Sandwiched: A Tale of Two Needy Commuters and Me

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You Aren’t My Kid

I’m calling this week weird, even though the reportage spans from last Thursday to this Wednesday. Mainly two events stuck out: a German mother sort of shoving her son, aged, I don’t know, I guess 10 or 11, at me as my commuter train pulled up to the platform, asking me, ‘Are you traveling to Aachen?’ ‘No,’ I replied, ‘I get out earlier than that.’ But in her odd desperation, she said, ‘My son is traveling to Aachen’ then to the kid, ‘Honey, sit by this lady.’ Huh? So I get on the train and this vaguely plump, freckle faced kid with a big backpack hunched on his back and a cell phone he’s already thumbing in his hands, plunks down across from me in the S-Bahn. I didn’t want the responsibility for some stranger’s kid. I contemplated completely ignoring him from the get go. I guess kids his age aren’t allowed to travel alone in this country. Kids under 12 aren’t allowed to hang out and eat without an adult or older brother/sister at McD either. We have to actually first approach such kids and ask where their parents/older sibs are, and if they don’t have any with them, ask them to leave or we have to call the police to pick them up and take them safely home. OMG. In America I never noticed anyone so hyper caring about the age of child customers and, because, in America, I rarely used public transit, I had no clue about kids traveling alone on a train. But wait…

Greyhound Bus Trip

As a child, my sisters and I boarded a Greyhound bus in Iowa and took a parent planned trip to see our grandma in Iowa City for a few days. I think our parents were off house hunting but they were definitely not on the bus with us. We sat together, our small suitcases on our laps, and looked around the bus or just out the window as Iowa rolled by. No one bothered us but the bus toilet bothered me. As a tike I needed to use that ominous bus toilet located in the back of the bus. Upon reaching the door of said haven of personal relief, I was hit by the warm humid stench of a public toilet. It was filled with eu de dihorrea. I think I couldn’t really effectively reach the toilet seat, being too small at that time, so I gave up and held my urges until we got to grandma’s place. Scan back to the kid across from me in the train…

The Lone Rider

He looked happy. He smiled as he texted someone or played some game, maybe he was relieved to be free of Mom for a while. So I asked him, ‘Why are you going to Aachen?’ ‘I have a meeting with someone.’ Oh. He sounded so important, like he had an interview or a date even, but he was only 10 or 11. Ok. Arriving at my point of departure, I stood up and said, ‘Have fun in Aachen.’ He beamed, like he had plans far cooler than I could imagine. ‘Thanks!’

The Hitcher

That night, after 8 hours of McWork, I stood in the S-Bahn, braced for the slowed car and chunking of the breaks, when a tall man with John Lennon glasses and hedgehog short hair with gray at the temples came swooping up behind me. WTF? I recognized him from several years ago, back in my old bus and train commute daze to Aachen and back to attend German language for non-German dummies. He was always in the bus as it pulled up to my village stop, and sat ram rod straight, unsmiling and rarely spoke with anyone. Sometimes he was accompanied by an equally ram rod straight young woman, whom I assumed was his sister or girlfriend, but they never touched hands or lips so I was never sure. He looked Russian to me, in the days before I realized that most Russians in Germany are pale and have blue eyes. He was olive skinned, seemed to have dark eyes and straight black hair. He looked like a snob and a nerd, which translates to, probably actually shy and smart. Back in those days, I tried smiling once in his direction, a little curious about him after overhearing a snatch of rare conversation in the bus about a French translator in a village our bus was just rolling through. I assumed from then on this guy was also a translator. Fast forward several years, in which I didn’t ride the bus or commute to Aachen any more…

Meet Mr. Lennon

He stood next to me, and as the train stopped and we exited side by side, he didn’t pick up the pace to go past me, nor did he slow down to fall behind. Instead he said, ‘You live in Village X, don’t you?’ I was taken aback. I felt vaguely spied out actually. Had I been stalked? Then I remembered, he’d seen me board the train at Village X long ago and for a year in a row, so of course. I looked down at his immaculate, pointed toe, brown leather, oxford shoes and said, ‘Yes.’ He wanted a ride. Not to his home, not to Village X but to a destination a bit beyond Village X and he’d walk home the rest of the way. I thought of his shoes, not at all proper for a hike of any distance. He explained that usually he just walked home, a considerable feat as it would involve over an hour’s hike, uphill, on narrow roads and without footpaths or street lighting the majority of the way. I knew the many webbed field and forest ways one could take here and there to avoid car traffic but at night they are generally dark, uneven, sometimes swampy even, and some of these paths cross wild pig territory and wild pigs are nocturnally active so I said, ‘No problem,’ and he apologized and said immediately that I shouldn’t worry, that he wouldn’t make a habit of asking me for rides. Some part of me worried though, as we walked to the deep end of the semi-dark train station parking lot, I recalled some years ago, after a late shift, a young black man, before the Refugee Crisis in Europe, standing in that same parking lot and asking me for a ride.

Parking Lot Problems

He’d missed the last bus. He’d have to wait til 5 a.m. for one to arrive and take him where, Mr. Lennon, just said he lived (with is parents). I said, ‘Sorry, no. I don’t know you. If you follow the road signs, it takes about and hour or an hour and a half to walk there. Or call a taxi,’ and had hurried to unlock my car, shut the door and lock it from the inside. Back then, thinking the situation was over, I’d pulled out and started to pick up speed by some glass recycling dumpsters, when this black guy jumped at my moving car and banged on the windows yelling in a language I still haven’t learned. It was that banging on my car window that sent my heart racing. I suddenly felt I might be in danger, something I hadn’t felt in that parking lot up to that point. Wind forward to Mr. Lennon standing by the passenger door of my car.

Back to Mr. Lennon

‘Get in,’ I said, but he hesitated, as if the child safety lock was on, and mumbled something. I guess he thought, ‘Ladies first,’ or questioned his motives, but I just wanted to get home, put my really tired feet up, kiss my husband and watch some t.v. from the vantage of our sofa before crashing exhaustively into bed. It didn’t occur to me that maybe he didn’t trust me. I got in after him, slamming the door, popped the CD player off remarking, ‘Pet Shop Boys,’ and pulled out of the parking lot. I drove extra carefully, noticing he kept turning to look at me as he spoke instead of addressing the windshield, like I usually do when talking to a car driver. I found this disconcerting, maybe even intimate, where intimacy wasn’t wanted. I didn’t have to say much because he jabbered the whole way. Maybe he was really nervous, or lonely, or just plain super relieved not to have to walk uphill and hour or so to get home. The night was clear, the temperature comfortable, an ideal night to walk uphill if one wanted to. But those brown leather lace up shoes were wrong for the hike. What had he been thinking when he put those dandies on his massively long feet that morning? ‘I think I’ll hit up someone for I ride home tonight’? Maybe he’d forgotten to bring his sneakers that day or accidentally left them in his place of work. 

Caught in the Jaws

His chatter ranged from some school teacher lady he knew in Village Y, next to my village, her name a name I’d never heard, but then I only know one name of someone from Village Y, to what he’d studied at the university, to how he rides his bike to/from the train station sometimes (another amazingly arduous feat uphill or in the dark) and had almost been run over by a motorcyclist, blah blah, excitedly pointing at the long gone by side of the country road remarking, ‘Was that a cat or a fox?!’ He spoke quickly, fluent German, no accent, Hoch Deutsch. After a 5 minute drive that had felt like 50, I let him out at a dark stop sign, anywhere from a half hour to 45 minute distance from his supposed home, depending on what Village Z, A or B on the edge of the small town or what part of the town he called his parents’ home.

I shook his hand, more as a gesture to say, ‘Ok, now that’s the end of that’ and he shook mine with the German firm grip, mentioning his first name, like we were now pals in the night, and I stupidly blurted my first name back. He got out saying, ‘Thanks, you saved me a lot of time! Now I can get home and do some more work.’ I made a U-turn and reached home and told my guy about Mr. Lennon. He seemed not at all concerned about my random act of kindness but later said, ‘You aren’t responsible for helping him though.’ The man’s name, he said, sounded Croatian. True. The event started to haunt me.

Avoidance Activities

The next day it poured rain. At the last minute, as ‘You Were Always on My Mind’ pulsed out of the car speakers, I took another exit on the roundabout and drove all the way to work and back, totally avoiding the train station. It was an enjoyable 40 minute commute and later 40 minutes back but it had cost me money. Usually I traveled with a Job Ticket. The next shift I worked found me at the train station parking lot around midnight, no Mr. Lennon in sight. I felt relieved. The next shift, I didn’t ask my shift leader to please let me go 10 minutes early so I could catch the train, instead I missed that train so I’d avoid the same arrival time where Mr. Lennon might again appear. I sat in the McD personnel lounge, reading a book about teens who form a punk band in Iowa called The Rash, and realizing, I was over-doing the avoidance activity, and at my own expense: money and timewise. I came home an hour later than The Night of Mr. Lennon and he was nowhere in sight again. I felt additionally relieved. I resolved, should he approach me again, to say, ‘I’m sorry but I think you need to find a better solution to your travel problem’ e.g. why not call his girlfriend (I believe in the babble he had mentioned one) or what about those parents he lived with? Or splurge on a taxi or even get a scooter, if not a moped or motorbike, if his job didn’t fit his personal nighttime busless train station needs. But I won’t need to say anything, as long as I don’t see him around again. Like I hadn’t seen him around since that German language course for foreign dummies long ago.

But It’s Just Not American!

Every summer, a local grocery chain in Germany has an ‘America’ week, where food items resembling those from my homeland are grouped together for a quick browse and grab and go. Each year, I browse the American food. Here I find almost every item labeled with the stars and stripes, like the ‘Traditional Barbeque* Marshmallows,’ but almost every item’s place of manufacture lies within the European Union. Take these marshmallows, for example: a product of Belgium. I must admit, they taste BETTER than American marshmallows, although they have the same soft, powdery exterior, are white and spongy and sweet, they also taste like vanilla. The vanilla is new for me. I used to consider American marshmallows just pure white sugar taste. Belgian marshmallows are really tastier!

But some other American food in this grocery store just doesn’t totally fulfill my occasional longing for rare items from home. Where is the Libby’s pumpkin in a can? The last time I ate a slice of pumpkin pie, made with Carnation evaporated milk and Libby’s pumpkin puree, was almost a decade ago. That strange dry baked pumpkin texture and the glossy rust orange top of the pumpkin pie…can’t be replicated in Germany because, my store doesn’t know that canned pumpkin puree is a staple in American kitchens. Where is the moist, sandy brown sugar? Not the table sugar that is brown and doesn’t cling together when you take a handful of it in your palm and squeeze. Where are the Nestle chocolate chips? The Aunt Jemima anything from maple syrup to pancake mixes? Nope. Cracker Jacks? Plain old Kellogg’s Rice Crispies (to make marshmallow treats)? No. Buy a ticket to America and shop girl, ’cause you are out of luck during the German grocery store’s America week.

What is there? Heinz ketchup. I didn’t miss that though. Multi-flavored jelly beans, a European copy of Jelly Belly Beans are ok. Peanut butter in creamy and chunky, both taste like what I’d find at home. But these vanilla flavored blueberry muffins? No. The brownies? Not chewy at all but some kind of quickly dissolving fluffy chocolate cake square and there are no walnuts here. Tortillas. Fine. But where is the green salsa for these tortilla chips? I only see red.
Moving on to things that seem American, I must mention how many customers I see wearing Uncle Sam brand sweatshirts and T-shirts with, you know it, Uncle Sam, with his long goat like face and that indicative index finger indicating YOU yes YOU, are the real American and the wearer of these clothes is 99% guaranteed not to hold an American passport in Germany. How many New York Yankee baseball caps have I seen, to the exclusion of all other teams’ caps here? My sister, a Bostonian now, offered to send Red Sox caps, just to add some variety to the market. Maybe I could sell them at my local farmer’s market? But no one plays baseball in Germany.

How about those American flag neck scarves, made of some polyester blend fluff and draped around German ladies’ necks? What’s that about? Are they liking the red, white and blue colors or is this supposed to indicate ‘I’m a fan of the USA’ or just ‘I wish I was there, not here’ or what? These scarves are all over Germany. Then the T-shirts with Route 66 or various US college names or town names even. One day I asked a kid, wearing a San Diego T-shirt if he knew what state San Diego was in. He had no clue. I ask people wearing these T-shirts what year they graduated from said college. They look confused back at me. It occurs to me that many customers a) don’t know what they are wearing b) don’t know what their shirt says. Sometimes I’ll tell a customer, ‘I like what your T-shirt says,’ and the person doesn’t know what it says, translated to German. Some shirts are very positive and say simple things like ‘Happy Girl.’ Which brings me to a good point: be careful about wearing clothes with ‘hip’ looking foreign languages on them, if you don’t know what it says, don’t go walking around in it, thinking no one will notice you are wearing a dumb phrase across your chest. There are many grammatically incorrect T-shirts printed in English circulating in Germany. They make me smile but…you shouldn’t have to wear grammatically incorrect T-shirts in English in Germany.

There are American flag printed key chains and purses, I am not sure why a German wants to carry these around. To look American, perhaps? Why that? I highly doubt that an American in Germany would wear the American flag in any shape or form. It seems stupid to do so, to me at least. I don’t see Germans wearing their flag as a polyester blend scarf, so what’s with my country’s flag?

As an American in Germany, I think the American food thing and the American clothes with an American flag print at least are verging on lame. It is sweetly sad to see that a grocery chain tries to cater to a population that still dreams of a trip to, if not immigration to, America, but with food they most likely could only find in, well, Germany or the EU countries. Remember the Belgian marshmallows? Imagine going to America in search of marshmallows and discovering that they don’t taste like they ‘should,’ like ones back ‘home,’ in Germany? Those Traditional Barbeque Marshmallows with nice vanilla flavor.

*how it’s spelled on the package at least

My Good, Bad and even Ugly Buys in Germany: Tips for Newbies in DE

Coming to Germany, I had only two suitcases of belongings in tow, and my cat. Those suitcases were packed with: clothes for warm and cold seasons (including a long wool coat and a 90s era brown leather jacket that looked like Indiana Jones had worn it while being dragged behind that truck in the ‘Temple of Doom’), a small number of generations of family photos, a favorite vibrator, those 10 pairs of Hanes boxer shorts for my man-to-be, a small selection of favorite DVDs and CDs, a little make-up, an umbrella with cats and dogs on it I bought at Kings Cross train station in London half a decade before (think: It’s Raining Cats and Dogs), and two pairs of shoes. I did mail two small boxes containing my art and creative writing, old US taxes, etc., and my genealogy notes before I left America. Upon arrival in Frankfurt , these were all my life’s posessions. It seemed like a lot! Especially to roll around that airport, with a cat in a carrier bag on top too.

So, what have I bought in the eight and a bit years since I came to Germany, that I consider now ‘good buys’? Here is my list, which anyone coming to Germany from America (or elsewhere) might find useful:

  1. an international DVD player. I bought one from Amazon in the UK and my German guy rewired the plug so it would fit in a German electrical outlet. Silly me, I didn’t know that in Germany my yoga DVDs or favorite films I’d towed in my luggage wouldn’t play on a German zone DVD player! An investment of about 35 Euros that has been really worth it because I use that machine every week!

  2. A dumb cell phone from Samsung for again, 35 Euros. This is not a ‘smart’ phone with an internet connection and all the bells and whistles. It’s a practical phone that uses a simple pre-paid, Ja! Mobil phonecard available at REWE grocery stores. As I know next to no one here and rarely use this phone anyway, this is a great savings over a landline phone with a monthly bill and ditto over a ‘smart’ phone. I can still send SMS or call for help, so that’s about all I really need. The cheapest pre-paid comes at 15 Euros and this kind of connection is, for those of you in Germany, great for people living outside big cities, where the O2/Fonic connection is weak. O2 is better for those of you who live in bigger cities! I had O2 for a few years after living in Cologne and found the signal so weak in my village that my house was a ‘Funkloch’…a no-connection zone. I don’t have a Funkloch with Ja! Mobil. How unhelpful that is when you are job hunting and waiting on a call! I had to go outside in winter and let the neighbors listen in! 

  3. Third on the Good Buys list is a Shiatzu ‘Massage Kissen’ for a tall backed chair, picked up at Aldi Süd for about 50 Euros, marked down. My husband and I use that back massager almost daily. A pair of hardish balls roll slowly up and down our backs, loosening up those tense muscles. Sadly, we had to replace it after three years (it died) and Aldi didn’t have any more on special, or at all even, so we bought a less satisfying one online from Amazon, but it’s better than no massage at all. Really nice after work, really nice in winter, even nice to wake up and sit there while sipping a cup of coffee.

  4. A tablet PC and a large computer monitor with a keyboard. I’m old school, but I like to save on power costs, so I got a tablet PC (nice for watching films in bed when wearing some ear buds! Or playing Candy Crush) and then, missing a phat keyboard and large screen for all my Web surfing, word processing and shopping, etc., I definitely needed the monitor and keyboard to broaden my typing and reading pleasure. Still costs heaps less, even after initial investment, than using that big humming box that had to sit on my desktop too!

  5. A Singer sewing machine. Here a new Singer goes for about 90 Euros. I bought one thinking I’d get back into sewing clothes, however, this machine gathered dust until recently, when I took up doing some patchwork. Still, every home needs a sewing machine. I have hemmed pants from the thrift store, added buttons and button holes to those colorful duvet covers originally from Ikea that don’t have any (and thus allow a lot of the duvet to creep out of the cover each night).

6. Shoe inlays. Say what?! No, I’m serious. If you live in Germany, and have German health insurance, you can get your feet looked at by an orthopedic doctor (this goes by fast, maybe 10 minutes max.), without having to see a house doctor first, and get a receipt for shoe inlays in three main thicknesses. You take this receipt to an inlay specialist, even my small town has one, who has you stand on a scanner bed and then makes a pair of inlays for your foot health and pleasure within a week. Just pull the useless, non-supportive shoe padding out of your German shoes, throw out those Dr. Scholls gell inserts, and lay these new babies in there.

A MUST for people who work on their feet all day or like to walk a lot. Not so practical for ladies who wear mid to high heels, best for flat to low heel shoes. In my town, these inlays cost 9 Euros for a pair of thinner ones or 20 Euros a pair for the thickest. I find they last a year with lots of wear and have made my walking and working life far more comfortable, not to mention helped my back, knees, ankles, etc. This cost is half the actual cost, as your German insurance covers the other half. No need to mail in any forms, just pick up the inlays, let the shop smooth them to fit in your favorite shoe, and you can get up to two pairs of these a year even. The thinnest work well in all shoes, the thickest need a wider shoe or a higher rounded toe box to fit in ok without squashing your toes/cutting off the blood flow. I recommend a soft constructed shoe so you have space to stretch the fabric/leather a bit for room if needed.

Bad Buys

Here is where I can maybe help you save some cash in Germany.

1. wrong pre-paid phone card for the region I lived in

2. shoes in Germany seem very expensive compared to what I used to buy in America and even though the quality is not better either, how many shoes I have bought and returned or bought, suffered with and then donated to charity? I am not willing to admit this!

3. spontaneous buys anywhere (but we all know this one), anything from food that whispered from aisles not previously explored, to too many flower pots and a few wild printed blouses that weren’t even worthy of cutting down for a quilting project…all non-edibles went back to or finally to, the local thrift store

4. a sofa I never used. At 40 Euros, it sat stiffly with its spring seats in a room I cleared out to make ‘A Room of My Own’ but got taken over by my husband’s expanding home improvement project materials. That sofa saw more wood, tools and other building supplies parked on it than it ever saw of my buns. After 5 years, it sat out on the curb for the garbage pick up as I have since adopted the dining room corner for ‘A Corner of My Own’ as well as the dining table for non-mealtime hobby work.

5. a backpack I found just wasn’t big enough for my work clothes, lunch box, a book, etc. I reverted back to a bigger pack I’ve now had for over 15 years!

6. several books in German that I started reading and found not worth finishing. These, prepare to be shocked, got chucked on the fire in our fireplace because, let’s face it, they were second hand, and wood. I know that sounds like the Nazi era (burning ‘degenerate’ books and art), but the books were truly crap, no one would cry over them going up in flames. My former library lady self sort of thrilled as they burned, but hey, you know by now, I just don’t fit all your stereotypes.

So there you have it, except for a specification of ‘ugly’ buys. Those were mainly some bad Deichmann shoes that split out because they were made of plastic or some synthetic ‘leather look’ and the soles wore out on my many treks through the woods. Back to thrift store and also spontaneous buys, I would say some clothes I picked up were at times ugly. There is a very fine line between ‘retro’ looking and downright not working even as hipster styled items. A pair of powder baby blue Clarks brand Mary Janes come to mind. They are back in the thrift store dumpster, awaiting a new spontaneous shopper victim.

From Minions to the Mammamobile

I have to say, I like the Minions for sale with the Happy Meal lately. This week features a Minion whose tongue is so authentically red, like liver, and sticks out when you press a button on his belly, that it has led me to run around work, pressing the button and say things like, ‘Leck mich!’ (lick me) or ‘Ich will eine Eistüte’ (I want an ice cream cone) to my already preoccupied co-workers. Yes, I am 50 now but who says maturity must be a 24/7 thing?

Last evening, I came home to yet another envelope, with no indication of the sender, lying on my dining room table. I hoped it was from the German pension folks because I had filled out forms twice for them, earlier in the year, and some foreign-sounding woman on the other end of the line (I half wondered how she had scored the Beamter job), in Hamburg, had told me, ‘Maybe you will be able to retire at 63.’ These golden words had cheered me through at rough patch at McD, and I made sure to hurry up and mail all the forms back on time, just in case! However, last night’s letter wasn’t from the pension people but from the folks who run the Mammamobile. The what?! Yes, in rural Germany, you don’t always find a clinic or hospital equipped with the right mammography x-ray machine, let alone specialist doctors qualified to analyze the x-rays. In the town nearest me, there is only one doctor with an ultrasound machine. It was on the fritz last week. But to the Mammamoblie (why not MammOmobile?)!

What’s this letter about? In Germany, all women who are 50-69 get a written ‘invitation’ to go for a mammogram every two years. As I turned 50 last year, I finally got my first invite, just shy of my 51st b-day. I haven’t been invited to anything in Germany but two art openings in Cologne, and I went to those, but somehow I think there will be no finger food in the Mammamobile. Oh goodie, should I ‘accept?’

If I choose to attend, I already even have a scheduled day and time, which I can change, if I need too, though nobody even asked me about my availability. My work/life balance. I was just invited to show up with my health insurance card and a filled out form (name of local doctor to share results of mammogram with, etc.) There will be no doctor at the Mammamobile, just an x-ray technician, man or woman, no one knows. To be determined. Whatever they see when snapping the four x-rays, won’t be discussed, but a letter will arrive in my mailbox within a week, telling me if things look healthy or need further scrutiny.

But, I don’t have to go. In Germany it’s optional. And if I, down the road, need breast help, my health insurance will cover it, whether or not I ever mounted the steps of the Mammamobile, to be parked in the Sport and School parking lot (school is out, it’s summer vacation). If I change my mind in the future, I can sit in tepid anticipation, knowing another, identical invitation will appeart in my mailbox in two more years, and two more after that, and so on, until I am beyond mammo-needs I guess, around 70. Then, I guess, it’s too late, and I’ll have definately missed the Mamma-bus. 

I wonder who will show up? Who else has that day of the work week off? Would I find myself standing with a lot of Germans or also other Immis (immigrants)? Are refugees invited? What cross section of the rural population will show up? Do Baptistin, married women with a chiffon scarf bobby pinned to their hair, attend? Aware that the ‘prep’ for the x-ray involves not wearing any deodorant, and realizing this takes place in a van or bus, parked in a parking lot where there is no shade, and the event takes place in early August, I’m thinking, this could get smelly. I reach for my tongue-poking Minion toy and push his belly button.

Knowing breast health is important and that friends and family have delt with cancer in my 50 years of lifetime, I am still not very motivated. I am more curious to see who shows up than to discover the state of my personal breast health. I tend to find women in the age group of 50 to 69 in Germany some of my most agressive, challenging, off-putting, negative and nosy customers. I vaguely worry that the rumors about fist-a-cuffs women from a local village down the road might be fullfilled should the line be long, the sun beating down, people short on free time and temper, let alone the bad stereotypes of peri- and menopausal women either suffering hot flashes or raging over nothing. More than a mammogram, I want to be the lady in the car parked in the shade across the street, with a drone, to observe, and maybe listen in on, what the heck goes on at a Mammamobile gathering and yet not have to be involved at all.

McMoments: Reflections of a McDoanlds Worker in Germany

What’s on my mind? The angry older German man, who stood before me yesterday, complaining about the increased price of his Big Mac McMenu, the lack of an illusory ‘paper’ that used to envelope the large portion of French fries (back when?), and by the way, ‘Why are you SMILING so much?!’ He scowled, taking his fully loaded, tough, red plastic tray and seating himself opposite from the service counter, as if his itch to be pissed about something needed further scratching by observing what he considered the robbery, cheapification, and mockery of his memory of McDonalds.

I wish I had simply said something like I used to say in America, like: Smiling? Because I’m insane but apparently still able to hold down a job. Want ketchup with those fries in the snappy upgraded packaging? Instead I said: Well, the price has gone up but so has my salary. I’m smiling because I’m happy to be alive. Glad you came by today. Hope we see you again soon.

I soon lost track of him, as the mid-day crowd of school kids, and mothers in search of the right color out of four Smurf Cottage for their kids’ in Happy Meals came in. The line of glad-to-be-out-of-school children formed a barrier of random balloon waving hyperactivity mixed with mothers on the verge of exasperation. Random construction workers and truck drivers zippered into the line, requesting cups of coffee, Coffee Choc Frappes, Gitter Kartoffeln and the savvy sounding retro comeback 1955 Burger. After wishing so many strangers ‘Have a nice day,’ I noticed the empty table, where the angry man had sat, was vacant. He’d even politely taken his tray to the lobby wagon, unlike so many teens, who tend to leave tables strewn with trays, packaging and smears of mayonnaise mixed with ketchup. I wondered what about the sunny day, with mild temps and a gentle breeze, full of hints of spring fever just around the corner, and the excitement that comes with each fresh spring, had set the anger man off. I hope I see him again, just to observe if things are going better for him next time.

I have a regular customer, also an older German man. He has wispy red hair and freckles and wears large metal glasses frames a la 1980s. I first met him when our store was new. He came in during a slow time and stood at the counter telling his story about having lived in East Germany. When the wall went down, he went to a McDonalds in West Berlin and ordered a Big Mac. He said, ‘That was the first white bread like that I’d ever eaten! I’ll never forget it!’ He was referring to the white burger buns, sprinkled with pale toasted sesame seeds. Over the years, he’s been a repeat customer, telling his tale of the wall going down and the Big Mac buns to new waves of McCo-Workers that tend to come and go. I love his story. In one of my own ‘Mad Men’ inspired advertising moments, I wish McDoanlds Münich would use it, with some shots of him today and use some younger red haired actor for his 1989 self, show an older McDoanlds (digitized), the wall going down, this guy ordering his first Big Mac, then flash to him entering a modern McDoanlds and ordering the same. Some of my McCo-Workers are former East Germans themselves. I think they would appreciate the advertisement too. 

For some, McDonalds is a temporary job, an after school job, a weekend job for university students, a job you don’t plan to hold for long. It’s a goofy job that you shouldn’t take too seriously and feel half ashamed to admit you hold, just because, McDonalds, in America at least, is the place you put in this sentence: See that homeless guy? Why does he just sit there all day under the viaduct? The least he could do is get a job at McDonalds! No one as readily suggests that a homelss person in America should apply for unemployment because (at least back in 2009) unemployment was only available for 18 months, after that, you had no more financial help from the U.S. government. You may have found yourself under a viaduct. 

Hmm. No one says: a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken, Chili’s, Hooters, American Sports Bar, Hard Rock Cafe, Starbucks, or Burger King even, no, the place to go is: McDoanlds. In America, at least. So, shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, don’t tell anyone where you really work, ok? Now why is that? 

Oh please. Lighten up! ‘It’s a job.’

A wise Turk told me this very thing not so long ago, when I was feeling, well, strangely ashamed of my job, having been told by a nosy German woman in an optical shop, who asked, ‘Where EXACTLY do you work’ (think Stasi) and following up with ‘but you need something for your BRAIN!’ She wasn’t offering a job. She wasn’t offering hints or connections. She was gloating over my apparent misfortune. Somehow this optician had found my shame button and punched it.

After eight years in Germany, having passed the basic language tests, having struggled in no state funded unemployment for two years after that, having tried tutoring English for a few Euros a month in pay, for having applied to libraries and bookshops and having intervews at a university and a cafe, a video store and even a taxi service that didn’t hire me, in my third year in Germany, I was working at my last and I admit, humiliating option: McDonalds. Internally, I deflated. Perhaps that was her goal, but it didn’t work, at least I didn’t let her see that it had worked in that moment. Until the Turk came along, and hearing the optical shop story, asked, ‘Are you ashamed of your job? Don’t be! It’s a job! I like coming here because you are the only friendly person who serves us here.’ That may be true. But I find myself not feeling at all friendly towards the 50-something generation, of German, middle class, with a snobby attitude about service workers. Come to think of it, I never liked people who treated service people with contempt, whatever country I was living in. I assume half of them are regularly insulted service workers themselves. 

What Happened Between 3 and 6 p.m. Today

My day began as usual: a cup of coffee, a slice of soft brown bread spread with strawberry jam. My day is ending as it typically does, around midnight, in front of my computer. But what happened between 3 and 6 p.m. today was kind of unusual.

Though a gray and grumpy-maker day for some, today originally felt optimistic. I drove to the train station with a plan to pick up my first ever pair of progressive lens glasses. I’d received an e-mail a few days before, stating the new metal and tortoiseshell plastic frames and hopefully lenses I could read with were ready to pick up. Yippee! Or not. The day I’d gone to the optic shop, 20 minutes down the train tracks from my home station, I’d had a rude encounter with a big brunette German optician who was more interested in my age and occupation than expounding on what comfort and joy the right progressive lenses might bring to my daily life. She didn’t like my job. In fact she sat there going on and on about the bad pay, hours, products even, although that all had nothing to do with my ability to pay for the glasses I had selected, or her, even, really. But I needed better lenses, so I tried to change the subject and had a bit of success there, so I went ahead and ordered the new glasses.

Entering the train, which appeared empty, I noticed, as the wheels started to turn, a one way conversation emanating from an unseen passenger’s unseen cell phone in a kind of monotone. I felt I was privy to a ‘day in the life’ of some bored human talking in a echo chamber, maybe a bathroom with tile walls. I got up and moved to a seat about twenty rows away and found relief in the marine blue plaid surroundings that spell Deutsche Bahn interior design.

A few stops later, a guy carrying a handful of magazines for homeless people hit me up for some cash. The magazine said 1.50 Euros, so I dug in my coins and paid him with all but the shiney one Euro I had left. But he saw that extra Euro and wanted it as well. ‘No, sorry, I need that for a stamp for my mother’s birthday card. I have to mail it overseas,’ I said, flashing a pink addressed envelope, fished out of my shopping bag, at him. He tried a few more times, with words like Pampers and kebab and family. I said, ‘No. I need a stamp. I don’t have any other money. Only plastic.’ He got up, shook my hand and took the magazine I had bought with him. What? ‘Wait, I would like to read that,’ I really was curious what it said inside. I’d seen a similar magazine selling scheme on a trip to England and also in a train and not had the courage to buy one back then. Now was my chance! ‘No. Pampers.’ Ok. Later I thought, what if I had invited him to get out at my stop and just bought him some food? Or a package of Pampers with my plastic card?

A few stops later, having posted my mother’s birthday card, and now on a blustery day’s stroll through a bustling small city in the pedestrian zone, I saw a man in a bright red hand knit cap struggling with a bike and cart. The bike without a kick stand was falling over, the cart attatched to the bike was chock full of die Linke (communist) Party posters,and a grey bearded guy was trying to chase down one of these sandwich posters that was blowing down the walkway. ‘Do you need help?’ I asked, reaching to balance his bike. ‘No!’ the garden gnome replied, righting the bike against the lamp post. I turned to try and catch the flying poster but he shooed me away. Ok. Later I thought how my red bandana scarf might have at least made him feel I was potentially also a communist, maybe I could have helped him if I’d just said, ‘Comrade, do you need help?’ instead? But I left him to his task of strapping posters about raising the minimum wage to 12 Euros on lamp posts and arrived at the optic shop and felt lucky. The brunette wasn’t in sight.

A woman who had served me a few years before stood at the counter, I remembered her because I’d liked her comfortable looking and also stylish shoes and asked where she’d found them. She’d given me the name of the store and later I’d gone shopping there. This time I thought, ‘Yeah, no stressful service. I get the red haired lady!’ Everything went fine until after the fitting. As the service lady folded my insurance papers and receipts together, she opened her mouth again and asked, ‘What country do you come from?’ Hmm. She hadn’t asked that two years ago, when my German was worse than it is today. I piped up, hoping the conversation of last week wasn’t about to rear it’s bizarre head, ‘America.’ It could have stopped there, but no. Oh no! ‘And will you be staying here?’ What? What does that have to do with my glasses? ‘Sure.’ Then like an unseen phantom, the big brunette was suddenly standing to my left, smiling. Ugh. I took my glasses, said, ‘Thanks!’ smiling, and left before my luck could totally wear off.

Between my first visit to the optic shop and my return today, my husband had stopped in himself, again, having decided to take advantage of a half price sale before it ended. He reported back that the big brunette had come over to him to ask if I was ‘ok’ meaning, she’d thought a bit about her previous grillng behavior, in Germany called ‘discrimination’ about my legal, socially insured, part-time, fast food job (though I do mostly work at the cafe there, I am pround to be part of the multi-cultural team), and extended an appology. He came home and said, ‘That lady apologized for her behavior last week.’ Ok. Somehow I was still irked though. But I needed the on-sale glasses still too.

What is going on at my old beloved optic shop? Over the five times I’ve been there before, about once a year actually, I was usually served by a mellow German guy named Ralph, who was kind and stuck to the job at hand. He’d once admitted he had a friend who also collected glasses and he collected watches, he’d admired my retro glasses frames and never asked where I come from, my age or my occupation even. So, what’s with the new grilling of foreign customers? A new policy? I’m hoping my new glasses work out great so I won’t need to go back for adjustments. Maybe I should call ahead and ask for Ralph?

The afternoon took a happy turn when I got to H & M and found some super soft denim overalls, the last pair in my size!, on sale and a robin egg blue button front sweater to enjoy this spring and summer. I paid for those with a special plastic shopping card my employer gave all of us as a ‘thank you’ at a party last week, for doing good work and jumping some corporate hoops. My employer’s logo is stamped on the card and it seemed to take the card reader a long time to read my card, so I piped up and said, ‘Many of my co-workers got these cards last week too. Maybe you’ll see a lot of us for a while.’ Maybe she was tired. It was almost 5 p.m. Maybe her feet hurt, like mine do, after working on my feet for a long shift. Maybe her employer never gives out shopping cards with a value of around 40 Euros. Who knows but her originally friendly cashier face turned sour. I took my bag of happy finds and left,wondering: is it me or is this town nuts?

Back on the train, heading home, I had to sit on a fold down seat, as the comfy ones were occupied by rush hour commuters. I chose to sit near a young guy in a black jacket, felt Frank Sinatra style hat and glasses. He looked intelligent and reminded me of a Jewish guy from back home, something of a rarity in Germany. One stop later, three beery young men got on board and flipped down seats opposite us.

While I tried to admire my reflection over the shoulder of the guy with a can of beer and a ponytail across from me, I tested the range of my progressive lenses and, passing through a skewed view of lens transition, found my eyes landing in the prison green cross tattooed on the neck of the beery guy in the middle. Oh. Oh no. A neo-Nazi? How bizarre that I was thinking I was sitting near a Jew and here comes a tattooed neo-Nazi to sit across from us. Having worked with a few of those, surprised at the time that they were in my workplace at all, I smiled, half scared and half thinking maybe this one is like the two who, likewise tattooed, worked with me and were, towards me at least, very polite. I liked to think those two guys were trying to reform themselves, hence their dive into a multi-cultural workplace. But I never knew for sure. Don’t ask, don’t tell seemed a wiser route to take. Beery guy stared back blankly. The blank faced stare back is, by the way, an art in Germany. I don’t think I’ll ever master it, I am just an animated faced kind of person. Perhaps I look crazy here, but at least I register as ‘alive.’ I raised an eyebrow at the neo-Nazi, like Spock raises his brow, because I can, and glazed my new lensed view back over the shoulder of beer can guy instead. At the next stop, I got up and got another seat in the train. A forward looking, blue plaid, comfortable seat with a frontal view towards blue plastic: the back of the seat in front of me.

Arriving back at my home station, I disembarked and noticed a policeman idling on the platform. What a uniform! I know that the color of the German police uniforms and cars changed from green to blue in the time I’ve lived here. The blue color scheme looks good so I smiled, since he seemed to be staring at me, and kept walking along but said, ‘Hallo!’ No reply. Ugh.

Maybe I’m an alien and just don’t see my own antennea. Maybe I project happiness that no one is currently in the mood for, which is sometimes more obviously the case, but this week, yesterday even, I did decide to more actively find allies in Germany, online or in my daily life,who can still find the motivation to look for a silver lining in a gray weather day at least. Meanwhile, I am enjoying listening to Motorama, a Russian group I ran across on a tv show called ‘Tracks’ last week. I’m lovin’ it.

My Spirit Animal is Actually a Bird: Raven

My spirit animal is the raven. There are many reasons I name this bird, among them the poem by Edgar Allen Poe where the raven says, ‘Nevermore!’ I believe I’ve been known to say that a few times myself, only to, sometimes, go and do whatever it was all over again.

On my walks, I love watching the smaller relatives of the raven, crows, sitting on trees and electricity lines or flapping and calling over the fields in every season. I like that they are a year-round bird that flies in a group, landing on snow, dry August grass stubble, spongy wet spring moss, or sitting on the chimney tops of various village homes. Although they might best be described as ‘blue-black,’ or even a bit brown, they are also glossy, like patent leather shoes and black licorice, two things I adore. They are blackish as the sooty chimney sweep that shows up once a year to plunge his ball and chain with a prickly brush attachment down our chimney. The sweep’s soot brings luck. I like to think the ravens, who sweep the air with their feathery wings are also luck bringers. I tend to bring others luck, so, there again: like the raven.

Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest also see Raven, the Creator’s assistant, as a luck bringer. I prefer being an assistant on projects rather than the boss too. I’m a pretty adaptable person and in my youth I was a self-described chameleon, in a good way, able to drift in and out of all kinds of groups of people without causing any real waves. Raven could change himself, like the god Zeus, into various things and creatures. Raven even put the sun in the sky. I’ve been known to try to put a sunny smile on people’s faces. A real challenge in Germany but it’s still been known to happen!

I like to think, had I wings, I’d fly with ravens or crows. A film on German tv, called Krabat, based on a folk tale from old old Saxony, contains some wonderful scenes where several boys involved in black magic turn into ravens. When I first watched this film, I didn’t know much German but the images of boys turned into ravens transcended the need for words. When I take my lone walks, and see the crows overhead or perched nearby, I like to pretend they are enchanted boys from long ago. And why is that village by mine called Crow Corner? Well, there are always crows around there.

Looking in the Internet, I find that in Germany, ravens were considered damned souls or Satan himself. Hmm, what does that say about the middle aged inhabitants of Crow Corner? Was it a pagan settlement or site of a witch hunt back in the Inquisitional days or what?

Up in Scandinavia, Odin’s two ravens, whose names translate to ‘thought’ and ‘memory’ flew around the world to gather info and report back to Odin. Sounds like spy work or just surfing the net for interesting bits and bobs these days.

Ravens take a mate for life and those flocks of crows that I see around my village are probably teens because at least the adult ravens only like to go around as a twosome. I prefer a lonesome or twosome myself, whether a coffee meet up with a friend or just hanging out with my guy, or my cat, for that matter.

Ravens can mimic human voices and a whole lot of other sounds too. As a child I was a great mimic of the New Zealand and Australian accents but my Ü-40 learned German accent is not native German sounding at all. I call it ‘my German,’ as if all the native German speakers around me are speaking incorrectly. Did I mention that ravens can be quite cheeky?

Lastly, ravens are known to feed on just about anything. I’ll adjust that quality to ‘able to find almost any topic of interest, given a bit of background research.’ The raven in me is always looking for inspiration and always learning along the way. If something doesn’t suit me, I just move on to find something that does.

Coming up with something to say about ravens (and crows) was inspired by Be Kitchig’s post, take a read!