local time: “Say something in German.”

“Local time” is a new series within the blog about my current transition from Berlin to Honolulu. Still fresh from the plane and caught between time zones, cultures and stages of my life, I find myself reflecting on the past eight years of becoming a local in Berlin and, looking ahead, wondering how I’ll relate to American culture and local ways in Hawaii. Because much of my design work is about place and belonging, I’d like to write about the transition here and explore how it informs future projects here on the islands.

A footstep away from leaving Germany for the transit zone of Frankfurt Airport and then Honolulu, I was stopped by the German officer at passport control with a request, the likes of which I had never encountered at immigration in any country before.

“Sagen Sie was auf Deutsch.”

I couldn’t make any sense of his request and at first, I actually thought my ears were playing tricks on me. At first, I didn’t understand why I should need to prove my German language skills in order to leave Germany. Then I thought, ok, perhaps he wants to make sure I’m the rightful holder of my permanent residency card, as that requires German proficiency.

But the question itself! I still don’t know whether to see it as condescending (“Sit! Stay! Fetch! Say something in German!”) or unnecessarily confrontational, as a few routine questions in German (“What is the purpose of your trip?”) would have tested my fluency, rather than my improv comedy skills.

I mean, the command to “say something in German” — anything! — is so ridiculously open ended. What do you do, explain your favorite recipe or your family tree? Recite the German constitution? It’s really the perfect set up for a punchline or a chance to make a statement about language, culture and nationality.

All I came up with on the spot was a tongue-twister, “Der Potsdamer Postkutscher putzt die Potsdamer Postkutsche.” But, of course, as these things always go, plenty more snappy comebacks have been coming to me in the middle of the night. So if you soon get asked the same question at the German border, you are welcome to any of these ideas.

Sagen Sie was auf Deutsch!


“Was auf Deutsch….. ätsch!”

“Herr Busfahrer, Herr Busfahrer, machen Sie die Tür auf!” [while squashing your face together with both hands]

“Kannst Du mir nicht etwas was von Dir schicken? Eine Flasche von die Bier, die so schön geprickelt hat… in meinem Bauchnabel.”

“Lach und Sachgeschichten, heute mit der Bundespolizei bei der Passkontrolle und natürlich mit der Maus und dem Elefanten… [pause]… Das war Deutsch.”

“Ich verstehe die ganze Fragerei nicht. Jetzt lege ich mich drei Tage in die Eistonne und dann sehen wir weiter.”


And… your suggestions?