They stare whether you’ve done something mildly interesting or nothing at all, and maybe that’s the most disconcerting part. You never know what it was that drew their attention to you.
It’s blatant, the stares; Germans don’t seem to have that American need to avert the eyes. Standing or sitting on a train, walking down the sidewalk, browsing in a store… if you’re out in public, you’re fair game. If you’re sitting on your balcony and are visible to residents across the street, you’ve offered yourself up for observation as well.
They’ll look you over from head to toe, taking in your hairstyle or lack thereof; they’ll follow the line of your coat, note your hemline, ogle your shoes. Then they may move on to someone else nearby, or they may return to look at your face again, to take in your features. Or just rest their eyes. Because it’s hard to say whether you’ve captured their attention or if you just happen to fall within their line of sight.
Americans are good at observing without seeming to stare; they’ll go to great lengths to pretend they never noticed you at all. You may glance at someone to see them turning away, making you unsure whether they were looking you over or merely turning their head.
I remember a planning professor at the University of Minnesota, a California native, saying that she knew she looked good if she saw a Minnesota man quickly avert his eyes when she turned toward him.
Germans are masters of the art of walking towards you, looking you in the eye, but feeling no need to break into a smile to soften the stare. They’re just observing. I’m hard-wired to smile at the oncoming pedestrian, sure that they’ll eventually smile back. It doesn’t always work.
Eye contact is one of those rules of the street that are hardly captured in the guidebooks. You have to learn it by feel, what’s a compliment, what’s disdain. What other messages you might be sending.
In France, during a college semester abroad, I was walking home alone one night when a man came walking towards me on the narrow sidewalk. I looked him in the eye, and that was my mistake. He turned swiftly, took my elbow and tried to steer me into a parking garage down the street from my host family’s house. Startled, outraged, I broke free of him and ran home, my hands shaking as I tried to get the key in the lock. It was only in the days after that, talking to friends, and French friends in particular, that I understood I’d broken the taboo. French women aren’t supposed to look men in the eye, not strange men on a dark street. Only a prostitute would do so.
M can’t stand it, the extent of the German staring.
The other day M returned from taking C to school in a foul mood, having encountered two over-the-top starers. On the S-Bahn with C, a man seated across from them could not take his eyes off of them for some reason. He looked them up and down, taking in every detail, for minutes on end, to hear it told. M finally glared at him, staring at him directly into his eyes, forcing the man to break his glance and look away. Maybe only then did he realize what he was doing. Or more likely he didn’t realize he was treading on American sensibilities.
During that same trek to school, walking the final blocks, a boy biked past, and as he did, turned back to gaze at M and C. Why? What could be so remarkable about a father and daughter on their way to school? Tweaked, M barked at him, Ja??!! And the boy biked off, startled.
Me, I don’t mind the Germans staring so much. Their stares tell me that I’m real, that I’m not invisible to those around me.
So much of the time I am without words, unable to grasp the German conversation, unable to chime in with my own voice. There are times when I feel like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, able to experience all that is happening around me, but unable to interact with those before me. The proverbial fly on the wall.
When a German stares at me I am reassured that I am seen, I am present, I am accounted for. I’m still here.