Every day life, food & strangeness in a big city

Month: June, 2012

The Business of Trust

I was born and raised in a part of Eastern Europe where mistrust of strangers is fed to you along with mother’s milk. “They” are out to get you, so you grow up knowing you must be on a constant watch, in case someone tries to steal something from your diaper  pocket. Break-ins are not uncommon, and after a rather shocking attempt in our small 3-stored block of flats, our retired neighbour has turned into a fearsome watchdog. The flats overlook both the street and the inner yard, and it was more than on one occasion that her wrinkled, inquisitive face seemed to appear simultaneously at both ends. My mum swears this lady must have rollerskates (and one assumes, a highly polished wooden floor).

When I first moved to Germany, I was rather shocked by the many displays of trust people performed freely, almost unthinkingly. Many a time I noticed families unloading their shopping and leaving the car trunk open. Unattended! In the street! No one seemed to give them a second glance. To give you the counterpoint, I recently read of an Austrian couple that tried the same in Romania, where they were travelling. Some type of camera surveillance then captured a couple of Romanians casually leaning against the unsupervised car, and then deftly lifting the remaining suitcases out, subsequently making a speedy departure. Cut to the face of the tourists…

England was a whole other matter all together. While I have never experienced face-to-face crime – compared to my ten to twenty encounters with pickpockets in Bucharest, I stopped counting at some point – I have been a victim of credit card fraud repeatedly. And sadly so have most of the people I know who live there. In a way, I preferred the pickpockets. They always leave a trace, a cut purse, an empty bag; there is the suspicious behaviour, which you might notice on the spot – or have the “aha” moment a few hours later; it is more personal, since they are present and visible; and more sporty, since you have a chance to catch them! The risk is also not as great – well, at least it wasn’t to me as a young girl, with only a bit of cash, and no cards. With a virtual, techno fraudster though… you very often have no clue where and how it happened. It’s like being scared of a ghost.

Pickpockets, burglars or electronic criminals, no matter how you look at it, life in a large city is not exactly conducive to a culture of trust. Beware of criminals, lookout for weirdoes, run fast from perverts and do not, I repeat, do not talk to strangers!

And yet. Back when we lived in beautiful green Richmond upon Thames, there was this corner-shop we used to love for its fresh bakery. Steaming hot croissants from their Delices de France range, freshly squeezed orange juice, hot black coffee, classic fm and watching the planes on their flight routes to and from Heathrow through our huge kitchen window was our Sunday morning routine. After a while, the owner, a middle-aged middle-Eastern gentleman, got to recognize us and we exchanged greetings and a few pleasantries. (Yes, yes, they were mostly about the weather.) One time I went there, and I was 20p short of the cost of a loaf of bread. They didn’t take cards but guess what? The owner looked at me, smiled, and told me to just bring it the next day.

It was of course a paltry sum, but the old-fashioned, human gesture really touched me, and startled me out of a kind of reverie. Oh, a little part of my mind gasped. Oh. That’s new. Well, when you think about it, it is not new per se. It is a practice our grandparents would have been familiar with; a shop owner would know everyone in the immediate community, and probably extended credit until pay-day on a regular basis; even so, an amount of trust was invested in those customers. It was more than the sterile, pragmatic money for goods exchange. A human component entered into it, the forging of a social bond. Of course, a long-term economic bond as well – I would be more likely to do repeat business with that shop owner, for sure. In my case, not because of the credit, but because of his trust in me as an honourable person. It is a good feeling, but it happens rarely nowadays, I would say.

However. I live to have my opinions contradicted. A few days ago, as I was ordering Vietnamese take-away in a small restaurant I had been to a few times, I glanced inside my wallet and noticed I was a few euros short; I knew they didn’t accept cards, so I looked at the young owner and explained the situation, apologized, and wanted to cancel my order. He  grinned at me, and said I could come by with the money the next day. This time, it was 13 euros. I smiled back, thanked him, and said I could pay ten then, and 3 the next day. He insisted I didn’t have to. I insisted I did. I got the delicious food, and promised to come by soon – at which he replied “no hurry”; I shook my head at the whole thing. (It goes without saying I did go back and paid the rest of the money the following day.)

Next, Mr. Baddie and I are thinking of buying a car… I wonder how long this “come pay me tomorrow” luck will hold – fingers crossed!


Baddie and the Freegans

One of the first things that struck me when I came to Berlin was how many people seem to stop and peer into rubbish bins. Case in point, as I was waiting for my mom’s flight to land on Tegel airport a few days ago, I casually leaned against a wall in the vicinity of three dumpsters. In the 25 minutes I spent there, I counted 5 shabby-looking people carrying huge plastic bags or trolleys packed with stuff stop, inspect, rummage, and then go away. That is one every 5 minutes! I was just beginning to form the thought: “give us a chance to actually throw something in there!” when, from the corner of my eye I notice a guy stopping, and reaching out; a disembodied arm extended and presented an empty bottle. Someone had just finished drinking from that bottle; and it didn’t even manage to reach the bin.

The German “Pfand” system has something to do with this. You have to pay an extra something (from 5 to 25 cents, approximately) for your glass or plastic bottle, and get your money back when you return it. But because not all stores accept all bottles, people (like me) who buy a drink while out and about get tired of lugging it around and just chuck it in the nearest bin. A (most likely homeless) person will then almost instantly materialize, and snatch it up to add to the large collection they will redeem at the end of the day.

It’s not just bottles, though, and not just homeless people. Many “freegans” are attracted to getting stuff for free, and “recuperating trash sensibly”. There’s a “trashwiki” site, and from the pictures you can tell this is happening in Sweden and Denmark as well. Dumpster diving is a necessity for some, and an ecological trend for others. You might remember my friend’s story that homeless people have some sort of mailing list to let each other know where events are held which include free food. I had my doubts about the veracity of such a list. But that was before I found this article on Wikipedia. There is a detailed list there of the areas in Berlin where you can go dumpster-diving; the names and locations of shops who have “good dumpsters”; the quality of the food; the days of the week and times you are likely to find the best food; and so on!

And yet. Since I came to this city, I have received these things for free: a croissant; a carrot; 2 kilos of bell-peppers; 5 courgettes; 6 bananas; and a lot of bread. The croissant was a gift from the owner of a tiny Italian coffee shop – I bought one to go and he just threw in a second one for the sake of it (and probably because Italian men like to flirt with food). The carrot’s story has been told. The rest, though, were all freebies from the Kiezladen in street I used to live on in Prenzlauer Berg. This shop was small but right opposite my house and the staff were very friendly so I was a regular. One Saturday afternoon, as I went there around shortly before closing time for some last-minute purchases, they had some bread by the check-out and offered it to me for free. “We are closed on Sundays” they told me “and it would just get binned.” It was perfectly good, fresh stuff and I was very happy to get it. Needless to say, the following Saturday I went there around the same time on purpose. And wonder of wonders, it was not only bread, but fresh fruit and veggies they gave away. That’s how, over time, I got the peppers and courgettes (out of which I ate for a week, inventing several recipes and stuffing myself until I was heartily sick and tired of either) and bananas (I hate bananas. But they were free…)

It’s rather a pity that after a few months I had to move away. I absolutely love freebies, and always try the small samples offered in stores or markets with a giddy pleasure – while shying away from dumpster diving so far, at heart, you could say Baddie is a freegan…