Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Eleventh Day of Christmas

After yesterday, you may have thought that my store of embarrassing moments was dwindling.  You might have suspected that I'd shared them all.

My friends, I have only skimmed the surface.  I have not yet played my Germany Card.  Until now.

Innocents Abroad

For anyone new to this blog, I lived in Germany for a year.  Shortly after Endeavor was born, the Bionic Man's company sent us over to Munich, Germany for a year long work assignment.  While the Bionic Man was at work during the day, Baby Endeavor and I had fabulous and sometimes frightening adventures every time we stepped out of our apartment.  At home, Endeavor stayed busy running Motherhood Bootcamp, while I tried to keep up.  We also watched a lot of Teletubbies and Little House on the Prairie, dubbed into German for television.  

At the time we arrived in Germany, my German was far from fluent.  By the time we left Germany, I was still far from fluent, although my German baby talk was passable.  Two years of high school German, a semester of German in college, and various German arias that I had learned to sing had given me beautiful pronunciation.  Unfortunately, I lacked the ability to be able to carry on more than a halting conversation with anyone other than a German Teletubby.
But I still tried!  The results were, more often than not, embarrassing.

There was the corner store clerk who never let me count out my own money because I was zu langsam (too slow.)

There was the neighbor who tried to compliment me, in German, on how much my German had improved; to which I replied, in perfect German, "I'm sorry, I don't understand what you are saying because I don't speak German."

There is a really, really, really embarrassing story I could tell you about my very first prenatal visit with a German obstetrician, but that story is so utterly, completely humiliating and hilarious that I have to tell it in person, not via the world wide web.

And then there were all the times I got into trouble in public restrooms.  (Again with the restroom stories, I know, I know--only this one I didn't have to dream up.)

In Germany (and Switzerland, and Austria, and a few other places in Europe, too), public restrooms are impeccably clean.  That is because every public restroom--even the mens' rooms--is staffed by a maid.  Usually the maid is an older woman who will not put up with any nonsense, whatsoever.  These maids guard the cleanliness of the restroom as if they were guarding the crown jewels.  I have no idea what official title these ladies go by, but they are a dedicated bunch.  You need not fear running out of the necessities when you take care of business in Germany.

This kind of service, however, comes with a price.  You are expected to leave a tip for the maid after each visit to the restroom.  Sometimes there is a sign requesting a specific amount, sometimes you can decide for yourself.  But don't ever, ever, ever try to use a restroom unless you are prepared to pay.  For this reason, you should keep plenty of change on hand if you ever get to travel in Europe.

So, now that I have explained that, I can tell you my story.

We were vacationing in Berlin, and had gone to visit Berlin's famous aquarium.  Before we left the building, we stopped to use the restrooms in the main lobby.  While I went into the women's restroom, the Bionic Man waited in the lobby with Endeavor, who was asleep in her stroller.
Knowing that we had a train to catch, I tried to hurry.  There was a line inside the restroom of other women who were waiting.  As I waited, I noticed that the restroom maid was particularly attentive.  She busied herself polishing the sinks after each use, and monitoring paper towel usage.  "Nicht zu viel!" she would caution ("Not so many!").  Before any of us were allowed to enter a toilet stall, the maid would check the toilet and then wave us in, pocketing her tip before she moved out of the way.

When it was my turn, I handed over my money, went in the stall, did what needed to be done, pressed down the handle to flush, and then exited the stall.  I had been very efficient.  Standing at the sink, washing my hands, I was oblivious to any problem until I looked in the mirror and saw the maid coming toward me, waving her toilet brush, her face grim.

She stopped at my sink, put one hand on her hip, and spoke to me impatiently, jabbing her toilet brush toward the stall I'd just exited.  I had absolutely no idea what she was saying.  I couldn't think of anything I'd done that would warrant her wrath.  I'd tipped her, hadn't used too much toilet paper, hadn't dribbled....why was she so upset?

So I tried my best line of defense, one that had worked to diffuse tense situations in the past.  I smiled sweetly at her, and said in German, "I'm sorry."

It didn't work.  If anything, it made her more angry.  Her face going red, she jumped up and down in increasing fury, waving the toilet brush, a steady stream of words I could not understand coming out of her mouth.  At last, she yelled, "FLOOSHEN!  FLOOSHEN!"

At last it dawned on me.  She was trying to accuse me of leaving the stall without flushing.  But I had flushed!  At least I thought I had flushed.  I had pressed the handle down, I had heard water gurgle, I had exited the stall....

The restroom line at a standstill, we had a growing audience.  I tried to tell her that I had flushed, but she wasn't buying it.  Grabbing me by the elbow with one of her rubber-gloved hands, the maid dragged me across the gleaming tile floor to the stall I had recently exited.  "Flooshen," she said sternly, pointing down at the toilet.  Not waiting for me to follow her direction, she took my hand, placed it on the handle, pushed it down, and held it for six seconds while the water in the toilet bowl swirled and disappeared down the drain before she released my hand.  Then she said something to me that clearly meant, "There, now you know how to flush a toilet."

Mortified, I tried to say one more time, "But I did flush your toilet!  I'm so sorry!" as I made my escape from the restroom.

The maid, toilet brush jabbing the air, followed me to the door, calling out into the crowed lobby after me something like, "Dumb American!  Do you think I was made to flush your toilet?  Who do you think you are?"
Castle Ruins on the Mosel River
I ran to the Bionic Man, who watched the scene in the lobby unfold, wide-eyed.  "What did you do?" he wondered.

"No time to talk!  We have to get out of here, now!"  I whipped the stroller in front of me, grabbed the Bionic Man's hand, and pulled him toward the exit.  It was only when we were safely on our train, with the Bionic Man looking nervously behind him, that I could take a deep breath.

"Is the aquarium going to blow up?" the Bionic Man asked me.  "Do we need to go to the American Embassy and ask for sanctuary?"

"I don't think so," I said breathlessly.  "But from now on, I'm flushing twice."


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  2. I love Bionic Man's fanny pack in all these photos. Now THAT's embarrassing!