Part 1: Say What?! Miscommunication Between Ex-Pats

Berlin is extremely international, attracting transplants from all over the world and - fun fact - half of all Berliners are unmarried. These statistics of foreigners and singles combine and: GAME ON! Within an hour of touching down at Tegel your Tinder inbox is full with die Männer of all ethnicities wondering how you like the city, how long you’re staying, and if you’ll still respect them when they love you too much (just an inference). So it wasn’t surprising when I matched with the very un-Deutsch Gerardo, who may have been Spanish but messaged right away with German efficiency. 

With English as a common denominator, Berlin’s melting pot of languages is usually pretty easy on Americans but Gerardo spoke only Spanish and German. My German is… limited (“Weiss Wein, bitte?”) so I replied to Gonzalo in Spanish, which, admittedly, was a little rusty. Throw in foreign texting shortcuts and both Google Translate and I are left with dumb smiles on our faces, nodding along as we pretend to understand. Thankfully emojis helped fill in the blanks; I may not have precisely understood everything Gonzalo texted, but comprehended the international language of smiley faces and exclamation points. This was going well probably! We decided to meet the next afternoon.

Gerardo first suggested having coffee at his place. “Coffee at my place?” (or in this case, "Tomamos un café en mi casa?") is probably the most commonly misunderstood phrase between American women and men from anywhere else on the planet. To American women, receiving this invitation from someone you've never met means:

Willingly enter my soundproof apartment so I can tie you up without witnesses.

Meanwhile European men intend it as:

Welcome to my home, let’s drink coffee!

This happens all the time: guys in Berlin invite strange women (me) to their home totally innocently, oblivious to Stranger Danger. Don’t you know I’m suspicious of you and whatever slave ring you’re operating? Aren’t you afraid of me sedating then robbing you? Where is your fear? Ah, to be a man! So no, Gerardo, I’ll meet you in public at a coffee place I can cross-reference on Yelp.  

We met at Mein Haus Am See, on Rosenthalerplatz in Mitte. Mein Haus is a 24-hour spot where you can grab tea in the afternoon, be lured to stay through evening cocktails, music kicks up and you find yourself taking shots through the night, then, after peeling yourself off the bathroom floor, sober up with morning kaffee. It’s one-stop liquid dieting gracious in variety with decor just as eclectic. The main room could be mistaken for a low-rent antique shop: wobbly tables, tiered on platforms like a mini-stadium, are surrounded by creaky, mismatched couches and chairs whose only uniformity is ripped upholstery. The mere act of sitting requires strategy, hawk eyes, and sheer animal instinct to avoid sitting on old gum or crashing to the floor. I’ve done both. Off to the left a smaller, glass-enclosed room fills with a layer of cigarette smoke so dense it should’ve been addressed in the Paris Agreement. I kind of love this place.    

Gerardo stood when he saw me and smiled wide. He was a hugger. He’s slim, probably around my height, and despite a physique maintained by Crossfit (also popular in Germany – now I could avoid it in two countries!), his stature was small. I’m pretty sure if he’d tried to enslave me in his apartment, I could’ve taken him. This date was off to a good start!

I joined Gerardo on a couch as he tried to hunt down the waitress. Sensing the unsteady sofa leg's desire to relieve itself of responsibility, I carefully shifted my weight to the center cushion. I was trying not to be too obvious so he didn't think this was a yawn-stretch move which, of course, made it more awkward. Gerardo’s light weight seemed not to disturb the careful balance required to keep the furniture intact. Whatever physical volume he lacked, Gerardo made up for with ENERGY. He was like a tight bundle of Spanish molecules exposed to heat: full of life, talking muy rápido, quick to break into smile and make a well-natured joke. Stories were accompanied with arms and twinkling eyes. His personality completely put me at ease.

Like many young Spaniards, Gerardo came to Berlin to work; he’s a physical therapist and couldn’t find employment at home. I’ve met a handful of Spaniards who moved to Germany escaping the Spanish economy, a modern exodus unrelated to war but blending the European landscape nonetheless. He explained that, as a foreigner in Germany, he had the choice to take a job “in contract” or not. “In contract” meant he’d make less money but have benefits, a retirement plan. To not work in contract, as he put it, meant he’d make more immediately but be left without a safety net.

It’s amazing how often I’ve found myself in casual conversation about retirement plans. Employees here seem to have long-term financial planning on the forefront of their minds. In Gerardo's case, I get it: financial stability when you've escaped an uncertain economy must be gratifying. But when young Germans chat my ear off about the life they'll afford decades from now, it gives me the impression they're not enjoying the present. Don't get me wrong, I’m very happy for your financial stability... but you'll have to excuse me for half-listening while I dig for loose Euros to pay for another glass of wine.

Beyond the financial considerations of living abroad, Gerardo's perspective as an expat from within the EU was what I was curious to hear. I had my own experiences of how life here differed from home, but had overlooked that the proximity European countries share doesn't make them immune to culture clashes. I wondered what he'd observed in his move.

Gerardo’s life in Spain was typical Spanish: loud and communal, large close-knit families, neighbors in each other’s business. He said his Berlin neighbors might exchange “Hallo,” but that’s it. He has more privacy, but also distance. The breathing room in Germany can be nice, he said, but it’s strange to him. He’d prefer more of a balance. He showed me the Whatsapp group chat he and his cousins use to message each other all day. Even countries apart, they’re busybodies in each other’s lives. He clearly misses that.

He’s noticed this more distant German attitude to community spread to some Spaniards living here; they’re reluctant to single themselves out and share commonalities with other Spaniards. A girl at his gym is also from Spain; she’s heard him speaking Spanish with friends, but hasn’t approached them. In fact, when she heard them speaking Spanish, he said, she shot them a dirty look and made a point to speak loudly in German. He gets it: living in Germany, he speaks German. But it would be nice to share something in common, to sense community, instead of concealing it.

I felt for him but, admittedly, with (appropriately German) distance. I was away from home, but met with my native language in almost every café I entered (except, of course, with this guy I was actually on a date with). From hearing Gerardo’s experience I understood speaking Spanish is not accepted in Germany, even among Spaniards, the same way speaking English might be.

After chatting a couple of hours I made the move to get going. I liked hanging out with Gerardo, his lively energy was infectious, but it was exhausting! Between constant conversation and my brain churning with another language I hadn’t used in awhile, I needed a break. Besides, half of my butt had fallen asleep straining not to fall on the floor, and our chemistry wasn’t arousing it. Unlike a quarter of our conversation, I knew what this meant: Zona de Amigos.

Before we parted Gerardo invited me to join him on a trip to Poland that weekend. This, strangely, felt less sketchy than inviting me to coffee in his apartment. He explained how easy and cheap it was to get to Poland from Germany, the whole thing would be under a hundred bucks. It was oddly enticing but Spanish guys can move quick, I didn’t want accepting his invitation to be considered accepting the final rose so told him I’d think about it. He countered by asking me to meet him at a club in Charlottenburg later that night. Pump the brakes, Gerardo! Time to go.

That night Gerardo messaged me about the club, and I reacted how single women do when faced with a nice guy persistently trying to spend time with them: I drank wine and “watched a movie” with another Spanish guy I’d been out with. Sometimes I’m sketchy and international like that. And plans with the same person twice in one day? I need some German breathing room!

After a few-days of personal space, I heard from Gerardo again that Saturday night. He hadn’t gone to Poland but was going to a party (loose Euro translation: club or bar) with a friend, and invited me to join. These were plans I was more down with; I wasn’t interested, but Gerardo was fun. Inviting me to join him on a night with friends indicated he’d gotten the message and Friend Zoned me right back. Sexual rejection can be such a relief!

I boarded the tram grateful we’d eliminated potential awkward “please god, don’t make a move on me” moments. In retrospect maybe I was being a moron and, like thinking Newsies is a great movie, only saw what I wanted to see. The night wouldn’t require a passport into Polish territory, but nevertheless things were about to get crazy-lost in translation… Click to Read More in Part 2!