Monday, November 4, 2013

My Expat Diaries: The Stare

Germans stare. A lot. Almost none of them will admit that they do this, but they do. Sometimes it's disapproving stares, sometimes it's just bald curiosity, but there is some kind of cultural eyeball fixation issue going on here and it's disconcerting.

I've spent the last year trying to figure out if it's some kind of innate Americanness that is immediately apparent to Germans on sight. Like a beacon or a forehead tattoo that declares "I am not like you, please look at me thoroughly to discern in what way you can make me feel the most uncomfortable with your ocular orbs".

Now, in all fairness, I do have unusual hair. It is white and orange and pink. However, neither it nor I are the most unusual hair thing you're going to see here in Hamburg. I see at least 4-5 other people with blatantly fake hair colors most days and the current hair fashions include a lot of inexplicable shaving of seemingly random strips, sections, and usually sides of heads. That's on everyone, from desultory euro teens to peppy grandma's. By that measure my hair is the least interesting thing you're going to see all day. Especially given how bright neon pants colors are here.

Maybe my idea of what is "unusual" is somewhat off. I've lived in New York, San Diego, and San Francisco, and I have seen all of the following, including but not limited to:

1. A guy who shouted, every 10 steps or so in the tunnel between the Shuttle train and the E, "Everyone in New York has AIDS! You have it! And so does he!"

2. Real live pimps in all 3 cities, one of which had an actual pimp suit on complete with purple velvet hat with a crumpled plume at 6am.

3. A woman who used to sing at various plants along the Aqueduct walking path behind our apartment. She just sang random notes at them. This usually occurred about once a week.

4. Comicon.

5. The Village.

6. Two young men in The Castro district, at about 4pm by a cafe on a Saturday, in splendidly old fashioned pilot hats...and not a stitch more.

This is why it takes a fair bit for me to even note something like hair color or a face piercing, beyond a "Oh, that person has hair and a face, so do I, yay hair and faces!" It's not that I don't look at people or am oblivious to how they look, it's just that staring is not a thing that I do unless it's a parade or the night sky or something. It feels rude.

Take this evening. I picked up a shipment of cat food and litter from my husband's office because getting things shipped to us personally seems not to work out well. Our last flat was is in a totally standard, normal, residential neighborhood, but a good 50% of the time Fed Ex or whoever wouldn't be able to find us. At our new flat it's been even worse so we just don't bother. I took a hand cart because we get the litter and food in bulk and they are heavy.

For reference, we live pretty much the dead center of the city where people are shopping and carrying things all day. There's also a lot of construction currently where I swear they aren't really building anything, they're just digging to some unspeakable netherworld and eventually Cthulu is going to come screaming out. Or maybe an Oliphaunt. I don't know, all I know is that they keep drilling and it keeps sounding worse and deeper and more unearthly with every passing day. Anyway, the point is, stuff goes on in this city of many varied natures. It's not some kind of sleepy burb.

And yet, walking back with an umbrella because it was raining and hauling this box, which helpfully says "Fressnapf" on it so it's obvious what is inside, I started getting really cranky with the staring. Especially because, instead of even attempting to walk around you or out of your way, Germans will stare and then DRIFT CLOSER TO YOU. Even when it is obvious you are pulling something heavy and a bit unwieldy and you can't move as quickly or deftly as they can.

At a certain point I got fed up and started gesturing wildly at people to get out of my way with the umbrella and muttering in English about how rude it is to stare and how their bureaucracy isn't nearly as "efficient" as they like to think it is, and why isn't there any decent tofu or Thai food here anyway?

In short, I had a mini meltdown on the street and basically guaranteed I would get stared at ever harder and confirm all their suspicions about crazy Americans.

But at least the cats won't shit on the floor anymore.





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