Friday, December 3, 2010

I’m sorry, my German isn’t very good … and apparently neither is my math

In Germany, many shops only accept cash, or sometimes called an Electronic Cash (EC) card (which is like a debit card). Being a U.S. American (I can’t speak for my friends in Canada and Mexico), this is very different. In the States, I rarely carried cash. Plus, I earned “points” with every credit card purchase which equaled cash back later. A $2 cup of coffee? Charge it.

I don’t have an EC card here yet. Thomas added me to his bank account, but in order to get a card, we have to go to the Post Office to have my identity verified. I should mention here that Germans take personal identity and privacy very seriously, which I think is great. But added security measures often come with a convenience cost.

But not having an EC card hasn’t been that big of inconvenience; I’ve been fine with making a trip to the ATM with Thomas every few days...

…Until today, that is.

Each day, I go to a couple of markets to acquire fresh items with which to create something that resembles some state of food (I’m still to master opening the oven…more on that another time).

Today I went to a larger store just down the street. But because grocery shopping is still very exciting –   so many new and different items to try – I got a little more zealous than my wallet was comfortable with.

As I placed each of my edible treasures on the checkout conveyor belt, a sense of dread began to set in. How much was that box of chocolates? I forgot I picked up that bottle of Glühwein. That deli cheese was €4??

And, as is so often the case, my delayed intuition was right.

Cashier: Das macht €38.45. (That comes to €38.45).
Me: Ummm…[looking at the €25 in my wallet as if they’d somehow multiply if I keep counting them.] Leider…ich habe nicht genug. Ich muss etwas zurück geben.(Unfortunately...I don’t have enough. I must give something back.)

I quickly handed over a higher ticket item: a beautiful bottle of Cuban rum. The cashier, without the least bit of empathy for my predicament, snatched it up and walked over to her colleague for a register key to remove the item from my bill.

By this time a line had begun to form behind me.

Cashier: €22.10, bitte.
Me:        .........

Looking at the money in my hand again, I started recounting it in German. No, better do this in English, I thought. Crap…wait…how much is this?? I felt a warm sensation flooding into my face. Somehow in a mounting sense of panic I’d forgotten how to add. I frantically handed her all of the paper bills from my wallet, plus a couple spare one and two Euro coins from my pocket.

She counted my wad of monetary shame once…twice…looked at up me…and then counted a third time. I instantly thought I was still short. But to my relief, she mumbled something I didn’t fully understand and gave me several Euros back. I grabbed my rum-less bag of groceries and hurried out, without making eye-contact with any of the (hopefully patient) customers behind me. For once, stepping outside and breathing the bitter cold air felt amazing.

So what did I learn? Have plenty of cash on hand; select items more conservatively; and start going to a different grocery store.


  1. I had a similar problem to this when I lived in Vienna - I did have an ATM card, but occasionally it would not work at the supermarket and I would have to run down the street and get cash out and run back (looking quite silly)... a credit card would be so much easier!

  2. Sometimes shopping in German supermarkets can be a bit of a small battle.

    I also find that people waiting in line give you absolutely no personal space, and will even push you if you go too slowly for their taste. If you leave space in front of you in line, someone will inevitably walk into it.

    It gets better. The people don't become outwardly compassionate, but it seems one grows not to care.

  3. @Michelle - Credit cards do make things easier, although I have to say not having one helps me keep track of my spending better...a lot better unfortunately, haha.

    @Lahikmajoe - I've noticed that about personal space, too! People here also aren't afraid to push you in the train, Supermarket aisle or just about anywhere else. Although, that could be more of a big city attitude thing...?

  4. Ha, I've done this... totally mortifying!! Some days I still forget how to count and just thrust the largest note I have in the cashier's direction and hope for the best.

    I don't think the personal space thing is necessarily a big city thing: sure, you can hardly breathe on the tube in London, but you don't get people pushing in queues and folk have mostly worked out that it's easier to let others OFF a bus before they try and get on. Not in Germany, apparently, but I've worked out how to perform a very effective block in that particular situation :)

  5. Since taxes are always included in the price, maybe you'd like a shopping calculator (Einkaufsrechner) to keep a tab on the expenses while you shop?

    As far as personal space goes, there's simply a smaller personal space sphere in Germany - it's nothing to do with big cities or small villages. You'll either adapt, or develop strategies to maintain your own sense of personal distance (e.g. in a store line, try standing at a 90 degree angle to the person behind you, and planting your feet wide apart).

  6. A little late to the party on this one, but...I can't tell you how many of these experiences I've had, where my fear and/or embarrassment totally cloud my understanding of German that's somewhere in my brain. I can only say it's gotten better now that I've been here for a year, but I recognize I'm still likely to make an ass of myself every now and then.

    And a note on Americans not carrying cash - I agree that this was hard to get used to, but now I totally prefer it! I can budget better, not go into debt AND practice my number listening skills rather than just handing over a card. Plus, I'm not passing on big credit card processing fees to small businesses. Americans would do well to follow such practices in their own country! (sorry, getting off my soapbox now... ;)