I met Jim here in Munich in 2002, in a month warm enough to drink a beer while sitting in a beer garden. He was sitting alone at the same table as four of my friends and me, reading a USA Today newspaper. He seemed like a nice enough fellow, typical American Midwest, neat, organized, thorough. I later learned he was extremely polite when spoken to, but rarely spoke first, especially to strangers. And like many from that geographic location in America, he enjoyed a beer.
After he came back with his second Maß (one liter beer) and had knocked a good third of it down, Jim looked at my friends and me with those eyes that asked ‘can I join your conversation’? Mark, one of the four guys I was sitting with, also from the Midwest, invited Jim to join in which is customary in Bavaria, especially in beer gardens.
Jim proceeded to tell us about why he was in Munich (on a two-year contract with Siemens), what he enjoyed about living in Munich, difficulties he’d had adjusting without any German language skills, etc. Though Jim said that he mostly liked living in Munich, I felt he may have been embellishing his time here.
We started talking about some cultural differences between the USA and Germany, a subject which never grows stale and is always entertaining. After each of us had told a short anecdote, Jim took his turn. This is what he said.
“One of the most embarrassing moments I’ve had in Munich had to do with my birthday. I had only been here for a month or so, and had barely settled into my job and department. There was one guy in my department, Reiner, however, whom I’d built up a pretty good relationship with. We both played volleyball, and he’d invited me a few times to play with his sports club team. I was neither the best nor the worst, so it was cool.
So one Friday at work, after I had left a meeting from a different department from another area of Siemens-that place is fucking big-I saw Reiner leaving another meeting room to take a phone call. So I stopped and waited for Reiner to finish his call. It was only a minute. I glanced into the room and saw about 20 people and different balloons.”
“Hey Reiner, how are doing?” I asked.
“I’m just making (sic) party with friend from school times,” he replied. His German was good but not great. “It’s his birthday today and we eaten cake and drunken prosecco (sic).”
“Oh cool,” I said. “Next Wednesday is my birthday. Maybe you can bring some of your friends and come to my office. I’d love to have some cake and champagne, and meet some other guys and gals from our department. Don’t worry, I’ll buy.”
“OK, Jim, we can make that. What time should we come?”
“Let’s do it at the end of the day. Say, around 4pm,” I said.
“Perfect,” said Reiner. “Have a nice weekend.”
“I didn’t see Reiner the next Monday, but I did see him on Tuesday. I reminded him about my birthday party the next day at 4pm. He assured me that he and about 12 of our colleagues would come to ‘make party’. The next day I finished my work at around 3:45. At four, right on time, Reiner came to my office door and looked in. He had about 15 people in tow.
“Is the party in here or in another room?” Reiner asked.
“It’s in here. I think it’s big enough for up to 20 people,” I said.
“But where are the balloons? And the cake?” enquired Reiner.
“I thought you would bring them,” I said, crestfallen. I had heard the Germans could be a bit cold and insensitive, but I never imagined they could be this cruel.
“You said you will buy (sic),” said Reiner.
“Yes. I would give you the money after the party,” I said, confused.
Reiner laughed. “I think we have a culture difference, Jim.” He then said a few sentences in German which I couldn’t understand. Everybody laughed at the punchline. Reiner turned to me.
“Here in Germany,” Reiner continued, “It’s up to the person with the birthday to buy all of the things for the party, and bring them too. I think in America the guests bring everything. Sheisser!”