I’m not sure why, but today I interacted with a few strangers differently. In my current world especially, it feels like the little things can really make or break a situation. I can’t figure out what was different about today, but I definitely had a new approach. Was I braver? Maybe. Maybe I was just forced to change out of necessity. Maybe I’m less ashamed that I am not yet fluent in German. Maybe willing to let my English Expat Flag fly a little more freely.
Firstly, I was in the grocery line, half way through checking out, and for once there was no one behind me. While the cashier scanned my items, my phone rang with an unrecognizable German number. I answered. A man speaking very fast Bavarian was on the other end. While attempting to bag my groceries and balance the phone on my shoulder — I’m so cosmopolitan like that — I answered what I could, but then I had to tell the man in German that my German is not that good, and that he needs to speak more slowly. He repeated his words, just as quickly and just as unrecognizable as before. Bavarians.
I was at a bit of a loss. I was trying to recognize anything that the man was saying, but I couldn’t parse out a name, or a company, or anything. Clearly wanted to talk with Frau Underhill and clearly he has something to say, but damned if I could figure it out. The cashier was bearing witness to all of this. I occasionally caught a sympathetic look from him. Then I locked eyes and had an idea.
“Sprechen Sie Englisch?” I asked the cashier with what was likely a wild look in my eye. He looked around. There was still no one in line behind me. “Ein bisschen,” he confessed while looking down. Without anything except a “Bitte,” I handed him my phone. He looked startled, but as I didn’t give him much choice and he clearly was an empathetic, kind human, he took the phone and conversed with the Bavarian. I understood everything the cashier was saying in German, so that was good. It turns out a delivery I was expecting Thursday between 1 -2 was on my doorstep, Tuesday at 12. Bavarians. I told him I could be home in ten minutes. He told the delivery guy and then gave me back my phone.
He finished ringing up my groceries and we continued talking in German. I told him I’d only been here 5 months and I thanked him profusely for his help. He admitted that the Bavarian dialect is a hard one, even for the native German speakers.
I pedaled my groceries home and hailed the patient delivery man with a hearty German greeting and apology. I do pretty good in context, so he and I were able to communicate well enough in person, thank goodness. He laughed and said he had no idea why I thought he’d be there on Thursday (um, because that’s what we scheduled), but all’s well that ends well.
There is one other exchange that stands out for me today. While walking back from the bakery, fruit stand, and seamstress, I noticed the man approaching me in the opposite direction was wearing a Salem, Massachusetts, t-shirt. That took me by such surprise that I said, “Salem?” as he started past me.
He stopped and smiled. “Yes,” he replied (in perfect English). You’re from there?”
“Yes, but we moved here 5 months ago.”
“Brilliant,” he replied. “I went to Salem for holiday last year.” We both smiled, waved, and continued on our respective way. I can’t say stopping perfect strangers on the street and talking with them is very common here, but it certainly put a spring in my step today.