On my first full day in Germany I was unfortunate enough to go down with a cold. This meant my first task was to go and buy a packet of tissues.
After the breakfast experience, I thought it wise to arm myself with the correct vocabulary, so from the depths of my luggage I retrieved my German-English pocket dictionary and set about finding the right word.
Under “tissue” the dictionary offered me a range of options. Bespannpapier, Gewebe, Taschentuch and Tempo.
This made me feel rather like a contestant on “Who wants to be a millionnaire” who has to choose between four equally implausible options, without being able to phone a friend or ask the audience. To be honest, none of them looked remotely likely.
I quickly eliminated the last one, Tempo, as being something more to do with time or pace. I couldn’t see how that could possibly be linked to a paper hankie – unless of course Germans blow their noses at high speed.
Bespannpapier looked more plausible. Looking it up from the German to English though, I found out that bespannen means to string… as in to string a violin or other instrument. Surely they couldn’t be referring to strings of mucous emerging from the Teutonic nasal passages? Catching a cold in Germany might turn out to be a more serious and revolting matter than I’d hoped. No, I decided to eliminate Bespannpapier on the grounds of good taste.
Gewebe and Taschentuch remained. But which was it to be?
Again checking back in the dictionary, Gewebe appeared to have the meaning canvas or webbing. Taschentuch appeared to be made of two different words: Tasche, meaning bag or briefcase and Tuch meaning cloth. Looking at my own stitched canvas bag, I tried to imagine blowing my nose on the rough woven fabric, and decided that German noses must be far more sturdy than my sensitive English one.
Uncertain which one to take, I then noticed that right at the bottom of the page there was another option. This one was a compound word and it said “siehe unten.” Looking this up, I discovered that the literal meaning of this curious name was “look below.” This made sense. In olden times a handkerchief was a “kerchief” for the hand and would originally have been worn around the neck. The wearer would only have to “look below” and he would see it immediately. Of course it made sense that he would call it a “siehe unten.”
Armed with this knowledge I set off to the small corner shop a few doors down from my hotel.
The lady in the shop greeted me with a cheery “Bitte schön.”
“Siehe unten, bitte.” I smiled back.
This didn’t have the effect I’d hoped for. The lady seemed hesitant, even a little perplexed. She looked at her shoes, and then back at me.
“Bitte?” Was her response.
I reached for the dictionary again. Maybe I needed to clarify that it was a packet of tissues I needed, rather than trying to buy them singly.
“Ein Paket oder Päckchen oder Schweinegeld siehe unten,” I said firmly. There wasn’t time to go through all the options for “packet” and work out the best. She’d just have to pick her favourite. “Und Bespannpapier, Gewebe, Taschentuch und Tempo auch.” I added for emphasis, as she was standing with her mouth slightly open and appeared to have stopped breathing.
There. She’d got the lot now – surely she could work out something from that lot, even if it meant I’d be blowing my nose on canvas hold-all material – stringy mucous and all – for the rest of the week.
My pronouncement certainly had an effect on the shop-lady. After about ten seconds of silence, she began to shake, and then after a few seconds she erupted into peals of laughter. Her knees seemed to buckle. She had to support herself on the counter, tears spurted from her eyes and finally she collapsed onto the small wooden chair in the corner.
To add insult to injury, she pulled out a packet of tissues from her own skirt pocket and began to mop her eyes while continuing to laugh uncontrollably.
“Das! Das ist ein siehe unten!” I shouted excitedly, pointing at her tissue. But this only made her laugh all the more.
In the end there was nothing for it but to leave the shop and walk on to a self service supermarket further down the street, where I quickly managed to located packets of tissues on the shelves.
On the way back, I tossed my dictionary into the nearest litter bin. It clearly contained only the wrong words anyway.