Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Keeping up with the Schmitz's

Here's a little anecdote from last weekend to illustrate how the language barrier can create embarrassing situations (man oh man do I have a treasure trove of such situations, this being just the most recent):

Some neighbors of ours have an annual neighborhood party. Apparently this was the fifth annual party, although it was the first year we were invited. I reckon that having a child has earned us membership into this little group, and hence the invitation. On the invite it asked for a "Spende" for the salad buffet. Now, Spende means "donation". I had only ever heard this word used in the context of money. For example, beggars on the street ask for "eine kleine Spende" ~ a small donation. When I saw this phrasing, it did strike me as a little odd. I would figure they'd want you to rather bring a salad than money...but I have been to several German parties where the party-thrower asks for money in lieu of gifts, so I figured this was along those lines. From the American perspective this would be considered cheeky and rude. In American culture you're supposed to accept any gifts graciously, not ask for money. I suppose the onslaught in recent years in the US of registries is the way Americans are clear and direct about what they want you to give them. I've heard people now register for just about any occasion: a new baby, even bridal and baby showers. I wonder if people are doing this for their birthday wish lists as well. Here in Germany registries are unheard of, but people are not afraid to tell you what they really want: money.

So, I figured this was only odd by my American standards and I expected to see a little can on the table next to the salads for a little "donation", and I set off for the party with a 2 euro coin in my pocket. It didn't take long until I saw a few other neighbors arriving with salads or bread or some other culinary "donation" in their hands. Shit! I only stayed for 50 minutes, and I'm pretty sure not every guest brought something, so I think we were probably off the hook. But I do wonder if anyone noticed and thought me rude not to have brought a salad. It's also essential for this story (and my intellectual ego) that you know there is another German word, "Beitrag", which means "contribution". When I originally read the invitation, I had assumed if they'd meant "bring a salad" they'd have used the word Beitrag. I was wondering if perhaps Beitrag is more formal and in this context Spende would just be more friendly and casual. I asked V (the German hubster), who immediately recognized that they had meant a contribution of salad, not money, although he said he thought Beitrag would've been more appropriate and he couldn't explain to me the difference between Spende and Beitrag. Oh well.

But that's not all. I also managed to embarrass myself at this party in a way that language barriers could not excuse. I figured I was keepin' it real by not getting specially dressed for this shindig. Come as you are, ya know. I didn't put on any makeup (I wear makeup sometimes when meeting with others but not always, depending, and to work ~and then only mascara and occasionally but not always blush), I don't think I even bothered to brush my hair, and I wore my Birkenstock-style sandals I usually only wear around the house. On second thought, I could've given a moment's consideration to my appearance before leaving the house but hey, I'm a mom, what do you want? It wasn't until I was there and chatting with neighbors (most of whom I was meeting beyond just seeing-in-the-street for the first time) that I realized I was wearing a really low-cut shirt and my ample milk boobs were overflowing out the top. It was a hot muggy day and I had on my nursing tank top and a shirt on over it that was cut about the same as the nursing top, which is like a camisole. I'm not a person who routinely wears really low-cut tops and enjoys showing off my cleavage every chance I get (although I do like the cleavage I now have since becoming a breastfeeding mama, hehe). This just happened to be what I was wearing that day. Don't get me wrong: there's nothing at all wrong with a woman wearing a low-cut top. It was just inappropriate for this context. These people are relatively conservative and not what I'd call relaxed and "cool". They aren't fundamentalist right-wingers either, but just what we call in German "spießig" (that ß thingy is called "sharp s" and is like "ss", so it could also be written spiessig).  Spießig, or Spießer as the proper adjective goes, is one of those beautiful German words that doesn't really have a good-enough English equivalent. The dictionary would translate it as "bourgeois", "middle class", "square", "narrow-minded", or perhaps the most accurate "white-bread". But it's the way and amount the Germans use this word where it differs. Being called a Spießer is a pretty bad insult. The real joke is, everyone calls other people spießig and thinks they themselves could never be so mediocre and normal, yet most of us (at least those of us over 30) in some way are spießig. In America, people don't generally go around and talk about how square and white-bread other people or things are. But here in Germany I hear it quite often. Anyway, these neighbors are Spießers, not the type of people you want to show up wearing a hot-pink low-cut top to their party. I was mortified. To go with the low-cut top, I was showing up alone as my husband was out of town, whereas most everyone else was with a spouse. So, they not only thought I was a mooch showing up empty-handed, but now also a slut.

On the one hand, I do care what they think, or else none of these thoughts would've entered my head. But for the most part, I really don't give a crap if they think I'm weird. In fact, I'm pretty sure they would or already did think I was weird just because, well, we are weird. Although I have become more and more spießig the older I've gotten (for example booking package holidays, which I used to balk at as being only for the non-adventurous, or the fact that I'm having a Tupperware party this weekend ~you can hardly get more spießig than that!), I still have pretty radical views compared to the average person. Sooner or later I'll start posting about our parenting philosophies and practices, which could go under the umbrella -though are not limited to- Attachment Parenting. AP (as it's known) is seen as super-weird by many, and there are even people who are adamantly against it. In any case, it is the vast minority of us who are actually dedicated to doing things this way ~unfortunately! And there are many other ways in which V and I live a pretty unconventional life, as normal and spießig as we oftentimes are. I am mostly proud of that, and it's always been my way somehow to do things differently than most everyone else. But of course there is a part of me which feels insecure when I'm at a party with our spießig neighbors, especially when my boobs are screaming up from just below my face and I've shown up to a potluck empty-handed.

Ah well!

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