There’s a subtle difference between the book geek and the book snob. Book geeks have unabashed, passionate obsessions with eccentric niches, grammatical intricacies, and clever turns of phrase, and will rave until their puckered little mouths foam if you show even a hint of interest. They are prone to social awkwardness and can be found in used bookstores and dimly lit reading nooks everywhere. Book snobs, on the other hand, conspiratorially drop the names of the edgy contemporary authors they’ve been reading and the number of times they’ve read Milton/Flaubert/Joyce/Dostoevsky over expensive, foamy coffee.
I met Joey at the Tuesday Fischladen Vokü. He was standing outside, smoking. I was early, and awkwardly looking for a way to break the ice.
“You have a light?” I asked him. He did. I rolled us both cigarettes, and we sat at a table outside making small talk and drinking one-euro beers while waiting for our food.
Anyone else would have noticed that Joey was crazy within the first couple of minutes. I suppose I must have noticed, but considering that I often come across as being a few cards short of the deck, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. Besides, most “crazies” usually turn out to be a lot more rational and interesting than the rest of us.
“You, umm, how do I say this? It’s always a rather awkward topic.”
I was sitting in the grayish office of The Woman Formerly Known as My Boss. When I had called to say I would be back in Frankfurt and available to work, Former Boss had called brimming with artificial niceties and the suggestion that we meet up for a “little chat” before I started working again.
I had wondered how bad it would be. “Little chat,” after all, is business speak for stern conversation about what you’ve done wrong. I was pretty sure I knew what was coming, so I just sat back with the relaxed smile of someone who’s just spent six months doing just exactly what she wants and watched her try to squirm her criticism out in a polite way. Too bad politeness so often gets in the way of honesty.
“Well, it’s about dress code,” she finally said, choosing her words slowly and running a finger across the edge of the plastic-gray table. “I’ve been cracking down on people about dress code lately.”
Uh-huh. Cracking down on “people.” Ladies and gentleman, I would like to introduce our new prototype. So polite! So kind! So diplomatic! An expert at talking around blame and unpleasantness! Some may call her an artificial coward but we call it state-of-the-art anti-unpleasantness. We’ve dubbed her the Modern Boss. Don’t wait! Place your orders today!
I personally would prefer conversations like this to be loud and honest. Maybe some yelling followed by a gladiator-style battle where we could bash our frustration and aggression out on each other with foam bats and go home friends. At least then we’d all know where we stood. Directness, after all, might lead to negative feelings and decreased productivity. It’s not personal. It’s never personal. It’s just business.
“You sometimes wore,” she went on, drawing out the “o” to buy time to search the database for more neutrally negative adjectives, “combinations that I was a little uncomfortable with.” Translation: You dress like a slob. There are sometimes holes in your pants. You don’t iron. I almost laughed. This had been coming for a long time. The only real surprise was that it had taken her so long to get around to it.
“You don’t have to wear a suit or anything,” she rushed on. “Just business casual. What you have on today is fine. You really don’t have to wear a suit, just because I do. I mean, I personally love suits.”
“Really?” I was incredulous. There can’t really be people who love suits, can there? Oh what people will do for fashion. Including looking like idiots, hookers, and penguins.
“Yeah. I really love them. And besides, I never know when I’ll have to meet a client.” I have never been good at determining when English people are being sincere and when they’re being ironic. Apparently I didn’t watch enough Monty Python as a kid. But doubt aside, I’m fairly sure I’ve never witnessed an authentic moment with this woman. Usually we exchange the banal forced small talk of office inmates and go our separate ways. Could this really be an authentic endorsement of the business suit? I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. She did, after all, meet her husband in church, and I have trouble taking people seriously who believe that a thousands-of-years-old slavery-endorsing pseudo-hippy is going to come back in a ball of fire and brimstone and lead us all to the promised land. I apologize to any Christians reading this. It’s just that we’re from different planets.
The worst of the criticism over, she went on in an attempt to lighten the mood. “Oh god,” she laughed. Her blue pants suit couldn’t manage a laugh and just hung sternly at her side. “I still remember that day you came in with the bruise on your neck from that chain you used wear. Oh my.” She shook her head in bewilderment at the memory.
The previous year I had almost always had the chain on. It was a heavy thick-linked number, fastened at the back with a safety pin. One day I had come into work and Former Boss had passed by with her usual pre-recorded pleasantries. But this time as her eyes wandered to my neck, a look of horror had spread across her face. “Nikki! Oh my god! You have a terrible bruise on your neck! What is that from? Oh my god, it’s from that chain! You shouldn’t sleep in that thing! You could suffocate!” Uh-huh. Suffocation. Neck bruise. Right.
Ever since she’s brought up the subject once every few months, as if she still can’t shake her horror at the thought. I nod and chuckle, wondering if she secretly thinks that bruise is part of some kinky asphixiation fetish.
I’ve never had the heart to tell her it was just dirt.
What I would have said in English in the same situation: “That is really f@–ing strange.”
And therein lies the entire problem of translation. The itch that can never quite be scratched. The photo that just won’t hang straight. It’s not just the (impossibly imprecise) art of translating culture- or language-specific idioms that get my panties in a bunch. It’s the (impossibly complicated) translation of what a certain person with a certain personality would say in a certain situation. It’s an issue that goes beyond the realm of words and accuracy and into the realm of identity. Of personal propaganda. Since moving to Germany I have often found myself posing the rather confounding question: Am I a different person in every language that I speak?
The best thing about teaching business executives English is that they’re usually too busy to actually attend entire lessons.
“Excuse me, I have to take this call,” the executive secretary tells me as she rushes out of the room. Later an accountant apologetically begs to end class fifteen minutes early and the Siemens executive sings “Traffic again!” at me as he arrives half an hour late for the fifteenth week in a row.
I sit at their dreary gray tables in their bland gray meeting rooms (the meeting rooms are always gray) and smile and nod. “Don’t worry about it,” I say. I’ve been daydreaming, I think. Or writing. Or reading. And you’ve been paying me for every minute. Come late, talk on the phone, don’t come at all! Because my students’ firms are paying the bills, it rarely occurs to them that they are throwing away almost a euro a minute on their phone calls and traffic jams.
When students need to leave early, they always try to break the news gently, as if I will be offended or angry with them for cutting the lesson short. “Nikki, we’re really sorry,” a delegate from one of my classes once told me gingerly. “But we have to end a half hour early today. There is an important meeting this afternoon, and we all need to be there. We’re really really sorry.” I almost laughed right in her face. Sorry?! I’m not! Have fun at your meeting! I’ll be laughing all the way to the park, where I’ll sit in the sun and drink beer with my friends, and get paid for it.
In the realm of private language schools the roles of “student” and “teacher” are becoming more and more irrelevant. This is not high school history class. There are no tests, no grades, and no detentions. You don’t need a hall pass, and no one is going to publicly humiliate you if you don’t do your homework. In part this is a positive step for education. More self-directed. More mature. But in part private language training skips over classic educational roles in favor of their capitalistic cousins. We are no longer student and teacher, we’re paying customer and service provider. And until my students notice, they’ll keep being too busy for class, and I’ll keep getting paid to take the afternoon off. It’s not a bad gig if you can stand the suits.