It started when I was biking down my street towards Kowalski’s, and I passed a young girl, maybe 10 years old, jogging on the sidewalk towards me. I glanced at her but didn’t recognize her, so I looked away, but she lifted her hand and waved to me and gave me a big smile. “Whose kid is that?” I thought to myself, but realized I did not know her at all; she was just being friendly. I think I returned the wave from my bike but resisted it; didn’t your mother teach you not to engage strangers?, I wondered. She was overly friendly, perhaps, but then I’ve come to expect that based on my recent dog walks in the neighborhood—my god, we’re a smiley people! Smiling at perfect strangers, exchanging “Good morning!” greetings as if we’d been friends for years, or making offhand comments as we pass, often to the effect of “What a beautiful dog!” or “Gorgeous day, isn’t it?”
I parked my bike in front of Kowalski’s, where an off-duty grocery bagger was waiting for the bus. She told me she’d just finished her shift and was heading home now, for no reason except that I was trapped there, locking up my bike, and she exclaimed when I pulled out my canvas grocery bags, “Oh! You brought your own bags! Isn’t that nice of you.”
I looked at her in surprise. I didn’t bring them to be nice; I brought them because it’s good to reduce, reuse, recycle—isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? But of course America doesn’t work that way, it wasn’t that way at Seward Co-op either when I shopped there yesterday. Grocery clerks everywhere hand out paper and plastic bags all the time, as many as you want, no questions asked, and no money charged for the favor. I must say I do prefer the German system, once I learned how it worked: bring your own bags, or pay for the convenience of buying bags from the store. Put the incentive where it belongs, like the Germans have. As long as the bags are free, why would anyone bother bringing their own? You almost feel stupid for carrying used bags, like I did when this clerk herself remarked on it, especially when the crisp new paper ones and unsoiled plastic bags are there for the taking, even doublebagged for me in paper at Whole Foods when I stopped in on the way home from the airport for a few small items.
As I went inside the store’s sliding doors, I instinctively reached for my purse to fish out a one euro coin to unlock a shopping cart, and then remembered I didn’t need one here; the carts are all there for the taking. Some stores, like Target, have those anti-theft devices that lock the cart’s wheels should you try to take one off the premises, but Kowalski’s doesn’t appear too worried that its shoppers will make off with their carts. No locks of any kind in sight, which was nice.
I lingered at the cut flowers but they struck me as past their prime and overpriced at $8.99 and up, so I passed them by with a sigh, missing the four euro tulips I picked up for weeks on end this spring.
I made it to the produce section and ran into my next problem. I picked out some bananas from the display, and as I did I lifted my eyes, and a heavyset woman with a blond ponytail by the yogurts looked back at me. I ignored her, I thought, and moved on to grab a cucumber from the bin. When I turned back to my cart there she was again, and once again I caught her eye without meaning to. A moment later I reached the end of the aisle, and as I did she came up to me, startling me by asking, “Do I know you?”
I looked at her and shook my head.
“I noticed you looking at me a couple of times and I wondered if we knew each other,” she went on. “You look sort of familiar, but…”
I looked at her face more closely as if to confirm, but knew without a doubt that I had never see this person before.
“You look sort of familiar to me too,” I said feebly. “Do you have kids at JJ Hill?” But of course she didn’t; this was a complete stranger, and I laughed it off, “Maybe we’ve seen each other around the neighborhood,” and pushed my cart toward the dairy aisle to dismiss her, realizing that I’d been called out for staring at a stranger. Which was weird, because I’d thought it was she who had been staring at me. I think all those months in Berlin of looking at strangers without acknowledging them, letting them stare at me because that’s what they do and then feeling entitled to stare right back, has seeped into my ways. I must have been behaving in some un-American way that I wasn’t even aware of.
At the deli counter I was grateful for English; I could ask for three slices of thick-cut pancetta and be understood. As the woman behind the counter unwrapped the meat I recalled the times I’d stood at the Kaiser’s deli counter nervously, trying to stammer out the words I’d rehearsed, “Ich hätte gerne drei Stücke hühnchen” or“Funf hundert grams Hackfleisch, bitte,” knowing that the woman behind the counter would grimace as soon as the first words left my lips as if to shield herself from my pronunciation, after which I’d hope that what I’d asked for matched what M was expecting for the meal. More than once I’d come home with the wrong thing, such as three packages of chicken ready for breading instead of three already-breaded pieces of schnitzel from behind the counter, a result of my attempts to avoid all linguistic interactions.
I appreciated the “Did you find everything okay?” query from the Kowalski’s clerk at the register, as that was something I was never asked at Kaiser’s, and without fail I always had troubling finding something in that store. Not that I wanted to converse with anyone about it.
I biked home with my groceries on the back of my bike just like I did in Berlin, except here I wear my helmet even to go just the few blocks because I don’t want to get glared at by passersby, whereas I used to cross the entire city without one in Berlin, helmets being few and far between there.
I find myself hesitant to cross the street on a red light now unless there is truly no one around, behaving like the law-abiding Berliners I used to make fun of. I am surprised at the persistent jaywalkers who run across the street against the light around here. And I don’t want to talk to strangers at a transit stop, by the way, as happened yesterday when I took a trip on the new light rail for the first time with my daughter; why must people strike up conversations with perfect strangers, just because they have the misfortune of being in the same place at the same time?
I find myself missing the anonymity of Berlin, the ability to blend in without even trying, rather than constantly smiling and waving and trying to figure out whether a stranger is going to approach me and say something that doesn’t need to be said.