Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Simple Art of the Smile.

Greece was a nice getaway. Although we only spent a week on her beautiful island Corfu, I found myself quickly accustomed to the sweet pace of life in the islands. In that world it seems everything slows down a bit, especially in the heat of the afternoon.

Perhaps it is this pace that makes the people so congenial. When you meet the eyes of a Greek on the street the least you get is a smile which easily makes it into their eyes. If you return the friendly gesture of a smile, you might easily be rewarded with the more eloquent and infinitely friendlier wave. If prompted by something exciting they might wave enthusiastically with two hands, but mostly they extend one hand up in a friendly way, always with the original smile lighting up their face.

This is in stark contrast to the way we live in Berlin. Maybe it’s a city thing, but in fact meeting the eyes of another citizen of Berlin is tantamount to a crime, especially on public transportation it seems. The citizens of this fair city move about with eyes downcast pulling the eyes upward for mere moments to make sure they are going the correct direction. If they happen to meet the eyes of a stranger in the process, they quickly avert their eyes and continue on their way as if to forget that the rules were broken.

I’m a bit of a mean one… occasionally I catch someone looking at me and I prolong their gaze, even continuing to look at them to catch them in the act of stealing another look at me which of course sends them into fits of what can only be termed guilt as they sometimes go so far as to shift position so as to not by chance encounter that strange person staring at them again.

If I’m really feeling mischievous I give that person a smile when they are caught the second time… OH MY! Most of them simply don’t know what to do and avert their head. The others will offer a weak smile (I’m not sure Berliners really know how to do it, so it always looks awkward when they try) often looking ashamed soon after as though they sense their inadequacy.

When walking the streets of Berlin one can always sense the presence of a tourist from another country. Most of the Germans have that aversion to looking in the eyes, but the tourists from further regions will actually meet your eyes on the streets, sometimes easily offering the smile, some even giving a nod of the head to acknowledge the lucky recipient.

This is a fact which hit home as we were waiting in the Corfu airport for our direct flight to Berlin. In the airport we had encountered many of these people who would meet the eyes, these people that acknowledge the existence of another person… but all of this changed when we got into the line for people going to Berlin.

The board told us to queue up at counter number 5 and get our boarding information, so we were good Germans and proceeded to join the long and winding snake which would eventually take us to the airline representative. I could stand in line and just feel the oppressive lack of interest in their fellow man. But simply turning around and looking at the other lines waiting to fly to interesting destinations it was easy to see that these people didn’t suffer from the aversion of a smile. These other people were laughing, talking amongst strangers, and more often just standing there with a smile on their faces.

But the Berliners in our line were all wearing a hard, dour, even surly look on their faces. Even time spent in one of the friendliest locations I’d ever visited (well, except Ireland… no one could be more friendly than the Irish… maybe that’s why it isn’t a big destination for the Germans) couldn’t lift even temporarily the gloom and doom look from the Berliner’s faces.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Germans and Berliners specifically aren’t happy people. If you manage to cut one of them out of the crowd and get to know them, many times you will find them friendly, even happy souls. But must they walk around every day as though they are going to a funeral?

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