It was a Monday. Six in the evening. Early June. I had a few minutes before going across the street to the university to teach. Sitting in one of the comfortable armchairs in a multi-level bookstore here in Bonn, I check emails.
Germans have an intimate relationship with books, the written, the learned word. Gutenberg. Dozens and dozens of great thinkers. In the natural sciences. In mathematics. In philosophy, theology. The great historians of the 19th and 20th centuries. Germans. They write. They read.
A woman, late twenties, possibly a graduate student, sitting across from me is reading a rather thick book. Enjoying it. She smiles time and again. Not far off an elderly woman with headsets on is listening to Beethoven. She hums. She’s left alone. I can’t see her, but the hum is not youthful, but joyful.
A guy walks over, early thirties, knows exactly which book to pull from the shelf. He begins leafing through it, then glances at the cover of the book read by the woman across from me. He starts a conversation about J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series. His selection, her book too, must be of that genre. They begin debating about authors. Who’s better. Who steals material from whom.
Neutral. Argument vs. Counterargument
I listen and think. German. So many years I’ve been here. Twenty-two. So many times I’ve observed, been in such interactions. Commonplace. So easy to forget that it is foreign to me. Foreign to Americans. Different.
Direct. Argumentative. Bordering on rude. Know-it-alls. The interaction lasted no longer than five minutes. It was impersonal. No introductions. No smiles. Statements. Differences of opinion. Each holds their ground. Argument. Counterargument. Not unfriendly. Not attacking. Neutral. He walked away. She looked at me for a split second. Neither irritated, nor insulted. As if: “Oh, well. He sees it his way. I see it my way. No big deal.“
What would that kind of interaction look like between two Americans, in a university town, in America?
The guy: “Oh, hi, excuse me. You’re reading Jack Jones. I haven‘t read his stuff. Is he good?” The woman looks up, smiles a bit. “Yeah, I really like him. A lot like Rowling but a little more history to it.” The guy returns the smile. Nods. “J.K. is great. But, sometimes I get the feeling that maybe she gathers material from other authors.”
Like a cup of coffee together in the café
Woman: “Do you think? What authors?” Man: “Well, perhaps Smith. Maybe Richards.” The Woman: “Could be. Not sure. Smith is good. I haven’t read Richards yet. Don’t they all read each other and get inspired?” Man: “Hmm, I suppose you‘re right about that. But, my sense is that Richards might be a bit more original. By the way, I‘m Tom.” He offers his hand to shake hers. She reaches out with a warm smile. “I‘m Rita. You sound like you’ve read quite a bit in this genre.” Tom: “Love this stuff. Ever since I was a kid. And you?” Rita: “Me, too.”
The conversation could have stopped at that point, could have continued, perhaps led to a cup of coffee together in the café across the street. Many possibilities.
Let’s change the scenario once more. Rita is sitting across from me. A Fulbright Scholar in Bonn, for a year, studying German literature. Working on her Ph.D. Her German is excellent. She‘s been to Germany many times, but never for longer than three months.
The German guy sees that Rita is reading Jack Jones in English. Based on that and on her clothing, he thinks that she might be American. His English is good, has traveled extensively throughout the U.S., feels in many ways close to America and to Americans.
“You are reading Jack Jones. I read his first two books. He steals from Smith and Richards. But, they’re all better than Rowling. She’s over-rated.” Rita winced slightly: “Who is this guy? Doesn’t even know me. Strikes up a conversation and gives an unsolicited opinion?” She smiles halfheartedly: “Uh, excuse me? Oh, the book I am reading? Uh, well I happen to like Jones.” The man: “He’s not bad. But not very demanding of the reader. Kind of simple history lines.”
Rita cringes again, thinking: “Oh, ok. I‘m stupid for reading Jones. Is that the message? I wish this person would disappear.” Her smile disappears, she closes the book, peers over at him and says softly, icily, sarcastically: “Well, you seem to really know your stuff. Are you a professor of English literature here at the university?”
The man interprets the question literally, as a compliment. “No, no. I work in city hall here, public finance, just an avid reader of anything which combines history and science fiction.”
He’s happy to meet someone with whom he can discuss the authors and their works. And what’s more an American! He quickly and energetically sits down next to her determined to deepen the conversation.
Rita’s mind races. She goes through the permutations. Glance at her watch as if she had an appointment, then head for the door. Humor him for a few minutes, then head for the door. Give him a piece of her mind first, then head for the door. Or, head for the door. But, then again. He’s not bad looking. Well dressed. Sincere eyes. Intelligent. Maybe just a bit clumsy socially.