Diary of an Expat, Part 6
IKEA, taxis, and that omnipresent language barrier
There are a few German ideas that I think Americans would do well to adopt — trading cars for mass transit, for example, or investing in salami. Leading the pack, though, is offering multiple choices in what, traditionally, is a monopolistic market. Germans have, for example, a relatively wide range of broadband providers, including mobile broadband with pretty decent bandwidth.

Included in this, of course, are those monopolies traditionally run by the state. This can be surprising for those persons who assume Germany to be orderly and monolithic in all regards; I had my choice of several power companies, when I needed to hook up my apartment, which was not what I was expecting. I wound up going with a company called Naturstrom, a green-certified utility whose energy is all renewable.

They sent me a thick envelope, which I opened with some trepidation on the grounds that it was likely to contain a dense, legalese-filled contract. Naw. Instead I got their biannual renewable-energy magazine and a cloth bag, which I have put to use in the service of groceries.

I am acquiring quite the collection of reusable bags, at this point — my air mattress came with one, and I have been compelled to purchase ones at the grocery stores Netto, Rewe, and Edeka over the last month and a half. Now there is the one from Naturstrom and, beyond that, a heavy plastic-tarp bag from IKEA.

So, about that. I hate IKEA. "Big deal," you are saying. "Everybody hates IKEA; so what?"

Well. First of all, young feller, you should know that this is not the case. IKEA inspires a peculiar sort of fanaticism in people, and while I leave you to be pelted to death with Swedish Fish by a horde of said fans, I'll talk a little more about the store.

As it happened, I got tired of not having a desk or a chair, and my usual remedy (Amazon.de) having proven insufficient in satisfying these needs I did some poking around on the Internet and discovered that IKEA has a few locations in the Berlin area, one of which is relatively close to the terminus of the U6 U-Bahn line. So I went down to Deutsche Bank, changed out a few hundred euros, and strolled down to Tempelhof to have a look.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, IKEA is a Swedish household store whose stock in trade is cheap furniture that you build yourself. An IKEA store is composed of several parts, including a café or restaurant, but the two primary aspects are a large showroom showing off kitchens, bedrooms and the like furnished with IKEA sets, and a large warehouse containing the flat-pack boxes that contain the furniture. You browse the store yourself, you load a cart yourself, and you take the furniture home yourself. Because the furniture is so cheap, this lack of service helps widen a narrow profit margin. Beyond that, IKEA trades in volume.

For this reason, IKEA stores are notoriously disorienting. They are frequently laid out with one single path for the customer to follow, which winds through every single section of the store; unlike traditional stores, with aisles and shelves, it's generally difficult to immediately and purposefully make your way to the item you had in mind. Nor are items always grouped closely; the chair you're looking for might be with the other chairs, or it might be part of a display in a living room setup. Furniture is densely packed; shelves are filled with other IKEA products, all of which have their own labels.

The goal is twofold. For customers who are simply browsing, the setup is designed to create a sense of chaos, resolved, at intervals, by neat packages of IKEA furniture. For customers who have a specific item in mind, the setup is designed to present as many obstacles as possible to finding it. In both cases, IKEA aims for sensory overload, presenting so many items and choices in such outwardly haphazard fashion that consumers become unable to judge relative value. The result is that IKEA, a company that deals in big-ticket items, nonetheless makes a substantial majority of its money on impulse buys.

Everything that is disorienting and godawful about the IKEA shopping experience becomes worse when you don't understand the language. The signs become even more difficult to follow, the maps become even more impenetrable, and the loudspeaker announcements become even more meaningless. You wind up in a terrifying, frustrating alternate universe where time stands still — like what you might expect from shopping in the Bermuda Triangle, but with less seaweed. I think I spent an hour there; it might have been two, and it felt like four or six.

But I did want a desk and a place to sit down, and IKEA is a good place to find temporary solutions in this regard. I picked out a couple of cheap pieces, paid for them, and made my way outside. And then what? You'll recall that I don't have a car, and a desk is not the sort of thing you want to bring on a train, even if you feel like dragging it the mile or so from IKEA to the station.

Enter the world of the moebel (furniture) taxi.

Outside IKEA Tempelhof, which also sits next to a mattress store, you can find a small booth set up in the parking lot. They're not affiliated with either store, and they have no official sanction. For a small fee, they will put your stuff in the back of a van, let you ride with them, and deliver your goods that very day. Like many such services, the moebel taxi fellows are foreigners — Turks, in my case, although others have encountered Poles and Bulgarians. I no longer remember if the IKEAs I've visited in the States have solutions like these, but if they do not it's a brilliant idea and I recommend that you folks implement it immediately. Write your congressman.

The service was exceptional. Unlike regular taxi drivers, moebel taximen are in the business of furniture first and driving second, which means they are less crazy. I once had a Berliner taxi driver, who spoke only limited English, nonetheless knew enough — after nearly ramming a bus — to tell me "this is a good day to die." The next cab I was in, the driver swerved in front of a tram, narrowly dodging it, its bell clanging furiously. The moebel taxi is more demure.

On the other hand, they speak no English, which makes communicating much more interesting. And so I will leave you with a helpful tip whilst travelling abroad.

English is not universal. You cannot count on people to speak it, and expecting that they will speak it is an imposition that many people find vaguely offensive. In Germany, whether or not you will be able to cajole someone into speaking English depends largely on what they think they will get out of you — at a grocer or when asking directions, German English is limited and perfunctory; on the other hand, you will learn that clerks at big-ticket electronic stores and panhandlers speak impeccable English.

On the other hand, English is not a secret goddamned code, either. I mention this in reference to a pair American tourists, friends I believe, at a grocery store I visited today. They were blocking the aisle relatively close to the cash register, so I waited. After a moment or two, they took notice. "I think they think we're in line," one said to the other.

"Well, we're just about ready to check out," his friend replied, and then continued: "He can wait a couple seconds. He doesn't have to be so impatient."

"Yeah, I know. Germans are so uptight."

His friend, who was continuing to hold up the line in the service of the perilously important task of acquiring a massive stack of Ritter Sport, agreed. Then, as though Rewe was in particular need of Godwinising, he muttered something about "line Nazis."

Essayist David Sedaris relates a similar story, something that happened to him on the Paris Metro. His experience went on longer, and was more actively insulting. But both involve people who chose to say things in what, perplexingly, they apparently felt was a language that was opaque to those around them. They were speaking conversationally. Sedaris' story ends without denouement, without some snappy comeback. It's an unsatisfactory conclusion, until you experience it for yourself.

"Well, actually," I could've said, "these groceries are quite heavy, and I'd like to be able to get them bagged. But I don't mind waiting a couple seconds — my meeting with the fuhrer isn't until 8." But Sedaris is right. Then there would've been unmeant apologies, and that tedious exchange of expatriate banalities — oh, you're from Chicago? Yeah, I know somebody from Chicago. Yep, I've heard that's a great school. Have fun when you get back there. Me? Oh, yeah, San Francisco, here. Yeah, sometimes I miss it, but, you know, Berlin is a great city. There would be forced laughter, maybe an awkward handshake. I would, eventually, have been compelled to acknowledge, or pretend to believe anyway, that it was all a misunderstanding.

But I'm not so charitable.

Uptight Nazis almost never are.
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