An expat gets a warm cosy feeling when people in his neighbourhood recognise him on the street.
The other afternoon I decided to take a break from my arduous Expatica duties and go for a quick walk around the block for a spot of fresh air and inspiration.
I was walking down my street when I saw the man who works in the döner restaurant next to my flat coming my way. He was with a little girl, presumably his daughter, who was happily clutching her Schultüte (the enormous cone of sweets German kids traditionally get when they start school).
I had imagined the man to have something of a tragic existence – he is always working no matter what hour I go past the restaurant – and so felt surprised and somehow relieved at this glimpse into his apparently cosy family life.
As he passed, he smiled at me and said hello. I smiled back and returned his greeting. Walking on, I felt pleased that he had recognised me, even though I have only been in his snack bar a handful of times.
I turned the corner and a few steps later I ran into the Ukrainian man who runs a shop on my street selling imported Russian and Ukrainian products (as well as moonlighting as a professional accordion player). He too smiled at me and said hello, although I have frequented his shop even less often than the döner place.
Now I was feeling very cheerful. Within the space of two minutes I had been greeted in a friendly way by two of the local merchants. So much for clichés of anonymous big city life – I felt like I was in the Scottish fishing village where my parents live, where everybody says hello (or rather, “aye aye”, the local salutation) to each other on the street.
Of course, I am not so naïve as to think that their friendliness was entirely unrelated to my being a potential customer. But since when was sociability in a village entirely altruistic either? And the Ukrainian guy always says hello to me regardless of the fact I haven’t been in his shops for months.
(I always have good intentions to go in and buy something, but it is one of these places where there is nothing you really feel like buying. I am, admittedly, partial to the Russian Baltika beer he stocks, but am trying not to partake, as part of my battle against my inexorably expanding waistline. I did try the imported Belarussian birch sap juice once, but – as you may not be entirely surprised to hear – it was completely undrinkable.)
Part of the community
I found it interesting that I have only been living in this part of Berlin for a year and yet I already feel like I am somehow part of the community. I thought about all the other people I recognise on my block: the students who work in the local Starbucks clone, the haggard checkout assistants in the supermarket, the guy in the video shop whose flat I once (coincidentally) looked at and who now insists on chatting to me in his heartbreaking English every time I go in.
Then there are the people you see again and again but who you never meet or know anything about, like the thirty-something couple who are always together and immaculately dressed in perfect 1950s retro style, even at nine in the morning.
All these tiny and often overlooked encounters, these repeated recognitions, build up and give you a sense of belonging. I certainly felt more at home after my brief walk. As an expat, the eternal outsider, these moments are rare and deserve to be treasured. Maybe I will go and get some Baltikas after all.