It’s nothing but a cold, stone building on the outskirts of the city. It’s surrounded by similarly unattractive buildings that house companies, workshops, and various nondescript businesses. On a Saturday morning, the area is desolate. Tumbleweed all but blows down the street. Yet there is one building, on what could be the world’s blandest corner, that transforms from an unwelcoming, chipped, white facade to a place of activity and people. The big doors to the storage area are peeled back early as orange-vested volunteers pull out racks of coats, boxes of toys, and cartons of shoes. Others wheel out bicycles and prams. All of it is second hand, of course; all of it pre-owned and pre-loved.
The Red Cross’s local store is getting ready for business.
At 10 am, early bargain hunters have been gathering for a while, stamping their feet against the biting German winter, eyeing bargains, eyeing things they need. Then the doors open and in they file. Many of them need something specific. Many of them know there’s likely to be just that one pair of shoes in their size. Parents come for the third week in a row, trying to find a winter coat for their child who just won’t stop growing.
And I sit, in my spot, in my orange vest with my German Red Cross badge, ready to help. There’s not so much to do on a quiet day. I sit, I show people where to find things, I tidy up a bit, and I talk to people. And through the talking, I learn. Through the listening, I make connections and I start to understand a little better.
For all that seems wrong in the world, a little talking can go a long way.
Through broken German, some English, and plenty of gestures, I learn about places from Ghana to Bosnia. I chat with a lady who tells me she first saw fingerless gloves like mine on a bus conductor in the UK. I play peek-a-boo games with kids waiting patiently (and impatiently) for their parents to finish searching. Many of the patrons are refugees who rely on places like the Red Cross to get supplies. Others are local Germans, searching for a bargain. Many speak German, others English, some neither.
Language isn’t always necessary anyway. Watching two men look up at a photo display documenting the Balkan’s conflict of the nineties, I don’t need to speak their language to understand their conversation: Recognition. Sadness. Regret.
Having spent just a few meagre hours in this place, I’ve learned a lot.
We live in a world that feels more and more divided. Problems seem to be getting bigger and bigger. Politics is more divisive than ever. People are more polarised than ever. And it’s harder to know what to do about it. It’s easy to feel powerless.
But we can talk to each other.
We can try and find connections with the people around us. We can reach out to people on an individual level and find out what we share. From the lady who loved that I was English to the man who is also expecting a baby and in need of some maternity clothes for his wife, it’s incredible what you can find to talk about, where you can find common ground, even in places where you least expect it.
In a world where too many people talk of building barriers, conversation is the best way to knock these barriers down.
In a world where fear of the unknown is used to breed more fear, listening is a way to neutralise these very fears.
Of course, it’s easy to level accusations of naivety at thoughts like this. Go ahead. But when I don’t know what to do, when I feel scared about the state of the world, I’m going to go ahead and keep talking to new people, keep finding out about their lives, keeping working to make connections with as many people from as many places as I can. Because we’ve all got humanity in common and all too often we seem to forget that.