Kraut and about – what are all those Germans doing abroad?

tenement museum

Listen to Brenda tell the story

German immigration to the U.S. peaked in the late 19th century; Ellis Island processed masses of Europeans seeking a better life. But a visit to New York today makes it clear that they are still coming, they just choose to go back home again. German tourists are everywhere.

On my first day in New York, I decide to dive into multiethnic Queens by having breakfast at a small seedy restaurant listed as “Dominican” near my similarly seedy hotel. I am intrigued by their version of oatmeal, which more closely resembled slimy rice soup. I’m not sure how they pulled that off, but I eat or rather drink it. Fortunately, my slurping doesn’t catch anyone’s attention. I’m pleased to see they also have fried plantains on the menu, a typical Latin American dish, but are happy to serve me a standard American fare of scrambled eggs, hash browns and one pancake on the side, an obligatory element of my breakfast during every U.S. visit.

Just as I sit back and glory in my complete cultural immersion, a well-dressed, middle-aged couple walks in the door. The woman wears spotless white sneakers, equally pristine white jeans and a blue denim jacket, while the man at her side is suspiciously well-groomed by American standards with a precision haircut and designer glasses. They approach the counter and order in hesitant English. I recognize the accent instantly. Germans, as I’d suspected.

Boarding the subway, just three stops away from Manhattan, some tourists catch my eye who are also meticulously casually dressed. I sidle closer to inconspicuously eavesdrop on their conversation. More Germans.

But this experience is not confined to me, nor to New York. I have heard reports of sightings all across the States; indeed, all over the world.

New York, America, and beyond

Two German friends were touring California and stopped at a spa for some R&R. While soaking in a hot tub, an older man with an unusually shaggy beard joined them, inspiring them to make a few snarky comments. They spoke German, confident he would not comprehend.

This is a prime example of the flawed belief that “I’m the only one here who speaks language X, so I’ll say whatever I want since nobody will understand.” This is what two Spanish-speaking men sitting across from me on a train in Munich believed when they started commenting on my boots. They thought they were ugly and said so – in Spanish.

How could they know the woman across from them had lived a year in Spain and was now beginning to have serious doubts about her choices in footwear fashion? I proceeded to make them very uncomfortable by immediately looking down at my feet.

“Why do they think they’re ugly?” I wondered. “I thought they were cool!”

I shifted my gaze back to the Spanish speakers, now squirming in their seats. I decided to punish them with my glare. One of them said nervously:

“Wow, it almost seems like she understands us!”

Their discomfort was supremely satisfying. I felt very smug, knowing that they were a bit rattled by the thought that their insults had been understood. That’ll teach them! But before I could decide whether to say something – and what – they got off the train.

At least I got in a good, long glare.

This takes us back to our snarky German friends in the spa. It turned out that the shaggy-bearded man was also German and, naturally, understood them perfectly. But he was more interested in a conversation about what they were doing in California than in any rude comments he may have overheard. Never again would these two assume anything about other people’s language abilities.

The Tenement Museum

Back in New York, I encountered Germans one last time in a place that perfectly reflects the tumultuous history of the city: the Tenement Museum. Tenements fulfilled the housing needs of the huge numbers of immigrants in the late 19th century. These apartment buildings had dubious hygienic conditions including outhouses in the courtyard located right next to a single water supply that served the inhabitants of the entire building.

The museum is an original tenement restored to create the conditions of two of its resident families. One was a seamstress who worked alongside her children in her tiny apartment – the original home office (albeit without wifi). The other family was headed by a German couple who ran what the tour guide called a “beer saloon.”

I demurred at this usage of the word, which derives from the Spanish word salón, meaning room or living room. It evokes visions of sweaty men in cowboy hats tilted down into their faces, kicking open swinging doors with dusty boots while the floorboards creak ominously – but only if they are strangers; locals open the doors with their hands and the floorboards remain oddly silent.

In any case, this basement bar looked nothing like a saloon. I would call it a Kneipe, the current German name for such establishments.

When the tour guide asks us to share our motivation for visiting the museum, two middle-aged women pipe up. They are Germans whose relatives once emigrated to America and were processed through Ellis Island. By this time I was not in the least surprised to find people from my adopted country wherever I went. But not only were they German, they were from Ebersberg, located 12 km from the Munich suburb of Zorneding where I currently live. I could have just as well ridden the local S-Bahn train for 20 minutes and met these two women at the local farmers’ market and skipped my New York tour altogether.

The world gets smaller every day. If you want to escape German tourists, you’re going to have to go to the moon.  

Brenda Arnold

Also interesting:
On The (Same) Road Again
Follow the Narrow Brick Road – and hope for the best
The two dots that will make or break you

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