When deciding what clothes to pack in my suitcase which would have to sustain me for up to three months, I was very careful in my selection. I deliberately attempted to stick with clothes that would be acceptable in Europe and wouldn’t make me stand out as a tourist or American. My goal was to blend in as quickly as possible. It helped that I need a new wardrobe anyway due to the drastic change in climates from the deserts of Arizona to the vineyards of Germany. I shopped with a focus on more conservative solid colors, trying to combine neutral with stylish. I have mostly button down shirts and slacks for work and the weekends I’ve been putting on sweaters or pullover shirts with jeans and my plain black unremarkable walking shoes. Most Germans can point out Americans pretty quickly just based on the Ohio State sweatshirts or the bright tennis shoes or the North Face jackets. Basically, we stand out like a sore thumb.
This carefulness in clothes selection took and interesting twist this weekend when I took a two hour walk around the city and popped into a nearby typical German Weinstube for dinner. I walked in the front door and through a small curtain they have to probably protect the place from the outside elements as patrons come and go. It was just a little bit past 5:00 and I decided to eat early since I know how crowded these places get and after about 7:30 or 8:00 you pretty much have to be a regular to score a table. I surveyed the restaurant when I first walked in and noticed of the dozen or so table only two people were in the whole place at a table near the window. I greeted the waitress when I walked in, hung up my coat and asked if there was a preferred place for me to sit since I was just a party of one. In typical German style she pointed to the table right next to the only other people in the place.
The restaurant was refreshingly cozy with an old world feel with historical pictures of the city on the wooden walls and bottles of wine circling the place on high shelf. It was quite the contrast to the busy pedestrian walkways and top name brand retailers nearby; in fact Starbucks is located just next door. I took a seat, ordered myself a tall beer and started to look at the English supplied menu. Before I even finished looking at the soup selections I noticed the man at the table next to me started saying something to me in German in what I perceived as a not very nice tone. My immediate thought was this guy heard me talking and was crazy about having a non-German speaking American sit next to him and his wife. I looked up with a rather surprised look on my face and apologized and stated that I did not speak German and did understand. His wife looked at me and reassured me that everything was fine and don’t worry.
OK, now I’m worried, what should I not worry about? I returned my eyes to the menu feeling very awkward inside while they continued to have what seemed like some kind of debate. I got halfway down the small dish portion of the menu when the man looked over at me again and asked in English where I was from. I told him I was from Arizona and he immediately clasped his hand said something in German and asked me if I would mind coming over and sitting with him and his wife. She insisted and said they would be leaving in ten minutes for an appointment and would like to buy my beer. What a change of events, I thought this guy might start something because I’m American and now he’s buying me a drink because I’m an American. What the hell is going on here?
Of course I quickly jump up and join them because I try never to miss out on a good cultural interaction and this had the makings of one. The man immediately started to tell me in his fairly decent English, ten times better than my German, that when he saw me walk in and sit down, wearing “that sweater” he figured I was up to no good and so he was against me but now he was for me. He pointed to the fact that the nice warm sweater I was wearing had a hood and this is a typical German restaurant and the kind of people that patronize this place are bit more conservative in their dress and people that wear sweaters with hoods are usually up to no good. Who would’ve known?
It turns out the what he was getting at was that there are many young males in the area of Turkish decent that dress this way and are usually looking for trouble. So when I walked in, he thought I was one of these kids and he was voicing his displeasure with coming into his space where I did not belong. He was very apologetic and we continued to have a very nice 10-15 minute conversation about what I do and the challenges of finding a place to live in Wiesbaden. His wife spoke very good English and even translated for her husband a couple times when he couldn’t find the words. They commented on how they didn’t like the way Germans are portrayed in Hollywood and asked that I see Germany as the open minded place it is and form my own opinions. I found this point of theirs ironic since they were not very open minded when I walked into the place and he thought I was a Turkish man up to no good.
They were very kind, toasted America, wished me well in German and wished me well once my family comes and we adjust to life here. It was very interesting experience and confirmed the need to get out and interact as much as I can because that’s the type of learning experience you can’t have sitting in a hotel room or surrounding yourself with a bunch of other Americans. I do have to say that all of my experience with the immigrant Turkish population here has been pleasant and I haven’t had any problems. I do hear stories and see large groups of tough looking males walking around the city often, but having spent time in Turkey it’s not unfamiliar and I know to use some street sense to try and avoid any unnecessary confrontations with young kids just trying to prove to their friends how tough they are. The last thing before they left for the night and gave me their table was to issue me a warning to be very careful out there especially with the way I was dressed because someone might take it the wrong way that I’m out to prove myself.
I thanked them for their local advice and sat back down ordered a delicious pork schnitzel and potatoes and enjoyed my food and drink and felt extremely self conscious as the placed loaded up with many local Germans. Whenever anyone looked my direction, I immediately figured they were judging me and wondering what this Turkish thug was doing in their Weinstube on a Saturday night. Time to adjust the dress code based on where I’m heading, lesson learned.