Location: Cincinnati, Ohio

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Blending in

People have different theories about how to travel in a foreign country. I know some people who take all kinds of safety precautions, and they are constantly on the eye for pickpockets and thieves and wear a money belt, etc., etc.

Instead, I try to blend into the crowd. I’ve noticed that locals don’t take all these precautions, even though they often have backpacks and are very casually dressed, much like tourists. If they feel safe, why shouldn’t I? After all, I lived in North Philadelphia, where there is a lot of random violence, and South Philadelphia, where there was a mob hit two blocks away – clearly far more dangerous than any foreign city I have ever been in. So I dress casually and have a small backpack. I don’t have a money belt because that seems to me a sign posted that you are a tourist. And, I wear dark shoes. White or colorful sneakers also scream American. As I do in some American cities, I sometimes put my wallet in my front pocket but I note that I never see Europeans doing this.

I think that over the years this strategy has worked quite well for me. I’m very pleased at the number of times I am asked for directions. I must look like I should know. London is the big European city that I have visited the most and it has happened to me there several times. Last summer, two guys from India stopped me near Covent Garden to ask for directions to Trafalgar Square and I was able to tell them. A number of years ago, as I was headed to the train station in Dublin, an older man asked me if I knew of a place for breakfast. It happened that I did and gave him directions. He looked at me peculiarly. “You’re not Irish,” he said, having heard my American voice. I defended myself that I was mostly Irish by descent. It turns out he was from Galway and had never been to Dublin before. So on his first trip to Dublin, he asked an American for directions. We laughed.

Most recently, I was at a subway stop in Munich waiting for a train when a businessman walked up to me and asked on which side of the platform would a train take him to a certain village outside of Munich. My Deutsch is just good enough that I could understand the question but I didn’t know the answer and didn’t have enough vocabulary to help him. All I could say was “Ich spreche kein Deutsch. Tut mir Leid.” He responded good-naturedly and went on to someone else.

Last weekend in Berlin, I had a few interesting brief encounters. Two older women were looking for the location of a restaurant that was near Alexanderplatz. Although we could not really talk to each other, I showed them on my map where they needed to go.

Also, as a promotion, a couple of guys were giving away newspapers at one of the subway stations. I tried to tell him that I didn’t want one, with “Nein, danke.” But he persisted since they were trying to figure out what newspapers people were reading. So I had to say that I didn’t really speak German in German. He smiled, “Ah so (yes, the Germans say this quite often), you are a tourist?” Of course, the simple response was to say yes so I did. “Here,” he said happily in a heavy German accent, “for you” as he thrust the paper into my hands without further questions. It seemed like it was his way to welcome me to the city.

Then another day, I was just getting ready to put money in the machine for a subway pass, when a guy getting off a train thrust a ticket into my hands. I couldn’t understand what he was saying but, with suitcase in hand, he smiled at me with generosity and bounded up the stairs as I said “Danke!” I looked at the ticket. It was a short-term pass, which mean it was good for two hours and had only been purchased about 15 minutes earlier. Clearly, he had just arrived back home in Berlin, took the subway to his neighborhood stop, and wanted to have someone else make use of the rest of the ticket. So I did. The generosity of strangers.

And in Lueneburg a few weeks ago I had one of the strangest such encounters. I only have a few phrases of German and while they are very useful, they are very limited. I was in the internet café at the train station and was at the counter to get my complimentary cup of coffee when a maintenance man walked in. He said something about the weather, I said it was very nice. He heard me order coffee. We exchanged a couple of more of my standard phrases, I ran out of vocabulary and couldn’t understand or respond and thought he said something about America. So in desperation and having used up all my German, I said a couple of sentences in English and he responded in broken English. Finally, he said, “You speak very good English.” I laughed and said that I had better since it was the only language I knew and that I was born in America. We might have gone on with this but he got called back to work outside. I don’t really know what to make of this except that sometimes Germans from different parts of the country have difficulty understanding each other. Perhaps in our brief exchange I was actually mistaken for a German, which, if true, would mean that I have reached substantial success in my efforts to “blend in.” Or perhaps I just misunderstood him!


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