What not to do on the U-Bahn

Many years ago, while doing the college Europe thing, I found myself on an underground train in Munich. I had just come from London, where they mostly speak English, by way of Amsterdam, where they all do. I speak no German. So Munich was the first place where I was completely unable to communicate with vast swaths of the population. Except for, you know, in that hand-flapping chicken-pantomime kind of way, stabbing the map, sawing the air. “Is it THIS way? Yes? No?! THAT way?”

It was humbling. I felt like my IQ had dropped 100 points on the overnight train.

So there I was, absently leaning against the door of a U-Bahn subway car, rattling through Schwabing when this little boy, no more than seven, pointed to a sign next to me and read it aloud in clear, high voice. Then he stared at me, a little menacingly it seemed to me, and looked proudly at his dad. Smart kid, I thought. He can already read German, and I am a mute imbecile. Rising to the challenge, I decided to try to decipher the sign through sheer force of will. Here is what the boy read: “Bitte nicht an die Türen lehnen.” You can see it coming, but I had to sound out every word.

Bitte, hmm, I’ve heard people say that. It’s like the German version of prego. It must mean please here. Nicht … is that night? No that would be Nacht, like Stille Nacht. This means not, I think. Türen. This could be a cognate, and I remember from Grimm’s Law that T and D are close friends. Hey, this sign is on a door, so this is probably the plural of door. Let’s see: Please not… on the doors… lehnen.”

That’s when I noticed the kid was still staring at me like a bird dog. I straightened up from my door-leaning position, losing some of my pride at decoding the sign.