The other day, I went grocery shopping. This is pretty mundane, but I like going to this grocery store in particular – it’s bigger, cheaper and it has a wide variety of things. Everything was going according to plan. I even found my favorite goat cheese. When I went to the checkout line, the woman in front of me offered to let me go first because I had fewer items. I piled my groceries onto the conveyor belt, daydreaming about goat cheese and apples and chocolate. Then I realized that the cashier was trying to get my attention.
Her: Something something something something?
Her: Something something something something? (points at my groceries)
Keep in mind, I’m usually a bit more prepared when I need to have a social interaction. But there were two customers in front of me, both of them elderly men, and I was expecting to be left alone for another twenty seconds or so. Of course, they certainly didn’t mind jumping in to help.
Cashier: Something something something SOMETHING? (points at my groceries again)
Me: *Stare. Shake head slightly. Open mouth. Reach hands towards vegetables to see if this is the right first step. Vegetables, what have you done?*
Cashier: No, no, no! SOMETHING something something SOMETHING?
Elderly man #1: (in angry elderly man voice) The something! The something!
Elderly man #2: (in wavery elderly man voice) Just something something something SOMETHING!
Me: *Stare at cashier. Stare at Greek chorus of elderly men.*
Cashier: *Grabs bottle of shampoo.* Here, here. See? It’s like this. *Holds bottle up straight.* Now do this. *Lies bottle down flat.*
Me: *Frantically look at groceries until I see offending bottle of oil. Tip it over on its side so forcefully that it could have broken right then.*
As usually happens, she pitied me. She continued to check out the guy in front of me and then, when I got to the register, grabbed the oil and gently explained, “See, it’s made of glass. It could have broken.” “Ja, I understand,” I mumbled, shoving groceries into my backpack as quickly as she scanned them. She made a point of being pleased that I counted out exact change. I’m not sure if it’s because cashiers like exact change or because she was honestly impressed that I could count my money like a real grown-up.
A couple of days later, I had another unexpected interaction at a different grocery store.* Again, I only had a few items. The woman in front of me turned to me and (“Oh God,” went my brain) started to talk. I stared at her for a split-second, then regained my composure. No sweat. You can still save this.
Me: “Entschuldigung?” (Excuse me?)
Her: “Something something something?” She gestured in front of her bounty, already on the conveyer belt. She was smiling, and very animated. She waited for me to answer.
Oh! She wanted me to go in front of her.
Me: “Nein, danke!”
Her: Something to the the effect of, “Are you sure? I have so much!”
Me: “Nein, nein, danke.” A pause, and then an extra bonus phrase:”Ich habe Zeit.” (I have time.)
That seemed to be enough to make her think I was worthy of talking to, since it spurred her into a few more sentences, which she transferred over to talk to the cashier. Her attitude, however, was infectious. I felt like I’d really accomplished something that day, even though all I’d done was use very basic German to ward off a real conversation and buy some yogurt. I’ve noticed that more often than not, it’s something of this caliber that can make or break my day here.
*Yes, I’m always at the grocery store. Tiny backpack. Big food dreams.