I know. It’s been awhile since I’ve posted. No excuses. Well, lots of excuses but no good ones. This one’s been in the works for awhile, so without further ado (and delay)…
I don’t remember the first time I saw the use of the middle finger. I’m referring to the one that nearly universally tells someone off in a wonderful, non-verbal, but clearly defined fashion. It can be as in-your-face as you want or as subtle as scratching your cheek with it, your other fingers curled under, while looking at the intended recipient with laser-eyed focus (admit it, you’ve done it).
I do remember being about five years old and hearing a friend’s older brother calling him an “ass.” Only problem was my young, innocent ears heard, “ask.” I wasn’t so young that I didn’t think it was odd for someone to call another person an “ask” in a derogatory tone, but the kid was older and, despite my post-toddler knowledge of the world, I went with it.
So when I went home and with a burst of pride to make it known I was the older brother, I called my younger brother an “ask.” He had no clue why. Actually, neither did I.
That was quickly followed by an admonishment from my mother with, “Michael, that’s not a nice thing to say! Where did you learn that?”
What? I thought I was calling my brother an “ask.” Like what you do with a question. Would I now be punished for asking questions? Suddenly this is a bad word? What the hell is wrong with that? No, I mean heck, not hell.
Yeah, I’m not a millennial.
Today, a five year old would not only know that “ask” is “ass,” but would also know that it’s about as tame as his four-year old sister wearing jeans that say “juicy.” (Yes, the bar on the “ick” factor today is about as low as it can go. One can only hope.)
Which brings me back to today and the finger. Sadly, it too has lost some of its luster. After all, it’s now an emoji. Still, it can bring some small measure of satisfaction to oneself because it’s an act of aggression that can’t get you arrested–at least in most countries, I think.
And therein lies the rub. Gestures in different cultures can mean different things. Now that I’ve been in Berlin for 6 months, I see many similarities in cultural references, especially with the ease of the spread of pop culture. But it wasn’t the case when I first moved here.
When I lived in LA, I seemed to develop this strange, nervous twitch when I drove my car, especially on the freeway. My left hand would spasm suddenly, my fingers would uncontrollably curl into my palm, leaving one lone single digit extended. Which one? Are you paying attention or not? This anomaly seemed to only occur when I was behind the wheel of my car, being cut off by a crazy driver (in LA, would that be considered an oxymoron?), or being stuck behind a driver weaving across lanes, only to pass them and see why–they were too busy texting to pay attention to something so inconsequential–namely, the road, and various other situations.
The one thing about LA for which I was always grateful was that pedestrians always had the right of way. It became second nature to walk through a parking lot and through the traffic lane without giving a thought of being run down by a driver. Not so in Berlin. Pedestrians are low man on the totem pole. “Oh, you want to cross here? Let me speed up.” “Thank you, idiot on the bike.”
Which brings me back to the subject of this post.
So in my last apartment, I had to usually cross Karl Marx Allee to get home, which is a road that is as long, wide, imposing and communist-era intimidating as one would expect a road called Karl Marx Allee to be:
As you can see in the photo, in order to cross this road you have to cross both sides of the road separated by the median. And as I’ve mentioned before, Germans (usually) obey the crosswalk signals. So when crossing this road, if you time it just right and walk fast enough, you can just about make it across in one light. Except that it will still turn red as you are crossing the second lane beyond the median strip. Got that?
Okay, I’ll make it easier…
Stand at red light and wait for it to turn green.
It turns green.
Walk, walk, walk faster across first lane. Step onto median.
Hurry across median. Crosswalk light still green.
Step down onto second lane.
Walk, walk…oh shit, the light turned red.
Look to the left at car bumper just inches away.
WTF?! I’m in the road here! Whaddya want, I should turn around and go back?! Bitch! (yeah, the East Coast in me)
Run the rest of the way to the other side of the road before getting run over.
Yup, that’s what happened several times. I’m in the middle of the road and because the light turned red, it gave a schmuck driver–wait “schmuck” in German is jewelry. Dammit! It gave some asshole driver to feel like he had the right to lay on the horn at me. Oh, and once it was a girl who looked like she was barely in her 20s! And she could hardly see over her steering wheel. But, man, could she lay on that horn.
That’s when the familiar spasm of my left hand started to surface. I so badly wanted to give her the finger. But then I thought, do they do that here in Germany? What if, by flipping the bird, I’m telling her, “thanks, have a nice day?” Or maybe I’ve mistakenly asked her out on a date? Or worse. I don’t know!
I forced my hand back down at my side.
So of course, the first thing I did when I blissfully got back to the apartment was google “middle finger Germany.” And that’s where I learned that, yes, it does have the same meaning here as in the USA. And since I’ve seen it used by many others in different, but obviously appropriate, circumstances. There will be many others to come that will be different or confusing, I’m sure. All part of the cultural learning experience of living in a new country.
Me? I’ve since moved from that apartment and no longer have to cross Karl Marx Allee. Instead, I have to cross Alexanderplatz, which at times gives me different reasons to want to extend the middle finger. Fortunately, the spasms have subsided. Tourists sometimes can’t help themselves, even when they behave likes asks.