One of my linguistics professors once said to me, “Language is culture.” He didn’t mean that it’s a part of one’s culture but that it both encompasses and permeates the culture. It defines—and is defined by— it. And whenever I travel, discovering the quirky phrases that make a culture tick helps me to get inside the mindsets of the people I meet and to see things from their point of view. Here are just a few encounters I had with culturally insightful expressions that I learned in one day of doing guidebook research in Baden-Baden.
After 5 non-stop hours of pounding the pavement, my brain was in dire need of caffeine, so I popped into a tiny bar-café. The barista and I were soon chatting like old friends. Her English was strong but she kept apologizing for not remembering how to say things. I told her, “Your English is much better than my German,” and she replied, “But my German is not as good as my Russian.”
Twenty years ago, Irina had left Russia for a better life in Germany and married a man from Baden-Baden, eventually giving birth to their daughter. Although grateful for the impressive education her child is receiving, with a distant look in her eyes, she told me it’s rare that she ever gets back to Russia. And aside from her husband and daughter, she has no family in Germany. The pain in her voice was heavy as memories seemed to well up in her eyes.
She thinks it’s tough for her daughter, too. “In German, we say zwieschen zwei Feuers. She is ‘between two flames’—her father and me.” Both are headstrong, both have their own ways, and their daughter gets caught in the middle. “I could write a book about what I’ve overcome because of moving to Germany. It’s so hard to be the constant outsider. I don’t know where I belong anymore.” I said in reply, “Maybe you’re zwieschen zwei Feuers, too. You could make that the title of your book.” She chuckled, “You know, I think you are right.”
Back on the job, I met the owner of new place I’d like to add to the Rick Steves’ Germany guidebook. David’s an expat from San Francisco doing his darnedest to get locals from Baden-Baden to eat healthier with fresh and hearty salads, couscous dishes, and generally lighter fare than the typical German diet. His clientele skews strongly big-city Germans and English-speaking visitors.
“Why do you think that is?” I wondered. He told me, “Germans from the city are more cosmopolitan, are exposed to a wider variety of cultures and cuisines, and are eager to try something different. English-speaking travelers just want a break from non-stop German food. They’ve had their fill of different. But here, the locals never get their fill of the same thing. They even have a saying: Was der Bauer nicht kennt, das frisst er nicht (What the farmer doesn’t know, the farmer doesn’t eat). I probably can’t win, but I’ll still keep trying to feed them healthy food.”
At dinner that night, my colleagues talked about everything under the sun, including Brexit, the Holocaust, regret, and Matt Damon (naturally). But some of my favorite moments were from the linguistic insights they shared about their respective cultures. Taylan (from Turkey) taught me about the magnificent concept off kahvalti. While you or I might call it breakfast, in Turkey, it really means “ the meal before coffee.” Turkish coffee is so important (and apparently so strong) that one does not drink it first thing in the morning. Instead, one has tea with the meal that precedes the real caffeine fix. (And here I thought that coffee was so important that it as my morning meal.)
Torben (from Germany) taught me that Germans have or will create a name for anything and everything. Everything is precise, everything is defined, and everything must have its place. Take for example Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitanswitwe. Yes, that is one, singular, unhyphenated, long word, and it means “the widow of the Danube steamship company captain.” (That’s soooo German.) Now certainly not one of these expressions I learned is the Rosetta Stone that unlocks the secrets to another culture, but when you start to consider why someone says what they says and what’s the story behind the expression, you take one fun step closer to bridging cultural gaps when you travel.
What’s your favorite phrase? I’d love for you to share any catchy expressions you’ve learned while traveling or studying other languages. Or tell us an idiom from your own language that really give insight into the mindset of your culture. And remember to keep checking back here for more posts about my guidebook research discoveries and adventures in Germany, the exclusive look at the My Way Alpine tour with Rick, and the front-seat view of my two Best of Europe in 14 Days tours. Thanks for being my travel partner!