Candide, or, Being Social in Germany

White marble floor and a vast open space, the elevator doors closed behind her and Candide walked to the counter with two receptionists. One that recoiled at the sight of a human, and another with a smile who was clearly not German.

‘May I help you?’

‘Hi, yes, I’m Candide Lipschitz. I’ll be working here for the next month.’

‘So you’re telling me Germans are completely antisocial.’

’No, that’s not at all what I’m saying.’ Candide had that fascinating womanly gift of boiling down my every sentence to its worst possible meaning.

’Look, it’s not that one German is any different from you or me. It’s living in a country full of hyper-rational introverts that things can get a little weird.’

’So you’re saying they’re psychotic.’

‘No! They are wonderfully kind, they just won’t open up to you in any way. Because it’s not rational to make themselves vulnerable. Because opening up to people is an emotional decision, not a rational one.’

’So you’re saying I’m not going to make any friends.’

’No! …Oh, wait. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.’

‘I don’t think you are right.’

‘Look. Far be it from me to throw a whole nation into one box, but… ‘

‘Clearly.’

‘… but you’re just not going to make any real friends. Zero chance. It has nothing to do with you personally, it’s a verdict on society as a whole. Society is in effect an elaborate lie, where we coexist just to… ‘

‘Oh dear God, I get it. Please don’t go full Nietzsche on me.’

‘Alright, fine!’ #sademoji

It was still very early and the office was mostly deserted as they knocked on and opened each door in succession. A few lawyers were already working, impeccably dressed and perfectly amiable as they stood up from their work, shook Candide’s hand and wished her an enjoyable time at the company. Their names were listed at each encounter, yet Candide’s heartbeat, which was pulsing up in her ears, drowned them out tracelessly.

’Pleased to meet you, I’m Candide.’

‘In case you need help with anything, just stop by. We are all here for you.’

’That’s very kind, thank you Mark.’

’It’s… I’m Florian.

‘Of course.’

Candide returned to her office upbeat and relieved. All these preposterous accusations about German iciness were plainly blown out of proportion, and were now refuted entirely.

In the afternoon she walked to the water cooler for a drink and got into a conversation with the friendly receptionist.

What Candide didn’t realize was that by standing there she effectively cut off the water supply of every person in the office she wasn’t formally introduced to. As time progressed and their thirst grew, some considered drinking their urine or introducing themselves to the unknown young person, but such ludicrous ideas where swiftly discarded. After two people fainted from dehydration an ambulance was called, but as the medical team also weren’t formally acquainted with Candide, naturally they had to wait until she left the corridor, which, luckily, occurred a few minutes later and order could be restored once again.

Candide was humble and gracious about her first social victory that day.

’Suck it! You were wrong and I was right! They were all very kind to me today.’

’They always are. No one said they wouldn’t be..’

‘Well, we were already introduced, it will just take a little small talk in the kitchen and we’ll be buddies in no time.’

’Small talk?’

‘Yep’

‘Well, good luck with that.’

Germans will talk to you about business anytime, any day. It’s small talk of the kind where you share personal maters or feelings where they usually struggle with the core concept. Generations of Germans worked tirelessly to fine tune a system that would guide them in face of such challenges, and it can be summarized by a simple two step strategy.

Step 1 — Weather is your friend. Talk about how warm/cold it has gotten lately.

Step 2 — Fake the sound of a distant phone ringing and run away to attend to it.

The average chat at the office went down something like this:

‘How is your day going?’

‘My fitness app says I’ve made 8000 steps today, I also consumed 60 grams of protein and enjoyed a total of 12.5 minutes of sunlight.’

‘Oh how splendid.’

‘Splendid indeed.’

Candide, ignorant to these agreed upon local standards, went with a slightly different approach.

‘Good morning Jürgen.’

‘It’s… Jakob.’

‘How are you feeling today?’

Jakob almost fell over a chair at this unexpected turn of events. Ah, feelings. My old nemesis. Thus we meet again.

‘Well I feel… cold? I feel… I feel cold. I guess. And maybe some hunger.’

‘Oh.’

‘So… huh. Yeah. Have you… have you noticed how the weather has gotten worse lately?’

‘Yes, yesterday it was raining all day.’

‘I know, right?’

‘Um, right’

‘Huh. So. Well, I must go now. I think I hear my phone ringing.’

‘I don’t hear anything.’

‘No, it’s definitely ringing. *ring ring* Yep, there it is again. Need to go now. Bye!’

There are of course worse things in life than a German trying to avoid small talk. Like a German trying his best to start one.

‘Can I help you with anything?’

If there’s anything you normally don’t have to worry about in the land of schnitzels and opportunity, it’s shop employees invading your personal space. If they do, you will not be the one who’s in greater discomfort. It is also a question of their skin tone. The whiter hence more from the north they are, the more probable it is that they’ll approach you with a rosary in hand, praying in a semi-whisper that you’ll decline their assistance. You then throw them a disarming smile, hoping it will ease the tension in their shoulders they meanwhile pulled up to their ears, which it never does, and soothe them with soft words.

‘No thanks. Very kind of you though.’

‘I like your coat.’

I took a second look at him, stunned. As the average German would have dragged this compliment to his grave rather than break sweet silence with a random stranger, it was so out of line that I was sure I heard him wrong.

‘Excuse me??’

‘I just… I’m… that your coat looks very nice.’

Hans, said his name tag. He was also very white, already sweating and his shoulders went nowhere. He looked like he would’ve preferred drinking lead at boiling point before continuing our harmless chat. He was clearly just trying to be kind, yet it instantly reminded me of an article from Joel Stein, in which his psychologist pressured him to compliment random people to battle his social anxiety. If so, then Hans wasn’t exactly nailing it.

’Thanks. It’s from Zara.’

‘Oh. Um. Is it wool?’

Is it wool. Of course I did not know but I would bet a kidney that nine out of ten men could be fooled into believing it was Persian velvet. Men generally perceive only two textures, silk and cashmere, and not because we could recognize them by touch, oh by no means. It’s because we check the label before buying a tie or sweater.

‘Honestly, I can’t tell. Can you?’

‘No, I just… it just looks really cool.’

He smoothly ended our dialogue by turning around and quickly organizing well organized merchandise on the shelves. Whatever it was that made him start our conversation, I just hoped it wasn’t company policy. I wasn’t exactly hyped at the thought of the next ten employees chasing me down the aisles to praise the texture of my pants.

‘And what are you gonna talk about?’

‘I don’t know. Work, mostly, I guess.’

’Not a bad idea.’

‘Or movies, books, opinions…’

Opinion in Germany is a concept madly overrated. Facts are mostly left as facts, any attempt to interpret them will just be inevitably flawed, given that humans are helplessly naive. Opinion, as in the way how certain events make you personally feel, is entirely overwritten by the mother of all opinions, the Law. Childish fantasies of the sort where you think the customer is king and always right is just not holding up in the German reality.

‘Excuse me miss, I’m sorry, I ordered ketchup by mistake… Would you be so kind to switch the sachet for a barbecue sauce?’

‘I’m sorry, but paragraph 14 of the Domestic Trade Act says once you accept a product, you enter a contract with us, and the product is thereafter non returnable.’

‘Well that’s all nice, but I feel this shouldn’t be any… ‘

‘PARAGRAPH 16 states that from the moment your left butt cheek touched the seat, an agreement has become valid where you loose your right to complain about your order.’

I might be paraphrasing. Still, she left me looking at her incredulously agog. It was on. I turned to Candide and slowly gave her the nod, thus granting her permission to prove her wrong in her face spectacularly, preferably by pulling out a thick volume of law code and throwing it on the table. Yet for some reason Candide seemed uninterested complying with my clearly unrealistic expectations of lawyers fuelled by five seasons of Ally McBeal.

The reverence of Law is the reason jaywalking is not an issue in Germany, you could stand at a deserted road for hours and nobody would move until the light would turn green. For the ones who don’t obey the punishment is severe, in the form of mildly disapproving looks. Nothing too confrontational. Sure, you may well ignore their judging stare, but at least they will know that they did everything in their power to disarm this out of control lunatic lawbreaker that is you.

Do you dread eating alone in public? This fear well documented in Hollywood high school movies, where the new kid eats his lunch in a bathroom stall to avoid being seen as a social reject? Where you spend your meal looking over your shoulder, afraid that someone familiar will pass by? Where you pre-prepared a speech for them, justifying how your life could have gone so off the rails that you must face the disgrace of eating alone?

Well in Germany this is not a thing. Not eating with someone is the most enjoyable part of your average work day. Candide soon found out that in a law firm counting forty employees every one of them spent their lunch time alone. Mostly they stayed locked in their offices, while a select rebellious few ate at a nearby deli, stood at a table for one and enjoyed the majestic view provided by facing a wall.

Laura, the managing partner at the company, was well aware of these cultural shortcomings of her people, so naturally, being the leader that she was, she stepped up, swallowed her fear and on Candide’s first day in the company she invited her to lunch.

‘Laura, I’m sorry, it’s 4 p.m… I already ate. But we can go tomorrow if you want.’

’Of course! I’ll just check my calendar.’

Laura called her assistant straight away to clear her schedule, just in case. Then she bought a ticket for the first flight to Malta and no one saw her for weeks.

A half month into staying in Germany I found Candide at one of my late returns home still hunched over legal documents.

‘You are not working, are you?’

’There’s just this thing that Florian asked me to do, and I really want to finish it today.’

It was well past midnight when she finally went to bed and well before sunrise when she picked up where she left off. Personally I found it an unnecessary overkill to swap sleep for unpaid overtime work, but her zeal was admirable and I didn’t turn out to be the only one to think so.

‘You did all this in one day?’ asked Florian, amazed.

‘Well I thought it would be better to have it right away, just in case… ‘

Florian smiled, shaking his head while he leafed through the report. It was already noon, so he suggested lunch at a nearby salad bar, one he faintly remembered had options to single tables. They talked about work and weather, about Candide’s far fetched Game of Thrones fan theories, he told her about his family, what it felt like to be a father, and asked her opinion on some pressing international issues, like Kanye’s newest beef with Drake. Where smiles and gentle words failed miserably, hard work and diligence gained Candide respect and, more surprisingly, in spite of everyone‘s disbelief, it won her a friend.

It was Candide’s last day at the office and scores of people came by to say their goodbyes. Best wishes for the future were thrown around lavishly. Laura also reappeared after weeks of traceless disappearance to remind Candide about all the great fun they had together.

‘Such a pity that you must leave us so fast.. it was a wonderful experience having you here. Please stop by the next time you are in Hamburg, we can have lunch together.’

‘I haven’t seen you for a month.’

‘Good times. Let’s do it again soon!’

Laura faked the sound of a distant phone ring and left the office to attend to it.

This may all sound very sardonic, yet despite all this Germans are no different than the rest of us: indeed we are almost identical. They have elected a woman as their leader, based on the sheer rationale that women are just as able as men. We also talk about how much we respect women. They see women as strong and sharp as knives, while the rest of the patriarchy also very much sees women as knives. Edgy and strictly belonging in the kitchen. And at a time when the British PM David Cameron’s comments on migrants were making teas spill all over England and refugees were drowning in the Mediterranean by the boatloads, at a time when no answer was right, Merkel opened her borders clutching some twisted philosophy believing a life is a life, regardless of where you were born. Having such ideas amount to political suicide, even in a strange country like Germany, where facts are still more trustworthy than feelings. You can’t make me feel fear for my standard of living just to save millions of faceless strangers.

The Germans are ignoring that fear well, for now, but the sun will dawn on the day when the refugees will rise up, perfect their language and force them into nonconsensual small talk. And then it will all be over, and then, Europe is doomed. Fortunately for all of us, life is too short to learn German. Especially one of a refugee.

An incurable cynic