Good things take time – telling the time in German

Embarrassing admission coming up: I have trouble saying the time in German. Don’t get me wrong, I can read a clock and I even have a great understanding of 24-hour time. The problem is that I have trouble saying the time in German and understanding what time they are saying, especially when told to me over the phone.

The problem lies with the fact that in Germany there are two ways to tell time: the way they do in the East (where I live) and the way the say it in the West (most similar to the way its said in English).

My most recent experience of German language failure came when I attempted to be bold and confident and make an appointment at a beautitician that I hadn’t visited before. Instead of taking a 15 minute walking detour to make the appointment in person, I called them, sure it would be easy for me to do. The first part of the call was great; she knew what I wanted, she could fit me in the week that I had asked for despite it being short notice and when she confirmed the time, she repeated it twice for me, I think because she knew I was not a native speaker. I like it when they do that actually.

I guess the problem occurred when I then had to make an appointment for a friend. The same process however the time she gave me was confusing. I heard the last number but I wasn’t entirely sure I had heard it right. She even repeated it for me two more times and at that point I was too embarrassed to admit I had no idea what time my friend’s appointment was.

After I got off the phone, I told my friend about my experience and I suggested she call closer to the appointment date to confirm the time. Her German was much better than mine so she was happy to do so and appreciative of my efforts.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, my friend cancelled her appointment on the day it was supposed to be. This did not make the beautician lady very happy obviously and made a point of making my friend feel really bad. Not long after my friend got off the phone, the same beautician called me to confirm my appointment and gave me a similar spiel about my friend’s poor behaviour in cancelling her appointment on short notice. I’ll be there, I assured her.

The day of my appointment was a busy day. But I was certain of my appointment time. it was 13.30 or 1.30pm or halb zwei- half to two. The half past times have been the easiest for me to learn- just the half towards the next hour. Weird and strange but somehow easy to remember.

I made it to the appointment exactly on time, knowing that being late was not an option. When I got there, however I was told that I missed my appointment. It was at 13.00 or 1pm or ein Uhr. I was certainly confused- how could I have gotten that time wrong? I was so confident with those times and I was so sure I wouldn’t get that confused. I walked out of there feeling confused and embarrassed. Once again, my confidence in my German speaking and understanding skills had been shot down.

I am still not sure what happened. Perhaps she was so annoyed with my friend cancelling, she changed my appointment to avoid having to honour my appointment. Harsh maybe, even a little spiteful perhaps. I can’t be sure that’s what happened.  Maybe I still need a bit more practice with my times. Übung macht den Meister– practice makes perfect. Or something close enough.


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