I had a wonderful commute on the DC Metro this morning. A few stops into my ride a group of teenagers boarded the already crowded car. Listening to them speak German, I discovered they were from Austria (picking up the word “Österreich” in their chatter numerous times). I took German in college. While I’m not fluent in any language other than English and Pig Latin, I can often know a phrase and can say it with such a good accent that people think I’m fluent. This is often problematic when they start talking with me and I have to admit I am a fraud.
Well, I wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip away. I hoped the train would stay crowded so that when I got off at my stop I could say a sentence I’ve known and used for years: Entschuldigen Sie mich bitte. —Excuse me please. And, even though I’ve known this phrase for years, as I got closer to my stop, I practiced it over and over in my head, just to make sure I would convey it like I knew the entire language.
As the train slowed, I gathered my things, stood up and said with all the nonchalance I could muster (as if this was an everyday occurrence): “Entschuldigen Sie mich bitte.” The boy before me moved out of the way and said nicely “Jawohl.” Suddenly, I was in a great mood (which, I might add, lasted well into the morning’s work).
But if I really wanted to have the best day ever I would have found some way to say a phrase that will forever be cemented into my brain: Haben Sie etwas zu verzollen? Taken directly from one of those inane “conversations” you had to memorize in language class, I was actually confronted by an Austrian guard at the Czech border in 1974 who asked that exact question. The chapter was called “Auf die Grenze,” “On the border.” And, ostensibly, memorizing this dialogue would insure that we were never caught clueless at any border crossing surrounding Germany or Austria. Haben Sie etwas zu verzollen? Kaffee oder Schnapps? How often do you get to use something directly from one of those textbook dialogues? When he saw I was American he asked me in English: “Do you have anything to declare?” I knew at that moment that if I didn’t answer him with the same memorized answer from my book, my whole German education would have been for naught. So I replied. “Nein, ich habe nichts zu verzollen.”
Es war ein guter Tag in der Tat! It was a good day indeed!