I stayed with my friend Angie for Christmas break. Angie lived and worked in Vienna, and her couch came with the added benefit of extra blankets, fluffy pillows, and a kitchen fridge that could secretly be raided late at night. However, the couch also came with the drawback of an unspoken agreement that I did whatever she asked without question.
“I want you to go to the post office for me,” she told me a few days before Christmas, which the Austrians celebrate on the 24th instead of the 25th. “I actually haven’t bought boxes or any packaging supplies. And I really don’t want to speak German or interact with the Austrians. So you’re going to have to go get them for me.” I was tempted to ask why she decided to live in Austria if not to speak German or interact with Austrians, but I reminded myself that having a couch to sleep on and being a smartass were mutually exclusive.
“Do you have a list of things you want me to get while I’m there?” Angie responded that she did and handed me a piece of paper and a twenty-euro bill. I grabbed my jacket, headed downstairs, and left for the post office situated ten minutes away.
The trek took a little longer than ten minutes due to the difficulty of jaywalking through busy traffic. Cars passed in front of me as drivers gestured and shouted at a combination of other drivers, cell phones, and passengers inside their vehicles. Further down, a couple of dogs had been tied to a fence outside of an apartment complex, and the mutts barked at no one but the snapping, winter breeze that passed in and out of the neighborhood block. The grey sky hung over the hustling and bustling crowds of people on Meidling Main Street making their ways into grocery stores, bakeries, and discount shops. A homeless man pushed himself in a wheelchair up and down the street begging for money and holding an empty can of Ottokringer. I arrived at the post office shivering and happy to finally be out of the cold.
Inside, people sending out last-minute gifts, handfuls of letters, poorly wrapped packages, and Viennese postcards crammed the stuffy building. I got in line behind a grandmother wearing a bright pink knitted cap and coughing into her flower-patterned handkerchief. I overheard a couple behind me arguing with each other about the gift they got for the man’s parents, which, according to his girlfriend, was something they should have sent last week.
“Now they won’t get it before Christmas,” she scolded him, “And they’ll somehow blame me for the fuck-up!” I turned my head to sneak a peek of the pair, locked my eyes with the fuming girlfriend, and snagged the list that Angie had given me out of my pocket to pretend that I was looking for an item. Embarrassed, I stared absently at the list and remembered that I should translate what I wanted to say to the clerk. By the time I reached the front of the line and a clerk called me over to her counter, I had gotten through most of the list. I trotted over to the counter with the piece of paper in hand and greeted her with a “Grüß Gott.”
“How can I help you today?” The clerk asked me in German with a thick Viennese accent. An aging woman whose greying hair, wrinkled face, and passive smile told me that she was probably in her late fifties, the clerk rapped her knuckles and rested her tired head on her veiny, wrinkled hand. I smiled back at her and began to read out the list of things until I reached the scribbling that read, “bubble wrap.” My German abruptly stopped in its tracks, and I looked up at her to give her a nervous laugh.
“So I need this one more thing, but I am not sure how it called is. But there is not worry because I will explain what thing is, lady.” The clerk nodded her head and knit her brows as she tried hard to decipher the butchery I was throwing her way.
“Please,” she responded and leaned in toward me.
“So, during the holiday season, people sometimes like to send each other bacons. And so, when one is sending bacon, one must lie this thing, that I need to buy today, around the bacon for defense.”
“Bacon?” The clerk asked. She cleared her throat and scratched the top of her head to figure out what I was getting at, and after a few seconds of contemplation, let out of polite but exasperated sigh. “I’m sorry, but I’m not quite sure I understand what you mean.” This was a fair question on her part, as I was mistaking the word Schinken, which meant “bacon,” for Geschenk, which meant “gift.” Undaunted, I attempted to further explain bubble wrap.
“It is very important, when one sends bacon, that there is many, many defense inside this box – naturally, for the bacon. Sometimes the bacon is glass, sometimes the bacon is in a bottle, so on and so forth, and one would not like his bacon to break, or?”
“Of course, I understand,” she responded, having absolutely no clue why bacon would be glass, much less inside a bottle.
“Exactly. So, without this thing, that I need to buy today, I cannot perfectly defend my bacon. And that is what I want. Do you know what I mean?”
The clerk bit her lip and looked around for assistance, but her coworkers pretended not to hear what was unfolding in front of her. She asked if I could repeat what it was that I was looking for, and so I obliged, laying out the importance of bubble wrap when sending bacon. After I had finished, the clerk’s expression melted into one of utter confusion and helplessness, and she politely asked in a broken voice for me to wait at the counter for a moment. I watched as she hurried into the back room, almost in tears, as the manager of the post office stormed out to confront me seconds later.
“Sir, I’ve been told that you have been giving one of our employees a bit of a hard time. What is it that we can help you with today?” The manager, a tall bearded Austrian, whose annoyed tone belied his use of formal German, analyzed my features with his beady, brown eyes and awaited my answer.
At this point, I had become quite nervous from the behaviors of the post office worker and her manager, and I wondered whether or not I should simply apologize and leave. However, believing that I hadn’t done anything wrong, I figured I would give it another go and try to explain to the manager what I wanted to buy.
“So, as I was explaining to the lady, I want to send a bacon…”
“Wait just moment please,” the manager interrupted me in near-perfect English after barely hearing my German, “do you speak English?” I replied that I did. “And what exactly are you trying to buy?” I told him I would like some bubble wrap for my gifts.
“Bubble wrap!” The clerk and her manager both exclaimed. “Why did you not just ask for bubble wrap in English?” The two began to laugh, as did the other post office workers and customers who had been intently listening in on the American explaining to the world his intentions to send bacon. My clerk wiped her eyes with a handkerchief as her passive smile returned to her face.
“Well, since I’m in Austria, and you know, I figured I’d speak German, and…” I trailed off, grabbed the twenty-euro bill from my pocket, and silently put it on the counter. The still-chuckling manager patted the now-giggling clerk on her shoulder and strolled back into the back of the post office. The clerk sat back down in her chair and calculated the total of my purchases.
“Will that be everything, then?” She asked. I nodded, took the supplies and change she had given me, and gloomily trudged back to Angie’s apartment.
“Well, how’d it go?” Angie asked from the confines of her room where Netflix was being played on her laptop. I dumped the supplies onto the corner of her messy room and slumped onto the edge of her bed.
“I don’t want to speak German or interact with Austrians anymore, either.”