funny how


Written by Cathoel Jorss,

On the markets I passed a tourist with an American accent who was saying to his companion, “Jeez. So much amazing stuff to eat and drink!” Inexplicably he managed this in a tone of complaint. Jet lag? For how, I wondered, can you possibly turn that into a sense of personal injury. Woe is you. I bought a jar of honey; local honey is relatively flavourless because the Linden trees in Berlin have a very mild scent. I bought sweet potato at the potato stall where you can spend half an hour reading her scribbled handmade signs. She extols the nutritional benefits of orange vs purple sweet potatoes and sells fourteen kinds of spud. When I buy a bag of root vegetables she always pops a tiny round golden onion in the top, saying sweetly, “Zwiebelchen?” which means more or less ‘And may I offer you a tiny baby onion… an onionette?’ She’s so cute with it. What’s particularly cute is that she has clearly trained her husband to do this and he clearly doesn’t get it: when I buy from him he’s all blokey and dismal, ticking off the requirements almost visibly in his head: paper bag, turn down the top like a lunch pail, “Oh yes, the onion! Sorry – here, have an onion.” Muttering to himself that he almost forgot to throw that in. My eyes meet hers over the back of his head and we share a moment of feminine protectiveness and love.

The potato lady is an old punk and always has some raddled spud which has started to send out its purplish tendrils, turned upside down for hair and with eye holes nicked in its face with a toothpick. Generally these guys will be carrying a flag or dressed in a scrap of fabric, propped up in front of middlemost bucket. I skirted the Turkish stall holders who sing their wares and scold their customers and fronted up at the endmost cheese stall, where some of the cheeses are eight years old. She also has butter, far younger, in fact churned yesterday. The woman in front of me was buying a slab of butter and as I sometimes do I composed the German sentence in my head while I was waiting. “Auch so ein Stück Butter, bitte.” Ie ‘I’ll have another such slice of butter, please.’ One of my greatest difficulties on the market is I don’t know the words for piece, slice, bunch, punnet – the collective nouns. When I came home with my basket over my arm, my friend was stretching up over her bicycle’s rump to pull my doorbell again. I told her of my triumph and we hugged each other gleefully. We are veterans of Germany’s indefatigably formal and prolonged migration processes, where ordinary German seems to acquire a top hat and a moustache. You see, I told her as we mounted the stairs to eat the Dutch pepper cake I baked this morning: I performed three distinct linguistic somersaults in a row, to get out that sentence intact. First there’s the two different Ks: auch, and Stück. The two different Us, ü and u. Then the two different but similar words, Butter which ends in a dry R, and bitte which ends in the kind of disdainful e we rarely use in Australian English. Out it came flawless. I somersaulted home.

8 comments on “zwiebelchen?

  1. Thanks Cathoel. Your words transport me to where you have described. Having just experienced the joys of learning some Italian in Italy, I can relate to the struggle to grasp the subtleties that exist in every language.

    I particularly like your descriptions of the people you meet: they come alive, and remind me of people I have met.

    Ian Law December 2, 2015 at 12:20 am
  2. Hah, yes, those *are* in fact the two requirements for nouveau citizenship methinks…

    Cathoel Jorss December 3, 2015 at 10:34 am
  3. I loved reading about your adventures in marketing and linguistics! Sharing this with my sister :)

    Jameela January 9, 2016 at 10:27 pm
  4. Hello, Jameela’s sister! Isn’t it excellent how the meaning of ‘marketing’ has reversed. I like its old form, ‘buying necessities’ better than its newer version, ‘selling landfill.’

    Cathoel Jorss January 10, 2016 at 3:04 pm

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