Ordering a bagel in NYC is like cracking a code. What kinds of bagel are there? Do you call it a bagel or a sandwich? Is it wrong to put egg and cheese on a Cinnamon-Raisin bagel (I hope so)? You’re somehow expected to just know, and if you don’t, then you’re clearly new to the city. And that’s not a terrible thing – people are mostly tolerant – but it’s a little embarrassing, so you’re motivated to overcome it pretty quickly.

I remember experiencing this when I moved to Berlin, and was completely unsure of how Döner worked, but now it just kinda mumbles out of my mouth automatically and it has such a rhythm and inertia to it that I don’t think I could change the order even if I wanted to:

“Ein Döner bitte, Soße Scharf KrĂ€uter, Salat komplett mit allem“

(One Döner please, sauce spicy / herbs, salad complete / with everything)1.

There’s a Döner shop in the DeKalb food court in Brooklyn, and aside from the obvious heresy that a Döner is $12.75 (plus tax!!), I think if I tried ordering like this I’d just get a lot of confused looks. I don’t even know what they call their sauces; I’m sure it’s not a literal translation from the German.2

Back home, in Berlin, tourists turn up at Döner stalls and get everyone confused because they don’t know the system. The Dönermann asks “Sauce?” and the tourists don’t know the Three BlessĂšd Options (Chili / Garlic / Herb Yoghurt), and the people running the Döner shops are often first-generation Turkish migrants3 who haven’t always learned enough English to make it work4. Nor should they; they all paid their penance when they arrived by learning German.

In the Summer of 2018, I was waiting at a Döner store on Bergmannstraße5, passively observing the tourists who were ordering. Four in a row; all speaking English. Trying to figure out what’s going on from the pictures on the menu, and then unpleasantly surprised when there’s more things you have to say after you’ve ordered the Döner. The first two push through, and get there eventually. The second two also push through, this time in a more apologetic English – still confused and confusing, and still undergoing this complex negotiation process of trying to work out what the options are, but at least more aware of the communications struggle, and with less entitlement. I look to the Dönermann’s face. He’s stressed; there’s a queue of people, he’s in this tiny, hot, kitchen, and he’s struggling to be understood and to understand, despite his best efforts.

He gets the sandwiches on the counter, and the tourists pay, and sit down to eat. While they’re still sitting there, another man, who’s been watching the whole thing, comes up to the counter and lets loose, completely within earshot, probably out of a mix of sympathy and frustration:

Ich hasse Englisch.

He said a lot more words, which I no longer remember, but it started and ended with that simple assertion.

When you move to a country, you have this list of things in your head that you know will make your life easier. If I can just get my Anmeldung, if I can just learn the language, if I can just get my Unbegrenzte Aufenthaltserlaubnis, then everything will be ok. Then, I will be secure. Then, I will truly be able to call this place home.

Could you imagine, years later, slowly realising that your efforts to integrate have suddenly depreciated?

It’s one thing if you go to a cafe and find that a staff member only speaks English – ask for someone who speaks German, and write an angry Google Review. But, if you’re running a small business and can’t avoid English-speaking Berlin, could you imagine the loss of security that comes from watching the language of a city change underneath you? It violates some deep sense of fairness that one can move to a country and work to learn the language to a level of native-speech, and then, years later, can’t communicate with newcomers, who can get by without problems because the majority of the young people here speak the Lingua Franca. But that majority doesn’t include you, again; just like the day you arrived.

I can’t imagine it.

Nowadays, I explain the options to the tourists when I see them struggling with the sauce decision. It’s kinda my duty to the Dönermann. And it means I get my sandwich quicker 🙃.

So, Bagels. What kinds are there? It feels like I’m just guessing, but maybe if I do it with enough confidence, I’ll trick the Bagelman into apologising for not having the type of Bagel that I want. Everything bagels are the only ones that I know are everywhere, despite being relative newcomers to the Bagel Scene, Rye was available at one place and you can usually get Sesame or Poppy, but you can’t just guess random seeds and expect it to work. Also, it turns out everything bagels have garlic on them? Either way, I haven’t yet cracked the Bagel code; and it makes me stand out; makes me look obviously new. But it’s kinda valuable to remember those early feelings of being “new to a city” and “not knowing how to order a sandwich” and I guess I’m hoping it teaches me a little more empathy for those awkward new people in Berlin, who don’t speak German or Turkish, but who are trying to order a Döner regardless.

  1. If you are visiting and don’t care about your breath, get the garlic sauce, it’s amazing. If you care extra about your breath, order “ohne Zwiebel” (no onion). ↩︎

  2. I could talk about the oddness of this cultural artefact until the cows come home. It’s Berliner-Döner; the prices are extremely wrong; it’s named after my neighbourhood – Kotti, a.k.a. Kottbusser Tor, which is the heart of Kreuzberg, which is the “most Turkish” part of Berlin (but, if you find yourself in Kotti, do yourself a favour and get a Falafel / Makali sandwich at Maroush or have a sit-down meal at Doyum instead; the Döner shops in that neighbourhood aren’t that good). Best of all, the Dönerbox (same ingredients, but put it in a box instead of bread) is marketed as a Gluten-free Keto salad (!!) and a healthy alternative (!!). They have a sticker up which says “bigger than most burgers”, but just in case you’re not convinced, you can also get a “Döner Burger”. It’s all extremely weird. This is like 3rd-degree fusion food. ↩︎

  3. As at 31 December 2016, there were 97,700 Turkish citizens (who did not also hold German citizenship) and 79,000 German citizens with a Turkish “Migration background” living in Berlin (source, German, PDF). It’s worth noting that this isn’t a direct measure of first- vs second- generation. Prior to 2000, being born in Germany wasn’t enough to give you automatic citizenship, and up until 2014, people with dual citizenship (often children of migrants) had to choose between their two citizenships on their 21st birthday (German), even if they’d grown up in Germany. Also relevant: becoming a German citizen requires giving up your current citizenship in many cases (including, for Turks and Australians). If you can get your hands on a copy, Nansen Magazine Issue #1 does an incredible job of discussing some of these complexities. ↩︎

  4. This is also complex and multivariate and probably warrants its own essay. English was compulsory in West-German high schools since 1955 and from the 5th grade since 1964. The vast majority of Turkish migration to Berlin occurred in West-Berlin (under a policy designed in response to a labor shortage), and therefore most children of Turkish migrants would have been educated under the West-German system. Part of why Berlin is especially sensitive to the trend towards English now is that students in the DDR learned Russian from the 5th grade instead of English, with English being only an optional language that could be picked up later. This sensitivity makes even more sense when framed against the general feeling of being “left behind” harboured by 57% of East-German citizens↩︎

  5. That Döner shop doesn’t exist anymore. It was outside the Edeka on Bergmannstraße; I think it was called Superhahn (lit., Super Rooster). I usually use Google Streetview as a record of old stores, but Google last patrolled these streets in 2008, back when the store was a Kaisers, before the takeover in 2016, and the Döner shop hadn’t come into being yet. That hole-in-the-wall is now a takeaway quite literally named “Asia Food”. ↩︎