With all the expertise that comes from a full two days in country, en route to Beijing.
1) These people are tall! For my purposes, human beings come in two sizes: Taller than me, and any other height.* I can't help noticing that many more Germans fall into the first category than I am used to encountering -- and don't get me started on the giant Dutch. I had followed the whole academic/journalistic discussion of the fact that Americans are no longer, on average, the tallest people on earth. It's hard to appreciate this when in China, where people are larger in all ways than they were twenty years ago but on average nowhere near as tall, big, or heavy as the typical Yank. In Western Europe you see that the phenomenon is real.
2) I had better start thinking of Germans as a distinctly good-looking people, because apparently they're how I look. In most places where I don't belong, culturally or linguistically, my outsiderness is obvious at a glance. In Asia or Africa: naturally. Even in France -- maybe it's the clothes, maybe the lack of a Gallic je ne sais quoi, but for whatever reason no one ever approaches me there and starts speaking French.
In Germany, they come up all the time and start speaking German. It's happened every time I've been there, and it happened often this time. My point is not: "people in Germany are always speaking German." What I mean is, "people in Germany are always speaking German to me." Which I can't speak back.
It's quite a strange feeling to be assumed to belong -- as someone asks quickly for directions on the street or a shopkeeper starts making colloquial banter, in the quick informal tone you use only with native speakers -- and then have to explain, haltingly, that in fact you have little idea of what's being said. In Germany (or Holland or Sweden), the speaker then usually apologizes and switches to a cultured variety of English, which completes the humiliation. This gives me a glimpse into the experiences of my Chinese-American, Japanese-American, and Korean-American friends who show up in their ancestral homeland without knowing the ancestral tongue.
* Ask me if someone is closer to 5'6" or 5'10" and I'll say, I'm not sure. Ask me if someone is 6' 1 1/2" versus 6'2" and I'll know exactly, since that's the critical zone.
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