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‘An arbitrary experience in a supermarket made me feel seen, acknowledged’

It’s cold. I’m tired. And I’m sitting in Münster, Germany, on a bleak, cobble-stone floor, with no idea about what to do. I’ve organised accommodation for the first three nights of my stay here. But I can’t gain access to the flat before 3pm. I’ve SMSed the proprietor from my SA cell number explaining my early arrival, and my need to access the flat earlier than agreed. Her response to my request is negative. Now what?

I can’t continue sitting on the floor. I’ve already had strange looks from the guys in the computer store, diagonally across from me. And pedestrians walking by avoid my eyes. I’m cold. I thought this was supposed to be spring? This feels more like autumn. There’s a chill in the air that travels down my neck and spine! Without my luggage, I have nothing warmer to wear.

I get up and make my way to Rewe, a local chain store here. I have just enough euros to purchase a coffee, and a chocolate croissant. Saying “Ein Kafee” is sufficient to get the coffee from the shop attendant. Pointing to the chocolate croissant, and then holding up one finger secures the croissant. I’m loathe to go out into the cold again, so I attempt to take a seat in the eating area. Most seats are taken, and so I hesitate.

A young couple chat animatedly, and an older woman, with her dirty blonde hair in disarray, sits to the left of them. The veiled young woman shifts her belongings, but the older woman catches my eye, and smiles slightly. I’m torn as to where to sit, but decide to sit next to the older woman. In fits and starts she chatters. I can’t imagine how to communicate with her, as I have no knowledge of conversational German. So I merely nod. She prattles on and every time I look away she touches my right forearm. Oddly I understand her. She tells me about her debilitating illness, and how she was confined to a wheelchair as a result thereof. She talks about her love for music becoming animated as she reminisces aurally. Throughout our conversation she repeats certain words over and over until they resonate in an unknown part of me. They make sense; and I hear her.

We have witnesses to our mini interaction. They smile as at times I respond to the older woman by making a guttural sound in the back of my throat, by repeating some of her words, or by punctuating my responses with “Ja”. Eventually her husband joins us, and in a gruff voice he starts to add his own narrative. He is large in manner and voice. German. She peers at him through her spectacles, and then speaks of how they danced, and danced, and danced when they were younger. He just nods along, his face deadpan. Eventually I take my leave of both of them, and walk into the cold air, but not without the husband saying, in English, “thank you!”, and his wife mimicking him.

I walk back to the apartment block in Grevener Straße. Again, I sit on the cold floor. But I am warm inside. The next three months stretch out before me. And an arbitrary experience in a supermarket, has made me feel “seen”, acknowledged, and understood. By white people no less. By Germans. It’s cold out, but my heart feels warm. The next three months are going to be interesting I can tell, as stereotypes of “the other”, however subtle, are dissolved in the wake of direct experience and knowledge about humanity in its diverse and intricate forms. Humanity that includes Germans. My mind will expand. So too my heart; of this I am certain.

With love,

From Germany