Between spying on its employees and mismanaging Berlin's commuter train network, Deutsche Bahn hasn't been the source of much good news lately. So I was pleasantly surprised to hear last week that Germany's national railway operator had decided to ditch its gratuitous and frequently poor use of English.
Not only is DB boss Rüdiger Grube going to get rid of “Flyers,” “Hotlines” and “Call a Bike,” he also ordained that the kissing has to stop. More precisely the “Kiss and Ride” zone in the forecourts of train stations. These areas used to be called Kurzparken and the idea is this: you take your partner to the station and you are given just enough time to kiss goodbye before someone shouts at you to move on.
I suppose this is an attempt to solve a banal problem (too many cars blocking the entrance to rail stations) by turning it into something charming – even though English must cede the honour of being the language of love to Italian, French and Bavarian. Still, the feckless advisors Grube's predecessor Harmut Mehdorn probably regarded Kiss and Ride as one of their greatest PR triumphs.
But it wasn't. It managed to upset native English speakers, Germans fed up with the invasion of unnecessary anglicisms, Muslims who prefer not to kiss in public and, above all, serious smoochers.
There's a deep cultural misunderstanding at the heart of all these Deutsche Bahn idioms. “Kiss and Ride” is not like “Click and Buy” or “Wash and Go” which are mechanical processes without emotional overtones. A kiss by contrast has to do with touch and smell and passion. Unless, of course, one were kissing the signet ring of the DB boss, in which case it would be an act of submission to unchallengeable authority. In English we talk of “kiss and tell” – ex-lovers who sell their memories of unfaithful celebrities to the tabloid press – but even in that case, a kiss is shorthand for a romantic entanglement. There is nothing romantic about parking your car at a train station. You cut your motor, take your bag out, start the car again. Nothing more than a brief moment parking – that is, Kurzparken. Kissing needs time. If you really want to kiss before the 7:31 leaves for Dortmund, then you take a taxi.
Deutsche Bahn has kidnapped my language, and I want it back. Of course, others try the same trick – Deutsche Telekom and the rest of corporate Germany – but it is the Bahn that causes me most anguish.
The use of English – or rather BSE, Bad Simple English – is supposed to show what exactly? That Deutsche Bahn is now a global player? Or that its staff is competent to help non-German-speaking passengers? Neither reason seems to be true.
Deutsche Bahn, despite the pre-privatisation trumpeting and clashes of cymbals from the Mehdorn Symphony orchestra, has little international clout, and even that is evaporating because the Bahn management is failing to deliver at home. I know that people across Europe are dissatisfied with their train services at the moment. But Germany seems to be complaining the loudest. Perhaps it is a sense of a great national institution crumbling.
According to the best-seller Schwarzbuch Deutsche Bahn, train drivers have to pee into bottles because they are not given adequate toilet breaks – they could endanger punctuality. A case, perhaps, of “Piss and Ride.”
The DB English is I think not just a joke, a buffoonish attempt to be interconnected with the outside world, but an instrument of power; part of a system that says to customers – you have to do things our way because we have a monopoly. You can't understand the ticket tariff system? Just pay up. You would rather be served by a human than a machine? Tough luck. You can't understand a word that we're saying on the platform loudspeakers? You must not speak German properly. Every company, but especially one that enjoys a monopoly, should have a monthly meeting with customers to ask: are we doing this right? What impact is this or that policy having on ordinary passengers?
The full absurdity of this refusal to enter a dialogue with customers emerged the other day when the train service to Berlin's Schönefeld Airport did not stop there. The engineer apparently didn't want to be late on his way to the provincial town of Königs Wusterhausen. That is when you need Deutsche Bahn staff who can speak English – to explain to foreign travellers that they've missed their international flights in order to create the illusion of efficiency.