Diary of an Expat, Part 5
Shopping again, furniture, the downside of electronic transla...
Last time I, in my bumbling way, intimated that Germany lacks a tradition of "do-everything" stores like Target or Wal-Mart. I have now been informed that this is not true. Karstadt, for example, sells many things. "You can even buy a mattress there," I was told and, not to turn down such a compelling opportunity, I sallied forth to examine German shopping once more.

This is a pressing issue, as it happens. I have moved into a new apartment which, in typical German fashion, comes with almost nothing. Very fortunately, I was able to snag a place with an oven, a range and a refrigerator. But it has no curtains, which means that the daylight is unremittingly bright, and no lights, which means that the nighttime is endlessly dark. It also has no mirrors and, more irritatingly, no closets or storage space. All of these things would, and will, have to be provided by yours truly.

As an American, the possibility of being able to get literally everything in one place is enticing, even intoxicating, and the opportunity to visit a German department store was too good to pass up. So. The closest Karstadt is on the U6 line at the Leopoldplatz U-Banhof — note that by "at the" I mean that the stairs out of the station are marked with the Karstadt logo at every step. Points for convenience (some of these they will lose for not being open, say, tomorrow).

Karstadt is not wanting for space. It sprawls across three floors and is, indeed, every bit the department store that something like, say, Sears is. I was endeavouring to track down a few things needed for my move, and so it seemed relatively promising. I wanted six things: a knife, a pan, a hammer, a screwdriver, a pillow, and some aspirin (the latter we have discussed before).

I left Karstadt with: a bicycle repair kit. I bought this because it was the only thing in the entire goddamned store with a screwdriver in it, and a heavy socket tool that I think I might be able to use as a hammer if I slam a brick into it. And I should clarify that the store did, indeed, have pillows, but they were more than 50 euros each and that seemed just a smidgen too rich for my blood.

The frustrating thing about Germany is, simply enough, that I don't quite understand the logic of how shops are divided up. In general, Germans don't like combining shopping because they feel, rightly enough, that this tends to result in lower overall quality. Specialists are better at that kind of thing. So you get your hardware at the hardware shop, your electronics at the electronics shop, your bread at your bakery, your meat at your butcher's, etc. By this logic I guess it is not entirely surprising that I wasn't able to find tools at Karstadt.

But sometimes you will see grocery stores selling chairs or computer games. There's no way to know when or where this will happen — it's the retail equivalent of a random drop. When I was looking for an air mattress, somebody told me to check the drugstores and the groceries, because they might happen to have one on hand. No dice, although at Rewe (grocery) I could, if I so desired, have purchased blankets.

This is one of the most common, and recurring, problems when "moving to a foreign country" and "being dumb" intersect. Many daily essentials — shampoo, bread, batteries, lettuce — are relatively straightforward and, after awhile, even things like spices pose little trouble. But, time and again, you run into things where you just have no damned clue.

Where do you get envelopes? Power strips? Nails to hang a picture? A bicycle pump? Pencil lead? The dumb part hurts, here, because it means you don't know the word for "power strip." Here, smartphones with always-on translating machines have replaced phrasebooks, really to nobody's benefit at all. This might come as a surprise to people who assume that being able to type in something and get an immediate result back would be the height of convenience. There are several flaws with this.

Firstly, phrasebooks were designed by people who knew that you were a naive tourist. They clump phrases together, so that "apple" is listed next to all the other fruits you might want to eat. This is useful for words with multiple meanings. "I need a screw" translates differently depending on whether it's in a section with "where is the fusebox" or "I must insist that you use protection."

Phrasebooks also, as the name implies, give you whole sentences to work with. These are, nearly always, very simple sentences, which reduces the likelihood that you will make a hash of things. But they also give you a logical framework to work with — the "new math" of learning languages. When they're all next to each other, you can see that "I'd like some lemonade" and "I'd like some water" differ by only one word. In a flash, you've learned the root construct for "I'd like some" anything.

Machine translators aren't so kindly. At best, they make you sound like Tonto, and at worst (when they are particularly good translators) they put you far out of your league. This vastly increases the likelihood that the person you're speaking with will respond in a barrage of the language that you clearly do not understand — otherwise you would not be using your iPhone to speak it, and of course your iPhone will do nothing to help you make sense of what they're saying.

So I do hope people don't trust too heavily in Babelfish and its ilk. I myself am somewhat nostalgic for phrasebooks, courtesy of an excellent one I had as an Arabic student. Buried in amongst the tediously practical, it included such gems as teaching the reader how to ask questions like "what do you think of nuclear power" and "do you believe in UFOs?", questions that no first-semester Arabic student or tourist in Cairo really ought to be tossing around.

As it was, I did manage to acquire a pillow (and an air mattress). How did I do this?

Well. Amazon.com, actually.

One thing that Americans don't always seem to remember is that America is gargantuan. Germany is not; Germany is the size, give or take a bit, of New Mexico, with substantially better infrastructure. Whether it is specifically requested or not, most postal service in Germany is next day simply because the system is efficient and small. If you are paranoid, like me, you can of course pay Amazon for the privilege of guaranteeing this service.

So at 5 in the evening I placed an order for a pillow, a comforter, and an air mattress, paid $18 for expedited shipping, and had these items in hand at 9:30 the following morning. So I suppose there's your answer to the problem of not knowing what store to go to — hit up the Internet and let Deutsche Post do the heavy lifting.

But I don't really want to order a desk sight-unseen. This seems a little rash.
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