In the Olden Days, i.e. literally three weeks ago, I used to go to playgrounds. I remember one time, last summer, sitting with a German dad at the Spielplatz and indulging in the German equivalent of small talk – swapping anecdotes about horrific Amt experiences, complaining about the Senat, and every now and then he’d throw in a tragic GDR story, like maybe about a deaf child drowning to death in the bath tub or something, just for fun. We were having about as much fun as it is humanly possible to have in a Spielplatz in Germany, basically.
My son came up to me and gave me a plastic cup full of wet sand.“Coffee!” He said.
“Mmmmmn,” I said, and made what I thought to be loud coffee drinking noises.
“Nicht essen!” My son said sternly. “Not ice. Coffee. Nicht essen.”
“Sorry,“ I said.
East German Dad at the Spielplatz’s kid came up to him.
“Here’s some ice-cream for you,” he said in perfect German. “Here you go Dad.” He also handed his Dad a plastic cup of wet sand. It makes me feel so nostalgic, thinking about it now, this innocent, kind of nice role reversal at the playgrounds – the kids feeding us for once – even if the thing they fed us was actually cold, wet sand.
“I love you, Dad!” The kid said, in his perfect German: “Ich liebe dich, Papa!”
His dad grinned, beamed and kind of winced all at the same time. Think of Özil that time he scored a goal during the friendly between Germany and Turkey. Kind of slightly horny to be honest.
“Ich liebe dich auch, Kleiner!” He whispered back and our boys ran off to throw sticks in a puddle.
“This is your doing,” he said to me in English once the boys were gone.
“What?” I asked.
“All this ‘I love you’ stuff,” he said. “It’s your fault. Do you think I ever told my parents I loved them? It’s all the English speakers’ doing. You’ve turned our kids into mushy Americans! My son tells me he loves me every day!”
“You never told your parents you loved them?”
“I told them I had them lieb once a year. On my birthday!”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Oh don’t apologize,” he said. “I like it. It is a bit embarrassing though. But I even say it back sometimes.”
GERMANS DON’T SAY I LOVE YOU.
They have each other’s love – sie haben sich lieb. It means less than I love you, which they really save for special occasions. The thing is, this is what you have to realize: the English words “I love you” literally mean less than the German words ich liebe dich. Like, if you were a translator – and I am not – and you were translating someone leaving the house one morning – “Love you, Mum! See you later!” You would translate that as “Habe dich lieb, Mama! Bis später!”
I remember once, on the balcony. My first husband’s – that does, I admit, make it sound like I have 74 husbands’ skeleton rotting away in the cellar – parents were leaving. My son and I (he was about three at the time) were waving them off in their car. I whispered to him: “Tell them you love them!” And he shouted down from the top of the balcony: “Ich habe euch ganz gern!”
But it’s not just a translation issue, to be fair. Remember how people in Anne of Green Gables books complain about the youngsters overusing the word love? Germans are like old people in Anne of Green Gables – they think love is hard and special and heavy and sacred. You shouldn’t love vegan sausages and the glitter episode of Peppa Pig and Kreuzkölln on a Saturday night. You should only love people, and only people you’ve chosen to, and only with all your heart – and you don’t need to tell them about it every two seconds.
“Does your Uncle Jens love you?” I asked my oldest boy, Ryan, and I realize this makes me sound like I have had ten children, one a year, like the mum in a Joan Lingard novel, a few years back. “I know Germans don’t tell each other they love each other. But do you think he does?”
“Oh, Mum, it’s different with German relatives.” “Is it?”
“Yeah. They don’t actually love you. They just like you. A LOT.”
“In a way it’s better to be liked a lot than loved a little, Mum.”
Germany’s changing. People are saying I love you more often, and also that they love vegan sausages more often. Social media is changing Germany, and also, in my eyes, the millions and zillions and squillions of English-speaking hipsters are changing Germany (more than the refugee wave I’d say). Netflix is changing Germany. Non-white Germans, too, are changing Germany. C’mon it had to happen some time. They couldn’t have carried on being totally German forever.
And what about Corona? Will Corona make Germans break down their defences even more? Let’s be honest – it probably will. A friend of mine got a quarantined dick pic from a guy she had had sex with three times in 2015 the other day, and he’d done an Instagram caption in it saying “ich liebe dich sehr schicke mir was zurück!”
But still: don’t be too sad if your German boyfriend hasn’t told you he loves you yet. He might just be waiting. He might just be being German.