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Talking to Strangers

So far I have met many people who had the ability to strike up a conversation with pretty much anyone. Yet, as much as that trait impresses me I am rarely able to adapt it myself. I am not so sure whether I am already German enough to say that I can’t stand small talk or whether this is due to the experience that last time I approached someone at random, that person ended up being too weird for me to handle.

But yesterday, as I sat inside a barbershop and the young stylist tended to my bob-cut, I felt like I should say at least something. I hate these situations where you just sit there while someone does a service for you and the whole thing happens in dead silence, be it a haircut, a manicure or someone spending over five hours at your place to put together your furniture.

I looked at his nametag and listened to him as he greeted the new customers coming in. He had a Slavic accent. Maybe he was from Russia or Ukraine? At least I would be able to say that it was nice to meet him based on our geographical proximity of origin.

“May I ask where you come from?” I began. The problem with being curious about other cultures is that these questions of origin are sometimes taken as an offense. Less and less people here want to admit that they are actually not German, even if they really aren’t. I have a friend here from the Middle East whose parents wanted to adopt to German society so much, they decided not to speak any Arabic to her over the course of her life, even though Arabic is the family’s native language.

But luckily my stylist didn’t show a sign of offense.

“I am from Bulgaria”, he said and suddenly I remembered the nostalgic streets of Sofia and the beautiful, calm atmosphere of the town of Rila and its ancient monastery, which I did not hesitate to tell him about.

“Yes”, he said. “It is a beautiful country really. When you are single it’s okay but once you have children…”

He had been living in Berlin for seven months now, he said. His German was remarkable for this short amount of time but the fact that his accent was still audible seemed to bother him despite my encouragement.

He used to own a shop in Bulgaria. It went well for a while until he decided that this was not a life a man could lead when he had a wife and a child to take care of. So he took an apprenticeship in Bulgaria to become a barber and came here, hoping for a better life.

“I love my country”, he said. “I really do but when you have a family to look after, this is just not enough.” He sounded as if he were about to cry and I decided not to ask any further.

I remembered very well how, despite its physical beauty, Sofia made the impression of a very poor place, making tourists wonder how a country in such bad economical shape could actually have made it into the EU. So the more I thought about this, the closer I came to the conclusion that in a way, Konstantin the barber was what here we call an economic refugee.

In the big picture he might have been lucky. He speaks decent German, has a job and also a place to live. A big contrast to the poor women from Iraq and Syria and elsewhere, some of whom give birth on the ground, in the street or the park near the refugee registration center because Berlin is simply out of shelter space and doctors. And if there is any of this left, we don’t seem to have anyone who is able to bring some order in all this.

It is so easy for bystanders to say that people who become refugees, due to war or bad economy, just come here to start a better life. “They just want to take advantage of our social services”, some say. But how many of those ignorant bystanders actually know that these people, these refugees, love their countries, love their homes? Love the life they used to live when everything was still fine?

Yes, due to current circumstances they are here for a better life but before all this horror happened in their homelands, I am sure most of them would say that the life they had at home was, in fact, a better life. Maybe even better than what they have to go through now.


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