave thorough instructions about getting to the Frankfurt rideshare office from the subway, and then called ahead and told them her little wayward American friend, who spoke no German, wanted a lift to Braunschweig. They called her back and told her to tell me to show up the following day at 11am. I went to the booth, paid my fee in francs, and mumbled something in German to indicate I was exactly how Eva had described me to them. The man at the booth pointed to the seats where I had to wait until my name was called. Five minutes passed and I realized there was all this commotion at the booth. The rideshare organizer called out the same thing numerous times as though someone were ignoring him. A few more tries on his end and then I realized he’d been calling for me. My name in German was Shyler-ama. Not Sheelerama. I’d forgotten about that. I popped up out of my seat, yelling, “Scheisse!” and ran to the front. The owner of the car nodded to me, shook my hand, and walked out to the car.
The ride was uneventful since the driver and his girlfriend who sat up front ignored me, while they talked, smoked and played the radio. I brought with me the Diary of Anne Frank, because I was young, American and not as bad a horse’s ass as some of my compatriots, but still pretty bad.
Andrea was waiting at the drop off point, hugging and giggling. She was an all love and light German. Eva, more of an ein alt German, had those other qualities, too, just not on display.
“What are your plans?” Andrea asked, pinching my cheek.
“I don’t have any,” I said, preparing.
But she did not turn all plannier-than-thou on me, as I had feared, so she showed me around the basic things her little town had to offer. Shops with food, beer, book stores, tennis courts, schools, office buildings, parks, a 700 year old church and one crumbling castle. Check and check. The next day she gave me a wicker basket and sent me onward to do some shopping for her. “You’ll be my Hausfrau,” she laughed.
I carried the basket along with my list, making my rounds. I get cheese and ham and eggs, using phonetic spelling and drawing from my success at the bar in Frankfurt. I walked into the bakery, smug, that my list was nearly crossed off.
“Yes?” the lady behind the counter asked me.
I pointed to the brown bread in the shelf directly behind her. “Brown bread, please” I said, using 92% of my German know-how.
“What? You want brown bread?” she asked me, incredulous.
“Yes, please.” I said and comported myself to look humble and likeable.
“What?” she said. She appeared to be slightly older than me, in her late 20s.
“Please some brown bread, please,” I said again. I cleared my throat. I checked that my nails were clean.
“Brown?” she demanded, facing turning pink. She reminded me of someone named Tammy.
IN BETWEEN doobie hits and shots of white zinfandel one summer, my friend William had said out of the blue: “Whatever you do, never call a German a ‘Schweinhund’.” He had taken German the one year he was in college back in West Virginia. Before I could follow up about how lethal the term really was, he’d passed out. But five years later, the word flashed in my mind just then in the bakery. The whatever-you-do-in-Germany-don’t bakery.
“Yes, ma’am, brown. Brown bread, please thank you.” I said.
“Bread,” she asked. “You want bread?”
No, I would like to buy a pigdog.
I pointed to the exact loaf I wanted. It sat on the shelf maybe two steps away from the clerk.
“Yes. BREAdddd,” I repeated, switching pronunciation.
“BRown,” I clarified.
Don’t say Pig dog.
“What is it gndsfsidfSfsihsfbSfbdsfbdfbdf you ask me for?” she said.
“brEAd, broWN,” I said, trying on a Colonel Clink accent.
“BrowN bRead,” I explained, pointing. “PLEase.”
The word in German is spelled Brot. She’d said “Brot” and I repeated “Brot” trying to imitate her. Clearly my I’d worn out all of my German on beer and sausages, and I was left with sound that made no sense.
I was starting to sag. I turned round to see a line of Braunschweigers out the door, behind me. Waiting.
Finally a guy with a wide face and a red soccer shirt broke the line and walked to the front.
He asked me in English, “What is it you’re trying to buy?”
I said, “Brown bread.”
He nodded to the clerk and said in German, “She’ll have the brown bread.” He pointed to the loaf (stale by now) behind the clerk’s head.
I paid my francs, put my loaf in my basket, and skulked out. As I walked over the steel two-car bridge back to Andrea’s place, a man driving a blue Peugeot slowed down and called out to me through the passenger window, “Do you something something something cinema something knuckle sandwich something world peace arbitrage something condescension something something your mother?”
I yelled back in German, “BROWN BREAD pig dog!” He reluctantly drove on, looking confused.
That evening we went to visit a friend of Andrea’s at a bar that was playing a laser disk of early Genesis music, along with laser lights or lots of colors and schemes. Her friend was blonde and full of himself.
He tipped his beer bottle as though it were a microphone. “Ja Genesis, before Phil Collins ruined everything.”
But someone was always ruining something.
Before the WALL got knocked down. Before England bowed out and left us to our own devices. Before when we were the good guys. Before laptops and the internet. Back when phone calls weren’t worth it so everyone just sent airmail in rice paper thin stationary. Before the war on terror. Before the president massaged the neck muscles of the German chancellor. Before torture became an official American practice, or did it. Because now we we’d officially become a pimple, a great swelling boil even, on the world’s left cheek.
Back when I had the luxury of being a singular asshole riding on the coat tails of a dog with swinish intent.