“Have I become too Hessisch?” I’d wondered.
It was the fourth time I’d walked into a store, least expecting to be acknowledged. And yet here was a salesperson actually joking with me.
“That was actually not necessary,” she’d said, eyeing the bunch of flowers in my hand that I’d bought from the market square outside. Assuming that I wasn’t supposed to have entered the store with them, I muttered an “Entschuldigung” (“excuse me”) and made to leave, when she burst out laughing explaining, “Oh no! I was merely pulling your leg about you having gotten the flowers for me! What gorgeous flowers! Did you get them at the market?”
Well, can I talk the hind legs off a seladang? I needed no further prompting to chat with her about the blooms, the bedsheets on sale (she was supervising the home decor department), and being a newbie in Bonn.
This is new to me. The one thing that I wasn’t prepared for when we moved back was small talk with strangers because, well, you just didn’t: at least I didn’t experience that often in Hessen before.
Hence my opening question.
Somehow I’d gotten used to going about my own business, with the unspoken (pun intended) rule that you often only approach someone to inform, enquire or clarify.
Airy exchanges about the weather, my hair, or the flowers in my hand are as special (read: infrequent) as a solstice strawberry moon. Brilliant if and when it happens, but infrequent.
So, I now find myself in a totally unanticipated situation: I’ve now got to re-programme myself to deal with the reverse culture shock of uncharacteristically chatty Germans.
Reverse culture shock is a pertinent point that is often flagged during the repatriation process. This could happen to those returning to their country of origin who might find certain aspects of life “foreign” after having lived elsewhere for some time.
Being very much aware of this, my husband and I had constantly reminded ourselves while living in DC not to get too used to certain “luxuries” there. Shops in Germany won’t be open late on weekdays or at all on Sundays. We’d have to bag our groceries ourselves. Service staff won’t be as chatty – or so we’d thought.
On the other hand, we welcome other local codes of conduct that we took for granted yet missed. Trust me, even I can’t believe I’m declaring this, but after two years of living with the sound of sirens in America’s capital, I now welcome the mandatory quiet times of our suburban German neighbourhood. And eating out isn’t as hard on the larynx anymore, as you find yourself automatically modulating your voice several decibels lower as you’re no longer forced to shout over others even in the fullest of restaurants.
And so, the chattiness and informality of the locals is definitely icing on the black forest cake. Yes, besides being refreshingly approachable, many of the locals here also seem content with using the “informal you” in conversations, doing away with formal addresses like Herr X or Frau Y and simply being on a first-name basis.
This is apparently even the case at the workplace as reported to me by my equally perplexed but no less impressed husband. Our neighbours, who are much older than us, have also officially “offered us the informal you”, thus making them simply “Gunther and Lydia” instead of “Herr and Frau Mueller”.
This surprised even my mum-in-law and her contemporaries who can’t quite explain this phenomenon except to repeat the oft-proffered theory, “The Rheinlaender are known to be a merry, mellow, mirthful folk.”
Rheinlaender refers to natives of the Rheinland, a scenic region (which includes Bonn) that is located along the Rhine River in western Germany. It is typically known for its vineyards as well as industrial areas.
Some claim that perhaps the sunny disposition of the locals comes from the friendlier weather here; others say that the openness of the locals could stem from the fact that Bonn was once the capital of the former West Germany and is still the operation centre of many international agencies. As such, locals are more used to having foreigners living amongst them. Still others theorise that since this is one of the regions in Germany that celebrates Karneval (the German version of Mardi Gras) on a grand scale, the spirit of merrymaking courses through their veins.
Whatever the reasoning, I’m not complaining. And if being chilled and chatty are the hallmarks of a Rheinlaender, then perhaps I am now one by default.