Tag Archives: language

“Wie geht’s?”

22 Sep

One of the first phrases one learns in any beginning German course, “Wie geht’s?” means “How are you?” Simple, it seems. And yet it is important to know that there is no one-to-one correlation in how those phrases are used in Germany / Austria and the U.S.A.

First of all, in German “Wie geht’s?” by itself is quite informal. Ideally, you remember whether you are “per du” with someone or “per Sie”, the former being the informal you (like “tu” in French) and the latter being the formal you (like “vous”). If you are “per Sie” then the correct phrase is “Wie geht’s Ihnen?”–a German lesson in and of itself including relatively advanced concepts like the dative. If you are “per du” then “Wie geht’s?” by itself is acceptable or you could say “Wie geht’s dir?”

That’s the language lesson associated with that simple phrase. Then there are the intercultural aspects. In German, you only ask the question if you really want to know. This usually means you only ask people you know well, where you are prepared to hear a relatively long and truthful account of their current state of being (no “Fine, thanks, and you?” when someone’s back hurts or life is falling apart). It is acceptable to ask a stranger if there has been some kind of accident and you want to make sure the person is all right, but the general use of “Wie geht’s” simply does not exist here. For example, you would never find a salesperson asking you as you come into the store, even though “Schönen Tag!” (“Have a nice day!”) does seem to have crept into the language.

For years, I had a not entirely earned reputation of being a nice person, because I asked colleagues and clients alike “Wie geht’s” and listened patiently as they chronicled their aches and pains. The danger should one ask and then not listen to the answer is that one is labeled “superficial”–a grave allegation in this relationship-oriented culture.

Because I asked, though, I have also found some answers that have always intrigued me and that are, I believe, typically Viennese. One is “Lei’wand” (short for “Leinwand” or movie screen), which is generally interpreted to mean “Great!” The other goes deeper into the Viennese mindset. Sometimes people, especially those lower down on the socio-economic scale, answer, “Wie die Anderen wollen” or “As the others would have it”, expressing a sense that they do not control their destiny, are subject to the whims of others. So much for “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”


“The Third Man”

30 Aug

Do you immediately hear the zither music when you read that title? If so, you can look forward to some interesting trivia (as well as one person’s reminiscences of a long relationship with the film).

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can discover a quintessential film about life in Vienna right after the war (WWII, as one must specify in this city which has so much history).

Ah, “The Third Man”. Black and white. Based on the book (do we really believe it was a novel?) by Graham Greene. Directed by Carol Reed. Produced by David O. Selznick. Starring (a still young and relatively slender) Orson Welles as the elusive Harry Lime. Starring still more the city of Vienna c. 1947–“bombed about a bit,” as the English narrator tells us in the beginning. World premier: 65 years ago, on 31 August 1949.

My mother showed it to me when it was clear that I was moving here. Above all, she wanted me to experience the landlady played by Hedwig Bleibtreu because “you might end up with just such a landlady”. (In broadest Viennese dialect she said things like, “Das ist ein anständiges Haus. Hier hat sogar früher ein Metternich verkehrt” Translation: “This is a respectable house. In the olden days, even a Metternich [member of an old aristocratic family] came to visit.”)

My mother had forgotten, though, a treasured line (one of my favorites) from another great Austrian actor, Paul Hörbinger. He played the concierge in the house where Harry Lime lived.  When tired of and scared by questions about Harry Lime’s death, he says he won’t answer any more and adds very gruffly indeed, “Und jetzt gehen Sie. Sonst verliere ich meinen Wiener Charme.” (“And now leave–otherwise I’ll forget my Viennese charm.”) Even writing it down like this makes me laugh.

There are far too many such moments too relate here, and I don’t want to ruin any surprises for those who haven’t experienced it yet. If you are interested in Vienna, I simply encourage you to see it. If you’re in Vienna, you can catch it in the late show on weekends at the Burg Kino. For the time being, I’ll simply pass on some facts that were printed in today’s Kurier.

Part of what people remember best are the music (by great good fortune done by a zither player, Anton Karas, at the last minute when the budget was more or less exhausted) and the chase scenes through the sewer system of Vienna. To this day, you can take “Third Man” walking tours of Vienna including, indeed, a look underneath the commendably clean streets of the city.

First bit of trivia, over 100,000 people have already taken that tour. I’m assuming the tour does not cover all 2,400 kilometers of that system, especially since only 25 meters were used for filming. This year Tom Cruise, who just finished filming in Vienna, took it.

“The Third Man” won the Academy Award(R) for “Best black-and-white picture” and was nominated for two others. Apparently in 2012, film critics named it the “Best British Film of All Time”.

That may have made worthwhile to Reed and Selznick that they apparently only slept two hours per night for the seven weeks they were filming on location. The Kurier reports that they kept themselves awake by taking a drug called dexedrine, better known as speed(!).

The unfortunate Anna Schmidt (Harry Lime’s paramour) was played by Alida Valli, an actress ironically descended from  an old Austro-Italian aristocratic family, possibly as important as the Metternichs ;-). She died in Rome in 2006 at the age of 84.

Five years ago was the first talk of a re-make, which supposedly would star Leonardo DiCaprio as Harry Lime and Tobey Maguire as Lime’s faithful friend Holly Martins. I’m not a fan of re-makes, but I think those two would be well cast, at least. Don’t know what they’ll do about the City of Vienna, though. Most of the bombed out bits have been re-built in the last 65 years.

The famous music was #1 on the U.S. charts for weeks in 1950. The next Austrian artist to achieve this feat was Falco in 1986 with “Rock Me Amadeus”.

To give you a bit of a taste, here is the opening scene, with fantastic running commentary from Major Calloway, the devastatingly attractive if unattainable British narrator, played by Trevor Howard:


For people who have already seen the film, here is the unforgettable cuckoo clock speech:


With thanks to Bernhard Praschl of the Kurier, who wrote the article from which most of these tidbits were drawn.

Na geh’

12 Oct

The Viennese (Austrians?) use “Na geh'” (a distant cousin to the English expression “Now get along with you”) to express general disbelief and mild protest–sometimes both at one time. It is almost exclusively a genial expression.

A Viennese friend of mine told me a joke that beautifully illustrates the use of the phrase:

Two animals meet for the first time.

The first one says, “I’m a Wolfshund. My father was a wolf and my mother was a dog. What are you?”

The second one says, “I’m an Ameisenbär.” [Ameisenbär is the German word for anteater and translates literally as “ant bear”.]

The Wolfshund responds, “Na geh’“.

Grätzl – brief definition

14 Sep

The word “Grätzl” deserves its own post, it has so many associations for the Viennese. Short version: It is Viennese dialect and refers to one’s neighborhood.

Viennese dialect and I

21 Jul

For years I have fondly been telling myself that I understand Viennese dialect. (I have even learned to say a few phrases.) This belief has been based on a certain facility to understand what is said in Hans Moser* films and has been supported by Viennese friends who speak high German with me, albeit with a Viennese accent. One thing about walking Mylo, though, is that I run into people who have no idea that I am a foreigner and who speak with me as they speak with other Viennese. And I understand, if I am lucky, about half of what they are saying! Quite a shock just before the 24th anniversary of my arrival in this city.

*  A wonderful Viennese stage and film actor (1880-1964) who often played the concierge or a similar role and was famous for his melancholic demeanor and how indistinctly he spoke.

Waterproofing a raincoat

21 Jul

Imagine my surprise when the dry cleaner asked me if I wanted to have my raincoat “impregnated” (in German “imprägniert”). Just one possible pitfall when navigating life in German … 😉

Dog (3) – Scooping the poop

26 Feb

Vienna, like many big cities, has pooper scooper laws and–much as anyone who has moved or visited here recently is likely to doubt it–they have made a big difference. There is still a lot of poop on the ground, but there used to be more.

As with many things the Vienna municipal government has tried to motivate citizens to comply with the laws (a) by using humor and (b) by making it as easy as possible. In numbers: over 1,000 stands with plastic bags for the poop, which can be deposited in any of the 20,000 regular public trash bins, and 30,000 (humorous) signs to remind dog owners to scoop. (http://www.wien.gv.at/rk/msg/2007/0920/016.html)

The sign itself I find a masterpiece. (In fact is has even attracted attention in Berlin: http://www.fensterzumhof.eu/4869/berlin-wien-hundehaufen-aktion/) The perky dog has a sign in his mouth that says: Sind dir EUR 36 wurst? A very clever play on words, reminding the dog owners of the possible financial consequences of failing to scoop. “Wurst” means sausage in high German, as in the kind you eat (think “Bratwurst”). In Viennese dialogue it has two meanings. If you say, “Das ist mir wurst” it means “I don’t care” (word-for-word translation: it’s sausage to me). At the same time, I’m sorry to say, “Wurst” is also used to describe precisely what dog owners should be scooping. So the little dog is asking, “Do you really not care about EUR 36?” and referring to the poop in the same sentence.

The overriding slogan for the campaign also relies on Viennese dialect, as if to say, we are all in this together: Nimm’ ein Sackerl für mein Gackerl. This means “take a bag for my poop” but, sadly doesn’t rhyme–and isn’t very memorable or motivating–in English. The “erl” at the end of both “Sackerl” and “Gackerl” in Viennese dialect serves the function of the diminutive “chen” in high German, so we’re talking about a little bag (“Sackerl”) for a little pile of poop (“Gackerl”–a very Viennese expression).

This phrase has even inspired a song, such as it is, which can be viewed on YouTube ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GdDPaAR66aQ). The verses are about the dispensers being empty and the trash bins being full so that Frau Huber has to bring her own bag and then has nowhere to dispose of it. This has not been my experience so far. Perhaps the song is a few years old?

One thing is probably no accident–that it is *Frau* Huber. My, granted not all together scientific, observations have suggested to me that it is middle-aged women who are most assiduous in cleaning up after their dogs. And I, at 50, have joined their ranks!