As the country gears up for Carnival an event as big as Christmas “Weihnachten” the American Frau can’t get over the fact that she was swindled out of 2.85€ merely 3 US dollars and will not rest until she writes about it.
Here in Schwäbia the south of Germany, lives creatures like no other – native to the land, these particular beings are amongst the most frugal, thriftiest, shiftiest and dishonest creatures on the planet. The Schwäbians, they also rank as the richest people living in Germany… go figure.
They come in all shapes and sizes; from old smiling store clerks, friendly tradesmen to slick good looking doctors and dentists who drive black BMW’s. Everyone here is working an angle from a quick short change to what I consider blatant fraud. Coming from America, where a good look in the eye and a firm handshake seals a deal and checking your change is considered a waste of time – nothing pisses off an American more, than being taken advantage of. Which reasons why we sue, when McDonald’s boiling hot coffee lands in our lap.
When you point the finger there are 4 pointing back at you.
People here are a bit suspicious, after all the number one nightly TV show is “Tatort” a Krimi (criminal) detective show that has been running successfully since 1970. When going for a walk “ich gehe spazieren” – you are most likely met with the “fisheye” a long uncomfortable inspector like stare, rather than a friendly smile. When you enter a shop there is always a feeling of mistrust. In most stores backpacks and bags are not allowed and must be placed in a locker. There is always a predominant feeling of don’t touch or if you pick it up – put it back exactly as you found it and lord knows what would happen if you broke something. At our neighbourhood grocery store the fisheye also prevails as checkout girls lean over the conveyor belt to see if your shopping cart is truly empty. It’s akin to getting a strip search.
You also have an incredibly difficult time returning something. Thats when you really get the cold stare and the interrogation starts; why don’t you want this? why didn’t it work? I am not sure you can return this? I have to get the manager. The only thing missing are the bright lights as you sweat out your answers. Even with a receipt, forget about getting cash back – they hold onto that pretty tight. You get a Gutschein (coupon) if you’re lucky, something conveniently easy to misplace.
Contracts are another successful racket. They offer huge discounts for signing up, yet fail to mention that ending the contract usually requires a 1 – 3 month advance notification. Then you’re stuck with the contract for another 1 – 2 years and your discount is really worthless. Deutsche Bahn (Germany’s railway system) got me good with that one. Ending a contract generally needs a signed letter sent by post, forget about that convenient phone call. And your signature had better be in blue ink, black doesn’t count, no no (it could be a copy and not the original). Seriously?
The restrooms at gas stations are also a profitable little nich. It cost 70 cents to use the bathroom, you pay it to a machine and you get a Gutschein for 50 cents in return to use in the store. If your husband has paid for the gas and you don’t need anything from the store those little Gutscheins seem always to get lost in the car. That works out to 2.80€ to use the bathrooms for a family of four. Though I have to admit the bathrooms are beautiful and sparkling clean.
Even the money here is tricky, the denominations are all in different sizes and never fit well into a wallet plus the 2 Euro piece is the size of a quarter and I see these floating all over the house.
My two 14 year old sons take the public bus to school everyday. As parents we pay for the bus cards. The driver actually asked the boys for both of their bus cards to examine them. He thought one of the cards was fake – a duplicate of the other since my boys are twins. School age criminals? Also after paying your bus fair make sure you keep that receipt handy, they have undercover people who periodically check.
On a larger scale we have had our not so kind dentist over-bill our insurance company by charging 3 times the amount for our kids braces. When we switched from private to public insurance half way through the treatments – he continued to try to bilk us. We called him on it with a detail recount of the expenses and compared it to his original estimation. There was about a 12,000€ difference per child. We switched dentist.
During our time with him he also completely renovated his office adding a entrance and redesigned the office layout. He furnished it with stylish new furniture and adorned the walls with large format, first-issued signed artwork. The crème de la crème, were the 5 larger than life Andy Warhol inspired self-portraits of himself. He had these custom made. They were identical portraits illuminated in different colour-ways and boldly hung behind the reception desk completely covering the wall. His face 5 times in a row, larger than life smiling at you! Poor Andy if he only knew.
And then we are left to that 2.85€ that keeps me up at night. In the Müller department store a major chain like a Walgreens or CVS there was an old woman working the register at the door who checked me out. I had a receipt for self printed photos for 5.95€, four snicker bars and a bottle of Mineralwasser. She scanned the receipt for the photos first and followed with the candy and water. Then she glanced up at me, out of the wrinkled corner of her eye and quickly scanned the receipt for the photos again, adding a additional 5.95€ to the bill! When I saw the receipt it was around 5€ too high and I remembered the shifty glance and the quick scan. I had to call her on it. As an American challenging a German I knew this was not going to be a pleasant experience. This was a white haired 65 year old woman that looked really mean and might even be the store owner! I said “nicht, das ist nicht richtig, – das ist zu viel” in barely understandable Deutsch. I showed her the receipt.
By this time the check-out line had begun to grow exponentially and my coat started to feel really warm and way too tight. People in line started to gape with annoyance, I was the fat American caught buying 4 snicker bars raced through my thoughts.
And then the stare was back – as the old woman’s cold, icy blue eyes bore into me like Lord Voldemort and she snatched the receipt from my hand and examined it. Without a single word of apology she corrected the mistake and I paid. But wait, something was still a miss. No, not possible 2 mistakes it can’t be! The bill was now around 12€ about 2€ too high? What happened? I took my merchandise, stepped aside and looked at the receipt again. By now I could not focus and the receipt was a blur. I had to choose between holding up the line one more time or giving up. I chose to give up and meekly walked out. Back in the car with a clear head I saw that after removing the 5.95€, she smoothly added 2.85€ back to the bill. Now I am out 2.85€ and I have been swindled twice!
I complained to my husband as we drove away and couldn’t return. I asked him if I did go back the next day and showed them the receipt, did he think I would get my money back? He flatly said no. I said hmmph!
This Tuesday is Carnival and we will be celebrating in the historical picturesque Marktplatz of Schwäbisch Gmünd in full costume. As we watch the boastful parade wind its way through the narrow cobbled streets, frequent the food vendors and sing in the beer gardens my Schwäbian fisheye will be out, for I will be scrutinizing the locals and double-checking my change.
Carnival pictures to come,
Viel Spaß (have fun) the American Frau