Telling the Truthlet

Originally published on the College Voice‘s Abroad Blog, Fall 2009.

Sometimes the moment a problem is identified is the same moment in which it becomes a problem. This was true in September when I walked into my friend’s apartment, looked at the ceiling and mused, “Is that light fixture off-center?” (It was like the electrician threw a dart to determine where the wiring should exit the plaster.) It was also true when the same friend said in October, “I haven’t seen a single bagel place in Germany.” Problems are everywhere, as it turns out; we just need to look for them.

They do have croissants here, which they call Hörnchen, a name that isn’t as pretty. My friend Mark tried for weeks to convince me of the existence of a sort of “German bagel.” This, according to him, is something called belegtes Brötchen, which is a halved roll, filled with lettuce, tomato, cheese, and some kind of meat. This is a sandwich. I tried to explain this, but he said simply, “We don’t really use that word.”

The Christian name of this apparent specialty comes from belegen, to fill or occupy (see: “beleaguer”), and the diminutive of Brot, meaning bread, which translates loosely to “breadlet.” There is no such thing as a German bagel. There is only bread, occupied by sandwich ingredients, constituting something other than a sandwich – an occupied breadlet.

I have to forgive the syntactic stubbornness of German, if only for the sake of its aversion to vagueness. For instance, I recently learned that German fairy tales end with what translates to, “And if they haven’t died, then they’re still living today,” which is true. It’s a conditional suitable to people who have, for any length of time, been alive. Compare this to “And they all lived happily ever after,” and one finds an almost embarrassing idealism. Really? Every one of the people in the story lived happily, forever, after the resolution of this conflict?

Think of all these German young’uns, listening to bedtime stories about Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood (the real versions), and taking a little truth with their fiction. I envy them, I think. At the very least, I imagine the German Prince Charming has higher standards as far as personality goes. “Snow White, girl, you’ve been asleep for like eight years, what are we gonna talk about?” (In Germany one in ten Princes Charming is homosexual.)

It’s the scratching away of the “happily ever after” veneer that makes it a problem. We who were raised on it find princes, many of them charmless, and if we’re smart, decide not to wait to be rescued. We learn not to take the summary too literally, short of becoming pessimistic, lest we remain naïve. A German fairy tale ending doesn’t paint the umpteen years beyond the end of a story, fictional or otherwise, with the mile-wide brush of good times being had by all, forever.

But this is why the Germans don’t have fairy tales; they have Märchen—“storylets.” Precisely what they are, but somehow making fewer promises, shortening the jumpable distance to conclusions.


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