Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

“Woh ist der bahnhof?”

One of our family jokes is about how when you go to live in Germany, for some reason, one of the first phrases you learn isn’t “guten tag” or “Wiegehts” (hello! / how are you?) but “where is the train station?” And it is particularly hilarious because even if you ever say it exactly right (or so you think) no one can understand what you are saying. And if they DO understand – they start giving you directions with elaborate hand signals.

Germans are very precise. They won’t just point in a general direction, they will use all kinds of words for left, right, straight ahead, and my personal favorite “gegenuber” which means catty-corner, or diagonally across from something, all words that the beginner doesn’t have a clue. So even if you successfully ask for directions, you can’t understand the answer.

Most of the time, however, you will ask “woh ist der bahnhof” several times, as the response is continually “wie, bitte?”, the polite way of sayinh “WHAT??” and then finally they will get this “aha!” and they will say “Oh! Woh ist der bahnhof?!” and it sounds exactly like what you have been saying for the last five minutes.

I had a “woh is der bahnhof” experience here in Kuwait. I was searching for a souk I had heard about. I asked some of my friends – where is the souk Watiniya? I experienced that two seconds of total blank non-response that always feels like two days, and then one of them laughed and said “oh, she means the souk Watiya” and they told me where it was.

But I’m getting smarter. It wasn’t the part where I added the extra syllable that confused them. It was the fact that I used the soft “t” and not the hard “t”. It’s a small thing, but enough to make me dance for joy – I can hear the difference!

March 21, 2007 - Posted by | Communication, Cross Cultural, ExPat Life, Germany, Humor, Kuwait, Language, Living Conditions, Random Musings, Shopping, Words


  1. LOL that’s funny!

    See the problem is with the soft “t” is that we actually have a soft “t” in the Arabic language. Now if we didn’t have a soft “t” then we would probably easily translate anything you say with a soft “t” into a hard “t” but since we have both letters it gets more confusing!

    Comment by 1001 Nights | March 21, 2007 | Reply

  2. 1001 – I find it funny, too. I have a terrible time with your “t”s, but I am getting better, and I will never forget the patience of my instructor as she would say “Listen! Intlxpatr! “ta ta ta” and now “tuh tuh tuh” -can you hear the difference now?” and I would be dying to say “yes” but I had to be honest and say “no”. Now, maybe four years later, I am just beginning to distinguish the sound. *sigh* I really have to work at languages.

    But my American friends wonder at me when I go to the movie and want “bobcorn!” 😉

    Comment by intlxpatr | March 21, 2007 | Reply

  3. LOL BOBcorn! Even I don’t say that!

    Comment by 1001 Nights | March 21, 2007 | Reply

  4. hahaha, very funny, indeed! I love to learn from a bird’s eye view on me and my fellow citizens. 😀
    I don’t really know why nobody seems to understand you when you are speaking German. I have only an idea. (as I live and work near Frankfurt main train station, this idea is based on various experiences)
    Most of the English native speakers don’t even try to speak German and address Germans in English. If you have a strong English accent, they might have thought that you are speaking English and couldn’t figure out what wo-ist-der-bahnhof means. I probably took them a while to get, that you were actually speaking German – and only then they understood!
    And then they get so enthusiastic about the fact that they finally spotted a stranger who is willing to learn our weird and complicated but still very beautiful language that they bombarded you with a wide choice of words to offer you the opportunity to enhance your word pool! 🙂

    Pleased to meet you, intlxptr!
    This seems to be a very interesting blog – I will subscribe to it right away! 🙂
    regards, silke

    Comment by silke | March 21, 2007 | Reply

  5. 1001 – Glad I made you laugh!

    Comment by intlxpatr | March 21, 2007 | Reply

  6. Hey, Silke, welcome! I have spent more years in your beautiful country than I have spent in my own. And oh, you made me laugh. Yes, yes, you are probably right, I stand there jabbering with my big bright smile and they finally figure out I THINK I am speaking German! They are always most kind, and eager to help. Most polite.

    The French are even more polite. They BEAM at me, like “oh, isn’t she adorable!” as I speak French like a precocious 4 year old – great vocabulary, atrocious grammar. 😦

    German, as you say is both complicated and beautiful, and probably the most precise language I have learned.

    Again, welcome!

    Comment by intlxpatr | March 21, 2007 | Reply

  7. […] phone and had everyone listen to me and then someone said what I was saying. It was one of those Woh is der Bahnhof experiences where they would keep asking me “Where? Where?” and I would tell them and […]

    Pingback by 777 « Here There and Everywhere | April 26, 2007 | Reply

  8. No H – “Wo ist der Bahnhof?”

    Also, gegenueber doesn’t mean diagonal – it’s just across from. Just realized this post is approximately 2 years old.

    Comment by Southern Comfort | October 24, 2009 | Reply

  9. If you think that is bad, Southern Comfort, you should see my written Arabic. Really, gegenuber means directly across? I always thought it meant diagonal.

    Comment by intlxpatr | October 24, 2009 | Reply

  10. Yep. There is a specific variation “schraeg gegenueber” which means kitty-corner, but that literally translates as directly across at an angle.

    I identify with German difficulties though – I think people hear an accent and assume that you don’t know what you’re talking about, or that you’re saying something in English.

    Comment by Southern Comfort | October 24, 2009 | Reply

  11. […] thought of all my “Woh is der bahnhof” moments, when I have spoken to people in their own language and they couldn’t understand me, and I […]

    Pingback by Qwon Chi Sushi « Here There and Everywhere | January 10, 2012 | Reply

  12. I think “Wo ist der Bahnhof?” (no ‘h’ in ‘wo’ and a capital B in Bahnhof (as with all German nouns) is a bit blunt for Germans. You should say something like “Entschuldigen Sie bitte, aber wo kann ich den Bahnhof finden?” (Excuse me please, but where can I find the railway station?) (note the “den” for accusative masculine noun as well!). That’s still probably not perfect idiomatic German, but it’s better than the blunt “Wo ist der Bahnhof?”

    Incidentally I would not know what someone meant if they said “kitty corner”. That’s unknown in British English. I assume it means to cross a junction diagonally, rather than parallel to one of the streets. We don’t even have a word for that in British English.

    Comment by Ken | November 18, 2012 | Reply

  13. Ah! Ken, thanks. In German, kitty-corner is gegenuber (there are some diacritical marks, but I can’t make them in WordPress. I never learned to write German, or the grammar, but you know high school kids – I knew enough to get where I needed to go, buy what I needed to buy, eat what I wanted to eat . . . you know, basic survival stuff. I could even speak politely, LOL.

    Comment by intlxpatr | November 18, 2012 | Reply

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