It's a funny thing about moving across the world. You're all prepared to step off the plane and inhale the foreign-smelling air, but instead you land on an Air Base loaded to the hilt with soldiers and pilgrims, grab a quick lunch at Chili's, and settle into a hotel with 110 voltage plugs.
Our first week here at Ramstein Air Force Base (aka Little America), located somewhere in the German countryside, has been as comfortable as seven days in Mayberry. Today we decided it was time to zoom ourselves and our four little children into the German economy for a taste of foreign living.
We decided to go to Ikea. Yeah, we're brave like that.
For those of you who have never shopped at this veritable Disneyland of home goods, it's filled to the brim with enough products and storage solutions to take up an entire Saturday afternoon while obliterating the balance on your Visa. Also, they have free baby-sitting service.
And hey, I was certain that it wouldn't matter what language the instructions came in because home furnishings speak directly to my soul.
(For the record, my soul doesn't speak German.)
Our list was simple: We needed bedding. We headed down to the sheet section and found stacks of sheets in a rainbow of colors. I quickly scanned the first package for something similar to our American markings: twin, full/queen, or king.
I looked. I looked again. The only thing I could see were a set of nonsensical numbers written at the top--numbers that obviously belong to some magical European measuring system that I'm too thick-headed to comprehend.
I looked around me, the panic rising. I had absolutely no idea which sheets were which. 900? What does 900 mean? Is that the thread count or the length? And why is the little picture exactly the same on all the sheets? Can't they just show a big bed and a little bed?
Had I been able to sit down and put my head between my knees for a moment I might have managed to deduce that the smallest numbers were for a twin sized sheet then work my way back up to the king, but we all know that would have been like trying to tell a drowning person to do the backstroke.
Finally, with beads of sweat coating my brow, I looked in vain for an employee. Like all misplaced Americans, we have learned the importance of that simple phrase, "Sprechen Sie Englisch, bitte?" Of course, there wasn't a yellow-shirted bilingual to be had.
I took a breath, smoothed down my shirt and turned to a young couple two aisles down.
"Entschuldigen..." I said, using one of the seven German words I know. They ignored me. I tried again with my butchered version of "excuse me," and again failed miserably. But by then I was committed, so I sucked in my stomach for courage, marched myself over and tapped the girl on the shoulder.
"Sprechen Sie Englisch?" I asked.
"Ya," she said, turning to her husband. They could probably hear my sigh of relief in Poland, I was so happy to find someone who could help me.
In no time at all I had my cart loaded with the appropriate bedding and was zipping through the check-out line. Collecting the children, I realized with a sinking heart that we had one more stop to make before the car: the concession stand. Because, of course, the kids were hungry. That meant I was about to have my first encounter with ordering food in German and paying for it with euros (if only my palms would stop sweating long enough to peel the bills from my clammy hands).
The children wanted donuts and ice cream. I did a quick count and figured I needed four donuts and two ice cream cones. Knowing that the Germans appreciate any attempt to communicate in their native tongue, I practiced the German numbers in my head while standing in line, holding on to my soggy euros for all I was worth, "Vier donuts und zwei ice creams..."
Just as I stepped to the register to order, Harrison (8) yelled out, "I want an ice cream too!"
I opened my mouth to speak. Nothing came out. The lady stared at me. What to do? The weight of the line and the German math was crushing down on my stupid blond head like some kind of nuclear physics problem. It was too much! I couldn't take it! There was no possible...
"Four donuts and three ice creams, please." I thrust my crumpled bills at her and she casually gave me my food.
So much for mingling with the natives.
Annie Valentine is a wife, mother and columnist. Readers can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her blog at regardingannie.wordpress.com.