There’s much talk, in these pages, of refugees and asylum seekers and the kind of overtly demonstrated support that could make them feel welcome. But not everybody is a natural-born demonstrator. My mother, for example, has never demonstrated in her life. Does that make her non-involved or indifferent?
It does not. She has other strengths and one of these, is talk: a subtle form of gentle interrogation that saw her manning coffee urns at mornings held for the small community of German exiles in London. Frustrated housewives mainly. She knew these women intimately. They trusted her.
So talk is something that I learned to believe in – as a confidence building measure. Our little row of shops off Olivaer Platz for example: I know these guys, and they know me. Russians serve pretty decent pelmeni in the café attached to a local hotel. The chicken-Imbiß next door is run by Turks (although the chickens are Dutch), and the bakery one shop further along is franchised by Iranians. In the supermarket, a Philippine lady sits at the till. The Afghan woman who runs the adjacent dry-cleaners has been here for 19 years. The Greek lady behind the counter at a slightly more upmarket dry-cleaners on the corner has lived in Berlin since the 1980s. Her friend (and mine) is a Greek seamstress whose premises, a minute’s walk away, are stuffed with clothes she sells – without commission – for fat cat dames from Grunewald. Sometimes she asks them whether she can give things that haven’t sold to an impoverished family. Most of them are fine with it.
And most of us know the guy who sells the local homeless paper Straßenfeger outside Kaisers. We know where he’s from (Romania), how many kids he has (two), where he lives (subletting for €100 from an Eastern European in Neukölln) and that his wife sells Straßenfeger 10-minutes walk away outside Edeka (okay, not everybody knows this, but some do: communication has happened). What none of us know is why he doesn’t understand the word “Arbeitserlaubnis”. Is he scared, unknowing, or too knowing?
So as I sit in our bakery reading (Gala, but at least I admit it and don’t wait to go to the dentist to find out where Princess Madeleine is having her baby – details which a surprising number of my Chomsky-reading friends seem familiar with), I’m aware that the situation is far from ideal. Homesickness, economic duress and manipulation as well as legal grey zones make this cup half empty. But basic friendliness goes some way to filling it. Demonstrate your humanity today. Talk.