What follows is a tale of a surprising encounter I had on my last day in Germany which reminded me to never presume I know a person by what I see on the outside. This opportunity came about following a strange series of events that created “the time in between”. Some would call it serendipity.
In my last week of living in Germany I had a boat load of things to wrap up. I packed a small box of items from my office – a framed picture that I’d carried with me from America to Germany of the Digital Farming team crowded in front of a 57 Chevy parked in front of y’all Nebraska corn. Another photo of a younger version of my husband smiling at me from the top of a boulder along a river near Yosemite national park. My 5 year service award. My favorite coffee cup.
This box sat in my apartment, ready for the movers who would come and add it to the pile of boxes and wrapped furniture that would be loaded into a van and packed in to a sea crate for delivery to my home in America.
As I prepared to move home, one task on my list was to return my fleet car to the Opel car dealership in Cologne. Cologne is a city I thought I’d visit often while I lived in Germany, but as it turned out my life in Germany was focused either in Düsseldorf, traveling to another country for the weekend or striking out for a wanderen (hike) in the Bergischeland near Altenberg Dom. I made a few trips to Cologne and every time I went I found the drive to be frustrating, parking to be a nightmare and the experience to not be different enough from my time in Düsseldorf to justify the trip. So, I traveled a few times with visitors who wanted to see the impressive Dom or drink a glass of Kölsch at Früh.
I also traveled a few times to the car dealership for an oil change. So it came that when I called up the dealership to arrange to return my car and booked the last appointment of the day on the day before my return flight to America I suddenly realized I wouldn’t have a way to get home. The drive was long enough that I didn’t want to hassle a friend, so I texted my favorite taxi driver and arranged for him to pick me up. I don’t know why I didn’t consider a train… my only excuse is I had A LOT on my mind that week and I wanted to simplify.
Now I realize that I made that choice for a reason. I made that choice so I could have “the time in between” to engage in a conversation that has fundamentally shifted my view on a very important aspect of humanity. Let me explain it to you here.
Here’s how “the time in between” came to be. In my last Wednesday in Germany I went to the office and forced myself to clock out on time to make it to Cologne for my car return appointment. As I traveled the busy roads the clock was ticking and I found that in spite of my best efforts I’d be a bit late. Which leads me to one of the most humorous things I learned in Germany. The idea that Germans are extremely punctual is a myth. Sure, Germans, just like most of us, strive to be on time or early, but I didn’t find people where any more often on time or late than anywhere else I’ve traveled in the world. Nevertheless, I would encounter a real logistical problem if for some strange reason I couldn’t return my car that day. At 6 am the next morning I’d be boarding a plane bound for America! I had to drop off my car!
As I pulled up to the dealership I rushed in to begin the return process. I had budgeted an hour for the process so the taxi was scheduled to pick me up at 4:30. At 3:45 we were done and I pondered what to do with the time. I decided now was my chance to enjoy one last Kölsch in Köln before I repatriated. I had noticed a corner bier joint on my way in to the dealership.
I finished handing over my keys, said one last farewell to Super Z and took off down the street by foot. The streets bustling with people, I passed by kiosks and kebab shops en route to my destination. Shortly after climbing out of a train-line underpass, I found the bier joint I had spotted on my way in. Two older gentlemen stood outside at the traditional round table for 3 – both with a tall, thin glass of Kölsch resting on a coaster in front of them. One smoking a hand rolled cigarette.
I walked in and ordered a beer from the bar maid. My German passable as we completed the entire brief exchange in Deutsche. I began to feel I had actually made it and could pass as a local. It was a lovely afternoon so I walked outside with my Kölsch and was pleased to find the y’all round table vacated. I dropped my shoulder bag at my feet and took my first long drink of the lighter cousin of Alt.
Halfway through the glass I received a text from my taxi driver. He was in Köln, but unfortunately discovered that there were two locations in Köln with the same exact address and he was clearly not at the right one. This meant he was still about 45 minutes away from me. I eased his distress by letting him know I had a comfortable place to wait. Then settled in to a bench seat at a table and order eine mehr Kölsch mit bratwurst, bitte.
This series of events is what led to the “time in between”. What happened next was completely unexpected and changed my view on an entire population of people: namely – refugees and native borne peoples of non-native descent. What struck me later is that none of this would have happened if the car return hadn’t gone so fast, or my taxi was late, or my nostalgic thirst hadn’t kicked in, prompting me to walk up the road and grab a bier.
What happened next is a lady walked up weighed down by heavy bags – the plastic handles cutting into her forearms – and expressed to me in German how tired and thirsty she was. This declaration was promptly followed by collapsing herself into the bench seat at the neighboring table. We began to carry on a conversation across the two tables. After a couple of sentences in German from me she switched to perfect English. I guess my German wasn’t so good after all… A bit later, the bar maid appeared and she ordered a beer. When it arrived, we toasted our biers and I welcomed her to join me at the bench just opposite me at “my” table. I say “my” table because in Germany, a table never belongs to one person. They are meant to be shared. Sharing doesn’t always result in a conversation, but many times it does and these spontaneous conversations are sometimes the most interesting you’ll have all year. Such it would be that day.
But, first I should give you a bit more insight into what I was rolling over in my very mind that day in the hours that led up to the “time in between”. The German election results had just rolled in and AFD had gained seats in the parliament. Enough seats to indicate that 1 in 10 voting age Germans had supported their cause. A cause which was largely rooted in anti-Islamic campaigning efforts. I myself had witness these campaign signs as I traveled on my daily commute to and from the office and when I was strolling about in Berlin on sunny Saturday afternoon. Signs which featured sun-kissed women in bikinis accompanied with slogans: bikinis not Burkas. Others featured women wearing said Burkas with messaging making it clear this was not welcome in Germany. But the one that really got me was a tight shot of not one, but two, pairs of bosoms bouncing out of the top of Dirndl blouses which espoused a fervent desire to maintain traditional German culture.
As I had driven through the neighborhood just a couple of hours before, I was contemplating the results of this election and the conclusion that 1 in 10 Germans had felt strongly enough in this direction to vote as such, ok maybe not completely on the Islamic topic, but this and some others associated with it. And as I drove, I looked at the people in the streets and observed that nearly 100% of the people I saw did not look like “traditional Germans” but were in fact appeared to be Arabic of some descent. We’re they Islamic? This is could not tell by looking, but I observed a bustling neighborhood with people who likely hailed from Turkey (note that in Germany you will find the largest population of Turks outside of Turkey – many of whom are practicing Muslims. My own local treasured Turkish grocery did not sell pork products at all…), South Africa, and possibly refugees from Syria. I found myself wondering how these people felt when they woke up and heard the election results and learned that 1 in 10 of the local population maybe didn’t want them here? Little did I know that I would soon be able to hear how this felt first hand!
I was rolling this over as I walked back through the neighborhood to grab a beer and then this is when “the time in between” brought me full circle. There’s a detail I haven’t yet revealed to you. My drinking partner was a woman of Arabic appearance. We started with the usual stuff: where are you from, what do you do…? I learned that she was a chemist intern who would love to be hired by the company I work for: Bayer. After the small talk, we somehow, maybe it was on her mind too, came to the topic of the elections. She introduced her self as a Muslim, non-practicing. I found this to be an interesting way to define herself. A catholic (especially one that is non-practicing) typically wouldn’t define themselves as a catholic in terms of their racial or ethnic background. She wore no head covering, and otherwise traditional “western” clothing. But her face, her face and her hair color is what gave her away. This was of no consequence to me until I realized what it meant to her and her new perspective of how she felt she could fit in her current place in the world. Which, I’ll cut to the chase, following the election results, she felt she didn’t fit at all.
And here is where it got really interesting – she was born in Germany! Yet, she now felt she did not belong, in the place of her birth because of her appearance and her implied connection with a religious group. This is where the conversation became startlingly eye-opening for me. I too was living temporarily in Germany, but thanks to my Northern European roots and my wardrobe acquired in Germany, I had come to the point where everyone thought I was a local. So much so that when I traveled to other arts of Europe people would be more inclined to think I was German than American! And here was a woman who was born in Germany and suddenly felt she did not belong, and this part made me profoundly sad, was no longer safe in her own home. To make matters worse for her, she was recently married to a refugee who struggled to find work and also felt at risk of attack.
Then the situation became more dire. She talked about her former dream of moving to America, which she now wasn’t so sure about following our own elections and general sentiments toward Islamic people in the US. I reassured her that there were places where she could live and be safe. But, again, I found myself reeling from learning about her view on the world.
Then I sat back and wondered what did these guys (AFD) really hope to accomplish. They say they want to preserve and protect the “traditions of Germany”. But, if new people were coming in, couldn’t it be that new traditions could be accommodated while the old were preserved?
They campaigned on a platform of no Islamic mosques, but how can you welcome people in to your country for safety and not allow them to express their religion? Is the only way to thrive in a new place to adopt the local religion instead of making space for diverse religions? Ok, I visited Turkey and I experienced the intrusiveness of the call to prayer ringing out so loudly from a nearby mosque that we literally were forced to stop talking until it concluded. But is this so different from the lovely loud church bells that ring from towering spires in the center of every German town many times a day?
I know that there are elements of good and evil mixed in with all these establishments, but I couldn’t wonder if the AFD strategy was beginning from a place that could never win. People voted for them for many reasons – some out of fear of change, others perhaps out of hatred, some in reaction to feeling out of control. But, I wondered if this vote would only do more to empower the forces of terror in the Islamic world?
Many of these thoughts developed in my next conversation so I didn’t talk about it with my new friend. I wrapped up our conversation by encouraged her to keep studying, train in Krav Maga, stay alert, and don’t give up on America. We parted with a hug and a smile. Me, saddened, but also grateful for “the time in between” where two worlds serendipitously collided.
My taxi pulled up, and I dashed across the intersection (of course only after the little man went green – I was still in Germany after all!) and climbed in. As we made our way to the autobahn, he grumbled about the mix-up and the traffic. I shared with him my experience at the beer joint. And this is where the day took yet another interesting turn.
My driver was a native born German who had deep German roots and a traditional upbringing. I couldn’t miss the chance to gain his perspective on the election. He shared with me his take on where the vote came from – a point of deep-rooted frustration in the German populace. The decision to take in a large refugee population had created local strains in services and public spaces. Welcoming people into your community but asking them to exclusively follow your rules had (I would say not surprisingly) caused some rubs in small communities. Many refugees are still not allowed to work and struggled to learn the German language. There is no safe place to where they can return but it appears many people feel there is no plan to appropriately integrate them as contributing members of German society. Add on top of this the high tax rates in German and abundance of social systems, all of it came together with some tragic terror attacks to stir up nationalism similar to what is seen around the world. This is a gross simplification of all the social factors, but was the gist of what we discussed.
At the end of the day I found myself with quite a lot to contemplate as I considered the plight of my two very different German native-born conversational partners. One who feels like she no longer belongs in her home, but had no home to wish to flee. I failed to mention her parents live in Turkey and she is Kurdish, so no option for her to safely return. Another who feels his tax burden is increasing with no end in sight and his homeland is being invaded and not respected by a people who struggle to adopt the local customs either out of blunt disrespect or lack of understanding.
I debated if I would even write about this on my blog because I fear it could create some non-productive discussion, but I’m still a believer in the power of sharing stories to learn about others. It is for this reason that I offer this to you and I encourage you to think harder before you look only at the outside of a man or a woman or a child and think you know that person. Because the truth is that what is on the outside is often only the beginning of the story and what lies underneath may be very surprising indeed.