My mentor Mr. Putz and I got together on Wednesday for some afternoon coffee and cake. He picked me up from my dormitory and drove down to the town center a half a kilometer away and parked his green Volkswagen across the street from the café.
“It’s close enough that we could’ve walked, I suppose,” he laughed. Mr. Putz adjusted his half-rimmed glasses as we stepped out of his car and into the coffee shop. The café was divided into two parts: the wooden interior, where two smiling old ladies asked us whether we wanted to sit inside or outside, and the patio in the back, where four round tables surrounded a small garden. The pleasant afternoon persuaded us to sit outside, but the air was cool enough that I had brought a jacket. Making our way through the handcrafted tables and the cacophony of German grunts, we sauntered past customers who sipped their coffees with one hand and smoked cigarettes with the other. Mr. Putz exchanged greetings with all of them, and the elderly men and women returned his hellos before pretending to return to their conversations or newspapers. From the corner of their eyes, they stared inquisitively at my face and at the black high-socks I wore with my shorts.
We sat down at one of the tables on the patio, and my chair creaked under my weight. A waitress, a woman in her early thirties with bags under her eyes and a piercing right above her lips, came over to take our order. I ordered a latte and Mr. Putz an espresso.
“Oh, and cakes,” Mr. Putz exclaimed in German as our waitress began to walk away. “We’ll take two chocolate cakes, please.” The waitress nodded and trotted back inside. “You’ll have to tell me how you like the cake. It’s splendid, you know.” Mr. Putz had a way of looking giddy whenever he talked; he used his hands as much as his face to communicate. Even when he listened, the twitching of the corner of his mouth denoted his attempts to hold back a joke in order to be polite. “So, how has your first week been?”
“Well,” I began, “it turns out that I’m not doing such a good job of understand what people are asking me in German. I’ve had a pretty embarrassing incident already.”
I told him about how I had made my way to the Pinkafeld municipal office several days ago to register with the local authorities. Inside the municipal office, a service window separated the visitor from the two town clerks inside. Not sure whether or not these were the officials I needed to meet with, I attempted to make my way up the stairs to the second floor before one of the officials barked from the other side of the glass to come on in. I entered the room and came face to face with a balding official whose dark brown mustache wiggled every few seconds. A vein popped out on his temple and a damp circle of armpit sweat showed through his light-blue dress shirt.
“Sit down. What are you here for?” He inquired in a thick, Austrian German. I asked him if he spoke English, to which he snapped that he didn’t. The plastic chair I sat in felt considerably lower than the chair from which the clerk glared.
“I would like to, uh—” I remembered that I had forgotten the German word for “register.” “ I have documents. I live here now.” The clerk jerked his head and clenched his fists.
“Documents? What documents?! And what do you mean, you live here now? What kind of statement is that, ‘I live here now’? Are you a student? Are you a worker? Are you an immigrant?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Wait a second,” Christian interrupted me in the middle of my story. “Why on earth would you say ‘yes’ to that question?”
“Well, his accent was too thick for me to completely understand what he was asking, so I just went with something. Second of all, I have a theory that when people ask questions, they’re oftentimes asking just so that I answer in the affirmative – they already know the answer to the question but want to hear the ‘yes’ or ‘that’s correct.’ So when someone asks me a question in a foreign language that I don’t understand, I generally respond with ‘yes.’ I give the people what they want.”
“Is that really a sound theory or just a projection of your own behavior onto the behavior of others?”
“Yes.” I resumed my story.
Deciding that showing paperwork was a better route than explaining in my rusty German, I pulled out a document signed by my landlord that declared that I was a legal resident of Pinkafeld. The clerk snatched the piece of paper out of my hand and squinted at it. He flipped the document over a couple of times before setting it down on his oak desk. He took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair.
“Well, this document does seem legitimate. My question now, I suppose, is whether or not you have already Wiener Schnitze gegessenl und Bier getrunken with us here.”
“I said, have you already Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung or not?” I saw that his veins had started pumping vigorously on his temple. I answered in the affirmative once more. “Good. So what is your name?” I gave him my name. “I will look it up now.” The clerk rammed his fingers down onto the computer keyboard and stared intently at his monitor. “I do not see you on here.” I then remembered the German word for “registration.”
“Well that must be because I haven’t registered here yet. With you. Please.” The baldhead’s face turned red and he slammed his fists on the desk.
“You just said you had registered with us!” He shrieked.
“I forgot the word for ‘registeration,’” I squirmed. “But I think it’s all fine because I remembered just now.”
Mr. Putz threw his head back and laughed. “You are a terrible foreigner!” Our waitress returned and set down our drinks and our cakes in front of us. The cake, lathered in chocolate and topped off with whipped cream on top, invited me to dig in. I grabbed my fork, cut myself a chunk that was a third of the entire cake, and shoved it into my mouth. “I’m sure that you’ll get a better hang of what people are saying soon enough.”
“I would hope so. I don’t want to be single-handedly responsible for high blood pressure in Pinkafeld.”
We chatted for another half hour, finished our cakes and drinks, and got up to leave. As we walked out, I stuck my hand out to Mr. Putz.
“What are you doing?” He asked. “I can drive you back to your dorm.”
“Thank you, but it’s close enough that I can use my feet. Besides, I wanted to walk around the town a bit.”
“Ah, of course.” He shook my hand with both of his and beamed a wide smile. “Happy to have you here in Pinkafeld, Hans.” I told him that I was happy to be here. We then parted, and he crossed the road to his car while I walked down the street in the opposite direction. I passed by a bakery that had closed for the day. Two rows of donuts gawked at me with open mouths through the shop window, and my stomach grumbled despite having eaten a chocolate cake. I continued my way down the street and came to an intersection where a schnitzel stand stood across the street from me.
The stand, a hexagonal, brick hut with two stone benches placed next to the counter from which its owner gazed outside, lured me with the leftover smell of veal that had recently been fried. The owner stuck his small, square head out of the counter to take my order.
“Schnitzel and some fries, please, with lots of mayonnaise on the side.” As he began preparing the food, I sat down on one of the benches and crossed my legs. A trail of ants marched around my right foot and plodded into the entrance of their nest, a hole in the dirt squeezed between two bricks of the schnitzel hut.
“So, where are you from?” From inside the hut, the owner called out in the thickest Austrian German I had heard all week.
I turned around to meet his gaze and listened to the sizzling of the frying schnitzel. My mind went blank and I smiled.
“French fries, please,” I replied.