I don’t have to smile!

First day back to work after the holidays and immediately I missed my home office already! Nothing against the work per se, but it was a grey dreary January winter day, need I say more? The snow is melting, but not to worry, there is more on its way this evening and the next few days. Sigh. Another reason to miss my cosy home office corner is the lovely warmth from my terracotta heaters. The office heaters are ancient, so even if you crank them up to maximum capacity they remain lukewarm at best. By early afternoon I couldn’t feel my toes anymore and typing on the keyboard became increasingly difficult, so I threw in the towel. It was really hard to concentrate, but it was an excuse to work faster!

On my way home, as I shuffled past the other grumpy workers it struck me how unhappy everyone looked. Berlin, for all its craziness, eccentricities, and famed rudeness, is also filled with cheerful people who are laughing over the phone or smiling as they chomp ungraciously into a portion of curry wurst. You can feel and see the pulse of this European hub everywhere you go but not today. I supposed nobody was really thrilled to return to work after the strange holidays, and the weather was no help. I did notice, however, that the few people on the road were definitely adhering to the regulations. There wasn’t a single person without a mask, not even a cheater version of just wrapping your scarf higher up around your face. Nope, all the proper kinds of masks were on out and people rushed to put as much distance between themselves and the next person. It is a bit of a relief to see this development, but there is a down side to it.

My initiation to German culture was in the deep South back in 1992, in small-town Germany where people greet each other on the streets or stop to chat if you run into someone in the centre of town. Even when I moved to Bonn during the early years, there was this friendliness and courteous nature of people to at least nod or smile softly if you had eye contact. Or at the very least, they smile back if I greet them first. This has always been a touch-and-go situation in Berlin, and since the response was not always positive, I gave it up after a while. Every so often, however, I do end up sitting next to or across from someone who will nod or smile, and in my neighbourhood you inevitably greet the tiny tots when they look up to wave.

This evening I ran into a young family with a child who seemed to be wearing her first snow suit since she learned to walk. Poor child, between the bulky snow suit and her diapers, she waddled wobblier than a penguin. She looked up at me curiously, and I smiled automatically and realised immediately that the child couldn’t see my smile. It hit me then that because of the blasted masks that we wear these days you don’t have to be bloody friendly to all and sundry anymore – especially sundry. I can continue on without a greeting and even if a neighbour greets me from her bike, I can wave back but don’t have to smile. What a relief!

I had to laugh at this realisation as I passed by a family I constantly feel challenged by. I was still wearing my mask so I didn’t bother to smile like I usually do. Later on, as I sat with my hot chocolate to thaw in the warmth of my living room, it occurred to me what a sad and sorry state we are in now. I received a family portrait taken over the holidays, and everyone in the photograph was wearing a mask. No matter how much the people involved claimed that everyone was smiling, you can never prove it.

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