An American Living in Austria
Languages and Toilets
The first and last letters of "Austria" and "America" are about the only similarities between these two countries, and even that similarity vanishes in German. The German spelling of Austria is "Österreich."
I should begin this by explaining that my wife and I lived nearly four decades in Austria. We had a printing and publishing operation that printed much Christian literature, including tons that were smuggled behind the Iron Curtain during the cold war era. We founded a training school for church workers and co-founded a youth organization that is now established in a number of European nations.
During language study in the University of Vienna and the Sprachinstitut Wien, we practiced new words on each other before attempting to use them in public. Austrians would gladly have paid admission to hear our private babblings, but they got enough of it for free!
Even the progression of endearments was hilarious: We started with "Ich lieben Sie" (literal dictionary translation of the words "I love you"). Then we learned that "you" has both a familiar and a formal translation. We began saying "Ich lieben Du" to each other. At some point we learned that there are four cases in German, nominative, accusative, dative and genitive. We appropriately changed the formulation to the accusative case, "Ich lieben Dich." But this was still incorrect, for the verb changes with each case. It was a long time before we could verbalize our affection in proper German: "Ich liebe Dich".
I found the "umlaut" letters, Ü, Ö, and Ä, especially difficult to pronounce. Our tutor was just about to give up on me, when I accidentally pronounced the "Ö" properly. She cheered, "That's it!" she cried, “You finally got it!" I tried to think of what I had done differently and said, "It sounded like I was vomiting!" After that lesson, I seldom had trouble with those letters. I simply pretended that I was vomiting!
German is actually quite similar to English in many ways. If you look at books written in English or German back around 1600, the two languages were even more similar than they are today. Unfortunately, Germans no longer talk like Martin Luther and Americans don't talk like King James.
Many German words have been adopted into the English language, such as kindergarten, iceberg and sauerkraut. And thousands of English words have been adopted by the German-speaking world. Computer geeks in America and Germany don't need to learn a foreign language to communicate with each other. When our Austrian and American grandchildren first got together, they soon discovered words that were similar and began talking excitedly with each other about balloons, ponies and parties.
I became acutely aware of differences between German and English during our first shopping excursion in Vienna. We had just arrived and needed items to set up housekeeping. Our apartment was located on one of Vienna's busiest streets, the Mariahilerstrasse, which means "Mary Help Me Street." Believe me, you need help to get across that street without getting killed! Vienna's two largest department stores, "Herzmansky" and "Gerngross," were located just across the street. These large stores offered the same products, but they attracted customers by competing with each other in their advertising. Few Austrians were aware of the fact that the stores had the same owner! Since we had no car and public transportation cost money, it was only natural that we should do most of our shopping there. Our first shopping experience was a memorable one!
We took much time comparing prices and looking for the things we needed. After a while, I sensed an urge to visit what Americans call the "bathroom." We all know that department stores don’t have bathrooms and even if they did, who would want to take a bath there? The British say "wash room" and the international name for a toilet is "WC," which stands for "water closet." Austrians have bathrooms, but these are for taking baths. The toilet is generally in a separate room.
I must now return to the story of my first shopping experience. Verna asked me if I knew the German name for a restroom. That is another name Americans use for the toilet, but "relief room" would seem more appropriate. I told Verna that I would look for a "WC" sign or a pair of narrow doors with little symbols on them. I soon found a sign which said "Toiletten" and an arrow pointing into a hallway. I followed the sign until I came to the expected pair of narrow doors. There were no symbols on the doors, but just the words, "Damen" and "Herren." I thought to myself, "German is going to be breeze!" "Herren" has got to mean "her room," and we all know that Germans have trouble pronouncing the English "th" sound. Obviously, Germans would say "da men's room."
I entered the door marked "Damen" with great confidence and was promptly met by an indignant female patron on her way out! The German language was not going to be so easy after all! I made a hasty retreat and walked to the door marked "Herren." After some hesitation, I shoved the door ajar and stopped abruptly. A woman was sitting at a table just inside the door! I excused myself in English (I had not yet learned to say "Entschuldigung") and returned to where I left Verna. "Did you find the restroom?" she asked. I replied, "I can wait until we get home."
When we arrived back in our apartment, I looked up the words in our German-English dictionary. "Herren" means "men" and "Damen" means "women." I related this experience with a friend, who got a good laugh. He explained that there is usually a "Klofrau" in public toilets. The Klofrau is a woman who keeps the place clean and collects money from those who use the toilets. There is often an open window between the two facilities where she can collect without going back and forth. I will share more about public toilets later.
The German language is much more complicated than English, but at the same time it is more expressive and exact. All nouns have one of three genders (masculine, feminine or neuter), as distinguished by their articles. It is easy to determine the gender of some words. The German terms for "man," "father," "husband" and "son" are masculine, so the article used is obviously "der." The three main words for "boy" are "Knabe," "Bube," and "Junge," the articles of which are masculine. The German nouns that mean "woman," "mother," "wife," and "daughter" are feminine, so the article is "die" (pronounced "dee" and has nothing to do with death). The logic stops there. The German noun for a young girl is "Mädchen" and a young unmarried woman is called "Fräulein." Even older married women who work as waitresses are called "Fräulein." Nouns ending with "lein" or "chen" are called "diminutive" nouns and always require the neuter article, "das."
The utensils we eat with are called "knife" "fork" and "spoon" in English. The article for all three is "the" and we don't even think about their gender. I soon discovered that these three utensils have different genders in German. A knife is neuter, so it is called "das Messer" (nouns are always capitalized in German), a fork is called "die Gabel" (feminine) and a spoon is masculine, "der Löffel" (to pronounce it properly, pretend you are vomiting!).
No rule determines gender of the knife, fork and spoon. You just have to memorize it. I learned the gender by association. Kids (neuter in German) shouldn't play with knives, so the knife is neuter. Men usually have a protruding belly; the spoon is masculine. Women are known for their sharp tongues; a fork is feminine.
To make matters even more complicated, the spelling of nouns, adjectives, verbs and articles changes according to usage. With 4 cases (nominative, accusative, genitive and dative), 3 genders (masculine, feminine and neuter), 3 tenses (past, present and future), and singular or plural forms, there can be a dozen variations in the spelling of almost any word in a sentence.
It is also important to have the words in their proper order. As a rule, the verb is at the end of a sentence and German-speaking people delight in long, complicated sentences. In a news broadcast, for example, you may hear the name of a person at the beginning of a sentence followed by several descriptive phrases before finally concluding with the verb. You are held in suspense for what seems an eternity before learning if the person was killed, promoted, or won a contest for creating the longest sentence.
When I speak to kids in schools , camps or churches, I like to explain why there are such long words in German. You can combine adjectives and nouns to create almost endless words. I show the kids how to spell "red" in German by writing the following word on a chalk board.
It is quite simple if you break the word down into its components. Donau= Danube, dampfschiff= steamship, gesellschaft= company, kapitäns= captain's, hut= cap, knopf= button, poliermittel=polish, dose= can, deckel= lid, beschriftungs= text, farbe=color
By starting from the back of the word, you learn that it is the color of the text on the lid of a can of polish used to polish the button on the Danube Steamship Company captain's hat.
As our language study progressed, the mistakes we made were fewer, but more hilarious - at least to others. When you speak better German, people are less forgiving. We could identify with Mark Twain, who wrote, That Awful German Language.
Here are a few German/English mistakes that we and others have made.
There are several prefixes to verbs, which change the tense and often the meaning. The same verb can use several different prefixes, but the meaning changes. There seems to be no ruling which tells a person which prefix to use under what circumstances. In language school, one of my classmates asked the teacher if there was a rule that tells you when to use the prefix "ge-," "be-," "ver-" and "zer-." The professor thought for a minute and said, "When I think about it, the prefix "ver-" seems to be used when the word has a negative meaning, such as "verloren" (lost), "verdorben" (spoiled) and "verboten" (forbidden)." Another classmate, who was obviously better at German than most of us, spoke up and added, "verliebt" (in love), "verlobt" (engaged), "verheiratet" (married).
A wrong prefix can change the meaning drastically. A missionary was preaching about serving the Lord and said, "Everyone in this church has a special gift, from the preacher in the pulpit to the one who converts the floor." By adding the common prefix "be-" to the word "kehren," which means to sweep, he changed the meaning to "convert."
My wife once made the same mistake. We invited an elderly lady for dinner. Instead of encouraging her to help herself, she told her to behave herself ("sich benehmen").
Once, when our daughter came in from play, she didn’t take off her coat. My wife told her, "Take off your clothes and hang yourself!" ("Du sollst dich ausziehen und aufhängen").
An American was explaining to an Austrian that it was dangerous for a woman to walk on city streets at night without an escort. Instead of using the word "ohne Begleitung" (without an escort), he said "ohne Bekleidung." "In America, it is dangerous for a woman to walk the streets at night without clothes."
An American was giving a leadership seminar and stressed the need to set "kurzsichtige Ziele" (instead of "kurzfristige Ziele"). He meant "short-range goals," but what he actually said was "short-sighted goals"!
Austrians celebrate Corpus Christi, called "Fronleichnam" ("holy corpse") in German. Verna once mispronounced it, calling the holiday "Frohleichnam" which means "happy corpse."
Because we worked with churches, many of the stories I recall are of a religious nature.
I will tell on myself first. When I became a bit fluent in German, I was asked to preach in a small church of mostly coal miner families. I chose the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. When Sunday came, I was nervous, but actually surprised at how well I was doing until I made a serious mistake. By adding the wrong prefix to a verb, I declared that Jesus "devoured" instead of "fed" five thousand people! The listeners smiled, but were very polite. Then I added that, according to the text, only men were counted, so Jesus might have "devoured" an equal number of women and children! That was too much for one coal miner who asked if Jesus had the women and children for dessert!
Another American missionary was speaking on the Ark of the Covenants. The English Bible mentions three arks: Noah's ark, the Ark of the Covenants, and the ark into which Moses was placed as an infant. The missionary did not know that the German Bible uses "Bundeslade" for the Ark of the Covenants. He told how the priests carried the ark on their shoulders, and when they stepped into the water of the Jordan River, it parted so they could walk across on dry ground (Joshua 4). The congregation could only picture the priests carrying Noah's ark across a dry river bed!
A young American visiting a church youth center in Salzburg knew just enough German to get into trouble. The leader of the center asked him to tell the Austrian youth about his former life in America. He wrote out what he wanted to say in English and then translated it into German. He thought he was telling his listeners about his troubled past as a drug addict. What they understood was, "My behind is divided into two parts. One part is addicted to drugs and the other part is Christian."
A well-known minister from America attended a convention in Austria. He was asked to give thanks for the food before the meal. He prayed a good prayer and then invited everyone to be seated. But instead of saying "You may now be seated", he said "Sie dürfen jetzt platzen" ("You may now explode").
"Stille" has two meanings. One definition is "quiet" and the other means to breast-feed a baby. During a heated theological discussion on the role of women in the church, an American missionary said, "According to scripture, the woman should breast-feed herself and not speak in church ("sich stillen und nicht reden").
A missionary was teaching Sunday School on Mother's Day and gave each of the children flowers for their mothers. Since it would be a while before they could be handed out, the missionary filled a large vase with water and told the children to put their flowers in it until later. But instead of telling them to insert their flowers into her large "Gefäss" (container or vase), she told them to put their flowers into her large "Gesäss" (posterior)!
Another missionary was trying to explain that missionaries are just ordinary people. The German word "ordinär" may sound like "ordinary," but it means "vulgar" or "obscene." She said, "We missionaries are very obscene people just like you."
The English language can cause Austrians the same problems as their language does for us. After someone sneaked up behind his friend, the friend responded in English by saying, "Why you sneak up on me; you want to catch me underwears?"
Germans and Austrians have trouble with certain English pronunciations just as we do with their German. They pronounce a "W" like our "V" or a "TH" like a "D,“ which can change the meaning of a sentence. When an Austrian once told us in English, "I am getting the wurst,“ we understood "I'm getting divorced."
An Austrian Judge and his wife were visiting in America and after staying longer than planned, the judge wanted to make a compliment. He told the host and hostess, "We had really not intended to stay this long, but the hostage in your house was really once in a lifetime." The same judge was entertaining a professor from England. After the meal, he asked the professor if he would like a “nappy.” What he meant was a short nap, but nappies are diapers in England!
The Director of a theological seminary traveled to America for a conference. At the end of his visit, he and his wife came to visit us in New Jersey. We arranged for him to tell our church about his work. He told the people, "Our school offers many curses. We have basic curses for lay workers and more difficult curses for ministers."
An Austrian family of our acquaintance was spending a holiday in America and decided to attend a German Lutheran Church in the area where they were staying. The pastor spoke relatively good German, but his style was definitely American. Our friends shared that he greeted his parishioners by saying (in German of course), "Good morning! Today is a beautiful day; why are you all looking so sad?" So far, his question was acceptable, but what followed was not! He added, "Come on and smile! God's house is a house of prostitution!" He used the word, "Freudenhaus," which actually means "house of joy," but that is the word Germans use for a brothel!
A young missionary couple that came to Austria from Canada was soon involved in a local church. The husband struggled to learn German, but his wife even knew the local dialect because she grew up in Austria before migrating to Canada. The wife was expecting a baby, so conversation in a women's meeting naturally turned to that subject. She then startled the women with her ignorance by saying, "I heard that you only need a womb to have a baby in Austria." The German word for womb is "Gebärmutter" which contains two words meaning "to bear" and "mother." She thought it was the word for a midwife.
A German businessman, who was visiting America, was asked about his occupation. The German word for a large business or industry is "Unternehmen," which, translated literally, is "undertaker." The industrialist replied, "I am an undertaker and specialize in export and import."
ABOUT PUBLIC TOILETS
Once, while visiting the Vienna zoo, our 2-year-old son, Ralph Jr., said that he had to "go to the potty." I soon found a public toilet, but a watchman at the door asked for money. I argued that we had paid admission to the zoo, and besides, a 2-year-old should not have to pay. The man was resolute and forbade entrance. Junior was already dancing and holding his pants so I did what most Austrians would have done in the first place. I looked for the nearest grass to water. The watchman said nothing but just walked back inside and sat down at his table. European men think nothing of unzipping their fly and watering the grass or ground wherever they might happen to be. You see them doing this in city parks as well as along highways.
The law now forbids Austrian restaurants to charge admission to toilets. That is not the case in formerly Eastern Europe, however. The "Klofrau" or toilet woman collects money and hands a single sheet of toilet paper to each customer. If you want more paper, you pay for it. On a visit to Podabrady, Czech Republic, a woman charged me five Czech Crowns for two squares of toilet paper and then issued a signed, stamped and dated receipt! Sometimes there is an open door or window between the men's and women's toilets, where the Klofrau collects her money and deals out paper. Europeans don’t seem to have a problem with such transparency. I have wondered why they don't just combine the two rooms into one.
The American style bathroom is not a clever invention. As a rule, there are three or four fixtures in American bathrooms. Each bathroom has a washstand, toilet, tub and perhaps a shower. No one I know has mastered the art of using more than one of these fixtures at a time. Furthermore, the bathroom is seldom occupied by more than one person, even when there is a double washbasin. Normal usage of a toilet is accompanied by unpleasant smells that hardly enhances the brushing of teeth. Americans install multiple bathrooms to assure that no one has to wait in the hallway while another person enjoys a bath. Most Austrian homes have both bathrooms and toilet rooms. When visitors from America asked where our bathroom was, I graciously told them. They always came back with a quizzical look on their face. If they were starting to dance, I quickly explained that the toilet was behind the next door.
The design of toilets is another matter. Visitors from North America often complained about the shape of European toilets. These often have a wide plateau in the center of the bowl, containing a shallow puddle of water if it hasn't evaporated since the last time it was flushed. Deposits wait patiently here until the user flushes it down the drain. This is accomplished by pressing a lever, pushing a button or pulling on a chain. Small children tend to forget this, however. And they also leave doors ajar. By the time Mommy or Daddy discover their negligence, the entire house smells of the toilet's contents. If the family doctor has ever asked you to provide a sample of your stool, this kind of toilet definitely has its' advantages. Our children actually preferred the European toilets to the American variety. They complained about getting a free bottom wash when using American toilets. There are toilets that provide a warm shower when finished, but these have not really caught on with the general public. Someday an enterprising young person will invent the ideal toilet and become a billionaire.
By this time, you have deducted that modesty is not a European trait. There are beaches where people wear nothing at all, but children under school age seldom wear textiles at the beach and not a few women go topless. Even "family magazines" show a lot of flesh in order to boost sales. Europeans consider Americans to be prude and pride themselves on being emancipated from such restraints.
Before I wrap up this section, I should mention a very interesting museum located in Gmunden,
Austria. It is reportedly the world's only “Toilet Museum” with hundreds
of very old, famous or unique toilets on display. I posted photos on this website.