Sunday, January 29, 2006

Getting to know you ...

January 28, 2006

There are good days and bad days in life and there is no foolproof way I know of to nudge fate in the right direction, not waking up at a certain hour or eating a special fruit each morning or always leaving the house at the same moment each day. No matter what routine or lack of routine I establish, good days and bad days just happen. For an expat like me, the composition of a good day or a bad day has a great deal to do with how well I am relating to my new environment. Today (thank you Great Spirit) was a good day.

I am the sort of person who likes to know his neighborhood. I’ve lived most of my adult life in Manhattan, with a brief sojourn in Los Angeles where I lost myself for a spell and almost for good, and in Manhattan life is lived in the streets, in the cafes, restaurants, shops and vegetable stands that decorate the ground floor of that marvelous vertical city. Here in Köln we have settled in the Innenstadt, the central city, because it feels familiar, dense with street life and traffic and people moving about in a determined fashion. We live in the Belgian Quarter and each morning it swells with people who come here to visit or shop or work and in the evening it quiets down just enough to feel intimate.

His Holiness and I walk these streets each day, searching for fresh vegetables, meats and cheeses, for coloring books or warm socks or a good, steep slide and on our perambulations we meet people; parents, children, shopkeepers and others and I engage them, or attempt to engage them in my broken German sprinkled with English or sometimes Italian – whatever works. This morning when I left home early to shop the nearby green market, a recently familiar face greeted me, my neighbor Frank. We chatted about childcare, the freezing weather and the local petting zoo then he went his way and I went mine. It was a good soft start to the day.

I ended my chores for the morning in a local supermarket. I was burdened with shopping bags filled with vegetables, bread, and clothes for HH … all sorts of things… and was standing in the checkout line. Generally I have found the checkout line protocol in Germany to be pretty stiff. People here don’t smile or engage in idle checkout line chatter. This morning however a woman behind me offered me the empty space in her shopping cart for my bags. I was a bit taken a back at first when she spoke to me, I thought I might have cut her off in line or dropped something – I wasn’t expecting a random gesture of assistance and general good neighborliness. She pointed to my bio shopping sack and noted that the market I had just attended was a bit pricey and I agreed. This started us on a conversation about food (one of my favorite topics if you haven’t guessed) and in short order she told me about her preferred butcher, cheese shop and vegetable market. Then I asked her where I might find fresh fish in Köln. Since arriving in Germany, this has been something of a grail-like search for me. She told me she knew of a shop where the fish was always fresh and the prices were good. A note here: One of the things I appreciate about the Germans I have thus far encountered is their thriftiness. They appreciate quality but they are very keen on getting value for their money.

After feeding HH his lunch and armed with new information about a possible fishmonger, I set out walking. It was beautiful in Köln yesterday, cold but bright, and people were outside walking and running and playing football in the parks. Ehrenfeld is the neighborhood where the fish market was located. It was only a twenty-minute walk and for a New Yorker that’s nothing. It was my first visit to Ehrenfeld, and I was impressed. The streets were crowded with Saturday shoppers in a variety of colors and sizes. This was the most diverse selection of people I have thus far seen in Köln and the shops along the Venloer Strasse reflected that diversity. The fish market was great, a nice selection and good prices. When I inquired about the freshness of a particular piece of fish, the fishmonger lifted it gently from its icy bed and set it in front of me on the counter to sniff. It smelled of salt water and sea air – not a trace of fishiness. I started home with my precious fish and along the way found a Turkish butcher, Ehrenfeld being a heavily Turkish area. He had perhaps the best selection of fresh lamb I’ve ever seen and I’ll be preparing some later this weekend.

For someone who loves to cook as much as I do, the discoveries of this day would be enough to distinguish it, but there was one final grace note that set it off. As I was about to leave Ehrenfeld I recognized someone just ahead of me on the sidewalk, it was the baker from our corner bakery, she was standing amidst a group of friends smiling and chatting. As I walked by I said hello and she looked up with a big smile of recognition and inquired as to the whereabouts of HH … I replied then continued on. As I walked away I heard her comment to her friends that I was an American she knew. That’s all I heard as her voice faded off. I thought to myself, here I am walking on a Saturday afternoon, in a city I’ve lived in for just over two months, in a neighborhood I have never before visited, and yet there are people whose faces I recognize on the street, who smile and say hello.

I know there will be days ahead when the sky is gray and people are grumpy and rushed, when I will feel alienated and alone. There will be times when I hear Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” or Judy Garland or Joni Mitchell and have to turn away from the sound because music from home makes my heart ache terribly. But I can also hope there will be more days like today, when I feel connected and at peace in this new place, a neighbor not a stranger.