Wednesday, June 15, 2005

 

I understand only train station

My friends J and M live in my home town, but earlier this evening (it's now almost 11 p.m. here) B and I met them for beers in Cologne. It's great to be on your own in a strange place, yet it's great to meet up briefly with friends from home when you're traveling abroad. Seeing familiar faces so completely out of their context creates a delightful feeling of a discontinuity in the time-space continuum -- maybe it's the closest I'll ever come to experiencing time travel. So there we were -- J and M broke their train trip with a short stopover in Cologne, and B and I drove into the city from U of Boogie -- quaffing Kolsch bier in the shadow of Cologne's stunning 13th century cathedral.

Some weeks earlier, before we had embarked for Germany, J, an expert in German, had given us the following linguistic advice: If you have time to learn only one German phrase, the best one is:
"Ich verstehe nur banhof."
In essence, this phrase means "I don't speak German, just perhaps a few tourist's words." But literally it means "I understand only train station." The Germans are great train travelers, and their train stations are typically fun shopping arcades as well as transportation terminals, so I guess "train station" for Germans has powerful connotations as the culture's tourist mecca.

Why say "I understand only train station" rather than the more straightforward "I don't speak German" or "I do not understand [what you're saying]"? For laughs. J assured us that this phrase would be uproariously funny to virtually any German we encountered and win his or her instant good graces.

J, I'm sorry, but I have to admit, I couldn't quite believe you. Something about this struck me as too quaint, a canard: my skeptical, easily embarassed brain told me that if I whipped out the phrase, I'd get a blank uncomprehending stare or, at best, eye-rolling.

Besides, virtually everyone in Germany speaks enough English that you can conduct your quick tourist transactions with them without using any German phrases beyond my trusty "sprechen zie English?"

Most Germans are charminly modest in responding to this question. They rarely say "yes," when asked if they speak English, but typically say "not very well" or "just a little bit." But almost invariably their English ranges from serviceable to nearly fluent.

Though maybe the charming modesty is tempered with a degree of self-criticism. You get the feeling that Germans are perfectionists when it comes to language, and will not say "Yes, I speak English" unless they do so perfectly.

On a related note, I've repeatedly had the experience when conversing with my German hosts, that they get quite frustrated when they run into a concept they'd like to express but don't know the exact word they're looking for. The natural adaptive strategy in this situation is circumlocution. If you run into a roadblock, you take a different path, using the words you know, to reach the same expressive result. But Germans seem to resist this: they want the right word, will start muttering to themselves in German, then start to ask you for the word they're thinking. I guess Germans just like to stay on the autobahn rather than taking a linguistic detour on back roads.

While our German hosts and friends are putting us to shame with the English speaking ability, B and I go around making speaking English to each other in fake German accents or making bad puns. The word "fahrt" is a tense of "fahren" (to drive) and highway exit ramps are marked "ausfahrt" (drive-out?). B dissolves into a kind of Beavis and Butthead mirth ("It says 'fart'!") over this.

After beers and an early dinner, we walked J and M back to the Cologne train station and said our goodbyes. No more than two minutes after we saw them off, I encountered this sign:

DSCN2787
Translation: Understand only train station? Read the PICTURE. [Ad for "Picture" magazine.]

J, I'm sorry I ever doubted you.

***

UPDATE: An anonymous commenter writes: "The literal meaning for Bild is 'picture,' but the ad is for a tabloid daily newspaper, die Bild-Zeitung well known for its right-wing politics. Sort of like the New York Post. I think a free translations for the ad would be: 'Semi-literate? Read the Bild.' "

Comments:
I sympathize with B. I took only one photo in Denmark, after spending a week in the country. I had to capture the train station at "Sofartsgarden."
 
The literal meaning for Bild is "picture," but the ad is for a tabloid daily newspaper, die Bild-Zeitung well known for its right-wing politics. Sort of like the New York Post.

I think a free translations for the ad would be:

Semi-literate? Read the Bild.
 
I love that translation! Thanks!
 
Hey, great blog! Keep it up.

I have a Cologne site. It pretty much covers Cologne

related stuff.

Come and have a look if you get time :-)
 
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