This is What You Get For Trying to Speak German

So a while ago I decided that I wanted to move back to Neukölln. Nothing against the place I was living in, mind you—it’s just that my internship was over, I had no need to be five minutes away from my office by bike, and Mitte was just, well, insanely boring for my taste. But I should have known that starting a WG search would be just as difficult as it was the last time around, when I wanted to go back to my old neighborhood and found out that as I had moved out, every hipster and his brother had moved in and were certainly not planning on going anywhere.

Nevertheless, I took the opportunity while I was traveling for a month (more about that in a future post) to amp up my search and send out some emails. About a week ago, right before I was set to come back from Budapest, I found a place that looked promising: a 4-bedroom apartment in Neukölln right around the corner from where I used to live on Jansastraße with not one, but two bedrooms up for grabs. My chances and hopes were high, and I sent them an email. I got an almost immediate response from one of the two girls occupying the space to come for a viewing. They warned me that, unfortunately, they would have to do a “casting” (when everyone looking at the apartment comes at the same time in a big group—usually a completely artificial way to meet future roommates but time-sensitive and occasionally effective in separating the WG wheat from the chaff, so to speak). One of them was studying for final exams and simply wouldn’t have the time to meet several new people over the course of the next week. All right, I thought, I’ll make the best of it; at the very least it will be good German practice after being out of town for nearly a month and getting barely a chance to speak it.

The meeting time was 7:30 on the day I was returning to Berlin, and after an hour-delay on the flight followed by the realization when I got in that none of the S-bahns was working, followed by a mad dash (1 bus + 2 U-bahns) to get home in time to drop off my stuff and then get back to Neukölln, I was finally walking through the gate of the most glorious apartment building I had seen in a while. After going through the gate, I was standing in a square courtyard with a garden. Four entrances at each corner led up to the apartments, and I climbed the stairs to find an apartment as gorgeous as the building it was in, with two nice, adorable, and friendly girls living there. I greeted them and began speaking to them in German, explaining that although I had written the email in English, my German was fine and I would prefer to practice it as much as possible. They showed us around the place: four huge bedrooms, two of them with balconies and the others with big windows, and in the middle of it all a common area probably the size of the entire apartment I’m living in now, with enough room for a real couch and coffee table area as a living room, and a full kitchen with two refrigerators, a ridiculous amount of counter space, and a table to seat eight. My mind spun at the great dinners I could have here, and the time I could spend here, just being happy I didn’t live in a place as tiny as the one I had.

A few more people came in, making the total number of visitors about six, and we were introduced to the Danish boyfriend of one of the girls, who was also here to check out the newcomers. We sat down in the living room and began to talk, and to my surprise (or, well, not really), I found myself being the only one out of six people there who could hold down a conversation—and I was speaking German. Most others just sat there and smiled awkwardly, only spoke when they were spoken to, and generally had no personality. Five girls and one boy, and I was the only non-German, and I was practically leading the discussion, even managing to make jokes and laugh along with others. I found out that the two girls were sisters, the older one 24 and studying architecture and also in a band, the younger one 21 and studying psychology. I talked to them about cooking, and traveling, and Copenhagen, where I had just been and where the older one’s boyfriend was from. I had a great time. I left thinking I definitely had the place; after all, I had stood out in a group of five Germans who seemingly had little personality to speak of, and I wasn’t even speaking my own language. I didn’t dare to hope, because I knew where that had gotten me the last time I was too hopeful, but I figured with two rooms and six people looking at them, there was no way this couldn’t go in my favor.

Twenty-four hours later, I found this email in my inbox:

Hey Giulia,
even though we think you are super nice we chose somebody else. Please dont take it personally or anything. We wish you the best. good luck with finding a room!
Margareta und Laura

After ten minutes of tears and rage and writing emails all in capital letters to friends about how I am doomed never to find my own apartment, how I can’t win no matter what I do, and how not one thing in my life can ever go right, I decided to actually write to them and find out if there was anything specific I could have done differently. After all, there must have been a reason why this was the second dream WG I thought I had in the bag, and they had gone with someone else.

Hi Laura and Margareta:
I’m really sorry to hear that as I loved the place and I thought we were a perfect fit. Is there any particular reason you didn’t choose me? I’m trying not to take it personally, but it’s just that this isn’t the first time I’ve felt like I got along great with potential WG’s and then they chose someone else. I feel like I’m doing something wrong and I just don’t know what.
Anyway, best of luck with your new roommates and please remember me if someone happens to not be able to take a room or moves out.
Giulia

Somewhat to my surprise, I got a response:

Hi Giulia,
I personally also thought that the two of us would fit, but Margareta felt a bit insecure. She is a rather quiet person and is afraid that with you and me being really talkative and rather loud, she would end up being even more quiet and not being able to step into our conversations anymore. She is a bit younger and i can understand her. When i was her age, i also felt so much behind those that were 3 or 4 years older than me, especially when they had a lot to talk about.
sorry again. and good luck!
all the best, Laura

My first reaction was total and utter shock. I hadn’t gotten the place because I had been too friendly. Plain and simple. I hadn’t gotten the place because I had been able to be talkative and open in German. While the others sat there being as boring as could be in the language they were born with, I broke a sweat making an effort to speak in their language, and it was actually what sunk me in the end.

I wrote back to them one last time:

Hi Laura:
Thanks again for replying and giving me a straightforward answer. I’m really sorry she felt that way, because I always think that I’m really good at bringing people out of their shells and getting them to open up, even when they may technically think of themselves as shy. But perhaps because I was trying hard to make a good impression (and also not to sound like an idiot in German, which I hope I didn’t!), I may not have given you both as much attention as I should have. Anyway, I thought you were both very cool girls who reminded me of my two best friends here (who are also sisters, and the younger one a bit less talkative at the beginning too) and I wish you the best. As I said, if someone ends up moving out at some point, please consider contacting me again. I plan to be here for a while and who knows what the future will bring.
My best to both of you,
Giulia

I never heard anything more. For a day I entertained the fantasy that maybe someone else would back out of the WG that was rightfully mine and that they would contact me again to ask if I wanted the room, and then I had a dream that I met one of their friends who said they were “reconsidering my case,” as though I were being judged in court. But that’s really what this feels like. You would think that if the older sister had thought I was the right person, she might have at least convinced her little sister to invite me over again just to check, thinking that perhaps once there weren’t seven other people in the room, the two of us could actually get to know each other a little bit better. The idea of a WG “casting” is such a farce, and Summer was right when she said it is very much like a real theater casting with actor auditions: even the best actors only get one out of every fifty parts they audition for. And in another state of mind, I might take it as a compliment: my German is good enough that I successfully intimidated a German girl into not wanting me to be here roommate. But really, come on. If there are any Germans out there reading this blog I would love to know: Are you afraid of people who are outgoing and talkative and friendly? Do you only want to live in places where doors are closed and no one ever says or does anything together? Is it a crime here not to be socially retarded? One thing I know, is that the problem here was not me, and I just wish I could take aside that younger sister, who seemed like such a nice girl, and say to her, in as condescending a tone as possible, “Honey, if you’re actually afraid that I’ll take over the conversation and never let you get a word in edgewise in German, while I’ve only been learning German for eleven months and you’ve been speaking it your entire life, then you’ve got some serious issues to work out.”

And I’ve got a hundred more WG’s to see before I find anything like that one.