Be ready to own your ignorance. This is the lesson I’ve repeatedly learnt while travelling in countries where I don’t speak the local language. As a tourist in a foreign place, you have to walk the tightrope between the appalling rudeness of expecting everyone to speak English, and being too timid, too silent, mumbling and swallowing your words so that the locals couldn’t understand you even if they were perfectly bilingual. Sometimes this balance is hard, but I’ve found that a quick study of everything between “Hello” and “do you speak English?” is a great help.
The most common response I get from Germans when I ask them (in an apologetic tone) “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” is the rather charmingly modest “Ja, a little bit.” I say that this is modest because these same people will usually go on to answer all of my questions in a perfectly comprehensible and quite serviceable English, which leaves me wondering what someone who speaks a lot of English looks like to them.
In Berlin, this is particularly true, owing presumably to the cosmopolitan nature of the capital. My experience there began with a midnight arrival by plane, a trip to a pizza place for a very late dinner, and settling into the extremely quirky apartment that I would be renting with my friend for the next few days. This place reminded me of nothing so much as the Paper Street Soap Company, albeit much more hygienic. Fortunately.
People did tell me Berlin was particular, and I think that’s true. It’s a weird and wonderful city.