There are a few things here in Germany I will never quite get right. I will never figure out which garbage is being collected on garbage day without first checking to see what my neighbors set out. I will always dial a wrong number, because I will never figure out the proper prefix for a single phone number. I will never beat the cashier at the grocery checkout line. My lawn will never look effortlessly perfect. I will never knit a pair of German socks, and I will never figure out the back-to-school shopping list on my own.
Ah, back to school shopping. A rite of passage everywhere, but when you are living in another language, attending a local school, it tests the very limits of your language skills, not to mention your overall endurance. Here in Germany, I am convinced that the back to school shopping list is an attempt to weed out those among us who are not truly determined enough or worthy of becoming German. It’s a test. One that I’ve yet to pass.
Every year, I think it’s going to get easier. But just as I’ve mastered one list, we’ve moved on. Our first year, the shopping list for kindergarten was quite benign, apart from the fact that I didn’t know a single word of German. Armed with the German-English dictionary, I set myself upon the task of translating the list. This worked until I got to an item that wasn’t in the dictionary. No problem, I think to myself. If I go to the children’s store in town and ask them, they are bound to have the mysterious item called Buddelhose.
I arrived at the store, pulled out my list, read off the mysterious item in the best German I could muster. I expected someone to nod and point me in the right direction. I received blank stares. I must be pronouncing it incorrectly. I pushed the list towards them and point to the item in question. Again, blank stares, although they add in a curt, “Keine Ahnung” – no idea. They didn’t know what they were either. This was not what I was expecting. I left in growing frustration, wondering if I would ever learn a language that even the people who speak it didn’t seem to know!
When I finally asked at the kindergarten, they pointed to a pair, neatly hung on a hook in the Gardarobe (cloakroom). They were rain pants, which are also referred to as regenhose (rain paints) and matschhose (mud pants). This should have been my first indicator that school shopping in Germany was not a simple matter.
My back to school angst was greater when we moved and my son entered the Grundschule. I not only had to decipher the cryptic shopping list, but I had to master the Schuletutte (A cone-shaped tube of gifts presented to German children entering the first year of primary school).
I assumed that year two would prove a simpler feat than the list for year one, but oh no. This year there were pens. Very specific pens. Along with the very specific notebooks, which were as specific as, albeit different than the ones I searched for last year.
Last year I was introduced to the complex system of binders and notebooks required for the German schools. I thought I was prepared. Having mastered that – to a certain extent, I expected to encounter few if any complications shopping at the local toy store / school supply store. As an aside, this proved to be an insidious and ingenious combination, while I was completely bewildered by the shopping list, the children were able to extract promises for all manner of toys. Brilliant shopping scheme.
I entered the store fully confident that I would be able to buy every item on the school shopping list. So confident in fact, that I hadn’t bothered to translate it beforehand. I hadn’t even bothered to read it through beforehand. I was so confident that I brought both of my children with me. I convinced myself that it wouldn’t take me more than half an hour. No problem. I could watch the kids and gather school supplies. This was my second year buying school supplies for my son. This was the second year we were attending the German Grundschule.
I was momentarily euphoric, and highly delusional.
My confidence began to fade ever so slightly as I pulled out the list and actually read through it.
I looked at the first item on my list and realized I had no idea what it was. I probably should have taken a moment to at least read through this before I headed to the store, but I know German, sort of, and I know school supplies, kind of. This is my second year doing this. I’ll skip the first item and move on down the list. I proudly and quickly ticked off the next few items on my list. Ruler, check. Pencils, check. Erasers, check. Pencil sharpener, check. The next item I recognize on the list is a glue stick 6 items down.
Before I reach the glue sticks though, I am stuck at the notebooks, book covers, and binders. In order to fully understand my confusion, I’ll need to tell you a little about the assortment of notebooks available in Germany. Walk into a German stationery store, and you will see a wall or two full of notebooks, all different sizes, all mysteriously coded. It is nearly impossible to decipher the code of German notebooks. I can only assume that if you walk into the store having used this system all your life, picking out the correct notebook is not such a chore. As a stranger to this particular system, I can only stand and stare at the wall of notebooks before me. The first item on today’s shopping list, DIN A4 linierte mit zwei Rändern. I still haven’t exactly figured out what DIN A4 means, but that at least is clearly labelled and easily deciphered. The next part of the code is not too difficult to decipher either, liniert – lined. Now we’re getting somewhere. But what are these two mysterious Rändern? Not to worry, I have a German dictionary ap on my phone. I translate the word in question as a margin, an edge. Now I am completely confused. Don’t all papers have margins and edges?
Apparently not in Germany. In Germany, notebooks can be lined, unlined, full of graph paper, with margins, without margins, or with white margins. There is a Block – a notebook with a spiral, and a Heft – one without. This is confusing enough, but apparently not specific enough for German school purposes, because each variation also comes in different sized notebooks, with different sized lines, all for different classes. To add to this mix, there are of course corresponding notebook covers, because every child in the class has the same color cover for the same subject.
At this point, I have a choice. I can either continue to slog through the list and let the children run amuck in the toy store, or head home, translate the list, and return without the kids. I stand there, my gaze shifting between the wall of notebooks before me and the now indecipherable list in my hand, slightly overwhelmed. Just as I decide to give up and head home, a sales associate joins me in the school supply section. She asks if she can help, and I nearly hug her in my relief. Before she can change her mind, I quickly relinquish the list to her professional oversight. We’ll be out of here in 5 minutes I find myself thinking. Then she looks in my basket to see what I’ve already found. Shaking her head sadly, she tells me that I have chosen the wrong items. She empties my basket and we begin again.
The first item I had skipped on the school shopping list was a fountain pen. An actual honest to goodness fountain pen. That certainly wasn’t what I was expecting. When she pulled out the bottle of ink, the shock on my face must have shown fairly clearly. She assured me that it was just for testing the pens. The actual fountain pens these days have a replaceable ink cartridge in them.
Fortunately I had my 7-year-old with me, and I called him over and the associate had him write his name several times with several different pens in an attempt to find one that he was comfortable with. He was not exactly overjoyed about this. To make things even more interesting, he is left-handed, which apparently makes it more difficult to choose a comfortable pen. Terrific, I find myself thinking, because this shopping expedition was just too easy. I’m even less thrilled when I see that the pens cost on average between 10 and 20 Euros a piece. They find one for about 15 Euros, and even better, it can only use the refill cartridges from that particular pen manufacturer. Of course.
While associate number one worked with my son to pick out a tolerable fountain pen, associate number two continued to help me with the list. Anything that the first associate had left in my basket was changed with associate number two. Apparently I make terrible choices in German school supplies. We checked a couple more items off of the list, when the first associate rejoined me. My son had either given up or chosen a pen. She asked me if I’d like to add some replacement cartridges, and I figured that would be a wise choice, because if I ever planned on finding them again, I’d need the box.
So I now had two special pencils, a 15 cm ruler, a 30 cm ruler, 2 erasers, 2 glue sticks, a fountain pen and a box of replacement cartridges. I wasn’t even a quarter of the way through the first section of the back to school list. I meekly followed the associate back to the notebook section. She quickly pulled out the appropriate Schnellhefter (loose leaf binders), and the heftumshlug (notebook covers). Finally we returned to the items causing my initial confusion, the notebooks. This is where things really got interesting. The sales associate made a disgusted noise, and in a voice edged with disdain told me that the teacher made several mistakes with this list. It seems that the teacher has made the unforgivable error of not knowing the mysterious language of German notebooks. Apparently, most of the notebooks do not come in the annotated combinations and sizes for this particular grade level. Fortunately, she’s been doing this longer than the teacher and hands me a pile of notebooks, assuring me that this is what he meant to put on the list.
We finally make it through the entire list, and I take my overflowing basket to the counter. As I check out, I realize that there is no way my child will be able to carry all of this to school on the first day.
The day before school began, I pulled out the list to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. Of course I had. I forgot the plant for the green classroom. After discussing it with my son, we settled on a Venus flytrap, and I ran out to buy one in the local home repair store. As I was leaving the store I realized that I forgot to check and see if there were any cultural issues with said plant. A friend told me that you only give a cactus to someone you don’t really like, I know carnations are for death, and roses for love, but what does a Venus flytrap say? Finally I just let it go and decided that culture be damned, this plant is just going to make a lot of 7 & 8 year-old-kids happy when they watch flies being eaten. I just hope they haven’t seen little shop of horrors.
I set off on the first day of school with two children, three overflowing bags and a Venus flytrap. I realized at this point that my son was carrying more school supplies than I had used the entire time I was in elementary school.
Later that day, I reminded myself that this was the last German school supply list I was going to have to decipher and fill. I had made it successfully through the start of my last German school year. Or so I thought. Within the next two weeks, I had multiple new school supply lists for each kid. There was a separate shopping list for Religion class, for the German course, for music lessons, for art class, for the Vorschulkurs (the pre-first class course). In all, I filled a total of six back to school shopping lists this year. Three for each child.
It’s mid-October now, and it’s been at least a week since I’ve received a new shopping list. I am optimistically saying that the worst is over for this year. I may not have mastered back to school shopping in German, but I did survive it, times six.