Northeim is pronounced “Nord hime”.
I’ve taught at least three courses there, all for unemployed people looking to improve their employability with some kind of certificate or other kind of evidence demonstrating a modicum of English skill.
These courses are provided by a school which generally provides courses for the unemployed. The school is literally on the wrong side of the tracks. I arrive on the train, walk to the end of the street and turn left under the tracks. To the right is the town. To the left is…well…the run-down, industrial, cheap-rent side of the town.
And the people there are, for the most part, decent people who are out of work and a bit desperate for a chance to improve their employability. I generally like them, and respect them.
But then there is the Kiosk.
In Germany, a Kiosk is a small convenience store or even smaller. If a school has a small room where they sell coffee and candy bars to starving students, it is called a Kiosk.
The school I work at in Northeim has a Kiosk.
And it’s a good thing, too, because the school—being on the wrong side of the tracks—isn’t near any other source for coffee and candy bars.
This Kiosk is a very small thing. Basically, a couple of unemployed kids—mind you, these are kids who are unemployed because they have never had a job before—sell you sandwiches, coffee, and usually have a cake or some waffles to offer as well.
They even have a cute name for it. They call it:
The Lunch Box
I’m not translating here. They call it “The Lunch Box” in English, and photocopy their daily specials—should they have any—and post them throughout the school.
So, several months ago, I go to The Lunch Box to buy my mid-morning coffee.
Stop. Let’s back up. EVERY morning that I work in Northeim I buy a cup of coffee from The Lunch Box before I start class, then I buy a second one mid-morning. The first cup of coffee I actually buy at the train station before getting on the train to Northeim. I save the cup, present it in Northeim, and they fill it for fifty cents (Euro cents, that is). My second cup—the mid-morning cup which is actually my third for the morning but my second from The Lunch Box—also costs fifty cents…UNLESS…I choose to buy a sandwich as well.
Sandwiches normally cost €1. But you can buy a sandwich together with a coffee for €1.30.
So one morning I go to The Lunch Box to buy my third cup of coffee and I’m…a bit hungry…so, I decide to get a coffee AND a sandwich.
I hand her my styrofoam cup and tell her what I want, and she says,
“That’s one Euro and fifty cents.”
I say, “That should be one Euro and thirty cents.”
She says, That’s one Euro and fifty cents.”
I point to the sign, which happens to be about two feet from my head, taped to the door to the small kitchen where she is selling her wares, and on the sign it says,
“Sandwich AND coffee: €1.30”
I point to the sign and say, “It should be one Euro and thirty cents.”
Now, in telling this story I might have given the impression that this was the first time I had done this. In fact, I had done this at least a dozen times. I am often hungry at the mid-morning break, and I often buy a sandwich with my coffee. For €1.30.
But on this morning, it was not going to be easy.
She said: “But that is only when you use one of our cups.”
I said: “I have never used one of your cups; I ALWAYS use one of these cups…”
Which she knew, of course.
Let’s back up a bit. I am strange. (All my regular readers know this.) And one of the signs of my strangeness is my…well…habitualness. In this case, I always gave them a styrofoam cup from the exact same place from which I buy my coffee at the train station. Which happens to be a fish and chips stand. So my styrofoam cup ALWAYS has this little red fish emblem on it, something like the bumper sticker fish which some Christians put on their cars. Very distinctive.
So this girl had filled coffee in my red-bumper-sticker-fish cup DOZENS of times, many of which were in combination with a sandwich—which cost me €1.30.
She said, “Ms. Soandso recently told us that these are the rules.”
AHA! New rules! Or old ones newly applied! Whatever!
I wasn’t accepting it.
I said, “well, I’ll pay you €1.30. That’s all I’m going to pay, because that’s what the sign says. If you don’t like it, you can tell your boss. But that’s what I’ll pay. You decide.” And I gave her a €2 coin and thirty cents.
So the poor girl (Why do I call her poor! Rather than frustrated, at this point she was just getting bitchy) actually gave me a €1 coin for my change, and whispered something nasty under her breath.
And that was that.
Except for it wasn’t.
The next week I returned to Northeim. I went to the Kiosk with my cup and asked for a cup of coffee.
The (same) girl said: “You aren’t getting anything from us.”
In German, I had received what is called a Hausverbot. I would not be allowed to buy anything anymore from the Kiosk.
I looked at her and laughed (which I’m sure she didn’t appreciate). I went to my class and told them the story and laughed some more.
The problem was, I still wanted coffee. So I went and found the director of the school and said, “Do you think you could get the Hausverbot lifted at the Kiosk? They won’t sell me any coffee anymore.” He looked at me strangely, then said, “Let’s go.”
Dear friends, perhaps I have bored you up till now. But here is the interesting part of the story.
We go to the Kiosk, and the big, dark-haired, unemployed (because she’s never had a job in her life) cow is there, and the school director says, “What’s the story here?” And she says, “Last week he didn’t pay for his coffee.”
I gave a puzzled look and said, “That is not true. I paid for my coffee. I paid €1.30 for a coffee and a sandwich. The sign here says…” (and I literally put my finger on the sign) “…that this is the price. It is not true that I did not pay.”
She said, “Ms. Soandso said that the discount only applies when someone uses one of OUR cups….”
I said, “Well, I could have used one of your cups and then just poured the coffee into my cup. The rule is silly.”
She said, “Those are our rules.”
The director said, “Excuse me.” To her: “No, those aren’t the rules. A coffee and sandwich costs €1.30, no matter what cup a person is using.” To me: “We apologize. There was a misunderstanding.”
I did not think that there was any kind of real misunderstanding, but that the girl was simply an idiot. Furthermore, she was falling into the horrible, nightmarish German insistence on “rule following” that—while 99% okay—can lead—has indeed historically led—to tragedy. Yes, we should usually follow rules. When they make sense. When they are ethically sound. We all must think about rules and what they mean. Americans and Germans included.
So I said, “Well, she still should have used her brain to think about whether the rule made sense.”
And he said, “Hey, wait a minute, let’s not start talking this way…”
And she started bitching very loudly.
And I said, “I’ll talk any way I want. This girl has an attitude problem and I am a customer here.”
And she started bitching VERY LOUDLY.
And I said, “YOU shut up!”
And he said, “Hey, wait a minute here…!”
And I said, “I’m not just a customer here; I’m a teacher here, and I do NOT ACCEPT a student talking to me in this manner, and I do not take the train here each morning to be treated like this by the students and trainees in this school!”
Subtext: You, Mr. School Director, have never paid for a single cup of coffee in this school ever. No, you come here every morning and fill an entire pitcher up to take back to your office. I—an itinerant teacher with no permanent contract here—not only pay for my coffee, but get bitched at by 19 year-old unemployed girls as if I were a piece of shit and have to argue about whether I should pay twenty cents extra to use my red-bumper-sticker-fish cup instead of making them put one more cup into the dishwasher.
And I stomped off to my class.
Yes, the dark-haired cow was still working there when I returned for the next course. I avoided her. I kindly asked one of my students to go get my coffee. Though I sent my red-bumper-sticker-fish cup with the student with.
So who won? Actually, I think she did.
As for the school director, whenever I saw him in the hallway he just smiled at me as if he knew I was working there but wasn’t sure who I was.
So who won? Against him, I did.
So the moral of this story (if there is one)?
The big, dark-haired, unemployed (because she’s never had a job in her life) cow won—is perhaps still winning. And this should be a lesson to us all.