Two days after New Year, my collie Marley and I strolled into the dog park on Madison Avenue in New York. She, with her shiny sable coat, a striking resemblance to Lassie, and joyful demeanor, attracts a lot of attention. As I let her loose to play with the other dogs, a dog-walker approached me and asked, “Is that a collie? A full collie?” She sounded surprised. You don’t see many collies in the city.
I sat down on one of the benches off to the side of the park. Marley pranced over to me and lovingly wiggled her body against my knees. I smiled at her. Her sheer delight at being alive and outside on a bright, brisk January day washed over me, contagious. Then she bolted off, eager to greet the other dogs. She sniffed their noses and their butts, leaned in teasingly close on her front haunches — tail wagging high in the air — and then hopped backward only to skip coyly away. This was her friendly dance, the dance that said, “Come play with me!” far more expansively than my words ever could.
A few feet away from me, another dog-walker surveyed the scene. He held three leashes in his hand and monitored the behavior not only of his own charges, but of all of the dogs present. He clearly knew many of them. He was a regular.
He also seemed to be simultaneously at the centre of a number of conversations. In his thick Bronx accent, he “chatted up” the “girlfriend” who had just arrived (a woman who, I later found out, was not actually his girlfriend), talked to the man to my left about the structure of roofs and how best to keep mice out of them, and commented to another man across the park about the behavior of the dogs.
At first, I found all of this very difficult to follow. I hesitated to say anything myself, unsure of whether he was talking to me and where to jump in. But after only a few minutes, the three threads of conversation fused together. We soon found ourselves talking about the “girlfriend’s” sex life (she desperately needed to get laid, she confessed immediately), cognitive psychology, the dogs, mice in roofs, and the spectrum running from masculinity to femininity. Needless to say, the conversation was one of the most varied I’ve had in awhile.
Having sensed my initial hesitation to join in, the man with the three leashes asked me where I was from.
“New York,” I replied, “But I live in Berlin.”
“So you’ve been away for awhile then,” he observed.
“Yeah, kind of,” I agreed, frowning puzzledly.
I didn’t think that I had been away for that long, but I certainly did feel out of practice when it came to engaging in spontaneous conversation. I wasn’t sure where my hesitance was coming from.
Having random conversations on the street has always been part of my life in New York. I find myself talking to people in cafes, in parks, while in line at the grocery store, and while waiting at the crosswalk. I am not always the initiator of these conversations. I don’t consider myself to be an especially garrulous or assertive person.
When I was a young child, I was actually quite shy. But I deeply enjoy listening to people, hearing their stories and sharing mine. Perhaps this leads people to perceive in me a certain openness, despite my quiet countenance. And of course, the presence of my cheerful dog Marley helps to invite conversation.
These random street conversations are not present in my life in Berlin. I have a lot of great late-night discussions with ECLA students in the kitchen. But sustained spontaneous conversation outside ECLA happens only rarely. I can think of only two occasions off hand. Once, I was sitting in a cafe in Prenzlauer Berg when the cafe owner struck up conversation with me. Another time, when I was on the bus to the airport, I got to talking with a Humboldt University student from Turkey.
Part of the difficulty is the language barrier. I hardly speak any German and I feel quite rude presuming that the German people around me speak English. Thus, I often keep my mouth shut unless I absolutely have to ask someone a question. And when I do finally ask, either in broken German or timid English, I find that the interaction ends immediately. Conversation does not take root.
There might also be cultural differences at work. Perhaps Berliners are just less likely than New Yorkers to strike up random conversations. Even if I spoke fluent German, I might be considered totally weird for trying to talk to a stranger on the street. I have a hard time telling whether these cultural differences are present or not, given that my sparse knowledge of German also prevents me from eavesdropping on others’ interactions.
I didn’t realize until I left New York just how important it is for me to have spontaneous interaction with people in my community. When I walk around Berlin, I feel distanced from my environment. This distance makes it easier to retreat into my own world of thought and observation. It makes it easier to focus when reading a book in a cafe or on the U-Bahn. But it also makes me feel very closed off from my community, nearly invisible, present and absent at the same time. When I walk around New York, I feel engaged in my environment and enriched by that engagement. I miss feeling that kind of connectedness with my community.
This year, I hope to cultivate openness in my interactions with people out in the city of Berlin. My German is improving slowly but surely and perhaps I’ll find a tandem partner to work with. Hopefully that will help with the language barrier. As for the cultural differences, I won’t know if those exist until I try testing them out. And even if they do exist – even if Berliners don’t randomly strike up conversations on the street with one another – hopefully I’ll find other ways of connecting with my community.
The connection doesn’t need to happen in the same way that it does in New York. I don’t need to have conversations about sex with strangers on the street, as I did with the dog-walkers on Madison Avenue. I just don’t want to be a silent, distant observer anymore. I want to open myself to becoming more a part of Berlin.
by Riana Betzler (AY’11, USA)