I had a to-go cup of coffee in my hand outside the Schlesisches Tor subway station in Berlin. It was almost four o’clock and I wondered to myself how much of our everyday behaviour is influenced by the society we live in because as people came and went through the doors not one of them had a warm drink to go. I was self conscious of what has become a caffeinated accessory to our daily wardrobes in North America and had never came into style in Europe.
A friend of a wonderful friend was on the way to show me her Berlin. I was waiting, sipping, and with the luxury of a broken cell phone, in a place where I had no service anyways I was attentive, and people watching. There were one hundred bikes locked up out front the station and one homeless man wander aimlessly enough through them to know his aim was to spot the one bike with a faulty lock. The wind blew the spill over garbage from the bin onto the street and people of all backgrounds and futures hurried in and out. I tried to memorize the scene for later.
Jessy showed up from behind the station with the look of a stranger scanning the crowd for a foreign face, and awkwardly we introduced ourselves to each other. She apologized for her English in advance like most the Germans I’ve met, and I reassured her it was fine. Based on the few emails we had sent one another her I knew her vocabulary was better than many native speakers and the comment itself it was not so much about her English speaking ability, but the confidence it takes to meet a stranger and speak to them in their language.
It wasn’t long into our walk Jessy had turned into a regular tour guide and translated facts and historical antidotes while we wandered the east gallery of Berlin Wall. We checked out the Gestalten store, a German book publisher I worked with last year and saw my photos in person print, and then sat outside, with our coats done up tight in the fall air for a little Korean Kimchi.
Over a beer we talked about our lives across an ocean from each other, and I asked her about the refugee crisis that Europe, and the world dealing with. Germany in the last month had taken in thousands and the numbers weren’t slowly. Syrians were in the train stations and on the streets and Germany was truly leading the world in relief and resettlement efforts.
The Berlin bell jar skies as Jessy aptly described them turned from grey to pink that evening as we spoke, and when we finished our meal the conversation moved naturally from world affairs to tipping. It is a recurrent topic of conversation for travellers because how much money to leave, and when is appropriate varies so much from place to place. Jessy worked in cafe as a server as well, and as we paid the bill that night she told me that herself and all of her co-workers were donating all of their tips indefinitely to refugees new to Germany.
I was silent, not because it was shocking, but because it was an immediately tangible connection to a problem that even though I was in Germany still felt a world away. It was the selfless level of generosity that made me proud to have crossed passed with her, and simultaneously guilty for not helping in my own way.
Travel as a luxury, and travel out of necessity will always involve depending on the kindness of strangers; it connects one place to another. It turns unfamiliar faces into friends and leaves everyone involved with a better understanding of each other. Leaving that restaurant in Berlin I was inspired to help, and thought to myself how lucky I was to be there, that for me travel is a luxury. And in the process of making a new friend I truly witnessed a small yet by no means insignificant contribution the kind of world I want to live in.