The Language of Another World: A New Yorker in Munich

March 1, 2012 | 14 5 min read

Yesterday, for the first time since arriving in Munich 10 days ago, I successfully ordered a glass of water. This is much harder than it sounds. German waiters never offer you water with the menu, which means you have to order it; but make sure to ask specifically for tap water, or else they’ll pop open a bottle and expect you to pay. The major obstacle, of course, is how it’s pronounced. “A glass of water”: Leitungswasser. And that’s without the “Can I please have…?”

I mastered my latte order, but have nonetheless been dying of thirst. (Never mind that a glass of water always comes in what looks like a shot glass.) I even started bringing my very American aluminum water bottle to restaurants and trying to fit it under the tap in the bathrooms’ miniature sinks.

After a week of this, David, my boyfriend, who has been living in Munich for almost two years, made me practice “Can I have a glass of water please?” all the way to the café. “Ich hätte gern ein Leitungswasser bitte. Just keep repeating it,” he said as we trudged through the snow, laptops slung over our shoulders. “Lei-tungs-wasser. That’s how you’ll remember.”

I tried using a mnemonic device: “lie” then “tomb” then, with a British accent, “vase” — lie tombs vaaah-sa — but I kept picturing an Egyptian tomb with some tulips strewn about.

I grew up in Montreal speaking English and French, and, in high school and college, studied Spanish. German, in my view, is much harder than all of those languages combined — although David tells me this is not empirically true.

He is a linguist, which means that he has over 40 language and/or dictionary apps on his iPod Touch. He also knows more than his fair share of languages, and is always eager to pick up another. During our first conversation, I asked him how many he knew.

After a long silence, he finally said, “Twenty or 30?”

I gasped.

“But most of them are dead!”

He claims that English is the only language he can actually speak. This is modesty at its worst. He studies ancient Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit, and can communicate quite fluently in German, Chinese, Hebrew, and Spanish. After being in Munich for less than a year, he taught a linguistics course at the university in German. He’s currently teaching himself French and carries a pocket French-German phrasebook wherever he goes. If I leave the room, when I come back he has already figured out how to tell me, in perfectly accented, perfectly conjugated French, that Sarkozy has announced his bid for re-election. He can’t wait for our trip to Paris.

I’m still working on Wasser.

I have come to Munich from New York to live with David while he finishes a post-doctoral fellowship at the Thesaurus linguae Latinae — the Latin equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary. David writes entries — or definitions — for Latin words, in Latin. The letter “A” was published in 1900. Right now, the team is working on both “N” and “R” — “Q” has been deemed too difficult and is being foisted on a future generation of scholars. When they completed “P,” in 2010, they had a party. The whole venture is supported by the Bavarian government.

“Who’s the dictionary for?” I asked him when he first told me about it.

“I think we’re writing it for God,” he said.

Since I’m a graduate student in the throes of thesis writing, I sublet my Brooklyn apartment, which I have lived in for 11 years, and flew over with a handful of books and a partially finished manuscript. We’ll go back to the city in June.

Back home, swimming breaks my day in half, so one of our first expeditions was to the local pool. Germans take their pools as seriously as New Yorkers take their gyms and yoga studios — they are open all day, every day. Our pool even has a tram stop named after it: Nordbad. The biggest pool was built for the 1972 Summer Games, and you can watch Olympic-caliber divers perform three or four beautiful flips off the highest platform. The first day I saw this, I immediately flashed to Greg Louganis cracking his skull open in Seoul.

If you think the Germans run their pools the way they run their trains, as I did, you would be wrong. Instead, imagine being dropped into a pen with dozens of people in blindfolds, swimming at each other.

Because I am a New Yorker this shocked me. During our inaugural visit, the chaos left me standing waist-deep in chlorine with my hands up in the air and my mouth ajar. Getting to the other end of the pool was like playing a game of chicken: who’s going to yield first?

I’ve been swimming in NYC pools for over six years (Red Hook remains my favorite), and order — signs: fast swimmers here, slow ones over there; and an agreed-upon system: let’s go up this side, down the other  — is the only thing that keeps us from killing each other. When someone passes me without warning (by neglecting to tap my foot), causing a collision, I have more than once stopped and yelled out, “Really?!”

I don’t yet know how to say that in German, nor do I think it’s culturally acceptable. I’m left to muddle through.

During the day, the Nordbad is far less crowded. One wall is made up almost entirely of windows, so the space is doused in white winter light. The swimmers aren’t in a hurry. Young women swim side by side in pairs, chatting as they move leisurely through the breaststroke. They look like old friends on an early morning jog, minus the fanny packs. In a country where no one jaywalks and everyone pays (actually pays) for the subway on the honor system, the loosening of order here in the water is curious.

On the far end of the deck, down a few stairs and through thick plastic flaps of the kind you find at a New York deli, there is a massive outdoor hot tub. Because Europe is in the midst of a great freeze, thick clouds of mist hover and dance above the surface of the water, making it hard to see what company you’re keeping. Clearings reveal old ladies in shower caps doing water aerobics. Under the water, your body is hot, but the air slipping into your lungs is clear and extremely cold.

With language out of reach, it’s hard not to feel as if I’m in a dream, or that I’ve crossed over to another world. The buildings surrounding the tub on three sides are old — peach and yellow, with wrought-iron balconies — and coated in snow. I could have been in 19th-century Russia. Today it was snowing, so we drifted along with our bare shoulders under the water, snowflakes dissolving into our wet hair.

When the tongue being spoken all around you is just a slew of unintelligible sounds — and the signs mere hieroglyphics — your own words seem to mean more, to fall more heavily to the page and into the air. Something about this unnerves me — do I really want what I say and what I write to resonate that loudly, to be the heavy stones that fall all the way to the bottom of the ocean and rest there?

Image courtesy of the author.

has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, O: The Oprah Magazine, Marie Claire, and Racked, among other publications. She is a graduate of Columbia's MFA Writing Program. More at and @AbbyRasminsky.


  1. What a delightful (and educational) piece. I hope you figure out why the Germans allow chaos in their pools, but line up and pay their fares properly. Is David preparing to be a spy, even if he doesn’t realize it?

  2. Abigail,

    This is a compelling piece—and it is beautifully written. I read it first thing this morning and I’m sure the images and feelings you evoke will stay with me all day. Thanks for sharing.

    Au plaisir, d’un confrère montréalais,

  3. Loved your story and learning of the unexpected German approach to swimming (they would have a tough time in the Toronto Y pool). You have a good eye for detail. All the best, to you and David who I have yet to meet.

  4. From an Irish person living in Germany, the sign translates as, ‘Clean your body throughly first, even if you were just at home in the shower.’

    Also, the German word for ‘really’ is ‘wirklich’, but in your situation, you could’ve just shouted, ‘Was machst du?’ – ‘What are you doing?’

    By the way, ordering tap water here is completely uncommon. I’m not one for bullshit social conventions – and I encourage you to do what you like – but if you keep doing this, you’ll get some rude and strange looks!

    Viel Glück!

  5. It makes for good copy but is unfortunately wrong: a fair number of people here in Germany do in fact jaywalk (try Berlin!) and even more don’t pay for the Ubahn.

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