When I moved to Germany in 1977 as an idealistic and naïve young man, I was truly a stranger in a strange land. It’s probably obvious from my expression here, with my friend Ewald—who was one of my first German tutors and also patiently walked me through a few of the finer points of German etiquette.
I had, indeed, already traveled outside of the United State, but only briefly across the border into Mexico, and then to Ireland and England where I had relatives who were took pity on a young boy and sheltered him from things that might have been embarrassing.
I arrived in Germany as an adult—although I hesitate to use that word. I was 24 years old, but I still had a lot of growing up to do. I was somehow wise enough to realize that I was a visitor in a land that had been around for a long, long time. That truth hit me as I was riding in a train one time and happened to catch a photo/advertisement in my train compartment that was promoting an event in the town of Paderborn. The festival was a celebration of the 1000th year anniversary of the town’s founding.
The United States had just finished celebrating it’s bicentennial. We all thought that 200 years was a pretty big deal, but here was a town that was celebrating its 1,000th year. I realized that I was nowhere near Kansas anymore!
I won’t bore you with tales from the 5½ years I spent in this land. I will, however, share with you an instance that reminded me that I was, indeed, a stranger in a strange land.
Wrestling With the Widows
When I arrived in Germany, there were still vestiges of World War II to be glimpsed, if one was observant. While West Germany had rebuilt and scrubbed away much of the devastation of the war (unlike East Germany, which left burned and twisted remains of Allied bombings in place because they lacked the funds to clear them away), there were more subtle reminders of the devastation of war.
One of the things I’d noticed immediately was the large number of older women dressed completely in black. It took me a while to realize that these were the widows of soldiers from the war. At first it didn’t dawn on me because the war had been over for more than 30 years. In the scope of history, however, that’s really not that much time. A woman who was 35 years of age at the time of the war would have been only 65 then. And there were a lot of these black-clad women to be found everywhere I went.
As an American male, I had been taught deference to women such as these. That meant offering your place in line to a widow or holding a door open, or allowing such a woman to enter public transportation before you. That training didn’t prepare me for the women I met in Germany.
These were creatures I had never before encountered during my short stay upon this earth. They might politely be described as “scrappy” or perhaps a bit “pushy” in American parlance. I will not disclose the adjectives that went through my mind in my encounters with these individuals who had experienced hardship beyond my comprehension.
Nowhere, was this more evident that at the local food store where I shopped. Unless you’ve shopped the bodegas of New York, you probably can’t imagine what I’m talking about. The stores were small. The aisles were narrow. And if you wanted a shopping cart, you had to wait until one became available. Therein, lay my challenge.
I would walk into Stüssgen (the local grocer) and wait (amongst the widows) for a cart to become available. My upbringing had taught me to wait until the person purchasing was done emptying his/her cart before commandeering it.
Such was not the custom at my local grocery store. The women in black would line up and grab the carts as soon as they arrived at the checkout. While the person checking out was still emptying the cart, the black-clad widows would slowly but steadily pull the half-empty carts toward themselves (and snarl at anyone who deigned to take them).
I remember walking into the store one day with my list of items. I was the first in line to get a cart, but my upbringing prevented me from grabbing a still-in-use cart before it was empty. A diminutive and inky-clad figure behind me pushed me out of the way (with a force that defied her small size) and grabbed the cart in front of me.
Stunned, I stepped back a pace—which was a sign of virtual capitulation. The next widow in line roughly pushed me aside and grabbed the next cart coming through the line. Again, my upbringing prohibited me from protesting.
The scene, however, repeated itself multiple times. One person would check out, and I would be unceremoniously shoved aside by a widow who barely came up to my chest. I simply couldn’t bring myself to step in front of one of these “poor” souls. After about 10 minutes of this exercise, I finally gathered my loins and stepped out through the entrance, into the street. From there I beat a hasty retreat to my apartment, where I threw my shopping bag with great force against the floor and cursed these poor women who had lost everything 30 years ago.
It was one more reminder that I was a stranger in a strange (to me) land. To this day, I am still trying to figure out how I should have responded.