Dignity in the details

kaffee zum hier trinken

Image courtesy of Cafe Arkona in Berlin

Last night as I fell asleep the image of a coffee cup came to mind. In this moment the coffee itself was beside the point; it was the feel of the smooth white ceramic in my hands, the matching saucer that would surely come with it, a cookie or two on the side. It could come from any café in Berlin at all. It’s just the way things are done here; coffee is served with dignity.

In one of our first weeks here I learned the phrase zum mitnehmen, which felt like a personal triumph because it’s such a drawn-out way to ask for your order “to go,” but over the months I’ve come to appreciate zum hier trinken. I’d like the cup-and-saucer treatment, please.  

I will miss ordering a coffee at an outdoor café, being served a drink at my table, and sensing the implied freedom to sit there until I’m ready to leave, and only then settling my bill for a simple cup of coffee. I love being entrusted with this act; I am trusted not to leave without paying. I am not expected to stand and wait at the counter until my order is complete. There is dignity in the transaction; the person making the drink is often the one who will deliver it to my table, served with a whimsical design in the foam, as if I’ve done them an honor in gracing their establishment, these simple acts lending any nondescript café an air of refinement.

It’s these little things that I’ll miss the most. The glass stein you’re handed at an outdoor regatta party on a brick patio, instead of the plastic beer cup I expected. Candles lit at every café and restaurant table through the winter; you’re graced with warm light and trusted not to burn the place down. Lunch served on breakable plates to the children at my daughter’s Schülerläden, regardless of their growth spurts and bumbling ways. Even children are trusted with good things.

I will miss the ubiquitous deposits on glasses of all kinds, in places I didn’t expect; at the skating rink, a pfand on my coffee mug, at the Christmas market, a pfand on my glühwein glass. Keep it if you want to; you’ve already paid for it. Not interested in a frosted glass emblazoned with the Weihnachtsmarkt am Potsdamer Platz logo? Collect your three euros on your way out, when you return the glass in one piece. There is trust in the private sphere that you’ll take care not to break the wares; there’s a system for the public places to ensure people don’t walk off with their containers unwittingly. Neither space opts for the American way: Give us Styrofoam, give us paper plates, give us plastic.

I will miss the once-awkward dance at the supermarket register. In the US I find clerks too eager with their query, “Need a bag?,” at least a few of them implying you don’t. Here they don’t bother to ask. They’ll pile your groceries at the end of the counter with no question of how you plan to get those things home; that’s your business. If you’ve forgotten to bring your own bags, feel free to ask for a Tüte from the clerk; they’ll give you a bag and charge you for the convenience. The incentives are as they should be.

I will miss being able to order an apfelschorle to drink with a meal out—half sparkling water, half apple juice, poured from two containers, a common drink choice here. Back home the choices are too often reduced to syrupy, carbonated concoctions: Pepsi, Sprite, Dr. Pepper. Super-sweet drinks made for childish tastes, dispensed from a machine.

I will miss finding the eggs on a shelf in the middle of the grocery store, because they don’t actually need to be refrigerated.

I will miss the tiny cobblestones placed artfully along every sidewalk, every bike path, every corner curb. Never poured concrete scored to give the appearance of laid slabs. Always small stones requiring artisanship in their placement. Always the real thing.

The way if someone stops you on the street or interrupts your reading at a subway stop, it’s because they have a real question and they think you can provide the answer. They want to know if this train will take them the way they need to go, or if this street will lead to the one they seek. There is no need to suspect they plan to corner you for conversation or for money. Beggars have different codes; they sit outside the entrance to a church, their shawl spread before them, or they make a polite, sometimes slurred verbal appeal on the train, and the most indigent merely rattle a cup of scant change before them, drop a simple phrase, Für Essen.

They are willing to engage even the more bedraggled among us in conversation; they won’t dismiss a stranger for their crooked teeth or untameable hair. They won’t snub someone for their thick middle, their ill-chosen socks, their pants pulled too high.

I’ve had rowers walk past me without a glance at my boathouse in Minneapolis on occasion, my own hello in the stairwell not always reciprocated, but here it is, and usually initiated by someone else, often a stranger, sometimes a child. A small boy in his Wannsee rowing uniform, yawning on the stairs waiting for his mates, surprises me with a sleepy “Morgen” as I pass, though he has no obligation to do so. But then again, maybe he does.

There is dignity in the details.

11 thoughts on “Dignity in the details

  1. Hanna

    Very nicely observed. But how does this fit with the assumptions that the Germans are so unfriendly and the Americans nice (like in “American nice”, which Germans mostly consider to be rather superficial.
    I agree: There is attention to detail in Germany, and I am glad, you appreciate this!

    1. Jill M. Post author

      I wonder if Americans come across as “nice” because, in my experience, they smile more often and seem more eager to please. And maybe Germans come across as unfriendly because they don’t feel compelled to smile for just any old reason, and they’re willing to share a contrary opinion and say what they think, trusting that you can handle their difference of opinion. Maybe? Big smile?

      1. Hanna

        that is actually, what Germans think about themselves when they get immersed in German-American comparisons. I am not sure, but you certainly picked up something here.

      1. Amy

        It’s true, it’s all of the little things, but they add up quickly to a different quality of life, a different mindset, a different attitude and different priorities. All of those little things end up being quite a big deal.

  2. Chris G

    When you get home, you may feel disillusioned and pissed off, like I did. But eventually, that will subside and your German experience will become part of you…all 5 of you. Every country has its good points and bad points, even the good ol’ USA. (It reminds me of the old Talking Heads song: “Cities”. Look it up if you don’t know it!). Mach’s gut!

    1. Jill M. Post author

      Interesting reaction! (disillusioned, pissed off). I wonder how we’ll all do this summer. I guess we’ll find out soon enough. Found the song — great lyrics!

  3. Sue in Newton

    Beautifully written, Jill. I have been reading your blog and marveling at every observation so carefully mulled over and described with care and wisdom. Sorry it has taken me so long to leave a reply. Thank you for sharing this with us.


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