Strangers 

Here’s to you, the lady with the green umbrella and cute dog, who cooed at my whimpering son while I dug out my purse. You bought me the precious minutes I needed when I was out of time.

Thank you to the man on the tram with the salt and pepper beard, you were out of your seat and offering me a rest before I realised I was tired.

To the mother in the purple scarf with the laughing baby, you smiled in a way that told me you understood, that you were often me, frazzled and tired, but reminded me it wasn’t always so hard.

Bless you every man and woman who’s grabbed the front of the push chair and got us onto and off every tram and every bus before I realised there was a step.

To every patient local, nodding and smiling as I mix up the dative and the accusative, your endurance in dealing with my language skills is always appreciated.

To those whose chat in line for the post office, to those who comment on the weather in the bakery, to those who step aside to let me pass, weaving frantically in a rush to get home before nap time, I salute you and I thank you. Just interacting with you erases the loneliness, brings a smidgen of contact to carry me through.

For we are almost all strangers, entirely unrelated and unconnected. We needn’t help each other. We needn’t even notice those small hiccups in each other’s day. But when we do, it makes all the difference.

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GDL, Woman Walking Dog Silhouette, https://openclipart.org/detail/252173/woman-walking-dog-silhouette, 2016-06-15, accessed 2017-09-12
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Cold Arms 

And then one day, it’s ten decrees cooler. The sun is no longer punishing and the air moves again. The city can breath and buildings radiate heat no more. Days start later and darkness draws in sooner as the last opportunities for late night drinks on the patio passes.

Soon the trees will turn. In a matter of weeks the forest will go from being bathed in orange light to radiating it. The wind will whip up the fallen leaves,  until they land, crispy and beautiful waiting to be soaked by the first Autumn rains.

For today, the new season is not quite here. When the sun breaks through, summer rules the day. But as it dips behind the clouds, the hairs on my arm raise and I get ready to welcome the new time of cooler, shorter, and cosier days.

A Late August Monday

One of the bakeries is closed, but then it closes every day at two anyway. The post office is closed too. Technical difficulties, apparently, which is bemusing for a post office. High tech stamps are surely E-mails, and the post office doesn’t sell them. The Penny is open for the essentials, although by the looks of the bored assistant, the locals all have what they need. The city hall is closed as is the antique shop, which most people claim still opens regularly, but no one can tell you when. Even the ice-cream store, despite the warm summer’s afternoon, has the shutters down and the door locked. Mind you, despite the perfect ice-cream weather, there’s no-one to buy it. Customers of the other bakery, the one that is open, have their pick of the seats out front in the baking sunshine. Inside, a woman sits starting into space, idling over a cup of coffee and a dried out Bretzel.

Two cars pull up along side each other. The drivers chat pleasantly, windows open, arms resting on the car door. A third car wants to turn left where they’re talking, the closest today will get to a traffic jam or a crowd. There are two bikes parked on the market square, though to whom they belong one can only wonder. Over a steady hour marked by the tolling bell, a handful of people arrive to post letters only to be turned away by the roughly made sign. A jogger jogs. A child cries from an open window. A dad walks by watching his son precariously perched on a new bike wearing a bright green helmet and a brighter smile. They come and they go, probably headed for the playground to have the swings to themselves.

In a couple of hours the bakery will close as two or three of the restaurants open. The fourth and fifth in the neighbourhood remain closed for summer break. It’s Schnitzel, pizza, or a curry tonight. No Spanish or African until September. There’ll be no change of pace. A few tables scattered with cake crumbs will move inside as the baker packs up and a few more will come out to be decorated with candles left unlit, a sign of proprietor’s optimism.

The school is ghostly quiet, the white brickwork standing solemnly, no use to anyone until the leaves start to turn and the chatter of the young return for another year of learning. The gates are locked, the playground deserted, and the windows closed. Around the side, a pair loiter. Not up to mischief, simply passing the time in the shade on a sticky day. A tanned man the wrong side of forty with the right idea has the square behind the Rathaus to himself. Stretched out in a lounge care, sun on his face, he takes not the slightest notice of the nothing going on. All the other benches sit empty, not even a bird perched to eat up a find.

Between five and six the narrow pavements host a few more feet as the fit and healthy head down the hill on foot from a day spent at whatever coal face they’ve chosen. The 5.20 tram brings a small crowd up the street too, all those who work in the centre returning uncomfortable in work-appropriate attire and shoes that rub in the heat. 

There’s not quite any hustle and certainly no bustle as the afternoon slips into evening as gently as the temperatures drop. A few more joggers come by. The dog walkers bring their best friends out, squeezing in a whizz around the block before dinner or waiting to take a longer, quiet stroll after the plates have been cleared. The mother with the baby who won’t sleep does laps up the main street, commits up the hill to the church and embraces the cobbles on the way back down.  

By eight o’clock, there is tinkling of piano music from above the town hall as the choir practices, filling the empty square below with a a soft melody. By nine, silence has returned. The streets are deserted. Laughter and conversation spill out of the open window of the wine bar, the only sound left as night falls. It is darker just a smidgen earlier than yesterday as Monday slips quietly into Tuesday for another week. And likewise, as the night draws in a little bit closer and a little bit cooler, summer begins its first tentative step into autumn for another year as the streets lie empty and silenced, settled for another night. 

A Grey Day

It’s beautiful, truly. The sky is decorated with the trails of planes taking people home and away. The river glides past, a boat or two moving with it. The forest basks in the sunlight, wrapping itself around the mansions and modern apartment blocks that nestle into the hills.

Cars speed by behind me. Day trippers wave from boats. Tourists line up photographs, wanting to capture a picture for when they don’t have the words to describe how picturesque it was.

And I sit alone, breathing deep and long, trying to appreciate what I know I should. Yesterday, this was divine. It was sharp and clear as I drank it in. Yesterday, I was on top of the world. Yesterday everything was a full-colour epic.

But today.

Today the sun is blinding and the traffic too loud.

The colours all run into each other. The sounds blend noisily, irritatingly. People bother me with their prying, judgemental eyes. My own eyes are lowered. My smile guarded.

Today is not yesterday. That feeling could not be bottled, prescribed, and administered. For all the good around me, for all the beauty and the peace, today is grey. Today is nervous and tense. Nothing changed. Nothing happened. The world is as it was. Time simply passed and the clear waters muddied without warning or reason.

And tomorrow will bring what tomorrow will bring. Tomorrow could be full colour, black and white, or anywhere in between.

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A Full Colour Day

Some days are lived in grey scale, musty around the edges, everything blended.

But today is a full colour day. It is sharp and crisp, with everything in perfect contrast.

Some days the noise around me is all echoes. Nothing is loud enough yet I feel deaf. Everyone is a whisper or a shout, indistinct and incomprehensible.

But today is a full colour day: words come out clear, my mind’s voice quiet, and the real world noise is in perfect balance.

Some days are lived in a fog: sensations are muted and surroundings are hazy, often passed by without attention or recognition.

But today is a full colour day: the world is a portrait to be enjoyed, with people all distinct from one another and places standing out, each their own to be enjoyed.

Some days I am lonely in the busiest of places. Strangers may as well be aliens, no one is friendly, and every one is a potential disagreement.

But today is a full colour day where each passerby is interesting and smiling, unique and ready for interaction.

Today is an I can do it kind of day. Today is a day for looking at the world and noticing the little things: the way fathers look at their kids, the way people smile at strangers who make space for them, the way the flower stall stands in contrast to the traffic, cheering up a busy square.

Yes, today is a day that recharges the soul after a few days of battering.

Today is a full colour day.

We’ll have to wait and see what colours tomorrow brings.

 

Not My Alternative

 

Yesterday, I was confronted by a poster that said: immigration is a privilege not a right. It was facing one way from a lamp post and the other side, in the same red and blue, was equally confronting: Islam does not belong in Germany. The smaller print was rallying people against those seeking asylum and arguing for a ban on a full veil in public. You might be wondering where I was. A rally like that in Charlottesville? An exhibition of fascist posters? No, I was at the tram stop in Weinheim, a beautiful, prosperous town less than 20 km from Heidelberg. These posters were the Alternative für Deutschland’s (AFD) election campaign material. This was no political satire. There was no subtlety. This was cold Islamaphobia and anti-Immigration rhetoric.

These posters aren’t aimed at me. Despite having enacted my right to move between EU countries, I don’t think I am the kind of immigrant that the posters seek to attack. Looking at me, you wouldn’t know I wasn’t from here. As such, it would have been easy to ignore the posters, to turn up my nose in disgust, perhaps, but easy enough to forget about them. But, they hit a nerve.

They hit a nerve and now that nerve aches. For me, moving to a new country was both my right and a privilege. For people seeking asylum, it is not a choice or a privilege to leave their home, but surely it should be a right. A right to escape from war, poverty, and fear. The idea that these people, who have suffered untold harm, should see their situation as one of privilege not only baffles me, it disgusts me. There is no equivalency between someone like me, easily hopping from one country to the next and someone who has risked their life to arrive in Europe. Yet, one of us is allowed to do so freely and without burden and one of us treated as an alien, made unwelcome by such groups as the AFD, and burdened beyond description by horrific experiences.

Yeah, it was just a poster I saw yesterday,  yes, this group doesn’t have that much support, and sure, my reflections on it will make not one iota of difference. Yet, watching the recent news from America, hearing the UK talk about hard borders and restricting the movement of people, and seeing election campaign material on my doorstep that calls out groups in society and makes them other scares me. Racism and xenophobia should be an anachronism of the year 2017 and yet they seem to be a sign of the times. In an age where information is at our finger tips, we seem more ignorant of the truth, and in a world where it is possible to talk to friends thousands of miles away, we are becoming more and more isolated from the people around us.

These posters aren’t just something I can ignore. They need calling out. Even if it makes no difference. Even if no one hears or listens. Because change should be positive. Alternatives to the status quo should mean change for the better. Anything else is unacceptable.









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The Square

It’s named after a Chancellor, this neat little Platz in town. It’s headed by a university building, slightly grand, but not imposing, that looks on over the newly renovated square and old town architecture. Rounded benches and newly planted trees line the sides, promising shade in summers to come when the saplings become more established. 

Most days it’s quiet, the benches occupied by mothers and pushchairs, workers on cigarette breaks, and the retired taking a pause in the afternoon sun.

On Thursday though, after the lunch time picnickers have vacated the benches, it comes to life. The vegetable stalls arrive, offering a rainbow of goods grown within walking distance of where they pitch their wares. Crates of local, seasonal apples of every shade and sweetness sit atop precariously erected stalls on the light cobbles. There are of foreign offerings too: peppers, courgette, aubergine, and bananas in green, yellow and browning.

There’s one stall for everything. A bread man, the lady with the cheese, the flower guys and the coffee people. No one is in competition. Each outlet offers something different: meat for the main course, strawberries for after, and flowers for the table. 

There are exotic tastes on offer too: Sicilian pesto and pasta driven across the borders, sold by a guy speaking German with an attractive southern-European lilt. There are little empanadas sold from Maria’s food truck which can be washed down with a taster of the wine offered by the German vinyard opposite.

The tiny coffee van pulls a crowd. It adds a Gallic touch with its soft pastel shades and delicate croissants. Stall holders grab a caffeine hit whilst locals and tourists loiter, savouring bitter coffee and sweet hot chocolate. 

Alone, each individual item, each bunch of flowers, each ripened pear are insignificant. Some are stapples, a need for most households. Others, the wine, the French cheese, the olives are wants, a taste of the good life. Together, all these goodies for sale and all these people who come to buy them are a tapestry of existence, coming together on a this one day a week to bring life into an urban space and take home a touch of that life with them.