The big day had come. We were nervous. My wife was busy cleaning. The house was spotless, which is certainly not normal for us. Cleaning was something that we both hate doing. We had all the windows open to air out the place, even though it was only about 60 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside.
Frau X was sitting at our kitchen table. She was wearing a black sweater and faux pearl necklace to go along with her black rimmed glasses. Her perfume wafted through the kitchen. A big folder of papers sat in front of her, not unlike that big book that often sits in front of a preacher during a sermon. Our file was in that stack somewhere.
She did greet us with a smile, though I instinctively felt a twinge of animosity towards her. Such feelings on my part are usually about my anti-authoritarian personality. To be honest, she did not really present herself as an authority figure. It was all about how wrapped up we were in this process.
Frau X held the keys, figuratively speaking, to Dina. About five months after Sam (our Short-haired Retriever) had to be put down, we saw Dina on a website from an organization that tries to place animals in need of a home.
* Good with cats, check!
* Good with kids, check!
* Good on trains, check!
* Full of energy, check!
* Likes to cuddle, check!
She was perfect. She was also pretty small. Dina is a Border Collie mix and only slightly larger than a standard Border Collie. That was better for my wife who prefers smaller dogs. There you have it… perfect for me (energetic, travels well, good with other animals) and perfect for my wife (smaller, loving, good with kids).
We were sold. But now we had to sell ourselves to Frau X. It was her job to determine our suitability as doggie parents. Of course, my worst enemy would be myself. My own tendency for self-doubt when I am feeling at the mercy of someone else. Being an expatriate who is still struggling with the language, I always feel at the mercy of someone else.
When she was 20 minutes late, I was actually a little relieved. It made her somehow more human and less… well… less German. Less German than the popular stereotype, that is. My initial animosity was already waning a bit. The last thing I needed to be was adversarial. I would end up blowing the whole thing.
She inspected the entire house. She scribbled notes in her papers. She was straight faced at this point. We could only guess what was going on her head. Did she see threats to the dog that we did not? Were the children’s toys a threat? Were the tractors that rumbled by our house (we live in the countryside) a threat? Amazingly enough, we wondered if the temperature was a problem.
“Is it always this cold?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, “this is the Eifel.” For those that do not know, The Eifel is pretty far North on the map and at a high altitude. Our winter is about nine months long.
“No!” My wife snapped. “The windows are only open because we’ve been cleaning the house. We usually keep it warm in here.”
Ah! I had misunderstood. Then a slow flood of regret came over me. Had I made some horrible mistake? Was our united front as a family cracking in front of Frau X? Was my instinctive adversarial response now going to evolve into the dreaded self-doubt? Did I make it look like we were unable to communicate as a family? I was nearly at the point of panic.
“Would you like some coffee?” my wife asked. When Frau X said yes, I turned to the coffee machine to make a new batch. It took only a few minutes, but all the self-doubt in my mind had prevented me from making the coffee in what I call “Deutsch Style.” The Germans tend favor a rather tepid brew. I favor something more forceful.
Spending 20 years in California, I had become accustomed to strong and exotic flavors. San Francisco is a food town, after all. So I made the coffee, which I had roasted myself, at full strength. Normally our German friends and family thank me gracefully for such a cup, then start swatting at the caffeine fueled hallucinations. “Did you see that! ” They would scream as they duck under the table. I have to admit though, that is always good a for about an hour of entertainment.
Seeing what was about to happen, my wife gasped, then politely told Frau X:
“My husband makes strong coffee. It’s what they drink in California, maybe you want to pour some hot water in your cup?” Ah… ever tactful and covering for my missteps. Of course, her comment brought another wave of self-doubt and near panic to bear.
“No thanks.” Frau X said. “I like it stronger.” She raised the cup to magenta colored lips and took a sip. I waited for it. I waited for that look on her face. The squinting eyes and reflexive shaking of her head like when a you pour salt on your food thinking it was sugar. Like you just took a punch to your nose.
Then she said it. And I could not believe my ears. “Wow! That’s good!” With a such a simple comment she had washed away all of the completely irrational emotions I was suffering from. Not only had she become fully human to me with only a simple comment, but then I thought how could have such an attitude with someone with such a fine sense of taste? She officially made her way from the dark side.
Of course, what had really happened is that Frau X had transformed herself from an abstract role into someone with a common interest… even something so small as appreciation for a cup of coffee. I can almost hear her saying: “If I drink coffee, do I not get buzzed?” That is a mangled Shakespeare quote, just in case you did not recognize it. She wasn’t an authoritarian bureaucrat or even a German, anymore. Now she was just another person sitting at my kitchen table.
The change in relationship had a profound effect on my own demeanour. At this point, I regained my self-confidence. I no longer felt judged and I would not be bothered if she did end up judging me. That was all the difference in the world. At that point, she relaxed a bit, too… and half an hour later she gave her stamp of approval.
We were doggie parents again.
For part one of this story, read Furry Love.