What’s “maybe” in German?

I'm not even sure what you mean by "fishing."
I’m not even sure what you mean by “fishing.”

“Are there fish in there?”

-”No. No I think a fish would complicate the whole process. I’m practicing freestyle casting. To the untrained eye it might look like as though I’ve spent the last few hours tossing a lure at select spots in order to catch a fish. But those in the know will understand that it’s all about looking cool.”

“Oh. Alright.”

This is a back and forth I’ve never had but wanted. And now that I’ve moved from California to Germany and don’t speak German, it’s a back and forth I’m afraid I won’t have for some time; if not for the language barrier but, also, for the lack of sarcasm to be found here.

If you’ve been resigned to urban waters, as I have, you begin to take keener observation of your observers. And as one might suspect, your observers’ behavior changes with country.

I’ve not had a German ask me if “there were any fish in there?” because, I presume, I look German enough and Germans assume whatever a German is doing is being done with purpose. The reason a person fishes is to catch fish, ostensibly. Thus, where I’m fishing is likely possess fish to the best of anyone’s knowledge.

Yet, I suppose, the question shouldn’t be taken literally. Perhaps half literally, with implied clauses therein. “Are there any fish” is in actuality: “I’m surprised there are fish here. Have you caught any? If so, what species?” But rarely does one receive any of these questions in tandem– in America, that is.

I’ve gotten “what type of fish are there?” from an older German fellow, who after being told replied with a quick “danke” and was off. Other than pure curiosity I can’t imagine why he asked. It was surprising to not have my fishing halted by a myriad of uninteresting follow-up questions. And though these questions are asked with kinder intentions, I was happy to be left alone and return to fishing quickly.

The subtleties in behavior are relatively small but indicative of local mores.

The loquacious, American line of questioning…

“Are you sure you can fish here? ya’ know, sometimes I see people fishing here when I go jogging. But I never see…”

…is designed to be polite. After all, it’s polite to ask many more questions than necessary in order to show you’ve paid attention, even if neither of the participants in the conversation care about the answers.

This can be compared with the minimal, German line of questioning…

-“You are allowed to fish here?”
-“Ok. good”

…because it’s rude to waste people’s time with with questions whose answers are of no concern to the participants of the conversation.

And can be compared with the confusing Hungarian line of questioning (note: this happened in the countryside)…

(I’d begun casting into a midsize lake just outside of a barely extant town. A teenage boy of about 15 has shown up and is lackadaisically chewing on a stalk of wheat while watching me cast.) 

Me: “Am I allowed to fish here?”

-“No English.”

Me: “Ah, ok.”

(Without mention he retreats over the hill and shortly returns with five similar aged boys.)

-*in broken English* “Can you fish here?”
Me: “I don’t know”
*One of them leaves and returns with a few older gentleman

Me: “Hi. Can I fish here?”
-“No, this holds the towns drinking water.”
Me: “Oh, I’m sorry.”
-“I don’t care.” And the group saunters off along the road.

…because, well, I’m still not sure.

Sometimes if I squint, the straight-as-arrows German streams crowded by monstrous oaks resemble my home waters. If squinting harder, a rotauge (“redeye”) could pass for a strange green sunfish strain and a rapfen some kind of deformed striper. But squint as one might the resident population will  remind you where you’re fishing, either by accent, language, or quirky stereotyped behavior.


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