Don’t Call Her Fräulein

One of my major goals on my trip to Germany was to polish my German. It’s been nearly 25 years since I’ve had a real conversation in German, and what German I did have was understandably rusty, vaguely accented, and as I found out, a little old-fashioned. What I wanted to avoid was what I call “euro-English” or Continental English, which is the English educated non-British Europeans speak, and use as a lingua franca for business. Obviously I can understand (and even speak) Continental English, but it’s a soul-less language, stripped to simpler expressions (i.e. flower shop instead of florist), and with irregular nouns pounded to fit (i.e. leaves are leafs.) It’s a tool that serves a function, not a living language. German as the Germans speak it, on the other hand, is a sparkling, glittering toy. It’s witty, it’s direct, it bounces and dances, it grabs French and English words and expressions and makes them so German you’d think the word came from German in the first place. In Euro-English, the Germans come across as stiff and earnest; in German, they’re anything but. One of my concerns was that Germans who pegged me correctly as a foreigner would refuse to speak German to me and subject me to Euro-English instead.

For the most part, I had little to fear. Most Germans, and German-speaking foreigners (including Americans) were happy to speak German to me, even if my vocabulary and phrasing were on the odd side. I got more hip to which words and phrases were in and which were out as time went on, but on my first day in the country, I almost certainly sounded like a time traveller, or at least a foreigner who’d learned her German from a very outdated text. The women I addressed as  “gentlewomen” on the streetcar were certainly amused, but they managed to give me directions with a straight face.

I had less luck with the girl at the Heidelberg tourist office. It was a hard moment for me to begin with. I was jetlagged and homesick. I’d promised Peter I’d get in touch with him when I got to Germany, and I had yet to do so. Only Mrs. Fruehauf’s elderly mother was working the desk at the little family inn I was staying at, and when I asked her how much it would cost for me to call abroad, she could only confirm that it was almost certainly very expensive. I’d already been burned a few years ago when an in-state call from the Sheraton Suites in San Diego cost me $30 for a minute, and I never wanted to make the same mistake again. The butcher from whom I’d bought my post-hike snack had told me there weren’t any internet cafes in Dossenheim, so I got back on the streetcar and went to the Heidelberg train station, where there was an (expensive) internet cafe.

Heidelberg’s Tourist Information office is right next to the train station, so I figured I’d drop in and ask about the Heidelberg Card (a discount card for Heidelberg attractions) as well as about internet cafes in the area. But as soon as I asked my question, even though I asked it in German, she answered me in Euro-English and refused to speak German with me. I was devastated. I couldn’t think of where I’d make such a glowering mistake, and I actually fretted about it for the rest of my trip, and whether other Germans would rebuff my German as well.

As I was flying home, I was enjoying some excellent, witty books about modern German, and I realized that I probably set the tourist information girl off by having addressed her as “Fräulein,” even though she looked to be all of 20 years old. Apparently, that form of address hasn’t been in use since before she was born, though having lived in America for all those years, I didn’t know that. After all, the last time I lived in Germany, I was a Fräulein, and it didn’t bother me any. But my use of the phrase tipped me off as a foreigner, and an ignorant, sexist, boorish ‘tard of one at that. And so, I was subjected Euro-English so Ms. Tourist Information Clerk would never have to hear that disgusting evil word ever again.

Luckily, despite my ignorance, I didn’t say Fräulein again, though I think in laid-back Cologne, they would have been more likely to laugh off my mistake instead of taking offense. But if you’re in Germany, and you see a young lady, remember, she’s a Frau now, no matter how young she looks.

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