Opinion

In Contest Between German Scolding and Israeli Chutzpah, the Latter Wins

'When it comes to a contest between German scolding and Israeli chutzpah, with a bit of persistence, the chutzpah wins out'
Ulrich Baumgarten via Getty Imag

DRESDEN, Germany – “Great! Usually when you want to come in, I figure it will take a lot of time. This time, it was fast,” the pediatrician told me. I had come to ask him for a more serious referral to give to my HMO regarding an expensive treatment for my son after my prior request to the HMO had been declined.

The doctor’s affable passive-aggressiveness made it clear to me, after a year and three months in Dresden, that I had become a thorn in the side – albeit not a particularly threatening thorn (although I like to delude myself that I can strike fear into the hearts of functionaries in town). Instead, I am more of a minor irritant that people fail to rid themselves of.

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It’s not that I hadn’t had run-ins with bureaucrats and all sorts of officials in Israel. There was friction with bosses, bus drivers, secretaries at the medical clinic and in fact with secretaries in general, but in Germany, it’s turned into a habit, a real way of life.

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It began with an argument with the principal of my daughter’s school and has continued with various degrees of intensity, with various people in authority. That includes our family doctor (who, like me, is a Russian speaker), whose office I stormed out of after he wondered whether everyone in Israel was loud like I was (an anti-Semite for sure, make no mistake). It also includes a red-faced ice-cream vendor, as I will explain later.

Maybe I shouldn’t generalize, but I will venture to say that when it comes to a contest between German scolding and Israeli chutzpah, with a bit of persistence, the chutzpah wins out. Following is a list of some of my victories. (I am less inclined to mention my defeats):

Over time, my relationship became fraught with my pediatrician’s secretary, a man who said he’d be grateful if I didn’t waste his time. I got the feeling that I was a burden, that I really wasn’t his cup of tea. At one point, he asked me to stop calling the office and to send emails instead, so I won’t “distract him from his work.” I tried to respond in some way, but was actually so insulted that I couldn’t say a thing.

Beachgoers wait in line to access a beach in Berlin's Wannsee area, June 30, 2019 in Berlin.
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I would have switched doctors, but try finding a pediatrician who is taking new patients, and who also speaks English here. The next time I needed an appointment, I did it via the clinic’s website, but half by mistake and half on purpose, I used the wrong place on the site. I think it was for urgent examinations rather than routine consultations (which are scheduled later on, usually).

The secretary admonished me for pressuring him and I told him that I needed an appointment and there weren’t any others available online. “So why not call? We would have found a solution,” he retorted, when I came in. This time, I didn’t hold back, and said: “You told me not to call and made me feel very uncomfortable.”

He got all flustered and was even possibly on the brink of tears. I understood that I had hit him where it hurts – over his commitment to the clinic and his job, and his assurances that he was providing the best possible service. After a brief exchange of words, I left.

I now have the feeling that the wall between us has collapsed: Since then, when I send an email to the clinic, the secretary calls me within minutes. He tells me that it is better to resolve matters by phone so that it is more convenient for the two of us. He wishes me a pleasant day, week or whatever.

But the encounter with the red-faced ice-cream vendor gives me particular pride and satisfaction. Here’s what happened: One weekend, I went with my partner and two children to a gorgeous place called Spreewald, to take a boat ride along the canals and to commune with nature at a peaceful spot where we could hear crickets and birds chirping.

But as usual, we got there about three hours too late, when all of the boats were rented out and we wasted a few more hours aimlessly wandering around. And the kids’ nagging, the strong sun and mounting hunger didn’t contribute to the mood. We decided to buy ice cream and it so happened that my young son couldn’t decide on a flavor. Initially he made the wise decision to order what his sister was getting, but he reconsidered right away and was then paralyzed by indecision. Meanwhile, some people lined up behind us, and the red-faced ice cream vendor demanded a decision.

I tried to get my son to hurry up. I’ve had experience with the impatience of German ice-cream vendors and, if I might put it this way, their inability to handle a situation involving lengthening lines and an indecisive child, so I tried to speed things up. But the man began showing extreme impatience. He got even redder, pointed to the line and in a tone that to me sounded rude, demanded a decision.

My Israeliness kicked in. I wasn’t capable of responding appropriately in German, so I simply shot him a look and gave him a big, provocative smile, making use of the lip muscles alone. He got angry: Pay for your daughter’s ice cream and step aside, he demanded.

The people behind us were muttering and grumbling. Später (later) – I had found the most important word of the day and I wasn’t budging. “No rush,” I heard myself telling my son.

And at that moment, I was also able to get a little perspective. Here I was, a plump, sweaty Jewish woman tending to her children lest someone, God forbid, upset them while they choose their one and only ice cream. I acknowledge that I kind of liked what I was seeing. And then an amazing thing happened: The ice cream vendor gave up. He disappeared for a few moments inside the stand, as if he had to tend to something urgently, and emerged again only after my son had finally reconciled to opting for his original choice. He would have what his sister was having.

“Please, here you are,” I told the vendor in too loud a voice, as I handed him the money. “Thank you very much. Have a nice day,” he replied in a totally normal tone of voice. No one in line behind us uttered a word, and we left the line with our heads held high.