Culture Shock Circa 1986: From Fishhead to Communist

Culture Shock is to an expat what Athlete’s Foot is to the swimmer. It comes with the territory.

I’ve written about it as seen by an eleven year old expat kid who thinks she’s South African, even though she is American by birth and has German parents. I’ve written about it as seen by a South African expat living in Germany who commits the glaring faux pas of going grocery shopping in her bare feet. And I’ve written about it as seen by a 16-year old foreign exchange student/expat in America in 1983, confronted with cordless phones and big screen TVs for the first time in her life.

But what I haven’t told you yet is the intra-country culture shock story. The one featuring no expat whatsoever.

You don’t have to go abroad to experience culture shock. You really just have to travel, say, seven hours on the Autobahn from the North of Germany to the Southern lands of Swabia or Bavaria. Somewhere along the way you’ll cross over the Weisswurschtläquator (white sausage equator, South Africans might recognize it as a relative of the Boerewors Curtain, the way I understand it) into Süddeutschland. And, unbeknownst to you, that will change you from a perfectly normal person into a Fischkopf (again, South Africans, remember Pisskop or PK from The Power of One? Yeah, it’s like that), a label you will henceforth be stuck with for the rest of your life. You will try in vain to explain that you live nowhere near the coast where, yes, fishing might be engaged in by some people, but this will matter little to your new Southern German friends, to whom the coast starts directly north of Frankfurt and anyone and anything from “up there” is highly suspect.

You will feel like you’ve entered an alien land. A common written language might unite you, but when people open their mouths, you will just stand there helplessly staring at them and wondering what on Earth they’re saying. For fear of embarrassment, you will pretend you understand the jokes they are telling and laugh at all the inappropriate times. And you will just nod a friendly nod when the butcher chats away with you and asks you a bunch of questions, one of which sounds like do you want some filet mignon? but must have really meant do you have a dog? because when you come home your girlfriend chastises you for having bought nothing but bones.

Wanting to make a good impression on her, the new girlfriend – because, in spite of her broad dialect, she must be quite the looker – you decide to visit her at her family’s weekend getaway. Which is clearly a mistake when you find yourself utterly lost on a winding road in the mountains and stop to ask a stooped toothless old man for directions. You might as well have driven to Italy for all you understand, and after lots of arm flailing and nodding and smiling you take off again, without a clue where to turn in those pre-GPS olden days of the late 1980s. You arrive terribly late and then have to bite your tongue so as not to complain about the language problem, because there is pride in those Schwaben and you better not make fun of their accents. Instead you swallow obediently what looks like calf’s brains, and what you will thankfully only learn much later actually WAS calf’s brains.

You will find a place to live, which won’t be that easy, because everyone is moving South to where all the jobs are, and to get the apartment you’ve set your eyes on you have to enlist your parents who seem to make a good impression on the landlord during the 2-hour cross-examination regarding all your virtues and habits. Unfortunately your own impression does not live up to this high standard, mainly because you fail to understand the workings of an as-of-yet unheard-of phenomenon called Kehrwoche (sweeping week) whereby each party in the apartment complex you are part of is assigned a week where they have to clean the common areas according to a very strict schedule everyone but you seems to comprehend. Which apparently includes climbing into the communal trash can and scrubbing it from top to bottom. And which also includes opening your door at random times to the landlord’s 90-year-old mother who is coming for an apartment Inspektion, sweeping her fingers along every conceivable surface and clicking her tongue disapprovingly.

culture shock
A perfectly normal kid from Northern Germany…
culture shock
…turned into a fishhead upon arrival in the  South.

You barely escape from being kicked out over the next three years, mainly because your girlfriend, being Southern born and bred, has a better grasp of Kehrwoche, even though her occasional bouts of spending the night are watched with deep suspicion through slanted shades, and even with deeper suspicion the fact that no one rises the next morning until 11:00 am, a time of day by which a good Swabian will already have swept the entire sidewalk, biked to the store and back, and cooked dinner. And observed what their neighbor has been up to. Which frustratingly has been nothing at all.

When you move out when you’ve completed your studies, another Inspektion will follow and your landlord will almost have a heart attack in horror of what he sees, even though your girlfriend has scrubbed the place once more from top to bottom and you are leaving behind some nice custom furniture. But,  lo and behold, there are water stains on the fixtures in the shower, which the landlord, no doubt aided by his 90-year old mother and her laser vision, has zeroed in on and wastes no time to point out. You consider being nice but years of Kehrwoche-related reprimands and public shamings have rendered you a tad fed up and so you shrug your shoulders and tell him to send you the bill to America, where you will henceforth live. You turn and make your final exit from a place, it must be said, you were happy to call your home, but that you have also paid good money for, when you hear him hurl his final insult after you: “You are all nothing but a bunch of communists! Yes, that’s what you are!”

But clearly this outburst does not provide enough satisfaction to Scrooge McCarthy the Landlord, so he immediately sets to work with his screwdriver and painstakingly removes the offending shower fixtures, stuffs them into a padded envelope, and sends them post haste to the parents who all those years ago so beguilingly – and apparently misleadingly – advertised the tenant-worthy virtues of their son, with a scribbled note which he is sure will solicit sympathetic outrage from said parents saying something to the effect of: This is how YOUR son the slob and communist left behind his apartment.

On the plus side, you can now consider yourself graduated summa cum laude from Culture Shock 101.

The above events are entirely based on a true story. Noisette was 21 years old when first being inducted to the secrets of Kehrwoche and proper shower-scrubbing, and over 25 years later he still struggles to take out the trash or change the toilet paper. He remains a proud Fischkopf, though it must be said that he came to appreciate the balmy weather of Southern Germany as well as the more than cozy Besenwirtschaften, family establishments where you can rub shoulders with total strangers while drinking freshly-made wine, and has never had the urge to return to his Northern place of birth. The Landlord subsequently considered a new career with the Stasi in East Germany to utilize his fine-honed neighbor-spying and terrorizing techniques, but sadly the fall of the Berlin wall put a quick end to his ambitions. The apartment was never rented out again because no one could figure out how to turn on the shower.

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