Thursday, March 17, 2011

It All Comes Back to Hitler

A friend of mine recently introduced me to Godwin's Law, which states that any online discussion will invariably lead to Nazis or Hitler. Once you're aware of the Law, I promise you will start to notice it everywhere. To wit....

I have, for the better part of my life, been convinced that I was supposed to be British. As evidence: my obsession with the royal family, my love of Jane Austen, and my preference for stiff upper lips versus touchy-feely Oprah-style self confession.

Now David Lebovitz has me thinking I might be French. Frankly, the notion had never occurred to me. I don't consider myself particularly rude. I'm definitely not uber-fashionable (I'm wearing sweats and slippers as I type, quel horror!). And I don't get Jerry Lewis.

But in his book, The Sweet Life in Paris, Lebovitz more than once calls out the French for a decidedly non-American quirk: they don't believe in customer service. Tres magnifique!

These are my people.

During college, I worked at a department store to earn extra spending money. Compared to, say, working at a nuclear power plant in Japan, it was not a particularly onerous job, though I definitely thought it was. My personal pet peeve: customers entering my orbit anywhere within a half hour of closing time, when I had pretty much already counted out my register. I was scheduled until 9 p.m., not 9:15, people.

Our company's motto was "We want what you want," which was emblazoned on buttons we were all supposed to wear. I made up my own slogan, which I shared with my pal Tom, who worked in Men's while I was ghettoized in Children's: "We don't give a damn what you want."

The thing is, customers and management operated under the delusion that employees (dressed up as "associates") were there to serve them. Wrong. We were there to pass a set amount of time in order to collect a certain amount of money, nothing more. Whether we waited on 30 people or 3, our salary was the same. Personally, when I was slotted into the early morning shift, I made it a goal to see if I could get through the day without a single sale (busying myself rearranging the sock wall). If a customer came in with a return and put me in the red, so much the better.

Apparently the French are like-minded and I was all set to celebrate my newfound heritage with a croissant and a rendition of La Marseillaise when Lebovitz noted another Gallic trait: these people refuse to wait their turn in line. Egads!

This I could not abide. I am a big fan of rules, even unwritten ones, and I like people to follow them. Order is everything.

"You would like Germany," my brother said.

That's funny, because I am German. Or, to be more precise, a good number of my ancestors hail from Deutschland.

But nobody wants to be German. As a people, they're not as fun as the Irish, as chic as the French, or as romantic as the Italians. They're hard-working nose-to-the-grindstone folks who are obsessed with recycling, but they also damn near annihilated the world. Twice.

It's hard to wear your German heritage with pride. Sure, you can strap on some leiderhosen and act a fool, but in the backs of people's minds, they will always think, "Nazi" or "holocaust."

My neighborhood used to be Chicago's German enclave and there's still a residue of German influence, specifically an annual Oktoberfest parade. We ran into an old neighbor during last year's festivities. "My Jewish friends won't even come here," he told us. "They think this is so offensive."

Never mind that most of the people participating in the parade were born in the U.S. or after WWII. When it comes to Germans, it's guilt by association with Hitler.

Viva la France!


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