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.┬áThe 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.