To tell you the truth, my acquaintance with Germany and anything German is not something I can be proud of. I know quite a bit about this nation, of course: its geographical location, its recent history, its cars …. But who doesn’t? Germany is a major player in the world’s stage. Anybody who’s had enough schooling and read the newspapers will know just about as much as I do about it.
Germany was never a focal point of my interests. So its place in my mind was somewhat in the periphery — it is not uninteresting, but it neither is as interesting as the USA or Japan or Korea, for example.
All that changed, however, with my first visit to its once-divided capital city: Berlin.
No, I did not get smitten with how modern, beautiful, efficient, or well-ordered the city is. I’ve been to cities as impressive as, if not more impressive than, Berlin. It is the people that got me to like it and the country and nation it represents.
Berliners are about one of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered in a dozen or so capital cities of the world. And their friendliness does feel genuine, sincere; there is nothing in it that bears the trace of commercialism like it does in Singapore, for example. Singaporeans are courteous and polite, of course, and in general I like them. But if you are vigilant and sensitive enough like me, you’d see that their courteousness somewhat bears some traces of commercial attitude. Perhaps it has something to do with their awareness — trained awareness — of how important tourism is for the livelihood of their small island-nation.
With the Berliners, I had not expected that they would be as genuinely as nice to foreigners as they are. They are after all the citizens of a big and well-to-do country whose economy — as far as I know — does not depend so much on tourism. Germany’s main exports are — again as far as I know — technology, engineering, and machinery. Just before I left for the city I was even slightly concerned about tacit racism as I had read and heard in the media that there were growing disfavors across the west European nations of immigrants, particularly those coming from less-developed territories like Africa and Asia. But my experiences told me otherwise.
I did not only feel welcome, but also genuinely welcome. And that experience began the moment I set foot on the city.
The first experience began at the Westkreuz Bahn Station the morning I arrived, when my attempts at getting a bahn ticket from a vending machine failed — despite my understanding of the directions written on its screen. That’s when I approached a perfect stranger, a young lady, who unhesitatingly responded with a broad smile and helped me step by step in getting my train ticket. Perhaps this was a normal and an expected thing to do. But that early morning the station was quiet and she was in a hurry — she almost missed her train for helping me. And she did not look the least bit suspicious of a weary-looking stranger like me.
Similar things happened again and again over the three-day duration of my visit to the city. Everybody seemed to be ready to help or offer one. On the first day, another perfect stranger at another station asked if I needed a help when I was looking at the train schedules. At the hostel, the front desk guy tried to use Indonesian to say thank you when he learned that I was from Indonesia and chatted with me affably like I was a prospective friend — the same thing I noticed he did to the guests before and after me. (We later met again at the café when he was about to leave for home after finishing his shift and I was ordering my chocolate and late snack before I went to sleep. The chat felt genuine. We talked about best Indonesian coffee and stuff.)
If those examples sound like a normal thing people do to visitors visiting their city, what happened the next day would probably be more convincing. An old gentleman I met at a bahn station and asked for direction from not only told me where I should go, but actually walked me for about two kilometers or so from the station to the corner of Wilhelm Street — the street that leads to the Brandenburg Tor that I wanted to see. And while on it, we chatted like two strangers trying to get to know each other. I thought at first that he happened to be going to the same direction as I was, but then, after making sure that I could easily find the tor, he walked back and wished me a good time.
Berliners seem to be affable and friendly. I have the impression that they like to talk to, be engaged with, and are willing to help anybody, including strangers. This character can even be felt in a transactional (commercial?) setting. Information desk persons don’t just give away leaflets or dole out small pieces of information, they really tried to help: They would patiently explain, draw routes on the printed map, write small notes just to make sure that I got what I needed. Tourist guides don’t just explain what they needed to explain, but also engage their clients in ‘conversations’ that make them feel like they are being given a tour by a friend. A couple of Australian youths who happened to be staying in the same dorm room with me in the hostel shared the same view about this. They were so happy with their city-walk tour guide, they said they regretted they didn’t tip him more.